Open threads at the Open Thread tab every Sunday and Wednesday

The Art Of Writing Randian Monologues

I mentioned on Twitter yesterday that Ayn Rand’s book The Art of Fiction contained advice on how to determine the proper length for characters’ philosophical speeches. Enough people wanted to know what it said that I’ve copied it out:

Such an issue as “I always decide for myself” versus “I go by the opinions of others” is extremely wide. If two characters started discussing it out of a clear sky, that would be sheer propaganda. But in the above scene, the two men are stating an abstract issue as it applies to their own problems and to the concrete situation before the reader’s eyes. The abstract discussion is natural in the context, and, therefore, almost unnoticeable.

This is the only way to state abstract principles in fiction. If the concrete illustration is given in the problems and actions of the story, you can afford to have a character state a wide principle. If, however, the action does not support it, that wide principle will stick out like a propaganda poster.

How much philosophy you can present without turning into a propagandist, as opposed to a proper fiction writer, depends on how much of an event the philosophy is covering. In the above scene [a conversation between Roark and Keating from The Fountainhead] it would have been too early for the two boys to make more of a statement than they did, even though the issue stated is independence versus second-handedness, which is the theme of the whole book. Given what is specifically concretized in the scene, one exchange of lines is enough abstract philosophy.

A speech like John Galt’s in Atlas Shrugged would have been too much for Roark’s courtroom speech in The Fountainhead. The events of The Fountainhead do not illustrate as many issues as do the events of Atlas Shrugged.

To judge how long a philosophical speech should be, go by the following standard: How detailed and complex are the events which you have offered to concretize the speech? If the events warrant it, you can make as long a statement as you wish without taking the reader outside the framework of the story.

This would be a good time to mention that I’m trying to learn to write fiction a little better, so I can improve upon my occasional short stories. I’m not using Rand because I think she’s The Best Writer but because a friend had her book and gave it to me for free. So far my experience has been that people spend forever talking about overarching themes I’m not interested in like How To Set Up A Grand Conflict, and almost no time talking about the things I really want to know, like how to have characters go outside without something very abrupt and boring like “And then he went outside”. Or if I’m writing Lord of the Rings, I don’t want to know how to write the climactic scene at Mount Doom, I want to know how to get Frodo through two thousand miles of swamps without just writing “And then he walked through another five hundred miles of swamps, it was very wet and icky and there were probably fights with giant bug monsters” four times.

If anyone has recommendations for other good books on fiction-writing (preferably by beloved authors, so I know they’re legit), let me know.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

89 Responses to The Art Of Writing Randian Monologues

  1. Ialdabaoth says:

    how to have characters go outside without something very abrupt and boring like “And then he went outside”.

    One thing I’ve found can be very helpful, is imagining the character’s “inner monologue” as they go through whatever routine task you need to describe. Give the reader exactly as much detail as the character would pay attention to, and phrase it in a way that gives you a sense of that character’s personality.

    For example:

    Jon snapped awake as the light from the window finally drifted into his face. Feet hit the floor with a light thud.

    Shower. Toothbrush. Shave. Underwear. Pants. Shirt. Belt. Tie. Out the door in 3 minutes, 17 seconds. His hand was just reaching for the door-handle of his Audi when he noticed the crater and the flames next door.


    Compared to:

    Sarai nodded to Ruth, then placed her hand on the front door-handle. “Don’t worry so much, dear. I’ll find out if he’s interested.” She stepped out onto the porch, her round silhouette momentarily framed to Ruth’s eyes in the greens and golds of a beautiful spring afternoon.

    “Oh, and dear”, she added, her wry smile barely discernable in the backlit glow, “Eli is definitely still interested. I could still talk to your father…”

    Ruth gave her a pained look. “Nana Sarai, please, not Eli. Please not Eli.”

    Sarai smiled and nodded, and closed the door behind her. She saved her clucking and shaking head for the walk through the front garden. Children’s hearts were so fickle.

    (Note: in the second example, I committed the cardinal sin of switching perspectives mid-scene. I apologize profusely for this.)

  2. Stephen King’s On Writing has a good reputation. He says that theme is like a magnifying glass– first you write the story, then you notice unifying elements, then you make them clearer for the reader.

    • JRM says:

      Seconded as to the book recommendation.

    • Daniel Speyer says:

      I was disappointed in On Writing. I read it ages ago and thought it spent the vast majority of itself on King’s life and not enough on the actual subject of writing.

      • And, FWIW, I thought that what it did say about writing was so obvious that if you needed that sort of advice, your situation was hopeless and you should find another hobby. YMMV.

        • Error says:

          …I thought that what it did say about writing was so obvious that…

          I’m not so sure of this. I read On Writing years ago, thought it was enlightening at the time and tried to apply it, but don’t think of it much today. I have a suspicion that a lot of “how to write” books are deceptively obvious-only-in-retrospect material, like much of the LW Sequences.

        • houseboatonstyx says:

          King’s term ‘map of intent’* crystallized something that was sort of obvious to me, but the crystallizing and examples and explanations made it more useful

          * ie the shape of the paragraphs and white space on the page

      • ozymandias says:

        IME On Writing is more useful as inspiration and reassurance that you’re doing it right rather than a step-by-step guide.

  3. drethelin says:

    I really enjoy Brandon Sanderson and company’s fiction writing podcast “Writing Excuses”

    • CAE_Jones says:

      They are designed to be ~15 minute episodes, and only meant to be consumed one per sitting (the idea is that you read them, then go write). Nothing’s stopping one from marathonning, of course, but… ah… interesting story about that around season 2. Completely coincidental, I promise!

  4. anon says:

    Especially the Chuck P. quote.

    Danse Macabre and On Writing by Stephen King are the two best writing books I’ve ever read, though I don’t write anything other than school assignments and internet comments. Danse Macabre was a really unusual book, it was part history of horror, part genre deconstruction, part tips on storytelling.

    But, while this is good in general, I don’t think any of this offers advice relevant to your problem. I don’t remember reading any advice specific to writing details.

    I remember having an author come to my elementary school when I was younger. Part of his talk was about having nested stories, eg where the rising action of the main plot could be conceptualized as a miniature plot of its own. This does seem relevant to what you’re talking about, sort of.

  5. Cyan says:



  6. Avery says:

    I think there are two dimensions to what you want out of your writing.

