You can write really well

Andreas Eschbach

How to write GOOD



The question of all questions - and it is asked far too rarely!



How do you write well?

How do you write well?

What can you actually say about it? Is it allowed to say something about it? Or do you stand up on a pedestal in a very cheeky manner, assuming that you are good at writing yourself and that everyone else has to learn - from you - first?

I think the question "How do you write GUT?" For me, it cannot be answered with concrete advice: "You write well one way or another".

That's exactly what I think. "How do you write GOOD?" - There is no answer to that, and a recipe, formula and procedure will never be found.

Recipes / formulas - these are nothing more than genres, aren't they? Take ... a corpse, unclear circumstances of death, an investigator. Add some confusion, a big shot of tension, and finally add a solution. This is called "crime thriller". Take ... a deviation from everyday life that escalates into a threatening situation, add a sinister plot, finely seasoned with a steadfast hero, let him be an iota wiser / braver / stronger than the villain at the decisive moment, and garnish this at the end with a dramatic last-minute rescue. This is called a "thriller".

And there are good, bad, and mediocre works in every genre. The question of whether a text belongs in a genre or not is therefore irrelevant. That would be about as useful as saying that a song is not good because it falls into the "blues" genre (recipe here: 4 bars tonic, 2 bars subdominant, 2 bars tonic, 1 bar dominant, 1 bar subdominant, 1 bar tonic , 1 bar e.g. dominant seventh chord).

So, again: the question "How do you write well?" is pointless. But the question "How do I write well?" makes sense.

The result of what is 'good work' is clearer. When it comes to writing, this line is not that easy to draw, is it?

That is exactly what you have to learn! I believe that the more precisely you learn to differentiate between what is good and what is bad, the better you can write. This is where the key lies - interestingly, not in the part of us that PRODUCES the text, but rather the part of us that JUDGES the text. Not true, all writers have at some point discovered this trick of reading something out loud and then feeling whether it is bumpy somewhere, whether a word disturbs the overall sound, whether the sentence order is awkward. And also to be able to recognize what you have done GOOD - that is extremely important. It is good that a sentence looks weird at first glance, but that is precisely why it is strong and correct. That a twist in the story that occurred to you is good.

I do it in such a way that when I go through what has been written (proofreading) I not only paint what I find bad, but also what is good and should stay that way. (That gets a vertical line on the edge.)

Reading and evaluating is just as strenuous a creative act as writing itself. You have to be more involved here. And you can do a lot wrong - cut back brilliantly successful sentences into flat, well-behaved sentences, e.g.

Oh yes, what I read in the bookstore today, in a book about some new management theory: "There is no shortage of ideas. What is really lacking is good judgment." Any bet that the same principle is hidden here?

Are there any basics to keep in mind when writing a novel / short story / article / satire?

The most basic principle is: in the end what you have written should be as good as it could possibly be. And the most basic question is accordingly: how do you get a novel / ... etc. good?

It is relatively easy for me to judge that something does not sound good. The problem then is "only" to find a better version!

How do we do it in everyday life? When we finally have three pairs of shoes in the shoe store that seem to be reasonable, WE KEEP THEM NEXT TO EACH OTHER to see which pair is the best.

You never recognize quality as easily as when you compare. And only by comparing you can you train your sense of quality.

So you could write a text, let it rest, read it critically, let it rest again - and then, without looking at it again, write the same story AGAIN. Let rest. And now COMPARE.


- It is not said that the second version has to be better. Often it is, especially if you didn't really know where to go the first time. Sometimes you are more relaxed when you know that I already have a composure that wasn't so bad. But sometimes you are in a very ecstatic mood while writing, almost a kind of intoxication, and can capture an originality and strength that you no longer have when your head turns on too much.

But I admit that I have rarely written anything twice because it was too boring for me. When I wrote a text for the second time, the reason was mostly ... a loss of data. (Another reason to program my own word processing system, which handles regular backups better than most commercially available ones!)
I think writing well is hard work after all.

Erich Kästner once said something about how much he had to fine-tune a text so that it reads as if it had been written down very lightly and in a fluffy manner ...

But on the other hand there is also - those magical moments where it flows, and afterwards there is a text that also seems magical to you (hopefully not just to yourself). Henry Miller called this 'cadenza'.

I found it interesting to note that the tuition to learn how to write in a particular area is 100,000 words.

I have now done the math myself, and find the number 100.00 a bit too gentle. A million words - that seems more appropriate to me. "Write a million words and you can write." Sounds like a great rule, doesn't it? - At least: if you still can't do it, you can give it in with a clear conscience. Or the other way around: as long as you haven't reached this mark, you can't give up.

Important - and now serious - note on this: If you follow your own development over a longer period of time, you will notice that the skills do not increase continuously, but in stages. In QUANTUM LEAPS, so to speak. For a long time nothing happens and suddenly a club hits ... By the way, this applies to all skills that are being trained. Sports students know that.

Peter Eisenhardt sketches his stories on large sheets of wrapping paper and boards. Is that what you actually do? I tried my current novel, but had trouble developing a system for it.

