I’ve been trying to get a science fiction novel published for over fifteen years now, and during that time I’ve learned a lot about the art and craft of writing. I’ve read magazines and books, both about writing and in my chosen genre, I’ve attended meetings and conventions, I’ve heard speaker after speaker both at meetings and in private, I’ve been a member of several critique groups, and a lot of stuff has been thrown at me over the years, all about writing in general, and novels in particular. In this post, I would like to comment on three admonitions that have been handed down from tutor to pupil almost without comment for many years. I feel they’re a little off the mark, and I think writers will adhere to them at their peril. For example:
- They say: Do not let anything interrupt you from your writing. Writing should be the most important thing in your life. Shut out all else and make writing the most important focus in your life. This is dead wrong. The most important focus in your life should be your health, not your writing. Don’t let your writing interfere with staying healthy. Get out and exercise. Go walking. Lift weights. Swim. Jog on a treadmill. Watch what you eat. Keep your weight down. Keep your blood sugar and blood pressure down. In short, keep your health in the best possible condition. It won’t do you any good if you have a heart attack at age 40 because you’ve been sedentary and you sat for long hours in front of a computer screen writing Nobel and Pulitzer prize-winning novels. It’s hard to write from a hospital bed under sedation. Instead of worrying about how you could be writing while you’re exercising, you should be worrying about what you could do to exercise while you sit in front of that damn computer. Being sedentary is hazardous to your health.
- Keep track of your word count while you write. Put your daily word count on Facebook and proclaim it proudly to the world. Okay, this isn’t a bad idea, though I don’t know about the Facebook thing, but my disagreement with this admonition stems from the fact that word counts are useful only when writing the first draft. Like you may have done on NaNoWriMo. How many words did you write every day? But once you finish that first draft, you have to revise. And revise again. And again. And so forth. Word counts don’t apply very well to revisions, but I’ve heard of authors who maintain they write a certain number of words every day. Without fail. That may be true, but when do they revise? Are there authors who are working on a new draft all the time? My feeling is, don’t worry about the word count once you get to the revision stage. Concentrate on making the book the best you can. Your final word count is the most important.
I’ve heard some writers say they write a certain number of words everyday. Usually around 1000. If so, that means they put down 365,000 words a year. That’s three to four novels, but only the first drafts. When do they revise?
- Write everyday. Fine, if you want to do this, I’m all for it. My feeling is that it’s not that important. However, like any skill, constant repetition will help to make it better, and a daily writing habit is a good idea. Write in a journal. Write for 5 minutes a day. Ten minutes. Work on revising your latest work. But don’t turn depressed and suicidal if you miss a day. If you play a musical instrument, you may have been told the same thing: practice every day. It’s the same idea. The great pianist Artur Rubenstein is reported to have once said, “If I don’t practice for one day, I can tell. If I don’t practice for two days, my wife can tell. If I don’t practice for three days, everybody can tell.” Perhaps that’s enough said.
Have you seen the ads, on Facebook but elsewhere too, where some of the best known names in writing say they will teach you to write? In some cases they even say they will teach you to write like them? Most of those “lessons” or “studies” are probably real. In most cases these are not bogus or scams, and I suspect they are legitimate, and in all probability they really will teach you how to write, but you should think twice before you sign up. There’s a fallacy in that advertising.
I’ve blogged on this topic before, but I believe it bears repeating. A big-name author who’s sold lots of books can certainly teach you how to write. Of that there’s no doubt. The real problem with these courses that promise that you will be able to write like the famous author, is that no one, not even the most famous author in the world, can teach you to write exactly like him or her.
These ads always remind me of an episode of “Seinfeld,” where Jerry, who has to take a lie detector test, asks his friend George, an extremely duplicitous person whose life revolves around something like twenty different lies, to teach him how to lie. “I can’t do it, Jerry,” George says. “It would be like asking Pavarotti to teach you how to sing like him.”
