Posts Tagged writing
In this blog posting, I just want to make a few observations on a couple of aspects of writing. To wit:
First, I stopped at a local Barnes and Noble bookstore this afternoon to get another science fiction book. I wandered down the aisle where the sci-fi/fantasy books were shelved and, as usual, glanced briefly at the books that led to the sci-fi section. Those books consisted largely of classics and other fiction, not sci-fi. Then I hit the science fiction section, and the contrast was—as simply as I can put it—eye opening. The classics, all those non-sci-fi books were brilliantly colored: reds, yellows, and oranges seemed to dominate, though other colors were evident too. But the sci-fi books were almost uniformly black. Coal black, black as midnight in a coal mine, black as the ace of spades, to use several well-worn clichés. The actual dividing line was between the classics and the newest releases of sci-fi books, and certainly not all sci-fi books are released in blackened dust jackets. But in this particular case, almost all the new releases seem to have been painted with a brush dipped in India ink. Even a classic such as Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy is in a deep blue, and it stuck out only because I was familiar with the name. I did see two or three books in much lighter colors, and I even bought one, an anthology of space opera and military sci-fi called Infinite Stars, edited by Bryan Thomas Schmidt, published by Titan Books. It has a kind of light tannish-red grizzled cover, and it stood out from all the blackness like a sun in the midst of infinite darkness.
I’m not sure I can tell why so many sci-fi books are published in dark covers. Perhaps it’s a trend of the times. There seems a tendency toward dark plots nowadays, of heroes who are not what they seem to be, or who have to overcome vastly destructive personal demons before they can fulfill their destiny and rescue the damsel in distress (or whatever it is they have to do). There are, of course, many sci-fi books released in recent years that are not dark (Victor Milan’s Dinosaur series comes to mind), but there is a serious trend. I, personally, am not in favor of it. If I ever get any of my books published (the good Lord willing and the creek don’t rise), I will certainly insist that the covers be lighter, even much lighter. Reds and yellows are common. Even a light blue would be good. What’s that you say? The author doesn’t have any control over the cover? We’ll find out.
Second, I want to comment briefly on one aspect of getting short stories published. I’ve written several short stories, mostly literary in character, and I’ve been trying to get some of them published in literary journals around the country for quite a number of years. Most of the journals state in their instructions to submitters something like: “read a back issue or two of our journal to get a feel of what kind of works we are looking for.” Okay, well said. Good idea. And I have been reading some of the journals I submit to, when I can get to them. But I’m becoming more and more convinced this advice is questionable at best. Several times (more than I can count on all fingers and toes) I’ve read a journal and said, “Aha! I have a short story that will fit well with this magazine. I will give them a try.” So I send in a story, wait a goodly number of weeks or months and, invariably, comes a rejection that says, “We did not feel this story was a good fit for our magazine.” So I wonder, what value is it to read the magazine beforehand if they’re going to reject something the author thinks will fit their editorial style? Granted, the whole process is subjective, and the editor’s decision is the last word, but if the author can’t make a good judgement on the “fit” of the story, that just makes it harder to get published in the first place.
The November, 2017, issue of The Writer contains a couple of articles about apps for writers that can (potentially, at least) make the physical act of writing easier. My first reaction when I saw the magazine was very much in the realm of Ebenezer Scrooge: “Bah”, I said, “I don’t need an app to do my writing. I do it myself.” Of course I do.
But now that I’ve read the articles and looked over the listings of products and tools that can make writing easier, I’m beginning to change my mind. Granted, the writer still has to do the actual writing—or at least the mental, imaginative, and creative part of the writing if not the physical act of putting one word after another, because now software is available that will write as you speak. I’m not sure I’m ready for that just yet, but I am leaning toward looking at, if not outright purchasing, one or two apps that might help me get the job done. File storage, social media management, e-book creation, all look like possibilities, if not now, at least in the future.
But I’m not leaning toward any of the large, word-processing apps or downloads. I’ve been using Microsoft Word for—well, let’s just say a long time now—and I’m satisfied with it. I’m very familiar with it, and I can’t see learning a new word processor that does largely the same thing, even though it may have other functions. Some people swear by word processing programs that can help them “organize” their work into, say chapters and scenes and convenient blocks of text. I can’t say I need anything like that. I keep most of that in my head anyway, or on paper. It works for me, and I’ve always felt that writing is best done by whatever works for the writer. Do it your own way.