No, I work with notebooks, small checkered A5 spiral pads for just under € 2 each. In it I slowly develop the novel from the first rough structure to the individual scenes, and the whole thing parallel to the actual writing, which I always do directly on the computer.

But everyone has to develop their own method. I think Heinrich Böll worked with large sheets of packing paper. Some lie down on the sofa for weeks and dream up the whole story and then write it down in one go. You have to find out what works for you. The most important part of the whole process is not this or that method, but what is going on in the brain.

What about the rules that you learn for journalistic texts, such as not building sentences that are too long (15 words; this one is already way too long), avoiding passive constructions, can this be transferred to fiction?

All of these rules have reasons. If you have the same reasons in a fictional text, you can apply the same rules. But sometimes you have other reasons. Short sentences have a different effect than long ones. Passive constructions have a different effect than active ones.

I don't really believe in depriving yourself of such possibilities in the first place. It is certainly good to be aware of such influencing factors, but it always depends on how the text should sound.
In your review of "Writing down the bones," you write that you immediately started the only exercise featured in this book. Namely writing. What did you write in this phase? Short stories? A novel right away? Or just "the worst junk in the world"?

The worst junk in the world. It went something like this: "I don't know if what will I mean will be what it is all cheese that doesn't work it doesn't do anything that's the stupidest thing I've ever done I should stop it but I'm going to be ten now Do it for minutes, how long has it passed, oh not even a minute I can't stand that and my finger is already hurting ... "

Doesn't look much like something anyone wants to read, does it? But I found it very liberating and I enjoyed just doing it. After all, I was writing something, and that in itself was fun. Then, later, I read it through and found a single sentence on about 30 pages that I found good, but really good. Poetic. How you can only succeed if your sensible thinking switches off in a bored way. And it was worth it, I thought.

Mind you: Goldberg's "Timed Exercise" is just that - an exercise. A workout. So to speak, the warm-up for the actual run. Its main purpose is to solve the main problem in writing - silencing the "built-in editor". It does not replace everything else that is still going on around the actual writing - characterizing the people, sketching the plot, etc.

There are rules that are utter nonsense (never write in the first person), but which are supposedly required by the so-called market.

The problem arises when publisher believe in rules. Always critical. Again the story of judgment ...! But at some point someone always comes along, breaks all the rules, and that's exactly what makes him successful.

How do you feel about the adjective problem? Do you censor your adjectives if you have the feeling that you are using too many or do you say: I want this adjective (or adverb) here and now and it stays that way, regardless of whether there is an accumulation?

To be honest, I keep confusing the terms adjective and adverb, as I'm generally very bad at grammar. This is probably why I find it so difficult with the new German left-hand spelling: because I did not learn German according to the rules, but by firstly reading, secondly reading and thirdly reading. So imitation.

But at least I can identify the devil things you mean. A sentence like "The very young woman put her narrow hand on her pale forehead ..." already makes the alarm bells ring for me. I hope anyway ... :-)

The point is to identify the places in a text where it is good and those where it is bad. Adjectives and adverbs are only an indication that something is possibly bad at one point. But why? Not because adjectives should be forbidden in themselves - they are sometimes needed. Often even. No, the excessive use indicates that at this point you have an unclear picture of what is happening, or else you have captured it sloppily - which you try to compensate for with verbosity, many "approximate" descriptions, etc. An indication that you have not yet found the MATCHING expression. It's all about this.

There are certain criteria that one hears over and over again and that every editor and agent ruminates on, whether they know how to write or not. James Frey has also summarized this discourse for the German audience.

As a "young author" you should seriously ask yourself why you never actually find novels by, say, Sol Stein, James N. Frey or similar writing gurus in the bestseller lists. I mean, these people really understood the rules, didn't they? And they shouldn't be so busy giving writing workshops that they wouldn't be able to write a millionaire best-seller. What does ONE million best seller mean? They would have to permanently block the front seats with novels that take our socks off while reading. But they don't. In fact, as a rule, the products of these gentlemen read, to put it cautiously, but rather with an effort.

If one reads too many books about writing, one easily falls into the trap of judging novels (foreign ones and one's own) only according to whether they FOLLOW THE RULES - not whether they are GOOD. But that's two pairs of boots. Too many rules in your head obscure what is actually going on. Writing novels with rules in mind is like having a young man memorized the advice of a sex counselor before setting off on a promising rendezvous. Both will go wrong. Both for practically the same reasons.

The only author among those who have commented on "bestseller writing" who is really knowledgeable is Stephen King. Thankfully he published this wonderful "On Writing", in my opinion one of his best and most moving books ever, and interestingly enough he says things in it that are sometimes diametrically opposed to what is so commonly ruminated over and over again. He doesn't think much of plot lines, turning points, etc., on the other hand, he thinks a lot of diving into one's own inner self and finding the story in oneself - of imagination, in short.

Rules try to somehow make what makes a good story tangible. I'm not saying that some of them don't. In cautious, almost homeopathic doses, they can sometimes help you. But you have to be careful with the dosage.

What do you think of Reich-Ranicki's statement that only ONE book is worth more than five hundred pages, namely the telephone directory?

