Writing for Fun and Profit

Ok, let’s admit it. Some of you have novels and other length fiction in the closet.

I hope it will be helpful to offer some advice here, and to answer questions that you may have.

Here’s a set of The Rules

1. “Follow no rule off a cliff”—CJ Cherryh, I forget when. When advice conflicts with your concept of your story, don’t try to go there. Seek other advice.

2. “Editors excuse and expect typos, not bad grammar.” Words are your equipment. Respect them. Use them precisely. And write a lot. Your natural mode of expression is talking. You have to make it so words flow out of your fingers accurately spelled, accurately typed, and making exactly the sense you want. This skill  comes with practice. Months and years of practice. You have time to make up for: get cracking, no matter what  you write.

The corollary to this is: “Never trust Grammatik or a computer spell checker.”

3. “Don’t plan: do. The plan will occur to you as you go.” Some writers do plan everything. They must not be as often distracted as I am. Get it on paper, in any form you can.

4. “Study word derivations.” Learn them in families, as, for instance, the Latin reg-rect (Rule, govern, regulate) gives us: regent, regnant, regulation, regular, cor-RECT, insurrection, rectangular, regent, Rex, incorrigible, (why did that e change to i? accented double consonant in front of it.) Etc. When you need a word, think of one of your core groups and let that core instruct you.

In the huge Webster’s International, there are some fine-print pages at the front that nobody ever reads. Read them. They contain all the rules for English grammar and spelling ever concocted, in less than 25 pages. Mastery of that section is all that’s between you and Gandalf-like wisdom, at least where it regards the English language.

5. “Plan to publish or don’t. Both are honorable ways to write.” Nuff said. Write for yourself and your friends, or do it for pub. And if  you do it for pub, I’d recommend going for paper books, not e-pub. If you can do it, it will give you a springboard you can’t get online.

6. “Don’t drive or handle operate heavy equipment while working out a scene in your head.” Your vision may switch without warning to a spaceport dock or a mediaeval castle. This is no time to be navigating downtown or running a lathe.

7. “Never imagine that you are a better writer while on substances.” You aren’t. Don’t even write on aspirin if you can avoid it. You need as keen a mind as you can muster.

8. “Don’t ask your Aunt Hattie to critique. She loves you too much.” Find some reader who’ll ask the hard questions, and the proper questions for the kind of story you write.

9. “Do not mix up advice about short stories with advice about novels.” I’ve seen more confused young writers who took a short course from some writer and never thought to ask what that writer writes. The mediums are vastly different.

10. “Write. Write often. Write daily. If you can’t do anything else that day, keep a journal of your thoughts and observations and take on life in general, just to keep your fingers in practice.” Thinking about writing is not practice. Writing is practice. You wouldn’t expect to look at a piano and think about the piano and listen to people play the piano and then hope to go to Carnegie Hall rarely having touched a keyboard yourself. Same problem.

11. “Don’t be too critical.” Ted Sturgeon said “98 percent of everything is crap.” Yep. Write garbage. Write, write, write. Then learn to edit brilliantly.

12. “If your book has one brilliant scene, and you’re now stalled, that scene is your problem, especially if it’s the best thing you ever wrote.” Get it out of there, however lovingly crafted. Back up, and get going.

13. “You can say anything if you can punctuate it correctly.”  —“Good No Fear to kill the King.—rough literal translation of a famous Latin sentence. It can read:  “Not good situation. Fear to Kill the King.” Or. “Situation ok. No fear. OK to kill the king.” Where you put the period matters.  In this instance, the bearer could assess the situation, add one dot on the paper—or not—and poor king Edward was toast. Pay meticulous attention to dots, whether 3, or 4, or over commas… … …. ; : etc.

14. “If you’ve mailed out a book to a publisher, get busy on another one.” Or you’ll go nuts. An answer can take months.

15. “Rejection means I’m bad.” Nope. It can mean the book needs work: assume that, and you’ll send out a better book. But it can also mean the publisher just bought a book very like yours and wants to balance the list. It can also mean everybody on the editorial committee liked it but the company president, and that did it. It can also mean the new-hire first reader was scared to bring a really innovative manuscript to the scary 3rd editor, and just sent it back as the easier course. Or it can mean that somebody backed into the editor’s car this morning and the editor is not in the mood for humor. Reasons vary. Don’t second guess or blame your skills. Just send out the best book you can.

159 Comments

  1. CJ

    Now you can ask questions. Or make observations.

