Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Publish Them For Their Transgressions

One thing I do not wish to speak about on this blog is publishing, and how to get published.

Over the weekend I went searching for a writing blog, finding nothing except blogs dedicated towards getting you, the gentle reader, published - with kits, books, guides, outlines and so on - anything to get you to hit links and buy products.  For this blog, I confess that I've considered allowing advertising through Blogger's Adsense ... but I do not intend, ever,  to produce a blog for the sake of flogging advertising.

If you want to be published, there a hundreds of reputable sources that will tell you how.  I recommend a visit to your local Borders or Chapters, where you can find a section on that subject.  As it happens, those methods have never served me very well.  I have published a few things by sending them blind to magazines, but most of my income from writing has come either from associates who were linked to the publishing industry, or jobs I got through success at a job interview.  My repeated attempts to sell a novel to the greater publishing industry have failed ... I won't pussyfoot around that.  I do not believe that the quality of the novel has anything to do with it.  Even now, a novel of mine is no doubt lying around in some backroom of a publishing house, where it has been for months or even years left unread, waiting to be pulped.  I am convinced that 90% of the written materials submitted to publishing houses are never read.  I believe this because I have watched editors respond when something submitted by a strange writer arrives.  There is much eye-rolling and snorting involved.

My experience is not universal, however, and I do know of writers who submitted blind and were published.  It is chance that a particular work appeals to a particular publisher or editor, and that work is moved forward.  I have not had that happen to me ... yet.

I do not question my quality as a writer, whatever my successes with a novel.  And I do not question the thrill of publishing, articles, short stories or novels, whatever a writer is able to manage.  Still, my purpose with this blog is to demonstrate and discuss the means to become a better writer, and being a better writer does not depend upon being published.  It can certainly lead to publishing, but I have not found that being published leads to better writing.  On the contrary, it can degrade your writing fairly quickly, as you learn to steal and trick your way to hit your deadlines.

Writing for pleasure and quality is done better without deadlines.  As much as you can, I suggest you free yourself from the impetus of publishing and concentrate instead on the work itself.  This will free you to produce work which you are certain could never be published, as it would never be 'understood' by others, etc.  Being 'out there' in your ambitions and ideas can push you into places where you must develop skills in order to write works of unusual complexity or daring.  Then, if you should ever find yourself writing materials for the public eye, you will find yourself literally dancing through the things asked of you.

To give an example, if you should find yourself writing a story from the perspective of a soldier wounded and dying in a foxhole, without any chance of survival, you will need to stretch yourself to the very limit to make that story a real page turner.  It can be done, certainly - anything can be done, just look at that film with the man in the box with the phone.  You may find yourself incorporating varied disturbing elements while challenging yourself to go deeper and deeper into the story ... don't worry about it.  Break the rules.  Write the story you want, saying the things you want to say.  Others may consider it a sin to write work that never CAN be popular, but wallow in that sin!  It can be freeing and instructive.

Every personal writing struggle you force upon yourself will translate into a ability.  Someday, this ability will surprise you, when you find it tickety-boo to write something most would consider horribly dull and mundane.  Push yourself hard now, and it will all be beer and skittles when the crunch comes.

Like playing an instrument, every skill you develop towards managing a given task will serve you well in managing every task to which you put your mind.  Writing begets writing.  Develop the craft, first.  Publish later. 

Monday, May 30, 2011

'Why' Isn't Important

It only follows that the next article would be about 'why' ... why would you be a writer?  It's not healthy from a vitamin D perspective, it's not a reliable vocational option, it won't get you laid (not until you get good and published, anyway) and it doesn't have the cachet of 'cool.'  So where's the return?

I used to tell people in my youth that I felt a force physically dragging me in front of my typewriter (I am really, really old) and forcing me to write.  Young people, they do have delusions.  Compulsion and obsession seemed like romantic concepts in a Gothic kind of way, even before the invention of Goths.  But over the years I have gained greater insight into why I drifted into this habit, and why I continue to carry it forth.

I like myself.  And there is something satisfying about having something to say that is so pithy and important that is must be written down so that others can read it.  Yes, true, it has to be decently written before others will read it, but even if they don't, you will.  Remember the words of Robert A. Heinlein, speaking through his character Lazarus Long:

"Writing is not necessarily something to be ashamed of - but do it in private and wash your hands afterwards."

Because yes, despite whatever grandiose notions you may have, despite your hopes that others will take notice, despite your efforts to get better and despite whatever deep and abiding purpose you hope to bring to other's attention, this act - when carried out for any purpose that doesn't directly apply to keeping you alive - is only masturbation.

No one will ever care about the size of your body of work like you will care.  No one else will so closely read the reviews about your work as you will read them, and no one will ever 'get' the deep nuance of your pet phrases or brilliant plot turns on the level that you understand them.  Rid yourself, if you can, of any notion that you're in control.  People will probably love you for the work you've produced that you yourself hate worst of all, something you wish you'd never written.  And they will hate that one project that you've worked your whole life to produce.

Produce it anyway.  It's in your nature to work in the way that you do, and you'll never change that.  Don't concern yourself so much with the 'why' as with things you can control - like when, or how much.  Keep your focus small, and you will enjoy the process all the more.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

What to Write?

What writer hasn't stared at a blank page, wondering what to write?  The experience is so pervasive it has become a cliche.  It is a cliche to open an article like this with that question.  But cliche or not, a writer identifies with the problem.  It is hateful to want to write, and to have nothing to write.

The real trouble is this:  there is little desire to write about the things that are common to your own experience, because you are very familiar with them, and therefore they are somewhat boring to you.  It would be much more interesting to write about exotic things such a war, space, sex, far away places, intrigue, crime, mystery and so on ... but chances are you have little hands-on experience with those things.  If you were to write about skiing, for instance, while never having skied, you will look like an idiot.

