Stepping Stones (Part 3)

Today’s blog:   Following the Footsteps

“The greatest education in the world is watching the masters at work.”

– Michael Jackson

Master Class Question:  Which modern writer…

  • Was sent to live with a ‘rather cold’ uncle at age ten because his parents died?
  • Went to medical school to appease his uncle although he preferred writing?
  • Published his first novel by the time he was twenty-three?
  • Was a WWI spy for Great Britain before moving to the United States?
  • Worked in Hollywood with an enormous itinerary output consisting of plays, short stories, essays, and twenty novels?

(Hint: He wrote the famous novel, Of Human Bondage.)

If you guessed William Somerset Maugham, you are correct!

Give yourself a big hand!     

British writer, W. Somerset Maugham, is the highlight of this week’s post in “Stepping Stones (Part 3)” featuring excerpts from William Cane’s Fiction Writing Master Class.  Maugham’s writing style and technique are presented in such a way that you not only gain a better understanding of the craft, but improve your writing ability.  After all, “the biggest room in the world is the room for improvement,” – Helmut Schmidt.

“Write Like W. Somerset Maugham”

Choosing Characters

“The characters a writer chooses should not be picked at random.  The key goal when choosing characters is balancing character types so that there are contrasting personalities.  Woody Allen’s favorite book on plotting, Laios Egri’s The Art of Dramatic Writing (1960), suggests that characters must be orchestrated. ‘If all the characters are the same type-for instance, if all of them are bullies-it will be like an orchestra of nothing but drums.’ Variety for the sake of variety is not the goal, instead you are aiming to achieve the kinds of differences that will lead to interpersonal conflict.  Maugham is a master of orchestration.”

“In Of Human Bondage (1915), the hero, Philip Carey, is a doctor and a sensitive young man.  Maugham based the character on himself.  The other major character, Mildred Rogers, is the opposite of Philip.  Brash, wanton, and cruel, she is in constant conflict with him. ‘They seemed to be always on the verge of a quarrel.  The fact was that he hated himself for loving her.  She seemed to be constantly humiliating him.’ Two characters have never been so perfectly orchestrated because they are always annoying each other…Can you honestly say you’ve achieved similiar contrasts and opposites? Only when the answer to that question is ‘yes’ should you feel satisfied enough to stop tinkering with your characterization’.”

Organizing Chapters

“One of the most overlooked technical devices is the alternation of fast and slow chapters.  It stands to reason that putting all the action chapters first followed by all the analytical chapters can lead to an unbalanced effect.  By alternating dramatic material with thoughtful sections you’ll produce a more pleasing reader experience.”

“Maugham alternated fast and slow material in all his work.”  This “alternating technique can be found in Of Human Bondage. Philip takes Mildred to the theater and then walks her home.  He pines for her…Then she snubs him and they part with Philip in despair. These dramatic scenes are followed immediately by an extended section in which Philip mulls over the whole affair and feels lonely.  Then, like the beat of a heart, the end of chapter fifty-nine plunges us once again into a dramatic scene in which Mildred humiliates Philip. ”

Making Narrative Flow

“One way to make narrative flow is to put characters into situations where they must make difficult decisions.  Readers will naturally want to know what happens next.”

“In addition to putting characters in a position where they must decide what to do, narrative can be made to flow more quickly by piquing curiosity about future events and setting up expectations by ‘advertising’ what is going to happen. At the start of The Moon and Sixpence the narrator tells us that he knew Charles Strickland intimately and that he discovered secrets about him when he happened to visit Tahiti during the war…What are the obscure details that the narrator knows? What revelations lie ahead? When will these gossipy tidbits be thrown our way?…This promise of gossipy revelations is one of the things that keeps us turning the pages.”

Creating Surprise

“Surprise is a key ingredient of storytelling.  Writing is a game of revealing only so much of the story as is necessary and holding back other events that will ultimately surprise the reader.”

Read pages 78-80 for more insight on creating surprise like Maugham.

Putting Yourself Into Your Work

“Maugham was fond of putting himself into his work…It is widely known that Of Human Bondage is a closely autobiographical novel, following the life of a medical student whose personality and escapades are patterned closely on Maugham’s own life.”

“All writers base various aspects of their stories on their own lives, but some writers rely more heavily on their own experiences than others. What lessons can be learned from Maugham’s practice of putting himself into his work? One thing to note is that Maugham did not…distort his experiences or exaggerate them; instead, he rather faithfully transformed his life into fiction.  The trick when doing this with your own work is, of course, to avoid libel suits from others who might recognize themselves in your pages.”

Keeping To A Schedule

“It should come as no surprise that Maugham, a medical doctor, took good care of himself physically.  As a result of keeping to a schedule (including waking early and caring for his health with regular visits to spas) he lived to the age of ninety-one.”  Garson Kanin observed that “Maugham carefully explained that he rises at eight o’clock every morning – no matter where he is – has his breakfast and so on, and at nine o’clock sits down and writes for four hours.”

“The regularity of his writing routine never detracted from his pushing himself to have a full personal life. In this he was like Balzac (see Stepping Stones: Part 2), who lived a full life and had intense relationships, but who also kept regular hours for writing.”

“Maugham was also interested in meditation.  One of the techniques of meditation is to meditate while doing daily activity.  Maugham may have transferred this meditation technique to his writing practice, for he said that, ‘The author does not only write while he’s at his desk, he writes all day long, when he is thinking, when he is reading, when he is experiencing…’ This constant preoccupation with writing is a habit than can be cultivated and developed.”


“If you write regularly, you are more likely to be productive and successful.”

“You need to incorporate personal experiences into your work, which means you will need to live deeply and embrace human relationships…like Maugham, reflect upon them and place them into your own work in some fashion.”

“This constant attention to the process of writing is certain to be rewarding for it is the work of the true artist.”

I hope you enjoyed part three in the series “Stepping Stones” with excerpts from William Cane’s book, Writing Fiction Master Class.

Join me next week for the finale of  “Stepping Stones (Part Four).”  If you  purchased a copy of the book, Writing Fiction Master Class, I’d love to know  which author you found most interesting! If  you don’t have a copy yet, here is a list of some authors featured in the book.  Tell me who intrigues you most and he might show up next week!

Author choices:

  1. Charles Dickens
  2. Franz Kafka
  3. William Faulkner
  4. Ernest Hemingway
  5. Stephen King

Until then, keep reading; keep writing; and never stop  following the footsteps of those who paved the way.

To order your copy of Writing Fiction Master Class: Emulating the Work of Great Novelists to Master the Fundamentals of Craft by William Cane, go to: 

Meanwhile, know your story matters.

Sunshine and rainbows!

S. Whitten


Applause GIF courtesy Google Images

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