Mon 28 Feb 2011
Four years after learning to play guitar I started another long term affair when I began writing prose fiction. I was a wide-eyed novice to be sure, but with a serious goal to someday do it for a living, which I eventually did not want to do with music for various reasons.
By 1996, writing was my only art at that time and I had become even more obsessed and determined as I headed into my prolific boom period of 1997 to 2001. Whenever I look back on all the writing I did during that ‘golden age’ period, I marvel at what seemed to be a natural sense of storytelling, but I also can’t help but laugh at the wonky writing mechanics. And that’s okay because you’re supposed be able to laugh at your younger self and take comfort in the fact that you’ve grown as a writer. I recently read some of the articles I had written (and regrettably published) over a decade ago and was appalled by the writing. The mechanics were actually fine, it was just some of the word choices…the overuse of adjectives alone made it cringe-worthy for me, but I’m pretty hard on myself, almost unforgiving.
Being an artist of any kind relies on devotion, discipline, and a certain natural sense of progression. You start out as a wet-nosed neophyte and hopefully through persistence and hard work you learn, improve and progress toward some kind of proficiency. This is especially true in the art of writing. At some point in our straightforward trajectory we become even more serious about craft and certain mechanics of writing in general, fiction specifically. I believe the ‘organics’ of writing are usually already sound by your fifth year of writing because that is an innate thing, that intuitive sense of storytelling is just something you’re either born with or you’re born without. The unstoppable drive and desire largely will separate the long-timers from the transient hobbyists. However, that natural inner catalyst that sparks the progression? I don’t know that it can be manufactured outside your natural biological makeup.
In contrast, I believe the mechanical aspects of writing are certainly more indoctrinated than they are innate. In other words, they may require a bit of active teaching, or at least passive, on-the-job learning. This is easily accomplished by reading good and bad writing, and learning from it. Yet we also pick up ‘expert advice’ along the way, either from our peers or from successful writers whose work we admire. I am a ravenous learner who dines regularly on knowledge distilled from the work of others.
For this article I have chosen five specific writers—famous as well as not-yet-famous—who have given me invaluable guidance in regards to writing through their work, their work ethic and their advice.
The following is the advice that I have personally applied over the years to some variable degree:
- ACTIVE VOICE: “You should avoid the passive tense. It’s weak, it’s circuitous, and it’s frequently torturous, as well.” – Stephen King, On Writing (2000)
In almost all cases, I’ve tried to avoid the passive voice. The goal is to use a strong, active verb to describe action rather than a limp, indirect, passive phrase. It was a struggle early on (as it is with all budding writers), but I have been working tirelessly on using this crucial practice more consistently in recent years.
- DIALOGUE ATTRIBUTION: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. And never used an adverb to modify the verb ‘said.’ The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in.” – Elmore Leonard, Writers on Writing @ nytimes.com (2001)
After those first five years or so, this became a pretty easy one to put into regular practice. However, early on, I did what a lot of novice writers do, tried to over-direct the sound of the story by over-describing how a character said something. In other words, trying too hard and going against the next piece of advice in this article.
- READER CONSIDERATION: “Respect your reader’s power of imagination.” – Bob Thurber, How To Write a Good Short Story @ ehow.com (2008)
This one is not that hard to implement when you really think about it. All you have to do is step outside yourself a bit to realize you would prefer that other writers respect your intelligence and not dumb-down the writing by overwriting. Most of us want to be challenged and given the chance to use our minds and interact intellectually with the story.
- CONSTANT REVISION: “I don’t write a quick draft and then revise; instead, I work slowly page by page, revising and polishing.” – Dean Koontz (in various interviews over the years.)
He doesn’t actually advise this for any other writer, but it’s a method of his that I adopted early on from my own obsessive-compulsive tendencies. I constantly revise my prose as I go along to achieve refinement early rather than later. This leaves less work to ‘fix’ later on. It’s a much slower process, to be sure, but I’m just obsessive like that. I try to look forward rather than backward as much as possible. Essentially the goal is that once I figuratively type “The End”, I can go back and focus on refining little things without the need to correct big things like inconsistencies in the voice, or holes in the plot because I have already labored over those aspects obsessively.
- BELIEVE: “Your confidence will come, but only after you write, write, write.” – AJ Brown, via e-mail (2010)
This is something that really got me back on track early last year. For most of the first decade of this millennium I had dealt with several bouts of writing blockage due to an overwhelming lack of confidence, which stemmed from putting unnecessary pressure on myself to be more literary and mainstream, and writing to impress with literary skill. That’s just not me – I write to entertain myself and the casual reader, not to impress the Literati. I had to start believing again that even if I’m not a ‘great writer’ by someone else’s standards, I am still one hell of a storyteller and I can write any kind of story I put my mind to and do it well if I simply believe in myself…and write it. Confidence is the fuel in a writer’s engine.
Now what follows is the next batch of guiding principles I’m trying to integrate, attributed to the same sources above.
- RESTRAINT: “Try to leave out the parts readers tend to skip.” – Elmore Leonard
- FOCUS: “Include no unnecessary elements. None. Zilch. Nada!” – Bob Thurber
- COMMITMENT: “Follow your vision. Once you start you have to finish.” – AJ Brown
I have one major one of my own:
- CONTINUOUS IMPROVEMENT: Never be satisfied, always strive to do better
Perhaps some of these can help you with your writing. Of course, as with any bit of advice, you should use that which applies as you blaze your own unique path.
Brandon L. Rucker is a 37 year old writer, editor and recording artist from Indiana. He edits micro-fiction for Liquid Imagination Online, the literary webzine of fiction, poetry, art and music. He is also the editor of the upcoming anthology entitled LOCAL HEROES (from Static Movement Imprint). He is a co-trustee and treasurer of the fledgling Silver Pen Writers Association (SPWA), a non-profit organization that aims to promote literacy around the world. You can learn more about him at: http://brandonruckerwrites.blogspot.com/