7 Writing Tips from Sol Stein

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I recently finished Sol Stein’s Solutions for Novelists. As is usually the case with craft books, there were a bunch of things I already knew, a bunch I’d forgotten, and a few that were no longer in tune with modern fashions for reading / writing / editing. There were also, however, a couple of gems that were entirely worth the read. I thought about making each one into a separate blog post but I’m not convinced most of them take much explaining. So instead, here’s a list of random tips from one of the foremost editors of modern novel-writing.

1. Never take the reader where the reader wants to go

This primarily refers to scene changes and moving between chapters. Stein advises that, in order to keep the reader hooked, you should never make the next scene the one that they expect. I’m sort of torn on this, to be honest. At times this is exactly the right advice – it helps keep them impatient to find out what happens next, it keeps them surprised, and it prevents the story from becoming predictable. But never taking them where they want to go? That’s a risk. I think that I as a reader would get annoyed with a book that did that. However, the point is that you should plan your scenes with the express purpose of keeping the reader emotionally invested.

2. Candour and vulnerability are key character traits

It doesn’t matter how vile your protagonist is – if they are frank about their natures and faults, and have an area of vulnerability, it makes them real. The more real they are, the better the audience can connect. If the protagonist isn’t a nice guy, there has to be a reason for the audience to care about what he’s doing. The vulnerability allows them to hope for his redemption, and the candour allows them to understand him despite his unpleasantness.

3. A writer writes what other people only think

This takes the characteristic of candour still further. Don’t shy away from radical ideas and don’t fall back on cliched thoughts. Write the truth, as bare as you can. This isn’t new but it is important. It’s also difficult and takes courage. Go for it.

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4. Put the protagonist in a crucible

This is the term Stein uses to describe a situation or place where the protagonist doesn’t want to be but can’t leave. This heightens the tension and drama, and creates conflict as the character struggles to leave. Again, not a completely new thought but the imagery of a crucible made me see it in a different light and that opened possibilities.

5. One plus one equals a half

‘Conveying the same matter more than once in different words diminishes the effect of what is said.’ Edit hard, basically.

6. Choose your weapon / typeface

According to Stein, this matters a lot. He says professionals use Courier, 12 point. Times New Roman is tempting but takes up less space. That means there are more words per page, so the pages are turning more slowly, so the reading experience seems slower. ‘A page using Courier seems to move much faster. That’s a psychological advantage not to be slighted.’

Above all, he advises against sans serif type faces such as Ariel or Helvetica because the letters don’t have curlicues. Curlicues link the letters together in a word, and we read words rather than individual letters. Without curlicues, the words are less internally linked and it slows the reader down.

7. Don’t distract the reader

Again, this is formatting-related. Putting words at the top of the page in headers, or putting words in bold, draw the reader’s eye and attention. That means their attention is no longer immersed in the story. Don’t clutter up the page with unnecessary distractions that will break their concentration.

 

So there we go. I hope that’s helpful. I found Solutions for Novelists very interesting, but not the greatest craft book I’ve ever read. Still, worth borrowing a copy from the library if they have it.

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4 responses »

  1. I’ve got Stein’s Solutions For Writers, which three seconds of research seems to indicate is a different book but covering some similar territory. I’ve found a lot that’s useful in there, especially that part about the crucible, about using that to keep characters in the situation despite the challenges. It’s something that’s in many ways a fundamental to good plotting, but easily overlooked.

    Not sure how I feel about his views on fonts though. That point about the value of curlicues is interesting, but everything else I’ve heard or read on fonts supports sans serif fonts as more reader friendly. Do we use serified fonts for novels because they’re actually better, or out of habit? And either way, do I just need to use what makes my readers comfortable? Probably, yes, and that means you win Stein. But I still prefer Arial.

  2. I should check this book out it sounds like it has great advice! The advice of taking the reader where she doesn’t expect is a great one, as is the one not to repeat the same thing but with different words (SO guilty of doing this)

    I saw your comment on doorway between worlds asking for recommendations of books on the craft written by Sci-fi authors, and I was telling Sue about one, but I thought I’d pop here and let you know too, as I doubt you go around checking blog comments by other people!
    It’s How To Write Fantasy and Science Fiction by Orson Scott Card. I read it ages ago and it did have some good insights. Definitely worth a read. 🙂

  3. Pingback: Sacred Lives: On Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case (2013) | The Dream Book Blog

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