Notes from An Alien

~ Explorations In Writing { and reading and publishing } ~

How To Write A Story?

There are probably as many opinions about how to write a story as there are writers.

It seems any kind of writing advice, even grammatical, has shades of truth and falsity

Being a writing-maverick, I have fairly well developed advice-radar—I can seemingly spot self-serving drivel from miles away.

There have been posts here where I boldly state some advice is “good”, yet I’ve certainly written cautionary posts, too.

Here are three (and, they’re not all about writing stories…):

Too Much Advice Can Be Dangerous

Help! I’m Being Swamped By Writing Advice!!

Writing Resources & Advice ~ Tread Carefully…

Advice about punctuation or marketing or publishing can be tested more easily than advice about the Quality of Writing.

Sure, the writer is first a reader (and, most often, a well-rounded reader) and many editors have highly developed literary taste.

Still, the test of Time and Many Readers Opinions is what lets us know a given story is Great.

And, even at that, “Great” for whom?

So, let me bring John Steinbeck into the post, via an article by Shaun Usher from Letters of NoteIt has never got easier.

The article reproduces a letter Steinbeck sent his creative writing instructor, Edith Mirrielees; sent 40 years after he received her instruction.

An author who writes wonderful stories sent me the link and, preparing as I am to write 19 short stories, I found much wisdom in John’s letter.

I’d love to hear your ideas about some of what he says in the comments :-)

“A story to be effective had to convey something from writer to reader and the power of its offering was the measure of its excellence. Outside of that, you said, there were no rules. A story could be about anything and could use any means and technique at all—so long as it was effective.”

“As a subhead to this rule, you maintained that it seemed to be necessary for the writer to know what he wanted to say, in short, what he was talking about.”

“I could read a fine story and could even know how it was done, thanks to your training. Why could I not do it myself? Well, I couldn’t, and maybe it’s because no two stories dare be alike.”

“The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes but by no means always find the way to do it.”

Do go read the whole letter—especially if you’ve been tormenting yourself trying to follow some other writer’s Rules for Writing A Great Story :-)
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11 responses to “How To Write A Story?

  1. martinaseveckepohlen June 1, 2012 at 2:29 am

    Thanks for this great link, Alexander. What a lovely idea to collect letters, those little windows into the heads and hearts, and possibly lies, of other people. Writing advice is similar to other advice: you can only act effectively on it if fits your personality. I haven’t bothered much with writing advice, maybe because there used to be very little in Germany, but I read lots of books about teaching. There is no magic formula, one size fits all rule, never.


  2. Alexander M Zoltai June 1, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Little writing advice in Germany, Martina?

    Care to extrapolate on that?


  3. Martina June 1, 2012 at 1:45 pm

    Writing advice has gained popularity over the last fifteen years, but the situation here cannot be compared to the USA. The first time I ever heard about writing courses was at university in 1989. An American tutor offered them outside the curriculum. At the moment there is a fashion for writing courses at attractive places like old mills, castles. Most books about writing are translations. You see, literature is the last exclusive art left. There are courses in painting, music, sculpture, but literature is “God given”, not something anyone can learn and work at. There are of course internet forums where writers “stew in their own juice” offering their work to other members who say either nice or terribly means things – no advice, no learning, just stewing in tears and vinegar ;-)


  4. Alexander M Zoltai June 1, 2012 at 5:01 pm

    Interesting, Martina, that you say, “…literature is the last exclusive art left. There are courses in painting, music, sculpture, but literature is “God given”, not something anyone can learn and work at.”

    Are there elements of the German “culture” or “consciousness” that cause this attitude?


  5. Martina June 2, 2012 at 7:05 am

    Oh dear, I’m not an expert :-) The elitist thinking started with the idea of a genius producing perfect verse. Goethe was deemed a genius, his political and scientific work being of less interst. He is “the Poet” authors are still measured against. Goethe and Schiller built on ideas from ancient Greece, made ancient Greece even fashionable for the middle classes.
    I have to confess I have written and deleted a lot of text for this reply. I had mentioned the patchwork of little states before 1871 and the moral catatrophe of 1933-45. They all sustain the elitist attitude to literature.


  6. Alexander M Zoltai June 2, 2012 at 9:58 am

    Fascinating, Martina—thanks, so much, for expanding on those ideas :-)


  7. Pingback: What Writers Tell Other Writers . . . « Notes from An Alien

  8. JAPartridge August 25, 2016 at 12:50 pm

    I’m always quite put off by writers who decry a rational approach to writing and who try to mystify the process. It always seems both elitist and self-serving.

    I ran into a person online just a week or two ago who derided the idea of any sort of structuralist approach and advocated just getting by on “talent.” I couldn’t put my objection into the proper words, but your comment helped clarify my own thinking. Thank you for sharing.


  9. Alexander M Zoltai August 25, 2016 at 12:56 pm


    Thanks for showing up at the blog, JA…

    And, I’m glad you did, not just for the interesting comment; but, also, because it proves somebody has read my “conversation” on Wattpad :-)

    Liked by 1 person

  10. JAPartridge August 25, 2016 at 2:18 pm

    You’re more than welcome. I regret not being able to stop by more often. Life has been crazy of late, but now that I’ve accomplished one of my goals, I’m hoping things will slow down enough I can catch up on a few things.

    Keep up the good work!


  11. Alexander M Zoltai August 25, 2016 at 3:35 pm

    Thank you, Sir—you keep up your Good Work, as well :-)


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