Monday, August 19, 2013

So You Wanna Write?

Artist Noah Bradley recently posted his opinion on going to art school. I found what he had to say really struck a chord with me. In that vein, what would my recommendation be for anyone wanting to learn to write? My recommendations are thus:

  1. Read.
  2. Write.
  3. Take some courses.

Read.

When you read, you see how the words are laid out by the team of the writer, the editor, and the typographer. Find books that are your favorite and read them.
Then, look at them!
How are they laid out? How does the artist structure his words and sentences? How does the punctuation work? When you are reading, you unconsciously see these things. They guide your eyes and mind to follow the words. They help lay out the rhythm and emotions behind the words.
You should try to look at them consciously as well. Find a particular part in a book that you really enjoyed and instead of reading that passage, look at it. Look at the words and punctuation and see how they are used and interact. I would suggest you copy this post into a word processing document, delete all the periods, and then try to read it. The document becomes unreadable. Remove all the commas and you won’t know where to breathe while reading it.
The old phrase, “Monkey see, monkey do,” is very apt here. The books you read do have an influence on your writing. I write better if I have read something just before I start writing. The proof of this is there are fewer errors reported back to me when I write a chapter after reading a favorite book.
I will often pull out a book and find a section to see how the author presented a scene or idea that might be similar to one I’m writing. Just as a programmer keeps a reference book on hand when writing code, a writer should keep a few books on hand for comparison of style. Keeping old favorites on hand means you will have a better idea of where to find a particular passage for reference.
By the same token, I avoid reading certain books when I’m writing. Especially if they are similar in theme to the story I’m writing. The last thing I want to have happen is I unconsciously copy something from Title A into my own work. It happened once in high school. I wrote a story for creative writing, and my teacher gave it a glance, looked up at me, and said, “Ah, you were watching Star Wars recently, weren’t you?”
It turned out one of the place names I created was a slight modification from the name of a character who appeared in Star Wars. I was absolutely dumbfounded that I could have done that—not to mention utterly humiliated. To this day, I still feel embarrassed when I think about it.
This is why you should always have a friend or relative read what you wrote before bringing it out to the public. If that person is well read in the genre you are writing, hopefully they will catch any such gaffs. If anyone catches something like that in my writing, I assure you I will lay it on cement, pull out my favorite flame thrower—set to 451°F—and reduce said writing to ashes.

Write.

If you have an idea for a story, sit down and quickly write out a description of it. Do it before you forget about it. Often a good idea for a story just might be one scene or one vision. Even though it is really intense when you first think about it, such ideas are ephemeral and can fade greatly in just a few hours. If you choose to sleep on it, it might be gone when you wake the next morning.
The idea for Aggadeh Chronicles began as a vision I imagined where a young man was sadly looking after his comrades running for safety, and then turned, drawing his sword to face alone what was threatening them. The image was so intense, I immediately began writing out the scene so I wouldn’t lose it. I wrote nearly non-stop for three days, producing over 15,000 words of notes about his story, the people he meets, and the world he lives in. A few months later, I had amassed nearly 90,000 words of notes describing character back stories, histories of various locations, and rules that the world followed. There were also scenes that would appear in the stories, interactions between characters and a few other things. All this, as well as a general description of how the story would run.
As long as you’ve written something down about your story idea, it will live. Even if you set it aside, when the time is right to pick it up again the notes will help you get restarted.
The more you write, the faster you will be able to write, the more you will be able to write. Writing is a physical act as much as mental, and you need to exercise your hands to hone up your ability to type. This is no different than an athlete training to improve on skills and condition. (Well, perhaps a little less aerobic…) Your hands have to be able to keep up with the thoughts your mind creates.
At the same time, you have to learn to pace yourself. Screaming along at a furious pace might get a lot of typing done in a short period of time, but if you don’t pause to think once in a while, your narrative may meander or come out as gibberish.
The most obvious reason to write? If you don’t write, you won’t have written anything. So much for those story ideas. It may seem like a stupid thing to say, but how many people do you know make the comment that they’d like to write a book someday? How many of them make that comment more than once? Anyone who says that two or more times wants to write a book, but they are waiting for an excuse or for someone to prod them along.
Well? Write! Sit down and start pumping out ideas.

Take Courses.

