Writerly Advice: Stegner’s Seven Rules of Writing

Wallace Stegner is perhaps the best short story and novel writer you’ve never heard of – even more unusual for you AZ students, perhaps, because he wrote often of the Southwest. His novel Angle of Repose won the 1971 Pulitzer Prize. Another, The Spector Bird, won the National Book Award in 1977. His short stories were collected in 1990; three of them won O. Henry Prizes. (His literary agent at the time infamously told him to quit writing short stories before he used up all his “openings and closings” – sadly, Stegner followed her advice).

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Wallace Stegner

Most importantly for us creative writers, Stegner founded the Stanford Writing Program in 1945 (I’ve heard it said mostly in response to his objection to what he considered harsh techniques employed at Iowa Writer’s Workshop). He continued to teach at Stanford until his retirement in 1971. Graduates of that Stanford MFA program include Wendell Berry, Edward Abbey, Harriet Doerr, Tillie Olsen, Raymond Carver and Larry McMurtry. Stanford carries on Stegner’s legacy with the Wallace Stegner Fellowship, a prestigious award and position given out to writers at all stages of their career, without degree requirements or concern for genre. If you’re serious about your writing, view the link above and maybe set a goal for yourself.

Stegner “came of age” in an era when not many people thought you could teach or be taught creative writing (a good blog subject in and of itself?). In his short book On Teaching and Writing Fiction, Stegner offered these seven “rules of thumb” for writers (pp. 94-95):

  1. Start in the middle of things; start in motion.
  2. Stay in motion by not letting the summary intrude; keep the summary feeding into the scene in hints and driblets, by what Ipsen called the “uncovering” technique.
  3. Never explain too much; a reader is offended if he cannot participate and use his mind and imagination, and a story loses much of its suspense the moment everything is explained.
  4. Stay out of your story; pick a point of view and (especially in the short story) stick with it. Nobody has less right in your story than yourself.
  5. Don’t show off in your style. The writing should match the characters and the situation, not you. This applies as well to obscenity and profanity as to other matters. Where character and situation call for them, they belong; elsewhere they may be a sign that the author is trying to catch someone’s attention.
  6. Nothing is to be gained, except a breaking of the dramatic illusion, by attempts to find substitutes for the word “said” in dialogue tags. “Said” is a colorless word that disappears; elegant variations show up.
  7. Stopping a story is as hard as saying goodnight. Learn to do it cleanly, without leftovers or repetitions.

I suggest you print these out and hang them up in a prominent spot in your writing area.

I did.

PS. Stegner’s eighth rule? “Revise! Revise! Revise!” (He says the difference between a good writer and a great writer is their ability to revise their own work and make it better.)

Looking for more writerly advice? Come to our next Saturday Morning Workshop, tomorrow (10/13) from 10AM to noon. Jayme Cook talks tension, atmosphere, and genre writing.


This post was contributed by Gary Lawrence, one of GCC’s English and Creative Writing faculty. Gary teaches online CRW courses for us, including CRW170 (Introduction to Fiction Writing) and CRW270 (Intermediate Fiction Writing), both of which he’s prepping for Spring 2019. View his courses, along with our other CRW offerings, here: GCC Find-A-Class.

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Saturday Workshop: Tricks & Treats of Genre Writing

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Feral cat, looming cheese curd, night

October is an important month. There’s Halloween, Oktoberfest, both National Pizza and Pretzel Month (not to be confused with National Soft Pretzel Month which, as we all know, is in April), National Kick Butt Day (which, sadly, seems more about kicking bad habits and not about, you know, kicking actual butts), and who can forget National Feral Cat Day which follows closely on the heels of National Cheese Curd Day, and how October has the wonderful internal contradiction of being both National Caramel Month and National Dental Hygiene Month, and then there’s the classic National Transfer Money to Your Daughter Day, and National Writing Day on the 20th and National Bologna Day on the 24th and…

What was I talking about?

Right, well, now there’s another important holiday: National Come to a Saturday Morning Creative Writing Workshop Day. We have the perfect choice, too, as Jayme Cook dives into genre writing and offers strategies and activities for building suspense, developing mood, and creeping out an audience.

  • What & Who: Tricks & Treats of Genre Writing, with Jayme Cook
  • When: Saturday, October 13th from 10:00AM to 12:00PM
  • Where: GCC Main Campus, Room LA-141
  • Why: Because the day before was National Pulled Pork Day and you need to work off some calories.
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Writing Competition: Magical Library

The GCC Libraries seek your creative writing submissions on the theme “Magical Library.” Enter your flash fiction, short fiction, or poetry submissions for publication on the GCC Library website and a small prize. What is “magical” to you, and how might magic manifest (either literally or figuratively) in a library setting? Let your imagination loose! All genres welcome. The deadline is November 2nd.

