2410-153219Written by
Paul Briggs

Most of what I know about writing I learned from other writers. Sometimes they were literal teachers — my creative writing instructor at Washington College was a novelist named Robert Day — but usually I learned from reading their works and seeing what they did right or wrong.

One lesson came from a writer at alternatehistory.com: Never put the same tragedy in the backstories of two different characters, or it will turn into a running joke. (The writers of Avatar: The Legend of Korra could have profited from this.)

From Orson Scott Card (yes, really): This is something Card learned from a teacher named Francois Camoin: “When you have a word embodied in a story, the word itself should never appear.” Card applied this to his short story “Eumenides in the Fourth Floor Lavatory.” To pick an example everyone’s likely to be more familiar with, read The Runaway Bunny and notice how the word “love” isn’t in it.

From Harlan Ellison: That thing you think is too controversial to write about? Go ahead and write about it. Ellison once wrote a short story, “Croatoan,” about aborted fetuses surviving and growing in the New York City sewers. It got pretty much the reception you’d expect. He survived.

From H.P. Lovecraft: Know your strengths and weaknesses. Lovecraft couldn’t write dialogue that sounded like people talking, so he seldom wrote dialogue at all.

From Arthur Machen: Never write a paragraph so long it doesn’t fit on the page. When I tried to read those extra-long paragraphs of his, it felt like my eyeballs were holding their breath, if that makes any sense.

From Vladimir Nabokov: If you use a word the reader isn’t likely to know, make sure they can guess it from context, or at least find it in the dictionary. I’m still a little irritated over that phrase “lithophanic eternities” in a crucial passage ofLolita. My best guess is that a lithophanic eternity is supposed to be better than a non-lithophanic one.

From Naomi Novik: The rule “show, don’t tell” doesn’t apply to everything — just the things that matter. Carefully violating it can be a good way to draw a distinction between the details of a scene that are actually important and that the reader should remember, and those that are just there to make the scene feel complete. I learned this from reading a paragraph in which Novik described a conversation in terms of social dynamics without once quoting anybody or saying what they were talking about. Try reading Poe’s “Masque of the Red Death,” and notice how detailed he is in describing the suite of rooms, and how vague in describing the revelers.

From Terry Pratchett: A humorous tone throughout most of a novel doesn’t take away from its ability to handle serious matters — in fact, it can make the serious moments all the more poignant.

From Harry Turtledove: It’s better to create one complex and interesting character than a hundred that are barely sketched out. (Turtledove has done both.)

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