    First, that business about conflict doesn’t just come at the end of the book when Frodo is throwing the ring into Mt. Doom. Conflict begins on page one. If your character is going outside, it’s because they have something they want to do, and to do it, they have to be outside. When Bilbo Baggins goes outside and heads off to fight Smaug, he doesn’t just walk out the door, he runs. He’s late. He doesn’t even want to go on this adventure, but the realization that he’s late for it makes him run after he dwarves so he doesn’t miss out. Why does your character go outside? What gets them to turn off the TV, get off the sofa, and run out the door?

    Second, there are the bare mechanics of writing sentences that sound nice, which you seem pretty good at. If your sentences don’t sound good to you, my first advice would be to just write the darn things anyway, and try to improve them on revision. Often we are too hard on ourselves during first drafts and can come up with some stuff that sounds pretty good on second drafts, when we aren’t simultaneously trying to sculpt the grand design and the fine details at the same time. Second, pay attention to the fine details. (This is, I suppose, what they mean by “Show, don’t tell.”) In particular, pay attention to the details your character would pay attention to and the details that are important to the story. A character running away from a house that’s about to explode is going to notice very different details than a character taking a basket of goodies to grandma’s house.

    Often you don’t even need to say that the character went outside. It can just be obvious. If you say that Little Red’s mother gave her a basket of goodies and told her to stay on the path, and then you say that Red skipped through the forest, we assume that she got out of the house somehow. You only write about the character leaving the house if the act of leaving the house happens to be important to the course of the story.

    For getting Frodo through the swamps, or your character through the first 75% of the book, again, it’s all about that conflict. Not the throwing the ring into the volcano conflict, but the conflict of “Where am I going to find fresh water in this swamp?” and “AAALIGATOR!” and “If you complain about your rotting feet one more time, I am going to scream,” etc. Every step your character takes through that swamp they take because they are trying to accomplish some goal, and that darn swamp is in their darn way and they are going to conquer it, by golly.

    If they’re just crossing a swamp and nothing particular is going on in the swamp and they aren’t struggling or there’s nothing particular to say about it, then don’t write about it. Say, “then they crossed the swamp,” and get on to the interesting stuff, whatever that happens to be.

    Of course, I’m not published, so take my ideas if they seem useful and ignore if they don’t.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      For getting Frodo through the swamps, or your character through the first 75% of the book, again, it’s all about that conflict. Not the throwing the ring into the volcano conflict, but the conflict of “Where am I going to find fresh water in this swamp?” and “AAALIGATOR!” and “If you complain about your rotting feet one more time, I am going to scream,” etc. Every step your character takes through that swamp they take because they are trying to accomplish some goal, and that darn swamp is in their darn way and they are going to conquer it, by golly.

      See, this is exactly the problem. I might have a deep artistic vision about the conflict between Sauron and the Valar, about what the ring symbolizes to me, et cetera. But I don’t care at all about alligators or fresh water. I find searching for fresh water boring and I don’t think I can write about it in a way that’s interesting and that’s exactly my problem – how do you make something that you think is inherently boring interesting? And should you even try?

      • jaimeastorga2000 says:

        If you think alligators and fresh water are boring, why are you writing a scene about alligators and fresh water? Either avoid sending Frodo into the swamp or skip ahead to the next interesting thing that happens to him.

      • From one angle, finding fresh water is having to get something right when you have limited time, resources, and knowledge, which doesn’t sound wildly different from practicing medicine. I don’t know if this helps at all.

        On the other hand, successful fiction includes a wild variety of amounts of detail and types of challenges. You don’t have to send your characters into the wilderness if you don’t want to.

        You might like Dianna Wynne Jones’ _The Tough Guide to Fantasy Land_ for a glossary of fantasy cliches you don’t have to use.

        • This reminds me that TVtropes is the one source of story-writing information I’ve actually found useful.

          It has a well-known downside, of course.

          Also, Dianna Wynn Jones’ Dalemark Quartet is awesome, particularly toward the end. The first volume is lightweight kiddy stuff (although very well done), but volume by volume it gets darker and more serious, until the resolution of the book, which is—literally—epic.

      • anon says:

        This is a partial solution:

        Another solution is that instead of writing about mere swamps, you write about eg THE SWAMPS OF BOGMAR, where there are alligators the size of elephants and remnants of a ruined castle poke up through the marsh and a mysterious non Euclidean geometry distorts the environment. (I am not a good writer, and this was cranked out very quickly).

        So basically, overlap various uninteresting categories until they’re interesting to you. You control the universe, making it interesting is just a matter of boldness and experimentation. If you must, go research real world swamps and how they emerge and their ecosystems and the differences between different kinds of them, because real world research can inspire imagination. Many good fiction authors use real world research. There’s no such thing as a swamp that is just a swamp even in the real world, so you certainly don’t need to restrict yourself to boring stuff in your fiction.

        This “no such thing as a swamp that is only a swamp” stuff kind of reminds me of a half-remembered quote in the Sequences about how studying one apple teaches you more than studying all of them.

        Maybe you’d have an easier time inventing details for swamps etc. if you did some generic worldbuilding independent of the plot? Worldbuilding 101, I imagine there are plenty of tips out there for authors doing this. Raikoth shows that you can already write interesting worlds, but maybe you’d still benefit from looking at things like this.

        • Deiseach says:

          Talking about swamps, the contrast between the first, utterly mundane but still wretched in a realistic way Midgewater Marshes (anyone who’s been eaten alive by a cloud of midges when summertime hits the good old British Isles will wince in sympathetic agreement there), which is the first small obstacle the Hobbits encounter and is a foreshadowing of the bigger trials later, and the Dead Marshes much later is huge. We get taken, step by step, from a real life situation where it’s a physically plausible marshy bogland with real biting insects and mud holes and stagnant water, to a place that is not quite in the same plane of reality as the rest of the world around it.

          Oh, the Dead Marshes! I sort of love them, because they are so creepy in a horribly beautiful way (and of course there are plenty of interpretations ready to say they are Tolkien’s transfiguration of the battlefields of Flanders, where miles and miles of countryside was reduced to a hellish mass of mud and barren destruction, not to mention the real corpses littered everywhere:

          Hurrying forward again, Sam tripped, catching his foot in some old root or tussock. He fell and came heavily on his hands, which sank deep into sticky ooze, so that his face was brought close to the surface of the dark mere. There was a faint hiss, a noisome smell went up, the lights flickered and danced and swirled. For a moment the water below him looked like some window, glazed with grimy glass, through which he was peering. Wrenching his hands out of the bog, he sprang back with a cry.

