Category Archives: Learning the craft of writing

Links: the extrordinary poet Ruth Stone, and Barnes & Noble

In case anyone missed it back in November, you can read about the extraordinary poet Ruth Stone in the New York Times. I call her extraordinary not only because of her talent, but also because of her steadfast refusal during her lifetime to quit doing what she loved most: writing poetry.

She finally achieved literary success at the age 87 when she received a National Book Award in 2002. She’d been a poet for over 50 years by then and despite all she had been through had kept writing.

I couldn’t help thinking as I read about her life–what if she had given up on poetry in her fifties and sixties when things were rough? What if she hadn’t kept going? It was in her seventies that she began to break through.

In other links, Digital Book World has two great articles: one on Barnes & Noble’s strengths, and one on Barnes & Noble’s weaknesses. The article on the weaknesses includes a look at Amazon’s KDP program to contrast it to Barnes & Noble’s Pubit that is well worth the time to read.

Every Renown Writer Starts Out a Beginner

Every renown writer you love to read started out as a beginner.

This is so obvious, and yet it gets forgotten so easily since it’s the masterpieces that get remembered when we talk about our favorite dead writers…not the unpublished works and the weak stuff published early on (unless you’re an English major doing research or an obsessive fan).

Very often, people who are not artists or just starting out have this mental gap in their heads about the journey that an artist takes from beginner to master:

beginner———– > luck  ————> master

Mastery and success are attributed to luck.

Well, there’s a middle phase that gets left out:

beginner ——-> apprentice ——> journeyman —> (95% hard work, 5% luck) ——-> master

The apprentice phase for writers is equivalent to the law school phase for someone who wants to be a lawyer. This is the phase where a writer often has to get on a plane to study with a particular writing teacher or to attend a national-level writing workshop. In old novels or movies, this was the point where the young artist packed up to move to an international hub for artists like Paris or New York City or London.

And then there’s the journeyman phase, where the writer has started to sell his or her stories, but there’s still so much to learn. This phase lasts for years to decades, or even a lifetime if the writer decides to stop learning and coast.

As for mastery, it doesn’t spontaneously happen. Don’t ask me why, but people  seem to have a natural tendency to ignore the middle phase when they talk about a particular famous dead writer or fantasize aloud about how easy it would be to write a bestselling novel if they just had the time.

And yet it’s the hard work in journeyman phase that will make or break a writer in becoming a master of the craft.

I think one of the most valuable lessons a writer can do once past the beginner stage is to choose a couple of favorite writers (both living and dead) and read their early works.

So, for example, if you were a huge fan of Charlotte Bronte as a writer, you’d dig up a research book that had her unpublished first writings and probably also a copy of her first novel, The Professor.

Or how about William Shakespeare? Go read his earliest plays (researchers still fight about which play he wrote first, so I’d advise reading several). Then think about how we’d see him now if he’d stopped after those early plays and had never written anything more.

But make sure to also include some favorite recent writers who wrote over a long time frame, twenty years or more.  For example, I went out and bought collections of the early published short stories of three recent writers whose later works I loved to read:  John D. MacDonald’s More Good Stuff, Stephen King’s Night Shift, and James Lee Burke’s The Convict & Other Stories.

This turned out to be an eye-opening exercise for me as I read the unpublished  early works of old greats (such as Jane Austen) and early short stories of favorite present day NYT bestsellers.

Their early works weren’t as well-written as their later works were. They’d gotten better at their craft over time. Big shocker, right?

Of course not.

But I’ve noticed a lot of my fellow Americans like to see their artists as the equivalent of Athena jumping fully formed out of the skull of Zeus. The arts are supposed to be “easy.” You have either “got it” as an artist or you don’t. No hard work, no sweat, no tears, no frustration, no years of dedicated study–as if somehow the arts are different from every other human endeavor.

So reading the early works of these various writers impressed upon me, at a deep gut level, how craft gets better over time as one works at it. Hmm, let me put it bluntly. A few of the early works “sucked.” A few seemed like they showed “no talent.” And yet these writers persevered and became masters of their craft. It would have been a terrible thing if any of these writers had quit during the early days due to a mistaken idea that it was impossible to improve in writing skill.

Every writer starts out a beginner. Where we go from there is up to us.

Writing the Unmarketable Novel

Almost two years ago I finished a YA novel, Soul Cages, that I knew in my heart of hearts was going to be a nightmare for an editor to get past the sales & marketing department of a traditional publisher.

