Tag Archive for writing advice

I’m a big believer in causation in stories. Something happens and something happens as a result. If you have causation in motion in a story and a character who is willing to make things happen, what you have is a story that is much easier to write. For example, if you have a story that opens with a teenage girl arguing with her parents because they won’t let her go to a Kanye West concert, your story is going to be much easier to write if you have a character who is willing to make things happen. For instance, if she folds her arms and sits on her bed saying “shoot!” about not getting to go, that’s going to be a hard (and possibly boring) story to write because your character isn’t willing to get things moving. If you have a girl who flips her parents off behind their backs then sneaks out, what do you have? The next scene. You’ve got to figure out how to get her to the concert (she’s probably going to need a friend to drive because her parents would hear if she just started her car) which will give you more characters to work with along with a destination, and at some point, you’ve got to get her back home, hopefully to parents who have already called the police, which would make sense for them, wouldn’t it? Overreacting the way they did to a little misogynistic rap.

But what I started this post to say was how causation sometimes gets misinterpreted, when a writer has something happen and then says it causes something else to happen. For instance:

He kicked the tub causing him to cry out in pain.
He diced onion after onion causing his eyes to well with tears.
The sun rose above the trees causing her to squint. He hit a tree with his car, resulting in a broken leg.


I don’t know why this drives me crazy, but it does. When it’s written out that an action causes a reaction it causes me to grow crazy. I think it’s because I’m such a believer in an active reader who wants to work, and that fiction is about the reader making connections through the writing and not the writer making connections for the reader. When an author tells me point-blank that a stubbed toe causes a character to cry out in pain I think, no shit. Just show me the toe stubbing and then show me the character crying out. I swear, I’ll get the connection.

Did I ever do this in my own fiction? Oh, I’m sure I did. I’m guessing it’s some kind of shadow self of annoyance that makes me pick these things out. I remember a few years into writing when I realized how many extraneous “thats” I had in my stories, to the point I had to do a search and delete. I never did that with “causing” but that doesn’t mean I didn’t need to at some point.

What about you? What tics do you see in your work and others?

Olive Kitteridge exercises – part 2

As I wrote about here, Olive Kitteridge is both a wonderful book and a kick-ass instructional guide for fiction writers. I’ll continue here with a few more exercises based on things I think Strout does like a boss:

Two stories in one: In “Tulips,” we learn the story of the Larkin family as well as what happens to Henry Kitteridge after his stroke. How does the blending of two stories strengthen both narrative lines, and how does the larger (public) story help to shape the smaller (private) one? Write a story where you take a larger event–of national importance, or local importance–that affects many people and tell it beside a personal story that is unrelated but happening simultaneously. How does the public story help to shape the private one, or how does the private story inform the understanding of the public story for the character?

Character understanding: Oftentimes when we’re telling a story, we’re telling it to try and figure out just what it means or because there is mystery inside of it somewhere. In “Tulips,” on pages 145 and 157, Olive is trying to understand why her son doesn’t seem to like her very much, and while telling the story, the reader begins to understand even though she can’t see through to the truth. How can you lead the reader to understand what a character cannot?
Write a scene where the reader understands something the character telling the story doesn’t–a child telling their parent about an incident at school, a man telling a friend why his spouse has left him, a person fired from a job for no apparent reason.

Assumptions: People often aren’t what they seem, and not in the secret I’m-a-serial-killer way they (delightfully) would have us believe on Criminal Minds, but in that we are more multi-faceted than we give each other credit for. Strout constantly is turning characters on their ears in a way that is believable and in-sync to who they are but a surprise to those who know them. Look at the portrayal of Mary acting out of character on pg 160, or Marlene not just being a sweet, daft woman on pages 176-77.
Write a scene where someone upsets another person’s expectations, where they do something that isn’t out of character, but that reveals another facet of that character.

I hope these have been helpful, or if nothing else, will lead you back to read Olive Kitteridge again. Even writing these up, I’m tempted to take another look and discover all I’ve missed. If you have exercises of your own based on specific works by Strout or by other writers, let me know in the comments!


Sometimes I think my love of carbs is interfering with other areas of my life, and other times I think it can make an apt metaphor for writing. I’ve been talking a lot about breadcrumbs in my fiction writing classes lately, those details we drop into a story as we’re going, not knowing where they’re leading, but aware we might need some direction later on. Maybe not only to return home, but to figure out where we’re going.

