Masterclass: Developing Characters (Irving Weinman)

This book is designed to mimic a traditional masterclass in which a student’s shared piece of writing is distributed among classmates and critiqued by the master (with some feedback from other students as well).

There are eight chapters which consider sources of character, flat characters and round ones (yes, Forster still counts), narration, action, dialogue, symbolism and satire, and, finally, voice and turning point.

Following each chapter, there is a workshop assignment, which includes a series of questions, which one is to imagine are questions from the teacher and the rest of the class. (This doesn’t bother me one bit: fiction writers make up people all the time, so why not have a bunch of them sit with you in an imaginary class.)

The only element of the book which rings false for me is the iconology; symbols marking short and long exercises (camera, for ‘snapshot’ and pencil, for ‘write’), editing work (scissors, for reworking), key ideas (key!), and central messages (magnifying glass). All the elements are in place, but the iconology feels like an overlay (but who among the overly wordy doesn’t appreciate an occasional graphic).

Illustrative quotations are sometimes lengthy (which is fine, as there is a list of resources for each chapter but not everyone will have these works readily available) – a couple of pages – and italicized. (The use of italics is one of the pet peeves Benjamin Dreyer discusses and it niggles me too, although I do understand the desire to set apart the examples from the text proper.)

The works selected for study are classic and contemporary, with the majority drawn from works by American and English writers (some women, a few writers of colour, an occasional short story and translation). Beginning with Thomas Hardy’s The Return of the Native and ending with Richard Ford’s Independence Day, the representation is not expansive, although the consideration of Iain Banks’s novel The Quarry, with its autistic character, 18-year-old Kit, is welcome.

Although the work is designed with advanced writers in mind, the recommended resources would suit serious-but-not-particularly-advanced readers. Nonetheless, although works like the Graywolf series are more interesting in the attention paid to lesser-known writers (like Barbara Comyns Dezsö Kosztolányi in Maud Casey’s volume, for example), the advantage of these well-known authors is that they would be recognizable to students who might be using this volume in conjunction with other college and university texts which could contain the complete narratives.

The workshop questions balance specifics and generalizations and invite writers to query the manuscript (and themselves) and explore possibilities.

For instance, consider this single bullet-point in the workshop about action: “Action has nearly no limits in type. Do certain types of action tend to dominate the example of action in your writing? What are they? (This chapter has given some examples, but has had to leave out many important types, for example, actions connected with eating and lovemaking.) Do you think your fiction could improve if you ventured out of your ‘favourite’ areas of action?”

This work would be particularly valuable for a writer who seeks to address a noted failing in characterization (e.g. in a complete work with an identified weakness, which has been rewritten previously) and who is looking for a new way to engage.

Good stuff for experienced writers.

Irving Weinman’s Masterclass: Developing Characters. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2014.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel (Jessica Brody)

In principle, it seemed like something I’d be in favour of: saving the cat. But when I spotted Jessica Brody’s book in the library catalogue, I wasn’t familiar with screenwriter Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat!®method.

Never mind: Brody clearly outlines each element –each ‘beat’ – that Snyder identifies. “Read it. Learn it. Love it! The Save the Cat! Beat Sheet is divided into three acts (or parts), which are further subdivided into fifteen total beats (or plot points).”

This is the stuff of a weekend seminar weekend designed to rev your creative engine: even just opening the book cover, you half expect to find a T-shirt, fridge magnet and logo-embossed bandanna inside.

Nonetheless, beneath the snazzy veneer are some key concepts designed to assist novelists and storytellers. For instance, consider the question of likeability, the cornerstone of Snyder’s method, which originated from the scenario that “you’ve got a douchebag of a hero, desperately in need of some de-douchbagging, walking around doing douchebaggy stuff when suddenly he sees a cat stuck up in a tree”. Doucebag saves cat.

