Ray Bradbury suggests in Zen and the Art of Writing, to let a writer’s mind list “random” words (he listed nouns) to help fuel their imagination. From the list, he suggests one might glean insight into where your passions lie and where your next story might be hidden. He writes,
These lists were the provocations, finally, that caused my better stuff to surface. I was feeling my way toward something honest, hidden under the trapdoor on the top of my skull.
The lists ran something like this:
THE LAKE. THE NIGHT. THE CRICKETS. THE RAVINE. THE ATTIC. THE BASEMENT. THE TRAPDOOR. THE BABY. THE CROWD. THE NIGHT TRAIN. THE FOG HORN. THE SCYTHE. THE CARNIVAL. THE CAROUSEL. THE DWARF. THE MIRROR MAZE. THE SKELETON.
I was beginning to see a pattern in the list, in these words that I had simply flung forth on paper, trusting my subconscious to give bread, as it were, to the birds. Glancing over the list, I discovered my old love and fright having to do with circuses and carnivals. I remembered, and then forgot, and then remembered again, how terrified I had been when my mother took me for my first ride on a merry-go-round. With the calliope screaming and the world spinning and the terrible horses leaping, I added my shrieks to the din. I did not go near the carousel again for years. When I really did, decades later, it rode me into the midst of Something Wicked This Way Comes.
Brain Pickings even wrote a great article about Bradbury’s list-making and how it fosters creativity.
While easing back into writing from the crazy land that has been my life for the last six months, my girlfriend suggested I read Bradbury’s book and within the first few pages, he outlines this technique. I decided to take a break and try it out myself (adding verbs, adjective, and other phrases beyond just nouns). It’s supposed to be off-the-cuff, word association style, with little to no thought so your subconscious can run with it, so here we go.
my bradbury list (7/16/19)
Over the River
Where it Dies
The Back Forty
Out the Window
Cut and Dry
The Medicine Man
Chimes at Night
Tape and Matches
The Red Dawn
Beyond the Fence
Up and Away
The Old Woman
The Copper Fish
Under the Skin
Lake on Fire
The Oakley Farm
Behind the Barn
The Bush Feast
I think I can already feel the stories locked in there.
That list contains the summers I spent on my grandparent’s farm, as well as pieces of my childhood, crossing rivers and sneaking through my neighbor’s fields. My penchant for the dark and macabre snuck in there, as did a little of my love for William S. Burrows.
That’s a pretty handy list of prompts right there since they all mean something to me. I should have done this a while ago.
The last place you’d expect to find writing advice is in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ journal Transactions on Professional Communications. Yet, there it was.
In the 1980 issue, Kurt Vonnegut dispatches advice on “how to put your style and personality into everything you write.” What’s even more interesting, is that he does it in an ad, part of a series from the International Paper Company called “The Power of the Printed Word.” It was a ploy, a decree, or call to arms urging all of us to “read better, write better, and communicate better.”
Below you will find that advice, as well as other snippets about writing from the prologues of his novels, interviews, and his memoir of essays, A Man Without a Country.
How to Write with Style: An ad
1. Find a subject you care about Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style.
I am not urging you to write a novel, by the way—although I would not be sorry if you wrote one, provided you genuinely cared about something. A petition to the mayor about a pothole in front of your house or a love letter to the girl next door will do.
2. Do not ramble, though I won’t ramble on about that.
3. Keep it simple As for your use of language: Remember that two great masters of language, William Shakespeare and James Joyce, wrote sentences which were almost childlike when their subjects were most profound. “To be or not to be?” asks Shakespeare’s Hamlet. The longest word is three letters long. Joyce, when he was frisky, could put together a sentence as intricate and as glittering as a necklace for Cleopatra, but my favorite sentence in his short story “Eveline” is this one: “She was tired.” At that point in the story, no other words could break the heart of a reader as those three words do.
Simplicity of language is not only reputable, but perhaps even sacred. The Bible opens with a sentence well within the writing skills of a lively fourteen-year-old: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.”
4. Have guts to cut It may be that you, too, are capable of making necklaces for Cleopatra, so to speak. But your eloquence should be the servant of the ideas in your head. Your rule might be this: If a sentence, no matter how excellent, does not illuminate your subject in some new and useful way, scratch it out.
5. Sound like yourself The writing style which is most natural for you is bound to echo the speech you heard when a child. English was Conrad’s third language, and much that seems piquant in his use of English was no doubt colored by his first language, which was Polish. And lucky indeed is the writer who has grown up in Ireland, for the English spoken there is so amusing and musical. I myself grew up in Indianapolis, where common speech sounds like a band saw cutting galvanized tin, and employs a vocabulary as unornamental as a monkey wrench.