What should I say, after having only with difficulty and with much abbreviation stayed under a thousand manuscript pages with "One Trillion Dollars"? I think Reich-Ranicki has a hard time resisting a punch line at times.

Who says you shouldn't write first-person novels?

It used to be a maxim that haunted for a while. If you ask around, you will find an amazing number of people who say, "I hate novels in the first person". But you're right, it's bullshit. One must not be guided by such stupid rules, but must consider what is appropriate to the story.

Iain Banks even manages to write a novel partly in the "you" form - and it's not only great, but also totally logical in the end! (His thriller "Complicity", German "Conspiracy".)

Do you basically describe everything from "outside to inside", from "rough to detail" or do you only describe here again only according to need and necessity and rather sparsely?

Basically, I don't do anything fundamentally.

And sometimes not even that.

One of the best ways to learn to express oneself in a foreign language is to speak it. Without constantly trying to find grammatical rules or worrying about whether the expression is 100% correct. Exercise does it, like everywhere else.

That's a good comparison anyway. Certainly I could also speak French if I had managed to speak a million French words (it would also be much faster than 1 million German words ... :-). But I was too difficile... on my first and only vacation in France, I probably didn't get past 50.

(Addendum 2004: Meanwhile my French is of course much better. And I do it exactly like this: I speak as much as possible without worrying about grammar. I listen well to how others talk, pick up expressions and such go ... so I get a feeling for what is "right" without having to cram grammatical rules. Of course, I still have a grammar; I take a look as soon as something really interests me.)

I read in James Frey's book "How to Write a Damn Good Novel" that you should avoid first-person narration in your first work. Now I've already written about 50 pages, in exactly this form. It is probably not too much of an effort to rewrite it, but it is stupid.

First of all: effort is not a criterion when it comes to a book. The only criterion can be: Does this make the book better? If you come up with a book that you don't give at least 110%, that isn't the best you can do with everything you can - then you can save yourself it. Then only the post earns.

Besides, you will have to rewrite your novel two or three times anyway; the first version is never useful. 50 pages are more or less irrelevant.

My editor criticized a rhyme in one sentence, which I had placed on purpose. Are rhymes generally not advisable in prose?

You cant say it like that. Sometimes you can get great effects with it.

"The whole night there was hitting and clawing, stabbing and breaking, until morning ..."


acts stronger than

"All night there was beating and stealing, stabbing and smashing, until morning ..."


When words rhyme it works well, and when the wrong words rhyme it can work in the wrong direction. Like a spice that doesn't go with the rest of the dish.

Through my work as a game master, I know that I am not lacking in creativity ...

The problem of the novice writer is not a lack of creativity, but a lack of skill in dealing with the written word.

I try to avoid a number of words including "one", "whole", "once", "even" etc. - that is, ambiguous words.

I've never thought about "man". But I also try to avoid words like "completely", "very", "actually" etc. - filler words. Unfortunately, some "favorites of the month" are not noticed until the book is printed. In the "Billion", for example, someone takes a deep breath very often. And about the "hair carpet makers", my lovely brother said: "The word 'immeasurable' occurs immeasurably in it."

You say that in the perception of the public today, German SF novels can usually not keep up with the international competition in terms of style, language and general craftsmanship. Where does it come from? I don't see why the English language writers should have the better tool. Are there any concrete examples? Is your language perhaps more powerful in principle?

Logically, that has nothing to do with the power of a language, because what I have said can also be linked to translations into German. No, the English-speaking authors have the better tool, for reasons of literary history. While literature developed in the orbit of patronage and the cult of genius, in Anglo-Saxon countries it has always been dependent on acceptance by the public: Even Shakespeare had to get his theater FULL above all else in the evening; his literary fame, on the other hand, was rather short for him, I think. And that still shapes today.

In my head, the story moves faster and evolves than I can put it on paper. My imagination runs at full speed. Where do i start Could I put the story on tape and then put it on paper in less "creative" minutes? Isn't that something that gets lost?

You can't know that, you just have to try it out. Basically every author has to find and develop the method that suits him. I couldn't speak a story on tape, but there are authors who ONLY dictate at all, so there is nothing fundamental against it. Maybe it is even THE solution for you - so: give it a try!

However, that "certain something" is not something that should or could somehow be captured by speed. Certainly there are moments when it is easy to write and the text succeeds as if by itself, and writing has something of "capturing" - but as nice as it would be if you could write a whole novel like that could write a state, in practice it does not work. There you also have phases in which you torment yourself and the words all seem crooked and wrong, and you have to go through that. A novel becomes a whole only through revision, and it is important to peel that "certain something" out of the text fragments that have been amassed in the rough version: like a sculptor, to cut away everything that does not belong there. As a good rule it can be said that at least 10-20% of a rough draft must be deleted: the art is to recognize WHICH 10-20%.

By the way, I recently read an interesting story in a magazine about how bestsellers are made these days.

Yo. Such stories are usually plain - a lie. In other words, according to the motto "afterwards you are always smarter" and "forecasts are much easier if you give them in retrospect", something is presented as thought out and planned, which in reality it never was. Something similar can often be found, for example, in literary works that deal with "trivial literature", real "how-to-do-now-bestseller" instructions. Only - they don't work. Logically, otherwise every publisher would only have bestsellers, wouldn't it?