At a certain point becomes ineffective of course, when there are so many douchebags saving cats that some of the douchbags will need to open cat sanctuaries to set themselves apart from the ordinary douchebag who simply chooses to save a single cat. (Some may even have to widen their base, invite donkeys or ducks.) But the concept running beneath remains valid: complicate your characterization.

Brody aims to expose the common tenets in storytelling. She identifies “ten universal lessons” in “almost every novel throughout time”:

  • FORGIVENESS: of self or of others
  • LOVE: includes self-love, family love, romantic love
  • ACCEPTANCE: of self, of circumstances, of reality
  • FAITH: in oneself, in others, in the world, in God
  • FEAR: overcoming it, conquering it, finding courage
  • TRUST: in oneself, in others, in the unknown
  • SURVIVAL: including the will to live
  • SELFLESSNESS: including sacrifice, altruism, heroism, and overcoming greed
  • RESPONSIBILITY: including duty, standing up for a cause, accepting one’s destiny
  • REDEMPTION: including atonement, accepting blame, remorse, and salvation.

The examples she provides to illustrate her theory are contemporary and recognizable. She outlines, for instance, Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill, The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, and Everything, Everything by Nicola Yoon.

Seventeen novels are discussed in detail, including children’s books and various genres with a couple of classics. Not dramatically diverse selections, but commercially successful titles. It’s a nice touch that, before undertaking any detailed discussion, there are spoiler warnings at the beginning of each chapter. Because, wow, the stories get spoiled quickly when each of the fifteen beats is discussed.

This technique resides in essentials. “In short, the first step to being a successful writer is being a reader. There’s just one teensy problem. There are quite a few novels out there. Like, tens of millions of them. There’s no possible way to read them all. But here’s the good news: you don’t have to.”

Instead of doing a lot of reading on a lot of weekends, you can, instead, read the ten chapters which consider one book from each of the ten genres that Brody identifies: WHYDUNIT, RITES OF PASSAGE, INSTITUTIONALIZED, SUPERHERO, DUDE WITH A PROBLEM, FOOL TRIUMPHANT, BUDDY LOVE, OUT OF THE BOTTLE, GOLDEN FLEECE, and MONSTER IN THE HOUSE.

One can imagine that, if only one opted for the Premium Weekend package, that there is a plastic bracelet emblazoned with the name of your favourite genre on it and a set of colour-coordinated metallic seals that will decorate your pitch. Diligently composed according to the instructions provided. 

So succinctly does Brody break down the process of creating loglines and summaries, that they almost write themselves.

The logline? “On the verge of a stasis=death moment, a flawed hero Breaks Into 2; but when the Midpoint happens, they must learn the Theme Stated before the All Is Lost.”

The synopsis? “Paragraph 1: Setup, flawed hero, and Catalyst (2-4 sentences)
Paragraph 2: Break Into 2 and/or Fun and Games (2-4 sentences)
Paragraph 3: Theme Stated, Midpoint hint and/or All Is Lost hint, ending in a cliffhanger (1 to 3 sentences).”

So, now you know everything. You should still attend the seminar, because you’ll want the fridge magnet and the sticker sheet. Even more importantly, you’ll want to tell your other writer-friends that you attended. But all that is just for show. Ultimately you have what you need to sit down and write.

For some beginning writers, the snazzy packaging and the sense of a formula to follow will be a seductive entrance into the possibility of writing a novel. For some experienced writers, the methodology will orchestrate a new perspective on a fledgling or stagnant project. Staycation seminar groupies will mourn the lack of accompanying merch.

Good stuff for some writers.

Jessica Brody’s Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need. NY: PRH – Ten Speed Press, 2018.

Dreyer’s English (Benjamin Dreyer)

He’s not the first. Karen Elizabeth Gordon did it. So did Lynn Truss. And, now, Benjamin Dreyer. He’s made it funny, this writing thing.

Sometimes it’s a subtle playful undertone. Parenthetical remarks, like whispered asides to the reader. Like: “(If you want to puzzle your reader, that’s your own business.)”