          “There are dead things, dead faces in the water,” he said with horror. “Dead faces!”

          Gollum laughed. “The Dead Marshes, yes, yes: that is their names.” he cackled. “You should not look in when the candles are lit.”

          “Who are they? What are they?” asked Sam shuddering, turning to Frodo, who was now behind him.

          “I don’t know,” said Frodo in a dreamlike voice. “But I have seen them too. In the pools when the candles were lit. They lie in all the pools, pale faces, deep deep under the dark water. I saw them: grim faces and evil, and noble faces and sad. Many faces proud and fair with weeds in their silver hair. But all foul, all rotting, all dead. A fell light is in them”’ Frodo hid his eyes in his hands. “I know not who they are; but I thought I saw there Men and Elves, and Orcs beside them.”

          “Yes, yes,” said Gollum. “All dead, all rotten. Elves and Men and Orcs. The Dead Marshes. There was a great battle long ago…”

      • anodognosic says:

        If you’re the writer, didn’t you create the damn world? Why the hell did you put a swamp there if you don’t want your characters to slog through it?

        And if you absolutely must have it, there are plenty of options other than pure swamp-based conflict. You can find something in the swamp that echoes the greater themes–a cosmic conflict literally playing out in the small scale, or maybe something that simply echoes the greater conflict. Or maybe, as anon says, make the swamp directly relevant to your interest by having it have some in-story connection with the big themes.

        Or you focus on what does interest you. How about philosophical discussion or storytelling among the characters? It’s an old-as-dirt device, hits the big themes, and is entirely removed from the setting itself.

      • gattsuru says:

        I might have a deep artistic vision about the conflict between Sauron and the Valar, about what the ring symbolizes to me, et cetera. But I don’t care at all about alligators or fresh water

        Does your deep artistic vision contain any interesting points about resources humans need to live, about massive and deadly dangers that can only barely be perceived from above or a distance, or similar matters? If so, you’ve got a relevant topic. If not, why focus on alligators or fresh water?

      • Avery says:

        IMO, no. If the author finds it boring, the reader probably will, too. Whenever I get to a point where I think, “this is boring,” I take it as a definite sign that I should be writing something different. If the swamp is boring, just say they crossed the swamp and get to the good stuff.

        • nydwracu says:

          Don’t say they crossed the swamp; leave out the part where they cross the swamp, and then signpost it in so the readers know that they crossed the swamp in the space between the chapters.

          • Avery says:

            There are many, many ways one can note that something happened without going into detail on the subject, but few are universally better than others. Each writer will find their own way that suits the needs of the tale they are telling.

      • ozymandias says:

        Write all the interesting bits. Then probably you will have to either have scenes that need to be in there in order to make the story make any sense, or new interesting bits. Write those bits. When you run out of new scenes, stop.

      • Hainish says:

        Searching for fresh water is boring, but there’s a non-boring reason for doing it: to avoid thirst . Thirst can be uncomfortable, painful, and/or fatal . Maybe you could describe your character feeling so parched s/he could kill for drop of potable water? Avoiding alligators is motivated by fear of being eaten by one. You could include memories/stories about people in the same situation being eaten by an alligator?

      • Vivificient says:

        I think the reason that searching for water and avoiding alligators is boring is because it has no relevance to the larger story. It’s an isolated incident that would be cut from the film version before shooting even started.

        One solution is to make the conflicts keep building, rather than each one being resolved before the next one arrives. For example, have the alligator bite Frodo’s leg off. Now suddenly the conflict makes a big difference to the story. Or make the shortage of water so severe that they’re forced to try to break into the orc village to use the well, and then Sam gets captured by the orcs and dragged off towards Minas Morgul.

        The Peter Jackson solution is that the swamp scene develops the relationship between Frodo and Gollum, which is central to the Mt. Doom scene we actually want to write. Frodo almost dies in the swamp, then Gollum saves him unexpectedly instead of just killing him and taking the ring. This is the opposite of what we expect Gollum to do, so it helps make us more curious about what is going to happen with Gollum in the end.

        But certainly if they’re just fighting bug monsters for the sake of fighting bug monsters, leave it on the cutting room floor. That’s the difference between a story and a D&D campaign.

      • Deiseach says:

        I’ve tried reading some of Rand’s stuff and I. Just. Can’t.

        I know people rave about “The Fountainhead” but the bit I dipped into had me going “I don’t like this person, I don’t like any of her heroes, if they all fell into a volcano I’d cheer, in sum I am not reading this book while there are still the backs of cereal boxes I have not read”.

        As to Frodo and his journey, what Tolkien does is cut away. He switches between the long journey that Frodo and Sam are on, to the other divided sets of the original group – Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli for one, Pippin and Merry for the other.

        Which means that if you’re getting tired of “Another fifty miles of rough terrain”, then the scene shifts to Rohan or Fangorn.

        Also, Tolkien’s world involved nothing faster than ‘Shank’s Mare’ (walking) or horse riding (discounting the Eagles, who are not the taxi service of Middle-earth). Your world may not have those limitations. If your characters have motor cars, aeroplanes, magic carpets, flying horses or working teleporters, you don’t need to describe the slog of a long journey on foot.

        Or if they have to walk, you still don’t need to describe every mile if your plot doesn’t need it. Tolkien did, because he was using the long, weary, tedious journey to set up the interior mood of the characters and describe the changes they were going through internally as well as externally. The drag and weariness of the characters was intended to be felt by the reader.

        If you are not making your hero/ine go through a shift from cautious optimism to resigned pessimism, no need to describe how they had trouble finding fresh water, or the rocks they had to clamber over.

        Which is not to say that you should always avoid The Boring Stuff; sometimes you do need to slog through it for plot purposes or versimiltude. I was writing a story recently where I wanted to jump ahead to The Good Stuff without slogging through the parts that didn’t interest me/I was no good at writing, but I gritted my teeth and made myself do it because this was something that had to be worked out for the sake of the characters and the plot. In the process, I found out things about my characters that I did not previously know, and I now understand one of them better so I can write him better.

        So yeah, sometimes you have to eat up your vegetables before you can have dessert 🙂

        • philh says:

          > As to Frodo and his journey, what Tolkien does is cut away. He switches between the long journey that Frodo and Sam are on, to the other divided sets of the original group – Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli for one, Pippin and Merry for the other.

