Start Write Here

pen-and-notebookI was asked recently to give my observations about writing–particularly writing fiction. I decided to adapt my notes into an article aimed at those who are contemplating writing as a hobby or vocation. Let me begin by stating that I’m no expert. I have no significant credentials other than a couple of novels and several essays. But I believe my experience is not atypical when it comes to getting started as a writer.

What I know about writing I have learned mostly by doing it–and then re-doing it–and then changing it–and then hitting the delete key and starting over. I suspect that’s how most people do it. That is not to say I haven’t read a lot about writing, talked to other writers, attended workshops and endured many humbling critiques along the way, but that’s where to start–you write something.

Writing is a lot like other disciplines. It’s part art and part science. The thing that attracts us to writing–and to reading for that matter–is the art part. Art is creation, expression, style and voice.

I think part of what it means to be created in God’s image is that we have been equipped to create–on a much smaller scale, of course. Writing is one way to create. A story is a kind of creation. Even in non-fiction the writer is conveying some kind of story to the reader, whether it’s the biography of someone’s life or a roadmap to success in business. In fiction we might create a whole world and then create people to walk around in it. We create events and conversations. There is something naturally gratifying about that creative process, that art.

On the other hand, good writing has an element of science. By science, I mean that technical aspect we might refer to as skill. Talent may be innate, but skill is learned. I play the guitar a little. I was actually accused once of being a musician, but they never could come up with enough evidence to convict me. Nevertheless, I can listen to Eric Clapton play a blues song and then learn to play all the same notes, but it never sounds the same when I play it. I figured out why. It isn’t the notes he plays, it’s the way he transitions between them, how he starts and finishes the notes with a bend or vibrato–emphasizing some and blending others. It isn’t something that is really noticeable unless it’s missing. It’s a skill; it’s science added to his art. And it makes all the difference in the end result. Both the art and the science have to be developed. Those with natural talent may need to work more on the skill than on the art. Some are more technically proficient and need to work more on the creation than on the structure. But every writer has to address both.

old-books-11281939505Msrn One of the most important things a person must do if he or she wants to be a writer is to first be a reader. Reading is the best way to develop both the art and science of writing. Read–and then read some more. Why is reading so important? On the art side, reading helps us learn to recognize good writing–or bad. We read to “HEAR” how other people write. We read to get a feel for language use, description and dialog. Writers have a voice. Some, like Hemingway, are known for short sentences and terse dialog. Some, like Faulkner, are known for very long, descriptive sentences. Some are known for expressing detail or witty dialog. Reading other voices helps us recognize and develop our own.

On the science or skill side, we read to learn the subject matter, for research, for writing techniques and do’s and don’ts. We read for structure, grammar, vocabulary, use of active or passive voice, even punctuation. Read the rest of this entry »

The Novelist and the Screenplay

screenplay It would be interesting to know how many novelists have tried their hand at writing a screenplay. Whether adapting a book or starting from scratch, a screenplay is a good way to strengthen writing. But wait, you say, novels are about words. Screenplays are about pictures. Actually, both are foremost about stories. They simply approach the story from very different perspectives. Learning the screenplay perspective can make you a better storyteller.

I am a fan of words. I like to knit them into warm phrases, string them together like elegant pearls (knit one, pearl two). The novelist has to write words that create a picture in the reader’s mind. The screenwriter has to transform the idea of specific pictures into words. That exercise, which reverses the process in effect, is a valuable tool for the novelist–especially for the writer who struggles with story and pace.

What is so different about a screenplay? It has action. It has dialog. It follows a story. All true, but where the novel has general guidelines for format, length and structure, the screenplay is a tightly structured, largely inflexible, standardized, length-restricted production tool. All that rigid structure forces the writer to focus on the visual story. Even the dialog has to be handled differently–more attention to how it sounds than how it reads.

Screenplays are an exercise in precision and concision. Each page of a screenplay is estimated to represent one minute of screen time. The target length for a screenplay is around 100 to 110 pages, roughly an hour and forty or fifty minutes. A 350 page novel has to be transformed into a document one-third its length and perhaps one half the number of words. “A travesty!” says the novelist. “A revelation,” say I. Remember, we are not replacing the book, we are re-imagining the story, thinking in sounds and pictures, leaving parts of the story to the comprehension of the viewer rather than the exposition of the writer. Read the rest of this entry »

All Writers Should Be Amateurs

The word amateur carries several meanings–some positive, some negative. To some an amateur is an unskilled participant. To others amateur connotes an unpaid participant. An amateur may be a hobbyist. The term could reflect an avocation as opposed to a vocation. Is amateur the opposite of professional? Perhaps it is in some uses, but not in this case.

The word amateur comes from the French, ultimately from Latin and means “lover of.” In its most basic sense, it captures the motivation for an endeavor. I suppose most writers at least begin as amateurs. It is difficult to imagine someone’s sacrificing his time, energy, fingertips or pencil lead for something he does not care about. The ability to endure the frustrations and (in many cases) the rejection a writer experiences goes beyond the professional pursuit. It takes the spirit of the amateur.

I heard an interview of a successful professional author once. He confessed that he hated to write. I suppose the monetary benefits of the successful, published author can motivate that person to continue to write, but I suspect it wasn’t the writing he hated so much as the requirement to write, to fulfill publisher commitments. Becoming a professional author doesn’t mean giving up true amateur status–a lover of writing.   

 There are things about writing that I could say I hate. I hate the effort I have to make to get started, and I hate the effort I have to make to stop. As for the actual writing part–I am all amateur. The writing is its own reward. I think the most successful, the most published, the most skilled writers have reached that level  because of one thing–they are all a bunch of amateurs. God bless ’em.

Writers Are First Readers


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When someone tells me he wants to be a writer, the first thing I say is that he has to be a reader first. Well, okay I’m not that quick, but it is the first thing I should tell him at any rate. I don’t know if it is at all possible to be an effective writer without first doing a lot of reading. I don’t mean just reading for fun, although that is the primary thing. If reading isn’t fun for someone, why in the world would that someone ever want to write? It would be like someone who hates food wanting to be a chef. Reading provides not only the motivation to write but a lot of the education to do so.

Let’s take a fiction writer for instance. Reading a lot of good fiction helps the writer understand what makes good fiction–just as reading bad fiction shows what to avoid. Writers ultimately write what they would like to read. Most people like to read good fiction. Therefore, if they have some skill, they can glean from others what they themselves enjoy and re-create it for their readers. Reading a variety of authors and genres provides the ability to develop an individual voice. I dare say if all I ever read was Faulkner, I might lean toward the tendency to write in a similar manner by stretching and stretching my sentences until they reach the equivalent length of a common paragraph under the pen of other authors who broaden their perspective by engaging a larger pool of literary resources. Reading not only helps us hear other writers’ voices, it enhances our vocabulary–at least for those who have the perspicacity to recognize that benefit (somebody is going to learn a word today), and it exercises our imagination. These are critical to good writing.

Reading is essential for other reasons as well. The discipline needed to sit for long periods of time turning the pages of a book is precisely the discipline required to write one. If a person can not be bothered to invest hours reading, how will they ever invest even more time in writing. The time it takes to read a paragraph is likely a fraction of the time it took the writer to create it. Read the rest of this entry »