In fact, Hemingway was confronted by a friend of his who had written a story about skiing, and Hemingway was appalled by the inaccuracies.  "Write what you know!" Hemingway told him ... and it is, sadly, good advice.

The answer is to know a lot more about things you wish to write about, which has started a fad in these last few decades about people winging off to other lands, or putting themselves through grueling lifestyles, just so they have something interesting to write about.  This practice has long been held in good stead, going back through the centuries to men who climbed aboard ships to visit India, Africa or South America in search of adventure and a great novel.  And while many accounts of these places were written, two things must be pointed out.  One, that many people died.  And two, the novels that got written are by no account considered very special.

Recently the publishing industry, however, is caught up with this fad, so that they'd rather publish an actual account of a young girl escaping a hellish prison camp than a fictional one.  They would rather print the account of someone forcing themselves to feast exclusively on an insect diet than a similar fictional story.  The real has developed its own cachet.

But I will remind the gentle reader that Shakespeare did not travel, or feed himself on a diet of bugs.  Where it comes to writing what you know, the good writer should remember that the one primary thing you wish to know is how to write.  While those humdrum things around you may seem dull and uninteresting, consider that in the hands of a hardworking craftsman, the description of that life can carry with it all the exotic elements of a far-off planet.  Particularly when those characteristics are combined with the elements of a far-off planet.  Edgar Rice Burroughs obviously never travelled to Mars.

The whole panoply of life is open to representation ... not just the exotic bits.  If you find yourself faced with a blank page, put it down and go live your life.  And then come home and write interestingly about what you've done that day, what you'd like to do tomorrow and what you would do if all the forces of God were at your fingertips.

Do not try to write anything until you have something to write.  I assure you, when you're ready, you'll do in one sitting what a dozen failed attempts could not accomplish.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Are You a Writer?

Before getting down to the meat and potatoes of writing, I should write a series of posts addressing writing's wider aspects. To begin with, what makes a writer, and do you have what it takes?

Certainly this is a judgment that many people will make up their minds about you, the gentle reader. If you announce to your family, friends and associates your intention to be a writer, expect doubt. If you haven’t possessed any prior special talent recognized by the powers that be – specifically, your teachers – a slightly frosty reception awaits your announcement. This is because writing, unlike music or painting, is rarely viewed as a ‘leisure’ activity.

Once upon a time, in the 19th century, it certainly was. Everyone of means wrote, since this was the best means of keeping in contact with loved ones far away, as in the next county. The practice of writing was viewed seriously in school - much more serious than now - as it was training for mothers to manage the wider family, and for fathers to properly communicate in business.

You and I do not live in such far-flung days, and all the better for us. There is a therefore less competition. Bad writers flourish today because an uneducated public cannot know from personal ability that these are bad writers. And while your concern is that you may be a bad writer, if you take solid efforts to hone your ability and craft, you will learn to be at least as capable as many published authors presently earning small amounts of money, like yours truly.

First and foremost, you should approach writing as something you like to do. Others may not see writing as purposeful. For them, it seems an awful lot of work. But if you wish to identify as a writer, you should probably consider writing as something pleasant. Otherwise, this chore will break you. It is unforgiving, unsympathetic and has no value to anyone unless it is part of something finished. It
likely will not earn praise from others, or it will earn praise a long way down the road. Before getting there, you will meet many people who will inform you - without very much explanation - that you are wasting your time. They will call you a dreamer. They will call you irresponsible. Or they will make little mocking phrases about everyone having a book in them and so on.

All the same, writing is only putting one word after another, albeit for hours at a time. It is not a craft that any person possessed of their faculties cannot learn to do. You must have faith in that, despite your own questions. With patience, a willingness to learn and an open attitude towards teaching yourself some difficult skills - and having ideas a little more grandiose than the next person - there’s nothing whatsoever to stop you from considering yourself to be a writer.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Who Is the Pegasus Rider?

The rider of the Pegasus, the winged horse, was Bellerophon, and the story went that he was given a golden bridle by Athena, the goddess of wisdom, that would allow Bellerophon to control the horse. Bellerophon waited by the pool where Pegasus would come to drink, and surprised the horse, slipping the bridle over its head. At once Pegasus became wholly docile. Thereafter, Bellerophon and Pegasus together were able to defeat the three headed chimera, which was destroying the countryside.

Each element of the story is a symbol in the pursuit of knowledge. Athena, or wisdom, provides the tools. The horse itself is the knowledge gained. Knowledge is then used to destroy the dangerous use of power, that is the chimera. And we, of course, are Bellerophon. We have the opportunities to ride our pegasi towards the accomplishment of our goals.

But there is another Bellerophon myth that is important to remember. The second story goes that Bellerophon, full of himself, decided to ride Pegasus up into the clouds to the top of Mount Olympus, where the gods dwelt. It was hubris, of course, that Bellerophon considered himself more than a man - and in answer, it was said that Zeus sent a tiny gadfly to bite Pegasus's flank. The gadfly bit, Pegasus kicked and Bellerophon fell to his death ... because it takes a very little thing to turn godlike delusions into dust.

I have long reflected on these two tales, and have long found myself relating to Bellerophon, in both his triumph over the chimera and his ultimate demise. For me personally, the chimera has always been those things standing between me and the writing I would like to be doing - things like a lack of talent, or knowledge, or opportunity. And that is why I am beginning this blog. I want to talk about those things, and about writing in general. I want the opportunity to talk about the structure of writing, and how that structure has been applied to books, plays and screenwriting. And perhaps I can both help myself and others to be better writers, to climb aboard Pegasus and fight our own chimeras, whatever they might be.

I am often asked how to write better. It only seems logical to write a blog about it.