          He doesn’t do this with Frodo and Sam. Books 4 and 6 are all about them, and books 3 and 5 don’t feature them at all.

        • ADifferentAnonymous says:

          As an introvert who had always gotten the implicit message from society that introverts are broken extroverts–as someone who identified with Squall at the beginning of FFVIII only to watch him ‘open up’ and explain away his introversion as the product of some nonsensical fear–I found it intoxicating to read a story that said my way was actually better. There’s lots to criticize about her, but IMO Rand is on pretty good footing in that particular bravery debate.

        • anon says:

          I see myself as an introvert who is a broken extrovert. I have a hard time not seeing all introverts this way. I believe that introverts are telling the truth about their preferences, and I have the same preferences, but I think that extroversion leads to more happiness and is a more desirable set of preferences in a meta sense. Extroversion seems natural to me, a part of inherent human social needs. I think introversion is a consequence of trying to be an extrovert and failing.

        • Mary says:

          Actually, you can detect introversion vs. extroversion in the cradle.

          Present a stimulus. The baby that reacts more weakly, or not at all, is going to be the extrovert because apparently the root cause of it is insensitivity.

          I doubt babies are trying to be insensitive in the cradle and failing.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        how do you make something that you think is inherently boring interesting? And should you even try?


        So why did Tolkien route them through a swamp, and spend so many words on it? To a WWI veteran writing among his own generation, long boring marches may have been the strongest traumas still in their conscious minds, and Tolkien’s whole work may have involved mapping his own strongest interests over a fantasy epic. Rand’s interests involved philosophy and economics, so her characters spent a lot of words on them. T’s and Rand’s books worked in spite of a lot of wordage spent on things that most current readers skip; perhaps because they were geniuses with very interesting stories to carry us past the to-many-of-us boring parts. (And to R, the ideas in teh speeches were the strong core of her books.)

        Which is probably me spending too much wordage saying if you find something intrinsically boring then skip it or hide it in skipped lines or chapter breaks or subordinate constructions.

        Most how-to books I’ve seen were about how to please the gatekeeprs of some particular era/genre, who were trying to please their readers, who presumably liked fight and struggles and sex and stuff like that — which bore some of the writers.

        But Tolkien and Rand and presumably you don’t need to get past a slush pile to a pulp audience. Your stories are quite good already; there’s nothing wrong with First Person Enhanced Stretching Things, like Kipling and Colette, and Lewis in his Space Trilogy.

      • Desertopa says:

        Seconding Jaimeastorga2000’s question, but as a more actionable recommendation, I’d suggest that more than generalized writing advice, you should be looking into specific advice from people who find very interesting things that you do not, to get some insight into how the subjects can be made interesting.

        There are a lot of manga that are centered on subjects which I normally wouldn’t be interested in, which the writers manage to make engaging by portraying them through the eyes of characters who do find them intensely interesting. I’d suggest Bambino (restaurant work,) Beck (rock bands) and Bartender (bartending, obviously,) as works which do a good job getting the reader invested in their core subjects even if they aren’t normally. Getting some experience with interesting portrayals of things you don’t normally find interesting may be helpful for learning generalized methods for building up investment in sub-conflicts that aren’t part of your grand overarching idea behind the story.

        It’s better not to include story elements at all if you struggle to find ways to make them interesting, but if you broaden your sense of the sorts of story elements that can be interesting to you, then you might face fewer barriers of “I can’t see a route from point A to point B that passes through something interesting to write about.”

      • Eli says:

        There’s really only one question about swamps and treks throughout: why is the swamp trek essential? It sounds slow, boring, and full of repetitive “splork” noises.

        What is going to happen that justifies wasting space on a swamp trek? How does the swamp trek play into the overall conflict driving the story, such that the reader cares about the successful completion of the swamp trek? While the characters are in the swamp, is anyone going to walk in with a gun and shoot them?

        If all the answers are “no”, then skip the goddamn swamp. Readers are dragged along by the metal hook of conflict latched in their throats. If you have no conflict, then by God, make one, or end the story and go home.

      • Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

        Why not just not have a swamp?

        “But I can’t just have the characters arrive directly in Mordor!”

        Why not? Why put all this land between where they are and Mordor? Have Mordor be next door. Have them ride Eagles.

        “But then the book will be too short!”

        Maybe it’s a novella rather than a novel. Why does it have to be that long?

        “Because it feels like I have more to say…?”

        You’re sure not saying it in the swamp.

        “No, I mean… I was going to, I was going to reveal Frodo’s fear of crocodiles…”

        Can we just remove that fear from Frodo and leave him the same person in the same story, more or less?

        “Doesn’t this process just end up removing the whole novel?”

        No, it ends up leaving only the important parts that you have a good reason for wanting to write.

        “But I can’t just take out the developing romance between Frodo and Sam! It’s the whole reason for the story! I can’t just show them with a fully developed relationship once they’re in Mordor—”

        Okay, NOW you know what happens in the swamp.

        “Wait, I do?”

        Yes. If there’s a crocodile fight, it’s developing their relationship. If it’s not developing their relationship, there is no crocodile fight.

  7. Douglas Knight says:

    how to have characters go outside without something very abrupt and boring

    Local issues like this seem like something where it’s pretty easy to just pull a book off the shelf and see how they did it. Of course it doesn’t list all the things they considered and rejected, but at least you know that the goal is to avoid being abrupt and boring, while with higher level issues it’s important to know what goal they serve. Which is not to say that you shouldn’t seek relevant books, or that they don’t exist, but it doesn’t seem surprising to me that the other kind is more common.

  8. I recommend “How NOT to write a novel” (Mittelmark and Newman). I didn’t learn anything from it, but I didn’t learn anything from any of the “How TO write a novel” books I read, either.

    I recommend “How NOT to” because it is extremely funny. Also, the advice in it might possibly useful to someone, even if not you.

    • Phil Goetz says:

      How not to write a novel contains only very basic advice. Its objective is to make slushpile reading slightly less painful. If you learn anything from it, you aren’t ready to write a novel.

  9. anodognosic says:

    Oh, man, finally I have something substantive to contribute!