  2. HRHSpence

    My problem is that I always get stuck/bored/distracted and leave 3/4 of a book behind while I go do something else more interesting.

    • CJ

      I’d surmise that’s called—“I have no idea how or why this ends.” Or: “I actually have no idea how to write an ending.” If you knew, you’d be a lot more energized to get it done, and it would shove daily life out of the way just as the front end did. It can also be called, ‘I know how to write this ending but I’m not liking this ending.”

      Let’s talk about endings.
      1. endings are implicit in the beginning. In your opening scenes, you pose a problem that’s got a deadline: deadline governs pacing and tension. And when that problem is solved and certain changes have assured it is good and solved, you have your ending.
      a. this isn’t as easy as all that: sometimes the change needed is in the soul or understanding of the main character. Sometimes the solution lies not in axing the problem, but in changing the understanding of the person facing the problem.

      2. Posing the problem. A wandering beginning often means there was no problem and no setup for the ending.
      a. first, you have to discriminate between actual book pages and author note-taking, which may look like a scene, but is actually the writer writing only for the writer…getting to know the character, exploring a character’s reactions, etc,—wandering all over the map with no problem posed. Usually that scene should be folded lovingly into a folder and never opened again.

      3. resolving the conflict/problem. Ever seen The Pink Panther? Remember the scene around the large fountain in the traffic pizza, as cars containing various of the players loop the fountain with increasing frequency and finally all cars collide? That’s exactly how a conflict resolution works in a book. ALL the sigificant players (those in whom the reader has an emotional investment) need to be handled/aimed at the fountain each for their own reasons, and allowed to impact each other at the solution. Timing, timing, and motivation.

      4. if you have an ending but you don’t like it, you have a setup problem back at the start. Usually this can be fixed in a few days, unless it requires the injection of a catalytic character—somebody to force a change the character is otherwise systemically and psychologically unwilling to make. That fix takes a thorough rewrite, but it’s very educational.

  3. HRHSpence

    That is very good advice, especially from someone whose writing I admire. But I think a large part of it is that I have very little uninterrupted time that I can write in. By the time I get to actually writing, I am interrupted again. So when I have something written so much interruption has occurred that I am no longer interested in the storyline. I actually did finish a novella once.

  4. ToddRM

    Backtracking is bad I know, but you also want to get some background in for your characters or setting, what’s the best way to tackle this?

    • CJ

      Ah, here it is! I wanted to amplify my previous comment, because the question you ask is a deep one: how DO you make the reader sit still through quiet passages. The trick—and there are several of them—is to make your reader want the information. Create a curiosity, much as if you were staging a play. You have objects about. You have impressions. Take a twist or two on them, and make sure the reader notices, and then figure to use them at a point when the reader has absorbed all the plot-action they’re going to be able to swallow at a dose (as a reader, you know when you’ve reached action-overload). At that point you can have what I call a ‘campfire scene’. You’ve slain dragons all day and now you get to rest and contemplate what it all means. and by then the reader, too, has seen enough dragons and wants to know more about this character. If you pile on all the description before the reader wants it, he’ll just page-flip to get past that and into something he wants to know. YOU have to get into control of when the reader wants what. You set it up, and then you deliver it.
      And that’s complicated. If I haven’t been clear, ask me to clarify a point. All of this is like describing an elephant to someone who’s just landed from Mars. Once you’ve seen it, it’s clear, but otherwise you have to rely on me saying in words what there aren’t good words for.

  5. CJ

    The best way is to start with a bang, or at least something intriguing. It’s like a good show at the theater: you want the curtain to pull back on something intriguing, mood-setting, and puzzle-posing. You want that audience hooked, so when you present information, they’re ACHING to have it. If you present it too soon, before they’ve wondered, they won’t be listening. It’s all in the timing.
    Old Homer got it right. His sentence #1 start on the Iliad, with a stroke of the minor-key lyre, and a ringing: “An angry man—there’s my story.”
    Now, Homer sometimes nodded off: so do modern readers, when he goes on for pages and pages about how many troops came from what province…but the deal is, in ancient Greece, during a recitation of Homer, people stood up and cheered for their own home towns and really waited with anticipation for that passage. The trick is—they may need to know it, and it may be great stuff later, but early, MAKE them want to know. First create a desire. Tease. Then tell. Modern audiences want to have their attention grabbed early, and held on to, and they’re trained to sympathize with the first guy they hear about, if he presents admirable traits: if he turns them off, you’ve lost them. So they’ll give you a free ride for about 2 pages, but really, really try not to test that. Create a mood of foreboding, or passion, or anger, or danger.

