Do you Want to Start #Writing Like #Steinbeck?

John Steinbeck Photo,A.k. Andrew,,A Writers Notebook

John Steinbeck 1962


This week marks the 75th anniversary of the the film release of Grapes of Wrath so I thought it was appropriate to re-purpose this post. If you want to start writing like Steinbeck, then take a look at some of the things he found important and include them in your writing.
 “Learn from the best”

John Steinbeck’s writing methodology was stringent and meticulous. When writer’s you love talk about how they write, it’s hard not listen.

Steinbeck really wanted Grapes of Wrath to be good  – exposing the exploitation of people in 1930’s Southern California, was a story he thought needed telling. I re-read the novel a while ago, and the style blew me away.

It’s incredibly refreshing to read a book with such valuable social commentary that’s also just a damn good story. Part of its success lies in the fact that we live, eat and sleep with the Joad family. Everything is personal, so we care about what happens to the characters, and it allows us to see the injustice very clearly, without the point being hammered home. Steinbeck simply tells a story.

Below is part of John Steinbeck’s interview in the Paris Review*

(Please note: Steinbeck died in 1968. A lot of the quotes were compiled in Steinbeck: A Life in Letters and published in October 1975 by Viking. Hence the Paris Review article was not until 1975.)

The comments in italics are mine.

Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.
 1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish.

Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

This is the most important one & can’t be said too often. One page at a time.

 2. Write freely

…and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

 Don’t worry about anyone looking over your shoulder. Just get the work written. Good tip for all of us procrastinators.

 3. Forget your generalized audience.

In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

I’ve heard this before, and I think it’s an excellent way to keep yourself on track. You can’t write for everyone. So write for one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you

…and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

Rewriting – its all there is. But don’t be afraid to write non-sequentially. Sometimes one just isn’t in the mood to write about a dramatic moment, so switch gears and go to a section you do want to write today.

 5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you,

…dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

Tough to give them up isn’t it?

 6. If you are using dialogue

…say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

Excellent tip. If you read it out loud it will sound strained immediately if it’s not working.

On my writers resources page I refer to his book Working Days, which is the diary he kept while he was writing Grapes of Wrath. (He wrote his first draft in 6 months BTW!). It’s a great book for writers if only to show how persistent one has to be to make the end product worthwhile.

Signature of John Steinbeck,a.k. andrew, a writer's notebook

Signature of John Steinbeck (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Are these methods  you can work with? Do you have different ways of attacking the same problems?


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*Paris Review has rich resource material in their decades of interviews of famous people, writers included.

I first saw part of this particular interview in one of my favorite blogs

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Author in Focus: How to #Write #War like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

English: Chimamanda Adichie

English: Chimamanda Adichie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie 

Author in Focus Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie  (born 15 September 1977) is a writer from Nigeria. She has been called “the most prominent” of a “procession of critically acclaimed young anglophone authors is succeeding in attracting a new generation of readers to African literature”.

Her first novel, Purple Hibiscus (2003), was shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction (2004) and awarded the Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (2005).

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s second novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, named after the flag of the short-lived nation of Biafra, is set before and during the Biafran War. It was awarded the 2007 Orange Prize for Fiction. Half of a Yellow Sun has been adapted into a film  and is set for release in 2014.

Her third book, The Thing Around Your Neck (2009), is a collection of short stories. (Wikipedia)

How does Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie Succeed in Writing about War?

Half of a Yellow Sun

Half of a Yellow Sun (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Half of a Yellow Sun is set both before and during the Biafran War. Those of us of a certain age, may remember ‘Biafran babies’ being one of the first poster children for starvation. A nation of starving children when Biafra attempts to become an independent republic in South East Nigeria in the 1960’s

In a nutshell, the reason Adichie’s work is so powerful is because she makes us care about her characters, and in doing do she personalizes the experience of the war. The extended family involved is an ordinary family with their own familial ups and downs, and the core nuclear family, is middle class, like many people who would read the novel. They had leftist views, but many of us do. So when their life takes a turn for the worse , we can relate to having our lives gradually stripped away. We can imagine what we might do in the same situation.

“Power is the ability not just to tell the story of another person, but to make it the definitive story of that person.”
~Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

The other reason is that clearly she did her research. The reasons behind the conflict, and how it plays out are shown in meticulous detail without bashing us over the head with a history lesson. Again, because she shows us through the characters. So we learn about what happened and why it happened. But it’s done in such a way, we don’t realize we are learning. We keep reading because we want to know what will happen next, will things get better or worse. Who will survive and who will not?

