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Steinbeck's Rules for Writing - But do They Apply to Modern Genres?


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Legend has it these were written on the back of a napkin for a friend, and man, was that a big napkin! Regardless, more helpful than Papa and yet perhaps not applicable to contemporary forms of genre fiction? Our Video-Film Crit Board experts shall weigh in on this matter of enduring importance and answer at last, "Does One Size Fit All?"

Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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I found John Steinbeck's writing advice to be a bit vague and generalized. There were a couple things I agreed with like no rewriting until you've gotten everything down because otherwise that can be an excuse for not finishing the story. Been there, done that, so this makes sense to me. I also liked his mention that scenes nearest and dearest to your heart may not have an actual place in your story. However, take this piece of advice with a grain of salt because there can indeed be scenes in your book that you love AND are absolutely crucial to the overall plot. Just keep this in mind incase there's a scene you're hanging onto that you're only keeping because you love it. Make sure it enhances your story instead of bogging it down.

I certainly didn't understand his advice about writing for a single person. To me, that's much more ominous than a general audience because then you're weighing your entire project on the likes and dislikes of a single individual and whether or not they would like what you're writing. It just doesn't sound like a good idea to me. It could sway what you're writing too easily and your story wouldn't be what it was meant to.

Overall, I didn't find this video to be very helpful, so feel free to skip it, unless you really like Steinbeck and want to hear what he has to say.

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Guest Richard Hacker

Anyone who can get that much information on the back of a standard envelope must write like…Hemingway. But we’re talking about Steinbeck here. Some of this advice resonates: writing each day (although very few of us actually do that), writing freely without pausing to correct or edit in process, not getting stuck on a difficult section, but forging ahead, and speaking dialogue out loud to be sure what is being written would be something that a character would actually say. There are a couple of points I don’t find quite as helpful.  First, abandon the idea you will ever finish. This sounds like a writer who has no idea where he or she is going and will have a draft in the fullness of time, but it’s going to be a structural train wreck. I’m not saying you have to have full-blown outline in hand—I’ve written novels with an outline and without—but you do need to have some sense of where you are going. When I find myself writing into the story, letting myself discover the plotting and characters, there is always a point when I have to look at the dynamics of the storytelling to be sure I’m engaging the reader and building rising tension. Second, and speaking of readers, the notion of writing to one person just doesn’t make sense to me. Storytelling is, and has always been, a communal activity. We gather around the fire, the TV, the laptop and enter the world of our imaginations together. When I pick up a novel, I’m not just entering a dialogue with the author, I’m joining hundreds, thousands, sometimes millions in the shared experience of the story. 

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Agree wholeheartedly with Kara and Richard on this video. This video offers some good beginner advice (such as don't revise during your first draft, write every day, and speak dialogue aloud while writing it), but in the end it's the same shallow piece of content we've seen a million times before on this board.

The above said...there's some dangerous advice here as well. Writing to a single, real person is INSANE and I will die on that hill. Writing is so incredibly subjective. You can't measure the worth of your writing based on one person's taste or opinion...especially when it's not your own. I understand the sentiment behind the advice, which is to form a generalized idea of your target audience in the shape of a single person. But any writing trying to write professionally needs to understand that even members of your target audience will not universally love your work. It's just not possible and it's foolish to approach writing with that mindset.

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It seems I'm with the consensus here. This video offers some solid, some not-so-solid advice. I agree with writing the rough draft fast (although one page a day? Seems too modest of a goal IMO) and getting to the end before tinkering. I can't count the number of writers I've seen take 2, 5, even 10 years to get to the end of their novel, always jumping back to re-tread ground they've already covered so they can do it "better" (despite the fact that there's no way to fix a story until you understand how it ends).

I appreciate the idea of minimizing the giant into the tolerable, both in terms of page count and audience. It can be totally overwhelming to think of finishing the whole book, so I certainly agree with taking it bite-by-bite. Unlike Joe, I do think the idea of zeroing in on a smaller audience than "everyone" is important. Maybe writing to just one person is a bad plan since, as Kara pointed out, that puts external pressure on you to satisfy that person, rather than do what the story demands. I personally aim to write for myself as an audience, creating a story that I would like to read if someone else had written it. Having an internal locus of motivation (writing with the "door closed" as King talks about in his book On Writing) helps me stay grounded and avoids the inevitable disappointment when the story doesn't have the explosive reach we writers dream of. But I agree with Joe, you can't just ignore the market and write whatever you want (I mean, you can but I don't imagine it'll sell well). Professionals must always strike a balance between marketability and self-satisfaciton.

Like the other video by this channel, it's got some ok ideas but not enough to really quality as a solid tutorial.

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