CHOOSING YOUR TRAINING AS A WRITER:
How To Evaluate Teachings on Writing For Your Own Best Interest by Paul Saevig
The days when questions of how to write and be a writer were settled and done are long past. The subject is a cottage industry now, with hundreds or even thousands of titles, each with unique instructions, emphases and nuances. What’s more, the paths to becoming every type of writer are now clearly mapped. Whether a newcomer intends to become a mystery writer, or science fiction or fantasy artist, or Western or comic or literary writer, or any other type, she will find an assortment of books and essays explaining how to do any one.
This plethora of guidance, then, creates if not a problem then a predicament. That’s because not all the authors and experts agree, and may even disagree sharply:
1. Should you write what you want from the heart, or follow the market carefully?
2. Should your writing reflect your passion, or simply be good business, or both?
3. Is writing a process that can be standardized and regimented, like the right way to play an A-sharp on a violin or lay bricks or compose a legal brief, or is it something unique and individual?
4. Should good writing appeal to the mind or the heart, or sometimes one and not another, and if so, when?
5. Does a good novelist or short story writer ever use adverbs?
6. Should your story or novel be absolutely as tight as you can make it, or is it better to relax and let it flow out of you, with some of your written grace and beauty as imagery comes into play?
7. Should your novel be “driven by” character or by plot? That is, are the characters and their relationships all-important, or is it the story, the tale that’s the real attraction?
8. Should you try to appeal to the widest possible audience, or maybe tens of millions of readers, or is it better to keep in mind a small but avid group of specialized readers, or does it not matter at all because your first duty as an artist is to please yourself?
These questions may seem abstract or even esoteric and of no matter, except that any reader of books and essays on writing, or anyone who attends lectures, seminars or workshops on the subject, is certain to encounter them and many others, too. Those who want a coherent, thought-through understanding of what they’re doing when they write must arrive at a conclusion and a choice, although it may be provisional and subject to later adjustment. Many a writer has seen his own gift and skills crash on the reef of trying to adhere to contradictory principles.
William Faulker, for example, met with only slight success early in his career, and determined in frustration to write a book that would earn some money. The result was Sanctuary, which he did not think highly of but which indeed was a strong seller. Faulkner realized upon completion of it that it still was much more skillfully written than it had to be for commercial success, and this rather depressed him. He refused to repeat the formula he’d found, wrote more Faulknerian novels of deep inspiration, soaring prose and some difficulty for the average reader, and these additional novels failed to sell, too. Finally, he wagered everything in a last try, Absalom, Absalom, which established him as a great writer from that point forward.
In other words, he struggled to find which received wisdom about writing worked best for him, with mishaps and setbacks along his way. I think every serious writer goes through this process in a unique way. Shakespeare learned his craft and made his writing choices in an empirical, hands-on fashion, by writing, casting, staging and appearing in his own plays. That most deliberate and calculating of great writers, Somerset Maugham, was infinitely more systematic and through in making his choices, and his The Summing Up is an essential narration of which choices he made and why. Across the Atlantic, Hemingway rendered his choices through a wrenchingly personal process involving his own masculinity, degree of courage and imperative to seek danger. Lawrence sought his questions and answers in the furnace of his own passions, and T. S. Eliot forged his own from the highest, furnace of academia. Henry Miller searched for his in vigorous and plentiful sexual experience, and Steinbeck drew from his own compassion in a troubled time. Today, great numbers of young writers mechanize their choices through writing programs, seminars, conventions, writing groups and the like.
In “The Curse of the Most Recent: How To Turn It Into a Blessing”, I discussed an extreme form of self-deception where writers swallow whole the answers found by other writers, and thereby bypass the sweat and pain of making their own decisions. Choosing what to believe about how to right is a parallel but honest quest of comparable difficulty. The more ambitious and imaginative a writer is, the more arduous this journey is likely to be. Even late in his career, James Joyce – the supreme innovator and an epochal genius – wondered aloud if what he was writing had any value at all. Nathaneal West wrote in obscurity and Virginia Woolf through emotional anguish, opposing gender role conventions of her age. Poe and Blake insisted on creating their own values, distant from what was then available, and pursued them with alternating confidence and doubt approaching madness. Sometimes a writer must grope until finding light.
Probably fashion is the most potent element in a writer’s confusion. In the royal reign of Victoria, novels were immensely popular, and Dickens and Trollope the supreme masters. Eager readers waited in the streets for the latest installments of Dickens’ serials. Still, the bulk of novels of that day were pulp, now long forgotten. The writer of that day had fewer options and knew what to attempt.
Today in 2003, literary fashion has expanded in gigantism to encompass dozens of popular styles or genres. True, popular fiction of the general types written by Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Tom Clancy, Danielle Steele and the other biggest sellers are dominant, but many other types are valid and legitimate, too. So are all the rules and conventions that go with them, even when contradictory. A serious writer has to sort through this immense cacophony od advice and stick to his own choices about what to embrace.
