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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

Writers who are serious about their craft pour a lot of themselves into their writing. I’m a writer myself, so I know how this feels. But having written, the author wants the world to see it. And this urgency creates expectations.

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A milestone gives a sense of accomplishment, but it also creates the expectation of more to come on a regular schedule. This is the idea of a deadline.

But consider how long it took you to write your book, story, article, poem, or whatnot. If you write for a newspaper or similar, you follow a formula and crank out the product. That’s hard.

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If your work is creative, you have more time.

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Unless you’re on a deadline, that is–from your publisher, for example, and may we all suffer that fate.

But this article is about editors. Remember this guy?

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Our work combines the creative and the mechanical. Planting commas where they belong and pulling out the strays is something that a machine should be able to do, but efforts to date at getting word processors to check grammar and spelling in a reliable way leave much to be desired. And so we editors plow through manuscripts, seeding and weeding.

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That much can be done on a steady pace, determined by how many errors the writer made and how much stamina the editor has.

But there’s more to it. The creative part of writing can’t be done mechanically. And that means that it’s hard to predict how long editing for the flow of the narrative or the motivations of the characters or so forth and such like will take.

This reminds me of the old line about how the work can be done in a good, quick, or cheap manner–pick any two. That’s the fact of life. So you can have your book edited by tomorrow, but it’ll cost you, or the work won’t be worth much. Or you can let your editor do a good job in the time it takes. But whatever choice you make, keep reading, keep writing, and keep submitting.

Crossposted on English 301: Reading and Writing.

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As a writer and editor, I have to acknowledge a reality about the publishing world: There are a lot of crappy books that people buy. I’m talking to you:

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This raises the question of why an author would bother with trying to write a good book. What’s the point? You don’t have to get a publisher to release your work these days, and some well-known authors got their start through non-traditional means. I’m talking to you:

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But is the answer that marketing matters and quality doesn’t?

Well, marketing is certainly important. We know about this guy

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because his work was produced in the licensed theaters of his day. He got a following by becoming known in the approved channels. Now, though, there are hundred of thousands of books published every year, so the ones that get put in front of the most potential readers are the ones more likely to sell. The problem is finding ways to get your book distinguished from the herd.

Of course, a lot of readers don’t care about good writing. Thus the sales of the books pictured above. Instead, they want a racy story with lots of plot. But if you set out to write a book that will appeal to the masses, what you’re doing is no better than playing the lottery. The masses, being fickle, are likely to love what you’re writing only when someone else writes it. One year it’s vampires that everyone wants, while the next it’s teenagers with swords, but who knew before the fact that it wasn’t going to be talking cats or rock drummers who solve crimes when they’re not bursting eardrums?

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Besides, it’s not the poor quality of the writing that makes a book sell. Yes, writing at a sixth grade reading level may help, but clunky dialogue and flat characters aren’t a guarantee for success. Look at it this way: The people who read only for the wild plot aren’t going to reject your book if you also write well, but good readers will appreciate your efforts.

There is more to this. I would like to be remembered as having written something worth reading. In the Nicomachean Ethics, Aristotle quotes a saying from the Greek lawmaker Solon to the effect that we should count no one as happy until after the person has died. The meaning of that was that we can’t judge the totality of a life before it’s finished. I’d like people to read what I’ve written long after I’m gone and to regard it as good. Yes, I’d also like to make a lot of money by writing, but as I said, that’s a wish, not a goal. We cannot plan to write a bestseller.

And that’s why it’s good to write the best work you can. Then you may need an editor and a promoter to polish and sell your book. As always, keep reading, keep writing, and keep submitting.

Or you can just be happy that your mother likes what you write.

Crossposted at Oghma Creative Media.

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Writers, throw away your thesaurus. Yes, you read that correctly. You need a dictionary, but Roget’s collection of synonyms, temptingly gathered together like so many loose women on the docks is a good way to catch VD–verbal disease. Consider the following:

Personally, yours truly made a break for the nest egg to countenance a liquid measure of formula.

Ridiculous, right? Except that sentence is the result of hunting through the treasury (the root meaning of thesaurus) to puff up this sentence:

I went to the store to buy a quart of milk.