In some of the more remote hollows of Appalachia, children still grow up hearing songs and locutions of Elizabethan times. Yes, and many Americans grow up hearing a language other than English, or an English dialect a majority of Americans cannot understand.
All these varieties of speech are beautiful, just as the varieties of butterflies are beautiful. No matter what your first language, you should treasure it all your life. If it happens to not be standard English, and if it shows itself when your write standard English, the result is usually delightful, like a very pretty girl with one eye that is green and one that is blue.
I myself find that I trust my own writing most, and others seem to trust it most, too, when I sound most like a person from Indianapolis, which is what I am. What alternatives do I have? The one most vehemently recommended by teachers has no doubt been pressed on you, as well: to write like cultivated Englishmen of a century or more ago.
6. Say what you mean I used to be exasperated by such teachers, but am no more. I understand now that all those antique essays and stories with which I was to compare my own work were not magnificent for their datedness or foreignness, but for saying precisely what their authors meant them to say. My teachers wished me to write accurately, always selecting the most effective words, and relating the words to one another unambiguously, rigidly, like parts of a machine. The teachers did not want to turn me into an Englishman after all. They hoped that I would become understandable—and therefore understood. And there went my dream of doing with words what Pablo Picasso did with paint or what any number of jazz idols did with music. If I broke all the rules of punctuation, had words mean whatever I wanted them to mean, and strung them together higgledy-piggledy, I would simply not be understood. So you, too, had better avoid Picasso-style or jazz-style writing, if you have something worth saying and wish to be understood.
Readers want our pages to look very much like pages they have seen before. Why? This is because they themselves have a tough job to do, and they need all the help they can get from us.
7. Pity the readers They have to identify thousands of little marks on paper, and make sense of them immediately. They have to read, an art so difficult that most people don’t really master it even after having studied it all through grade school and high school—twelve long years.
So this discussion must finally acknowledge that our stylistic options as writers are neither numerous nor glamorous, since our readers are bound to be such imperfect artists. Our audience requires us to be sympathetic and patient readers, ever willing to simplify and clarify—whereas we would rather soar high above the crowd, singing like nightingales.
That is the bad news. The good news is that we Americans are governed under a unique Constitution, which allows us to write whatever we please without fear of punishment. So the most meaningful aspect of our styles, which is what we choose to write about, is utterly unlimited.
8. For really detailed advice For a discussion of literary style in a narrower sense, in a more technical sense, I recommend to your attention The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White. E.B. White is, of course, one of the most admirable literary stylists this country has so far produced.
You should realize, too, that no one would care how well or badly Mr. White expressed himself, if he did not have perfectly enchanting things to say.
—How to Write With Style, published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ journal Transactions on Professional Communications in 1980.
Construct Short Stories with Purpose
Kurt Vonnegut’s rules for writing short stories from the intro to Bogombo Snuffbox:
1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them – in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.
The greatest American short story writer of my generation was Flannery O’Connor (1925-1964). She broke practically every one of my rules but the first. Great writers tend to do that.
Brian Collins at The Writing Cooperative did a great write up on each rule and what they mean.
Have Other Interests
I think it can be tremendously refreshing if a creator of literature has something on his mind other than the history of literature so far. Literature should not disappear up its own asshole, so to speak.
If you want to really hurt your parents, and you don’t have the nerve to be gay, the least you can do is go into the arts. I’m not kidding. The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possible can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.
—A Man Without a Country
I used to teach a writer’s workshop at the University of Iowa back in the 1960s, and I would say at the start of every semester, “The role model for this course is Vincent van Gogh—who sold two paintings to his brother.” (Laughs.) I just sit and wait to see what’s inside me, and that’s the case for writing or for drawing, and then out it comes. There are times when nothing comes. James Brooks, the fine abstract-expressionist, I asked him what painting was like for him, and he said, “I put the first stroke on the canvas and then the canvas has to do half the work.” That’s how serious painters are. They’re waiting for the canvas to do half the work. (Laughs.) Come on. Wake up.
—The Last Interview
The Shapes of Stories
I don’t have the will to teach anymore. I only know the theory… It was stated by Paul Engle—the founder of the Writers Workshop at Iowa. He told me that, if the workshop ever got a building of its own, these words should be inscribed over the entrance: “Don’t take it all so seriously.”
