Margaret Kingsbury

Writer, Editor, Teacher

Category: Writing Advice

A Bookshelf of Writing Books

How I Teach Drafting Papers

On the first day of the semester in my University Writing class, I ask my students to generate a research question and to ask as many of their fellow students the question before the class ends. The question can be anything: best place for pizza in town, favorite ice cream flavor, what to watch on Netflix. My question is the same every year: “What’s the hardest part of writing?” And the most frequent answer is, “Getting started.”

It’s hard to write. No one ever said it was easy, but many college students are only presented with perfect, completed pieces of writing. This leads to the feeling that their own writing needs to be perfect after a single draft. And then writing paralysis sets in. Staring at the blank page, unable to come up with any ideas, frustration. Or writing a sentence, erasing it, rewriting the sentence making only minute changes. And two hours later, the student has maybe a page completed.

This doesn’t work. Getting started shouldn’t be that hard.

So I teach a 4 stage drafting process. I heard about this process after observing another college intro writing professor teach this method to her own students. It was created by composition instructor Betty Flowers, after having very similar experiences as my own. Here it is:

4 stages of drafting

1. Madman: The crazy idea draft. Write crazily, write sloppily, and go on tangents. This is a discovery process. You don’t know everything you have to say unless you let yourself explore.
2. Architect: The designer draft. Narrow your ideas into a single focus and then shape your paper by grouping similar ideas together around that focus. This draft seeks to organize your thoughts around one point by choosing what ideas your paper will be about. Not everything can stay. If you’re an outliner, then this is when you’ll outline your paper.
3. Carpenter: The builder draft. Build up the paper by filling in the spaces your architect draft has outlined (with transitions, more evidence, etc.), combining your madman ideas into a logical, cohesive home.
4. Judge: The critic draft. Edits spelling and grammar errors. Edit as a reader instead of as the writer.

Most writers believe revising means editing for grammar. They don’t realize that grammar and mechanics should be one of the last things a writer looks at. That’s because what you’re going to write about has to come before how your sentences work.

In conjunction with teaching this drafting process, I also assign a chapter from Anne Lamott’s fantastic writing how-to book Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life — “Shitty First Drafts.” In this chapter, Lamott describes a similar revising process, though she calls the first draft the ‘child’s’ draft, where you let yourself romp and play on the page. Giving students this chapter shows them that ‘shitty first drafts’ is normal. That’s how writing works. And they get to cuss in class.

I also tell students that this is a recursive process. Maybe you start your carpenter draft and realize you need a lot more about a point. Then you can go back to being a madman, and do a freewrite and see where it leads you.

A few students always object to the madman drafts. They like to outline, but what I’ve noticed about the students who love outlining is that their outlines are sprawling, wild things. They essentially work as madman drafts — freewriting ideas, listing points and quotes beneath those ideas, testing out topics. If that’s how the student likes to begin, I usually let them do so. As long as they’re still letting themselves freewrite and explore ideas and concepts, I don’t care what it looks like.

But most students find writing a madman draft freeing. They tell me they finish papers much faster, despite going through multiple drafts. And they like their papers better. That’s because it didn’t hurt to write it. They let themselves ‘play’ on the page, gave themselves permission to be imperfect. And all writers need that permission.

Here are more notes I give concerning these 4 stages:

Strategies for the Madman Draft
• List ideas, start freewriting. No editing sentences as you type.
• Be specific with details, tell stories, think about the stories and write out those thoughts.
• Can be stream-of-consciousness, in response to questions or ideas, and/or full paragraph meanderings.
• Ignore word count at first. If you run out of things to say, move on to another aspect of the topic, or reread without making changes and add to what you’ve written.

