Reminder from last week: I’d found an old (Feb. 13, 2012) Writer’s Market online blog wherein Jessica Strawser had opined “As wordsmiths, many of us rejoice in a single fact every day: ‘Writing is not math.'” It made me laugh aloud because I always loved math as a kid in school . . . and, evidently beyond. After I’d been teaching for somewhat over 20 years, I was going to move on (again) to another school. What would keep me marketable? Every school district always needed math and science teachers, and I’d heard about the Bridging the Gap program, designed to give teachers, who still needed to pick up one or more hours in their schedule, a position teaching lower level math classes (usually male faculty who were coaches: football, basketball, etc.) a two‑summer, eight‑week‑each‑year course which gave them a math endorsement for lower level courses and a working knowledge of how to go about teaching such a subject. I asked if I could join in on the courses, finished their courses in ONE summer by going to class from 8 am to noon, then again from 1 pm to 4pm everyday. Having not been in a math class for about 29 years, I found it an invigorating challenge.
Math was full of rules, logarithms, formulas, etc. And so is English, with every language having it’s own rules, protocols, customs, etc. When do you HAVE to follow them? When can they be BYPASSED? So five more rules:
- KILL YOUR DARLINGS.
These are the bits you’re so crazy about you can’t recognize as they bog down or misdirect your story. Look carefully at shortcomings, flaws, pointless anecdotes or “witty” banter. But wait until you can get some distance from it. Put that manuscript away for a few weeks, then look again with “fresh eyes.” When you do start to edit, read it aloud, and slowly ‑‑‑ preferably to someone (even that ratty old teddy bear on your bed is better than no one). You’ll begin to see the whole with new eyes. “But I love that part!” There’s your first suspect! (Thanks to N.M. Kelby for these ideas and the opposite side which follows.)
However, Kelby is of two minds about this: The Kill Your Darlings mantra may have come from Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald or Mark Twain ‑‑‑ no one knows any more. Besides, they’re all dead. (I, the BenschWensch, first heard it from a writer friend: Orson Scott Card, who is definitely not dead!) The trick is to find the balance between economy and beauty. While you’re reading it aloud, imagine yourself at a social gathering: you’re telling a person you’ve just met about your story. Think about what would delight this new “friend,” not about what would gratify you.
Excise what you must, but keep it in a well‑marked file. It may be of use later, even in a different story
- DEVELOP A THICK SKIN
Remember the difference between skin and skull. You must recognize constructive criticism as part of your progress as a writer. If 9 out of 10 readers don’t like something about the first page, chapter, or ‑‑‑ horrors!‑‑‑ the whole idea, they’re probably right. Listen. Recognize your weaknesses. Being thin‑skinned (defensive, resentful, arrogant) is one problem, but thick‑headed is a whole different animal. Take your rage out, if you must, in private. Afterwards. And look through the ideas/comments that came up to find the seeds of improvement which will, almost without a doubt, be there.
Ask trusted readers to let you know what words/phrases linger, after the reading. This will show they really were listening. Focus on their feelings about what was written — see if it’s in keeping with your intention. Feelings of confusion, or of being “left out” will let you spot where you have led the reader astray. Trust their curiosity: places they wanted to know more will help you see what is not yet on the page. “Too wordy” becomes “overwhelmed, unclear about what’s happening.” “Incoherent” becomes something skipped over; the reader has missed knowing what it is. “Awkward” is more likely having missed the writer’s voice.
- SILENCE YOUR INNER CRITIC.
Train yourself to “go with the flow” and trust what you’ve learned along the way. When you write, do so freely, letting the characters live and breathe. After you’re done, read and fix, edit lightly and move on. Study books and articles on writing. Get feedback from a critique group. But when you write, WRITE! That’s how you learn. Practice writing for 5 or 10 minutes at a time without stopping. Doesn’t matter whether it’s essays, journal writing, poems, diatribes, letters to yourself. It will teach how to keep the inner editor at bay.
Still, you hear that you shouldn’t listen to your Inner Editor. Can you help it? That voice is still in a part of your head, like it or not. It’s what makes you able to choose between “blue” and “azure” as you go. Somehow, we manage to think that Inner Editor knows more than I do. But, wait . . . that Inner Editor is the “Outer Me”! She’s not my adversary. She’s there to guide me around the rocks and shoals. She’s a benevolent influence, with a flashlight in hand, as we follow the dark path of each sentence. She’s not a Friend, but a Guide, a Word Whisperer. Listen carefully: did she just say “blue” ?
