Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Writing Advice from the Masters

So there's a lot of writing advice out there.  A lot of it's great.  Some of it stinks.  I've even thrown my two amateur cents into the ring from time to time, whether good, bad or otherwise.  It all has some merit, though, when weighed with a grain of salt or two.  After all, many great authors differ greatly with the advice they give on writing.  And one can still learn from mistakes and bad advice, just as they can from the good.

On that note, I thought it fitting to compile some advice clips from the masters of the craft, those to whom we look to as the ultimate experts of the trade.  Here are ten authors talking about various aspects of storytelling.  Enjoy and learn as I did.

Ray Bradbury on writing persistently:

The most interesting part of this is how he would send short story after short story out, and wait for the rejections.  This is something I've done countless times, and at about the same ages.  Always the rejections.  I looked forward to them, to each one, hopefully with some tidbit of personal advice upon which to learn and grow.  I have close to 300 of them from short stories alone, most collected during my teens and early twenties, tucked away as mementos to perseverance and to giving my heart and soul to writing.  Most of the time between then and now has been spent writing, honing, perfecting; not trying to get published.  I've been too often in parts of the world where it was just not conducive to querying.  It's always been on my mind, even in places as foreign as Afghanistan, as quite a few rejections will testify to.

Elmore Leonard on hard work, characters, descriptions, and rhythm in writing:

"I made myself get up at five o'clock every morning to write fiction.  I had a rule that I had to begin writing, get into whatever the scene was, before I could put the coffee on.  If I hadn't done that, I don't think I'd be sitting here today."  That is a pretty powerful impetus for sitting down on your ass and cranking the words out.  Probably makes most of us, even the more successful ones, a little chagrined, more eager to jump back into a story again.  He's absolutely dead on - at least in my case - about writing four pages for every one quality page.  Writing is rewriting.  The one thing I can't agree with is writing longhand.  I've done it before, and just can't stand it.  Give me a good ol' word processor every day of the week.  That way I can go back and change a word mid-stroke when I realize it wasn't the best choice to use.

Stephen King on writing short stories:

So interesting his view on why people don't read short stories as much anymore.  He attributes it to laziness, which is probably a large percentage of the truth.  The other percentage, I think, is the way stories are promulgated to the public.  We aren't satisfied with a single peek at something.  We have to have more.  Even a movie or a single book isn't enough.  We have to have trilogies and series and goddamn sagas!  Let it never end!  And yet a short story does just that.  It's like the one night stand of literature, that fleeting kiss in the night, never to be continued, but only remembered for its fiery brevity.  I absolutely love short stories.  And in today's world of short attention span theater, and fear of commitment, I don't know how the short story isn't more popular than it is.

Kurt Vonnegut on writing short stories:

Short, sweet advice, just like a short story.  But it's some of the best advice I've ever heard.  And the thing is, all these words of wisdom are just as applicable to writing novels as they are to shorter works.  We see professionals in the literary business talking about how stories just don't start fast enough, that there's too much pre-story or world building, or character development happening before the actual story starts.  Vonnegut's advice on starting the story as close to the end as possible is just as good in these cases as it is for a piece of flash fiction.  Start with the action, make your characters want something, and then take it away from them.

Neil Gaiman with advice for new writers:

His advice, apart from going out and actually living and seeing the world is spot on. If you want to write, you have to write. The elves aren't going to magic your book into finished form. You're not going to get a sudden epiphany one day and churn out a book, slavering over an old fashioned typewriter like the classics. You're not friggin' Snoopy, sitting on your doghouse, pecking out that great work of literature without a flaw. You're going to make mistakes. You're going to write absolute crap. God knows I have. And you'll learn from it. You'll edit like there's no tomorrow, and when you're done, the finished product will look nothing like what you started with. And it's all because you wrote, and wrote, and wrote. And wrote some more.

Margaret Weiss talks with R.A. Salvatore on collaboration and how gaming affects fantasy books:

The most interesting part of this interview for me is hearing about collaboration. A story of any size is very personal; it's probably one of the most intimately personal pieces of creativity there is, and sharing that with anyone can create some complex and often problematic issues. It appears that one of the reasons why Margaret Weiss and Tracy Hickman have been so successful writing fantasy together is the way they have worked together. Each person has specific tasks and goals, each a certain chunk of the story they are responsible for. With less overlap, there is less a chance that the artistic vision of one author will clash with that of the other.

Louis L'Amour talks about historical accuracy and research in writing:

One thing he mentions later in this interview is his trademark lack of profanity. While he grew up in among a very rough crowd, he never saw the need for it. He didn't feel it was appropriate to use profanity, and that using it was often a crutch for a "lack of real skill". While I'll sprinkle my stories with profanity where necessary, L'Amour has a very good point - one shouldn't have to use it at all to get the point across. In the end, I'd opine that it's fine if used as a part of one's style; not if used as a crutch.

Chuck Palahniuk with a succinct analogy on writer's block:

Slightly crude or not, his point is made. And that's really the thing. Many writers advise one to write every day, to write nonstop. But Palahniuk's advice is simpler: if you don't have anything to write, there's no sense trying to force it out. But I think it goes deeper than that, and is something that is nuanced in what he says here. Many writers have tons of great ideas, filling their heads and overflowing onto the written page, whether they like it or not. But they don't have those ideas without living, without gaining experiences, because those experiences are what feed the ideas necessary to write.