Strategies for the Architect Draft
• Reread madman draft, and choose a focus for your paper.
– Write focus in 1-2 sentences. This works as your thesis statement.
• Delete writing that doesn’t relate to focus.
• Organize into paragraphs around similar points.
– Suggestions:
o Make an outline
o Highlight similar ideas in different colors
o Print off a copy and cut out each paragraph and try rearranging it

Strategies for the Carpenter Draft
• Reread Architect Draft. Add evidence and details where needed.
• Write or rewrite the Introduction.
– Start specific, not broad.
o An anecdote/memory.
o An elaboration of your specific focus.
o Highlighting your research question and results.
• Write or rewrite the Conclusion.
– Point to broader implications. Why is the focus of this paper important to your audience?
– Propose a course of action, a solution to an issue, or questions for further study.
– If you begin by describing an anecdote or memory, you can end with the same anecdote or memory as proof that your paper is helpful in creating a new understanding
o Avoid saying “To conclude” or “In conclusion”
• Add transitions.
– Bridges between paragraphs
– Go at the beginning of paragraphs and connect the information from the previous paragraph to the new paragraph
– Usually phrases. Avoid 1 word transitions like “Next,” “Finally,” “Secondly,” etc., unless they add to the meaning of the sentence
– Example: “Though I failed my first paper in tenth grade English, I aced the research paper in History class.”

Strategies for the Judge Draft
• Make a list of the paper’s strengths and weaknesses.
• Reread and try to correct weaknesses.
• Read sentence by sentence from the END to the beginning, making spelling and grammar corrections.
• Read aloud, making corrections as you see them.
• Have someone else read it to you, making notes when you hear something off.

If you’re a teacher, feel free to use my notes. And even if you’re not a teacher, I find these methods aid in my own writing. It’s easy to forgot that drafting is a part of writing.

A Formula for Epic Fantasy


The Black Gate Closed by Alan Lee

The Black Gate Closed by Alan Lee

Recently, I’ve been mulling over a 3-part formula for epic fantasy. It focuses on broad plotting in fantasy series versus micro plotting. Here’s the formula:

  1. Individual
  2. Community
  3. Globe

Book 1, or the beginning of the fantasy series, focuses on the individual hero(ine) and their conflict. The hero(ine) discovers they’re different, or they’re given a task, or they’re suddenly alone (or all of the above). They must learn something about themselves, be trained, leave the only home they’ve ever known. In The Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo leaves Hobbiton and chooses to be the ring-bearer. In The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss, Kvothe discovers he’s a genius, loses his family, and goes to the university to train in magic. In the Valdemar trilogies by Mercedes Lackey, book one often if not always begins with a teenager discovering they have magic, their horse appearing, and leaving home to train in magic. In The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan, Rand leaves home and discovers he’s special; the same happens to both Kaladin and Shallan in The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson. I could name many more examples, but that’s probably enough.

Books 2+ explore community conflicts. This isn’t to say individual conflicts are no longer explored, but that by helping communities overcome conflict, the hero(ine) learns something about themselves. In The Two Towers, the hero(in)es face community conflicts in Rohan, Helms Deep, Isengard, and more. I haven’t read The Wise Man’s Fear yet, but I bet Kvothe leaves the university and travels into the wider world, visits communities that are undergoing conflicts, and helps (or fails to help) those communities. In the Valdemar trilogies, book 2 has the newly trained Herald being given an assignment that requires them to travel to outlying communities, and of course everything isn’t as it should be in those communities. These community-level conflicts can take up more than 1 book. The Wheel of Time series, for instance, has many community-level conflicts happening over many books. Words of Radiance is interesting because it focuses on a single area/community of conflict, but Sanderson gives the reader brief glimpses into community conflicts happening around the world, though the main characters are centrally located.

