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This is a personal project by @dellsystem. I built this to help me retain information from the books I'm reading.

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22

Choose (or invent) a single incident that is particularly revelatory, a Specimen. It should dramatize not just what the character does, but who he is—what could be going on inside him. You might tell a particularly hair-raising anecdote, like the time Hubert tried to get into the bank through the sewer system, but if the story stays on the surface of the action, what will readers come away with except the sense that this was a very wild guy? It might be better to tell about the time Hubert stole a major chemistry exam for a friend, but wouldn’t look at the exam himself, even though he was weak in chemistry too. That incident seems more evocative, and indicates a character of some complexity. The bank incident seems more exciting, of course, but it has to be told in a way that is similarly revealing.

You have to ask: What kind of understanding do I have of this character? Do I know enough about Hubert’s family and background to say more than he did this and he did that? Do I have the empathy to guess what went on in his head, how he thought and felt about what he did, and what he believed he was doing? And, how do I get that into the story?

A character comes out of a dense cultural, social, and psychological matrix. The more richly this is suggested, the more resonant the portrait. Evocative details about the person’s family, childhood incidents, intimate moments—all are clues that help us understand the character. And remember, too, that you’re writing fiction; you’re creating art. Actual facts are your raw material, not your boundaries.

—p.22 Specimen (21) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago

Choose (or invent) a single incident that is particularly revelatory, a Specimen. It should dramatize not just what the character does, but who he is—what could be going on inside him. You might tell a particularly hair-raising anecdote, like the time Hubert tried to get into the bank through the sewer system, but if the story stays on the surface of the action, what will readers come away with except the sense that this was a very wild guy? It might be better to tell about the time Hubert stole a major chemistry exam for a friend, but wouldn’t look at the exam himself, even though he was weak in chemistry too. That incident seems more evocative, and indicates a character of some complexity. The bank incident seems more exciting, of course, but it has to be told in a way that is similarly revealing.

You have to ask: What kind of understanding do I have of this character? Do I know enough about Hubert’s family and background to say more than he did this and he did that? Do I have the empathy to guess what went on in his head, how he thought and felt about what he did, and what he believed he was doing? And, how do I get that into the story?

A character comes out of a dense cultural, social, and psychological matrix. The more richly this is suggested, the more resonant the portrait. Evocative details about the person’s family, childhood incidents, intimate moments—all are clues that help us understand the character. And remember, too, that you’re writing fiction; you’re creating art. Actual facts are your raw material, not your boundaries.

—p.22 Specimen (21) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago
43

Unfortunately this form can also be trivialized by accepting the notion that a recognition is a solution. A sullen girl realizes that her haughty mother loved her all the time, and the haughty mother realizes that she must express her love for her sullen daughter more openly, and now all their problems are solved and they go shopping together. That simplistic psychology suits genres that require optimistic endings for problems. But serious fiction is expected to deal with complex human emotions more deeply and perceptively.

Another clichéd device in popular fiction is having the realization depend on some sort of coincidence, like a chance eavesdropping. That’s not only overused, but it depends on so many coincidences that it seems contrived by the writer rather than a natural development of personality and situation.

The texture of experience is extremely important for the Aha! story—readers need to feel the experience, the emotions, and the insight with the character. If this story is all external detail, the realization seems to come from nowhere. If the story is all internal thoughts, the character seems to be nowhere.

—p.43 Aha! (40) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago

Unfortunately this form can also be trivialized by accepting the notion that a recognition is a solution. A sullen girl realizes that her haughty mother loved her all the time, and the haughty mother realizes that she must express her love for her sullen daughter more openly, and now all their problems are solved and they go shopping together. That simplistic psychology suits genres that require optimistic endings for problems. But serious fiction is expected to deal with complex human emotions more deeply and perceptively.

Another clichéd device in popular fiction is having the realization depend on some sort of coincidence, like a chance eavesdropping. That’s not only overused, but it depends on so many coincidences that it seems contrived by the writer rather than a natural development of personality and situation.

The texture of experience is extremely important for the Aha! story—readers need to feel the experience, the emotions, and the insight with the character. If this story is all external detail, the realization seems to come from nowhere. If the story is all internal thoughts, the character seems to be nowhere.

—p.43 Aha! (40) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago
47

In certain kinds of problem stories, there are only two possibilities. The character wins or loses, hits or misses, triumphs or fails. Those stories can work well enough if they are rendered excitingly, but there is something disappointing in them, a predictability readers feel. Though readers’ hearts might race, there is often a sense of being manipulated—will this be sentimental victory or sentimental irony?

