Showing posts with label Craft. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Craft. Show all posts

25 June 2018

Editors, Teachers and Writers (a restrained rant)

by Steve Liskow

A few days ago, I took umbrage at the following post on the SMFS site:

Content editors--book doctors, developmental editors, or whatever else practitioners of this trade call themselves nowadays--are an unjustified expenditure for most aspiring writers. They commonly charge well into four figures and won't guarantee to make your book any better at all. They claim to be able to help with ethereal things like plot development, imagery, pace, and other nonquantifiable elements, but they won't guarantee those things will be any better whatsoever once they're done because they can't. The only thing a freelance story editor or a like contractor working with a tiny indie press can guarantee to authors is to separate them from a lot of their money with no provable advantage for them.

Bull.

Before I continue, let me say that the only published work I find for this writer on Amazon is a grammar, punctuation and STYLE guide that looks too expensive for its length. I didn't read it, but whether it's good or bad, the mention of style in the title makes the entire statement above eat its tail.

Many agents and publishers now encourage an "aspiring writer" to get a professional edit before submitting their work. They seem to think that an expert can someone's plot development, character arc, or pace, all of which are both quantifiable and qualifiable elements of writing. They're in a position to know, aren't they?

There's a law in physics that says conditions equalize because something (heat, cold, pressure, etc.) flows from an area of greater concentration to an area of lesser concentration. Education is based on a similar idea: that people with more knowledge or expertise can pass it on to students who have less of those things. That's why schools and colleges exist. We require American students to study English (including writing or composition) for their entire career. Centuries of experience prove the subject matter can be taught and learned. Those are different sides of the coin and there are good and poor teachers, just as there are good or poor students, mechanics, doctors, painters, plumbers, mechanics, cooks, photographers, drivers, critics or anything else you can name.

Since I started teaching and switched over to writing, I have read at least a thousand books about writing or teaching writing. A depressingly high percentage of them are poor, but even those usually taught me something.
 If you don't think you can improve your craft or help others improve theirs, you shouldn't sit at the table. When Stephen King accepted the 2003 National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, he said, "I've tried to improve myself with every book and find the truth inside the lie. Sometimes I have succeeded. I salute the National Book Foundation Board, who took a huge risk in giving this award to a man many people see as a rich hack."

I quote King because, like anyone who stays around, he's a much better writer than he was when he wrote Carrie, and that was a heck of a book. Now he does character backstory and depth as well as anyone out there and he writes much better female characters than he used to. He uses throwaways and irony, too. In other words, he's learned to throw more than a fast ball. I'm about 3/4 of the way through his newest book, The Outsider, probably the best book I have read so far this year.

Writers use critique groups and beta readers, both cheap forms of editing. Some groups and readers are great and some are not, but you can learn a lot from people who do something better than you do, and maybe as much from people who love the work even if they don't do it (Writers need readers, if nobody ever mentioned that before). Feedback is a form of learning and teaching. Schools and colleges offer creative writing classes. Those enterprises are aimed at making writers better at the qualifiable and quantifiable elements mentioned above. Of course those teachers and institutions ask for money. Living isn't free, and nobody who is very good at something should have to do it for free, either. If you don't believe that, try comparison shopping for knee replacements.

At the first writing conference I attended, I signed up for a critique and sent 25 pages of my MS in advance. Kate Flora, an excellent writer and teacher, spent about twenty minutes with me, and I learned more in that conversation than in the last year of struggling through several how-to books. I didn't follow every suggestion Kate offered, but I considered them. Years later, when I sold my first novel (a different one), Kate blurbed it. She also edited my first few short stories. All of those stories were measurably better because of her work on them.

I am a freelance editor now, and I taught English in an urban high school and a community college for thirty-three years. I know or have worked with several other fiction editors--many of whom I met through MWA, SinC, or both, and they include Barb Goffman (also here on Sleuthsayers), Jill Fletcher, Chris Roerden, Lynne Heitman, Leslie Wainger and Ramona DeFelice Long.