I'm already over the probably-only-my-writing-genius-not-ego-phase, as well as the thing with happiness. Now I think my story is just bad. Not bad in the sense of no story, flat protagonist, logic and grammatical errors en mass, but bad because written too much for myself. And also my question to you: Am I kidding myself if I assume that when I write, I just have to let everything flow out of me in order to create a good book? Maybe good books need more discipline, more corsets? Do more need to be constructed? Not just let out?

You cant say it like that. Basically, what counts is what is on the paper and what it triggers in the reader - enthusiasm? Fascination? Boredom? Yawning? Horror? Joy? Feeling, anyway. HOW you do it - whether you shred it down while intoxicated or carefully construct it word for word, whether you dance ecstatically with the words in the frenzy of writing or whether you torment yourself with every sentence, it doesn't matter. If it works, it works. There are as many ways of writing - that is, "creating texts" - as there are authors.

What can be, however, is that what you write is too PRIVATE. In order to reach other people, a novel has to achieve a certain generality; must reflect something you have in common with others. Something that is more closely related to the diary in the broadest sense - that outsiders cannot understand - is not suitable for publication.

There is a craft of writing that goes beyond grammar rules, spelling, and commas, and there is a reason for that. Just as a painter doesn't just paint it, but perhaps pre-sketch or make studies ("How do I paint a hand that holds a fountain pen?"), So working on a novel is partly "flowing", partly careful reflection. At least for most of them.

But I have the feeling that before you change something in your technology or non-technology, you should first seek more contact with readers - among friends and possibly people who are not determined to find anything from you that is worthy of a Nobel Prize ( Mothers and fathers are generally unsuitable). Pay attention to their reactions. Do they want to read more? Always a good sign. "Mmmngjooh, very interesting ..." is not a good sign. I always found it very interesting to sit quietly when someone reads something from me - their reactions, but above all MY reactions. "Ah, now it comes to the place where my hero ... hmm, maybe I should have written it differently ..." - definitely! And suddenly you give yourself advice, which of course is always best.

I would like to write a novel, a fantasy novel with depth, a rather sad, melancholy story. But then my problem is the language. Then I can't use all those crazy words anymore because they just don't fit. As a result, I always have the feeling that this is not really good, that my individual style is lost in the process. But a different genre requires a different way of expression ?! Do you have any idea how I could deal with this problem?

Yes, it is almost a characteristic talent of a writer to be able to adapt his mode of expression to the needs of his project. If you only have a hammer, you will see nails everywhere - that's why as a writer you are not only allowed to have a hammer, you also need screwdrivers, files, saws, drills, etc.

In other words, the challenge you are facing requires you to expand your "toolbox".

How? The best way to do this is to read the novels of other authors carefully and with the eye of the "doer", not the reader, and pay attention to the language - to words, sentence structure, sentence rhythm, etc.
As for the famous "individual style" - you don't have to worry about it, it develops by itself. Everything you do on purpose only distorts the development process and makes you look mannered. Or stupid, in other words. Strive to express yourself according to the story you want to choose, and your own style will come by itself.

I feel like I'm getting worse and worse. Maybe I'm just putting too much pressure on myself. My very first story won a (tiny) competition straight away. Since then, the thought has always been there: Every page has to be a hammer.

Yes, I would say you are putting too much pressure on yourself. Especially if you have not yet written much, your self-confidence as a writer is still on shaky feet. I guess you are always subconsciously trying to imitate your first story - but imitations are not "the real thing".

What to do? You have to write freely. Write a LOT. Write a lot of stupid stuff. Write things that YOU will especially enjoy; no matter whether they are hammers or pliers or ice cream spoons. Try the exercise described in the book "Writing Down The Bones" by Nathalie Goldberg (is also somewhere on my homepage, both the book and the exercise that I describe in one of the answers) of "fast writing". (The book should also be available in German, I've heard; "Writing in Cafés" or something like that, in the Authors' House Publishing House?)

Is it true that many first-time authors have failed because of the first-person form and is it really better to use a different form?

Three things speak against the first-person narration:
  1. A lot of people don't like this shape. Just because. A matter of taste. I've published several first-person novels, and everyone has comments like "I don't normally like first-person stories" or "I would have preferred the novel not to be first-person", etc. - while the other way round me no one has ever written that they found it particularly great to read a novel in the first person.
  2. Dealing with first-person narration requires more writing experience. Descriptions, building tension, guiding the plot, etc. - all of this has to be done much more consistently from the narrator's perspective, and it is difficult or impossible to change perspective (which is often good for tension and the flow of the narrative).
  3. First-time authors have the problem of being too close to their material anyway, and writing in the first-person form increases the risk that it will not turn into a novel, but a kind of diary that only the author can understand.

Nevertheless, there are stories that imperatively need to be told in the first person. (Agatha Christi's "Alibi", for example, would be pointless without this perspective.) In that case, of course, you have to choose this form in spite of everything. But one should always consider whether the third person is the better narrative perspective, and carefully consider the pros and cons.

