On Writing by Sol Stein

By Ekta R. Garg

December 24, 2014

I didn’t realize so much time had lapsed since the last book I read and reviewed for this reading list. I hope that in the next year I can remedy this and follow a more frequent and consistent schedule. I’m finding that no matter how old the books are, within reason, the writing advice still stands. It’s still sound. The only lack comes in the form of the examples the experts use. I’d really like to know how they feel about something like Twilight or Gone Girl or Harry Potter and also where these and other contemporary books fit into writing instruction.

Regardless, today I’ll share with you my thoughts on Sol Stein’s book On Writing. Despite the copyright stating its publication in the mid-1990s, Stein’s book hits home in many areas. He makes the point that writers have a deep responsibility with their craft.

(Disclaimer: any mistakes in quotes are my own.)

“A writer is in the business of writing what other people think but don’t say,” Stein says early in the book. “The pleasures of writer and reader are interwoven. The reader in the hands of a writer who has mastered his craft enjoys a richer experience.”

In his chapter on the basics of plotting, Stein says writers should create a driving force to push the characters. By creating this driving force, writers can engage readers and also give their characters more interesting goals.

“The most interesting stories involve characters who want something badly. The more urgent the want, the greater the reader’s interest.”

Of course in a good story the protagonist and the antagonist both have intense desires. In a great story, those desires run completely contrary to one another.

“The secret of creating conflict in scenes is to give your characters different scripts. Let them go into a scene each with his/her own agenda, preconceived notions, and ideas about the fight at hand. The dialogue and conflict both become way more interesting and more realistic.”

If a person gets stuck while creating these wants and constructing problems for characters, Stein has an innovative solution:

“Stuck? Think of the worst thing that could possibly happen to you right now. Don’t censor. A writer disciplines himself to uncover.”

Some writers detest flashbacks; others use them liberally. If a writer chooses to use a flashback, s/he should be sure of its necessity in the story.

“Does the flashback enhance the reader’s experience of the story as a whole?” Stein asks.

It’s important, too, that readers feel some empathy for the characters during the flashback.

“You have to know the people in the car before you see the car crash.”

Stein also has sound advice for revisions. Revisions, of course, are necessary. Good writing doesn’t happen in a first draft. But writers should weigh each revision carefully.

“If in doubt about a change, don’t make it. Flag it for later consideration.”

Above all, Stein says, writers should maintain crystal clear honesty in a story. Don’t hold back. Be brave.

“Remember, fiction deals with the most stressful moments of the characters’ lives.”

Again, I thoroughly enjoyed Stein’s book. Like many of the other books I’ve read for The Workshop, I took my time reading it only because I would read a few chapters and then let those chapters simmer in my writer’s brain for several days.

Ideally I should have finished this book several weeks ago, and, again, my goal in the new year will be to read more frequently and consistently. For now I can definitely recommend On Writing by Sol Stein for newbie writers and more experienced ones alike.

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