Finally, the fantasy series explores global-level conflict. Often, the possibility for global conflict has been there the entire time, and the smaller, individual and community conflicts have been a product or leading towards the larger, global conflict. The stakes are much higher in these conflicts. The world might end, humanity be destroyed, evil overtake the world, etc. The hero(ine) faces the ultimate villain(s) that threaten to destroy everything, not just the hero(ine). In The Return of the King, Sauron’s defeated, the ring thrown into the aptly named Fires of Mount Doom. If the heroes had failed, evil would’ve ruled the land. Though unfinished, I’m betting in The Kingkiller Chronicle a threat that imperils everything Kvothe knows and loves and the fabric of magic itself occurs to bring him out of exile (or, he tells about this conflict which then forced him into exile). For Valdemar, in book 3 the country itself is imperiled, and the Herald must save the day or else the entire country be destroyed. I haven’t finished The Wheel of Time series (stopped at book 10 about a decade ago and I don’t want to reread the entire thing to finally finish it), but the global conflict is apparent early on: The Dragon Reborn must face the Dark One, as the prophecy foretells. This is both an individual conflict and a global conflict, as many final books are. Unless the hero(ine) can conquer their inner demons and fears, the world will end, or everything good will be destroyed.

Many epic fantasies follow this formula. A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin moves through the formula slowly, focusing on different hero(in)es at different times, and often the hero(in)es fail at saving a community, which is what makes the series a dark fantasy. And while all these communities face danger, Westeros itself is threatened to be destroyed by the white walkers (global). The Earthsea trilogy by Ursula Le Guin masterfully uses the formula to show that individual, community, and global conflict are all one and the same. N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series moves in and out of all 3 parts simultaneously in both the books published so far — The Fifth Season and The Obelisk Gate — though it still seems to follow the basic formula, and is also obviously leading to a larger, global conflict. I could go on and on.

The formula is intuitively logical. It plays a part even in the real world, often in education and morality. First, an individual learns how to be a good human being (ideally), then they take their skills and help those around them in the community, and by helping those around them, the world improves. Individual-Community-Globe. The formula also aligns with Joseph Campbell’s hero’s journey, though more simplified and broader in scope — focusing less on the individual and more on overarching plot structure. But if I were to map out the possible plot points in each of these 3 parts, I bet it would look very similar to Campbell’s hero’s journey.

I can think of several science fiction series that follow this formula as well, but it doesn’t seem as consistent as in epic fantasy. My theory is that global-level conflict can be addressed in fantasy in ways that seem forced or trite in other genres, but individual and community-level conflict is often seen regardless of genre. Also, the idea of ‘training’ seems to hold more importance in fantasy than other genres, though again, I can think of exceptions, especially in science fiction.

And not all fantasy series follow this formula. China Mieville’s Bas-Lag trilogy stands out as an exception. Conflict is thrown upon the characters with no training, the characters are not ‘special’ in any unique way, the city faces conflict but often the hero is a byproduct of the conflict. The world is never imperiled. I’m sure there are other epic fantasies that do not follow the formula.

I may explore this idea more at some point. It seems that fantasy offers a unique way of looking at how individuals can affect the world, but that idea is nothing new to anyone who’s already obsessed with the genre. Nonetheless, I’m always fascinated by how the craft of writing aids in message and theme.

Finding the will to create when everything feels like it’s falling apart


A lot of people are feeling pain, frustration, and anger right now. And that’s okay. We need to feel these things. While strong emotions sometimes fuel creativity, it can also stunt it. I’ve collected quotes from books lying around my house, quotes about finding hope, rediscovering creativity, and why creativity is needed when things look the bleakest. Feel free to leave quotes, ideas, poems, etc. that help you in the comments.


Anne Lamott in the essay “Writer’s Block,” From Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life

“The problem is acceptance, which is something we’re taught not to do. We’re taught to improve uncomfortable situations, to change things, alleviate unpleasant feelings. But if you accept the reality that you have been given—that you are not in a productive creative period—you free yourself to begin filling up again.”

Expansion | Bronze with Electricity by Paige Bradley Click on the picture to see her other amazing sculptures

Expansion | Bronze with Electricity by Paige Bradley. Click on the picture to see more of her amazing art.

Viktor E. Frankle, From Man’s Search for Meaning

“We must never forget that we may also find meaning in life when confronted with a hopeless situation, when facing a fate that cannot be changed.”


