Thursday, February 10, 2011

Question of the Day Featuring Michael Phillips

Angel Harp: A Novel

Question 8 of 25 with Michael Phillips

Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?

I used to teach writing workshops and obviously my advice was the tried and true advice you always hear—hard work, 90% perspiration 10% inspiration, and all that.

It’s still true today.

The mistake many aspiring writers make is to think that the writing itself is the hard work, the time they put in, getting up early, staying up late, nose to the grindstone, etc.

No, that’s not the hard work it takes. It’s the hard work to learn and practice the craft of good writing. That’s a different kind of hard work. Someone might write twenty hours a day, but if that effort isn’t pointed in the right directions, they may never get where they want to go.

People think that having good ideas, or having a good story qualifies them as a writer, or qualifies those ideas or that story as ones people will want to read. You can ‘t imagine how many times authors are told, “I have a really great story, I just need someone to write it.”

Everyone has a great story in his or her head. Everyone has good ideas.

If books were a matter of just setting down good ideas and good stories on paper, anyone could write a book. Just tape record someone telling their ideas or their story. But it’s not just about ideas and stories, it is about the ability to communicate them so that they are easily absorbed into a reader’s brain by the use of publishable craft and linguistic precision and economy of construction and focused concise crisp syntax.

That takes hard work and skill and practice. The ideas and stories are the easy part. Anyone can think up a clever story. You think you’ve got a dynamite story idea? Join the club. So does everyone. I mean good story ideas. Good story ideas are easy. They won’t set you apart. The craft is what turns aspiring writers into published authors.

It’s not the story—it’s the craft to tell the story with precision.

These are learned skills, not gifts. People write praising my “gift” of writing and storytelling. I just laugh when I hear that. Whatever gift I have is the gift of hard work. I have learned to turn average writing into publishable writing. I don’t consider what I do a gift. I have a few good ideas and occasionally I come up with a good story line. But the secret is learning the craft to communicate them effectively.

Another huge blunder aspiring writers make is being proud of what they have written. That is a huge mistake. The secret of good writing is being able to read what you have done and recognize it for what it is—rubbish. Someone who is prematurely proud of what they have done (maybe because of the good ideas and clever story), unless they do have an innate “gift” that I don’t have, will probably never be published.

That’s where the process of learning the craft, the linguistic precision, the crisp syntax, the economy of construction begins. It begins by being able to see how horrible your own writing really is on the first pass as you get your ideas and story onto paper.

You’ve got to recognize the rubbish writing for what it is.

Then you rework your paragraph or scene or chapter another time. Still rubbish. Then a third time…hmm—it’s still terrible.

Seeing your writing as unpublishable is the beginning of the long road toward excellence.

So you read a writing book or two. You read something from your favorite author and try to see what is different between what you have read from your mentor and what you have written yourself. Maybe one or two things jump out at you.

Then you have another go at your troublesome scene or paragraph or page or chapter. This time you try to incorporate something you saw from your mentor’s good writing into your writing. Maybe that improves it a little.

Whose writing are you trying to emulate? Then study it and emulate it. Don’t be enamored with your own writing. Follow the same principles that are evident in the writing you want to emulate.

You sniff around in a few more writing books. You read Strunk and White for the seventh time. You pick up another tidbit or two and you go back to your piece and incorporate those elements into your work.

Okay, it’s starting to sound a little better. But you know its still not there.

Now you go back to your favorite author again. Now the hard work begins. You’ve got to tear apart your mentor’s words and sentences and paragraphs…and figure out how and why it sounds good. You’ve got to try to put those same elements of craft into your writing. Copy your mentor. Try to make your writing sound like his.

By now you’ve been through your piece maybe eight times. Maybe you’re ready to admit that it has improved beyond the rubbish stage. But do you still have eyes to see that it’s not as good as you thought it was at first?

If so, you’re on your way.

The writer on his way to becoming an author has no use for clever, ornate, syrupy expressions. He sees them on his page and cringes with dismay.

Rubbish! he cries. All this flowery over-writing is juvenile. I must work harder. I must learn from the masters who taught me to love books and writing in the first place!

Back to the texts and writing books…now you are like a detective looking for the remaining rubbish elements in your writing that you can improve, even if it’s just a few letters of a change, a word here and there, the strengthening of a verb, getting rid of bland words like is and was.

You are searching like a bloodhound to remove pallid words, passive tenses, unnecessary qualifiers, overstatement, repeated words, flowery expressions, convoluted sentences, florid adjectives, cutesy constructions, ly-adverbs, dangling phrases, excess verbage. All these must go.

It’s all in the writing books. The principles are there for the taking.

That’s what it takes—studying and researching to ferret out the principles of craft and technique that makes someone else’s writing sparkle. Then do those same things yourself.

I sometimes wonder if I had an advantage in not being trained as a writer. I knew my writing was rubbish. I knew I had to learn how to write from the beginning. I had been through the English classes. I had diagramed sentences and tried to figure out the symbolism and themes of Jane Eyre and Moby Dick. But now I had to teach myself how to infuse my writing with gutsy nouns and verbs with punch and movement.

This process of self-teaching is so overlooked. Many aspiring writers have probably never read a book on writing style and craft. I have a library of probably thirty or more such books. I study them and pore over them. They are underlined. I re-read them. I have to be reminded of what to do and not to do. I am constantly studying writing technique. I have been at this 35 years and I still look at my stuff and cry Rubbish! and despair that I will ever be a decent writer.

Good writing doesn’t just “happen.” You have to teach and train yourself in the craft, and that may take years. You have to study and practice. The training I put myself through in what I would call my years of apprenticeship was every bit the equivalent of my years in college studying Physics. In my experience, however, most beginning writers have no idea how long and hard they have to train. It’s like training for a marathon. A lot of that time is spent on projects that no one will ever read. I have probably three dozen unpublished books that no one has ever seen—some complete, some three quarters complete, some half done. That’s the training ground. Everything doesn’t get published. But you are learning.

You’ve not only got to learn the craft, you have to be persistent. I still get rejections from publishers for manuscripts I think are great. Two books I have done recently that I like a lot are not published because no publisher is interested in them. I have written a murder mystery set in a Scottish castle. I love the book! But it remains unpublished. I have written a series of introductions to the books of the Bible called The Eyewitness Bible. In my opinion, it ranks at the top of all the work I have done. Yet no publisher wants it.

That’s part of the writing process too. You have to be thick skinned to handle the rejections. I’m not very good at it! I still get them all the time!

Ever wonder what it feels like to see your debut in print?  Michael shares with us tomorrow...

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