Of course, it’s silly. But I see writers–mostly college students, but others, too–looking for a fifty dollar word when a five cent word will do. We all want to look smart. And we need to vary our words and sentence structures to keep the reader from falling asleep. But if you grab some uppity group of letters just because it sounds more sophisticated than a one or two syllable word, you’re likely to go astray, particularly if you don’t check the definition. This is because while English has words that are closely related, in most cases, each one has its own elements that it alone means.

Mark Twain once said that the difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Don’t let the thesaurus strike you out, or you’ll annoy me.

Cross-posted at OghmaCreative.com.

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Today we mourn the death of Elmore Leonard. In honor of what he taught writers, here are his ten rules:

These are rules I’ve picked up along the way to help me remain invisible when I’m writing a book, to help me show rather than tell what’s taking place in the story. If you have a facility for language and imagery and the sound of your voice pleases you, invisibility is not what you are after, and you can skip the rules. Still, you might look them over.

1. Never open a book with weather.

If it’s only to create atmosphere, and not a character’s reaction to the weather, you don’t want to go on too long. The reader is apt to leaf ahead looking for people. There are exceptions. If you happen to be Barry Lopez, who has more ways to describe ice and snow than an Eskimo, you can do all the weather reporting you want.

2. Avoid prologues.

They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword. But these are ordinarily found in nonfiction. A prologue in a novel is backstory, and you can drop it in anywhere you want.

There is a prologue in John Steinbeck’s ”Sweet Thursday,” but it’s O.K. because a character in the book makes the point of what my rules are all about. He says: ”I like a lot of talk in a book and I don’t like to have nobody tell me what the guy that’s talking looks like. I want to figure out what he looks like from the way he talks. . . . figure out what the guy’s thinking from what he says. I like some description but not too much of that. . . . Sometimes I want a book to break loose with a bunch of hooptedoodle. . . . Spin up some pretty words maybe or sing a little song with language. That’s nice. But I wish it was set aside so I don’t have to read it. I don’t want hooptedoodle to get mixed up with the story.”

3. Never use a verb other than ”said” to carry dialogue.

The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ”she asseverated,” and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb ”said” . . .

. . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange. I have a character in one of my books tell how she used to write historical romances ”full of rape and adverbs.”

5. Keep your exclamation points under control.

You are allowed no more than two or three per 100,000 words of prose. If you have the knack of playing with exclaimers the way Tom Wolfe does, you can throw them in by the handful.

6. Never use the words ”suddenly” or ”all hell broke loose.”

This rule doesn’t require an explanation. I have noticed that writers who use ”suddenly” tend to exercise less control in the application of exclamation points.

7. Use regional dialect, patois, sparingly.

Once you start spelling words in dialogue phonetically and loading the page with apostrophes, you won’t be able to stop. Notice the way Annie Proulx captures the flavor of Wyoming voices in her book of short stories ”Close Range.”

8. Avoid detailed descriptions of characters.

Which Steinbeck covered. In Ernest Hemingway’s ”Hills Like White Elephants” what do the ”American and the girl with him” look like? ”She had taken off her hat and put it on the table.” That’s the only reference to a physical description in the story, and yet we see the couple and know them by their tones of voice, with not one adverb in sight.

9. Don’t go into great detail describing places and things.

Unless you’re Margaret Atwood and can paint scenes with language or write landscapes in the style of Jim Harrison. But even if you’re good at it, you don’t want descriptions that bring the action, the flow of the story, to a standstill.

And finally:

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

A rule that came to mind in 1983. Think of what you skip reading a novel: thick paragraphs of prose you can see have too many words in them. What the writer is doing, he’s writing, perpetrating hooptedoodle, perhaps taking another shot at the weather, or has gone into the character’s head, and the reader either knows what the guy’s thinking or doesn’t care. I’ll bet you don’t skip dialogue.

My most important rule is one that sums up the 10.

If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it.

Or, if proper usage gets in the way, it may have to go. I can’t allow what we learned in English composition to disrupt the sound and rhythm of the narrative. It’s my attempt to remain invisible, not distract the reader from the story with obvious writing. (Joseph Conrad said something about words getting in the way of what you want to say.)