    Scottish highlands: the curtain goes up. Lighting is dim, the clouds are ragged, there’s a cairn standing against the sky, and broken weapons. And then a character comes around that piece of scenery…the audience WANTS to know who he is, WANTS to know what happened here, and what’s about to happen. It’s creepy, and they’re engaged, feeling personally in danger, because by the rules of literature that first guy is THEM, and his future looks chancy.

    Audiences will give you all kinds of credence for just that little space. Satisfy them, and they settle down as people do when they feel an expert hand at the wheel of this little tour…they’ll trust you, and you can take them places they might not ordinarily be willing enough or patient enough to go, all if you create the mood, give them a thrill or a puzzle, then satisfy…just enough to let them know you can.

  6. Raesean

    Thank you for these specific pointers. I am happily but slowly taking my heroine and hero through encounters in late mediaeval Scotland (I do historical Scottish culture by academic persuasion) but with a full time day job, teaching at night and plenty of hobbies, I mostly wait until I am between semesters to work on the next section of the adventure that develops/tests my characters.

    I started the novel mostly because I wanted to figure out how to do some of the mechanics of writing: specifically literal movement of characters and scene changes and figured trying to write them would teach me best. When do you say ” and then she got up, moved across the room and opened the door, only to find….” versus jumping your narrative from “and what was that small, dark shadow in the corner?” directly to “the aged oak plank door let out a dull squawk as she pried it open”?

    Indeed, the act of writing my imaginings of Scotland (with lots of fun research to bolster it) has helped me realize that the words flow pretty easily and one doesn’t need to document every move and new day to make a flowing narrative. Writing well grounded (even the magic) fiction is also the best way I have yet discovered to transport myself to a time and place that fascinate me. Whether it is good enough to a) capture the interest of and b) transport a reader is something else.

    All this makes me want to get back to the novel and finish off the section I currently have hanging. But I just submitted grades for the past semester’s courses last night and the summer semester with two courses to prep for starts in a week. Alas for Scotland!

  7. gramazon3

    Thank you, this is great. I’ve been a closet writer for years, until I joined a writer’s group almost 2 years ago. They do some pretty brutal critiques and edits, which is a catalyst for learning. Also; developing a thick skin.

    I’m loving the short story format for the instant gratification factor.

    • CJ

      Certainly there is that about short stories. I don’t do many.

      But beware of getting hammered too often by a critique group. Let me suggest this for your whole group. Make them tell you what’s RIGHT about the piece, and what was well-done. That’s often invisible to the writer, and is one of the hardest things to figure out. Most of us know when we’re not perfect—but being told where you’re good is very, very important, just informationally, so you can learn to tell the difference.

  8. Ron Sullivan

    Your natural mode of expression is talking.

    !

    Might I suggest reading one’s work out loud as part of the editing process?

    Sunfall is still my favorite of CJC’s books, mostly for the music. Damn, that’s deft.

    • philospher77

      Interesting comment. From those people out on rasfw who do not like Cherryh (gasp!), the largest complaint seems to be that they don’t find the prose readable, and claim that it is awful to try and read out loud. (The other big complaint among the blasphemers seems to be that they don’t like “weak whiny angsty protagonists”, if anyone cares.) I don’t understand that about the prose, but I do often hear a certain Voice when I am reading Cherryh books, and can vaguely comprehend that if I didn’t have that Voice, the story might not sound as good. On the other hand, I can’t do that Voice when I read out loud, so I’m not sure whether that would help or hurt in this situation. (The Voice is that of a dark, voice-over kind of voice, the one you hear at the start of some movies saying something like “Listen well to this tale I am about to tell you, full of great heroes and wondrous deeds in a time when the world was young…”)

    • CJ

      We take long drives and the one of us two with a new piece to read, reads aloud and takes notes from the comments of the one driving. Riding in a car while reading, or driving, seems to occupy enough of the brain to keep the editorial brain entirely out of play. That way you get to read your own work as a reader.