Oddly enough, the dissembling George has a good point. No matter how well you can sing, neither Pavarotti nor any other music teacher will be able to teach you to sing as well as he does. The amount of talent you have is unimportant. Pavarotti is Pavarotti, and you are you. (Considering that Pavarotti passed away in 2007, before that episode of Seinfeld was made, he won’t be teaching you anything anyway.)
Writing is the same. Or similar anyway. A big name in literary circles can teach you the basics, and can even teach you many of his/her “tricks of the trade.” And you might be able to take away from his/her course a wealth of knowledge about writing, and even eventually write best-sellers and win prizes galore. But you will never write “like him/her.” You are you, and don’t you forget it. The placing of words on a piece of paper or a computer screen is a highly personal and unique matter. It is that sequence of words that individualizes a writer. You will never put down the same sequence of words that a famous writer would do under the same circumstances. It makes the difference between, say, Hemingway and Proust.
Even if you wanted to, you shouldn’t write like someone else. Nor should you even try. Stick with your own style. Do your own thing. Learn the basics and even learn the advanced stuff in writing, but keep to yourself. You’ll be doing yourself and us a favor.
I just sent a short story to four journals. Same short story; four literary journals. Now comes the waiting part. I may not hear from one or more of those journals for up to six months. Which means I will be looking around for other journals for which to send the same short story. I think it’s one of my best short stories. I’ve sent that short story (in several slightly modified forms) to at least twenty-three other journals over the past seven or eight years, and gotten thoroughly rejected by all who received it. (Except for one journal whose editors did say they liked my style of writing, but they didn’t like the story’s ending and so declined to publish it.)
So, now I will wait for the results, which, if past history is any guide, will probably also be rejections. That may sound somewhat pessimistic, but my scientific training tends to look at numbers like this in an objective, dispassionate way. Granted, that’s probably not the best way to look at my submissions history because writing is such a subjective field. A frustratingly subjective field. One has to look at each submission as a separate, unique event, and hope someone else will like my style of writing. (In case you’re wondering, yes, I did change the ending.)
But still, I send stories out. I continue to cling to the hope that someone, somewhere, will like my story well enough to publish it, and that would mean they might publish another story, and I might get still another story accepted at a different journal, and so on. There’s a real endpoint here, a point at which I can say I’m a published author. But the only way I can reach that goal is to send stuff out. No sending, no publishing.
I’ve heard that some people have difficulty sending their work to journals and magazines. For some indefinable reason, they’re hesitant. Afraid of something, I guess. I’ve never suffered from that phobia. That may stem from the requirement of my profession as a scientist to publish any results I obtained in the lab, and working in the lab was fun as well as life-affirming and profitable. Well, reasonably profitable, anyway. I enjoyed sending stuff out. For several reasons. A published paper got my name out into the scientific world, it added a little to the total knowledge about viruses, and I became known to a very tiny group of other virologists as an expert in an even tinier aspect of the overall field. What’s not to like?
So, where does this hesitancy to send writing out come from? I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I wonder if people are afraid the editors at a journal will laugh at them, or throw their submission in the trash, or send out an all-points bulletin to other magazines as to just how bad a writer they are, or even worse, send the writing police after them to yell at them, “Don’t ever send anything out again. EVER.”
Ridiculous. No one is going to laugh, or try to intimidate you if you send something out. The worst that could happen is that they’ll say no. And if they do, there are plenty of other journals to send to. It’s a numbers game. If you’ve vetted the story well enough, and polished it until you can’t make anymore changes, it stands a good chance of being accepted somewhere. Send it out.
Two years ago (see my post of 9/14/2014, “Obsolete”) I posted about words that are going out of style. Words such as “actress” and “comedienne” are disappearing because of the tendency to use one word to refer to both male and female performers. A female playing a role in a film or on stage is an actor, not an actress. There are other words that are going out of use or changing their definition, and there must be several of them in the English language. The one that I’ve been wondering about for several years is the word “depot.”