Subtleties and ironies appear in the resolution when the problem and the attempted solution don’t resolve themselves around a simple win-or-lose closing. The confrontation in the school might result in an impasse. The resolution might raise other questions, give unexpected insights, or be believable but strange. Henry can’t pick up a knife. He puts a Mozart symphony on the stereo. The puzzled bear eats the record. Life is suggestive, not tidy.

—p.47 Bear at the Door (45) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago

In certain kinds of problem stories, there are only two possibilities. The character wins or loses, hits or misses, triumphs or fails. Those stories can work well enough if they are rendered excitingly, but there is something disappointing in them, a predictability readers feel. Though readers’ hearts might race, there is often a sense of being manipulated—will this be sentimental victory or sentimental irony?

Subtleties and ironies appear in the resolution when the problem and the attempted solution don’t resolve themselves around a simple win-or-lose closing. The confrontation in the school might result in an impasse. The resolution might raise other questions, give unexpected insights, or be believable but strange. Henry can’t pick up a knife. He puts a Mozart symphony on the stereo. The puzzled bear eats the record. Life is suggestive, not tidy.

—p.47 Bear at the Door (45) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago
61

A broader application of write what you know recognizes that the idea of you is complex in itself. You, in theory at least, know yourself. But your self is made up of many selves—the girl who wanted an older brother, the high school misfit, the college student who dressed in black and wanted to join the French club, the woman who fantasizes about what she’d do with her own television talk show. You are, in part, not only persons you once were, but also persons you have tried to be, persons you have avoided being, and persons you fear you might be. All these are people you know.

—p.61 Write What You Know (61) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago

A broader application of write what you know recognizes that the idea of you is complex in itself. You, in theory at least, know yourself. But your self is made up of many selves—the girl who wanted an older brother, the high school misfit, the college student who dressed in black and wanted to join the French club, the woman who fantasizes about what she’d do with her own television talk show. You are, in part, not only persons you once were, but also persons you have tried to be, persons you have avoided being, and persons you fear you might be. All these are people you know.

—p.61 Write What You Know (61) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago
63

Rather than giving us license to write about what we don’t know, Henry James wants us to understand that the notion of experience is complicated. “The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it—this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience.” James astutely shifts the focus from the quantity of experience to the quality of experience by urging the writer, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”

That phrase deserves particular reflection. It recognizes that for writers experience is ultimately internal. A person may have worked on the railroad for forty years, traveled to exotic countries, or had a galaxy of escapades, but if that person is not observant, perceptive, and thoughtful about those experiences, that will show itself in the writing. On the other hand, if you have paid close attention, ideas for fiction will occur within the smallest compass. Educating yourself to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost is the deepest experience of all.

—p.63 Write What You Know (61) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago

Rather than giving us license to write about what we don’t know, Henry James wants us to understand that the notion of experience is complicated. “The power to guess the unseen from the seen, to trace the implication of things, to judge the whole piece by the pattern, the condition of feeling life in general so completely that you are well on your way to knowing any particular corner of it—this cluster of gifts may almost be said to constitute experience.” James astutely shifts the focus from the quantity of experience to the quality of experience by urging the writer, “Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost!”

That phrase deserves particular reflection. It recognizes that for writers experience is ultimately internal. A person may have worked on the railroad for forty years, traveled to exotic countries, or had a galaxy of escapades, but if that person is not observant, perceptive, and thoughtful about those experiences, that will show itself in the writing. On the other hand, if you have paid close attention, ideas for fiction will occur within the smallest compass. Educating yourself to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost is the deepest experience of all.

—p.63 Write What You Know (61) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago
68

When you have an idea—“Abortions are bad,” “Alcoholism destroys homes,” “Old people are neglected”—and you write a story mainly to exemplify that idea, you’re giving your readers an exemplum, a little sermon that preaches by example. In a good story, however, the experience is primary, not a message. If you think of a story you admire, and someone asks you what its point is, you’re likely to answer, “Well, it’s about a lot of things.” In other words, you felt that the story wasn’t reducible to a single idea—it probably raised more questions than it answered.