Occasionally it’s a matter of snickering. Which often relies as much on the reader as what appears on the page. How many copyeditors and copywriters have been asked what makes them experts. Every single one of them, I’m guessing. And Dreyer is willing to poke fun at himself as an expert too. He often contradicts his own advice and points to his own subjective and baseless decisions: for instance, near the beginning of the book he issues that parenthetical remark above, and midway through he contemplates the necessity of parenthetical remarks. So, go ahead, snicker.

Do not use quotation marks after the term “so-called.” For instance, I’m not

  a so-called “expert” in matters copyeditorial

I’m simply a

  so-called expert in matters copyeditorial  

Every now and then, there’s some chortling. Say, after a passage like this one:

If you turn to p. 719 in your Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, eleventh edition, you will find, one atop the other:


Which tells you pretty much everything you want to know about the use of hyphens, which is to say: It doesn’t make much sense, does it.”

Maybe even a snorty laugh in the mix, in response to such a note as this: “We won’t discuss the use of ?! or !? because you’d never do that.”

Perhaps a snorty chortle or two. For instance, during the discussion of British spellings, like ‘labour’ and ‘harbour’: “I will confess that I do like the looks of the Brit. ‘armour’ rather than our ‘armor’ – the u seems to add a bit of extra metallic clankiness – but one must follow the rules.”

And sometimes an out-and-out laugh erupts.

As, for instance and strictly speaking, you might do here, in quoting this piece of text I 100 percent made up out of thin air and didn’t find on, say, Twitter:

Their [sic] was no Collusion [sic] and there was no Obstruction [sic].

Which, however, only reminds us that there is a serious undertone to everything, and that is true here, too.

“And that’s often the problem, isn’t it? In writing and in so many things: that we accept things we’re taught without thinking about them at all.”

Benjamin Dreyer takes writing so seriously that he knows how to laugh with it, not at it. And it’s a pleasure to have company in that pastime.

Very fine stuff for all sorts of writers.

Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style. NY: Penguin Random House – Random House, 2019.

The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions (Maud Casey)

This is the fourteenth book in Graywolf’s “Art of” series. Some I’ve found useful (like Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction and Charles Baxter’s The Art of Subtext) and others aroused my curiosity but not a compulsion to read straight through.*

These are collections of essays on themes; some are short and dreamy whereas others are carefully arranged like term papers. They are the type of writing book which might be best approached as a casual coffee date, so that you pull the book off the shelf when you have time to sit and sip and think and you can select the right piece for that moment in time.

Read straight through, like a text, some pieces are bound to feel more satisfying than others, in the way that many readers rush through collections of short stories and say they are uneven, because each piece requires and rewards a different kind of attention.

The opening piece in Maud Casey’s collection is “The Land of Un”, a short and tight meditation on mystery. Perfect introduction. And it contains tidy little snippets like this: “If mystery, the genre, is about finding the answers, then mystery, that elusive yet essential element of fiction, is about finding the questions.”

The next piece, “Unknowing, or the Construction of Innocence”, is three times as long and begins with 1873 and moves into a detailed consideration of Isaac Babel’s “Awakening” and Dezsö Kosztolányi’s novel Skylark, in which “the extraordinary relies on the ordinary for its existence”.

An unexpected layer to these slim volumes is the sense that one has, after finishing the final essay, of whether or not one would have much to discuss with this writer. About the writing and about the work – and often the answer to that is not very mysterious because Graywolf chooses smart people, musers and meanderers, with whom you would enjoy sharing a decanter of wine – but also about everything else, the wider goings-on of the world.

Which of Vivian Maier’s images most intrigue her and which authors’ characters’ secret lives keep her up at night: these are the bits which offer insight as to whether I would like to seek out Maud Casey’s fiction, too. But it was her admiration of and fondness for the work of Barbara Comyns that sealed the deal for me. Yes, indeed. More Maud Casey for me, please.