I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction, unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading. When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away—even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time. One of my students wrote a story about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. I thought that was wonderful. The story dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed. Nobody could read that story without fishing around in his mouth with a finger. Now, there’s an admirable practical joke for you. When you exclude plot, when you exclude anyone’s wanting anything, you exclude the reader, which is a mean-spirited thing to do. You can also exclude the reader by not telling him immediately where the story is taking place, and who the people are [and what they want].
And you can put him to sleep by never having characters confront each other. Students like to say that they stage no confrontations because people avoid confrontations in modern life. “Modern life is so lonely,” they say. This is laziness. It’s the writer’s job to stage confrontations, so the characters will say surprising and revealing things, and educate and entertain us all. If a writer can’t or won’t do that, he should withdraw from the trade.
So much of what happens in storytelling is mechanical, has to do with the technical problems of how to make a story work. Cowboy stories and policeman stories end in shoot-outs, for example, because shoot-outs are the most reliable mechanisms for making such stories end. There is nothing like death to say what is always such an artificial thing to say: “The end.” I try to keep deep love out of my stories because, once that particular subject comes up, it is almost impossible to talk about anything else. Readers don’t want to hear about anything else. They go gaga about love. If a lover in a story wins his true love, that’s the end of the tale, even if World War III is about to begin, and the sky is black with flying saucers.
I get up at 7:30 and work four hours a day. Nine to twelve in the morning, five to six in the evening. Businessmen would achieve better results if they studied human metabolism. No one works well eight hours a day. No one ought to work more than four hours.
—An interview with Robert Taylor in Boston Globe Magazine, 1969
Learn the Rules, then Break Them
Here is a lesson in creative writing. First rule: Do not use semicolons. They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.
[Then, later in his book …]
Those of us who had imagination circuits build can look in someone’s face and see stories there; to everyone else, a face will just be a face.
And there, I’ve just used a semi-colon, which at the outset I told you never to use. It is to make a point that I did it. The point is: Rules only take us so far, even good rules.
“Being stuck on one [project] is an opportunity to work on something else.”
Recently, this Ted Talk gave a name to something I’ve been thinking about for months: slow motion multi-tasking.
It’s the reason why my upload speed on my major projects has slowed. It’s the reason why I trashed or logged out of my social media accounts. It’s why I can’t respond to comments for days, weeks, months.
I am working on three major bodies of written work: each fiction, each varying styles, and each developing at different rates.
To be a better writer, we are told to write in any way, shape, or form but also to read. Everything and anything. Consume the written word and it will flow through us.
So when I am stuck, I work on expanding my library of knowledge by reading collections of short stories, my favorite novels, modern classics, Oscar Wilde …
The inspiration comes easier now as I spread my attention between these things, not at the same time, but giving each one my fullest attention in turn.
No Tumblr notifications, no AO3 hit counts to see, no Twitter twitting in the background. Just me and Scrivener, or my headphones and Kindle, and a hot cup of tea.
Yesterday I wrote 3000 words for Charm City. Today, I opened my Unhitched file for the first time in months and edited it. Last week I finished two books, Ishmael by Daniel Quinn and Trigger Warnings by Neil Gaiman. Next week, I will begin two more, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and the new edition of American Gods when they are both released as audiobooks on Scribd.
When I cannot do any of that – listen to a droning narrator, or write for one of my many versions of the same men in hostile, bloody, or psychologically strained environments – I work on my new novel in the style of J.M. Barrie. It is light. It’s refreshing. It’s resetting to me and I listen to classical music while I do it.
This blog is my collection of cardboard boxes, keeping my inspiration organized and my tasks filed away.
So, thank you, Tim Harford, for helping me justify bouncing between pages and books without publishing my work in a timely manner. It’s opened my eyes to what I have already accomplished and how my process of creativity is not scattering my brain or being used as some sort of avoidance tactic, but rather allowing me to slow down and move past blocks while still maintaining creative productivity.
I notice a lot of people enjoy posting images on AO3, banners or art, but are forced to deal with the lack of customizable options in the default AO3 editor. Below I will show you how to make a workskin to display your banner images centered and to the size of whatever screen the reader is using.