  9. purplejulian

    awful blasphemy!
    the main attraction is the believable characters who are terrified just as I would be by terrifying situations and mostly try to think their way out of them. and prose you have to get your teeth into. CJC makes your brain work! I read the books over and over and always get something out of them. and I would love to find readings of them.
    I gave up trying to write books (historical novels) at the end of my teens in favour of the visual arts – would that I had read your rules when young, JC – but I found it easier to finish a piece of art than get past the first two chapters of a novel. anyone who writes has my undying respect just for the amount of concentration they summon up.
    and yes daily practice, I agree, now I keep a blog I find producing some words slightly easier than squeezing toothpaste out of an empty tube. most skills need daily practice, and self discipline, ouch!
    ““Don’t drive or handle operate heavy equipment while working out a scene in your head.” Your vision may switch without warning to a spaceport dock or a mediaeval castle. This is no time to be navigating downtown or running a lathe.” I love this one. 😀

  10. ranger

    11. “Don’t be too critical.” Ted Sturgeon said “98 percent of everything is crap.” Yep. Write garbage. Write, write, write. Then learn to edit brilliantly.

    I was just talking to a coworker (who also writes) about this very thing. I don’t know why, but as I get older I seem to expect that what I write has to be nearly perfect from the start, where in junior high I wrote a 200 or so page story during classes and breaks without caring. Now I end up staring at a blank page and unable to start. It was just two days ago I decided to give myself permission to write a crappy first draft, just to get the story down. I can pretty it up later, but if I don’t get it written I have nothing to work with at all. After all, it IS called a “rough draft”!

    • CJ

      Exactly. Writing is writing. It’s a creative process and can be messy.

      Editing is editing. It’s the process of fixing mistakes and improving things.

      The two should never be confused. I have a very different brain when I’m writing than when I’m editing.

      We’re all born writers, in that sense: we’re born creative. And then the school system gets into the act and starts emphasizing correctness OVER creativity. Now, it saves you a lot of time if you’re correct from the get-go on simple things, and I never say write unintelligibly, because if you’re making a pot, it really has to look and function like a pot, not a tire iron. BUT—once you have run out of things to do with it, then switch to the editing-mind, and take after it and paint it and glaze it and make it hold water, in all senses.

      It’s my opinion that art and music should be requireds all the way from grade school up through college. When you lose the urge to push and pull and work with clay, something switches off in your brain. Once they make you believe you’re too old for such ‘childish’ things as hindbrain creativity, you’re headed for a permanent editing-mind–

      You can recover it. But it takes a realization and an attitude-shift.

      • katoji

        Another interesting thing of note on this particular topic, is the idea that in art there are no right answers–only wrong ones. As a good friend reminded me just today, its often difficult to get a group of people to agree on what’s good–but almost every one can agree on what’s bad. There’s where education really falls down, as you’ve pointed out so well. Train yourself in the pursuit of the perfect, the always correct, and you’ll live in terror of the possibility of being wrong–and thus, unable to risk.

    • phiness

      Wow, this really struck a chord with me. Somewhere in high school I became an ‘editor’ and could barely write a sentence. Perfectionism or OCD surely didn’t help. It was precisely for this reason I went to a science college to get my bachelor’s – I knew I could never write a 200 page anything in under a year. But I am very good at finding mistakes and noticing details – my husband claims I have ‘microvision’. It’s handy for cleaning and finding things, but it’s no fun being the only one who can thoroughly clean the dishes, etc. I don’t think there’s any hope for me as a writer, but if you used to write freely I’m sure you’ll get it back, ranger. Good luck!

      Oh btw, I used to think maybe I should become an actual editor but after reading so many books with myriad mistakes I’m of the opinion that editors don’t actually do much editing. This seems to be more true in the sci-fi/fantasy genres but I’m not sure. I get the sense Carolyn has much to say, or much not to say, about this so I hope I’m not speaking out of turn. (zipping mouth closed now)

      • CJ

        Actually if you were an sf editor you would be reading actual manuscripts at home if you got time—while spending your office time putting out fires, attending sales meetings, art department meetings, meetings with sales reps, financial meetings, meetings with the legal department, etc, etc, ,etc. Once the oil companies took over the publishing companies, they were sure the road to financial success lay in having more meetings—but in firing all the assistants to the editors, because little departments don’t get help.

  11. Apf

    Didn’t Ted Sturgeon say “90” rather than “98”?

    • CJ

      Heh. Ted was an optimist. I’ll believe you.

  12. philbrown

    Terrific piece. I’m currently writing a mystery I started without a formal outline and I have to go back to the start because I wrote myself into a big hole. But that will just be the first revision of the first half of the book.
    Richard Rhodes-author of The Making Of The Atomic Bomb, a really, really good book about the first bomb that reads like a cheap thriller-has a mantra, “A page a day is a book a year.” Seems right if I could do it. Also Graham Greene sat down every morning and wrote 300 words longhand and stopped for the day. Worked for him
    Phil Brown

  13. GreenWyvern

    Thanks for this, CJ!