Great stuff for writers.

*I’ve already discussed here one of my favourites in the series.

Maud Casey’s The Art of Mystery: The Search for Questions. Minneapolis: Graywolf, 2018.

The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life (Dinty W. Moore)

When I was very small, I had a little red hard cover book called The Wisdom of Charlie Brown. A Hallmark publication, it is a little larger than the palm of my hand now; then, it was probably the size of both palms but still smaller than other books. This is the book which came to mind when I first saw Dinty Moore’s smaller-than-usual The Mindful Writer.

There is something inherently appealing about a book this size. If it were not a library book, I would tuck it into the pocket of a heavy coat and contentedly rediscover it each season, and then throughout the season, on the most wintriest of days, enjoying a few pages at a time. Because it is on loan to me, I settled for reading it over a few evenings.

The volume is divided into four parts: “The Writer’s Mind”, “The Writer’s Desk”, “The Writer’s Vision” and “The Writer’s Life”. It begins with a recasting of the Buddhist principles of the Four Noble Truths into “The Four Noble Truths of the Writing Life”. I’m not Buddhist and there are plenty of other not-Buddhists in the book too: the list of authors quoted does include Thich Nhat Hanh (but only once) alongside a long list of writers like Margaret Atwood and Carlos Fuentes, Junot Díaz and Ursula K. Le Guin, stretching across genre and across forms.

Each chapter begins with a quotation and then a page or two (occasionally three) enlarging on the idea therein. Some are more about mindfulness and less about writing. Most directly refer to the art and craft of writing. Whether Joan Baez or Truman Capote, the anecdotes about creativity are versatile but they are not so generalized as to feel like a series of greeting cards.

The quotations from well-known writers are not familiar to me. A couple made me smile (like Auster’s, which apparently makes the author smile too): “That’s about as exciting a life as it is for a writer: You write sentences, and you cross out sentences.” And a couple made me wince (in recognition), like this from Philip Roth: “My page one can end up a year later as page two hundred, if it’s even still around.” (I have enjoyed Paul Auster; I’ve never connected with Philip Roth’s work.)

One that I particularly love is Vita Sackville-West’s quote about preserving moments, even though I’m not entirely sure that the butterfly metaphor works for me if I carry it forward. “It is necessary to write, if the days are not to slip emptily by. How else, indeed, to clap the net over the butterfly of the moment? For the moment passes, it is forgotten; the mood is gone; life itself is gone. That is where the writer scores over his fellows: he catches the changes of his mind on the hop.”

Which is why I appreciate this little volume. It got me thinking about why I write and how I consider the outcome of my work.

It’s good stuff for writers who are concerned with being mindful.

Dinty W. Moore. The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2012.

A Self Made of Words: Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing (Carl H. Klaus)

He begins with an epigraph from Virginia Woolf’s “The Modern Essay”: “Never to be yourself, and yet always; that is the problem.”

Which sums up what I most admire and appreciate about this slim volume: the author’s willingness, enthusiasm even, to embrace complications, contradictions even.

It is designed to help you “create an engaging impression, rather than letting your written self take shape haphazardly in a form, style, or voice that might misrepresent you or turn off your readers”.

The book is divided into two parts: the first introduces the concept of a persona and the second considers elements of writing to employ in the process of creating your unique persona.

This structure of divisions repeats and flourishes. Each short chapter has two parts as well: paragraphs alternating between exposition and examples to illustrate that content. The exercise at the end of each section also contains two parts: first, the writing, and second, a reflection on your experience of writing that exercise.

As with all of my favourite writing books, there is a list of recommended reading in the back. This one presents resources under the following headings: “Mental/Spiritual Guidance”, “Types of Nonfiction Prose”, “Persona”, “Style and Sentences”. (There are only two resources listed under “Persona”: the author’s 2010 book and a 1969 volume by Walker Gibson.)

