Friday, March 29, 2013
I don't know about you, but I'm a sucker for books and articles on writing if they're done by people whose work I've read and admired.
Sometimes the articles don't seem all that useful. Since they're by people whose work I admire, I assume that I'm just too dense to see what they're getting at. This does wonders for the ego.
Sometimes the articles seem to be echoes of each other. For a perfect example of that, see the Writer's Handbook from 1982. This one contained an article by John D. MacDonald called "Creative Trust," and another by Stephen King called "Imagery and the Third Eye." Both deal with the use of the telling visual detail to paint a bigger picture in the reader's mind. They approach the subject from slightly different angles, and both are well worth reading.
The articles that tend to be the most fun, though not necessarily the most useful, are the ones that deal with rules for writing. You can probably find a lot of rules-for-writing articles without much digging, and if you browse through some of them you can probably think of books you love that break one or more of those rules. My impression is that the more specific and rigid the rules the easier it is to think of exceptions.
Over the years, I've found that my favorite sets of rules for writing come from (in no order of importance) Robert Heinlein, Stephen King, Natalie Goldberg, Elmore Leonard, Ray Bradbury, and one more player to be named shortly.
Heinlein had five: 1) You must write. 2) You must finish what you write. 3) You must refrain from rewriting except to editorial order. 4) You must put it on the market. 5) You must keep it on the market until sold.
At first glance that third rule might seem to imply that you'd be sending out a lot of first-draft material. Not necessarily; if it isn't right after the first draft's done, revisions would fall under rule 2. Heinlein was working in a time when there were plenty of magazine markets, and the rates might be a penny a word and sometimes less. Once you thought a piece was ready, it wasn't cost-effective to go over it again unless an editor said he'd take it if you made a few changes.
You'll note that Heinlein's rules aren't genre-specific.
You can find King's in an article called "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully, in Ten Minutes." Here are some of them: 3) Be self-critical. 4) Remove every extraneous word. 5) Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft. 12) If it's bad, kill it.
Bradbury listed three rules in his essay "Zen in the Art of Writing:" 1) Work. 2) Relaxation. 3) Don't think.
Elmore Leonard drew up a list of ten in a New York Times piece called "Easy on the Hooptedoodle." Among his rules were: 3) Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue. 4) Never use an adverb to modify the verb "said." At the end of the essay, Leonard mentioned a rule that encompassed all the others: "If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it." This is reminiscent of Simenon striking out or rewriting sections of his novels if they seemed too literary.
And finally, Natalie Goldberg's, from her book WRITING DOWN THE BONES: 1) Keep your hand moving. 2) Lose control. 3) Be specific. 4) Don't think. 5) Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, & grammar. 6) You are free to write the worst junk in America. 7) Go for the jugular.
You've noticed that many of these rules echo each other.
"You must write. You must finish what you write." = "Work." = "Keep your hand moving."
"Never look at a reference book while doing a first draft" is kin to "Don't worry about spelling, punctuation, & grammar" and, a bit farther removed, to "Don't think."
"Lose control," "You are free to write junk," and "Don't worry about spelling, etc.," are all suggested by that single word "Relaxation."
Quite a few of the rules you'll find in some of the books and articles are aimed at silencing the internal editor. The internal editor is the guy inside you who tells you that you can't write that because your parents would hate you if they ever read it; he's the guy who wants you to look up all those obscure facts in the reference books while you're writing your first draft so that you lose the heat and the flow of what you were trying to put on paper; he's the guy who tells you at the end of every sentence that you're wasting your time and that you never had anything to say anyway so there's no point in filling any more pages with your drivel. Once you've got a draft you can start worrying about cleaning it up, but the internal editor will try to make sure you never get a draft written in the first place.
Once the draft is written you can start fixing what's wrong, and you can safely assume that something will be wrong. (King's "Be self-critical;" elaborating on this, he commented that only God gets it right the first time.)
But in all those articles and books, there's only one absolute, I think. It comes at the end of a volume of poetry by Nicanor Parra, POEMS AND ANTIPOEMS. It's the last line of his poem "Young Poets:"
"You have to improve the blank page."
And if you haven't improved the blank page, see King's rule 12.