If I write in scenes and always from the point of view of a particular character — the one whose view best brings the scene to life — I’m able to concentrate on the voices of the characters telling you who they are and how they feel about what they see and what’s going on, and I’m nowhere in sight.

What Steinbeck did in ”Sweet Thursday” was title his chapters as an indication, though obscure, of what they cover. ”Whom the Gods Love They Drive Nuts” is one, ”Lousy Wednesday” another. The third chapter is titled ”Hooptedoodle 1” and the 38th chapter ”Hooptedoodle 2” as warnings to the reader, as if Steinbeck is saying: ”Here’s where you’ll see me taking flights of fancy with my writing, and it won’t get in the way of the story. Skip them if you want.”

”Sweet Thursday” came out in 1954, when I was just beginning to be published, and I’ve never forgotten that prologue.

Did I read the hooptedoodle chapters? Every word.

Elmore Leonard

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My advice to new writers is to write short stories. This teaches building a scene with concentrated conflict and concise action leading to a point. Novels are like undeveloped land in the South–temptations for schemers to sprawl. Of course, said tyros should also be reading such stories, but if I have to tell you that reading is a good idea, you’re probably not meant to be a writer.

Still, we do have to be clear on the purpose of the exercise:

1. You will be writing for practice. You will be writing for enjoyment. You will be writing to keep yourself writing while you’re learning the craft.

2. You will also be writing to put your name and voice out in public. Short story markets are few and far between, and even fewer last more than a handful of issues. If you write westerns, by the way, one that’s shown its intention to remain is Frontiertales.com. Check the authors page for some of my writing, by the way. Understand that when you write short stories, the public purpose is to connect your name to something that people enjoy reading. You’re building a fan base. (All your reader are belong to us–you want this.)

3. But there’s something you need to know before you start. You won’t get paid for short stories. Paying markets are just about dead. There was a time when new writers could get a foothold and make a living by writing science fiction or westerns or even literary stories. No more. No matter what The New Yorker claims, new writers don’t have a chance. Apparently, not even good ones. You don’t write short stories to make money. You write them for the first two reasons.

4. Alas, there’s a fourth lesson. Sometimes, a magazine will dangle the promise of actual money, only to pull a fast one. And thus I must tell my own tale.

In 2008, I submitted a short story to something called Astonishing Adventures Magazine. (I’d give you a link, but I can’t, and you’ll see why soon.) Said outfit claimed to be looking for pulp stories–translation, lots of plot, plenty of action, and none of the high-brow or raised-eyebrow stuff that gets published in the, um, New Yorker. Well, thought I, this is something I can provide. I had written a perfectly atrocious science fiction novel in the mid 90s–yes, sometimes, I have to learn through experience. But some of the chapters were good, so I pulled them out and polished them into a worthy short piece and submitted it. The editor said he liked what I wrote. Big smile. The editor said he wanted to publish it. Happy dance. Life is good, right?

Hold on there, hoss. A short while later, he wrote back to say that the magazine was folding due to lack of funds This happens a lot in the business, as you’ll come to find out if you submit stories. So the years go by, and in the fullness of time, I turned the story into a short e-book for sale on Amazon. Why not? It’s a good story. (You should buy it, he whispers)

Then one day, I was wandering about the aforementioned on-line book seller’s site when to my surprise, I came across this, my story, for sale, in Astonishing Adventures Magazine: Issue 4.

┬┐Como que huh?

There’s my story being sold without anyone having told me about it. After stomping about my home and scaring my cat, I talked to a few friends who told me to keep calm and carry on. This is life.

Indeed it is, regardless of how unfair it may seem. The lesson here that I have had to learn, the lesson that I’m now trying to teach you, Dear Reader, is that having my name attached to a good story in a place where people can see it is a good thing. Clicking on my name in the list of authors takes you to my own page. Truth be told, I’d rather you buy the story from me directly, but I’d also rather you read it, no matter how you do it.

Yup, keep calm, carry on, and some day, publishers will look at your novel. Until then, write.

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If you spend much time studying the writing process, you’ve heard the advice to write what you know. As with other bits of pseudowisdom, this sounds good until we analyze it. For example, I write science fiction and westerns. In the interests of full disclosure, I have to say that I don’t know from living on the Moon or wandering the Old West–not in the sense of personal experience, at least. So what’s a writer such as I supposed to do?