—p.68 Don’t Do This: A Short Guide to What Not to Do (65) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago

When you have an idea—“Abortions are bad,” “Alcoholism destroys homes,” “Old people are neglected”—and you write a story mainly to exemplify that idea, you’re giving your readers an exemplum, a little sermon that preaches by example. In a good story, however, the experience is primary, not a message. If you think of a story you admire, and someone asks you what its point is, you’re likely to answer, “Well, it’s about a lot of things.” In other words, you felt that the story wasn’t reducible to a single idea—it probably raised more questions than it answered.

—p.68 Don’t Do This: A Short Guide to What Not to Do (65) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago
86

If you make your character witty, or perceptive, or peculiarly thoughtful, readers realize that he may behave erratically but something worthwhile is underneath. If you let readers understand the circumstances that created his personality, so that his vices or crimes are understood as reactions to things that were done to him, sympathy results. That doesn’t mean readers will approve of his acts, but it does mean that they may care what happens to him, hope he mends his ways, are saddened by his setbacks, and feel that the experience of knowing him through fiction has been worthwhile. In Wright’s tragic novel, Native Son, the main character keeps doing things that make readers think, Oh no. Don’t do that. But Wright provides an understanding that keeps readers emotionally engaged even as they are shocked.

—p.86 Anti-hero (85) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago

If you make your character witty, or perceptive, or peculiarly thoughtful, readers realize that he may behave erratically but something worthwhile is underneath. If you let readers understand the circumstances that created his personality, so that his vices or crimes are understood as reactions to things that were done to him, sympathy results. That doesn’t mean readers will approve of his acts, but it does mean that they may care what happens to him, hope he mends his ways, are saddened by his setbacks, and feel that the experience of knowing him through fiction has been worthwhile. In Wright’s tragic novel, Native Son, the main character keeps doing things that make readers think, Oh no. Don’t do that. But Wright provides an understanding that keeps readers emotionally engaged even as they are shocked.

—p.86 Anti-hero (85) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago
87

Anti-heroes afflicted with passivity are a problem. Victims can be main characters, but if they are passive, always acted upon rather than acting, they get tiresome. Readers tend to be first irritated and then bored by someone who just lets things happen to him time after time. The very narrative seems to lose energy, and a sudden upturn at the end can’t save it. The worm must be trying to turn, even if it can only writhe.

100%

—p.87 Anti-hero (85) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago

Anti-heroes afflicted with passivity are a problem. Victims can be main characters, but if they are passive, always acted upon rather than acting, they get tiresome. Readers tend to be first irritated and then bored by someone who just lets things happen to him time after time. The very narrative seems to lose energy, and a sudden upturn at the end can’t save it. The worm must be trying to turn, even if it can only writhe.

100%

—p.87 Anti-hero (85) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago
89

Great writers have understood that if you create a fresh, individual character or a vivid, moving experience you suggest all human experience—all that has gone before and that is yet to come. The more specific and individuated a character is—like Flaubert’s Emma Bovary or Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus or Twain’s Huck Finn—the more universal and archetypal the character can be. If you’re afraid that specificity of detail limits the significance of your characters, you’ll cut yourself off from your most original and vital material.

—p.89 Atmosphere (89) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago

Great writers have understood that if you create a fresh, individual character or a vivid, moving experience you suggest all human experience—all that has gone before and that is yet to come. The more specific and individuated a character is—like Flaubert’s Emma Bovary or Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus or Twain’s Huck Finn—the more universal and archetypal the character can be. If you’re afraid that specificity of detail limits the significance of your characters, you’ll cut yourself off from your most original and vital material.

—p.89 Atmosphere (89) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago
89

To establish a particular atmosphere, mood, or tone, you must pay attention to your readers’ short memory for sensation. If the atmosphere is to be foreboding, you must forebode on every page. If it is to be cold, you must chill, not once or twice, but until your readers are shivering. Remember that you’re creating an experience, not just imparting data. Sensory information once said is not enough said. Our own experience tells us that a hangover is a constant presence for its full duration no matter what else we are doing. Don’t be afraid of repetition.

—p.89 Atmosphere (89) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago

To establish a particular atmosphere, mood, or tone, you must pay attention to your readers’ short memory for sensation. If the atmosphere is to be foreboding, you must forebode on every page. If it is to be cold, you must chill, not once or twice, but until your readers are shivering. Remember that you’re creating an experience, not just imparting data. Sensory information once said is not enough said. Our own experience tells us that a hangover is a constant presence for its full duration no matter what else we are doing. Don’t be afraid of repetition.

—p.89 Atmosphere (89) by Jerome Stern 6 months ago