 Why Write about War?

War is difficult to write about. How do you show the horrors  of war without the violence being gratuitous? Why write about it at all? Don’t we have enough coverage with our 24/7 news coverage these days?  There have been some excellent war reporters who have shown us front lines, shelled cities, and injured people, with truth and heartfelt coverage that is as unbiased as reporting can be. But a novel takes us further. It takes us into the hearts of the characters, and what it was like to actually live day to day in a wartime setting. I believe it’s important to keep writing about wars, both past and present, not to grind the same old saw, but so we can review events with a fresh perspective, and so ultimately we will never forget.

“There are some things that are so unforgivable that they make other things easily forgivable.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Half of a Yellow Sun

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie - Cambridge April 2013,,a.k.andrew

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie – Cambridge April 2013


What are your favorite novels set during a war? Have you ever considered writing a short story or novel set during a war? If not, why not?

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Author in Focus is a blog series featuring vignettes of some of the greatest writers of the 20th & 21st century.

 “A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”  

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Author in Focus: Ernest Hemingway and the Iceberg Effect

Author in Focus: Ernest Hemingway and the Iceberg Effect 

Ernest Hemingway 1923 Passport Photograph, 1923

Ernest Hemingway 1923 Passport Photograph, 1923 (Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives)

Hemingway Bio:

Ernest Miller Hemingway was an American author and journalist. His economical and understated style had a strong influence on 20th-century fiction, while his life of adventure and his public image influenced later generations. Wikipedia

Born: July 21, 1899, Oak Park, IL

Died: July 2, 1961, Ketchum, ID

Movies: For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, More

Spouse: Mary Welsh Hemingway (m. 1946–1961), More

Children: Jack Hemingway, Gregory Hemingway, Patrick Hemingway

Why Hemingway?

Ernest Hemingway, was many things to many people and widely criticized for his machismo.  But for this purpose, let’s focus on his style of prose known by a term coined by Hemingway himself: The Iceberg Effect.

The Iceberg Effect 

If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. ~ Ernest Hemingway

Hemingway’s prose bears out this philosophy which is in essence saying less is more. As a writer, I find nothing more liberating in my work than to edit out text, reducing it to what I consider to be the essential words.

But this is very subjective and to reduce prose in the extreme way that Hemingway did, is difficult.

It’s particularly difficult when you are dealing with events in the past, pertinent to the narrative. But the reader is there for a good story, not a history lesson.

“Hills Like White Elephants”

One of his most famous short stories is “Hills Like White Elephants”. The couple in the story is drawn in such sparse prose, it leaves much to the reader’s interpretation. The man is never given a name, and though it appears the couple are simply killing time while waiting for a train, they are in fact alluding to whether or not the girl should have an abortion and whether they will split up. All if this is done in basic exchanges of dialogue, and straightforward snatches of information. Here is an excerpt:

‘They’re lovely hills,’ she said. ‘They don’t really look like white elephants. I just meant the 

colouring of their skin through the trees.’ 

‘Should we have another drink?’ 

‘All right.’ 

The warm wind blew the bead curtain against the table. 

‘The beer’s nice and cool,’ the man said. 

‘It’s lovely,’ the girl said. 

‘It’s really an awfully simple operation, Jig,’ the man said. ‘It’s not really an operation at all.’ 

The girl looked at the ground the table legs rested on. 

‘I know you wouldn’t mind it, Jig. It’s really not anything. It’s just to let the air in.’ 

The girl did not say anything. 

The whole of the story is full of metaphor and innuendo, leaving the final interpretation up to the reader to make assumptions about the couples’ dynamic and what they are actually talking about.

Ernest Hemingway

Cover of Ernest Hemingway

Why The Iceberg Effect?

Supposedly Hemingway and others of his era, chose this style of writing as a backlash to the elaborate style of some 19th century writers e.g. Henry James.

What is your response to this minimalist style of writing? Do you know any 21st Century writers who write like this?

Come join the discussion, and please share this post on your favorite social media. 

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Author in Focus is a blog series featuring vignettes on some of the greatest writers of the 20th & 21st century.

“A classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.”  ~ Italo Calvino


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Can Your Computer Drain Your Creativity?

