Learning to Write

I'm trying to take this novel-writing thing seriously, rather than having it just be another lofty, unchecked task on my lifelong resolutions list like running a four-minute mile, learning a foreign language, or visiting all seven continents. And taking it seriously means that I'm trying to hold off putting black to white for as long as I can, so as to give myself a fighting chance that the ink I spill won't prove insulting to the tree whose pulp now sits in my printer's feed-tray. I don't want that tree to have died in vain, nor do I want to end up one of those whiny unpublished writers you see on message boards who can't get published, but think it's because they don't know know anyone, rather than because -- gasp! -- what they wrote might not be any good.

I realized pretty quickly last week that the aspiring novelist of my teenage years was probably, in some ways, a bit more capable than the thirtysomething version sitting behind the desk today. Eight years of strategy guide writing prefaced by a year of technical writing and six years in college and graduate school doing research in the sciences has left me with a bit more of an analytical mind than I used to have. I've expelled most of the adjectives and adverbs that I once knew and I learned to write in shorter, some might say, choppier sentences. In fact, you could even say that nearly all of the writing I've done over the past fifteen years has purposely run counter to the old writer's axiom of show don't tell. The purpose of a strategy guide is to tell; showing equates to spoilers. It's time to stretch this writer's creative legs and crack open that thesaurus that's been sitting on the shelf, barely touched for the past ten years.

All is not hopeless though. I have a topic, I've mapped out the plot -- it's an adventure-thriller and that's all I'll say -- and I've already come up with names for the characters and begun work on character profiles. The King County Library System is currently gathering up a half-dozen books for my research and I spent an hour last night on O-Net, the government's occupational information network, doing some extra research on job tasks/requirements for my protagonist and one other character. The goal is to have a detailed outline and all character profiles completed, along with quite a bit of research, before I head to my isolation-cabin in Winthrop on the tenth. It helps that I've been mulling this plot over in my head for three years and have been to the location where the story is set.

Of course, every author has to do this sort of groundwork before beginning their tale. The fact that the last time I've written fiction was back around the same time I was making my first early attempts at unhooking a girlfriend's bra doesn't bode well. And though I can't say I gave up the former for the latter, I'd bet on my talents at removing undergarments before I would lay coin on my ability to referee troublesome characters with interesting dialogue. And I know this. That's why I've spent the past few days studying the craft. And man do I hate using pretentious words like that.

My first step was to quickly re-read Bob Mayer's "The Novel Writer's Toolkit", then set to scavenging all of the writing articles on Suite 101. This raised more questions than yielded answers, but at least it left me somewhat aware of where my weaknesses would be: beginnings, characters, and dialogue. Oh, that's all?

This brought me to Barnes and Noble where I quickly read the "Characters & Points of View" book by the Writer's Digest over coffee and decided it didn't warrant a purchase -- it wasn't different enough from Mayer's book that I already owned. Instead, I picked up the outstanding book "Hooked" by Les Edgerton and proceeded to read, highlight, flag, and take notes from all 240 pages over the next 18 hours -- with some time thrown in for playing Rock Band and the honing of my aforementioned skills at taking off woman's underwear.

"Hooked" is an entire book devoted to perfecting the beginnings of short stories and novels through the use of dozens of examples of successful stories. Not only does Edgerton really do a great job of conveying what should and shouldn't appear in the opening sentences from a technical and stylistic point of view, but the lengthy Q&A he conducts with a number of literary agents and editors in the back of the book really adds some heft to what he's saying. And the drumbeat throughout the entire book is that you essentially have one or two paragraphs to grab the agent's attention, or you're thrown into the rejection pile. This really hit home: one agent said her relatively small agency receives up to 1500 manuscripts to read every month and according to Edgerton, 90% of manuscripts being written are fiction but publishers only devote 20% of their printing schedule to fiction. The competition is extremely fierce. If the first sentence or two don't immediately grab the reader's attention, you haven't got a chance.

So "Hooked" was great, but I also picked up "Plot & Structure" and "Dialogue", both published by the Writer's Digest. These are more technique books, both of which include some short exercises and plenty of examples. It does feel a bit like I'm back in college taking a creative writing course (which I never did, so I don't really know what that would feel like, but I can guess) but I can already feel the benefits in the way I think about my story as I lay in bed at night.

One last thing: I've decided to give myself some daily homework. I've created a form in Excel that I'll be using to deconstruct the opening chapter from some comparable books in the library or on my bookshelf so that I can better see how each of the techniques Edgerton spoke about in "Hooked", if any, are being put to use. I'm trying to go back and re-read some of my favorites with a more analytical eye to see what the pacing was, how the story began, when the inciting incident was, how long each scene was, and so on and so forth.

I think I'll start with "Water for Elephants" and "Life of Pi", two of my favorite books that I've read in recent years.

But first I need to play a little more Rock Band.

Oh, and for those keeping score at home, the answers are: 1) 4:10, 2) three years to pass two and don't remember anything, and 3) 2 of 7. In other words, a strike-out so far.

3 comments:

Criscipline said...

I confess I snuck into your room over a decade ago and read about the scary black toothbrush.

I had to get that off my chest. :-)

Doug Walsh said...

Ha! I think I started writing that my freshman year of college. Not really sure what I was thinking about writing a horror tale based on some sort of communal toothbrush. I wouldnt even use Kristin's toothbrush let alone some skanky one I found in a dormitory bathroom. LOL!

Brad Gallaway said...

Sounds like you've got the reference materials down... I'd love to hear about the differences you'll notice (if any) between sitting down to jam out a strategy guide and sitting down to jam out 3,000 words a day.

I mean, apart from the obvious factual/fiction divide, I wonder if you'll feel like you're using totally different parts of the brain. I can slam a review out in 30 minutes when I'm motivated, but writing fiction means i need to get in a whole different space.

Curious if you'll feel the same.