Going back to Mr. Bradley’s original point about whether or not to attend art school. I would say, there is enough argument on both sides of the issue.
Could I have started a writing career if I had not attended college?
The answer is yes, I probably could have. The talent to write is just something I have. The ability to create stories appears to be something I was born with. Unfortunately, I did not recognize that I could actually do it.
I wrote a lot of creative stories in college. By hand, jotted down in notebooks when I should have been taking notes. At some point when I have free time, I’ll break out those notebooks and transcribe those writings into digital format. There was some good stuff in those writings.
But that writing I did also showed I didn’t know what I was doing. I didn’t know how to take it to that next level; to actually create a manuscript for submission. Every time I would work myself up to the point to consider it, I would get reminded of how often writers were rejected. All that time invested only to be turned down. I chose to focus my efforts on getting jobs so I could make a living. I figured that I would get to writing seriously, once I had enough money that I didn’t have to worry about paying the bills. (Stop snickering!)
I would chew the ears off friends for hours telling them about one story idea or another. 
What finally got me to writing—other than being out of work and completely steamrolled by the recession—was the decision to do it. To organize myself as a writer and move forward. To take my story ideas beyond the stream of consciousness description and actually make a story out of them.
But there are some things that I could do better. Manage myself better. Organize my thoughts better. And the way to do that is to learn.
For anyone, I would recommend a course in grammar and punctuation. (One look at the tears of blood streaming from my editors eyes should be enough to convince anyone of that!) Sure, dialogue should be in the vernacular, but the rest of the writing should not—unless it is a first person narrative. Even if you are confident in your skills as a writer, a course in basic grammar serves as an excellent refresher to help you stop any bad habits before they become an issue. My bad habit? I write the way I speak. I punctuate changes of voice inflection or pauses to breathe. This might work if you’ve ever heard me speak, but to the average reader it would be incredibly irritating because my punctuation style interferes with the inner voice.
It is vitally important to know how to properly structure your paragraphs and sentences. Readers do notice when this is sloppy!
Also, the fewer errors you make, the faster editing goes. That means the story gets out to the market faster and readers are much happier.
I took one course in creative writing in college. I confess, I didn’t get much out of it as far as improving the technical parts of writing. But I did get the first, real professional critique of my writing out of that course. I’m happy to say, it was very positive. He did point out a few weak areas for me to correct.
In this case, I have to echo Mr. Bradley and say I’m not sure how much value there is in teaching creative writing. I think a creative writing course should be more of a coaching program. At the same time, I think my opinion is weak and easy to argue against. Part of a creative writing program is to teach someone how to think of different ways of expressing something. Similar to the Zen Koan, ‘What is the sound of one hand clapping?,’ you have to learn how to think and perceive in different ways.
I think a vital course for creative writing is the more technical side of writing: organizing and creating the manuscript.
Most creative types just want to sit down and write the story. What happens when you do that? The story tends to meander around and shoot off into tangents that get away from the main plot line. This is why I tell people to sit down and write out a stream-of-consciousness description of the story. This is the version that no one other than the author should ever see. Once it is done, you sit down and read through it. Start breaking it up into small pieces. Each piece will become a chapter.
This way, you can create an outline of your story. Each piece describes something that happens in the story, and you have to write a chapter that covers that happening. The outline becomes the skeleton of your story. It will force you to stay within the proper guidelines of your story. By keeping your story framed around this skeleton, you will avoid those meanders and tangents that could make a story tedious. Also, it will guide you to actually ending the story.
You really do need to be more organized and professional in how you write a story if you want it to become something that could be submitted for publication. It is entirely possible to have a great story idea, but for the story to be completely unreadable because the writing is so bad or disorganized.
I think the most important course that should be offered for wannabe writers is a course about the business of writing! It is vital you should understand just how the book publishing business works. Even if you are going to self-publish, you should be aware of how it works. You should know about what to look for in a printer if you want to print up your books, and know about how much it is going to cost. You should understand what an advance is and how it works, when royalty payments should be made. You should understand this well so you can recognize when something is going wrong and when you should consider ending your working relationship with a publisher. So you can recognize a good deal vs. a bad deal in a contract, or when a contract is lopsided. You could be taken advantage of by an unscrupulous agency if you don’t recognize it. That could cost you thousands of dollars in the long run.
Another thing that could be in this course is about the tools of writing. How a manuscript is prepared for printing. How you prepare a manuscript for creating an e-book—I have five days until the launch of Nobody, and I’m still struggling to make Adobe InDesign work! 
I would also strongly recommend a business course geared for writers. How to set up a S-corporation and why. What can you claim as a business expense and what you have to do when it is time to file your taxes. Basic accounting so you can keep on top of your expenses. Why investing and how to do it should be an important part of your writing business. Writing is as much a business as it is an art form. If you want to make money by selling a book, you should accept that you have to treat it as a business. Writing is art, selling a book is business. If you don’t know what you are doing, you are going to have problems that will cost you over the long term.

Live!

Getting a B.A. in English does not make you a writer. It does not guarantee future success as an author. Heck, there are a lot of people with degrees in technical fields who have gone on to successful writing careers. College is the last free lunch you’ll get before the reality of life hits you in the face with a blunt instrument. The one time you can live like an adult and still act like a child. Use that free time to enrich your mind.
It isn’t just courses that prepare you to become a writer. Expand your horizons. Explore art galleries presenting work by your fellow students; see if you can’t figure out what they were thinking when they created it. Go see plays and shows on campus. Attend a meeting of a political/religious/social group you strongly disagree with and listen to what they have to say sympathetically and without judgement; try to understand why they think the way they do. Go out and party with your friends; learn how much you need to drink to get a warm buzz without getting drunk. Get laid; find someone who would be interested in finding out if the Kama Sutra is really all it’s purported to be. Go camping and learn to cook over an open fire; there’s nothing like chilling out in the middle of nowhere with absolutely no technology or distractions for a night or two. Check out the reading lists of various literature courses and actually read the crap; they are great sources of inspiration for a new story and you might find something you really enjoy.
Get a life. Learn to live. Write about it. (If you include your sexual exploits, I recommend heavy encryption….)


And now, back to work. I’ve got five days….