Outline of the essay collection by Lawrence Block
1. "Organic Writing": Writing is organic, even when pre-planned, and each page is a product of what came before. As a result, details dropped in for whatever reason can turn the whole course of the tale in unexpected directions. One should not PLAN for details to do that, but one should allow them to and not let the conscious mind talk the intuitive mind out of tossing them in.
2. "The Look of the Words Upon the Page": Be aware of the way words look on the page. Readers respond. They shy away from books with many long paragraphs, or many short, choppy dialogue scenes. Notice repeated words. Use your own judgment on when to use italics, all-caps, line breaks, etc. Understand that there is an aesthetic to the page; that it is a virtue in itself; people respond to it.
3. "Real People": It is far from unusual to use real people as the basis of characters. Sometimes one even gives the character that real person's name. It is usually accepted by all parties that the story is not meant to be literally true, that the character is a fictionalization of the real person. It is easier to do this to dead people with stories set in the past, for legal reasons certainly, and because it is less jarring.
4. "Jyl's Story": If writing from life, it is often good to write from a perspective not your own. It stretches you, and reality won't be so prone to deaden the imagination.
5. "Following in Jane Austen's Footsteps": There seems little point in copying another author's work, as a painter learns by copying the work of a master. It is ultimately you alone with a blank sheet of paper, and it's up to you to fill it with words.
6. "The Shadow Knows": Foreshadowing is the art of making implausible events plausible by hinting ahead of time that something is coming. Foreshadowing can be planted in one of three ways: in the outline; by inserting it into the text after the event has been invented and written; or by improvising a hint about something, then improvising later an event that fulfills the hint. All work equally well.
7. "A Stitch in Time": Flashbacks should be woven organically into the storyline. There is no right way to do this; keep alert to the various ways it is done in the literature.
8. "The Art of Omission": All art is selective. What parts do you leave out? Elmore Leonard suggested leaving out the parts people skip. Candidates: Dull parts; anything that would blunt the scene; unnecessary explanations, research, or jokes.
9. "Details, Details": How accurate should the details be in a story? A book should only include as many details as necessary, of the kind necessary, and should refrain from including any more -- unless the author really, really wants to include. Know what you're writing, and adjust the level of wanted detail accordingly.
10. "The Story Behind the Story": Why include back story? It entertains on its own; it increases sympathy for a character by revealing more about them; it helps the author understand his character. Back story need not be invented ahead of time, but can be discovered during the writing process. As in so much else, put in as much back story as is needed, in the places it is needed. That is the only test.
Part Two. Trapping the Prey: The Strategies of Fiction (11-22)
11. "What Do Editors Want?": There are two kinds of stories to write: your stories and someone else's stories. Don't worry about the second type. Write your own, and don't fret unduly about what the market wants. You won't do yourself any good otherwise. However --
12. "Be Prepared": There are ways to prepare yourself so that you have stories to tell. Creative breakthroughs, according to one expert, come from the unconscious, but there is a process behind it. (1) Preparation -- state the problem for your unconscious, and read as much as you can of the kind of thing you want to write. Also, study the market and its requirements. Outline examples to study their anatomy. (2)Incubation -- leave the idea alone for awhile and do other things. (3) Illumination -- An idea comes. (4) Verification -- You write it out, which is when you discover if it works.
13. "Let's Hear It for Sex and Violence!": What roles do these play in fiction, and how can they be used (good) and abused (bad)? First, include it only but also every time that you as a writer feel it is needed. Write your own book, and if your own book needs one or the other of these, then don't avoid them; if it doesn't want them, don't put them in. Note, though, that certain genres require more or less of them. As a literary matter, less is often more -- understatement has a greater punch than overstatement.
14. "Where's the Story?": The chief objective of a book is to tell a story. There are various of losing the thread of the story. (1) Anecdotage: Characters stop to tell stories. (2) Small talk: Characters talk about nothing important. (3) Character tags: It can be tempting to shove in back story, either new or from earlier books in a series. (4) Marking time: All of the above, shoved in as part of the process of writing. (5) Research: Using too much of what you have researched for the book. But don't forget that the story isn't everything, and that a good book will have all of these. Just remember that you're in the story-selling business primarily.
15. "Mirror Mirror on the Page": Readers not only identify with characters who are like them, but with locations that they know and live in. Don't be afraid to use real places that you know.
16. "Purely Coincidental": The use of realistic names, phone numbers, etc., is probably safe enough, and the possibility of coincidentally naming a real thing this way is not a reason to use certain well-known dodges. Do NOT use identifying information of people that you know, however. That's just asking for trouble.
17. "How Long, O Lord?": There are lots of ways of measuring how long it takes to write a book -- time at the keyboard, time thinking and outlining, time after an initial idea, time after inventing a character or plot incident who happens to show up in the book, etc. All of which is a way of saying that the writing process is a river with lots of small, long tributaries reaching far into the past.
18. "Points of Order": Nothing says you have to write the book from first to last without skipping around. Also, nothing says you have to finish the book before you start revising it. Interesting anecdote in this chapter: It is not unusual to write an opening, then start over. Just think of the first attempt as a quick sketch to get the juices flowing.
19. "Look What They've Done to My Song, Ma": Editors will typically request changes to MSs even when they don't monkey with them directly. How you handle this depends on a variety of factors, most of which you'll learn about and how to handle as you get more experience.