Garrison Keillor with some advice to writers:

"Get out of the house," he says, and he's right, because writing isn't just about the author. In fact, I'd argue it's exactly the opposite. Writing has almost nothing to do with the writer, and everything to do with the reader. It's the reader's experience that brings a book to life, not the writer's. If you don't go out and experience life, relate to others, stay tuned to what's happening in the world, you'll end up writing a bunch of self-absorbed pretentious crap that nobody wants to read.

John Irving with encouragement to new writers:

It's tougher today than ever before to break through in this industry. The competition is not only an increasingly larger number of writers, but it's also tougher. The talent pool is larger. But that shouldn't mean discouragement. Rather it should be incentive to work all that much harder. It takes a lot to really produce a quality work of art, no matter the medium, and the higher the competition level, the better the best work is going to be.

Watching these videos, we get rather common themes from them. Write often. Read a lot. Get out there and live. Persevere. Write a variety of genres and lengths. Experiment. But over all, write, write, write. And then write some more.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Finding One's Voice

I find it odd, this thing called voice.  I read quite a wide variety of authors, both classic and contemporary, and with the good ones, no matter the genre, voice is always king.

Fellow Pacific Northwest native Tom Robbins, of which I've spoken before, has one of the most distinguishable voices there is.  His voice is magnificent!  It rises from whatever depths necessary to envelop the reader with pearls of wisdom, still wrapped in the gooey funk of the underdeep.  He grabs the reader by the stack and swivels, and woos you face to face with his wisdom and wit, whether you like it or not.  He's the only author I know who shatters George Carlin's plea on writing:

The only story I know of where clouds are important was Noah’s Ark!

- George Carlin

Tom Robbins does better than that.  "A rank of ample black clouds had been double-parked along the western horizon like limousines at a mobster’s funeral. Rather suddenly now, they wheeled away from the long green curb and congregated overhead, where, like overweight yet still athletic Harlem Globetrotters, they bobbed and weaved, passing lightning bolts trickily among themselves while the wind whistled 'Sweet Georgia Brown,'" he writes in Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates.  And in another novel, I forget which at the moment, he describes clouds as "nuns having a pillow fight".

That's voice, folks, pure voice.  Few others can equal that ability to trick images to leap into our minds from a few carefully placed words on a page.  None can mimic that exact cadence and poetry he employs.  And even if he's just talking about the weather - something writers are constantly advised not to do - you want to keep on reading.

Robbins isn't alone in displaying a unique, discernible voice.

Stephen King has a voice.  So much so that people called him out on his pseudonym Richard Bachman, because after a few novels they had it figured out, just by the sound of the voice.  His voice is one of the things that sets him apart from other authors, and one of the main reasons I believe he's had so much success.

David Eddings had a unique voice as well.  So much so that one could easily identify the author just by reading a few passages of his character's dialogue.  His dry, sardonic humor seeped into his characters so well that it made them easily recognizable and made them react in familiar manners when faced with obstacles in the plot.

And that, I think, is one of the problems of having such a distinctive voice.  All authors put so much of themselves into their work that it shows through in every character, every passage of narration.  But by doing that, they give it a sense of sameness, of consistency.  And while this is good for the overall tone of the book, it has a tendency, as we've seen with some of Eddings' writing, to give all the characters a similar voice.  And if they all sound the same, it's hard to make them unique.

A certain adaptation to character is needed.

It would be nice to have a certain way of adapting to whatever voice was needed at the time, a kind of Joss Whedon's Dollhouse way of slipping into a character and making it your own.  To create characters with a sort of schizophrenia, allowing completely different personalities to seep into each.  This is why perhaps, a pool of writers such as in a television series allows a more diverse group of characters.  It's easier for different writers to focus on different characters, instead of pouring themselves into each one.

And it seems some characters lend themselves more easily to voice than others.  I have one in particular who is so insistent on being an individual that he stands out easily from the others.  He's less subtle, I guess, which helps.  He's a little harder to write because he's over the top a bit, and yet I don't want him to come across as too much so.  It would create too much of a caricature out of him, when what I really need is just the emotional energy he provides.

I think a distinctive voice comes down to two things, and both stem from copious amounts of writing.

The first is experience, simple time spend pounding the words into story.  The more you do that, the more your voice begins to take shape and the less it imitates your sources of inspiration.  You begin to see how to hone your writing, to delete excess words, identify overused words, and craft tighter sentences.  All of this lends to your voice, making it more distinct and more identifiable as yours.

The second thing necessary is an understanding of your characters.  The more a writer knows about a character, the more distinctive their voice becomes.  When they're loosely shelled out, with vague goals and moods, they're harder to define.  They have no substance, no value behind what they do and say; they're simply doing or saying those things to advance the plot.  When that happens, they fall short as believable characters.

In the end, it's just hard work.

It takes time to hone one's voice.  Time spent cloistered away from living companionship, lost with those who live only in your own mind.  It takes hours and days and months and years sitting there, crafting words, blowing them up, and crafting them all over again.  Even a cursory look at the great writers will show that they put their devotion to writing above all else.  They prioritized it, even when they had to work other jobs to put food on the table.

They say it takes 10,000 hours of doing anything to master it.  I think I've easily surpassed that mark, probably years ago.  But I think that's just the first tiny step in the longer journey of honing one's voice and mastery of storytelling.  There is always much room for improvement, and still so very much to learn.