Every one of them will make a manuscript better. They can all explain how and why it's better, too. But only a fool would guarantee that editing will result in a sale. Taste is a personal thing; connecting it to quality is like juxtaposing apples and snow tires.

As I write this, I'm also reading reports that Koko, a 46-year-old gorilla, has passed away. Koko revealed aspects of primates we'd never suspected before, showing maternal love for kittens and other small animals, and telling her handlers she wanted to be a mother. She told her handlers through the more than one thousand words she learned in sign language. People taught a gorilla a larger vocabulary than the average politician.

Think what she could have done with a word processor and a good agent...to go along with those teachers.

25 September 2017

Nano, Nano

by Steve Liskow

At least one source claims that over 300,000 people signed up for National Novel Writing Month (November) last year, and I'm guessing that about 5% of them actually achieved the 50,000 word target by the 30th. If you're thinking about joining in this year, you have about five weeks to gird your loins, sharpen your pencil, or polish your keyboard.

I present workshops on preparing to write for NANO and I encourage people to sign up for several reasons.

First, if you're one of those people who has always believed you have a book in you, now's a good time to find out. Keep in mind that the catchy title is misleading. You won't write a book in a month, partly because a novel is longer than 50,000 words and partly because you're going to have to revise everything several times to make it coherent. If you don't believe that, maybe I can discourage you after all.

Second, trying to write 50,000 words in a month will help you find your most efficient process. Do you write more comfortably early in the morning or late at night? Do you work better in one long stretch or in shorter bursts of 30-45 minutes? Do you find it easier to type at a computer or use a pen or pencil and write your first draft out longhand? Can you simply jump in and start writing, or do you prefer to outline and create character biographies first? Writing, especially fiction, is a personal and intimate process, so nobody else can really tell you how to do it. You need to experiment and learn from your mistakes. Once you can get words on paper, you can learn more about plot and character, better point of view choices, and all the other mechanics.

But the first task, especially if you're new at this, is learning how much effort it takes to produce an average of 1667 words--roughly six and a half pages in 12-point font--every day. For the newbie, this is a daunting task. Even the act of sitting long enough to do it is rough, and you need to resist the urge to check your email, play computer games, or edit your picture files. Many established writers set daily word limits for themselves. Stephen King expects to write 2000 words, roughly eight pages, daily. I'm not sure, but I don't think he outlines. Neither do Dennis Lehane or Tess Gerritsen. Robert Crais outlines and plans, maybe because he got his start writing for television.

Keep in mind that if you're going to produce that much every day, not all of it will be brilliant. That's the biggest secret I can offer you. There are no obscure psychological tricks I know except giving yourself permission to produce lots of crap. Think of your first draft as a block of marble. The revision is the sculpting part: chipping away everything that doesn't look like an elephant or the Venus de Milo. Don't worry about whether what you're writing is good or bad. That comes later.

Some people (I'm one of them) like to do a rough outline or character background. I try to create a sequence of fifty scenes before I start the actual writing, then plan to produce at least one complete scene daily ( I NEVER quit in the middle of a scene because I'll lose the rhythm overnight). For whatever reason, my scenes average about 1600 words, so aiming at one a day keeps me on the target. By the time I write a complete first draft of the book, I'm often on the fifteenth scene list, or even more.

But sequencing and pacing come with practice and NANO is a great first step toward that goal.
If I write that quickly, I begin to find the rhythm of the book, too, and learn when a scene is in the wrong place or needs a different point of view. Then I change it on my outline/scene list. Actually, my first draft is that scene list.

Remember, if you write 50,000 words in a month, it's only the beginning.

But it's a great beginning.