    You might have already read Ansell Dibell’s Plot on Eliezer’s recommendation–I did and it’s worth it. I also found that books on screenwriting can be great, particularly those that deal with high-level story elements. There’s Robert McKee’s Story, which is an industry classic, but one of the best things I have ever read on the subject is Film Crit Hulk’s Screenwriting 101, which you can find online here: It’s also on Amazon if you want to throw some money his way. Also, reading basically everything else he wrote is a great way of understanding his philosophy of narrative, and it has helped clarify things wonderfully for me.

    I also found Limyaael’s rants on writing fantasy particularly enlightening (

    Here are a couple other ideas I’ve found helpful that come to mind:
    Effective plotting is about creating expectations in the reader and consciously fulfilling or frustrating these.
    If you want your readers to identify with your characters and give the story momentum, make them want something.
    For the writer, things need to happen to get your story from point A to point B. For your readers, things need to happen as a result of elements within the story.
    You can and should break all the rules if you’re writing something worth your reader’s time.

    (If you want to get Frodo through five hundred miles of swamps, keep throwing fresh complications his way. Bug monsters, yes, but also disease, spoiled food, getting lost, having to convince unwilling locals to help, saving a wounded animal, dealing with infighting and possible defectors, getting caught up in a conflict that’s not their own. Make sure to make not only the conflicts varied, but their solutions varied as well. Think about your character’s weaknesses and test them. Is she stubborn? Create a conflict where solving it means giving in. And to make the final success dramatic, make the character fail at something analogous earlier in the story.

    Incidentally, I’m a ghostwriter and studied creative writing in college (didn’t help that much, tbh). I’ve workshopped some friends’ stuff and they seemed to find it helpful. I think your stories are wonderful and I’d be up for doing the same for you if you’d like.

    • ozymandias says:

      Seconding the rec for Limyaael, she’s a delight.

    • The Anonymouse says:

      Screenwriting 101 looked interesting… until I saw that it’s a tremendous amount of text in capslock.

    • Thomas M says:

      Seconding the rec for Film Crit Hulk. His schtick is kinda bizarre (yes, it’s all capslock), but it’s very lucid and insightful all the same. I can’t promise it’ll give the kind of specific advice you’re looking for, but I can promise it’ll seed you with some new ideas on approaching stories.

  10. Stuart Armstrong says:

    I can strongly recommend “how not to write a novel” – useful, memorable, and fun.

  11. Someone pointed out that Hitchcock didn’t just give the good guys a deadline and then shorten it, he also did the same thing to the bad guys.

  12. kappa says:

    I’ve read a considerable number of books purporting to advise me on how to write fiction, but for the most part their advice was unmemorable and had no discernible effect on me. By far the one thing I’ve done that has had the biggest impact on the clarity and coherence of my writing was joining the online freeform RP community – in particular a certain branch of it that used to be on Livejournal and is now on Dreamwidth. Exchanging very small consecutive chunks of narrative with a wide variety of people very frequently for years and years is an excellent way to improve your facility with very small chunks of narrative, including all the little connecty bits like going in and out of rooms and buildings. Depending on what kinds of narrative are going on, it’s also decent practice at things like plot structure and how to coherently and interestingly transport your characters through two thousand miles of swamps.

  13. jaimeastorga2000 says:

    So far my experience has been that people spend forever talking about overarching themes I’m not interested in like How To Set Up A Grand Conflict, and almost no time talking about the things I really want to know, like how to have characters go outside without something very abrupt and boring like “And then he went outside”. Or if I’m writing Lord of the Rings, I don’t want to know how to write the climactic scene at Mount Doom, I want to know how to get Frodo through two thousand miles of swamps without just writing “And then he walked through another five hundred miles of swamps, it was very wet and icky and there were probably fights with giant bug monsters” four times.

    At the end of the day you either use a scene break, write something abrupt and boring, or write something long and even more boring. Nobody cares about the scene transitions; only the scenes themselves are interesting (this is almost a tautology).

    • Douglas Knight says:

      Yes, explicit scene breaks are great, even just blank lines, but I suspect that there is more to be said about this subject. A scene break tells you that there’s a big change, but it doesn’t tell you which one it is. On the screen, there are establishing shots to fill this role.

      • houseboatonstyx says:

        I like to think in visual or kinesthetic images, and use the techniques of movies and theatre to name some tools of fiction.

        The wordish equivalent of short establishing shots is terms like ‘next morning’, ‘when the rain stopped’, ‘when they reached the poppy field’. Or ‘next morning’, ‘from the top of the mountain’, ‘back at the ranch’. Or ‘outside’, ‘later’, etc.

        Longer establishing shots show some change or progress: the sun rises, shadows shrink; the raindrops falling into a puddle become fewer and slower, finally a leaf that has been bent over straightens and is lit by a sunbeam; etc. The wordish equivalent is a paragraph or two of description, with similar stages.

  14. Daniel Speyer says:

    Ask Correia and Jim Butcher’s Livejournal have good and possibly relevant information. And they’re online free.

    Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint is excellent, but less relevant and only available on paper for money.

    • jaimeastorga2000 says:

      Orson Scott Card’s Character and Viewpoint is… only available on paper for money.

      I disagree.

    • Matt C says:

      If I ever decide to sit down and actually write some fiction, Jim Butcher’s blog will be my go-to resource.

      It is poorly organized, and it’s a bit higher level than what you’re asking for, but it is clear, concrete, and inspiring advice. Makes me want to write a story just to try out his suggestions.

  15. anserini says:

    I really enjoyed Writing Magic by Gail Carson Levine, if you don’t want to pay for the book you can probably get the information from her blog, which is mostly answers to reader questions about writing.

  16. Handle says:

    I recommend “How Fiction Works” by James Wood.

    • I was just going to mention _How Fiction Works_– the title promises more than the book gives, but it does give some history of modern literary ideals (characters must change, description should be discursive and detailed, etc.) and counter-examples to those ideals from generally acknowledged classics.

      Scott, you’re probably about as good a candidate as anyone for writing fiction about characters who like to discuss ideas.

      As for getting a character out the door, I suggest looking at how some of your favorite fiction handles that sort of thing.

  17. Chris says:

    Not exactly what you’re asking for, but Virginia Tufte’s Syntax as Style is a very useful reference on composition at the sentence/paragraph level. She draws on a wide range of examples of good prose and delves into what makes them read well.