    Some of the best and most interesting advice about writing I’ve ever seen is in Rudyard Kipling’s autobiography Something of Myself.

    Now, you may say what you like about Kipling, (and I personally think that, though he had his faults, he has often been unjustly judged), but the man could WRITE. No doubt about that.

    And if you want some good Fantasy, try Puck of Pook’s Hill and it’s sequel Rewards and Fairies. They are not well known today, but very much worth reading.

    Kipling called them ‘fairy tales for adults’, but this was in the days long before Tolkien, and nobody understood them.

    They are far too difficult and dark (some of them) for children, and they seemed too much like children’s stories to be considered suitable reading for adults at the time they were published, so they fell between two stools, and have largely been forgotten.

    They are still too difficult for many adults, with their numerous casual references to obscure points of English history. He doesn’t talk down to anyone, and if you don’t know what he means, then it’s up to you to look it up, or find out for yourself. (Arrogant? Maybe… He was an artist.)

    But read the stories each in their proper order, building up to the profound, powerful and disturbing final story, “The Tree of Justice”. Be sure to read the poems that go along with each story, because they are *part* of the stories, and shed a different light on them. They are well worth any effort that you may have to put in.

    It’s some of the best fantasy writing I’ve ever seen. It’s certainly *not* your normal throw-away, all-much-the-same, swords-and-sorcery stuff.

    Links:

    Kipling on the craft of writing
    “… This leads me to the Higher Editing. Take of well-ground Indian Ink as much as suffices and a camel-hair brush proportionate to the inter-spaces of your lines. In an auspicious hour, read your final draft and consider faithfully every paragraph, sentence and word, blacking out where requisite. Let it lie by to drain as long as possible. At the end of that time, re-read and you should find that it will bear a second shortening. …”
    http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kipling/rudyard/something/chapter8.html

    Puck of Pook’s Hill
    http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/k/kipling/rudyard/puck/index.html

    • CJ

      I grew up with Kipling’s poetry. Love it.

      I am aware of charges of racism and such in Kipling and say, mildly as I can, sheer poppycock. The man who wrote Gunga Din taught generations of thinking school kids to look past skin color and social status. And this is the poem that showed me what viewpoint means:

      Hadramauti

      Who knows the heart of the Christian? How does he reason?
      What are his measures and balances? Which is his season
      For laughter, forbearance or bloodshed, and what devils move him
      When he arises to smite us? I do not love him.
      He invites the derision of strangers—he enters all places.
      Booted, bareheaded he enters. With shouts and embraces
      He asks of us news of the household whom we reckon nameless.
      Certainly Allah created him forty-fold shameless!

      So it is not in the Desert. One came to me weeping—
      The Avenger of Blood on his track—I took him in keeping.
      Demanding not whom he had slain, I refreshed him, I fed him
      As he were even a brother. But Eblis had bred him.

      He was the son of an ape, ill at ease in his clothing.
      He talked with his head, hands and feet. I endured him with loathing.
      Whatever his spirit conceived his countenance showed it
      As a frog shows in a mud-puddle. Yet I abode it!

      I fingered my beard and was dumb, in silence confronting him.
      His soul was too shallow for silence, e’en with Death hunting him.
      I said: “‘Tis his weariness speaks,” but, when he had rested,
      He chirped in my face like some sparrow, and, presently, jested!

      Wherefore slew I that stranger? He brought me dishonour.
      I saddled my mare, Bijli, I set him upon her.
      I gave him rice and goat’s flesh. He bared me to laughter.
      When he was gone from my tent, swift I followed after,
      Taking my sword in my hand. The hot wine had filled him.
      Under the stars he mocked me—therefore I killed him!

      Rudyard Kipling

  14. Raesean

    Question: Do you like Kipling?
    Answer: I don’t know. I never Kipled.

    Sorry, couldn’t resist that! I especially love Kipling’s poems as songs.

    • CJ

      Ah, but I’ve Kippled. Song of the Red War Boat is one my favorites. I wish I could play it well.

  15. purplejulian

    one of my favourite books is Kim. I brought myself up on Kipling. at 16 rendered speechless by my parents’ refusal to let me watch his Indian short stories adapted for tv (far too adult and I went to bed at 9pm, anyway!). the Maltese Cat was one of my daughter’s favourite bed time stories.