In the end, of course, you have to do the writing yourself. No app will write a novel for you, though that may be in the not-too-far distant future. Artificial intelligence may make us writers obsolete, and such original material as reports, poetry, novels, biographies, whatnot, may be computer generated. Fortunately I won’t be around to see that, and I suspect that artificial intelligence will never fully replace the human mind. I’m sure AI will do more imaginative, creative thinking than it does now, for better or worse. But it will be a long time before a computer wins a Pulitzer.
So, whether you’re writing one haiku or an exhaustive history of all the dinosaurs that roamed the North American continent, you still have to sit down and write the damn thing. Apps can help, but it’s up to you to do the heavy lifting.
In the almost twenty years since I started writing fiction, I’ve noticed a change in the way I read that same genre. I started my career as a scientist many, many years ago, and the only thing I wrote for a large part of my life were scientific papers. The only thing I read with any frequency was nonfiction, including other scientific papers and the occasional nonfiction book. (With the one important exception of Sherlock Holmes; for some reason which I can’t explain I latched onto Holmes a long time ago and read and reread it. Perhaps it has to do with Holmes’s insistence on using logic and reason—which is an important part of the scientific method—to identify the criminal in the case. The fact that Watson was a physician also didn’t hurt.) But in any event, my life was largely saturated with nonfiction, from biography to all sorts of general nonfiction to straight science and how-to books in microbiology and virology. Then I started a novel.
And as I started, I also began to read novels I hadn’t read before; I studied writing; I read writing magazines and books on writing; I went to writer’s conferences; I joined writing groups and listened to speakers talk about all phases of writing. I read novels and short stories and tried my hand at both. And I have so far gotten to the point that I feel I can write a reasonably good short story, one that stands a good chance of being published. (You can see two examples of my short fiction on this blog site; just go to the Short Stories tab.) Now all I have to do is convince a publisher to agree with me. But all that writing and learning about writing has had another effect.
Now when I read, I read more like a writer. I notice things I almost certainly would not have noticed had I not studied how to write. I’m much more conscious of what the writer of a book or short story is trying to do and say than I would have been otherwise. I look for plot holes; I look for foreshadowing: Ah-ha! He’s introduced an new character/concept. That could be important. I will follow this. To a lesser extent, I am more aware of things that are missing (why isn’t the main character doing this? Or this?). I look at grammar and sentence structure more carefully, I am aware of voice, point of view, and tense more stringently. I look at the author’s voice and style much more than I used to. Before, when I read nonfiction, I only wanted to get the information from the book/article/whatever. And in the case of the odd fiction piece, I read only for the entertainment. I didn’t have the knowledge to understand how it was put together. Now I am much more attentive to style and performance, even in nonfiction. Good or bad, that has been one of the side issues of learning how to write.
That extends to watching TV and movies. I’m now much more tuned in on how the show was put together. I’m conscious of plot holes and things that aren’t there. I look for oddities and peculiarities. I’ve come to realize that Captain Kirk on Star Trek, The Original Series was a lousier captain of a deep space vehicle than I thought he was at first. (Some of the things he did—wow.) But enough of that; who cares? Writing is fun and interesting, and looking at other writer’s works just makes me a better writer in the long run. A fundamental tenet of writing has always been that writers must be readers. This is one reason why.
Have you ever read a book you liked so much you said to yourself (or to someone else), “I just couldn’t put it down”? You meant, of course, that you liked the book so much you kept reading even though you had other things to do, but couldn’t tear yourself away. I’ve read a few books like that, though most books I’ve read were of the “I can put this book down and get on with my life any time” type. Right now I’m reading a book that, at the very least, approaches that “couldn’t put it down” status, if it doesn’t stand squarely within it. The book is Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale.” It was first published in 1986, but has gained some attention in the past few months because the repressive ultra-conservative society it portrays has struck some people as similar to the path our conservative government has begun to take us down. Whether that’s true or not, I leave to history to decide.
