Pithy Pieces of Advice

Here’s a definition, sampled from different dictionaries:

Pithy adj. Precisely meaningful; forceful and brief; tersely cogent.

My salaried writing career has been in monthly journalism. As an editor of special-interest sports magazines, I have written hundreds of nuts-and-bolts how-to articles for recreational players of games. Often those articles were collaborations with experts, either professional athletes or their coaches, crafted from tape-recorded interviews.

Doing that type of writing, I can say with assurance, does not make fiction writing come easily.

Writers’ workshops finally got me going in the right direction, and I am close to finishing the first draft of a long-in-progress novel. Today, I am a longtime member of a fiction workshop led by a distinguished professor of writing and literature, and I am the “facilitator,” a fancy word for volunteer traffic cop, of a Saturday-morning critique group at the local public library. I also audit writing magazines, read author interviews and page through writing books in search of useful or inspiring ideas.

Like a lot of newcomers to fiction writing, though, I periodically suffer from inertia caused by the fear of an inadequate imagination. To keep me forging ahead in the world of making it up, I am something of a sucker for the pithy quote, especially one that makes me smile.

Here are a few of my favorites:

Sandi Kahn Shelton’s new novel, her third, is Kissing Games of the World. I’ve heard Sandi speak and participated in a workshop session with her, and she’s always an inspiration. Why? Because, as she tells in her inimitably funny and charming way, it took her 17 years to finish her first novel. But she did finish it, it got published and now she is finishing up her fourth. These offerings are from a handout she gave us at the workshop:

“Writing a novel is like driving a car at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”—E.L. Doctorow
“There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately no one knows what they are.”—W. Somerset Maugham
“You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club.”—Jack London

Robert B. Parker, author of best-selling detective and Western novels, on how to do it: “There is no one right way. Each of us finds a way that works for him. But there is a wrong way. The wrong way is to finish your writing day with no more words on paper than when you began. Writers write.”

Rick Mofina, thriller author, epitomizes pithiness: “Don’t make excuses; make sentences.”

And finally, Laura Lippman, whose latest novel, Life Sentences, is being published this week to rave reviews, was surely in cahoots with my family and friends when she offered this cut-to-the-chase command: “For first-time fiction writers, this advice is key: Finish the damn book.”

Alex McNab

Published in: on March 10, 2009 at 6:10 pm  Comments (1)  

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One CommentLeave a comment

  1. Alex:

    Really enjoyed your post. A sense of humor can always help to motivate and sustain your spirits during the writing process.


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