Jean-Paul Sartre, From Existentialism Is a Humanism

“When we say that man chooses himself, not only do we mean that each of us must choose himself, but also that in choosing himself, he is choosing for all men. In fact, in creating the man each of us wills ourselves to be, there is not a single one of our actions that does not at the same time create an image of man as we think he ought to be….What art and morality have in common is creation and invention….This is humanism because we remind man that there is no legislature other than himself and that he must, in his abandoned state, make his own choices, and also because we show that it is not by turning inward, but by constantly seeking a goal outside of himself in the form of liberation, or of some special achievement, that man will realize himself as truly human.”


Clarissa Pinkola Estés, From Women Who Run with the Wolves: Myths and Stories of the Wild Woman Archetype

“Stories set the inner life into motion, and this is particularly important where the inner life is frightened, wedged, or cornered. Story greases the hoists and pulleys, it causes adrenaline to surge, shows us the way out, down, or up, and for our trouble, cuts us fine wide doors in previously blank walls, openings that lead to the dreamland, that lead to love and learning, that lead us back to our own real lives as knowing wildish women.”

Passage (2007) by Cornelia Konrads. Again, I've linked to her portfolio.

Passage (2007) by Cornelia Konrads. Again, I’ve linked to her amazing portfolio.

Marina Warner, From From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and Their Tellers

“Storytelling can act to face objects of derision or fear and sometimes—not always—inspire tolerance and even fellow-feeling; it can realign allegiances and remap terrors. Storytellers can also break through the limits of permitted thought to challenge conventions; fairy tales, I have argued in this book, offer a way of putting questions, of testing the structure as well as guaranteeing its safety, of thinking up alternatives as well as living daily reality in an examined way…[The fairy tale] offers magical metamorphoses to the one who opens the door, who passes on what was found there, and to those who hear what the storyteller brings. The faculty of wonder, like curiosity, can make things happen; it is time for wishful thinking to have its due.”


Ursula Le Guin in the essay “A War without End,” From The Wave in the Mind: Talks and Essays on the Writer, the Reader, and the Imagination

“To me the important thing is not to offer any specific hope of betterment but, by offering an imagined but persuasive alternative to reality, to dislodge my mind, and so the reader’s mind, from the lazy, timorous habit of thinking that the way we live now is the only way people can live. It is the inertia that allows the institutions of injustice to continue unquestioned…We will not know our own injustice if we cannot imagine justice. We will not be free if we do not imagine freedom. We cannot demand that anyone try to attain justice and freedom who has not had a chance to imagine them as attainable.”


Mary Oliver, From Why I Wake Early: New Poems

Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does It End?

There are things you can’t reach. But
You can reach out to them, and all day long.

The wind, the bird flying away. The idea of God.

And it can keep you as busy as anything else, and happier.

The snake slides away; the fish jumps, like a little lily,
Out of the water and back in; the goldfinches sing
from the unreachable top of the tree.

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
   as though with your arms open.
And thinking: maybe something will come, some
   shining coil of wind,
   or a few leaves from any old tree—
      they are all in this too.
And now I will tell you the truth.
Everything in the world

At least, closer.

And, cordially.

Like the nibbling, tinsel-eyed fish; the unlooping snake.
Like goldfinches, little dolls of gold
fluttering around the corner of the sky

of God, the blue air.

Andy Goldsworthy.

Andy Goldsworthy. Needs no introduction.

Lao Tzu, From the Tao Te Ching


Thirty spokes
Share one hub.
Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand, and you
will have the use of the cart. Knead clay in order to make a
vessel. Adapt the nothing therein to the purpose in hand,
and you will have the use of the vessel. Cut out doors and
windows in order to make a room. Adapt the nothing
therein to the purpose in hand, and you will have the use
of the room.
Thus what we gain is Something, yet it is by virtue of
Nothing that this can be put to use.

Reading Railroad: October’s Reading


Everything I read in October. I made up for the slow reading in September last month!