This blog post is not intended to be a review of the book, but rather a brief examination of the factors that contribute to the “couldn’t put it down” concept. What makes a book so good you enjoy reading it so much you’d rather read it than do something else? Many books I’ve read—in fact most—I could put down at almost any time, but “The Handmaid’s Tale” is too exciting to do that. The last book(s) that took my attention into the story to that degree were Connie Willis’s dual set about the Battle of Britain, “Blackout” and “All Clear,” even though I’ve read a number of other books in the meantime. Why should this be?
I think several things have to come together to contribute to a book to that extent. First, the writing. The writing has to be above reproach; smooth and free of points that take you away from the story. As you read, you’re immersed in the story, and nothing comes along that is unclear, unreadable, or varies from the author’s style. The English grammar is fundamentally impeccable. Actually, Ms. Atwood uses an inordinate number of commas, many in positions I wouldn’t, but that hasn’t seemed to bother me. Very early on I began to overlook them and haven’t looked back. The writing still flows in spite of them.
Second, the subject matter has to interest the reader, and more than to just a small degree. As I mentioned, our political climate today has induced some people to make comparisons between the book and the present government. I’m not sure I agree with them to the extreme extent they’re willing to go, but I can see their point. As a result, the book has aroused my attention and I want to see what all the fuss is about. I’m interested and want to know more. That’s the same reason I liked Connie Willis’s books; I have a great interest in World War II, and I enjoyed reading her take on it.
Third, I believe there is the undefinable. Everything “comes together” in these books. The writing, the subject, the author’s style—they all meld together to produce a book that for a few people becomes fascinating to the point of delight or enchantment. That’s good, but that’s not something that can be quantified or dissected. That situation is precisely what a writer wants to achieve. Really. I just hope my books reach that point for a few people.
Not long ago I happened to overhear someone say they like to write, and were starting to write short stories. They didn’t ask me this question specifically, but I began to wonder, what would I say if someone asked me, “How do I go about becoming a writer and get published?” It helps, of course, to have a modicum of talent, but barring that, what should a newbie do to start a writing career? I’m assuming you want to go all the way and get published somewhere, but even if you only want to write for yourself and never show it to others, what can you do? Here are a few suggestions I have to readers of this blog as to how to start. Take or reject any or all.
- Start writing. Just sit down and start. Whether you write on a computer, on a legal pad, on a typewriter, or on a mirror with the blood of a vampire, it doesn’t matter how good it is, just get it down. You can revise it later when you’ve learned more about the craft. Put your ideas down before you forget them. Make notes to yourself. If you’re doing a family history, get Uncle Joe’s reminiscences down before he croaks.
- Read writing magazines. There are several good writing magazines out there. I have subscriptions to Writer’s Digest, The Writer, and Poet’s and Writers, but several others exist and you shouldn’t be limited to these. Writing magazines such as these are the most concentrated form of information about the art and craft of writing you can get. I started with a subscription to my first one almost as soon as I started writing.
- Read books and stories in your genre. But, and this is very important, read outside your genre. If you want to write prose, read poetry. And then decide you will write prose in as lyrical style you can, influenced by the poetry you read.
- Read books on writing. A hugely popular book is William Strunk, Jr., and E.B White’s The Elements of Style. And it won’t break your budget to get a copy. But there are others, such as Stephen King’s book On Writing, Donald Maass’s books, in particular, Writing the Breakout Novel, and Writing 21st Century Fiction, or Oakley Hall’s How Fiction Works. But don’t be limited to these. Check online and check your library.
- Join a critique group. Find a group that either accepts all forms of writing, or at least is limited to your favorite genre. Submit your work to the others in the group and listen to what they say. But also, read and critique the others. This gives you experience in looking for what works and what doesn’t in a manuscript. Some critique groups are online. Check out Lit Reactor.
- Join a writing group. Preferably one that has regular meetings. If they have a guest speaker, listen to what the speaker has to say. Some groups have open mic nights where you can read, and sometimes get feedback. Go. Listen. Enjoy.
- Start attending writer’s conventions. You can find these listed in many magazines. Look for one in your area. Or look for one that specializes in your genre. There will be an expense involved, but it may be tax deductible. There will be speakers who will have a lot of good info in what you are interested in, and there will be speakers who don’t have much to say to you. Listen to all.