To create your new image resizing Work Skin:
1) Go to your Skins page from the link in your Dashboard
2) Click the “Work Skins” button
3) Choose “Create Skin”
4) In the “Create New Archive Skin” form, change the popup menu beside “Type” to “Work Skin” (very important)
5) In the “Title” box, enter a title that is meaningful to you (for example, “Banner Resizing”)
Optional: If you like, in the “Description” box you can enter a description of what the skin does
I wanted to talk about the authors’ feedback and how important it is for the reader either. It is often discussed how crucial are comments for the author and their desire to invest their effort into their new works. But authors’ replies to the readers’ comments are also important and they influence readers’ commitment and willingness to leave comments. Dear authors,please don’t ignore,please acknowledge us and our comments on your works with replies,bc it goes both ways. Please and thank you!
ao3commentoftheday left a fairly standard response stating that “everyone has reasons why they do/don’t leave comments and do/don’t reply to comments,” but it opened up that age-old discussion as to what readers feel owed when they comment and what writers are obligated to do if and when comments start rolling in.
There is one camp of that states, “I wrote the fic and charitably gave it to my fandom. If I am expected to respond to the gratitude my readers have for my gift, is it really gratitude they are sharing with me or just attention-seeking bait?” It does end up being more work for authors in addition to the laborious task of writing.
The other camp is, “Of course I will show my gratitude to readers by responding to every comment!” And those authors take time out of writing to reply.
Unhitched has over 800 comments.
If 1-10 or so comments are left per reader, assuming they comment on multiple chapters (most do not), that leaves 400 comments to be written by me, which is, of course, in addition to the (current) 171,852 words of the actual fic. That’s a lot of writing!
I’m not complaining. I’m just stating that expecting a reply is sometimes not physically possible, especially if the author has multiple fics in a very active fandom, and I’m not sure I like the idea that readers will only comment if they think they will get a reply. I have heard that elsewhere and it rubs me the wrong way. Refusing to acknowledge the fact that you consumed something the author produced simply because you don’t get the added bonus of being thrilled when the author responds, seems a little greedy … or maybe a lot greedy.
If readers knew how much time goes into the free entertainment they so quickly and happily consume, they would never again ask for a reply. It is a hellish amount of work to keep up with.
That said, I applied all these thoughts I was mulling over to Hannigram, of course, because it makes for a fun writing challenge.
Hannibal Lecter invites you to dinner and serves a delicious human leg all done up nicely with assorted fruits and nuts. You partake of the leg and find it unquestionably rich – divine – your mouth has never tasted anything so decedent. Without hesitation, you thank him for the invitation to dinner.
Being a man with ample time, skill, and a love of both compliments and fine dining, Hannibal Lecter would probably serve you dessert for your politeness. Sanguinaccio dolce. You could consider it a “thank you” for joining him and fawning over his leg.
Will Graham, by contrast, is nervous around new people, but he doesn’t want to appear standoffish, so he invites you fishing one afternoon. The stream is beautiful, the sun-dappled ground peaceful, and Will shares anecdotes about the flora and fauna. You are enraptured. After a few hours, you sit by a fire along the bank of the quiet stream and he plates some pan-fried trout caught by his own rod and reel. The fish flakes like nothing else. It’s light and fresh and melts in your mouth. You thank him, which he wholeheartedly appreciated, but given his demeanor, doesn’t even nod in reply.
Will didn’t bring dessert, unless you count the smashed granola bar under the seat of his car. He brought a tackle box and wants to get back to fishing. You are free to sit on the shore and watch, but if you only went fishing with Will Graham so that he would serve you pudding, then you had no business agreeing to join him. Will Graham is not Hannibal Lecter.
One man is about the sharing of a meal – the give and take – watching you eat human flesh while you give praise and adoration of his efforts; the other is about sharing a single experience that means something profound to him and that is all.
Hannibal appreciates thank-you notes, fine wine, and long-winded conversation where he can preen. He will gladly play that game; he has the time, the patience, and the desire to do so.
Will Graham will give you what he can, but that’s it. The trip was what he offered, nothing more than a nice view, a tin plate with fish, and a thermos of coffee.
Some authors can offer a five-course meal with all the trappings, including replies to comments.
Others pour their time into the fic itself and are drained by the end of it, unable to scrounge up even a granola bar.
In the end, authors range in their abilities to cook, fish, and socialize. Some look at writing as a smorgasbord – a buffet of delight – and reply to all comments without question. Other’s took you fishing and shared a warm afternoon with you, and that is where the lovely day ended.
In the end, writers are all adorable cannibalistic murderers, but since a reader can never tell which kind, it is best not to expect things. A simple “thank you” after a nice day out or a fine meal is all that is needed. To expect anything else might just be considered rude, and rudeness is not looked at favorably by certain someones.
This was originally posted on Tumblr in response to the growing misinformation about what AO3’s archive warnings actually mean. This was meant to educate readers and writers.