First off, a better piece of easy advice might be to write what you research. A while ago, I wrote a short story, The Driving Flame, which has my western character, Henry Dowland, battling a gang of toughs along the line of the first transcontinental railroad. All I knew about said project was what any schoolchild (who pays attention–a rare breed) knows. That wasn’t nearly enough to sustain a story about a specific period. To prepare for the writing, I read a weighty tome (redundant, much?) on the subject, Empire Express: Building the First Transcontinental Railroad. Some might say that reading an 816 page book for a twenty-some-odd page story is excessive, but I enjoy history, and I want to get the details right. If I’m going to say that something existed in Cheyenne in 1867, I damn well want to know that I stand on solid ground in saying it.

This goes against another bit of pseudowisdom that a person ought just to write. That’s fine for writers who enjoy going back and making huge changes ex post facto, but I’m not that kind of writer. I write slowly, and only when I know what I’m talking about. Is that writing what I know? It’s writing what I’ve researched. Again, I didn’t live in the period, so I can’t claim to “know,” if by knowing we mean something that I’ve experienced.

The beauty of writing in this present age is that information is available. If you want to know what the top of Mount Everest or the inside of an Old West mine, pictures are on the Web. As a substitute for personal experience, this works well for an author, though it removes the excuse of needing a vacation to be able to write. (Really, honey, I do need to spend three months in Nepal for this stunning piece of literature that I’m working on…)

But as I’ve said, this is not the form of knowing that our Founts of Wisdom (TM) proclaim. Uh huh. So? The real question here is what writing is about. Travelogues are about a place and time. Good for them. But literature is about human beings. (Even if they’re rabbits or Klingons.) When we write stories worth reading, we’re exploring what it means to be human.

That takes a bit of explaining. Good stories are about characters, not events. The plot is a vehicle that shows us how characters act and react, based on their natures. Bad stories are just a series of events. (And no, Dan Brown, you don’t get a link.) That being the case, authors who care about the craft are writing something of what they know.

There’s more to be said, though. (You knew that was coming, no? [Just as you knew there’d be a parenthetical statement?]) Various writers have said words to the effect of “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” What that means is that writing is the process of discovery. What we know expands when we write. We see the world in a new way. We explore a new means of dealing with life. We plumb new depths of the human condition.

As an example of this, I now see that “write what you know” in fact does have some good advice in it. How would I have known about that if I hadn’t written it?

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People obsessed with safety tell us that distracted driving is a bad idea. To me, the bigger concern is all the people who drive while stupid, but life is risky, ultimately a terminal illness, so I can’t get too excited about this. As a writer, though, I am interested in the question of distracted writing.

I recall reading a while ago a story of how Victor Hugo stripped naked, gave his clothes to a servant, and went to his tub to write. The servant had orders to return the clothes when Hugo had written a thousand words or a chapter or something like. That’s a cute story, but I don’t have a servant, and I’d object to someone telling me what to do, anyway.

When I write, I have music on. Westerns get Irish folk music, a band called Great Big Sea, or country. (You can read examples of my westerns here and buy one here.) I write science fiction while rock or classical. (More on that subject here.) When I try my hand at poetry, I can’t listen to music with lyrics, but otherwise, someone singing is fine.

But music isn’t enough. This is because of the crushing onus of white space. White space demands that the writer fill it. It also creates an expectation of creating Good Writing (TM). This causes writer’s freeze, if not outright block. I have two solutions:

1. Every writer ought to have a cat. Felines provide helpful distraction. When that white space is being particularly oppressive, the cat will jump into the writer’s lap and insist on being petted. In the process, words will shake free in the writer’s brain.

2. Twitter does the same thing. The announcement that I have a whole new batch of tweets to read gives me a moment of irrelevance. Then I can go back to filling that white space.

Perhaps this reveals me to be a sufferer of, um, SQUIRREL!

If you feel the need for your own distraction, you may follow me @GregCampNC.

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You, dear reader, have likely heard that rotten saying, “Those who can, do. Those who can’t, teach.” There is so much wrong with this idea, but of particular interest for this essay, I observe that teaching–whether in a classroom or doing editing work with a client–is a good way to improve one’s doing.

