So you can read my books

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

THE MAGIC OF WRITING WELL_6 tips from John Steinbeck


Pacific Grove
May 20, 1930

Dear Roland:

Tillie has had distemper but we are pulling her out of it nicely. The medicines and shots in the neck ruined us though. Having lost Bruga partly through carelessness, we weren’t going to take any chances with Tillie.
I pulled all Tillie’s whiskers out to strengthen their growth. She looks like hell now. We are ashamed to be seen with her.

She gives me the doleful look as if to say: "And whose fault is it?"

I am gratified that you say your friends enjoyed reading my letter to you, that they take heart in the struggles of another unpublished writer.

You ask what I would tell them to strengthen their resolve, their skill at prose crafting.

Marcel Proust wrote:

“Every reader, as he reads, is actually the reader of himself.

The writer's work is only a kind of optical instrument he provides the reader so he can discern what he might never have seen in himself without this book.

The reader's recognition in himself of what the book says is the proof of the book's truth.” 

I do not think I could phrase it any better.  But of course my vanity being as human as the next man's, I will try.

It is hubris on my part since I learn that all of my manuscripts have been rejected three or four times since I last heard.

It is a nice thing to know that so many people are reading my books. That is one way of getting an audience. 

Now, on to my advise, thread-bare thing as it is since I have yet to be published:

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is,

no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another.

The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader.

If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it.

You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

"All right," I can hear your friends say, "how do we go about avoiding those errors?"

1.) Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2.) Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down.

Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3.) Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist.

In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4.) If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on.

When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5.)Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6.) If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Oh, Exciting Things —

yesterday we bought two mallard ducks for the garden. The drake has an irridescent green head. They are beautiful.

They swim in the pond and eat the bugs in the garden. We are pretty excited. They cost our amusement quota for this month but are worth it. Named Aqua and Vita.

Carol hated to go to work this morning and leave them because they are so interesting.

You never saw anything so beautiful in all the greenness of our garden as these luxurious ducks.

Write soon,




  1. Write for the love of writing, the love of putting words together. That seems to be the undercurrent in John's tips. (Thanks, John, via Roland. . .)

    If only there were more conduits to the past so we could talk to those writers and artists we admire. Wonder if that could ever become virtual reality?

  2. D.G.:
    It's virtual reality inside my head. Who knows? On the Other Side, all my ghostly friends may greet with smiles, hugs, and handshakes?

    Stephen King says the same things about writing just for the love of it, of spinning a great tale. Yet, he also threw CARRIE into the trash out of despair and disgust, too. Persistance is the key. Thanks for being my friend.

    I hope your back pain is much better.

  3. Your list of what to do/not to do is everything that makes sense to me. Rewriting as one writes is one big stumbling boulder.

  4. Susan:
    Steinbeck was a canny writer, hated by many in his time. Dean Koontz polishes his work as he writes one page at a time. I find myself doing it myself -- but like with snacking, I know many say I shouldn't! :-)

  5. Great advice, especially saying dialogue aloud. I actually say everything loud. Every book I've ever written has been read aloud to my wife so I can hear what it sounds like when spoken. Plus the experience of sharing that together is priceless. And often, I'll find more things to edit that way than mulling it over on my laptop alone.

    Also, that's great that you got some ducks. We have a lot of ducks around here, and it's always nice to see the males and females waddling around together (since the males have the bright green coloring and the females are typically just brown). They never leave each other's sides. It's actually kind of sweet.

  6. Bryan:
    How was Las Vegas? I've never been.

    Yes, ducks are great and sweet. The Blood Center at which I work is by the bank of a bayou. A family of ducks swim by, wait for our stale bread hand-outs, and gracefully swim beside one another.

    Since this is hunting country, I cringe thinking of their possible fate.

    Talking my books aloud as I write helps as I have audiobooks done of some of my novels.

    I will send you the audiobook of HER BONES ARE IN BADLANDS -- it is done by a stage director and actor. He does a wonderful job.

    But your hawk buddy trumps my ducks! :-)

  7. And remember that a reader (with an open heart and mind) will read your precious prose and take something different from it with each rereading. Which is as it should be.
    And ducks are a marvell. Always.

  8. Ok WAY too profound!
    It gives way to getting lost in a book, and losing yourself.
    Aqua Vita was a Twilight Zone episode that a newscaster finds the Fountain of Youth in Bottled water.
    Forever young ducks.

  9. Elephant's Child:
    Ducks are soothing and magical to watch gliding by. With each re-reading, we have come to the book a slightly different person and so we take different things from it, right? :-)

    There was a MAGIC THE GATHERING card, FOUNTAIN OF YOUTH, with the script under the picture -- "And only the pigeons knew."

    "Profound" is my middle name! :-)

    Do you know where to buy that bottled water?