Friday, December 24, 2010

It's Never Too Early for a Life of Poverty and Loneliness: Three Good Writing Books

The biggest regret I have about my writing career -- so far, at least -- is that I started so late.

Of course I wrote little stories to read to my fourth grade class and performed puppet shows for my family and composed epic poems to woo girls at school, but I didn't sit down to write a real story with a beginning, middle, and end until my late teens. I didn't sell one until my twenties. I didn't sell a good one until my thirties.

Writing, like playing an instrument, benefits from daily practice and application...and it withers with every skipped day. You never quite lose it forever, thank God, but for every day you're away from the page, you'll probably have three or four of struggling to get your voice back and your neuroses subdued. There's a momentum required in writing, partly of confidence and partly of imagination.

The earlier you start that momentum, the better.

For years, I read and thought and talked about writing far more than doing it, and if there's one thing I can suggest to young readers who want to be writers, it would be to start writing immediately. Today. Even if it's a journal entry, a poem, a little story about someone you know, anything. And you do that every day, letting it seep into your skin and become natural.

That's really the key.

I could have learned that sooner if I'd read these three important books on writing when I was young.

Stephen King's On Writing is essential, really. Not only does King summarize the important mechanics of writing in only a few pages, he tells stories from his life of how he learned what he knows. He reminds us that writing is a process as much as a result.

Writers live a little differently than other folks, cultivating perception and commitment as they do, and King's anecdotes are instructive about just what it is going to take to do this right. Your path will be different, of course, and you'll make your own choices and mistakes. But following King's candid discussions of his career can remind you of how someone else made it through the treacherous forest...and believe me, you'll need that comfort more than a few times.

If I'd read The Modern Library Writers Workshop by Stephen Koch much sooner, I'd have saved a lot of money on writing books and a lot of time blundering around. In fact, if I had to settle for a single book on the craft, this would be it. Everything you need is here, written clearly and affirmatively. From beginning to end, from idea to completion, this book covers the essentials of writing publishable fiction (and non-fiction, come to think of it).

By quoting the masters and offering his own experience as a teacher, Koch approaches the subject with directness but also kindness; he tells you everything that can and will go wrong, but he reminds you that you're up to it. "You have no choice but to be wholly clueless of the perfect manner to tell a story until you do," he says.

Koch's advice is not so much about getting it right the first time but about refusing to quit until it is right.

His very first line is some of his best advice: "The only way to begin is to begin, and begin right now."

Not long ago, I'd have thought Heather Sellers's Chapter After Chapter was too dreamy and motivational to recommend to the serious writer. If you're serious, you shouldn't need to be told why you want to write, should you? Lately, though, I've come to discover that no serious writer should be without it.

In years of writing education, workshops, critique circles, and reviews, I have to say that the biggest failing I see in fiction tends to be a lack of feeling. We have ten thousand books about faking the structure and mechanics of a good story, but without something emotionally important to you behind it all, they fall flat. Sellers provides advice and inspiration for pursuing the work that is important to you one good sentence and one good chapter (or story) at a time.

"Writing is hard," she writes. "It takes so much willingness to be bad at something. It’s not fun to suck. And, if you are to write, suck you must." In Chapter After Chapter, she provides some of the intellectual tools you'll need to face that ambivalence, anxiety, and instability that comes in the early versions of all great things.
It's well worth reading and taking to heart.

As for grammar and structure and all of the things you should be learning in English class, my suggestion is to read, read, and read some more -- noticing what good fiction looks and sounds like.

Luckily for you, there's always Guys Lit Wire to help you find it.

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