Thursday, October 19, 2017

Tim Gautreaux's Ten Pieces of Writing Advice

In the 23rd in a series of posts on 2017 books entered for The Story Prize, Tim Gautreaux, author of Signals (Alfred A. Knopf), shares his perspective.

  1. When you plan to write a piece of fiction, begin with this attitude: You have been hired to read an 8,000-word short story in a hot meeting room at three in the afternoon to a large class in freshman English. Your fee from the university is $10,000 to be paid with the caveat that each student who falls asleep during the narration will cause a $1,000 deduction from your fee.

  2. Understand the value of compassion in writing fiction. With this in mind visit a Wal-Mart in late morning and walk through the store observing the customers carefully until you can do so without condescension.

  3. Always keep in mind that whatever you write will be thrown into an enormous pile of competing manuscripts and that your writing has to kick all those manuscripts off an editor’s desk. Understand that an editor is always looking for a reason, any reason, to throw one manuscript to the floor so he can get to the next one in the enormous pile.

  4. If you choose to write a depressing story in which the main point of view character is something like a drunken father who is cruel to his children, try to make the reader see that he is not totally invalid as a human, that there is maybe some small bright spot in his being. Otherwise, you’ll be creating a one-dimensional troll that will annoy the reader, who in turn might suspect you of grinding an axe instead of telling a story.

  5. You are an entertainer. You have a responsibility to get and keep the reader involved in the narrative from the first paragraph on. A good story is a warm bath in a well-lit room.

  6. Don’t ignore your family history and where you were raised. It is your unique territory as a writer. Only you own it, so it can be made exotic to anyone else.

  7. Controlled and complex humor is the yeast that gives body to fiction, but remember that what is funny in a story causes the reader to laugh, but never the characters.

  8. Theme is automatic and something you concern yourself with only after your first draft.

  9. Don’t confuse fiction with autobiography, but do inhabit the physical world of your point of view character who should probably not share your personal history but can own your heart. You are what you write.

  10. The prose should be glossy. In either simple or complex sentences needless repetition, stale phrasing, or any degree of wordiness is a rock against the toe of the reader. The quality of your writing is determined by what is not in it as much as by what is.