11 December 2012

The Dark Valley of Unpublished Stories

By David Dean

As I have mentioned in earlier postings, I have a few unpublished stories concealed in my trusty desk.  It's not important how many; we're not bean counters, right?  No, we're writers, artists of the highest order, sensitive people who see the world a little...oh, alright then, more than ten, but less than fifty.  How's that?  And yeah, a couple of novels stuck in a drawer somewhere.  You happy now?  Sheesh!

Sometimes, when I've run out of writing ideas, I take a little walk down memory lane and enter the valley of unpublished stories.  It's usually twilight in the valley and a little misty.  The path, overgrown and difficult to follow, threads its way through years of literary endeavor; an elephants' graveyard of lofty aspirations.  Here and there, nearly hidden in the undergrowth, headstones lean drunkenly, lichen covered and barely discernible.  Approaching with a mixture of dread and nostalgia, I wind my way through their titles: Anti-Intruder, Wisdom (I must have been channeling De Maupassant when I picked that title), Green Messiah, The Writer's Wife, The Book of Yaroes, etc...   All so young...so beautiful...and they never had a chance.  What a loss to the world, I cry.

Then, when I'm feeling especially foolish, I'll dig one up and flip through a few pages.  That's when I get the cold water in the face and couple of sharp, stinging slaps for good measure.  Not every time, mind you, but a lot.  So I get a little flushed and ask myself, "You did not submit this...did you?  What were you thinking?  Your writing sucks, dude!"  Said walk through the valley comes to a screeching halt and I get busy with the old shovel and spade.

They're not all bad, of course, and some show a little promise--some more than others.  But they all offer a few lessons in writing, as well as illustrating a little personal history.  It's a bit like thumbing through the high school year book--yeah, that's you alright...but not anymore, Sonny Jim, not anymore.  My choice of subjects is revealing in terms of where I was in my life at that time.  Happily, my efforts appear to improve as they march through the years.  Two reasons occur to me for this: Firstly, practice makes perfect--my craftsmanship improved with repetition, as well as a lot of trial and error.  Secondly, I hesitate to say I've grown wiser, but I've certainly matured since I began, and the writing shows it, I like to think.

One thing that I notice is that in the earliest stories I relied more on atmosphere and a sense of place than I do now.  They were more like walk-through paintings, murals, perhaps--action and dialogue were clearly aspects of story-telling with which I was less comfortable.  As the years passed it became evident that my confidence in those areas improved, though I still approach dialogue with trepidation--sometimes it flows well, and at others it's a struggle.  I hear that I am not alone in this.

Writing action sequences has become one of my favorite things to do now.  It seems the easiest to me, which is probably why I like it--you don't have much dialogue to worry about, the setting is generally already established, and it's a great way to reveal aspects of the characters without a lot of obvious narration. 

My stroll through the graveyard of stories reveals that I have almost consistently avoided use of first-person.  It seems that, from my earliest days as a writer, I have side-stepped this convention, in spite of the fact that some of my favorite stories are told in exactly this way.  I have no explanation for this.  Perhaps some psychological insight might be contained in this observation, if only I had the psychological insight to do so.  Writer, know thyself.  Or is it better not to?  Do we become too mannered the more self-aware and, possibly, self-conscious that we become?  Or is it liberating in the sense of making one comfortable enough, and confident enough, to make the most of one's own talent and experiences?  I am of two minds on this subject, as I am on so many when it comes to writing.  Mostly, I just want to write, and write real good, without having to work too hard at it or know myself uncomfortably well.  This seems funner to me.

But the revenants in the Valley of Unpublished Stories seem to say otherwise.  "Go thou from this vale of tears," they command.  "Go dwell in the sunlight amongst your progeny...and work, work, damn you, so that this sad place will have no further interments.  We are your victims, do not increase our number--even if it means that you work like a dog and have less time for drinking than you'd like!  Learn from us and never, ever, repeat the mistakes that brought us to this forsaken place.  And, oh yeah, on you way out close the gate behind you and pick up that candy wrapper--that wasn't here before."

I not only close the gate, I put a padlock on it.