Lessons on the way to becoming a writer
Jane tagged me in her meme about learning to write. At first I wanted to write three contradictory practices that illuminate my development as a writer. That’s hard for me, not because I have trouble telling stupid stories from my youth (I don’t, as my friends know all too well), but because because I feel like I’m still becoming a writer. Yes, I know I’ve been writing or editing for more than 25 years, long enough that I have plenty of work in the remainder bin or landfill, but I’m still trying to get good. So, rather than tell you about the 11th grade high school teacher who inspired me or the thrill when I heard my fiction read on the radio, I’ll tell you three things I’ve learned along my “twisted path to becoming a writer,” a path I have yet to complete.
1. Hate adverbs.
One practice I’ve picked up is to eliminate as many words ending in “-ly” as I can.
I’m writing a novel. To solve a problem I created for myself in the second act, I went back and looked at something similar I had written years ago. It was a terrible piece of writing. Trying to make the sentences more powerful than the story dictated, I loaded them with tricks. Some of them I had picked up from my years as a cranky rock critic (fellow travelers know the “comma, say, comma” formulation); others confused listmaking with storytelling. The worst of them was my reliance on adverbs and adjectives to do the jobs that nouns and verbs are for. The sentences was full of pairings like “astonishingly precise” and lots of adverbs like “actually” and “simply” that, most of the time, are just fancy ways of saying “very.” I even used the words “insouciant” and “insouciantly” in a 3,000-word section, which should trigger some sort of penalty.
Almost every one of my sentences gets better when I remove the adverbs. As I continue down the path, I’m learning not to put the adverbs in at all.
2. It’s not about me.
Go to bookstores. The local Booksmith, workplace of my favorite bookseller, has a wall of new hardcover fiction. I am a ravenous reader, but the wall is full of novels I’ll never read by authors I have never heard of and novels I’ll never get to by authors I have heard of. Even if I complete a novel worth reading and talk someone into publishing it and inserting it into such a display, most people who go to bookstores looking for fiction (a small percentage of a small percentage) will never notice it. This once made me despair; now it liberates me. Here’s why.
In the early ’90s, I had a difficult job with a difficult boss. Much of that boss’s direction was unhelpful, both to the financial and editorial health of the magazine I edited, but one of his suggestions was brilliant and has stayed with me. I was editing a music magazine that had its offices in Peterborough, New Hampshire, no center of pop culture. There were elements of the office’s physical location that were useful, but bucolic setting = cloistered attitude for some of the editors there. They were self-conscious tastemakers, out of touch with our readers. My boss suggested we talk to readers regularly and learn what they thought. My initial response was negative — no one knows better than I what my readers want, damn it! — but within the week I tried it. It was fantastic! Much of the feedback was obvious or mundane, but some of it was surprising, provocative, and essential in helping me understand what my readers wanted. Without it, I would have been unable to turn the magazine from one intended to please four editors into one set on entertaining several hundred thousand people.
Which brings us back to that wall of new fiction and the practice I draw from it. I’m only going to get a few people to notice my book; what can I do to make it stand out? Do I know what is my book about? Do I have characters, subplots, or themes that don’t support what that book is about? Are they there just to entertain me? What about the reader? There is a difference between what one writes for herself and what one produces for an audience. After I’ve written something, I ask: Will anyone who picked up this book because of what it is about care about this? No? Then why is it there?
3. You can’t get to the 10 percent until you throw away the 90 percent.
The first two practices are about taking things about. This one is about putting things in. I think I’m starting to get good; I even have some external validation to support that belief. But most of what I write is still crap. Most of what everyone writes is crap. Tama Janowitz once wrote that the first drafts of her novels were 1,200 pages; the second drafts were 800 pages; the final drafts ran 400 pages.” Regardless of whether you’re a Janowitz fan, that sounds about right. You can’t have the best writing on paper until you put everything down on paper, including the dumb ideas, cliches, forced transitions, clever asides, and limp dialogue. None of that will be in the final/published version, but you can’t get to a good-enough final/published version until you have written out all the junk. My practice: Pour it all out, then sort it all out.