- Get an MFA in creative writing. This may take several years, but many universities have low-residency programs where you only have to be on campus for a short time each year. But they are intense, and you will learn a lot. Plus, you get those letters after your name.
- Round up beta readers. You are the alpha reader of your work. But you will eventually need someone to read your entire manuscript and give you feedback. This is someone you trust to be objective, yet ruthless. No one in your family is that person. You will want someone at a distance, yet someone you know and trust. You may even find someone online.
- Read other writer’s manuscripts. In other words, be a beta reader for some other beginning writer.
- Start a list of where you’d like to submit your manuscripts. Usually in your genre, although you might be submitting to a magazine that publishes works of many genres. Do you like dogs? Submit to the dog magazines. Poetry? Many literary journals take poetry. You can find lists of magazines (there are thousands out there) in the backs of writing magazines, and in reference books. Check your bookstore or library.
- If you have completed a manuscript, start looking for agents or publishers. Start this list even before the manuscript is complete and thoroughly revised and edited. Again, writing magazines have lists of these, and reference books abound with lists of agents and publishers and what they’re looking for. Try online too. Check each agent or publisher’s website for what they want.
- If you prefer, start looking into self-publishing. You can publish your own book, and not be bothered by agents and publishers. But beware, you’ll want to have your book edited by an independent editor, and a good cover designed by an independent artist. Remember, you’re taking on the job of publisher yourself, and, let’s face it, you, as a beginner, aren’t a good editor or publisher. Get others to help you.
- Talk to other writers. Network to get the inside scoop. Tips and suggestions that no one else talks about.
- Set up a website or a blogsite to advertise your book. Start thinking about this even before your book is published.
- Visit the library. ‘Nuf said.
- Don’t quit your day job.
Stop reading this and start writing.
In this Christmas season, I decided to look back at some of the books I’ve purchased or been given over the years. Of all the books I have, two stand out as being almost unique. Back in 1955, my grandfather gave me two books which I’ve kept longer than any others I own. I still use them and refer to them occasionally. Neither are books that tell any type of story; they’d be considered reference books if they had to be catalogued. But I still have them.
The first is the Rand McNally Standard World Atlas of 1955. Or, in Roman numerals, MCMLV. Atlases have always been important books, for everybody, especially for authors. It helps to know a little about the place you’re setting your story, and an atlas is a good starting point. But the main reason I’ve kept this book is not just its maps and descriptions of places (it has a large section called “Places of Interest in the United States” with pictures and descriptions of various sites in the USA) but because it has railroads on most of the maps, rather than the roads found on maps today. On the maps of the US and Canada, the railroads are identified. Since I’ve been fascinated by railroads for a long time, and have done some model railroading, I’ve kept this atlas largely because of those railroads.
The second is a picture book called Wild Animals Of The World. It has portraits of most of the wild animals we’re familiar with, either from seeing them in zoos or in the wild, and even some we’re not familiar with. The portraits were painted by Mary Baker, and the text was written by William Bridges of (at the time) the New York Zoological Park. It also has an introduction by Roy Chapman Andrews. Each animal is represented on one page with its portrait at the top and text below. From my point of view, what’s interesting about the book is its timelessness. The portraits are exceedingly well done and accurate, and the information in the text has held up all these years. I go back to it now and then, partly to refresh my memory about certain animals, and partly to look up new ones.
Both books have held up reasonably well over the years, though the atlas is worse for wear. The spine has fallen off, and the two covers are entirely separate pieces (I know, I should have it rebound), but I still use it. But what is most interesting about these two books is the fact that I’ve kept them for so long. And that reveals the vital importance of books: if you give a book as a present, you never know how long it’ll last. The oddest book may be the one most cherished by its owner. Books are the repository of all knowledge, and you don’t need a battery to turn them on. Neither is great book, in the manner of, say, a Dickens novel or a compilation of Longfellow poetry. They’re just regular books that happened to appeal to someone well beyond what might reasonably be expected. I doubt that my grandfather had any idea I’d keep these books this long (61 years and counting).
Give books for Christmas (or for any other reason).
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.