My Favorite Old Piece of Writing Advice

The last scream of Halloween

I have a beef with fortune cookies that give gratuitous advice instead of actual fortunes. (I want my future spelled out!) As a result, I’ve been trying to figure out how to couch a definition as advice. Here’s my best take so far: Remember the words in quotation marks!

One of my past writing teachers gave this definition and I’ve been helped by it countless times. (Unfortunately, I can’t remember the name of the teacher and can’t give him his proper due. I can remember illustrations from his book, but not the title.) But thank you, bearded guy in the late 70’s or early 80’s who taught through UCSD Extension.

He said, “A story is two ideas you rub together to

I made this sculpture from a decades old photo. Do you know who it is? Why do you think he connects with this post? Answers next week.

make fire.”

When I can’t get a story to ignite, this phrase pops into my head. This is probably especially important if you want to write something that makes a point. With only one idea, the story will probably just be preachy and certainly dull. Two ideas can collide, circle each other, and transform the characters, if they are real, and the ideas, if they are important enough.

One of the reasons I love writing is that it helps my ideas grow. I thought this post would be a piece that would be short, sweet, and quick to write (hey, it’s my birthday). But the process of putting keystroke to screen made me examine this phrase more closely

and revise what I had written. While it’s helped me

Tools of our trade

in terms of picture books, now I’m thinking of more complex stories with the interplay of the main ideas to drive the overall story arc and smaller ones to keep the flame going. Of maybe the two sticks idea can help me write and deliver better pitches? I have to think more about this and welcome any of your comments and ideas.

Back to my teacher—he had more memorable lines.  When I explained how something I  wrote was based on an actual experience, this wise man said something along the lines of, “Just because it’s true is no excuse.” (This comment, of course, refers to writing fiction.) A lame or weak experience which

doesn’t serve the story may need to be dropped or

Same trade, different tool

altered—especially for the external story, whose job, for me, is to be the best support for the truthfulness of the inner story.

Finally, my past teacher also taught me a picture book shouldn’t have a cast of thousands. If there’s a character that isn’t needed to move the story along and you love him, save him for a different adventure. But you already knew that.

I’d love to hear about your thoughts and any of your writing projects.