Any advice about writing?
The best and most sensible advice about writing I can give was given to me by my first editor, James Frenkel of Bluejay Books, when I was doing some minor revises on The Copper Crown at his suggestion. Adding things, rather than removing them: In fact, the whole subplot with Mikhailova and Kynon was his idea, and he was quite right — the book needed it. (And that was the last time any editor made structural alterations on any book of mine, by the way; I have on occasion been required to cut — only Strange Days and Blackmantle, and to the improvement of both, I might add, however much I kicked and screamed; though it’s always easier to cut than to add — but that was it for editorial hands-on.)
Anyway, what he told me was that scenes can be about plot development, character development, or exposition. Every scene should serve two, any two. Sometimes, a scene can even be made to serve all three. It’s okay if an occasional scene serves only one of these purposes, but too many single-purpose scenes will make for self-indulgent and careless writing. I found this extremely useful, and I never forget it for a minute, and I pass it on to you, with thanks to JF.
Outside of that, the only thing I can tell people is, If you want to write, just fucking WRITE. Don’t talk about it, don’t leave it all on the chat room screens or the bulletin boards, don’t even THINK about it, just sit down and put your lilywhites on the keyboard and DO IT. Don’t worry about is it good or deep or clever or whatever; the important thing is to DO IT. You can always fix it later — but first there has to be something to actually fix.
What you shouldn’t do:
Don’t take workshops or writing courses. Nobody ever learned to write creatively from a course. Nobody. Ever. (Though you can learn how to organize — newswriting and feature-writing courses in journalism school taught me that.) But you learn how to write by writing. That’s all.
And workshops might encourage certain types of people to write — perhaps the people who should never be encouraged to write in the first place — but basically I think they’re circle-jerks, everybody sitting around literarily wanking, summer camp for masochistic wannabes who think it’s useful creative experience to hear their work judged and slagged by the unqualified. All you learn in courses and workshops is to listen to other people’s voices.
Real writers listen to no one’s voice but their own. That’s what makes other people want to listen to them. If you’re afraid to listen to yourself, if you’re too cowardly to trust your own judgment and to hell with everybody else, then you shouldn’t be a writer in the first place — and you probably aren’t.
What you should do:
READ EVERYTHING YOU CAN GET YOUR MITTS ON. You should never not be reading something; when you finish reading one book put it down and pick up another. Reread favorite books frequently. Never stop reading. Anything, everything: poetry, history, biography, science, nonfiction of all sorts, fiction of all sorts and qualities. You can learn about writing from Anthony Trollope and you can learn about writing from Jackie Collins — and you can learn good and bad things from each of them.
Jim knew this better than anybody — he was probably the best-read person I have ever met, and he never failed to use what he learned from his reading. He once told me he learned more from bad books than from good ones…and that’s what writing is all about — learning and listening, and then using. This is where you listen to other voices; and then, when you’ve listened enough, your own voice will come out of them like a soloist from the choir.
LEARN FOREIGN LANGUAGES. Anything is good, but Latin is the best. Learning Latin was the single best writing tool I ever acquired: It teaches you where words come from, how they change, how you can make your own; it gives you a feel for sentence structure, for the logic of the paragraph; and it bestows upon you history and culture as well! Can’t beat that. Plus, it’s just way cool: I used to read the love poetry of Catullus to Jim in bed…
Try to take Latin first, if you can manage it, then whatever other languages appeal to you. I acquired French first, and languages come very easily to me so it was a snap, but it would have meant more if I had had a background in Latin to help me see the linguistic connections. German showed me even more of where English came from; the Celtic languages I studied for my books are different altogether, and the tiny smatterings I have of Russian, Italian, Arabic and Spanish furnish something else again.
The more you know about words and how they were made and how they fit together, their roots and family relationships, the more you, as a writer, will be able to find or make the best words to suit.
EDUCATE YOURSELF. Take classes. Especially in literature (how other people have written) and history (helps with plotting and characterization and storytelling; not to mention battle scenes!), and in skills like editing and proofreading and typography and design, or study on your own; not only will the knowledge benefit your writing work, you can even use it to help support yourself.
