The Write Stuff

by Barry B. Longyear

Reviewed by Scott T. Barnes


I began reading The Write Stuff a few years back when it was only available as a word document which author Barry B. Longyear would email to you for a few dollars with the request not to copy and send it to a dozen of your closest friends. When it came out in trade paperback a couple of years later I bought that version--there’s just something about the feel of a glossy cover. During the ensuing years I worked on the first major homework assignment. I suppose I will continue working on it for the rest of my life. It’s called Finding Your Vibes.

Finding Your Vibes is a methodology for looking at all the stories that most affect you and analyzing why they affect you, really digging deep into your own psyche. So you notice that you like protagonist misfits, Why is that? What about misfit characters speaks to you? Longyear isn’t content with a glib answer, he wants you to dig into your psychology, your past, your history to discover Why really? You are to ask this question about all aspects of story:  character, dialog, conflict, theme, and so forth, in all the books which have resonated with you over the years. Once you have finished with that, you are to do the same with the movies, plays, musicals, art, short stories, poems, et cetera which have stuck with you for years. Once that homework assignment is finished, you can begin looking at those stories that don’t speak with you at all, and try to discover: Why not?

The Write Stuff is not for the faint of heart. I suspect that is why there are only two reviews of it on Amazon at the moment. Everyone who picks it up realizes it is brilliant, but most will stop with the subsequent realization that Longyear’s method demands work, a lot of it. No one who isn’t serious about becoming a lifelong writer will bother doing the homework.

As I mentioned, a couple of months ago I decided I had collected enough vibes to move on to other parts of The Write Stuff. The next section deals with Generating Ideas. I thought I already knew how to generate and organize ideas, and I do. However, it took me loads of trial and error to come up with a system similar to Longyear’s. I could have saved so much time had I begun with The Write Stuff!

Section three, What is a Story, is similar to Longyear’s explanation of story in Science Fiction Writers Workshop-I. That book is, in my opinion, the best introduction to writing fiction around, in any genre. It includes such things as character, point of view, conflict, buildup, resolution, and so forth.

I generally skip any explanation on Research I run across. I already know everything there is to know, right? I have a degree in journalism. I’ve written nonfiction books, articles, and fiction heavy with research. What is there to learn? Well, in what became a frequent refrain, I could have saved so much time if I had begun with The Write Stuff. After much trial and error on my own, I came up with a system similar to Longyear’s, but the inadequate research—and nonexistent methodology—of two “seat-of-the-pants” novels led to me ultimately binning them for flaws the size of Winnebagos. Two years of work in the trash because of sloppy research. With my next project I’m beginning with Longyear’s method of using four files: a timeline from the birthdate of the oldest person mentioned in the story, a map, a “notes” file, and the manuscript.

Let me repeat:  the Research section of The Write Stuff is the best explanation on how to do and organize research I have ever seen, bar none.

Finally, now that you have your Vibes, your research, and your methodology, The Write Stuff tackles Writing and Rewriting. In it are little gems such as Where to look for character flaws. That alone is worth the price of the book.

This is a very “interior-based” method. While most other works focus on what appeals to the audience (Story by Robert McKee is a classic), Longyear would have us look inside to what appeals to us. It is no secret that Longyear has gone through a lot of rehab, and the methodologies used in rehab, digging deep inside ourselves to discover Why? and Why, really? are evident here.

Anyone who is serious must do the homework, in one fashion or another. I suspect that Longyear’s methodology will save time in the long run, and I know it will improve the writing of anyone who undertakes it. I described Finding My Vibes to award-winning author Amy Sterling Casil (author of Female Science Fiction Writer), and she called the advice “Pure gold.” I couldn’t agree more.