Why is the present tense so unwanted?

I don't know, I just know that I usually close books in the present tense after the second line. At most a master of the word (e.g. Iain Banks) can seduce me into other reactions.

I suppose it's a cultural one. In all media we develop certain expectations of reception - for example with regard to the editing sequence in films, the lengths of song titles, paintings always being square, certain fonts, page formats, etc. Just as we would be put off by a novel of only 50 pages or a novel of 3,000 pages A novel in the present tense scares us off: Too unfamiliar. Of course you can write against the habit. You could write a novel in the you form and in the future, why not? You could make pop music without drums, make movies in red and white, publish newspapers in postcard format.

But when you do that, you have to realize that breaking with formal conventions will obscure the content of what you are doing in your perception.So the decision regarding the present tense is: Do I want to go against conventions or do I want to give the reader a reading experience? A reading experience means that he should forget that he is reading and be able to immerse himself completely. And he can do that better if the form does not work against him, i.e. the book does not measure 5x40 cm and is printed in four-color decorative font, which changes all paragraphs, etc. - but if it is just an ordinary-looking book. In the ordinary past tense.

I have been pregnant with a "big idea" for over a decade, collect ideas and keep expanding. But it is the first great work that I write; before that there were only a few short stories. Since the rule of thumb is that the first novel is crap, should I put this big project on hold and write another one (or a few) to "warm up"? Or am I thinking too technical?

That is hard to say. The first novel is usually crap, yes. Maybe the first ten novels aren't that good either. But you have to practice, and a novel is too big a project to be written "just for practice". In order to persevere, you have to have a topic, an idea that you really care about, that burns inside you, so to speak. And who knows? Margaret Mitchell has also written only one novel; it was her first and last - "Gone with the Wind" - as is well known, not entirely unsuccessful.

I started with a manuscript and have only written five pages so far (that's really not much). But I already have very strong doubts about my style. I just can't judge whether or not what I've put on paper is good, even if I read it through ten times afterwards.

Reading through everything after five pages and thinking about whether it is good is also much too early. First write the novel or short story TO END, put the text in a drawer for a month and then read it FIRST!

Developing your style is like falling asleep: You won't succeed if you try hard to do it. It has to come by the way. Focus on making up good stories and telling them as well as you can, then over time the style will come by itself.

IT ONLY MATTERS WHAT YOU COMPLETE WRITING. Only that will get you further. The brooding and lamenting, on the other hand, are not. So write your things DONE, even if while you are writing you have the feeling that you are filling in the biggest bullshit since the invention of writing. It is important that at some point the END is written below it. Then only maneuver criticism, and if it's bullshit, okay, Boris Becker also hit a lot of balls into the net at the beginning. New game New luck. Practice makes perfect, don't moan out of self-doubt.

I feel like I'm making some mistake when I switch chapters. At that moment, I'm making such a hard cut in the plot that it kind of tears all the tension apart. But I really wanted to cut the time, because nothing happens during that time, except for the wedding, which I don't want to describe in any more detail. How can I avoid such a hard cut?

It is probably the case that when the reader starts the new chapter, first of all he is completely confused and has to laboriously find where he is and what is actually going on. But when the reader is confused, the tension disappears. For tension to reign, the reader needs to know exactly where he is, who he is dealing with, and what is going on. Only when all of this is clear can he ask himself how it will all end - and be EXCITED!

Of course, what is not interesting should be left out. To keep the reader informed, it is enough to give him a few clues:

"Doris and Bernd married three months later on a rainy Wednesday in August, and when they moved to Kleinfeinhausen in the autumn in a row house on the edge of the forest, they already knew that Doris was pregnant. When Felix was three years old, Doris said one evening. .. "


Two sentences and we have already skipped four years (pregnancy included) and can move on.

One writer who has mastered these types of narrative transitions well is Jeffrey Archer. I can recommend him as a role model; I like to read it myself, firstly because it is a great writer and secondly to learn from him.

How many sentences have not left the electronic short-term memory of the computer because they have been reformulated while writing? How many sentences did your life have to modest on discarded manuscript pages in a waste paper recycling yard or open fire?

Many sentences are rephrased ten times in the head before they are typed. And the typed sentences will be rephrased later. That should be a total of 15: 1, I guess.

The sentences in the trash are not that many anymore - 10% of the total amount of writing, I guess.

But in the end these are idle questions. What do the answers say? If you ask a carpenter what% of his wood turns to sawdust in the course of the job, what do you know about the quality of the table he is building? Nothing. At most, if you compare finished tables and percentages, you can find out something about which carpenter works how efficiently.

For example, if someone has no ability to formulate in their head (is that possible?), And so they torment the text through the printer about 15 times, and there is someone who can turn the first 70-80% in their head , and only rearrange a few words or sentences and formulate them differently ... One is more professional, or more practiced, more capable ...?

More experienced, yes. Being able to do this in your head is simply a training effect that comes on by itself over time. Remember that I've been writing for over 30 years; If all of my manuscripts were stacked on top of one another, it would be a mountain several meters high. I would be completely untalented if I hadn't learned to use a few shortcuts in my head during that time.

