Showing posts with label learning to write. Show all posts
Showing posts with label learning to write. 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.

15 January 2018

Second Thoughts and Second Best

by Steve Liskow

A few months ago, I read a Facebook post from a writer I didn't know, ecstatically proclaiming that his writing was so good he never revised anything. I went to his Amazon page and opened the "look inside" button on his most recent masterpiece. His claim was about half-right. I read a page and decided he really didn't revise. If he'd been in my tenth-grade comp and lit class when I taught, he might still be there, too.

Someone I know once compared a first draft to that stranger at the bar who looks a little better after every beer. If you don't look again in the cold harsh light of day, you'll never appreciate the bullet you just dodged.

One advantage of accumulating over 700 rejections (That's when I stopped counting) is that it gives you plenty of work in progress. When I published my first short story (I think it was my 23rd), I learned enough from it to go back and revise several of the others. Some of them have sold since then, but many didn't pass the sniff test.

I wrote twelve novels before I sold my first one, too. Three or four of those early attempts have undergone major surgery, since then, always for the better. Cherry Bomb, my second Zach Barnes novel in Connecticut, started as the second Woody Guthrie (He had a different name then) book set in Detroit. The last half of the book rocked, but the first half rolled over and almost died. Moving it to Connecticut solved a few problems immediately, but it took me six years to figure that out. Blood on The Tracks, the first Woody Guthrie novel, changed the character's name three times and had four different titles over the course of ten years and 112 rejections. The cold case surrounding the dead rock singer stayed constant, but the original story had a cozier concept that confused agents, and setting it in 1991 forced the action to stretch out over abut three months and dilute the tension.

This is stuff you learn only by doing it wrong and getting called out for it. Then you have to find your own way to fix it. That journey is a personal quest, but most people agree that you start with the major issues (Plot, structure, setting, character arc) and gradually zoom to smaller details: prose style; dialogue; backstory and description; spelling, punctuation, grammar.

I like revision because it's working with something you already have. You can't make a cake without flour and sugar and various other ingredients, and it's the same with a story. Even if it's a half-baked mess, you can add more ingredients or change the proportions and cook it a little more until you get lucky. The more you do it, the luckier you get, too.

One advantage of self-publishing is that you can go back to a WIP if you're not happy with it and not have other people screaming at you to hurry up. You can put it away and look at it again after time gives you more perspective. When you do come back, you're not as invested in it so killing your darlings won't upset you as much.

I never throw anything away (Flash drives are a wonderful invention) and I recycle stuff fairly often. The October 2017 issue of Sherlock Holmes Mystery Magazine features "Death by Water," which received its first rejection in 2009. My spread sheet says I sent out three different versions of that story before I got it right. Another story that first crossed the street in 2010 will appear in the May/June 2018 issue of Alfred Hitchcock Mystery Magazine. In 2005, I interviewed several people and did lots of research for a book that I thought would feature Woody Guthrie. I moved it to Connecticut in 2011, and discovered the plot didn't work. Several supporting characters worked perfectly for The Kids Are All Right in 2014. Postcards of the Hanging was my sixth-year project in grad school in 1980, and about 90% of what appeared in 2013 is what I wrote then, but re-sequenced with flashbacks to introduce the conflict earlier.

This week, Before You Accuse Me, the fourth Woody Guthrie novel, makes its debut. I first conceived of the story (Including the title, which never changed, a first for me) in 2004, but knew it was the fourth or fifth book because I had to develop the intervening backstory first. That took nearly 14 years, but about half of what I thought up back then remains and the rest is stronger for the time away. The biggest change is the move from San Francisco (which would have required LOTS of research) to Connecticut, where I live. That made geography easier to work with and allowed me to feature Hartford cops Trash & Byrne as supporting characters.

It never gets easier, but you get better.

23 October 2017

Writing and Reading

by Steve Liskow

Last week, I met a man whose advertisement for a "personal novel writing teacher" had been passed on to me by a friend. I wasn't sure what he wanted or expected.

We only talked a for a minute or two before I asked, "What are the last five or six books you've really enjoyed reading?"

"Oh," he said, "I don't read."

I heard the first timber crack and looked for daylight. "So why do you want to write a novel?"

"I want to get rich."

I ended the interview. I'm proud of myself for not telling him where he could put his misperception.

Most writers who teach have variations on this story, and we all wonder how you can possibly want to write when you don't enjoy reading. That's like a guy who can't stand heights wanting to skydive. Colorblind artists don't get far, either. Or tone-deaf musicians.

I taught English for years, and I still believe you can teach someone to write exposition (essays, research papers, most of the conventional school assignments) reasonably well, but the best students have an innate talent and hunger that carry them beyond the rest. It includes an ear for language that you only develop by reading a lot and starting young.

 Let's face it, writing is hard work, much too hard for anyone who doesn't love words and the way they sound when they dance together. My family included teachers, actors, and journalists, and they all read to me and my sister from the time we could sit upright. We both love to read and we both write a lot.