That’s because in my gut I knew it was going to be difficult to get any readers to even want to pick it up. I knew the book was in trouble sales-wise as soon as my usual first reader burst into tears while reading the synopsis, and then refused to read the manuscript. I had to get other readers to take over for that book. Most ended up loving the story, but I never forgot the response of that first reader.

Seeing your first reader cry in sorrow really sucks.

Let’s face it. Most of the time, readers are coming to a story to mentally relax for a while. They’re coming for entertainment. I’d written a story that was a weird horror/romance/special issues tribute to Judy Blume, C. S. Lewis, and Stephen King in one go. It dealt with ugly nasty stuff like family abuse, the way kids with Asperger’s sometimes get treated badly, the abuse of Scripture in the Bible to justify cruelty, and anti-Semitism…among other things.

None of that stuff is appealing for entertainment. Ugh, who wants to read all  that after a bad day?

The novel went through several rounds of editing, but there comes a point when you realize as a writer that you can only make a weird “Frankenstein” novel  marketable by censoring your protagonist and mutilating the story by chopping it up. Chop out the romance, or chop out the horror, or chop out the Asperger’s.

In the end I decided to leave the main character alone. It was her story, not mine, and I decided to let her story stand as she’d told it to me, and I went on to write new stories.

And it was the best decision I ever made. I’ve written another novel and many  short stories since I put Soul Cages to rest, and a lot of exciting things have been happening behind the scenes these last six months. Things that would not have happened if I had attempted to keep rewriting Soul Cages to death.

Soul Cages itself has been released in e-book form, and it is still under consideration with a certain midsize traditional publishing house (though I suspect in the end the editor will fail in getting it past marketing).

I’ve done no email blasts, no blog tours, no ads, no book launch party, no “push” of any sort. And I don’t intend to. My limited work time is better spent writing new stories to improve my craft, and some of those new stories will prove to be more marketable–i.e. more appealing to readers–than Soul Cages is.

But am I sorry that I wrote Soul Cages? Do I feel I wasted my time by working on an unmarketable novel?

No.

I think it’s good for an artist to write at least one story where it feels like you’re spitting in the eye of the market. Writing that unmarketable novel made me a better writer by making me a gutsier writer, and I think I’ll be reaping the benefits for decades to come.

An Interview With Tyler Perry

Whatever your opinion may be about playwright/director/actor Tyler Perry’s work, consider reading the interview he did with Oprah for the December 2010 issue of her magazine.

When he started out, Mr. Perry’s plays failed six times in a row over six years (one play failure each year, and then he’d have to work odd jobs to scrounge up the money to start over the following year). It wasn’t until the seventh attempt that he wrote and produced a play that succeeded.

During those six years when he was trying to make it, there were times he was sleeping in his car to put together the funds for the next play production attempt.

Too often there’s a belief that one must be successful with the first short story, novel, screenplay, or play written. And that if one fails, that means one has no talent and should just give up.

It takes time to learn a craft and reach a professional level. An important lesson to take away from Tyler Perry’s story is that one must be willing to learn from failure.

The Fun of “Dare to Be Bad” When Writing

Dean Wesley Smith has a great post this week on “Dare to Be Bad” when writing, though I think the motto could be applied to any new endeavor where perfectionism and a fear of risk-taking is a problem.

Brad Torgersen took Dean’s motto a step further, and used his experiences learning to ski as an analogy for learning to write in “On Writing and Skiing: Dare to Be Bad!”

I found both posts helpful in dealing with the fear of making mistakes, especially when I imagined what it would look like on the slopes if beginning skiers behaved the same way writers aspiring to publication often did.

Plus, I learned a skier slang word from Brad, “biff.”  Which sounds a LOT more fun than “error,” “mistake,” or “screwed up.”  Biff’s the word for when you tumble over while skiing.  I think from now on when I tumble when writing (i.e. characterization didn’t quite work, plot hole missed, forgot the sense of smell or taste, whatever) I’m going to say to myself “I biffed it” instead of “I screwed it up.”  Puts the situation in better perspective in my mind, because both skiing and writing can be tremendous fun until the tumble happens.

And “biff” doesn’t have the undertone of negativity that “screw up” and “error” do.  My fiction writing isn’t a training manual for pilots or a textbook for nurses, and while it’s important to do my best and correct all the “biffs” I can find, it’s also important to know when to move on to the next story or novel instead of obsessively revising something until it’s dead on the page.