Raymond Chandler's Advice to Writers

Writing is one of those things that looks easy but isn’t. Or at least just about everyone can write, but few can write in ways that people actually want to read. This explains the huge number of writers, agents, and editors offering free advice about writing on their blogs and websites. Free advice is fine. It’s certainly interesting to hear how other people work. I think proper mentoring and good editing are probably more useful, but nothing will help if the student’s attitude is all wrong.

Writers are a strange group of people. It takes a certain arrogance to assume that people will want to spend their valuable time reading what you have written. On the other hand writers also need to be able to see where they are failing, realise their weaknesses, and understand when they need to change what they are doing. Arrogance with a topping of humility and self-doubt. Imagine strawberry and Marmite ice-cream and you get an idea of how that works in practice.

I’ve been re-reading Raymond Chandler over the past few weeks as I do more or less annually and I came across this great writing advice in a letter he wrote on December 3rd 1957 to Wesley Hartley, a schoolteacher in California. Chandler wrote thousands of letters, using them in much the same way as many writers in 2009 use their blogs. Here’s what he has to say about learning to write fiction anyway. By the time he wrote this Chandler was a highly successful and famous writer, but he published his first full-length novel in 1939, aged 51. The interesting part for me is what he has to say about the writers he had advised in the past:

“… [As a young man] I couldn’t write fiction to save my life. I couldn’t get a character in or out of a room. I couldn’t even get his hat off. I learned to write fiction by a method which I have recommended to other young struggling writers I tried to help, but no soap. Everything they did had to be for sale. What I did was take a novelette, I think it was by [Erle Stanley] Gardner, and make a detailed synopsis of it. From this synopsis I wrote the story, then compared it with the original to see where he, Gardner, had got an effect and I had got nothing. I did this over and over with the same story. I think I did learn a great deal that way. My first novelette for Black Mask took me five months to write and I got $180 for it. …”

Doctorow on Writing in an Age of Distraction

Cory Doctorow has some great advice for distracted writers over at Locus Online:

We know that our readers are distracted and sometimes even overwhelmed by the myriad distractions that lie one click away on the Internet, but of course writers face the same glorious problem: the delirious world of information and communication and community that lurks behind your screen, one alt-tab away from your word-processor.

The single worst piece of writing advice I ever got was to stay away from the Internet because it would only waste my time and wouldn’t help my writing. This advice was wrong creatively, professionally, artistically, and personally, but I know where the writer who doled it out was coming from. Every now and again, when I see a new website, game, or service, I sense the tug of an attention black hole: a time-sink that is just waiting to fill my every discretionary moment with distraction. As a co-parenting new father who writes at least a book per year, half-a-dozen columns a month, ten or more blog posts a day, plus assorted novellas and stories and speeches, I know just how short time can be and how dangerous distraction is.

The centrepiece of the argument, that doing a little every day is the best way to produce a whole lot of writing, is absolutely bang on. Of course having the talent of Cory Doctorow probably helps as well. Link.