Tag: Writing

A Conversation With Jane Jacobs

Fascinating interview with Jane Jacobs. Jacobs is the author of one of the most important books to be written on American urban life.

EW: You wrote your 1961 book The Death and Life of Great American Cities when you were living in New York. You said, “Most of the material for these musings was at my front door.” In your case, I think the front door was, and still is, more than a metaphor. It neatly captures your own special qualities as a thinker and a writer because it’s open, it’s curious, it’s down-to-earth. You’re famous for helping us look at familiar things in a new way. I think one critic said your books are principally about what one could see if one opened one’s eyes. How did you come by that attitude, do you think, to be so observant or naturally inquisitive?

JJ: A couple of weeks ago, I finished writing an introduction to one of Mark Twain’s books, The Innocents Abroad, which is being reissued by the Modern Library. One thing I was struck by in reading it, was how much Twain emphasized that what he was trying to do was tell readers what they might see if they looked with their own eyes. He inveighed at great length against guidebooks and people who believed the guidebooks instead of what they were seeing. So this is an old problem. I suppose it comes from people wanting to be correct and not trusting themselves, fearing they’ll seem like uneducated country bumpkins in his day, if they told what they saw and how it struck them. I don’t remember ever being forced to wear those sorts of blinders when I was a child. Children do report what they see. If they’re not pooh-poohed and are listened to respectfully, grown-ups usually hear something interesting. That’s a way of encouraging people to look with their own eyes.

Still curious? In the more than forty years since the publication of her groundbreaking book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, her influence has been extraordinary—not only on architects, community workers, and planners but also on Nobel Prize–winning economists and ecologists.

The Best Book On The Art Of Writing

Last year, literary critic Joseph Epstein wrote The best book on the art of writing that I know is F. L. Lucas’ Style: The Art of Writing Well.

At the time of Epstein’s comments, the book was long out of print and selling for a small fortune on Amazon ($250 and up).

I’m not sure how I missed this but in response to the demand created by Epstein’s recommendation, Harriman House printed another run.

Keep in mind Style: The Art of Writing Well is not a usage guide. The best current usage guide is Garner’s Modern American Usage.

SNOOT’s rejoice.

Still curious? Check out How To Write With Style by Kurt Vonnegut.

22 Rules Pixar Uses To Create Appealing Stories

Emma Coats, a storyboard artist at Pixar Animation, recently tweeted a series of “story basics,” on how to create appealing stories:

#1: You admire a character for trying more than for their successes.

#2: You gotta keep in mind what’s interesting to you as an audience, not what’s fun to do as a writer. They can be v. different.

#3: Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

#4: Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

#5: Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.

#6: What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

#7: Come up with your ending before you figure out your middle. Seriously. Endings are hard, get yours working up front.

#8: Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.

#9: When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

#10: Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

#11: Putting it on paper lets you start fixing it. If it stays in your head, a perfect idea, you’ll never share it with anyone.

#12: Discount the 1st thing that comes to mind. And the 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th – get the obvious out of the way. Surprise yourself.

#13: Give your characters opinions. Passive/malleable might seem likable to you as you write, but it’s poison to the audience.

#14: Why must you tell THIS story? What’s the belief burning within you that your story feeds off of? That’s the heart of it.

#15: If you were your character, in this situation, how would you feel? Honesty lends credibility to unbelievable situations.

#16: What are the stakes? Give us reason to root for the character. What happens if they don’t succeed? Stack the odds against.

#17: No work is ever wasted. If it’s not working, let go and move on – it’ll come back around to be useful later.

#18: You have to know yourself: the difference between doing your best & fussing. Story is testing, not refining.

#19: Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

#20: Exercise: take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How d’you rearrange them into what you DO like?

#21: You gotta identify with your situation/characters, can’t just write ‘cool’. What would make YOU act that way?

#22: What’s the essence of your story? Most economical telling of it? If you know that, you can build out from there.

Still curious? Watch as Kurt Vonnegut explains the different shapes that stories can take.


Kurt Vonnegut: The Shapes of Stories

In this short lecture, Kurt Vonnegut explains the different shapes that stories can take using a chalkboard.

Now let me give you a marketing tip. The people who can afford to buy books and magazines and go to the movies don’t like to hear about people who are poor or sick, so start your story up here [top of axis]. You will see this story over and over again. People love it, and it is not copyrighted. The story is ‘Man in Hole,’ but the story needn’t be about a man or a hole. It’s: somebody gets into trouble, gets out of it again [draws line A]. It is not accidental that the line ends up higher than where it began. This is encouraging to readers.

This is part of a longer talk; find a transcript here.

I want to share with you something I’ve learned. I’ll draw it on the blackboard behind me so you can follow more easily [draws a vertical line on the blackboard]. This is the G-I axis: good fortune-ill fortune. Death and terrible poverty, sickness down here-great prosperity, wonderful health up there. Your average state of affairs here in the middle [points to bottom, top, and middle of line respectively].

Still curious?

Vonnegut is the author of Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions.

(The beautiful infographic is by graphic designer Maya Eilam.)