To review the full submission guidelines, and to submit online, head here: https://guides.gccaz.edu/creativewriting/writersconnect


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The Traveler Literary Contest Open for Submissions

Did you know that frogs, like birds, have migratory patterns? It’s true. Each year, as summer gives way to autumn, frogs travel north. Sometimes for business meetings, and other times for academic conferences and awards ceremonies and predatory debt collecting and spas and definitely-not-extra-marital-affairs. Did you hear that, Diane? Definitely. Not. Extra. Marital. Affairs. You’re being ridiculous. Call the hotel.

You might be asking, what do frogs have to do with The Traveler–GCC’s Arts & Literary Magazine, which is now open for submissions? Nothing, but there’s one in the flyer.

And the frog has a suitcase.

And the suitcase has wheels.


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District Creative Writing Competition Now Open!

AOP 18-19 Poster CREATIVE WRITING

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Writer’s Quote: Killing Your Darlings

“In writing, you must kill all your darlings.”

— William Faulkner.

What does it mean to kill your darlings? Well, first, what is a darling? A darling is something that interferes with the relationship between you and your audience. It’s a part of your writing (could be a line in a poem, a paragraph in a story, or an entire chapter in a novel) that doesn’t do the work it needs to do but, despite this, you love it and refuse to edit it out.

All writers are guilty of harboring darlings. It’s the line that someone told you had such a nice ring to it. It’s the character trait that is pulled from someone you know in your own life. It’s the pop culture reference that only you and your friends “get.” As fun as it is for us writers to read and re-read these darlings, as much as they make us smile, we have to remember the writing is not for us, not unless it’s a diary. And if the writing is for someone else, an audience, we must be attentive to its purpose, what effect it is designed to have on the reader. Does the passage advance the plot, does it build the character, does it enhance the reader’s sense of setting? No matter how long the work is, every line in it has to “do” something. If you’re not sure what the line is “doing” but you just like the way it sounds, it might be a darling. And as fun as they are for us to read, they fall flat for our audience and thus interfere with whatever else we are trying to communicate to them. Good writers become “good” by being ruthless in their determination of what really “works” on the page and what doesn’t.

But isn’t writing supposed to be fun? Do we have to be ruthless all the time? Darlings persist when there is ambivalence on the author’s part about who a piece of writing is for. If the story is akin to a diary entry, if it will only ever be read by you, then you can have as many darlings as you want. But if it’s for anyone else, then you have a duty as a writer to consider your audience’s expectations (often based on genre) and their desire for entertainment (this cuts across all genres.) As authors we certainly don’t want to pander to audiences, but we can’t afford to ignore them either. Your writing is the machinery that delivers your dreams, your ideas. Darlings are the pretty little flowers that get stuck between the gears.

Click here to read more about weeding out your darlings. This author has suggestions for how you can preserve them, to some degree, if you can’t quite bear to kill them entirely.

Have you ever killed a darling? How did it feel?


This post was contributed by Jeff Sanger, one of GCC’s English and CRW faculty. In addition to periodically contributing thoughtful posts like this, he is also planning to facilitate our first Saturday Morning Workshop for Fall 2018. That workshop will take place this weekend, September 8th, from 10AM to Noon on GCC Main. Read more about it here: Who Are Your Characters?

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Saturday Workshop: Who Are Your Characters?

Aaaaaaand, we’re back for the 2018-2019 academic year. If you’re a newly-subscribed follower of the blog, welcome! If you’ve been with us for a while, welcome back! If you have no idea why you’re on this page or receiving an email notification, consider our meeting destiny/fate/true love and be welcome too. For our first event of the year, Jeff Sanger is going to put on a free Saturday workshop. Description and details below. Hope to see you there!


Certainly, you have an idea who your story is about, but do you know what your protagonist’s favorite color is? If they were sentenced to death, what would they order for their last meal? Trivial considerations? Perhaps. But the better you, the author, know your characters, the more fully they come through on the page for your reader. And readers across all genres love vivid characters. But how do you learn more about your characters? Can your characters be further revealed to you as you write about them? Many writers believe they can.

Even if you know your characters well, the other challenge, of course, is delivering this information to your audience, making sure they understand who your characters really are. Page after page of exposition (telling) about your characters typically leads to a disinterested audience that puts the story down unfinished, that outcome every writer fears. How do you show your readers who your characters are?

Visit our characterization themed Saturday workshop to implement some proven techniques to learn more about your characters and bring them to life on the page.

  • What & Who: Who Are Your Characters?, with Jeff Sanger
  • When: Saturday, September 8th from 10:00AM to 12:00PM
  • Where: GCC Main Campus, Room LA-141
  • Why: Power! Unlimited power!
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