South Downs nr Fulking, Sussex photo: A.K.Andrew

South Downs nr Fulking, Sussex
photo: A.K.Andrew

Creativity and computers have been trying to blend together for some time now. Photoshop, painting apps, word processing freeing up writing time by throwing out the tipex and carbon paper. And yet how many of you feel that the time spent in front of your computer actually drains your creativity?

I recently read an article in the Pacific Standard that did a field test about creativity and nature. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“Have you been staring cow-eyed at a computer all morning? Fiddling with your iPhone in line at Starbucks? Checking Twitter and ESPN every four minutes on your tablet?

Good. Here’s a little quiz. What one word ties these three ideas together: water + tobacco + stove? How about widow + bite + monkey? Or, envy + golf + beans?

Psychologists call such wordplay the “remote associates test,” or RAT, and use it to study creativity and intuition. The idea is that it requires a nimble, open mind to find the connection between seemingly unrelated ideas—in this case pipe, spider, and green.”

The study goes on to compare responses after people have been hiking in nature. Of course the results improve. But is this really to do with nature itself, or simply having relaxation time away from the computer? For some people a hike in the woods would be torture, and they might achieve the same rejuvenating effect with a walk around an art gallery, or even a shopping mall.

Do Computers Free Your Time for Creativity?

On one level, our computers free up time for creativity by making certain practical tasks easier e.g. editing and printing. Computers also give us the means to express ourselves in ways that were previously impossible . However, do you ever question whether the practical benefits outweigh the time we lose in the myriad of things we now do with our technology? Think Facebook. Think looking up a factoid and not returning to your original project until an hour and a half later as one “interesting article” distracted you and one website led to another.

Without doubt we can network with others more easily. We might link up with creatively like minded individuals, or pursue online learning opportunities. But in terms of encouraging or tapping into our creativity, is our time better served in other pursuits?

 How well do you manage your computer time with your creative life? Does it complement or detract from your creativity? If the latter, what things would you like to change?

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Computer screen garden (2)

Computer screen garden (2) (Photo credit: 4nitsirk)




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The Wit and Wisdom of “Dear Abby”

Dear Teen-Ager

Dear Teen-Ager (Photo credit: Larry He’s So Fine)

Pauline Esther Philips, better known as the advice columnist Abigail Van Buren  or  “Dear Abby”, died on Jan 16th 2013.

Advice columnists, many of whom are women, are often dismissed as being rather trite, lacking in true writing skills. I don’t believe that’s true, and certainly not in the case of the well-loved “Dear Abby” column. Here are some of her pearls of wisdom:-

  • “People who fight fire with fire usually end up with ashes.”
  • “Wisdom doesn’t automatically come with old age. Nothing does — except wrinkles.”
  • “It is almost impossible to throw dirt on someone without getting a little on yourself.”
  • “It’s only work if you’d rather be doing something else.

This high level of wit and insight is perhaps on a par with Dorothy Parker .

Pauline Phillips career as an advice columnist began after she approached the San Francisco Chronicle in 1956, and maintained she could write a better column than the one they already had. She’d taken a journalism course in college, but her previous 17yrs had been spent as a housewife raising two children.  At its peak, “Dear Abby” was syndicated in 1,200 newspapers and reached more than 90 million people worldwide. Sadly, Pauline Phillips developed Alzheimer’s disease. The column continued until 2002, when her daughter Jeanne took over the column and  continues to write it today.

During her years as the columnist, according to the syndicate,  Pauline Phillips advocated “equal rights for women, minorities, people with mental illness and those who are physically challenged,” and her column “promoted AIDS awareness and education, hospice care, the living will, organ donation and also raised awareness about gender apartheid suffered by women in Afghanistan,”

Her response to her queries, though at times lengthy, were often punchy quips:

“DEAR ABBY : Are birth control pills deductible?’ – KAY

“DEAR KAY – Only if they don’t work”

She also had her detractors:

“DEAR ABBY:  Between you and me , I think the people who write to you are either morons or just plain stupid ” – HENRY

“DEAR HENRY  – Which are you?”

To maintain a column for almost fifty years is a fantastic achievement – not bad for someone who’s profession is tarred with the reputation of ‘little skill’. FYI Pauline’s twin sister was Ann Landers (real name Esther Pauline Lederer,) who wrote a rival advice column for the Chicago-Sun Times. Esther died in 2002.

English: Dear Abby star on the Hollywood Walk ...

English: Dear Abby star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Pauline Phillips was 94 when she died. In her case, age truly did bring wisdom.

 Do you have any favorite  “Dear Abby” quotes or memories?

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