  18. suntzuanime says:

    My advice as a reader rather than a writer is, if you write some words where your characters go boringly outside or trudge boringly through a swamp or whatever, I am just going to start skimming until I see some quotation marks or an interesting word like “chainsaw”. So if you want me to realize that your characters are doing something boring, have them talk about it or do it with chainsaws, or else I’ll have to pick it up from context afterwards. (If it’s something like “going outside”, it’s pretty easy to guess from the fact that they were inside before and are now outside.)

    In novels you’re kind of expected to have some fluffy patches of descriptive prose for me to skim over, but the usual ideal for a short story is to be all killer no filler. We have a phrase “to make a long story short” which means to trim away extraneous details and deliver only the meat of the story.

  19. houseboatonstyx says:

    Subordinate clauses and such can be useful. “Beyond the swampland they came to a mountain oddly wooded. Here in a wigwam made of trees 30 feet tall, dwelt a giant who greeted them with: “[something interesting]”.

    Just an adverb can be enough.
    He put on his coat. “Well, that’s all I have to say.”
    Outside, he took a deep breath and looked carefully both ways before crossing the street. Her threats had oddly unnerved him.

    “We will have to find out what he admits when they meet him.”
    On Tuesday at the precinct station, Smith admitted that [something interesting].

  20. I didn’t know Rand had actually written a book on how to write fiction. Sounds ghastly.

    Seconding both On Writing and How NOT To Write A Novel. I’d add Alan Moore’s Writing For Comics and Orson Scott Card’s How To Write Science Fiction And Fantasy.

    And two odd ones that might be useful even though they’re not actually about writing fiction as such — Tunesmith, by Jimmy Webb, a book about songwriting that’s the best book about problem solving in creative works, structure, and rhythm I’ve come across, and The Arabian Nights: A Companion, by Robert Irwin, a book I read for my own first novel, which has excerpts from a fictional extra bit of the Nights, and found fascinating. Paul Magrs, an award-winning novelist I know, says that book taught him more about writing than any other he’s read.

  21. Handle says:

    What are you wanting to write the Grand Conflict novel about?

  22. I thought Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne was quite good. I am not a fiction writer, and have not put the advice into practice. But as I read the book, I kept saying to myself, “Ah, that’s why my school writings were never as good as books that I liked to read. There is a technique to this stuff, I was just missing it. Why did none of my teachers ever tell me these techniques???” The book may be exactly what you are looking for, it is very practical nuts and bolts advice. It covers stuff like how to write dialogue that doesn’t get tedious, how to write scenes that have the write proportion of detail, and lots more.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Thank you. Yours is the first recommendation in this thread to make me feel like you definitely understand what I’m asking for and have something that addresses it, and I have ordered the book.

      • anodognosic says:

        Ah, I think I get the idea. Here’s one thing that has been helpful for me to keep in mind: you can get an idea (emotion, image, etc) much more powerfully if you can make it click in your reader’s mind instead of telling them outright–basically hijacking their imagination and letting their intellect form conclusions from that rather than the other way around. It not only creates a more powerful image, but gives the reader a sense of satisfaction and connection as she reads.

        Here’s one wonderful example that has stuck with me from the movie Chinatown (spoilers ahead):

        At one point, around the middle of the film, Faye Dunaway’s character, in a moment of terrible upset, puts her head down on the steering wheel, and she is immediately startled upright by the sound of the horn. At the very end of the movie, someone shoots at her car as we see her driving away, From afar, we hear the horn blaring, one continuous, terrible note, as the car slowly comes to a halt.
        It’s extremely effective, because the film has forced us to connect that dots that she has died. Because we needed to close that inferential gap with our imaginations, her death happened in our minds. It involves the reader on a deeply visceral level. Great writing does the same, in much the same way.

    • Rachael says:

      Looks good. I will probably get it too.

      Then I might even be able to hammer my six completed but unedited NaNoWriMo novels into something decent.

    • Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

      I vaguely remember that this book seemed good, but to cover a lot of things I knew already, which seems like quite an encouraging sign.

  23. Anonymous says:

    “A speech like John Galt’s in Atlas Shrugged would have been too much for Roark’s courtroom speech in The Fountainhead. ”

    It was still too much. Far too much.

  24. Cruise around the website of L. Jagi Lamplighter,, and you can find various essays on writing tips. They are not a complete theory, but they are concrete and illuminating, I think.

  25. Keratin says:

    You know, if Ayn Rand can explain how to choose the proper length of a character’s monologue and have it sound like the sort of common-sense thing you could read in any book on writing, that makes me seriously doubt the ability of these how-to books to tell you anything about the intuitions that go into planning a story.

    • Oligopsony says:

      Rand wasn’t successful at writing novels that most people, or almost any snooty literary tastemakers, like. But her novels were both commercially successful by being very appealing to a certain sort of person and successful at spreading her ideas, which says to me that they did exactly what they were intended to do. If your goals are something like that then Rand may indeed know a thing or two!

      • Keratin says:

        Well, the point isn’t “haha Ayn Rand is a bad writer”. The point is that Ayn Rand gave advice that boils down to “only have characters discuss politics if it fits with the situation of the story”, when the difference between her writing and the writing of the average person who followed that statement would be vast.

        • Avery says:

          So? Every writer approaches their book with a different set of intentions, otherwise they would all write the exact same book, but that doesn’t invalidate the advice. If Rand’s intention in writing is to express political ideas, and your intention in writing is to tell us about climbing Mt. Everest, then of course your characters are going to express different quantities of political thoughts than Rand’s–perhaps none at all, in which case the advice is irrelevant. But if you’re writing, say, historical romance set during the American Revolution, then your characters will inevitably have to express some sort of political ideas, even if politics really isn’t your point. Your characters will discuss politics less than Rand’s characters because you have different intentions, but you’ll still have to think about how much discussion to include.

          Likewise, advice about how to hammer in a nail may be good advice whether the end product is a tree house or a bird house.

    • Kaj Sotala says:

      The authors of writing books can offer advice that they understand intellectually, but have had difficulties applying in practice. This doesn’t mean that it would necessarily be bad advice: it might just mean that learning to actually apply that knowledge takes a lot of practice. But knowing it is the necessary first step.

  26. Rachael says:

    I assumed after reading the title and the Rand extract that the rest of the post would be sarcastic mockery of the extract. I haven’t read Rand’s novels, but the second-hand impression I’ve got is that they are flimsily disguised propaganda. It would be like reading James Joyce’s advice about clarity and comprehensibility, or Dan Brown’s about the importance of historical accuracy over plot.