Except the Queen by Jane Yolen and Midori Snyder. Published in 2010. Adult fantasy. Two fae sisters, Meteora and Serana, happen upon the Fairy Queen with a mortal man and their child tucked away safe in the grass. They flee the queen’s wrath, but when one makes a gossipy mistake, the queen finds them and curses them to live apart in the mortal realm as two old women. For those who love fae and fairy. My full review is on Goodreads. 4/5


Vassa in the Night by Sarah Porter. Published in September 2016. YA fantasy. It’s current day Brooklyn, but not quite the same Brooklyn we know, for the nights feel endless and stretch on and on and on, and there’s a convenience store chain called Babs Yagg, if you dare to go in it. Anyone ‘caught’ stealing has their head cut off. Vassa’s not a normal 16-yr-old. She carries with her a secret magical doll, Erg, that her mother gave her. Arriving at the store, Vassa is tricked by Babs Yaggs into working there for 3 nights. She knows she’s doomed to have her head cut off, but maybe with Erg’s help she can make it out. I didn’t quite believe the characters, though it’s a creative idea. My full review is on Goodreads. Thanks to Tor/Forge and Goodreads First Reads for the free copy in exchange for an honest review. 3/5

Faithful by Alice Hoffman. Published in November 2016. Contemporary fiction. It’s release day for this one! You can read my full review on this blog. Thanks to NetGalley and Simon & Schuster for providing me with a copy in exchange for an honest review. 4/5



Rumpled by Lacey Louwagie. Published in 2014. Fantasy. A quick read — novella-length — that explores an alternate version of Rumpelstiltskin. I’m in a Goodreads book group with Lacey, so I wanted to give her retelling a read. 4/5



Bohemian Gospel by Dana Chamblee Carpenter. Published in 2015. Historical fiction. Mouse lives in a convent, but she’s not allowed to attend church or to be baptized. People whisper she’s a witch, but her surrogate father Father Lucas assures her she’s a child of God. But she knows she’s different. She can see people’s souls, and when she looks for her own, she sees nothing. She also has unusual healing powers, which come in handy when the young King Ottakar winds up at the abbey after being shot by an arrow. She saves him, and in return he makes her his ward, and takes her with him to Prague. Those who love historical fiction and magic should give this a try. I work with Dana, so I’m so glad I enjoyed this. My full review is on Goodreads. I may post it on this blog at some point. 4/5

Lilith by George MacDonald. Published in 1895. Fantasy. While I was expecting a Christian fantasy, I wasn’t expecting it to be an allegory. Some people may love religious allegories; I’m not a fan. I can definitely see how MacDonald inspired C.S. Lewis. 2/5



The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury. Published in 1972. MG light horror. Through the eyes of a group of trick-or-treating boys, Bradbury explores the Halloween traditions of several cultures, and the ending is perfect. While written for middle grade readers, it was fun for me to read too. Bradbury’s descriptions of Fall and Halloween are evocative; you can really tell he loved this time of year. This is my favorite Ray Bradbury so far! Perfect Halloween read. 4/5

Short Story Collections

The Rose and The Beast: Fairy Tales Retold by Francesca Lia Block. Published in 2001. YA short stories. While most of these stories are terribly depressing (dealing with sexual violence), they also have a jerky, happy quality — a tone that resembles teenage girl talk. It reminded me a bit of Kate Bernheimer. If you like your fairytale retellings to add details and turn archetypes into 3 dimensional characters, this isn’t a collection you’ll enjoy. But if you like retellings that keep the peculiar flatness of the originals, coupled with a modern setting and disturbing content, then this is right up your alley. I read this in a single sitting, so it’s a fast read. My full review is on Goodreads. 3.5/5

Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz. Published in 1989. MG horror stories. I listened to this on youtube the day before Halloween, and remembered almost all of the stories! Brought me right back to childhood. Can you believe that no one in one of my college classes had ever heard of it!? 4/5



Steering the Craft by Ursula Le Guin. Published in 1998. 10 craft exercises in 10 chapters. These craft exercises help break down the elements of writing so the writer is more conscious of these elements as they’re writing. I did all 10 exercises, and feel more conscious of the physicality of my writing than I did before. Another plus to these exercises are that they can be done again and again. While you won’t have a short story ready for submission after reading this, you will have the skills (or improved skills) to write one. My full review is on Goodreads. 4/5

Short Stories

These are all free to read online by clicking on the links.