The copy I read was from the library and scattered throughout were short streams of ink, in various colours, as though each reader had a pen in hand while reading, occasionally using it as a bookmark and sometimes accidentally drawing the end of the pen across the paper while turning a page.

This is the kind of work that inspires you to keep your pen in hand, partly because the chapters are short (so the time between exercises is short) and  partly because so much of it feels as though it’s worth writing down.

This is the book I was looking for when I ended up with Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way (even though I wouldn’t’ve recognized it at the time).

So, keep your pen in hand, this is great stuff for non-fiction writers!

Klaus, Carl H. A Self Made of Words: Crafting a Distinctive Persona in Nonfiction Writing. Iowa City: The University of Iowa Press, 2013.

The Byline Bible (Susan Shapiro)

Bylines aren’t something I’m chasing right now. My focus is on booklength works, whether novels or themed essay collections.

If, however, my goal was to build a freelancer’s resume with a series of bylines, Susan Shapiro’s advice would be helpful. And not someday-when-I-get-around to it helpful. Rather, it is right-now-this-minute helpful.

One of the aspects of her approach which I most appreciate is her “Figure Out Your Main Goal” section, about ten pages into the body of the work. This is useful advice generally (but often the most obvious elements are overlooked in instructional works), but Shapiro delineates various goals and offers specific suggestions, which are both timely and informative.

And you can get started right away, with the first (of five) assignments, a 900-word piece about a humiliating moment. The irony of that appeals to me. After all, we’ve just met (although only on the page, of course), and here she is asking me to share something personal, to intensify my vulnerability right off.

Nonetheless, she includes many links to pieces that her other students have successfully published as a result of this assignment, in case you need incentive to do your homework.

In fact, throughout the work, Shapiro consistently refers readers to pieces authored by her students; this might annoy some readers, but I take it as an indicator of her success as a teacher, not only as evidence of her students’ publishing history (recent and topical) but as evidence of the good-will remaining between teacher and student, long after the course was complete. (And, if you don’t want to key in the links, there are several pieces reproduced in their entirety in this volume.)

The body of the work contains all the usual text boxes and lists, which makes The Byline Bible browse-friendly, but there is also a set of Top-Five Lists at the back, for those looking for a super-quick fix. (Consider: the Instant Gratification Takes Too Long list.)

And, at the very back? A glossary, which includes this definition of Nut Graf: “An abbreviated few lines at the beginning of a feature story that telegraph what the story is about.” So, maybe I’m not aiming for a byline any time soon. But at least I know what to call that little description above a feature.

Good stuff for nonfiction writers!

Shapiro, Susan. The Byline Bible: Get Published in 5 Weeks. Cincinnati, OH: Writer’s Digest Books, 2018.

Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing (Anne and Nicholas Giardini)

For as long as I have been working to publish fiction, I have had sticky notes with advice from Carol Shields decorating my files and folders.

I pulled sentences from interviews, radio and print, and sometimes, after a particularly difficult rejection (you know the kind), I would sit and stare at one of those little scraps of paper until I believed that I could try again. Because the kind of advice that Carol Shields had to offer was the kind of advice that I most needed to hear.

Which is why, when I first heard of this collection, I was afraid to read it; I was afraid that it wouldn’t be everything that I needed it to be. But it is: it is everything that I hoped it would be.

Anne and Nicholas Giardini (daughter and grandson of Carol Shields) have gathered a variety of materials, from their personal papers as well as from Carol Shield’s archives, and they have carefully edited it into sections, which read in the author’s voice (and sometimes the materials are directly in her voice, pulled from letters to other writers, for instance, and an entire chapter of letters to creative writing students).

The book begins with a consideration of the significance of stories and storytelling, underscoring the need for writers to read widely and attentively. I began to make a lot of notes in this chapter but then recognized that each chapter is followed by a section which itemizes the key points for readers (very convenient).