As he makes the acquaintance of agents, editors, publishers or producers, he must choose how deliberately he will try to please them with his writing, and where he needs to compromise or accept requests for revision. He learns what’s at stake in details. He probably learns a great deal about his own goals and objectives. Perhaps the most important lesson he learns is how to accommodate other opinions and preferences in the preparation of a written work which will, among other things, appeal to reader-customers, and preferably enough to motivate widespread purchase. Choices must be made by a writer at every step.
It’s even more complex than that. Take the example of adverbs, which one popular writing teacher abhors. Should a writer use them anyway, say in a police procedural? There is no telling except possibly to study the books represented by a successful writer’s agent, along with other books published by this writer’s publisher. This study yields an educated guess at both questions. Maybe the editor who championed the book has moved to a new employer or retired. Maybe the agent never even considered the adverbs when she started to believe in the novel and the author.
Remember the famous anecdote about Winston Churchill mocking an editor who scrawled on the great leader’s manuscript that adjectives must not be used to end a sentence: “Up with this I shall not put.” Would you insist on the matter if you were selling your book? What if your agent, editor or publisher asked you to “tighten” your novel, drop a subplot, cut by 100 pages, or rewrite from the beginning? These are changes, anyway, required only of writers who have succeeded in interesting those who decide about sale and publication.
Suppose you truly want to create literary art, and come as close to Tolstoy, Joyce, Woolf, Lawrence, Mann and Fitzgerald as you can. Quite a few writing books imply this would be a foolish or quixotic road to follow in this day and age. Write what sells. Seek a broad audience. Avoid being arty. A writer must evaluate this advice, and weigh it against what great writers said about their own experiences. To some new and old writers, the tallest peak of excellence is the only goal worth attempting. Others want only to see their books sold at the corner market.
Or suppose you run into absolutely certain, dogmatic agents and editors, experts who lay down the law that you must cut to the chase soon and always, keep the energy level of your story high, furnish action on every page, and waste no time with diversion, ideas, subplots, minor characters or memorable imagery. I’d venture to say about two thirds of the agents I’ve spoken to in the United States are advocates of this approach to writing, which is widely divergent from my own. You, though, must choose for yourself.
Perhaps most uninspiring of all is to submit your writing and never receive any feedback except a rejection, usually a form letter, or rather a note. Without evidence, it’s treacherous to “try to figure out” why the writing has been rejected. Probably your friends, colleagues and especially rivals will be delighted to tell you, but do they know for certain? Probably not, since after all, the rejecting editor may have liked your story but lacked time to scrawl a line telling you so, or she may have despised every word with an increasingly sour stomach – or had any reaction in between. You chose this lonely profession and you must stick with it by submitting again.
The bitterness of seeing writer after absurdly young writer win raving reviews in Sunday supplements is sufficient to drive any less successful author to leap hungrily to clench his teeth on any system of writing that promises swift and glorious publication and a Dionysian afterlife in the Olympus of international publication. But unlike the Sufi priest who looked for a lost gem only in the street at noon because only there was the light good, we must find the writing teachings that mesh best with our own vision, skills, interests and purpose.
I never tire of reminding writers that writing is not a science, a cookbook, or any cut and dried procedure like boiling a three-minute egg or driving from Manchester to Birmingham or bathing a cocker spaniel. In this endeavor with no absolute values, there can be no absolute expert. The experts we have, authentic or putative, bring a variety of experiences, education, predilection, prejudice and stubbornness to their enterprise.
1. How to choose? First, read widely of the very best novels and stories you can find, based on your most sincere values. Your sources might be Proust or they might be Leonard Elmore or maybe Tolkien. Study what you define as the best for you.
2. How do these writers seem to choose their subjects?
3. What seems to be the engine of the story or novel – the characters and their development, or is it the fury of the story carrying you along?
4. Who do you suppose this novel appeals to most and assuming you’re right, how does the author try to reach his audience?
5. When you’ve read several dozen novels you consider highly valuable, well-written, and worthy as models for you, consider their quality and see how they compare. You can examine theme, characterization, scope (what subjects does the author undertake?), point of view, imagery, dialogue and other elements, if you wish. Your goal is to identify the ways of writing you admire and find suitable for your own use.
6. In a commitment to learn and enjoy yourself, experiment with all the answers you arrive at, and make adjustments to keep your writing improving over time.
Do not fear blasphemy. If you think Carolyn See, Eudora Welty, Somerset Maugham, Nancy Kress, Graham Greene or Norman Mailer offer unsound advice, so be it. You are under no obligation to prove it, or justify it to anyone, or hold on to your conclusions until you die. Besides, no one really cares what you decide, as long as you seem to respect the authors they like. Maybe you’ll change your mind. In the meantime, you have made your decisions and you’re trying to write with them.
You are fortunate to be an Author-Network reader. You’ve come to the right place. Sooner or later, you will observe the articles here on how to write are not all congruent, consistent or complementary with their advisory siblings. Some bits and pieces even contradict each other.
That need not trouble you. These teachers and writers come from different places, have different educations, and embrace different visions, if you will. As a first year college student, I learned in my introductory psychology class that very young babies invariably choose a nutritious meal when a tray of many foods is set before them. Writers may not make such an effortless and perfect choice of their rules and direction, but every serious writer has the capacity within to make wise choices for him or herself.
Copyright Paul Saevig 2003