This may seem like nonsense. Isn’t a teacher supposed already to know a subject? Frankly, that is the attitude of those who aren’t involved in the process. Teachers learn a field in the same way that everyone else learns that field. Now teachers presumably are more interested in the subject and thus may absorb more of its knowledge and skills, but being human, they have the same gaps in learning. They also learn from a perspective or a limited number of perspectives. Having acquired a finite body of information that they’re skilled at using and seeing it from one position, they go out into the world to share with students.

Here’s where the best learning comes in. I know for a certainty that a teacher will discover the gaps in his understanding the quickest when standing in front of a class. I also know that good students bring new ways of seeing the subject. By being willing to adapt to and sometimes adopt alternative views, I improve in my own knowledge of English writing and literature, the subject that I teach and practice.

But there’s more. Students need to see a process step by step. People who have been doing something for years tend to skate over the basics and fudge the details, and that’s where errors and stumbles often come in. Students don’t tolerate this. They force the teacher to pay attention, to follow the logic in every step, and to make sense. This makes a teacher a better doer.

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I’ve seen a measure of advice on the subject of whether an author should express opinions about politics, religion, and other such topics as a part of his own blog. The consensus, both from people that I respect and from some that I don’t, is that it’s best for said wordsmith to remain mum about things controversial. We don’t want to alienate potential buyers, now do we?

The trouble is that I have lots of opinions, and I’ve never learned to keep my mouth shut. I blunder or charge right on in to the thick of whatever “discussion” is going on. I love to argue. I love to stir up controversy. But more than that, I’m right (or so I think), and you should be made aware of that (or so I think).

What’s an author to do?

For you, I cannot speak. My own choice is to be myself. I set up this weblog to focus on the writing and reading life, among other related topics, but if you’re interested in my various and numerous opinions on politics, religion, and all those other things that may offend, you can find my articles here.

If you want to read what I write–and more than that, if you want to buy what I write–I hope that it’s because the text is interesting, entertaining, thought-provoking, or whatever other good term you care to use. Who I am as a person really shouldn’t be relevant to the text. Yes, I follow the New Criticism school. The author’s intention is none of the reader’s concern or business. The text must speak for itself.

But if you’re curious about the author, do you want to learn about a bland, milquetoast, and soulless person whose one goal in writing and in life is to be inoffensive?

I didn’t think so. Or, at least, I hope not. To quote Popeye, I yam what I yam. Controversy is one of the things that makes life a pleasure for me. In a related vein, part of the writer’s job is to take on a point of view when writing fiction. When I inhabit a character, I have to be that person, so far as I am able. When I write nonfiction, I have to be myself. Even if you, Dear Reader, dislike one persona, there are others to get to know.

In seeking controversy, I not only have fun. I also learn things that I would never have known otherwise. I learn what others think and feel. That’s good for creating characters, and it’s good for functioning in a democracy. I learn about different ways of seeing a subject. That means that I may end up changing my mind. Therein, alas, lies the reason that some people won’t look at anything that isn’t in support of their own positions. But such people aren’t likely to read what I write, anyway.

You, Dear Reader, of course, are open and willing to explore. You’re curious about the universe. You’re also good looking and wise. (Enough flattery yet?) You are my audience.

I can’t write for anyone else.

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Yesterday (12 June 2012), I finally finished a short story that I’d been asked to write. I started it last August, and the dratted thing has been plaguing me ever since. I can’t account for the difficulty in writing it. The main character, Henry Dowland, is someone I know well. He’s been the hero of two other short stories and a novel that I’m working on getting published. I even had an outline for the story. But the words didn’t want to come.

What did I do? I kept typing. Even if I only added a few words in a day, I kept typing. Now it’s finished. And it works.

Lessons to be learned:

1. Even if you have to cuss up a blue streak, write the damned thing. Even if only five words get added after hours of work, write the damned thing.

2. How you feel about the story doesn’t matter. You may hate it. That’s not the story’s problem, and really none of the story’s business. The story deserves to be finished.

3. Excuses don’t get the writing done.

The good news is that I’m moving on to the next piece. Of course, now I have a new blank screen. . . .

Keep writing.

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