“Chose Not to Use Archive Warnings” = May contain nuts (any type of nut or possibly no nuts.)
“Graphic depictions of violence” = Contain cashews
“Major character death” = Contain peanuts
“Rape/non-con” = Contains macadamia nuts
“Underage” = Contains pecans
“None of these warnings apply” = Nut-free
They are all warnings. They are the very first warning you get when you open a fic.
The ONLY authors who tag their fics correctly 100% of the time are the authors who choose: “Chose Not to Use Archive Warnings.” Please stop calling them uncaring.
“Chose not to use Archive warnings” warns readers that the fic may contain nuts – any nuts: whole nuts, nut pieces, traces of nuts, or no nuts. If you cannot handle nuts in any way, shape or form, then you must either keep scrolling or consume the fic at your own risk.
Authors might use that warning because they are afraid of reader backlash for not tagging more specifically later, or not want to spoil plot arcs, or maybe it’s a WIP and they don’t know the ending yet.
These authors are aware of triggers.
MANY of them choose not to use archive warnings because they do not want to be responsible for triggering readers,so they use the best warning they can to filter out those who may be harmed by their fic. And MANY of them still use as many tags as they can. But you have to understand that some tags might be missing for a variety of reasons as stated above.
Let me tell you why this trend of calling these authors uncaring offends me so much:
I tagged a fic “Graphic depictions of violence” once. Then I tagged it “self-injury”, “self-harm”, “body mutilation”, and “suicide attempt.” I was privately messaged after it posted and scolded by a reader who said it was improperly tagged. They said that they were sickened by my depiction of a character’s self-inflicted eye injury. They said that my tags were not sufficient enough for them and that I should have added the tag “auto-enucleation” to save them from that horror.
Dude, I didn’t even know what that meant.
I had given my fic an archive warning, and four specific additional tags to keep this from happening.
I felt awful. I felt sick. I didn’t want to hurt anyone or trigger anyone (even though one of the canon characters in my fic is named One-eye, and self-inflicted eye injuries probably should have been inferred). But I added the tag anyway. I still felt awful for weeks because I thought I did everything right, and I still hurt someone.
From that day on, I decided that I will never use a warning other than “Chose Not to Use Archive Warnings”. I don’t care if no one reads my fics because of it. Having a reader freak out over watching their favorite character hurt themselves in a dream was enough to turn me away from trying to tag anything more specifically.
I don’t want to be attacked by angry readers. I need the catch-all warning so that I can feel safe with what I post.
Should I let one reader interaction dictate how I tag? Maybe not, but it was sufficient enough for me to no longer feel comfortable with my tagging skills.
I’d rather use the “there may be nuts” warning so I don’t get berated by readers when I’m just trying to enjoy a fun hobby that lets me work through my own issues.
To be clear: I’m not trying to discourage tagging.
I just can’t stand aside and let people call authors who choose not to use archive warnings “selfish” and “uncaring”. I still try to tag to the best of my ability – most of us do – but some of us use general tags like “death”, “murder”, “sexual content”, “canon-typical violence”, “self-harm”, “non-con”, etc, rather than a wall of tags that depict every single injury, sex act, or squick. I write for a very violent, very psychologically damaged, very cannibalistic show. My tags would be longer than my fics, so I use the “may contain nuts” archive warning to cover my ass.
Selfish and uncaring authors are the ones that draw you into fics with the intent of misleading you.
Maybe they tag “no warnings apply” and hit you with a major character death or non-con right up front. Or maybe they just didn’t understand what the warnings mean, which is why sharing this info is so important.
No one who uses “Choose Not to Use Archive Warnings” is putting their “precious plot” ahead of their reader’s needs. Frankly, it’s insulting to be lumped into a group that readers assume are trying to hurt them. By using that warning for our “precious plot,” we are essentially halving our potential readers just for their safety.
You don’t know a writer’s intent (or needs) when they tag any more than an author knows a reader’s triggers. Stop turning this into an “us vs them” debate and start listening to each other.
Spread the knowledge of what the archive warnings mean and how to properly use them.
Spread info about proper tagging. All of that is awesome.
But STOP saying that writers who choose not to use archive warnings don’t care about their reader’s safety because they are literally the only ones telling you to your face: THIS MIGHT HURT YOU, READ WITH CAUTION.
You can’t care about a person’s safety more than that. They would rather you not read it at all than be even slightly triggered. They are misleading no one and still being treated like pariahs, and I think that’s sort of rediculous.