The Pigeon Summer by Brit Mandelo. Published in May 2016 by J.’s best friend and soulmate has died, and si doesn’t know how to continue. Plus, si believes si’s being haunted. Interesting use of gender-queer pronouns. I liked that about it, and J.’s struggle with grief felt very real. I wish the speculative element had been emphasized more. 3.5/5


The Cleverest Daughter by Sarah Marshall. Published in 2016 by One Throne Magazine. A story of abuse combined with a lovely retelling of East of the Sun, West of the Moon. It took a few readings of the beginning for me to figure out who was saying what, but I enjoyed it. 4/5

The Magician and Laplace’s Demon by Tom Crosshill. Published in 2014 by Clarkesworld Magazine. An AI meets its match in a magician, but it’s not going to let a magician outsmart it. Interesting concept and well-written. 4/5



Wine by Yoon Ha Lee. Published in 2014 by Clarkesworld Magazine. To save their planet a decision is made, but the cost is too much for some. Interesting character development — would like to read more in this world. 4/5



Happy reading in the month to come!

Writing from Experience, or Exploring Something New



A path I walked at Smoky Mountains National Park

Several friends and I have recently discussed whether writers can and should write outside their experience. For me, becoming someone else, experiencing the world through different ways of perceiving, is what makes writing a joy. But my friends argue that only those who have experienced something can write truly about it, and that the best writing comes from experience.

Ultimately, I feel like every writer is different. Some writers write to discover more about themselves, and their experiences, and how those relate to the world. Other writers write to explore other people, how their minds work, how they experience the world differently. And probably most writers are somewhere in between.

This idea applies to reading as well. Do you read to understand yourself and your experiences better, or others? Do you prefer to read about characters that mirror your own ideologies and cultural backgrounds, or do you prefer characters that are quite different from you? Or somewhere in between?

All readers and writers sift things through their own unique way of perceiving, so in that way, all reading and writing comes from experience, in that our experience dictates our perception. But I do disagree with the idea that categorically writers can only write well and truly about things they’ve experienced.

An example that comes to mind of writing outside experience is Child of God by Cormac McCarthy, an incredibly disturbing novel about necrophilia. Assuming that McCarthy has no experience with necrophilia (it’s safe to assume that, right?), he creates a disturbing, spine-crawlingly necrophiliac character, from his imagination. I can’t imagine the empathy that must’ve gone into creating a character like that. Yes, empathy. To create a person, to write a person, requires sustained empathy, particularly if you’re writing outside your experience. And to read a character like that requires empathy as well, which is what makes that novel such an uncomfortable read.

To shift ideas a little, cultural appropriation can be a possible problem with writing outside of experience. When is it, for lack of a better word, colonizing other people’s lived experience, and when is it creating a diverse cast of characters? I don’t have an answer. I only know I must read and write what comes to me, and make damn sure to do my research.

Here are some other writers’ thoughts on reading or writing what we know versus venturing outside the known. 


–Terry Tempest Williams. From Terri Windling’s blog post “Writing from the Center” 

“The writers who touch me, who move me, are the writers who are generous not just with what they know, but also with what they don’t know….It’s that kind of honesty, that generosity of spirit that I ask of writers. And it’s difficult, because you have to be thoughtful, taking nothing for granted, and you have to be willing to risk everything, to write against your instincts.”


–Zoe Heller, from the New York Times article “Write What You Know’ — Helpful Advice or Idle Cliché?” 

