F. Scott Fitzgerald is often portrayed as a natural-born writer. “His talent,” says Ernest Hemingway in A Moveable Feast, “was as natural as the pattern that was made by the dust on a butterfly’s wings.” But Fitzgerald saw himself in a different light. “What little I’ve accomplished,” he said, “has been by the most laborious and uphill work.”
Last week we brought you Seven Tips From Ernest Hemingway on How to Write Fiction. Today we’re back with a similar list of advice from Hemingway’s friend and rival Fitzgerald. We’ve selected seven quotations from F. Scott Fitzgerald on Writing, which was edited by Larry W. Phillips and published in 1985 as a companion to the Hemingway book. As in the previous post, we’ve organized the advice under our own headings and added some brief commentary.
1: Start by taking notes.
Fitzgerald made a habit of recording his stray thoughts and observations in notebooks. He organized the entries into categories like “Feelings and emotions,” “Conversations and things overheard” and “Descriptions of girls.” When Fitzgerald was giving writing advice to his mistress Sheilah Graham in the late 1930s, he advised her to do the same. In her 1940 memoir, Beloved Infidel, Graham quotes Fitzgerald as saying:
You must begin by making notes. You may have to make notes for years…. When you think of something, when you recall something, put it where it belongs. Put it down when you think of it. You may never recapture it quite as vividly the second time.
2: Make a detailed outline of your story.
When Fitzgerald was working on a novel, he would surround himself with charts outlining the various movements and histories of his characters. In a 1936 letter to novelist John O’Hara, he advises the younger novelist to start with a big outline:
Invent a system Zolaesque…but buy a file. On the first page of the file put down an outline of a novel of your times enormous in scale (don’t worry, it will contract by itself) and work on the plan for two months. Take the central point of the file as your big climax and follow your plan backward and forward from that for another three months. Then draw up something as complicated as a continuity from what you have and set yourself a schedule.
3: Don’t describe your work-in-progress to anyone.
Fitzgerald’s policy was never to talk with other people about the book he was working on. In a 1940 letter to his daughter Scottie, he says:
I think it’s a pretty good rule not to tell what a thing is about until it’s finished. If you do you always seem to lose some of it. It never quite belongs to you so much again.
4: Create people, not types.
Fitzgerald was known for creating emblematic characters, but he said it was accidental. “I had no idea of originating an American flapper when I first began to write,” he said in a 1923 interview for Metropolitan magazine. “I simply took girls who I knew very well and, because they interested me as unique human beings, I used them for my heroines.” In the opening sentence of his 1926 short story, “The Rich Boy,” Fitzgerald explains the principle:
Begin with an individual, and before you know it you find that you have created a type; begin with a type, and you find that you have created–nothing.
5: Use familiar words.
In a 1929 letter to his college friend and fellow writer John Peale Bishop, Fitzgerald says:
You ought never to use an unfamiliar word unless you’ve had to search for it to express a delicate shade–where in effect you have recreated it. This is a damn good prose rule I think…. Exceptions: (a) need to avoid repetition (b) need of rhythm (c) etc.
6: Use verbs, not adjectives, to keep your sentences moving.
In a 1938 letter to his daughter, Fitzgerald writes:
About adjectives: all fine prose is based on the verbs carrying the sentences. They make sentences move. Probably the finest technical poem in English is Keats’ “Eve of Saint Agnes.” A line like “The hare limped trembling through the frozen grass,” is so alive that you race through it, scarcely noticing it, yet it has colored the whole poem with its movement–the limping, trembling and freezing is going on before your own eyes.
7: Be ruthless.
A writer has to make some hard choices. Fitzgerald warns about the danger of becoming too attached to something you’ve written. Keep an objective eye on the whole piece, he says, and if something isn’t working get rid of it. In a 1933 Saturday Evening Post article titled “One Hundred False Starts,” he writes:
I am alone in the privacy of my faded blue room with my sick cat, the bare February branches waving at the window, an ironic paper weight that says Business is Good, a New England conscience–developed in Minnesota–and my greatest problem:
“Shall I run it out? Or shall I turn back?”
Shall I say:
“I know I had something to prove, and it may develop farther along in the story?”
“This is just bullheadedness. Better throw it away and start over.”
The latter is one of the most difficult decisions that an author must make. To make it philosophically, before he has exhausted himself in a hundred-hour effort to resuscitate a corpse or disentangle innumerable wet snarls, is a test of whether or not he is really a professional. There are often occasions when such a decision is doubly difficult. In the last stages of a novel, for instance, where there is no question of junking the whole, but when an entire favorite character has to be hauled out by the heels, screeching, and dragging half a dozen good scenes with him.