Shields is not afraid to challenge conventional advice: “Write about what you know, people say, but how do you know what you know?”

Nor does she bother to fancy-up her advice: “You have to pay attention and have the patience to move the words around until they are both precise and allusive.”

She offers concrete and specific suggestions: “The use of public transportation can be extremely profitable to fiction writers, who are always looking to restock their supplies. And so are such public places as elevators or restaurants.”

And she also comments on how a writer should be: “Be willing to engage with vulnerability, including yourself in that vulnerability.”

And if I needed something else to scribble on a sticky note? There are plenty of contenders. Like this:

“The love story may have lost credibility, but consider the notion of a bird flying through life side by side with another, their wings almost but not quite touching, the two of them guided by an inexplicable binary radar, and an instinctive wish to join their lives together. That is a story worth risking.”

Great stuff for writers who are taking that risk.

Shields, Carol. Startle and Illuminate: Carol Shields on Writing. Ed. Anne Giardini and Nicholas Giardini PRH – RHC, 2016.

The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write (Literary Arts)

This anthology is sourced from the Literary Arts organization, which was founded in 1984. A cornerstone of bookish culture, the organization began in Oregon as a lecture series and later combined efforts with the Oregon Institute of Literary Arts, which was founded by a lawyer (Brian Booth) and a group of writers.

One of those writers was Ursula K. Le Guin, who has an essay included in this volume: “Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?” The essay dates to 2000 but the content is still relevant today.

Some of it is standard: “Where do you get your ideas? From books, of course, from other people’s books. If I didn’t read, how could I write?”

Occasionally she pushes the envelope, playing both sides of an observation designed to provoke a response: “I am a human; therefore I lie. All humans are liars; that is true – you must believe me.”

This focus on truth-telling feels particularly salient now, with the current American government administration leading the United States into a “post-truth era”. But, then, I am drawn to Le Guin’s writing about writing; earlier this year, I considered her essay on writing at Hedgebrook and a few years ago I wrote about Steering the Craft (a longtime favourite writing resource) as well as The Wave in the Mind.

Perhaps it’s unsurprising that I noted more passages from this essay than the others; yet, the shortest section in my notes for this collection corresponds to the essay by Margaret Atwood, from 1994: “Spotty-Handed Villainesses: Problems of Female Bad Behavior in the Creation of Literature”.

This surprises me: having returned to Margaret Atwood’s Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing several times, I would have expected to find more notable passages in this piece, but it is of greater interest to the reader in me than to the writer in me.

With as few notations as Atwood’s essay, Marilynne Robinson’s “On ‘Beauty’” (2006) urged this note in my file: “Fiction is narrative freed from the standard of literal truth. In effect, it is the mind exploring itself, its impulse to create hypothetical cause and consequence.”

So, it would seem there is a theme here. One which carries into the next piece, Wallace Stegner’s 1990 work “Fiction to Make Sense of Life”. (This was a potentially aggravating read, for it reveals the endings of some classic short stories and to illustrate the changing taste of readers, who are now less amused by resolutions with a twist.

In fact, however, the pieces in this anthology are a satisfying mix of concrete advice and musings upon the bigger issues (like the social and cultural responsibility of a writer, Aristotelian unities, and Rupert Sheldrake’s “morphic resonance – and you can turn to Robert Stone, Russell Banks and Jeanette Winterson if that trio calls to you).

Many of the contributors comment on the importance of reading in the development of a writer’s craft and both Zadie Smith, in “305 Marguerite Cartright Avenue” (2012), and E.L. Doctorow, in “Childhood of a Writer” (1991), speak about the fundamental importance of reading and libraries in helping them to discover their voices as storytellers. 

This was also true for Edward P. Jones, who states in “Finding the Known World”: “The reading was simply a means to building a novel. I had a goal – that of writing the novel – and to get there I had to go through this forest of reading.” (He, too, has an observation which fits with the initial theme I addressed above: “The facts and the truth of a world are what I make up.”)