“The first mistake I made as a schoolgirl was to assume I was being asked to write exclusively about things that had happened to me. In fact, the injunction is only to know; the business of how you come by your knowledge is left quite open. You can mine your own life, yes. But you can also sympathetically observe other people’s experiences. You can read and research. And you can use your imagination. What good writers know about their subjects is usually drawn from some combination of these sources.”


— Mohsin Hamid, from the same New York Times article “Write What You Know’ — Helpful Advice or Idle Cliché?”  

“It may be that the DNA of fiction is, like our own DNA, a double helix, a two-stranded beast. One strand is born of what writers have experienced. The other is born of what writers wish to experience, of the impulse to write in order to know. But I also write about things I haven’t experienced. I’ve written from the point of view of a woman, of a global surveillance system, of a writer who is being beheaded. I write these things because I want to transcend my experiences. I want to go beyond myself. Writing isn’t just my mirror, it’s my astral projection device. I suspect it’s like that for most of us.

In the end, what we know isn’t a static commodity. It changes from being written about. Storytelling alters the storyteller. And a story is altered by being told.

A human self is made up of stories. These stories are rooted partly in experience, and partly in fantasy. The power of fiction lies in its capacity to gaze upon this odd circumstance of our existence, to allow us to play with the conundrum that we are making ourselves up as we go along.”


–Jim C. Hines, from his blog post “Diversity, Appropriation, and Writing the Other” 

“It’s important to write about characters and cultures that are different from our own. It’s even more important to do so respectfully and well, to write fully-realized characters instead of caricatures and stereotypes and tokens. That means paying attention and listening. It also means taking the risk that someone will tell you that you got it wrong.”


–Malinda Lo, from her blog post “Should white people write about people of color?” 

“This doesn’t mean that it’s okay to blithely write whatever the hell you want about a culture that isn’t yours. Writers who are writing outside of their culture do have to work extra hard to research that culture, because they have much farther to go to get to the kind of instinctual knowledge of it that allows someone to hear my Chinese name and feel that it sounds poetic.”


– Jennifer Finney Boylan, from a New York Times article “Bring Moral Imagination Back in Style.” The post is about politics, but seemed relevant anyway. 

“It didn’t occur to me that imagining the humanity of people other than myself was my responsibility. And yet the root cause of so much grief is our failure to do just that.

Edmund Burke called this the “moral imagination,” the idea that our ethics should transcend our own personal experience and embrace the dignity of the human race.”


–Jonathan Franzen, from an interview on Slate

“I write about characters, and I have to love the character to write about the character. If you have not had direct firsthand experience of loving a category of person—a person of a different race, a profoundly religious person, things that are real stark differences between people—I think it is very hard to dare, or necessarily even want, to write fully from the inside of a person.”


— Beryl Bainbridge, from The Guardian article “On writing: authors reveal the secrets of their craft”  

“The only reason I wanted to write was to write down my childhood, to write about things I knew, the people I knew . . . I don’t believe anybody makes anything up, there’s no such thing as the imagination. I mean people may say they don’t know where the story came from, but they must do . . . there’s nothing you can make up. In general, you’re recalling memories I think, and that’s the only thing that interested me about writing.”


–Mary Robinette Kowal, from her blog post “Bad Writing Advice explained”

Write what you know

  • What people think it means: People think this means that authors should stick to subjects they have personal experience with.
  • What it actually means: When you don’t know a subject, such as what it’s like to live on Mars, you extrapolate from your own personal experience. Never lived on Mars? No. But I have walked in a dusty place and seen the clouds of dust kick up around me. I’ve worn thick winter gloves, and know how hard it is to pick things up. I’ve been far away, without the ability to call home. When I combine what I know, with research, writing what I know can make a story more compelling.”


–Neil Gaiman on reading, though I think it also applies to writing. Found on Brain Pickings

“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.

Empathy is a tool for building people into groups, for allowing us to function as more than self-obsessed individuals.”

What do you think?


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