“Depot” isn’t actually disappearing, but its definition is changing. There are several dictionary definitions of “depot.” It can be a place to store goods or motor vehicles, or—and this is a definition I’m most familiar with—it can be a place to store military supplies, such as vehicles. A “supply depot” is common at a military base. But most often, especially in civilian life, the term “depot” indicated a place to board a train or bus. Depots were common all across the United States when travel by railroad was much more common than it is now. Any town on a rail line had a depot, sometimes combined with the bus depot, though mostly those were separate. The depot might have been a large building serving several railroads and hundreds of people every day, or a small shack where a only few riders caught the local.
Nowadays, however, rail travel is only a fraction of its former self. We travel by car or plane or, to a lesser extent, by bus. Greyhound still has depots. The only large intercity rail travel in the US today is Amtrak, which has been around since 1971, and they usually use the word “station” rather than “depot.” To most of the younger crowd, the term “depot” probably indicates a big box store such as Home Depot or Office Depot. Why those two companies decided to use that word in their name I don’t know, but it may have to do with the fact that they have a large selection of items, much like a military depot. But for those of us of somewhat advanced years, the term “depot” in a name evokes the a train station, and catching the train in the middle of the night, and sleeping on the train, and getting off the train at another depot in the early morning and meeting friends and family you haven’t seen in years, and so on and so forth. It was a fun way to travel.
In any event, the meaning of the term “depot” is changing, and I suspect the definition of the term to mean a place to catch a bus or train will eventually be lost. Watch your dictionary to find out.
Several weeks ago the apartment complex where I live suffered a breakdown of its trash pickup system. Normally, trash is emptied from the dumpsters on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. That means, in a normal week, trash accumulates usually for only two days, and for no more than three days over a weekend. But during this particular week, no trash was picked up for the whole week. In total, that meant that trash wasn’t picked up for ten days, from Saturday of the week before to Monday of the week after the hiatus. On an average week, the dumpsters get full just in the short time from one pickup to the next. Two days can really fill a dumpster. So when trash pickup was interrupted, a huge amount of material accumulated around the dumpsters.
That was a good time to see just what people were throwing out. Most often, that is, during normal times, articles to be discarded are hidden within the dumpsters and not visible. But when trash pickup was stopped (and I never did find out why), much of it became visible. And what stuff it was. Mattresses and box springs seemed to be the largest items that were thrown out, but furniture made an appearance too. Chests of drawers and large chairs, especially reclining chairs, as well as a huge number of the ubiquitous white garbage bags.
Most of the large items like the mattresses and furniture didn’t appear to my eye to be re-useable, and taking them to Goodwill or some other place that has used items for sale wasn’t an option to the owners. (I doubt that Goodwill will sell a used mattress under any circumstances, anyway.) I can understand that these large items were totally worn out and seemed to be in need of discard instead. Yet, even with their logical appearance in the trash pile, I still find myself wondering what happens to all these large items. Sure, they go to the garbage dump somewhere near town, but is that all that happens? Isn’t there some way these large items, unusable in themselves, can be recycled? Do they simply sit in the dump, only to slowly disintegrate or sink into the ground? Our dumps are getting to be places where, when we have something we don’t want, it just finds its way there and we conveniently forget about it. The large garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean is a good example of the same thing. So much of our material lifestyle in this day and age is simply discarded and forgotten. And too much of the material we discard is either non-degradable (like plastics), or degrades very slowly. Some of it is even toxic, like electronics, and poisonous materials can leach out of those and make their way into the ground and seep into the water table. Our society has the mind-set that, if we don’t want it, we just throw it away and don’t even think about where it goes or what happens to it. This isn’t a situation which can continue for much longer. We need better recycling, especially for the items we normally don’t consider recyclable. A civilization is known by the trash it throws out.
In this season of hotly contested political races, including the Presidential one, I think it’s interesting to sit back and try to learn something from all the commotion that surrounds them. I’m speaking here of what writers can learn from the current Republican nominee, Donald Trump. I’ll leave the political and economic and foreign policy and sociological and other lessons to be learned from this race to those better equipped to discuss them (as well as to those who have intensely held opinions), and deal with the more prosaic issue of writing. Specifically, what can Donald Trump teach us about writing?