    So at first I was mildly disappointed that the post turned out to be a straightforward request for genuine writing advice; but on reflection that’s actually a more constructive and useful discussion topic both for you and your readers.

    Also, FWIW, I think your fiction is excellent. New and interesting ideas, and entertaining and very readable execution.

  27. Eli says:

    Writing the boring scenes is a matter of increasing the level-of-detail with which you are imagining the events. This is hard, since the events never really happened, so it’s not like you can just observe the details: you have to make them up from whole cloth.

    I think there’s an interesting mapping between journalism and fiction. In journalism they ask: who, what, when, where, how, why? They usually focus their answers on who, what, when, where, and how, but only in terms of providing objective data.

    In fiction, you ask: what, when, where, how, why? Note that describing who is a matter of characterizing someone through their actions, their inner life, and how other characters see them. And yes, the narrator is a character: the “objective” character who sees what any bird would see if a bird flew past your scene. So to get back to the questions: what is the conflict, when and where are the setting, how is the action, why is the motivation. These all have to be invented and described in detail, and you have to describe them subjectively. You need to understand the intersection between how your world is and how your characters see it.

    Like I said, this is all a lot of blatant lies you have to make up on the spot in detail, which makes it harder than nonfiction, and especially harder for “rational” types like us who are so inured to cleaving to truth at all times.

  28. Fezziwig says:

    The best advice I ever got was to read my own work aloud. That’s a fine technique for detecting bad craft, but that’s not your problem, is it? Just the opposite: you want to produce.

    IMO Eliezer is pretty good at the technical, micro-scale things you’re asking about. Maybe write to him directly?

  29. Eliezer Yudkowsky says:

    Recent conversation between myself and Brienne:

    Brienne: “How much do you visualize the things you write?”
    Me: “I’m not sure how to answer that question.”
    Brienne: “What color are the walls in Dumbledore’s office?”
    Me: “I don’t think the story said, as far as I can recall. Every word in every sentence should be there for a reason, and the color of the walls in Dumbledore’s office aren’t relevant—the story goes the same way no matter what colors the walls are.”
    Brienne: “Yes, but do *you* know what colors the walls are?”
    Me: “No. It’s not relevant to the plot. I can see the hatrack with the Sorting Hat and three slippers for left feet, because those reveal Dumbledore’s character.”

    If you’re even bothering to show your character going outside, then the act of their walking outside should be plot-relevant and your mind’s eye should see the plot-relevant part. If you mention that your character opens the door, the opening of the door should be creaky, or smooth, or should slowly reveal something that is meant to be slowly revealed to the character; or the fact that we pause and watch the door opening should act to increase tension.

    Otherwise the story goes like this:

    “No,” Jane sighed, “that wasn’t what I meant at all.”
    Five minutes later, Jane was walking toward the grocery and stopping now and then to smell the flowers, wishing that people could be more like that: Small, bright, and smelling good.

    Note that we don’t see Jane open the door or go outside, and that the flowers she’s smelling are there to give her something to reflect on.

    I realize that this is probably not tremendously helpful because I’m probably doing like 5 other things to make this passage sound right, and I don’t know what most of them are. Nonetheless, the first thing to ask yourself when a segment isn’t going right is “Can I just delete this?” If the answer is “No,” the next question is “Why not? What has to be here and why?” If you find that it seems awkward without a transition, then why is that? Do you need a pause in tempo to lower tension, or raise it? Does the character need to reflect on something? This tells you something about where your mind’s eye should go, and how the inner experiences of your character are flowing.

    Don’t think about moving the character from point A to point B. It can be as simple as simply telling the reader, “Five minutes later, in the grocery store”—unless the character needs to reflect on something before then, or the part where she slams the door on her way out seems like an important part of her inner experience. Consider relevant inner experiences and what the character herself is paying attention to—not which details, like closing a door, seem like they should be happening in the outside world.

    I’ll toss in my recommendation for “How to write Fantasy and Science Fiction” by Orson Scott Card.

  30. The most useful book I’ve read on writing is Nancy Kress’ “Beginnings, Middles, and Ends.” However, it sounds to me like you’re looking for less forest and more trees, so that might not be the book for you.

    Honestly, the best thing for the sort of questions you bring up here, in my experience, is to find and join a good writer’s group and bring up the questions there.

  31. houseboatonstyx says:

    I wonder what would be involved in writing a program that would match the student with the few how-to or critique books that would be most interesting to zim. Zie inputs a list of the fiction zie enjoys most and would like to write something similar to, and also of the problems zie is having (multiple choice for the latter). The program then searches Google’s ‘Look inside the book’ for books with frequent mentions of the liked titles, and frequent use of terms relating to zie’s problems, such as ‘transition’, ‘POV’, etc.

  32. Kaj Sotala says:

    My two favorite books on writing are Stein On Writing and Getting Into Character: Seven Secrets a Novelist Can Learn from Actors. The first one covers writing from a lot of angles, starting from “how to write a first sentence that hooks the reader right away” and of how to quickly write an interesting description of a character’s appearance so that it conveys personality, and also covers stuff such as using techniques from fiction to spice up non-fiction writing. Stein’s belief is that the purpose of writing is to convey emotion, and he offers a broad toolkit of techniques for doing just that.

    The chapters in the second one are a bit hit or miss but it has some really good ones, such as the one about creating subtext in a scene (what are the characters not saying?), and another about crafting conflict in individual scenes.

    • Phil Goetz says:

      Oh, thank goodness. I thought you meant Gertrude Stein’s book on writing. It begins like this:

      Qu’est-ce que c’est cette comedie d’un chien. Que le dit train est bien celui qui doit les conduire a leur destination. Manifestement eveille.
      When he will see
      When he will see
      When he will see the land of liberty.
      The scene changes it is a stone high up against with a hill and there is and above where they will have time. Not higher up below is a ruin which is a castle and there will be a color above it. Painting now after its great moment must come back to be a minor art.
      Will be welcome.
      We will be welcome.
      Should be put upon a hill. Across which it is placed upon different hills. Lower hills have a mark they mean.

  33. mareofnight says:

    I don’t have any writing book recommendations, but I also have trouble figuring out how to write stuff and make it stay interesting. I have some ways of trying to solve that, especially when working in comics rather than prose, but I’m very much an ametur, so this is very ymmv.