These pieces are pulled from across two decades, from some authors who are no longer writing and others who remain fervently active, and are accessible to emerging and developing writers while still offering inspiration and focus to more experienced wordsmiths. But if you don’t want to know how William Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” ends? Steer clear of Stegner’s piece.

Good stuff for writers.

Literary Arts’ The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write
Portland, OR: Tin House Books, 2014

Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (John McPhee)

If you’re a “New Yorker” fan, you probably already know what I’m going to say: John McPhee is a renowned non-fiction writer, nominated four times for the Pulitzer Prize (winning in 1999), who has been associated with the magazine since 1963.

There is a lot of detail in Draft No. 4 about essays and books he has authored, about his process and his craft, and those readers who are already familiar with his career will undoubtedly find that these references are both pleasurable and informative.

For those of us coming to Draft No. 4 as a writing tool, the anecdotes and examples feel like a constant reminder of what remains unread (or, maybe that’s just me and the chronic sense of never-having-read-enough), although his observations about the changes in process across a half-century-long writing career, simply from a technical perspective, remain fully accessible.

For instance, a discussion of how a writer’s use of a tape recorder can influence the interview process is not directly applicable, now that technology is ubiquitous, but it is still worth reflecting on how a subject’s overt awareness of the process can alter their receptivity and change how much or little might be disclosed if the process overwhelms their connection with the interviewer.

McPhee’s experience in a low-fi environment certainly influences his approach to the craft today. “Cumbersome aspects there may have been, but the scissors, the slivers, the manila folders, the three-by-five cards, and the Underwood 5 were my principal tools until 1984,” he writes.

A dozen pages later, he offers this advice: “Another way to prime the pump is to write by hand. Keep a legal pad, or something like one, and when you are stuck dead at any time – blocked to paralysis by an inability to set one word upon another – get away from the computer, lie down somewhere with pencil and pad, and think it over.” (This works for me, but I grew up pounding on a typewriter too.)

The book is divided into eight parts: Progression, Structure, Editors & Publisher, Elicitation, Frame of Reference, Checkpoints, Draft No. 4, and Omission. I made notes from each section and particularly enjoyed the anecdotes and advice about fact-checking (perhaps because I felt a little less pressure to make notes, being more of a make-it-up writer, so I didn’t pay such close attention).

He writes in a matter-of-fact tone. “When am I done? I just know. I’m lucky that way. What I know is that I can’t do any better; someone else might do better, but that’s all I can do; so I call it done.” There is no silver-bullet solution here, but the simple statement is true and the humour comes through.

I especially appreciate his comment on competition between writers: “No one will ever write in just the way that you do, or in just the way that anyone else does. Because of this fact, there is no real competition between writers. What appears to be competition is actually nothing more than jealousy and gossip. Writing is a matter strictly of developing oneself. You compete only with yourself. You develop yourself by writing.”

On these issues, the straightforward tone is essential and powerful. Perhaps less so in more general observations: “For nonfiction projects, ideas are everywhere. They just go by in a ceaseless stream.” Then again, that’s true too.

As one who has long appreciated Anne Lamott’s shitty-first-draft directive, I also appreciated this classier way of describing the same process (and his of words like ‘nucleus’ and ‘interstitial’ elevates it even more):

“Blurt out, heave out, babble out something – anything – as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again – top to bottom. The chances are that about now you’ll be seeing something that you are sort of eager for others to see. And all that takes time. What I have left out is the interstitial time. You finish that first awful blurting, and then you put the thing aside.”

I’ve always called it simmering, and I’ve read other descriptions of it, but McPhee’s rings true for me. It’s not just putting the manuscript away in a drawer: somehow ‘interstitial’ captures a little of the magic I feel there, too.

Great stuff for John McPhee fans and really good stuff for other writers too.

McPhee, John. Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process (NY: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013).