I fell in love with F. Scott Fitzgerald’s writing when I first read the first lines of The Great Gatsby.
In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.
‘Whenever you feel critizing any one,’ he told me, ‘just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.
Although F. Scott Fitzgerald has been portrayed as a natural-born writer, he saw himself in a different light. What little I’ve accomplished,” he said, “has been by the most laborious and uphill work.”
1. Start by taking notes.
You must begin by making notes. You may have to make notes for years…. When you think of something, when you recall something, put it where it belongs. Put it down when you think of it. You may never recapture it quite as vividly the second time.
2. Make a detailed outline of your story.
Invent a system Zolaesque…but buy a file. On the first page of the file put down an outline of a novel of your times enormous in scale (don’t worry, it will contract by itself) and work on the plan for two months. Take the central point of the file as your big climax and follow your plan backward and forward from that for another three months. Then draw up something as complicated as a continuity from what you have and set yourself a schedule.
3. Don’t describe your work-in-progress to anyone.
I think it’s a pretty good rule not to tell what a thing is about until it’s finished. If you do you always seem to lose some of it. It never quite belongs to you so much again.
4. Create people, not types.
Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created–nothing.
5. Use familiar words.
You ought never to use an unfamiliar word unless you’ve had tosearch for it to express a delicate shade–where in effect you have recreated it. This is a damn good prose rule I think…. Exceptions: (a) need to avoid repetition (b) need of rhythm (c) etc.
6. Use verbs, not adjectives, to keep your sentences moving.
About adjectives: all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move. Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats’ “Eve of Saint Agnes.” A line like “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,” is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement–the limping, trembling and freezing is going on before your own eyes.
7. Be ruthless.
I am alone in the privacy of my faded blue room with my sick cat, the bare February branches waving at the window, an ironic paper weight that says Business is Good, a New England conscience–developed in Minnesota–and my greatest problem:
“Shall I run it out? Or shall I turn back?”
Shall I say:
“I know I had something to prove, and it may develop farther along in the story?”
“This is just bullheadedness. Better throw it away and start over.”
The latter is one of the most difficult decisions that an author must make. To make it philosophically, before he has exhausted himself in a hundred-hour effort to resuscitate a corpse or disentangle innumerable wet snarls, is a test of whether or not he is really a professional. There are often occasions when such a decision is doubly difficult. In the last stages of a novel, for instance, where there is no question of junking the whole, but when an entire favorite character has to be hauled out by the heels, screeching, and dragging half a dozen good scenes with him.