Ray Bradbury's work will be coming to the US Kindle store in April. Not all of it yet, but a good start. FAHRENHEIT 451 had already been issued, but the rest of his work remained unavailable in digital formats for some time. This past summer much of his work appeared as ebooks in the Amazon UK store, and now more Bradbury titles will be released in Amazon's US Kindle store. Among them are DANDELION WINE, SOMETHING WICKED THIS WAY COMES, NOW AND FOREVER, and GREEN SHADOWS, WHITE WHALE. No announcements yet for THE MARTIAN CHRONICLES, THE ILLUSTRATED MAN, THE OCTOBER COUNTRY, and several other major titles, but I don't imagine they'll be too long in coming. Have your ebook readers ready.
Elmore Leonard's "Easy on the Hooptedoodle:"
Stephen King's "Imagery and the Third Eye:"
King's "Everything You Need to Know About Writing Successfully in Ten Minutes:"
Robert Heinlein's Rules:
Ray Bradbury's ZEN IN THE ART OF WRITING:
Natalie Goldberg's WRITING DOWN THE BONES:
John D. MacDonald's essay "Creative Trust" appeared in the January 1974 issue of The Writer.
Friday, March 1, 2013
If you haven't bought an ebook reader, this alone is reason to take the plunge. For fifteen years, North Atlantic Books has been releasing a set of books that presented all the short stories, in chronological order, of the wondrous Theodore Sturgeon; the first appeared in 1994 and the last appeared in 2010. It's a beautiful set, containing Sturgeon's fiction with appreciations by other writers and end notes by series editor Paul Williams. In April, all 13 volumes will be released as ebooks.
Don't recognize Sturgeon's name? He was one of the finest writers of short fiction ever to grace the science fiction field; if you've not read stories like "The Man Who Lost the Sea," "Thunder and Roses," "A Saucer of Loneliness," or "Slow Sculpture" you're cheating yourself. If you're a fan of the original Star Trek series, you've probably seen the two episodes Sturgeon wrote for the show ("Shore Leave" during the first season, and the second season opener "Amok Time"). Sturgeon wrote novels too: the magnificent More Than Human is chief among them, but The Dreaming Jewels and the chilling Some of Your Blood are also not to be missed.
In his book The Four Seasons of Success, Budd Schulberg likened the body of work a writer produces to a mountain range -- not every peak is Everest; that's the case with Sturgeon as well. But there isn't a single volume in the North Atlantic set that doesn't contain at least one story that is all by itself worth the price of the book. Every volume contains classic short works from a writer who was fine enough to stand with the best in or out of the genre. And while you'll find these books categorized as science fiction, not every story in them is sf. You'll find fantasies, westerns, horror stories, and mainstream works as well.
It's tempting to describe plots, but that kind of information is easily found in reviews and on more web pages than anyone can count, and plot isn't the most important part of a story anyway; it's not negligible by any means, but fiction is about people, and there are few writers whose people are as achingly real as Sturgeon's. He could break your heart with a line; he could reduce you to tears (of joy or sorrow) and it seemed to be so effortless for him to do it. Don't believe it? Check out "The Graveyard Reader," "Bright Segment," "Hurricane Trio," "The Girl Who Knew What They Meant," or "A Saucer of Loneliness," among numerous others. Read the sequence in "The Widget, the Wadget, and Boff" in which a man looks at a gun in a pawn shop window, considers what he regards as its design flaws, and comes to a realization of his own wish for death. The writing is dazzling, but it's not dazzling because of flash and tricks -- it's because you're in the company of a writer who knows his craft and who knows and cares for the characters about whom he writes. Samuel Delany once described Sturgeon as the American short story writer; in his obituary of Sturgeon, Harlan Ellison said that Sturgeon could squeeze your heart until your whole life ached. He could indeed. And there are few writers who could do that nearly so well and so often as Sturgeon.
In the mountain range of any writer's work, not every peak is Everest, and that's true of Sturgeon's work as well. But taken as a whole, these thirteen volumes of Sturgeon's complete short stories offer one of the great mountain ranges in American fiction.
Find them at: Theodore Sturgeon-Complete Short Fiction
And a brief commercial: This Saturday, Sunday, & Monday, my collection A Souvenir from the War, and Other Stories will be available free in Amazon's Kindle store. It's a mixed bag, containing short fantasy, horror, and mainstream stories. Grab it while the price is right.