20. "Reporters and Imaginers": Some authors write from their imaginations. Others are reporters-in-disguise. This is an important though oft-overlooked distinction, and it is probably well that you figure out which you are. But probably you already have, because the difference is mostly easily found in what you find easier to write -- the made-up stuff, or the stuff that is closely based on or reflects real life.
21. "Sorry, Charlie": Readers almost always identify with the characters in a story, and killing a character -- unless it is part of a story that obviously sets up a tragic ending -- will usually alienate and anger readers. This is true even if the death takes place at the end of a series of stories, for it may destroy the demand for the series as a whole.
22. "Midnight Oil": Writers often discover that a particular schedule works very well for them. But circumstances change. Do not get so locked into a schedule that you will not change when the circumstances change. Be alert for the times of day when you are freshest, have nothing to distract you, and your subconscious is ready to work with you.
Part Three. Spider Love: The Inner Game of Fiction (23-33)
23. "The Beginner's Mind": A writer must have self-confidence. But do not become arrogant, and never assume that you have nothing left to learn. Always keep a "beginner's mind" -- always assume you're still learning, even the basics.
24. "Apples and Oranges": Only you can write your stories; you cannot write another's stories. Do not compare yourself to other writers, or your books to others' books.
25. "Keeping Up with Yesterday": Procrastination is not a problem. It is a symptom of a problem. If you are procrastinating, it is because you fear something. Find out what you fear, and confront it.
26. "Staying Loose": The best writing is the writing that comes naturally and easily. The mental state you want is one of relaxation and a lack of self-consciousness. If you are worried too much about the process or the product, you will stiffen up. Writing should have the natural ease of talking.
27. "Goal Tending": A goal is a thing you want and are taking realistic steps to attain. Without the steps, it's just a fantasy. Tell yourself what your goals are and take concrete steps to realize them. Mere preparation will allow you to recognize and seize opportunities for realizing them; don't be discouraged if your goals are not immediately realized in the way you want, for they may be realized in unanticipated ways.
28. "An Investment in Pots and Pans": Writing is a kind of sale; you're selling a story and characters to the reader. A writer, being a salesman, must believe in what he's selling. This means you must believe in your story, in your genre, and in yourself. You should also invest in things that you believe will make you a better writer, whatever they are.
29. "Take Courage": It does take courage to be a writer, at every stage. To try the career, to try to write, to try to write a particular book. Fear is the mind-killer and the stifler of creativity. It takes courage to overcome fear. But behind that it takes faith -- the faith that the feared challenges can be overcome. The more you practice that faith, the more faith you acquire, and the more courage you can find.
30. "The Solitary Vice": The mind often needs a temporary break from writing. Don't be afraid of taking such breaks, or of losing your concentration on the matter. But aim for a diversion that won't keep you away from writing for long periods of time and won't take you away from your workspace. A game of solitaire is Block's trick.
31. "Going for the Gold": Not everyone can succeed. But anyone can. What this means is that everyone has the capacity. A combination of work and luck may be necessary for success, but before the luck can even come into play, you have to work. Usually, those who talk themselves out of competing for fear of the odds do so because, in truth, they don't want to succeed badly enough.
32. "Try, Try Again": When should you give up on a project? First, understand that no one must write. If you write, it's because you want to. With that in mind, understand that you should persevere if you believe in the project. No one will remember the rejections if there is ever an acceptance.
33. "Surviving Rejection": Ways to turn rejection into a positive psychological thing: 1. You're now part of a fellowship; all authors get rejected. 2. You are not being rejected, only the thing you wrote. 3. Look for ways to turn the rejection in your favor, perhaps by turning to another market. 4. Give yourself credit for taking a chance. 5. Feel the pain, then get over it. 6. Cast no blame, and don't overanalyze.
Part Four. Spider Dreams: Living the Fictioneer's Life (34-43)
34. "The Guts of a Fictioneer": Writers put themselves into their stories, largely (perhaps) out of a desire to reveal themselves (but not too much!) in a way whose ambiguity gives them deniability. Growth as a writer generally means you're able to put more of yourself into a story. It also takes courage and effrontery.
35. "Scattering Stones": Sometimes it is necessary to not write. This could be due to various reasons. You need to convince yourself you have value outside of being a writer. You need to realize you can survive without writing. Something is not being written and it is driving you nuts. You need to absorb certain new skills that have developed in the meantime. Don't be too afraid of not writing.
36. "A Writer's New York": Reflections on the uses and pleasures of New York to a writer.
37. "This Pen for Hire": There are lots of opportunities in the world to do ghostwriting. When and why might you? For necessary money; for training early in your career; because you're actually good at writing a particular series
38. "Getting By on a Writer's Income": There will always be ups and down during a writing career. How to survive? Don't be too fearful, for it's hard to starve in this country. Don't use money as an excuse for not taking creative risks. Keep fixed costs low and don't take income or advances for granted. Diversify your buyers and your genres. Make friends in the business. Have a fallback skill. Let need to a spur, not a sledgehammer.
39. "Summary Judgment": Write books, not synopses.
40. "Writing for the Ages": All books age. Don't overly worry about leaving out details that will mark a story as the product of its time and place.
41. "On Growing Older": Writers ought to improve with age. Sometimes they don't, of course.
42. "Welcome to Hard Times": If it's worth it to you to be a writer, it should be worth it to you to be a writer when times are bad.
43. "Truth to Tell": Don't be afraid of being honest in your writing.