    In one of Scott McCloud’s books (probably Making Comics), he says every panel should serve at least one purpose, and preferably more than one. A really common sort of multitasking panel is showing factual information about the plot, while also doing something to build the theme, character, atmosphere, etc. (Examples – a big panel showing the whole city street tells you that this is happening near X landmark, but also it’s raining out and the detailed rain on the street helps you feel immersed in the scene. Or the protagonist putting a dropped item in his pocket while the narration says “I returned the thing”, which blatantly tells you both that he still has the thing and that you’re dealing with an unreliable narrator.)

    I’ve tried to do this on the level of scenes too – combining as many purposes into one scene as I can. I’m not completely sure that it’s a good thing (It’s probably possible to overdo it), but it at least keeps things interesting. For getting Frodo through the swamp, that could be having some plot-building conversations take place while in the swamp, or emphasizing the effects of having been in the swamp (being tired, damaged equipment, swamp illnesses?) in the same scene as something else that happens just after they leave the swamp.

    At least in comics, the opposite of this also works. I’ve seen multiple panels of various unimportant objects in a room used as a way of emphasizing the location and making the reader spend some time looking around and feeling the atmosphere. I also once had a reader tell me they enjoyed the “teacup action” in a scene where a character was talking, and I drew the listener’s hand and cup has he drank tea for several panels instead of drawing the character who was speaking, to avoid having repetitive talking heads. I haven’t learned how to do this sort of thing in prose yet – I think there’d be a lot more risk of it coming off as “too much description”, since the reader can’t take things in at a glance like they can with pictures.

  34. Stuart Armstrong says:

    >how to have characters go outside without something very abrupt and boring like “And then he went outside”.

    Focus on something relevant to the story, and weave the transition into it.

    “His doubts didn’t leave him as he stepped outside. Nor did they weaken during the long bus ride home, instead growing with each passing street-light. By the time he was standing at his own front door, he was almost determined to ditch the whole thing. But his dirt-smudged hallway, his half-repaired windows, and his drenched mattresses, familiar yet depressing sights, all urged him to reconsider.”

  35. Lavendar bubble tea says:

    “Or if I’m writing Lord of the Rings, I don’t want to know how to write the climactic scene at Mount Doom, I want to know how to get Frodo through two thousand miles of swamps without just writing “And then he walked through another five hundred miles of swamps, it was very wet and icky and there were probably fights with giant bug monsters” four times.”

    Not sure if this is helpful, but I find that the narration style of the Project Gutenberg translation of “Dreams of the Red Chamber” to have a really interesting style of narration for impersonal events. The writing style seems to be heavily centered around external actions. This is my first time reading one of the four great classics of Chinese literature but I am finding that there is a really cool massive contrast between Dreams of the Red Chamber and pretty much anything else I ever read.

  36. Phil Goetz says:

    You’re right; transitions between different structural elements are very difficult, and seldom talked about. It’s hard to pick up on you own, because done well, it’s invisible. Jack Bickham focuses on concrete issues like this. He’s published many books on writing; Scene and Structure is pretty good. But see my warning on Jack Bickham. Unlike most people reading his advice, I’ve read his fiction. He was a bad writer who mastered the craft of writing, but had no art. His advice is always double-edged. Advice from Hollywood writers, like Writing Movies for Fun and Profit, usually falls into this same category of being simple, formulaic, and effective, but only at producing stories that tell people what they want to hear rather than get them to think. Stories that reinforce our beliefs are more emotionally powerful than stories that question them. It’s the difference between resonance and destructive interference. When someone says a story resonates with her, that’s a literal explanation of what it does: It gives a series of emotional pulses that are in sync with the reader’s natural responses. This is why cultural touchstones like Lord of the Rings and Star Wars always have strong elements of pop philosophy (whether liberal or conservative), and why Jack Bickham’s book The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes is simultaneously a formula for success, and a method of guaranteeing that nothing you write will ever be great.

    What is a good book on writing for you depends on what you want to write and where you are as a writer. For people who haven’t been published yet, Writer’s Digest produces all sorts of books and a magazine with useful advice, most of which eventually becomes dangerous. I’ve written several blogs just on the dangers of “Show, Don’t Tell”, advice that originated with Aristotle, was discarded by Shakespeare, scorned by 19th-century English novelists, rediscovered by realists and modernists, and is now the single most-frequently given piece of writing advice. Going through good books and highlighting clauses that show in one color and clauses that tell in another reveals that the best novels use lots of telling. “Show, don’t tell” is actually suited only to a few kinds of stories, typically hyper-realistic (Flaubert, Proust) or hyper-masculine (Elmore Leonard), and especially the combination of the two (Hemingway).

    Good books on the craft of writing include The Writer’s Notebook: Craft essays from Tin House, James Frey’s books, and Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer. Bad sources include Ursula Le Guin’s Steering the Craft and the Teaching Company lecture series Building Great Sentences, both of which advocate grammatically awkward sentences. The books by Stephen King, James Gardner, & Ray Bradbury all have good reputations, but it’s been so long since I read them that I have no idea what’s in them. The podcast series “Writing Excuses” is popular with SF+F writers, though personally I find they have a low baud rate. John August + Craig Mazin’s podcast, “ScriptNotes”, is sometimes great (their podcast analyzing Raiders of the Lost Ark is one of the best explanations of story I’ve heard), but it’s diluted with talk on contractual matters and career advice for Hollywood.

    I remember thinking that Stanislavski’s books on acting had good advice for writers, but I haven’t read them in 15 years and so have no memory of them.

    When a piece of writing advice becomes troublesome, go through several books that you love with a highlighter and determine whether they follow that advice. The most commonly given advice is often the worst, because it is directed at the most common type of writer, which is the beginner. “Eliminate adverbs and adjectives” is another piece of advice that is good for beginners but bad for good writers.

    There’s a middle ground between craft and art that is untouched. I know because this is my weak area. You’ll find little actionable advice on pacing or on emotional escalation, perhaps because they are analog rather than discrete in nature. Any useful discussion of them would have to quantify their components, and writers don’t quantify.

    Books for writers who have the craft well in hand are very different, and rare. Craft is knowing how to do something; art is deciding what to do. Books on the art of writing are less like lessons and more like discussions, on theme and literary theory. Good books in this category include E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, and the Paris Reviews interviews with authors. I also recommend my own blog.

    I’m not convinced that reading a good book about writing will help your writing more than will reading a good book.