Monday, February 16, 2009

Tools Of The Trade

Occasionally people ask me about my writing background. Usually this question comes from aspiring writers, who I think, see my book as a completed Rubik’s Cube and they want to know how I did it. Not just how I got a publisher but how I learned to write. What school I went to, what books I read, what techniques I employed. They always look disappointed when I tell them the answer—I never learned to write. That is I never took a class in writing or English, beyond those required in high school. I never read a book on creative fiction. I never went to a seminar. I never even took a correspondence course, (something my older sister once did years ago.) What I know about writing I taught myself.

I’ve done that a lot. I hear kids learn how to use a computer in high school now. In college, they offer courses in Photoshop, Word, and Excel. To me that sounds as incredulous as discovering Harvard is offering classes in Halo 3. I started out trying to be an illustrator because I was good at drawing and because a career in writing was impossible, due to my inability to so much as spell the word “grammar.” Friends who read my stuff claimed it was written in “Sulli-speak” something they took pride in being able to decipher. I still wrote, but I did not take it seriously—it was just for fun.

I did go to school for art, which was less than useful. I had an art scholarship to the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, but it ran out just after my first year. I didn’t have the money to pay the tuition, so that ended that. It wasn’t much of a loss, I wasn’t learning anything. Art schools, I suspect, often attract instructors who merely “like” art a lot. I got a job as an illustrator/keyliner and that abruptly ended my college career. Kids came along and my wife made more money, so I stayed home. I was twenty-three.

What was I going to do? Clean the house, watch the kids, sure, but that still left a lot of time. The idea of trying to write a publishable book rose to the top of my conscious about the same time I bought my first computer with a wonderful invention called “Spell-check.” Even armed with this new magical weapon, I knew all I had was my imagination, and that wasn’t going to cut it. I was good at making stories, good at laying out plots, good at timing, good at developing characters, but I hadn’t a clue about how to write.

At about this time my wife and I moved to the remote northern corner of Vermont, literally over a thousand miles away from everyone we knew. We lived on thirty acres where we could see mountains, but couldn’t see our neighbors. We were two hours from the nearest McDonalds or shopping mall, and there wasn’t a Walmart in the state. We couldn’t get cable, and only managed to pick up two clear television stations, and one snowy one. The Internet didn’t really exist as we know it yet, the nearest library was an hour away and I wasn’t allowed to check books out as I didn’t live local enough to get a card. From Thanksgiving until St. Pat’s there was always a minimum four feet of snow on the ground, and the temperature stayed lower than twenty below zero for a solid month. It was in this self-imposed isolation that I began learning to write.

I started by reading books. I went to the local general store (yes, just like in Green Acers,) and looked for the books with the golden seal indicating, Nobel, or Pulitzer prize winner. Not the books I would normally choose to read. At the time, I was into Stephen King, Issac Asimov, and such, but I was trying to learn—so learn from the best, right? I also read classics: Grapes of Wrath, Moby Dick, For Whom the Bell Tolls, even Shakespeare. I purposely forced myself to read widely, especially the stuff I hated. They were the ones that always won the awards, the abysmally boring novels with paper-thin plots and elaborate prose. What I ended up doing was reading several books by the same author, and then writing in their style, trying to emulate what they did. I didn’t just write a short story—I wrote whole novels. In doing so, I discovered something in each of the writer’s style, or technique that I could appreciate, and taught myself how to do it. In a way, I was like Siler from Heroes stealing powers from other authors and adding them to my toolbox.

From Steinbeck I learned the transporting value of vivid setting descriptions. From Updike I found an appreciation for indirect prose that could more aptly describe something by not describing it. From Hemmingway I discovered economy. From King, his ability to get viscerally into the minds of his characters…and so on. In addition, I wrote in various genres, mysteries, science fiction, horror, coming-of-age, contemporary literature, etc—anything and everything.

I did this for ten years.

My writing improved tremendously. After seeing the same words come up on the spell-check, I learned their correct spelling. I began studying grammar, which I learned is like trying to use a pile of yarn a cat’s been playing with for a week. Then just as I felt I was really getting it, it became too much. Ten years is a long time to achieve nothing. Ten years, ten books, a ton of rejections and not a single reader. It was time to give up and get a real job.

We left Vermont. The kids were old enough for daycare and I went back into advertising, vowing never to write another creative word. Then came the problem with my daughter’s reading and the fateful day I started reading Harry Potter and rediscovered once more, the joy in books that did not have little gold seals with Pulitzer and Noble written on them. These parts of the story are already detailed in a previous article on this blog, but suffice to say I started writing again for the fun of it.

I threw aside all that I learned and wrote for sheer enjoyment. I wasn’t writing in anyone’s style, I wasn’t imitating, I was done learning. I was done trying to make the great American novel. I just wanted to enjoy making something I would like to read. Still the lessons were there and when I wanted to paint a vivid setting, Steinbeck was whispering in my ear. When I hunted for a special turn of phrase, Updike lent me his hounds, King gave me a road map into the character’s heads and when I wrote a run-on sentence, “Papa” scowled at me.

The work was good enough to get an agent, but like the fruits of any island, I soon discovered there were holes in my education, things I never knew. My agent promptly, and politely pointed out my inconsistent PoV, my passive sentences and my indirect way of “telling,” rather than “showing.” Like missing pieces to a near complete puzzle, the moment they were pointed out I was appalled at my own blindness. How could anyone miss that! And I began seeing the errors everywhere—not only in my own works, but in the works of very successful authors.

I went back and heavily edited the novel with my newest tools, then hired an editor, to look over the work. She responded with extensive comments on grammar, and explained them—more bright and shiny tools to play with. Freshly cleaned and polished, the book, originally entitled “Heir to the Throne,” was renamed “The Crown Conspiracy,” and went back out and was picked up by Aspirations Media, Inc.

I still haven’t read a book on writing, but I do attend several writer’s groups and I did win a seat at the Jenny McKean Literary Workshop at George Washington University. When I mentioned my dire lack of literary education, the instructor—who is an award winning published author in her own right—suggested that might not be such a bad thing after all.

So that is how I found the tools that fill my writer’s toolbox, that’s how a storyteller learned to write…I’m still learning.

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