The Paris Review Interviews

Take a look at the Paris Review Interviews when you can.

They’re captivating, and I’ve benefited from them, especially those conducted in the fifties, sixties, seventies, eighties, early nineties, before the internet came around.

The interview with editor Gottlieb includes an interplay of notes from him and from writers whom he edited: Didion, Lessing, Crichton, Caro, Morrison, Ozick, Potok, and so on. There’s great material there on the struggle of writing, and the careful work of trained, passionate editors.

You can read the interviews in four collected editions; recently I’ve been tearing through the first three, which I grabbed from a Free Library on the side of the road.

The interviews are fascinating interludes in the lives of writers and editors, and offer hundreds of little, unexpected delights. You don’t need to be a writer, or an aspiring writer, to enjoy these interviews. They are moving stories about real people doing very difficult work, often in conditions quite adverse.

Advice on writing fiction

Develop an interesting story that your readers will like, and that you will enjoy telling.

Have at least one likeable character, and preferably several.

Villains can be likeable.

A character deserves a distinct voice.

It is interesting when characters learn.

Show, don’t tell.

Avoid lazy words.

Make a general plan and fix it up as you go.

Set up scenes in advance. Put objects and people and clues in place, before they are needed.

When you are having trouble writing a scene, ask yourself if you need to go back to before, and set up the scene.

Maybe it’s the right scene in the wrong place, or something like that.

Spend time on research, and accumulate a research library built with real books. Put the library in your office near your desk.

Get an authoritative, prescriptive dictionary. You will need to do some hunting to find a good one, since most are out of print. Mine is a Webster’s New International Second Edition from 1938. You can find them on eBay or Abebooks or the like. Dictionaries have personalities. Find one that feels right to you.

Read, a lot. Read books and stories that bring you real pleasure.

Read stories published before the internet came along, and stories published after, and think about the differences between them. Which do you like more? Which will your readers like more?

To this reader, stories in the age of the internet seem anxious, self-conscious, and less fun. You’re gonna have your own opinion about that, of course.

Write every day, when your mind is fresh. Mostly that means early morning. Get up, get some coffee, go to your office, get to work.

Take care of yourself; get your sleep, eat right, get some exercise, get a little sun. Do not neglect your family and friends, or you will regret it.

Don’t get too concerned about being a writer. Instead, do your research, make a plan, and let your characters tell your story for you. Keep a low profile. In time your work will speak for you.

Try cutting out some of those adverbs. Suddenly, awkwardly, actually, already, and so on. It’s a way of trusting the reader.

The reader is smarter than you think. The reader can tell when you’re anxious, and when you’re having a good time.

Be aware of the Bechdel test. Look it up, if you don’t know what it is. Consider how your story might be improved if you applied Bechdel.

Read stories to children.

Ride the bus sometimes and listen to the people.

— EB

lazy words

amazing, astonishing, astounding, awesome, and so on

let me decide for myself if something is astonishing or astounding

amazing means you stand and stare at something, not necessarily because it’s neato




any superlative, unless you’ve earned it


egregious . . . this word means “out of the flock”, or outstanding, which can be good or bad; it used to mean “very good in quality”; in any case, don’t use it, it makes you sound frantic







innovative (This word is used by someone who is trying to sell something. It just means new. Never write or speak this word. Never think this word. Don’t be a marketer.)












stupendous, stupefying, and so on







Contraction it’s given over to possessive case

“The hell with it,” say nation’s top grammarians


CHICAGO IL — A consortium of the nation’s top grammarians has revised the rules of grammar to permit the use of the word it’s as a possessive nominative pronoun. The revision was announced at a press conference today at the University of Chicago.

“Most people write it’s as a possessive anyway, so we figured, the hell with it,” said John Grossman, Managing Editor of the venerable Chicago Manual of Style.

Grossman was clutching a bottle.

“They write A South American poison dart frog sits atop it’s keeper’s thumb during feeding time,” said Grossman, or “The aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln pulls into Everett, Wash., as a fireboat shoots it’s water cannons.

A smirking Grossman held up placards that illustrated the formerly erroneous sentences. He then threw the placards on the ground and swigged from his bottle while cameras flashed around him.

“Since the it’s error is ubiquitous, we suppose it’s no longer an error,” said Karen Judd, author of the respected Copyediting: A Practical Guide. “That’s the [redacted] evolution of the language, right?”

She tapped Grossman on the shoulder, took his bottle, and drank.

Members of the consortium stated that they changed the grammatical rule to give a much-needed break to editors everywhere.

“If you’re an editor, you can spend hours explaining to your colleagues and writers the difference between it’s and its, and most of the time no one believes you anyway,” said Karen Elizabeth Gordon, author of the well-known grammar handbook The Transitive Vampire. “So now both it’s and its correctly indicate the possessive. We have saved editors a lot of stress.

“Like anyone gives a [redacted] anyway,” she said.

New iterations of dictionaries, textbooks, and grammar and style guides will reflect the grammatical change.

“Next, I bet we’ll be revising the relative pronouns which and that,” said Grossman, staggering slightly. “No one gives a [redacted] anymore about separating restrictive clauses from non-restrictive.”

“Yeah, they think if they write which instead of that, their words sound more important,” said Gordon, momentarily tussling with Grossman for the bottle.

“We might as well go ahead and endorse the use of a lot of for many, too,” said Judd.

“Or comprise for compose,” said Gordon.

“Or literally as an intensifier,” said Judd.

“Or nauseous for nauseating,” said Gordon.

“Or empathetic for empathic,” said Judd.

“Yeah, just [redacted] it all to [redacted],” said Grossman, glaring into the cameras. “Who took my [redacted] bottle?”