People who don't read have no frame of reference. If they read, you can use various books, characters, or scenes as examples. You can cite Wuthering Heights, Catcher in the Rye or Gone Girl for an unreliable narrator. You can point to Dickens or Hawthorne for description. But if the student doesn't read, you spend more time reinventing the wheel than you do teaching him to drive. My school called the class "Composition AND literature" because they go together.

If you really want to write, read everything. Read novels, both literary and genre. Read history, science, philosophy, psychology, mythology, religion, economics and essays. Read the King James Bible, too. It doesn't matter if you're Christian or not, listen to those rhythms. Read poetry (preferably older verse with a rhyme scheme) and drama aloud. Read comic books (OK, "graphic novels"), cereal boxes and shopping lists. But stay the hell off Twitter. 140 characters is not language, it's code.

What writer(s) show you how to create rich, three-dimensional characters? Copy them. Who writes terrific dialogue? Steal the techniques. Who writes magnificent description, creates vibrant settings, and immerses you in tone and atmosphere? Figure out how she does it and use the same strategies. Then read your work out loud while walking around the room. Does it make you feel the way you want your readers to feel? If it doesn't, fix it.

Writing has to capture the human experience, and that's the whole point of language. We are (or not) because we read (or not). If you want to write, you can take classes too, but you'll learn more from the authors who speak to you.

Sinclair Lewis, the first American to win the Nobel Prize for Literature, said that style depends on two factors: the ability to feel, and the vocabulary to express those feelings. You find the techniques by reading, and they enhance your empathy and humanity...maybe. The only book I know worth mentioning for writing style (except Strunk and White, which is better for exposition than for narrative) is Constance Hale's Sin and Syntax. If you haven't read it, pick up a copy.

Then get back to reading for joy.

Now, what's on your coffee table or nightstand?

19 May 2017

I Never Intended to be a Writer

  Family Fortnight +   Leading up to the International Day of Families on the 15th of May, we bring you the final story in a series about mystery writers’ take on families. Settle back and enjoy!

by Janice Law

I never intended to be a writer. My aspiration was to be a reader, a much more relaxed, lounge-in-the-hammock occupation, and this for two reasons: I liked to read and I did not much like to write. Let me amend that. Writing was tears and anguish right through my Master’s Degree, an educational experience that left me determined to teach writing completely differently than I had been taught– or mis-taught.

First serious writing 

It was the visual arts that attracted me. I apparently drew well long before I could read or write and to this day, painting seems more natural and easier than writing. I only escaped the hard life of the serious painter because I lacked confidence and because I knew I was too thin-skinned to stand about while potential buyers sniffed that a picture “wouldn’t fit over our sofa or match the drapes.”

In fact, I probably would have missed the curse of the arts entirely if I hadn’t married my husband, one of a family of writers. When I met him as a college freshman, he was already working as a sportswriter. I can well remember my astonishment when on a date at a game (a lot of our dates involved going to sports events) I watched him take notes on a little reporter’s pad then go to the pay phone and dictate his story, complete with paragraphing and punctuation without any written copy.
With this terrifying example of literary competence, I probably should have taken up golf or bridge.

My husband's book on soccer
However, the opportunity to see movies for free by doing reviews – an opportunity my husband promoted energetically – proved to be a crucial learning experience. There is nothing like having to write to length and to deadline, to see one’s work promptly in print, and to find a check in the mail. I recommend this over any writing workshop, course or seminar anywhere.

Reviews, of course, count as journalism, suitable for a family where my father-in-law wrote texts on Social Work administration, my husband did sports writing and his brother, sports promotion. I eventually did a range of non-fiction, including feature articles, scholarly pieces and history books. My husband and my in-laws showed me that writing could be a business, but as it turned out, I strayed from profitable non-fiction to the altogether riskier realm of fiction.

For the reasons, I think I must look to my own folks, both of who were good story tellers with all sorts of reminiscences about the Auld Country and about Aberdeen in my dad’s case and Cowdenbeath in my mom’s. Mom’s stories, like her, were very human and realistic. My dad had a tendency to embroidery.

Our son's adventures at the World Cup
I remember our son interviewing him for a genealogy project at his middle school. My dad, who had a fondness for a theory positing an Iberian influence in Scotland, invented Don Alonzo Law, a survivor of the Armada, who was supposedly a founder of our line and the source of a lot of dark eyes and black hair. The resulting report received an A.

I don’t want to read too much into this episode. I think our son would have entered the family business in any case. He showed an early aptitude for writing and for journalism, which became his profession. Like his father, he has published a well-received book on soccer, as well as numerous articles on a wide variety of subjects in both print and digital formats. Very sensible writing.



But my side of the family carries a powerful strain of eccentricity, and lately our son has shown signs of exploring the primrose path of fiction. I am hoping that a glance at my latest royalty statement will bring him back to terra firma, but who knows? The Muse sometimes calls unlikely folks like me and her gifts can disturb even the most practical of minds.