Steinbeck on Getting Started

In the Art of Fiction No.45 from The Paris Review, one of my favorite American authors John Steinbeck offers the following advice on getting started:

Now let me give you the benefit of my experience in facing 400 pages of blank stock—the appalling stuff that must be filled. I know that no one really wants the benefit of anyone’s experience which is probably why it is so freely offered. But the following are some of the things I have had to do to keep from going nuts.

1. Abandon the idea that you are ever going to finish. Lose track of the 400 pages and write just one page for each day, it helps. Then when it gets finished, you are always surprised.

2. Write freely and as rapidly as possible and throw the whole thing on paper. Never correct or rewrite until the whole thing is down. Rewrite in process is usually found to be an excuse for not going on. It also interferes with flow and rhythm which can only come from a kind of unconscious association with the material.

3. Forget your generalized audience. In the first place, the nameless, faceless audience will scare you to death and in the second place, unlike the theater, it doesn’t exist. In writing, your audience is one single reader. I have found that sometimes it helps to pick out one person—a real person you know, or an imagined person and write to that one.

4. If a scene or a section gets the better of you and you still think you want it—bypass it and go on. When you have finished the whole you can come back to it and then you may find that the reason it gave trouble is because it didn’t belong there.

5. Beware of a scene that becomes too dear to you, dearer than the rest. It will usually be found that it is out of drawing.

6. If you are using dialogue—say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.

The full interview and/or excerpts are here.

I wanted to share this because my writing process is similar except that I wasn’t aware of the insight associated with point 5 until now, so I shall certainly be on my guard; and  I don’t always practice point 6 but I’m trying to enforce it more.

These are great tips from a master writer. Which points work (or do not work) for you?



13 thoughts on “Steinbeck on Getting Started

    1. Isn’t it lovely to appreciate a writer’s tips even if one doesn’t like their work? It just emphasizes the importance between splitting their art from their craft.

      Have you tried ‘The Pearl’? It’s a quick and accessible read (a bit synonymous to Hemingway’s ‘The Old Man and the Sea’), and one of my favorite’s of his. I suppose if you don’t enjoy that one then it’s probably difficult to get into his work after all. Then again, that’s no problem, right? It’s not like there’s a shortage of authors to read 😀

      1. I have read “The Pearl.” Wow, I forgot about that one! And I really liked it. I think my prejudice against Steinbeck stems from the fact that one of my Junior High Teachers made us read “The Red Pony and Other stories” by Steinbeck. It wasn’t interesting and we all secretly referred to the the book as “The Dead Pony.” Ever since that time, it’s been hard to get into Steinbeck. I think I tried reading Grapes of Wrath but got stuck in some chapter when he went on and on about dust. 🙂

  1. ‘Abandon the idea you are ever going to finish’.
    Only someone who writes can appreciate the true import of those words.

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