You are a designer: When you design, you are sure to feel that a few design options flash before your inner eye and are discarded before you put the pen on the paper / tablet, right?

I am writing a novel and have no idea what the next day will be like, but I always remember something as if it had been mapped out. I get an average of about five pages a day (about 2 hours each). After that I run out of breath and ideas, but the next day everything is wonderful again. In addition, I contradict 90% of all the "rules" I know about writing, I don't sketch out any chapters, don't plan a plot, just follow an inner drive that dictates the story and my sense of writing and style.

If that works for you, then you don't need any "rules" either. If you can get your story down on paper in this way and it is still such that others will enjoy reading it - wonderful! Then stick with it. As a reader, I don't care how you do it. The main thing is that I enjoy reading.

To a certain extent, every author writes this way, even those who supposedly make everything crystal clear. You have to surrender to history at some point, and surrender - well, that's one of the things. That scares a lot of people. They'd rather have rules.

Writing is like sex. There is also a lot of know-how and rules and do's and don'ts - but when you do it, there comes a point where you have to forget all this stuff again if it's going to be good.

I'm afraid of using too many standard clichés in my story.

If you have this fear, it is probably justified.

But what is stopping you from getting rid of the clichés and adding original elements instead?

I have read from the "Style Guide" that it is a rather older work (fifties?). Is there anything more recent here?

The basic rules of good style don't get out of date that quickly. The Reiners is still cutting edge. As a supplement - not as a substitute - one could read Wolf Schneider, "Deutsch für Profis", which, however, is more aimed at journalists.

You will never get high editions with high literature, so perhaps you should try to achieve the naive mediocrity in writing that appeals to the masses!

That you have to write mediocre in order to achieve large editions: a fairy tale that is gladly believed, but a fairy tale. Gabriel Maria Marquez, for example, has a total circulation of over 100 million worldwide, despite a Nobel Prize. Brecht, Hesse and Böll are still the big sales drivers of their publishers, and Grass too can only smile wearily at Konsalik's average circulation. Other names that understand the need to combine legibility and popularity are, for example, Isabel Allende, Umberto Eco, Joyce Carol Oates.

Really high print runs can ONLY be achieved - at least in the long term - with a lot of literature.

However, not all literature is high that believes it is :-)

Do you believe that you can only write a good novel "according to your feelings"?

Yes, undoubtedly you can, and so can woman. As far as the relationship between planning ahead and spontaneous writing is concerned, everyone has to find their own personal mix, and there are every variant - even the extremes. There are and were authors who meticulously plan every detail in advance and then more or less just write down the text, and there were and are authors who just write on it. And there are mixed forms - Simenon, for example, only thought about his characters and locations in advance, while he was surprised by the plot itself. Everyone has to find their way.

In my novel, I often switch between two types of verbatim speech. I will give you two examples of this. 1. Whether you could do it grammatically like that, he thought to himself. 2. "Can I use it grammatically like that", he thought to himself.

Strictly speaking, both of these are NOT literal speech - but internal dialogue. Which is quite a different matter.

I would write the two variants of the inner dialogue like this:
  1. He wondered if he could do it grammatically like that. (NOT "could" !!)
  2. "Can I do it grammatically like that?" He wondered.

  1. He asked if you could do it grammatically like that. (Again no "could" !!)
  2. "Can you do it grammatically like that?" He asked her.

Or e.g. this sentence: I no longer know when it was, but one day the question popped into my head whether that was all. I'm just not sure if a question mark should go there.

I would write anyway:

I don't remember when it was, but one day the question popped into my head whether that was all. (or even better: "everything should have been")

So, no question mark.

Book tip on this: Lutz Reiners, Stilfibel, dtv. Indispensable. Also: "German for professionals", Wolf Schneider

Can I mix these two variants in a novel, or should I just go for one type of verbatim speech? And if so, which variant would be more recommendable?

Think about your own reading. How many books do you know in which both are mixed? Do it the same way. ;-)

OK, seriously: The normal verbatim speech is of course the easiest to get grammatically correct and is recommended, if you are unsure, from there.

The indirect speech is very literary - and very embarrassing when the times are not 100% right. In addition, it is less immediate, and consequently less exciting and usually more strenuous to read. In my opinion, their place in summary descriptions such as

"... He told her for three hours about his years of grammatical studies in the State Library and then asked her if she would like to go out with him Café am See, ate pizza and destroyed two bottles of red wine and talked so well that they ... "etc.



I would not use them as the main stylistic device.

Addendum 2010: If an author knows what he is doing, he can of course do anything. In Daniel Kehlmann's extremely successful novel "Measuring the World", for example, the trick is that the characters' dialogues are almost entirely portrayed in indirect speech. (If you look closely, you can see that Kehlmann is cheating in a few places. However, this does not detract from the effect.)

What is the objection to the "omniscient narrative perspective"? The author who I have in mind as a counterexample, namely Friedrich Ani, has just won the German Crime Award, is mentioned in the same breath as Henning Mankell, and a Swiss newspaper has the book I read as the only German-language title in the list of the ten best Detected Mysteries of the Decade. So this author can't be that bad.

