Everybody writes. I started studying writing in the high school writer’s craft course. I don’t remember many craft lessons from that class but I do remember writing a lot of stories, which is what was important – to get writing. Since 2010 but intensifying in 2015 and 2016, I have spent a lot of time reading about writing, taking courses about writing, and trying to apply the lessons I’ve learned. Here’s some of what I’ve read and thought.
I started around 2010 because in that year I tried to submit my writing to a bunch of magazines that I had never submitted to before. I thought my writing was pretty good. I’d been in Znet and Z Magazine with the best of them, so why not try some other publications? I got a raft of decisive rejections and very little feedback. What feedback I did get, suggested that they didn’t like my style. Style, and voice, are elusive terms. I started on a quest to figure out first what they meant, and then, whether we would have to agree to disagree (which I have mainly concluded) or whether I could improve my style (which maybe I have done).
I had already read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, which is mainly about writing concise and clear prose. Followed that with Zinsser’s On Writing Well, which didn’t stick with me very much but which I remember liking. I had also read Orwell’s Politics and the English Language, very important stuff about avoiding bureaucratic, deliberately muddled language and cliched images.
Recently picked up Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style, which had some interesting stuff in it – what I took from it mainly was his prescription to use classical style, in which you describe exactly what you mean using visual metaphors and talking across to your reader (as opposed to talking down to your reader). Very recently I read Roy Peter Clark’s Writing Tools, in which he talks about a “ladder of abstraction”, of using higher and lower levels of abstraction, and the placement of nouns and verbs in the sentence (at the beginning and at the end). Along the same lines, I was recommended Sol Stein On Writing, and Theodore A. Rees’s Getting the Words Right – 39 ways to improve your writing.
After all that, I still didn’t have a completely solid idea of style. Until this past summer, when I took a class on creative nonfiction for academics. One day was devoted to reading your writing out loud and listening for how the writing sounds. The patterns of consonants and vowels, the beats, basically thinking of writing as a piece of music. And then the images the writing brings up – what kinds of metaphors and similes the writer uses. That, I concluded, is style. And once I thought about it that way, I realized that Ursula K. LeGuin’s great little book, Steering the Craft, spends a lot of time on the way sentences sound.
Voice remains a bit elusive to me. I guess the idea is that someone should be able to tell it’s you writing just from reading a few sentences. There are many writers that I can identify instantly – because of their choices of style (see above). So, my definition of voice is the elements of your style that are unique to your writing. If you work on style, you’re working on voice. So, I wouldn’t worry too much about voice as distinct from style.
Beyond the fact that they didn’t like my style, I was also getting criticisms that I needed to improve my story telling. Again, that was elusive to me, because I heard things like, stories have a beginning, middle, and an end. Hardly enough guidance to actually improve one’s story telling.
But Chris Roerden’s Don’t Murder Your Mystery! Was a life changer for me – Roerden shows twenty-plus rookie mistakes that get groans from editors everywhere. It turned out that in the early 2000s I was racking up nearly double digits in the rookie mistakes category. After editing for Roerden’s mistakes, I had much cleaner writing.
Trying to figure this out, I had a story critiqued by a professional writer. She relied on Joseph Campbell’s Hero With a Thousand Faces and the book that adapts it for writers, The Writer’s Journey, to criticize my story. The idea was that a story has a protagonist that undergoes an internal change as they take action out in the world to attain their goal through obstacles. A mythic structure that has come down through the ages. These ideas on storytelling came up again and again. I recently read a book called Story Genius that makes this point, and another called Write a Novel Using the Snowflake Method.
A great book on non-fiction story telling was Jack Hart’s Storycraft. He takes you through stories that he worked on with writers at the Oregonian newspaper, many of which, he mentions casually, won the Pulitzer. There are lots of style guides that tell you to use active instead of passive verbs, but it took Jack Hart to tell me to use not just active but transitive verbs – in which someone does something to someone or something else. Beyond that, listening to This American Life, and the Serial podcast, have been my best examples of nonfiction storytelling in action.
Screenwriters have a lot of good stuff to say about storytelling. The best book I found was Robert McKee’s Story, which was very recently recommended to me. In that vein, there’s John Truby’s Anatomy of Story, and a very nice and fun book called Save the Cat! By Blake Snyder. I also liked Film Crit Hulk’s Screenwriting 101, which I picked up because I really liked his reviews of George RR Martin’s books.
Getting the work done
A colleague recommended Paul Silvia’s book How to Write a Lot, which is mainly about having a writing schedule. Stephen King’s book, On Writing, had the same message. Same with books like Odd Type Writers or Daily Rituals – all these people wrote around the same time every day, whether late at night or early in the morning. Write every day, at the same time every day, and you’ll produce enough words that you can have something to work with. Don’t have a schedule? Then you won’t be able to get your writing done. Schedule your time, and do your writing.
And now the worst part: promises of how to get published!
Aaaand then there’s my least favourite topic. Publishing. To me, publishing is more or less synonymous with rejection. And also, with getting marketed to. Everybody writes. And everybody who writes thinks thinks getting published means becoming JK Rowling. But publishing is a superstar system. You are as likely to win the lottery as to become a superstar writer.
And like the lottery, your role as a consumer or buyer of tickets is very important. A lot of marketing goes towards prospective writers: how-to books, MFAs, courses, seminars, workshops – all on how to get published. A lot of these experiences can be valuable. I’ve taken two online courses at the University of Iowa’s free massive open online courses (MOOC), and a series of coursera courses from Wesleyan university on creative writing, and gotten a lot out of them – including meeting other writers and forming critique groups. But it’s also easy to lose perspective and get sucked into this market, in which you, as a would-be-writer, are being lured along as a consumer by the promise of becoming a published writer – when what writing is really about is a connection between a writer and a reader. That is an ongoing struggle for me – how much am I learning, how much am I succumbing to being marketed to, how much am I getting shaken by constant rejection into trying to mold myself into something or someone I am not.
On writing queries, I read Lane Shefter Bishop’s Sell Your Story in a Single Sentence and The Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters. I bought the Guide to Literary Agents for 2016. I used Thinking Like Your Editor and The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published (many of these recommendations I got from Liza Dawson’s website resources section – http://www.lizadawsonassociates.com/resources/).
My own notes
My own observations from writing mainly political analysis for left online publications aren’t profound. My 2010 run of rejections were by publications I don’t read very much. The publications that I like a lot and read every day are also the ones that I found most open to publishing my work. What is this strange mystery? Could it be that I write like the material I spend most of my time reading? As I’ve branched out in my reading a bit, spending more time enjoying long-form narrative non-fiction and reading novels as fanatically as ever, I’ve had ideas for writing in these genres and pursued them. It takes a long time to learn a new way of writing (or working on anything), it has taken me a long time, and I am still learning. I like to think the real reason I want to be published in these new areas is because I want to contribute to the communities whose work I have enjoyed as a reader. Keeping that as far forward in mind as possible, I think will help anyone weather the inevitable rejections that are part of writing.