Writing Advice Archive

The Art of Dialogue for the Reticent

I write down bits of conversation I overhear in the train, in the park, at the checkout line, and borrow the more memorable ones for my own fiction writing. I am interested in the lines that sound strange or nonsensical, because they show a sense of character and intimacy

Origin Stories: Amy Gustine’s YOU SHOULD PITY US INSTEAD

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Amy Gustine’s debut collection, You Should Pity Us Instead, is an unsentimental exploration of people in distress. I recently asked Gustine where she drew her inspiration. She told me that stories come alive for her when she opposes two equal forces, which explains why each one feels like such

Body Language: What Writers Can Learn from Artists

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Body language is the nonverbal expression of emotion and thought—a form of communicating arguably more effective than the system made up of words. Words are adequate for the less complex task of conveying information, but body language and tone do the heavy lifting. By some estimates only 7 percent

On and Of the Page: The Life–Art Collapse

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A few years ago at a conference, I read a section from my long poem “Sublimation” in which the speaker describes a miscarriage that, in its vicious pain and effusions, wakes her up in the middle of the night. After the reading, as I was mingling my way toward

Origin Story: Tony Tulathimutte’s PRIVATE CITIZENS

  Tony Tulathimutte’s debut novel, Private Citizens, charts the spectacular floundering of four recent college graduates. His eye is so sharp, his characters so recognizable, and his truth so pitiless that I sometimes had to close the book, as if he might read my soul through its pages. This

Structure: What Writers Can Learn from Visual Artists

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Of all the rules that artists follow, this one is paramount: never ever fill in details before the structure is done. Painters sometimes spend hours sketching before ever touching the canvas. And when they finally do, they build their work slowly, layering in color, laboring on the drawing underneath, roughing

What is Your Writing Routine?

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What is your writing routine? What does it look like when you sit to write? Any special rituals? I am so glad you asked. It’s really pretty great. I sit at my computer, and I check Facebook for, like, ten minutes. Okay, haha, twenty minutes. And then I write.

Origin Stories: Fiction by Prompt

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How do great authors begin their fiction? With a line or a character, a memory or a mission? This year, as Ploughshares’s unofficial origin-story archivist, I’ll investigate. Because I’m a teacher, I started by looking for stories that grew out of writing assignments. Here’s what I found. 1. Amy

What Happens When We Read: The Mind’s Eye and How it Works

Reading is a cognitive experience and written language can elicit in the brain an array of sensory perceptions. A description of an apple pie once made me put the book down so I could bask in its warm smell. But what the brain does most readily is see. It’s

Majestic Endings

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  As I closed in on the first draft of a novel, I wrote toward an ending I’d held in my mind for months. It was a quiet climax in keeping with the, ahem, literary nature of my novel. I knew that when I finished the draft, I’d have