- READ WHAT YOU LIKE TO WRITE ‑‑‑ MAKE THAT “WHAT YOU LOVE!”
Learn to read not only as a reader, but as a writer. Readers get caught up in the story, the setting, the plot. Writers study how those results are created. Good scene? Interrupt the reading long enough to figure out why it works! Bad prose? Mentally rewrite it. Found something really good? make notes so you can steal the technique, err, ahhhh, create “an homage” in your writing later. So pick a genre you truly like, not just some hot or marketable genre you know little about.
You don’t need to disregard this rule, but you shouldn’t let it limit you, either‑‑‑it’s not enough to read only what you like to write. Writers should read everything: backs of cereal boxes, tooth-paste tubes, a note inadvertently left by the door or the phone. The writer’s problem/ opportunity/ obligation is to know the world. “Imaginative writing . . . favors the diligent and informed over the uninspired and indifferent. You need to know the world, develop your craftsmanship. Best teachers of fiction: the Great Works of Fiction themselves. Learn story structure reading Chekhov’s “Heartache” ‑‑‑ better than a whole semester of Creative Writing 101.
The trick is to read like a writer, meaning “read everything twice.” First time: enjoy, let it happen. Finished? you know where it took you, and you’re ready to re‑read. Notice how the writer reached that destination. Read widely, voraciously ‑‑‑ you won’t like it all, but you can still learn from it. Don’t care for Henry James and his aristocratic ladies and gents? Fine. But don’t let your irritation keep you from learning nearly everything you need to know about free indirect style by reading this master storyteller.
- IF YOU WANT TO GET RICH, DO SOMETHING ELSE.
And, generally, that’s the best advice. Although, admittedly, writing/reading makes you rich in many oter ways. Writer, Sheila Bender, said “It’s enough that writing makes me rich in other ways . . . I was poor when I wasn’t writing, when I didn’t trust the value of taking time to put my heart and mind on paper . . . thought because I wasn’t already published, my desire to write was dilettantish. It wasn’t until I started taking writing classes that I began to grow out of the poverty of not trusting myself as a writer. In those early classes, I recognized that I felt better on days I wrote than days I didn’t write, that my classmates’ writing and discussions about writing enriched my world.
“Thirty years later, I’m wealthy by many accounts: My writing has helped me understand those I love and myself, sustained me through the tragedy of losing my son and allowed me to write him and my late father back to life‑‑‑I can see, hear and feel them. More than I ever believed possible, I’ve reached the hearts and minds of others through my writing, whether I’m well paid for that or not.
“Recently, my 8‑year‑old grandson, who had purchased a copy of my memoir and been first on the book‑signing line after my reading, interrupted our family’s adult dinner conversation. ‘Grandma,’ he said, smiling at me, ‘your book is good’ How could I feel any richer?”
On the Other Hand:
Check the stats on book sales. How many writers make a living at writing books? Very few. A lot pick up a few dollars here and there. If you really look at the stats, and it sets you back on your heals, freelance writing may not be for you. And that’s OK too. If you’re the type who hunkers down, works, reads, studies, and grows, you may be among the few who make more than a living at writing. If you’re drawn to writing because so few succeed, you can be the one who excels. Give yourself wholly to your art, and be the one. Be the one.
I want to thank The Powers That Be at Authors Think Tank, WIFYR, Throwing Up Words and our former partners at ABC Writers for allowing me/us to write blogs for various of Utah’s writers.. I have enjoyed being able to write them, but blogs have begun to take over my life. My “schedule,” below, shows where the ABC Writers Guild, begun by my small critique group, was written by group members, especially my husband, Herb Arnold, but mostly by myself. The other groups have been supported by Carol Lynch Williams (at both Throwing Up Words AND the WIFYR Assistants group). As these have taken so much of my writing time for several years, I’ve asked to be released to work on “my” own writing. My immediate desire is to finish a long-researched historical novel and three non-fiction books. I’ll still be reading the extant blogs below, and learning from our wonderful and large pool of Utah writers.
ABC Writers Guild Nov. 2012 thru June 2015, every other day (a bit fewer toward 2015)
Authors Think Tank March 2014 thru May 2016, one weekly
Throwing Up Words Aug. 2015 thru May 2016, one weekly
WIFYR blogs Dec. 2015 thru June 2016, one to two, occasionally three weekly