Education and knowledge of what you are interested in will influence your writing, pretty much unconsciously; it’s always better to know more than less. And the more you can bring to something, the more you will get out of it — and the more others will get out of you.
To those of you who might sneer that the humanities are outdated elitist luxuries that no longer matter in this brave new computer age, I say that even in Kali-yuga there is need of words and ideas. People still have to read and write and think — and the better you can do those things, the better you will do.
Other helpful hints:
Publishing houses don’t have much time these days to devote to writers — maybe they never did — and editors aren’t going to play Maxwell Perkins to your Thomas Wolfe, however much they might like to. They’re too busy dealing with sales meetings and marketing strategies and production schedules — that’s just how it is. It is therefore incumbent upon you as a writer — it is CRUCIAL — to deliver your work to your editor in as perfect a physical and artistic form as possible. In fact, it is every bit as much your job as the actual writing is.
Even so, publishing people do not always feel unbounded delight when confronted by control-freak authors who probably know as much as they do. (Former production person to my former editor, with exquisite tact: “Uh, we know this author is very particular — ” My former editor: ” ‘Particular’! She’s fucking insane!”) [This was repeated to me, with great glee, by the editor in question — a dear friend — and we both screamed with laughter over it because of course it is soooo true.]
But they do respect writers who know what they want and who know how to ask for it, rather than some moron who just says ‘Oh, well, I don’t like that, I don’t know what I would like but I’ll know it when I see it.’ Editors have neither the time nor the strength to deal with that sort of crap, and you should not expect them to.
It is perfectly permissible for an author (never me, of course) to paranoiacally feel, from time to time, that everybody at his or her publishing house (not mine, of course) secretly regards authors as a necessary evil and would be ever so much happier if only the books could write themselves. Sometimes this feeling is even true, though I’m sure I wouldn’t know.
Anyway, as an author you should have as many weapons as possible against this sort of thing. You should know as much as you can — or at least have a general idea — about what typefaces you like, what you want in the way of running heads and folios, spelling and punctuation preferences, ideas about leading, kerning, jacket copy and artwork, advertising, “casting off” (figuring how many pages, given a particular typeface and linecount per page, a manuscript will come in at), stuff like that.
You won’t get everything you want or even everything you need, but you’ll have a good shot at a good bit of it, especially if you are really knowledgeable and not just being an all-purpose pain in the behind. And the more you know the better off you will be, and the better your book will be dealt with.
As the author, your responsibility does not end when you turn the book in (and it goes without saying that you should turn in an immaculate manuscript, or as close as you can get it). Most authors can’t be bothered with all this stuff, but consider: That book goes out to meet the world with YOUR name on it — not your editor’s, not the production chief’s, not the sales rep’s. Rightly or wrongly, you are the one who will be held accountable for it all — ugly jacket art, stupid flap copy, typos, bad editing, unreadable typefaces — so it only stands to reason that the book and its appearance should represent your vision as closely and as perfectly as possible — and you must do whatever you can, and whatever you are allowed to do, and whatever you can insist upon, to make it so.
If I may cite Jim as example yet again: He was never content to just write and sing; he wanted to be involved with every aspect of every Doors album — the mix, the cover art and photographs and design and type, the liner notes, the publicity and advertising and marketing and tour and airplay strategies — because it all touched upon his work, and he felt strongly that it was incumbent upon him as an artist to make sure that the work was properly presented. Only at the very end — with L.A. Woman, which he recorded, mixed and then took off for Paris — did this carefulness break down; but he was already making plans for his first solo album, and from what I saw he would have been as careful with that as he had been with his work with the Doors. As an artist, you have to be. You can’t trust anyone else to do it for you. And if you have to be a pest of hell to get it done, well, there it is…
Lastly, keep it in your mind and do not forget what dear Walt Whitman says about it all:
“Understand that you cannot keep out of your writing the indication of the evil or shallowness you entertain in yourself.
If you love to have a servant stand behind your chair at dinner, it will appear in your writing; if you possess a vile opinion of women, or if you grudge anything, or doubt immortality, these will appear by what you leave unsaid more than by what you say.
There is no trick or cunning, no art or recipe, by which you can have in your writing that which you do not possess in yourself.”