Shortly before the first Presidential debate, a comment was made by a TV reporter that the Democrats were wondering which Donald Trump would show up: the combative, belligerent, trigger-happy one, or in direct contrast, the more thoughtful or reflective one. By the time of the debate, Donald Trump had begun to tone down his vitriolic attack on almost anything that moved, and the Democrats were unsure of how he would come off.
I didn’t watch the debate and I’m not sure exactly which Donald showed up, but that’s not the point of my essay here. It is, rather, the fact that Donald Trump has (at least) two different public personae. It is precisely this duplicity of personality which makes a character in a novel or short story far more interesting than a simple, one dimensional one. That is not to say that all the characters in our stories have to be politicians, but that they should be complex and interesting. We all are that way. We all have aspects of our personality that might seem incongruous to others. I, for example, am a PhD scientist, committed to using the scientific method (experimentation and logic) in my vocation, yet I have always been a deeply religious person too. Some people will ask, how can you believe in something you can’t see or feel or measure? I have my reasons, though I usually don’t speak about them. It certainly isn’t necessary that all of our literary characters need be as dualistic to the same extent as “the Donald,” but they should be to one degree or another. A few examples: the cowboy who writes poetry, the football player who does needlepoint, the banker who plays the horses, the priest who visits a strip club (probably in disguise), the jazz musician who attends the opera, the atheist who attacks organized religions yet surreptitiously reads the Bible or Koran—and there’s zillions more. Putting these people in situations where their odd interests become the focus of the plot line can make for interesting reading, and, for the writer, interesting writing.
Readers of this blog are probably aware that I’ve written three science-fiction novels, though they haven’t been published yet. I’m still trying to get an agent or editor interested in the first one, as a way of selling the whole trilogy. That has taken time, and I’ve tried my hand at other things, notably short stories. But that extra time while the novels sit in my computer has allowed me to do a substantial amount of revising, editing, cutting, adding, and just plain fiddling around with the manuscripts. One thing I’ve done over the past several months has been to go through each manuscript using the “Find” function of MS Word and look for specific words, especially words that a reader tends to notice for one reason or another, but shouldn’t. Writing, I believe, should be smooth and free of obstructions the reader could stumble over. As I’ve mentioned before in these little essays, I subscribe to the maxim, “Never tell the reader what to think.” This is similar to the older and much more widely known adage, “Show, don’t tell.” So I look for individual words which inject into the readers mind a concept that I want him/her to discern for him/herself. To not be told what it is. These are what could be called “crutch” words, where the writer used them ostensibly to support his writing, but in reality is using them as words to fall back on because he/she couldn’t come up with anything better. They can be very unimaginative.
One of the most common words that falls under this category is “suddenly.” Sure, lots of things in fiction happen suddenly. But that concept, the abrupt change of some facet of the narrative, should be obvious from the context. It doesn’t have to be stated out loud. If the boulder is rolling down the hill about to squish the hero, that’s sudden enough.
Some other words that don’t usually need to be stated directly are “knew,” “felt,” “thought,” and “realized.” These are words that should also be obvious from the context. It usually isn’t necessary to state that the hero “knew” or “thought” or “realized” the boulder was rolling down the hill.
“Very” is a good example of a crutch word, and it’s one of the worst. Not much ever needs to be modified by “very.” It gets overused and it becomes obvious to the reader. The thesaurus has a multitude of substitutes if you need them (for heaven’s sake, try not to use “pretty” as a substitute), or if that’s no good, rewrite part or all of the sentence. Stronger words are a good way to eliminate “very.” Instead of “very angry,” use “enraged,” or “furious,” or “incensed.” You get the idea.
In any event, here’s the list of words I checked for and in most cases either eliminated or replaced: suddenly, because, knew, felt, thought, very, began, realized. That’s the list I have right now. Other words may be added as necessary. Do you have any crutch words that could be added?