For those of you attending the San Francisco Writers Conference this weekend, Thursday-Sunday (Feb 12-15), I look forward to seeing you there! For those of you not attending, I hope you’ll consider coming in 2016. It’s a great experience.
But I don’t want to talk about the conference; my last few posts have droned on and on about the SFWC 2015. The main point I’ve been trying to make is: Attend writers’ conferences. Duh, right? But you’d be surprised how many writers don’t go to these. Usually the excuse is money or time. Save up, use a credit card, apply for the scholarships, or volunteer. Just go.
Anyway, what I do want to talk about on this post is the craft of writing. Usually I talk on these posts, in general, about literary agents, conferences, submitting work, editing, etc. But today I want to talk briefly about the craft of our art form called writing.
Now, there is this very real cultural divide in the writing industry between “literary” writing and “commercial” writing. As literary agent and author Donald Maass points to, the key to success with readers is to walk that fence perfectly. Meaning the point is to writing with great depth and meaning in mind, while creating a solid plot that includes tension and conflict and all the other good things a novel should possess.
David Corbett, award-winning Bay Area author and writing conference speaker (The Mercy of the Night, April 2015) always talks about one of the key ingredients of a novel plot being “secrets.” In his book, The Art of Character, Corbett reflects that secrets are key in a novel, creating mystery and inherent tension and conflict. This tension pushes the story forward. Why would two characters agree on something when they could just as easily argue? As readers, we identify more and empathize more with fighting. And aren’t we by nature secretive? Think about your family? How many secrets lay therein?
Going back to Donald Maass’s point, the idea therefore is to straddle the line between deep meaning and metaphor and a killer plot. And that is, indeed, a hard line to tow. If you focus too much on plot (Stephen King, Lee Child, Robert Dugoni, John Grisham) you might be branded as a “hack” or overly commercial and concerned only with making money. On the flip side, if you write like Sylvia Plath or Michael Chabon or Junot Diaz, you might be heralded as a solely “literary” writer.
Maass suggests breaking out of that tired, restricted mold and writing what he calls “high impact” fiction. By “high impact” he means aiming for the middle ground between the two. In doing so, he argues, you are essentially appealing to both sides, and that, he claims, makes a literary agent in New York City (or wherever) tingle between their groin. Try to write the most “high impact” book that you can by effectively bridging the gap between literary and commercial writing. In essence, create three-dimensional, intriguing characters that get put in high risk (emotional, psychological, literal) dangerous situations, and have to figure their way out somehow. On the other side of the same coin, give those characters meaning and breadth and depth that creates not only an emotional response in the reader but forces the reader to think deeply about life, freedom, love, art, society, death, etc.
And there’s also the literal crafting of the sentences in a novel or creative nonfiction book. Commercial authors are always saying you should write very short, clipped, Hemingway-like sentences, in order to succeed in the industry. Now, why do they say that? They say that because so often inexperienced writers will read too many classic American books from the 20th century and think: I will write these lengthy, overdone, over-the-top sentences that are a paragraph long and have great weight and depth and “meaning.” The truth is, though, that these sentences are windy and blown-out. The meaning gets lost in trying to understand the freaking thing.
Don’t do the above. Don’t go the windy, overblown route. However, don’t, either—if you’re trying to write successful, high impact prose—write super short, clipped prose sentences. Make a deal to stay in the middle. Play with rhythm and cadence. Speak your prose out loud. Try making two or three sentences short and clipped and then making the third or fourth sentence longer and more well-rounded. Make that last sentence feel like it’s completing the previous two or three. Make sense? Here’s an example.
“John was grumpy. He hated it when Sue acted this way. He felt unhappy. And then again, when he truly thought deeply about his predicament, the reality was that he felt scared and lonely, abjectly sitting around on his chair like he was a child, effectively staring at the wall that had become his life.”
Ok, not the greatest writing or sentence in terms of “meaning,” and it’s more telling than showing, right? But you can feel the cadence here, the rhythm; it works. In a writing/craft sense, this paragraph flows quite nicely. You don’t have to mechanically follow this suggestion literally every paragraph in your book, but it is a general rule of thumb. Hopefully, if you write often enough and take yourself seriously as a writer, you have some kind of functional intuitive writing vision and awareness going on as well. Follow that feeling. It usually won’t lead you too far astray.
And lastly I’ll say this: Don’t be afraid to pump out a shitty first draft. Seriously. The biggest hindrance for new writers is the truth that they won’t allow themselves the chance to fall down on a first draft. Let yourself write the damn thing; stop self critiquing and self editing and going back in and changing, altering, amending. Just write it and have fun. Then put it aside for 6-8 weeks, focus on other things, and come back to it with fresh, objective eyes. That’s when the rewriting and editing comes in. For you, the writer, not for me, the book editor. You won’t be ready for me, and shouldn’t use my editing services, until you’ve gone through several drafts and have had objective, serious, and truthful readers read it and give their honest opinion.