The other day I was working on a first draft of a story and left the following crumbs in the first two pages:

1) cottonwoods and elms surrounding a farm
2) a character who can’t eat spicy foods
3) a notepad next to a phone with a phone number written on it
4) a weird aunt that might be psychic
5) a character who sleeps in a nightgown

Are any of these crumbs worth anything? I don’t know, but until I write further, I won’t. I’ve already come back to the notepad next to the phone, and my guess is the landscape is important, if only so I can more fully imagine the scenes taking place there. But the real proof will be in the pudding (maybe I’m just obsessed with food?), when I get stuck and have to go back and carefully read what’s come before, wondering what I’ve put in the map.

Ron Carlson says we need to fully imagine scenes in order to build from them, that “details aren’t the icing on the cake, but the table that the cake stands on.” (Seriously, now I’m talking about cake?)

What breadcrumbs do you leave when you’re starting a story? What draws you back in a way you hadn’t expected?

Tara Ison’s words of wisdom

Tara Ison did the morning craft talks in fiction at Antioch this year, and she was fantastic.


Here are a few of her wonderful nuggets:

  • Theme is not something you want to prove. It’s a question, an inquiry.
  • “Fallacy of imitative form”: writing which too accurately mimics the (flawed or limited) qualities of the characters, story, or theme, and as a result cannot effectively communicate the experience to the reader.
  • the structural engineering of a story is centered on what a character needs.
  • Writers need to understand the story at the story level (what moves plot forward) and the driving level (what moves the character forward).
  • Need reveals vulnerability and allows the reader to empathize.
  • Need/obstacle comes from 1 of 3 sources: circumstance, antagonist, internal flaw.
  • The need and the obstacle need to be well matched.
  • Need drives behavior, not want.
  • Three points about setting: 1) it should be about the experience, not information (character’s reaction to the setting is an expression of why they are); 2) Setting is most interesting when something is happening in relation to the setting, adding another element to the story; 3) Crap. I forgot the third one.
  • Dialogue is not real speech. Real speech is boring.
  • From Picasso: “Art is not truth. Art is a lie that leads to truth.”
  • Cliche is always a problem of word choice, not the emotion that’s being expressed.

For more on her writing and books, check out her website here. I’ll be reading The List soon and can’t wait!



Writing advice from Andre Dubus III

Andre Dubus was the keynote speaker at the Antioch Writers’ Workshop this summer and he was charming, kind, quick, and smart.


Here are a few highlights from his talk and craft class:

  • Write for the truth of the story.
  • Be willing to fail.
  • What we ask of a book: “Give me me.” We want to see a part of our humanity.
  • Don’t compare yourself to others, or if you do, contend with it in your head not your heart.
  • Mystery is good. The deeper you go into images and characters, the more mysterious they become. We do not pin characters down.
  • Abstract = bad. Concrete = good. General = bad. Concrete = good.
  • From Flannery O’Connor: writers can do whatever they can get away with, which isn’t much.

If you and I can manage to follow this advice, we’ll be golden.

Pros vs. cons

A colleague told me one time that on a class evaluation a student wrote, “he said ‘um’ 47 times in 50 minutes.” This is one of my worst nightmares: to stand in front of a group of people and have them point out my tics. In addition to a lot of hand waving and water drinking when teaching, I think one of my tics isn’t so much a tic, but a love of repeated sayings. One of my go-to’s: “It’s a pros and cons game.”


So much of writing comes down to making decisions, and while we want there to be an absolute right decision, that often isn’t the case. It’s a weighing of the outcomes, a juggling of the payoff and the drawback. I had a student recently say that he wanted all the scenes to take place in one location because it would emphasize the bleakness of that one aspect of the character’s world. I respect that, but at what cost? Was he missing out on a wonderful scene where the character’s having dinner at a restaurant with his mother, or some other setting that could be viewed and emotionally mined on the drive home? What else could the story offer up to outweigh that decision?

My advice in situations like this is always to write out the scene and see what it gives you. You’ve got to write it out: that’s another thing I say a lot. What’s the worst that could happen? You end up with a scene or two that sucks? So be it, but my guess is you’ll still be ahead in knowing your character and story, even if you decide, in the end, not to include those pages. The best thing that could happen? Endless possibility.

It’s rare there’s only one thing that can happen in a story, and if that’s the case, maybe you’ve written too narrow of a story. Pros and cons. If that happens, do you try to revise it, or write another, better story?