I’m always really pleased (and, frankly, surprised) by how many people read the posts I do on the how-to’s of writing. I’m freakishly enthusiastic about All Things Writing, so it’s gratifying to share that enthusiasm with others.
My last post, A Would-Be Writer Asks: “MUST I Go to College?” made me think of a job I took earlier this year doctoring a novel. If you don’t know, “doctoring” a novel means taking someone’s novel and either outright fixing it yourself, or directing its author on what he or she needs to do in order to fix it themselves. It’s the most intrusive and inclusive kind of editing; it covers every aspect of the book at hand: pace, setting, characters, dialogue, wardrobe malfunctions, etc. I sometimes take on this sort of work if I believe in the author, or think the book has potential.
Below are excerpts from the last summary report I wrote for a would-be novelist (a fellow whom I’m proud to say took my advice, returned to college, and is now well on his way to making it as a writer of literary fiction).
Back to basics
Just like a physicist must first master basic math skills, so a writer must first master punctuation, grammar, syntax and usage. You simply have to know this stuff, cold. I don’t know how you’re going to learn it as thoroughly as you need to—if you’re going to take an adult ed class in English composition, or buy some style or usage guides and study them, or what. I can tell you what I did—though I wouldn’t recommend it. I taught that stuff to myself. I spent about three years with my nose buried in “The Chicago Manual of Style,” and Kate Turabian’s classic style manual, and the “Harper Dictionary of Contemporary Usage,” and the AP Style Guide, and about a zillion other such titles. (One of the best, most comprehensive books of this sort available today is “Quick Access” by Lynn Quitman Troyka. It’s awesome. If you’re only gonna have one such book—and don’t, of course—make it this one.)
I wouldn’t recommend teaching yourself this material because the best way to learn anything so vast and complex is systematically, which is pretty much the whole purpose of (shudder!) school. I think you want to take some classes in English composition. You need to know what constitutes a complete sentence; the basic rules of punctuation; the pitfalls and earmarks of sloppy syntax. However you go about it, do not try to short cut around learning this stuff, because without it I guarantee you will never get off the ground as a writer….
Reading is really the best way to learn the basics of writing. If you read enough, for long enough, after awhile you just know what does and doesn’t make for a sound, clean sentence; you understand the functions of punctuation; you come to have a solid feel for syntax and usage. Read any modern master: Updike, Vonnegut, Hemingway, John Irving, Steinbeck. Read it hard. Study it. Take a class or two (or ten) on English literature. Give it a some time. It’ll be worth it, because once you know grammar and syntax you’ll be in possession of all the bricks necessary to build yourself virtually any building you want….
Show and (not) tell
If I say to you, “Bob was angry at Tom,” that’s one thing. But if I create a scene in which the living, breathing person that is Bob is railing violently against a cowering Tom, then I’ve given you something you can really get into; I’ve made the fact of Bob’s anger come alive for you. If I just tell you that Bob was angry at Tom, you kind of … don’t care that much. It’s the difference between reading about being on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro, and being on top of Mt. Kilimanjaro. Whole other thing. They have so little in common that they’re almost unrelated….
Besides committing the cardinal sin of inserting yourself between the reader and whatever you’re meaning to convey to the reader, one very definite thing about telling rather than showing something is that it’s soooooo much easier. You can see the difference between just saying, “My father was a difficult person,” and actually taking the trouble to construct a scene in which you not only show an example of your father being difficult but also convey how typical that behavior is or isn’t for him. “My father was a difficult person” is six words. A scene showing your father being a difficult person will cost you many, many times that. Directly telling and artfully showing represent radically different orders of work. (And because properly/effectively showing something takes up so much more room than does essentially reporting it, in a novel you have to be very careful about what scenes you choose to focus on, to present in their fullness to the reader. Everything that happens in a novel must have an extremely good reason to be there; you’ve no time—you lack the raw available word count—to present anything that’s not critical to moving the story forward or helping us understand or empathize with a character.) ….
Without knowing you (and I certainly don’t mean to insult you), I would hazard too suggest that you need to read a lot more great novels. Read “The World According to Garp” by John Irving. “The Fixer” by Bernard Malumud. Definitely “Huckleberry Finn.” Definitely Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath.” The classic first person American novel is J. D. Salinger’s “The Catcher in the Rye.” Any modern classic of this sort—anything by John Updike, for instance, is golden. You need to read a lot of great books, so that the style of such writing sort of sinks into you, becomes part of your subconscious bedrock of knowledge, power, and aesthetic understanding into which you can then dig as a source and even inspiration for your own work. You need to ask yourself the degree to which you’re familiar with the basic cannon of Western literature—at the very least, of modern Western literature. If you can’t say that you’re truly familiar with our best literature—that you really have read at least as much as any student with a Master’s degree in English Lit.—then I’m afraid there’s no getting around your need to change that. Get a library card. Start hitting used book stores. (And thrift shops! The best book deals are at thrift shops!) I would even recommend you take a year or two off from writing, and just read. In the end, there’s nothing better you can do to improve your writing skills. And there’s no question but that you will never improve as a writer without that kind of reading under your belt. Every writer knows he owes everything he writes to the authors he’s read and loved, to the writers before him who inspired him. Find out who those authors are for you. (For what it’s worth, mine include Twain, Chekhov, Steinbeck, Fitzgerald, Vonnegut, John Irving, Jane Austen, and John Kennedy Toole, the guy who wrote one of my very favorite novels, the unbearably hilarious “A Confederacy of Dunces.”)….
And in conclusion…
What I hope you’ll be left with coming out of this is what I know you had coming into it: your desire to be a great writer. If that core desire remains intact, then believe me it’s possible for you to achieve that goal. You’ve got the brains; I assume you’ll keep the drive. All you lack is foundation; all you need to do is take the time to establish that foundation. If you have a community college near you, enroll in it, and get an A.A. in English Literature. My personal opinion is that that, right there, would give you everything you need to start a serious career as a real writer. You’d learn mechanics: grammar, punctuation, syntax. And two years of study would give you a good sense of Western Literature—the same body of work of which you’d like your own work to one day be part. Take some creative writing classes; get involved with some writers groups. Start writing short stories, which of course constitute their own art form, but also prepare you for novel writing. Share your stories with readers you respect, inside or outside your writers group. Get them critiqued. Have people talk to you about your work, and talk to others about theirs.
This is how you learn to write. It’s the only way to learn to write. And we’re talking about a total of three years here. You do that stuff—go to school for two years; join a good writer’s group; start writing short stories–and at 50 years old (if I’m remembering correctly that you’re 47) you’ll be ready to write your first real novel. I personally think that’s the perfect age to begin saying stuff nobody knows until about that time in life anyway.
Same zone: How to Make a Living Writing