By Chet Yarbrough
Sol Stein’s book is a writer’s road map. Writers see the highways and streets of writing a good story. Stein’s map reveals where a story begins, which roads to follow, and where a story ends. He explains how to write actionably.
Writers can find the map showing the crossroads for commercial and literary success in Stein’s book. Not all literary classics are commercially successful and not all commercially successful books are literary classics.
Do not write “she was upset”, write, “she threw an ash tray at the living room window, sprinkling shards of glass across a brown patch of grass. She then queerly spread her right hand across the damaged pane.” The first description is vague. It is only telling the reader that the character is upset. The second description, makes the reader decide on the character’s mood. A good writer is emoting readers to feel character. A good writer does not tell the reader what to think. On Stein’s map, this is the beginning of good story telling.
The “ash tray” action lines above uses what Stein calls particularity to give clues about a character (the thrown ashtray, the brown grass, the open hand pressing the center of the broken window). The value of using particularity sparks interest in knowing more about the ash tray thrower. These are the streets on Stein’s map.
Some writing details may be lost in commercially successful books but no highways and few streets are lost by a writer who successfully publishes what becomes a classic. However, the techniques of commercially successful and literary writers are the same. A cohesive theme ties a story together.
The use of particularity provides a trail of clues to a story’s theme. The use of suspense draws the reader deeper into a story. Differences appear in accurate use of language, in universal emotive qualities of story, and in insight to human nature. A commercially successful book can miss many of these characteristics; a classic misses few. These are story highways and streets on Stein’s map.
The craft of writing is a store owner’s job; always there because he owns the business. Write every day; rewrite every day. Use the dictionary. Use the thesaurus. Look for the perfect word that precisely defines the meaning of the idea. Strive for perfection by finding the right hook to begin a report, a book, or story; keep striving with each paragraph.
Stein offers more and says it better.
This is a book for writer’s reference shelf; to be read; to be listened to; again and again.