Well, basically, of course, an author can do EVERYTHING, the main thing is that he writes a good book. All these "rules" only exist because you are trying to find out how you actually DO it in three-devil names. So: the good book was there first, then the rules came. The rules are an attempt to get a grip on the technical side. Something like "Which brush is good for which kind of strokes" and "How to wash a brush properly" and "How to dilute oil paint" for painters. And then there comes a Vincent van Gogh, presses the oil paint directly onto the canvas and rubs it in with a wooden spatula. And - wow! The creative side, the one that breaks new ground, cannot be grasped with rules, because rules can logically only be derived from the known, i.e. the old. You can break any rule if you have a good reason to do so. And the good reason must always be "if I do it this way, it will be better". Most of them do not do this because they have a good reason, but because they have no idea that such rules exist, or if they do, it is because they have not really understood them. And of course it doesn't get any better.

Think about what you want to achieve. An omniscient narrator who looks into a different head every two paragraphs is usually just SLOWING TO DIE !!! And that is a shortcoming of this narrative style, which you then have to laboriously iron out in other ways so that it is still good.

I know what I'm talking about. In my first novel, "The Hair Carpet Makers", I violated even more fundamental rules. There is no hero, no main character in it. There isn't even one continuous storyline. And so on; if it were not rules but laws, I would still be in prison. It was a hell of a job to get the thing legible anyway, and that's when I really understood what these rules are for.In this case it seems to have worked out to some extent, and maybe part of the effect this novel has is that it breaks rules. Still, that's something where you have to say: Don't try this at home. Or: Use at own risk.

Do you know what my problem is? I damn well doubt that what I am writing is any good in the slightest sense of the word.

Welcome to the beautiful, cruel world of writing. You have developed a feeling that if you stick to your writing, you will never be completely abandoned again. No literary prize, no bestseller status, no publisher, however enthusiastic, will ever silence it completely, this voice that naggingly asks: "Is that REALLY, REALLY REALLY good ??"

Everywhere one reads that one should avoid the "bad" lenses, but nowhere is it detailed how or why. How should I describe something soft without using an adjective?

For example like this: "It gave way under his hands."

What this rule is getting at is that it is wise to check whether an adjective or adverb is MANDATORY. If not, it stays natural.

A style rich in adjectives is often simply indicative of kitsch and pomposity.

Compare:
"The suntanned, elegantly dressed gynecologist's blue eyes flashed angrily as he said, 'That hasty diagnosis was an inexcusable, reckless mistake.'"

With:
"The gynecologist's eyes flashed when he said, 'That diagnosis was a mistake.'"


I have a practical technical question: after I had submitted the finished manuscript, the editor drew a red P at least three times on each page - by that she meant "perspective". She criticized the fact that the perspective was changed several times in a scene and the narrator could look into different heads.For example: X was afraid that Y might draw a gun at any moment. (...) Y was more nervous than you could tell. This is not possible, in a scene the reader is only allowed to know the thoughts of one main character. She repeatedly criticized the omniscient narrative style. But to this day I ask myself: What is so forbidden to an omniscient narrator? And since I've been reading other (crime) novels carefully, I've noticed that many authors look into several heads within one scene. And as a reader, that has never bothered me. Is that the quirk of an editor to whom I am powerless?

I wouldn't see it as a quirk; I happen to agree with your editor. And the fact that other authors write badly shouldn't be used as an excuse to do the same yourself.

Of course you are "allowed" to tell a story from an omniscient perspective. You can do anything while writing. The question is how it works. And the omniscient narrator is an old-fashioned model, out of fashion for at least a hundred years, and for good reason. Just like the black and white silent film is an old braid and color Cineplex widescreen sensor is state of the art.

Why is it better to portray a scene from the perspective of a single character? For the simple reason that it allows you to get closer to the character, let us experience their thoughts and feelings, and thus enable us to IDENTIFY with them. And that's what you want when you read. You want to EXPERIENCE. You want to cheer. Worry about a figure. Because then it is exciting, and there are certainly enough unexciting books.

Please note that when you write

"Kowalski was afraid Burgmüller might draw a gun",


we don't really witness Kowalski's feelings. They only tell us that Kowalski is scared. Well, we think. Happens. Shrug.

How different if you let us be part of it!

"Kowalski felt a big, big lump in his throat. His gaze wandered again and again to Burgmüller's pocket, could hardly get away from it. Just don't look. Just don't show that he knew that Burgmüller had a pistol in it. Cold steel, the cold body could do. If Burgmüller suspected what was going on, he would pull this cold steel and know no more mercy. "


Maybe not awesome, but better, right?

When are the prologue and epilogue worthwhile?
At first more in the case of obese works. Then perhaps one should tell more about the pre- and post-history than the actual plot - but that is not mandatory either. You can also handle it how you want.

Now I have already got myself a few books on the subject of "writing" and have taken part in two really good writing workshops - unfortunately I still haven't got a grip on my problem of writing too quickly and often too superficially. Do you have an "insider tip" to eradicate this evil?

