Soon after graduating high school, I started writing my first novel, ready to take the literary world by storm; I don’t even remember a thing about that novel today—not the story or characters or even what made me think I could write a novel at 18. To fuel my resolve, I landed a job at a local bookstore—a B.Dalton, for those of you who remember chain bookstores. I assumed that being surrounded by books and readers would whip me into a inspirational frenzy, or at least inculcate me with some award-winning ideas simply by stacking the shelves. Surprisingly, few people came into the store looking for books, exactly: most wanted magazines, or crossword books, or calendars. Others wanted “that one book...by the one guy...you know, who was on that one show a few years ago... you know!”
And then there were the customers who came in wide-eyed and asked for the “writing books.” Weren’t all books writing books, I thought to myself? But no, they meant books about how to write books. Books to help them write bestsellers. I still remember these two girls who came in, and pulled one book after another, as if a genie would pop out of the right one. “How are you going to read this entire book?” one of them asked. “Oh, I’m not,” she laughed, “my dad likes to read, so I’ll get him to read it, and he’ll tell me how to do it.” Her name? Stephanie Meyer. Kidding—I never asked the girl’s name, and I imagine she never wrote a word of her great American novel.
I’ve been writing seriously since 1994, one story or work after another for a quarter of a century. Three college degrees later, and a job as a professor who often teaches writing himself, I feel that I’ve almost completed my apprenticeship. I’ve made so many mistakes, painted myself into more corners than I can remember, and of course written more books and stories than I care to remember. I, too, read some books on writing, though the only two that made any impression were by Orson Scott Card and Gary Gygax (this was technically more about making AD&D campaigns, but it taught me a lot about storytelling). I’ve also taken more than my fair share of writing classes and seminars, and of course read thousands upon thousands of books. Over the years, I’ve tried to formulate the basic rules to good writing, the key techniques that all writers share, both the critically and commercially successful. Surely there must be a sorcerer’s stone for the writer’s craft—a voice, a perspective, a plot, that never fails and catapults the writer into the arms of an adoring crush of readers?
The painful truth is that writing is like love itself: there’s no recipe, no sure way to find it, and one person’s success will doom a thousand others. Not that there aren’t specific rules to follow to reach a specific destination; just that there are many destinations in art, and the question is where you want to find yourself. A writer of fan fiction has a wildly different audience and purpose than the writer trying to land a short story in The New Yorker, even if each one could learn a lot from the other. The most important thing you have to ask yourself as a writer is what you want to accomplish. Not only what kind of writer you want to be, but who you’re writing for. And a very respectable answer can be “for myself.”
The illusion of writing is that is shares a common language and purpose, and once you learn to ‘speak’ it you can speak to anyone, anywhere, and be completely understood. The truth is much more pragmatic: every work you write is an attempt to learn to speak all over again, and by the end you’re only marginally literate. But there is a “cheat sheet” so to speak, one that gets you going, gets you thinking...even if you inevitably have to throw it away.
The Nobel-prize winning author. V.S. Naipaul (a great favorite of mine), once gave a few basic tips for writing, though he notably told a classroom of students that no one can be taught to write. Still, his ‘rules’ are worth thinking about, as they point the way forward to many possible destinations, even if they’re not enough by themselves to assure a safe passage. Note that these are suggestions for a beginning writer, and can and should be broken at will by the initiated:
1. Do not write long sentences. A sentence should not have more than ten or twelve words.
2. Each sentence should make a clear statement. It should add to the statement that went before. A good paragraph is a series of clear, linked statements.
3. Do not use big words. If your computer tells you that your average word is more than five letters long, there is something wrong. The use of small words compels you to think about what you are writing. Even difficult ideas can be broken down into small words.
4. Never use words whose meaning you are not sure of. If you break this rule you should look for other work.
5. The beginner should avoid using adjectives, except those of colour, size and number. Use as few adverbs as possible.
6. Avoid the abstract. Always go for the concrete.
7. Every day, for six months at least, practice writing in this way...
While most great writing of the past breaks these rules, it’s important to consider why they do. Take the 20th century American author, Willa Cather: as heir to the grand tradition of the American novel, she was also a shrewd, concise storyteller. Her works are never abstract, even when exploring the abstract: you always know what she’s describing as if you just experienced the emotion or idea yourself. However, her sentences can be quite long, often more than 10-12 words, and often with words longer than 5-6 characters. Take, for example, the following passage from her early short story, “Eric Hermannson’s Soul”:
“The girls were all boisterous with delight. Pleasure came to them but rarely, and when it came, they caught at it wildly and crushed its fluttering wings in their strong brown fingers. They had a hard life enough, most of them. Torrid summers and freezing winters, labour and drudgery and ignorance, were the portion of their girlhood; a short wooing, a hasty, loveless marriage, unlimited maternity, thankless sons, premature age and ugliness, were the dower of their womanhood. But what matter? Tonight there was hot liquor in the glass and hot blood in the heart; tonight they danced.”
The most striking thing about this passage is its rhythm. The music of the sentences, which are sometimes short and abrupt, then long and spun-out, like music with a long melody that is silenced with a cymbal crash. Look, for example, at the sentence that says “They had a hard life enough.” She could have ended there, but instead lays out the litany of their sorrows like a Norwegian lament—the beauty of the prose at odds with the sheer ugliness of their lives. And then—crash!—it stops, with the phrase “but what matter?” True, it’s not a sentence V.S. Naipaul would write, but then again he wouldn’t write of the sorrows of first-generation immigrants on the Plains. The rules always match the story and the story comes first. Rules are never one-size fits all. They have to be custom made to the story. Which means that simply writing one book doesn’t prepare you to write a dozen more. Each one might send you back to the drawing board, poring over old textbooks and trying to remember how to write a parallel sentence.
However, V.S. Naipaul did hit on something that is well-nigh universal: write words and ideas, not cliches and contradictions. Don’t write what you’ve heard people say, write what you understand the way you say it. Nothing is worse in literature than second-hand impersonation. Don’t write what sells simply to sell books; otherwise, we should all be reading “how-to” books for fun. The beauty of art is that it seems to defy instruction or creation—it simply is. You only do that by writing from the depths of your own experience, using words you know intimately from your childhood. Start small: plan a single story rather than an epic trilogy of novels. You might get to the trilogy in due time, but only if you write that first story which communicates a specific character in a concrete world.
And finally, to come back to the two would-be writers I met at B.Dalton, I would offer my own piece of writing advice. No matter what you’re writing and no matter who you’re writing for, there is one absolute, sure-fire rule to writing anything from a novel, to a poem, to a memoir of your life in the circus. READ BOOKS. You can’t write if you don’t read. Of course, you can, just as you can play guitar without listening to a note of music. But what kind of musician would you be? What kind of music would you make? These budding writers didn’t want to take the time to read books—the very books they hoped to write for others. To write means to speak in a polyglot of language, since writing—and especially novel writing—inhabits so many worlds and so many lives. So you should read omnivorously, in as many genres and forms and languages as you can stomach. That’s the only rule I can get behind as a writer and a teacher of writing, since every story starts with a single word and ends with a word, too. There’s no getting around it. We have to read before we learn to write. And after all, isn’t reading what made us want to write in the first place?