Unfortunately, there is no such thing as "insider tips" in the craft of writing. Not really. (At most, some things are so unknown that one might think they are secret.)

You will have no choice but to improve your manuscripts step by step. First you have to find out (with the help of brave test readers, but also try to develop a reasonably objective view yourself): WHERE is something missing, and WHAT is missing? Which storylines have been lost, which settings are not described / not perceptible, where should one smell, taste, hear, feel, where should it slow down, where details are missing? Then add what is missing, smooth the transitions - and make a new pass.

Pasting is more difficult than crossing out. In addition, as an antidote, so to speak:
  1. Reading books by authors who take a very slow, excessive narrative pace. I am reading Diana Gabaldon's Call of the Drum; the author crawls through the plot at a snail's pace, describes, so to speak, every tree and branch on this tree and doesn't forget to describe the leaves on it ;-)
  2. For the sake of exercise, describe things and processes very meticulously and set a certain minimum length. Describe the appearance of a chicken egg on 3 pages. Describe the process of pulling a book off the shelf and looking for a specific place in it on 5 pages. Describe a wall in your study on 10 pages. Such things.
What is it about such exercises: Better, more precise, more detailed perception. "Before you can learn to write, you have to learn to see, hear and feel" someone once said - I wish I knew who. Anyway, someone who knew what he was talking about.

I put the first chapter aside, which was quite broadly written, and started with a completely different story. The first attempt suddenly seemed too banal to me. Who should be interested in such a story? The second litter suddenly seemed too sensational to me.

Since you worked in the IT industry, you will surely recognize what this is:

100 Write the first chapter
110 Be dissatisfied
120 Put aside
130 Start something new
140 GOTO 100

An endless loop, right? I've spent a good decade on a loop like this, and it hasn't got me a meter. YOU WILL NOT WRITE A MASTERPIECE THE FIRST TIME. Point. You can try as much as you want. So put up with the fact that the first novel is likely to be shit. BUT TELL HIM TO THE END ** DESPITE !! ** THAT FEELING. Because only things that you END write will bring you further; help you develop yourself as a writer.

Suppose a group of rebels is planning an attack. Time is an important factor in this attack. They cannot carry out the attack because they suffered a traffic accident during the preparations and so lost too much time. The matter has to be called off. If what I have just described is a key scene or a turning point in the story and it will have many consequences for the protagonists, I cannot simply leave out the appearance of the police at the scene of the accident, a logical consequence of the accident. On the other hand, as a writer, I am not interested in the dialogues that have to be had with the police - they even bore me. How can you, for example, bypass this police scene without losing credibility?

I understand the problem. It is because you think that this scene - sticking to your example - is boring.

Of course, something boring has no place in a novel. But if it is essential to the plot, it CANNOT be boring.

I imagine that. These rebels are on their way to an attack - let's say a bus hits them in the side. Noise, bang, murderous roar, screams, leaking liquids, damaged skulls. The rebels crawl out of the car dazed, inspecting the damage. "Shit, it won't work anymore! We're late," they say to themselves. And there - the police are also coming!

Can that be boring? How would you feel if you stood there with your car loaded to the brim with weapons, but unfortunately completely damaged, and the POLICE came!?!? You'd sweat blood and water, wouldn't you? And at the same time you should keep calm, act cool, downplay everything and appear so inconspicuous that no one would think to take a closer look at your car! But one of your co-conspirators, the young XY, unfortunately shows nerves. Nothing used the boy, you always suspected it ... and now you notice the trembling of his cheekbones that always heralds his choleric attacks ... Shit, that can go in your pants! What now?

Is that boring? If so, what is exciting then?

When it comes to entertainment literature, one often does not even bother to produce something sensible. Books are published (by almost all publishers and in all genres) whose stories seem so carelessly smeared or constructed, so full of false images and other errors that the reader feels snubbed. Is the reason for this to be found in the fact that entertainment literature is valued as a source of money, but otherwise not?

A lot of products are only viewed as money makers and carelessly tinkered with. The key word is "loveless" in the context.

Apart from that, there is a lot of slouching and slouching everywhere, not just by authors and editors. Before we moved, I paid a bunch of money for a request to be forwarded and then received loads of emails from people who sent me letters to the old address and got them back with "recipient moved unknown". To give just one example.

In the author's yearbook 2000/2001, Martin Walser wrote a highly interesting text about the first sentence - the introduction to history and style. This sentence is the first encounter between the reader and the author. And that makes things so difficult, after all, we want to make a particularly good first impression on the others. It's like having a particularly important date

I see that a little more relaxed. You only know if a first sentence is really good when you have reached the last. There are novels that start out great and then ebb away; there are also novels that start out stupid but still turn out great. The first movement of the BILLION is nothing special; it only becomes so because the last sentence is almost the same.

In essays like this one should not overlook the fact that these old men of letters are always trying to portray their business as extremely difficult, as if they were writing with their own blood or something. Despite all their socially critical attitude, people like Walser, Grass, Handke etc. are, if you look closely, brilliant self-promoters and self-marketers.



© Andreas Eschbach

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