  16. CJ

    All right: today’s topic: Filing Off the Serial Numbers or…Adventures on the Left-hand Path

    All of us have been inspired by something. Mine was Flash Gordon. The original series. I was 10, and that was the fare on our telly. My reaction was NOT to write an homage, a pastiche, or a pale copy.

    My teacher had lectured us severely about plagiarism. I could barely spell it, but I knew it meant the federal plagiarism police would instantly know if you copied your homework and knock on your door in the middle of the night and your parents would never know where you’d gone. Hey, I was 10. And after that lecture, you can bet I didn’t tear off mattress or pillow tags, either.

    So I ached to write a Flash Gordon story, but I feared the plagiarism police extremely.

    So I copied that series slavishly—but I discovered the Lefthand Path of writing.

    Your main character is a guy: make it a gal. Your group is 5; make it 3 (easier to handle than 7); your incidental character is a gal; make it a guy.

    Your story is in a desert. Make it a tropic zone with vines, with ITS problems.

    Your story is a wicked emperor—empress.

    You’re from Earth—wrong. Another planet.

    Your story involves an heir to the throne. Wrong. The story involves the assassination of the last emperor.

    Your story involves people who fly: give them airplanes.
    Your story involves a dragon-beastie. Make it something in the jungle.
    By the time you’ve finished ringing changes on the original, your cast is different, their chemistry is different, your environment is different, and you suddenly discover that, not only are you not on Mongo anymore, this is entirely YOURS.

    The plagiarism police never knocked on my door. That’s how well I did it.

    • katoji

      I do so love this tale. But here’s something I’ve wondered about… and yeah, its philosophical–sorry!!

      In the visual arts, we learn everything by looking at how other artists interpret life, as as it were: hours studying visual history, identifying a particular styles, and particular visions. Once you get past all that stuffing of the mind with these things, you move on to your own work. But how to we begin that long process? By copying the masters, literally copying the master works. And as I am sure you are aware, back in the day, a master had many apprentices whose sole job was to copy so perfectly in that style, large works could then be designed and drawn, but finished by others. In fact, look at the overall picture of an artist’s career and very often you’ll see clearly, that he started out very close to someone else’s vision but naturally moved on to his own, just through the act of producing a long series of works.

      Do we hold authors to a higher standard? Is there something intrinsically different about the act of writing that precludes students learning to write by adopting a masterwork as a guide? Or perhaps one learns the basic skills for writing simply through the act of communicating–therefore the true skill to writing is all vision? (Unlike the visual artist who must learn how to see, how to interpret, and finally how to break away from what is seen in order to express what is felt.) I’m curious simply because with writing it is very, very tempting to make that truly awful statement: if its all about talent, then it can’t be taught―which I’ve never subscribed to personally. But it does seem to me that vision is something quite unique and that writers are forced to it from the very beginning.

      • CJ

        Actually, philosophically, I had a high school art teacher who did teach us to copy styles: we did Egyptian, Chinese, pointillism, modern, dadaist, romantic, still life, you name it. But she also assigned us to sit on the school lawn and draw the building, and to get on the city bus, ride loops, and draw noses, just noses. Just eyes. Just mouths. Then rough-sketch poses, attitudes. Hands, feet.

        She taught us to absorb all styles, but to be able to draw meticulous realism *and* pure abstract—and no, I am not in the least impressed with Christo—I consider him an environmental terrorist, and not terribly impressed with Picasso, about whom much is made, but I have a guilty fondness for Pollack (I weave, as well)and the French Revolution running-dog-lackey David, who was stiff as a board. I like Rousseau, but don’t like his lines. And I love Corot’s trees and hate his people. Probably none of us in that class were great, but over 3 years with Velma Bailey, you had a broad foundation and enough art history to pass the college course. So my view is pretty well hers: broad is better.

        I had a masterwork as a guide, Vergil’s Aeneid in Latin, and Homer in Greek. They’re untranslatable, which is good: you can’t copy in English what Vergil did: English doesn’t work that way, but you can admire what he did and try to do something as innovative.

        So yes, learn from the masters, but if you’re lucky you’ll pick one far, far from what you actually end up doing, and forget about it most of the time.

        • katoji

          Untranslatable masterworks indeed. Its a wonder we can understand what they meant at all in those times. I took both Latin and Greek, the Greek at a religious college, the subject for translation: the Greek New Testament from which most English versions come from.

          Every other student in that class was going off to seminary and obviously knew the bible cover to cover. I was a Humanities Major, doing what we do best–freely exploring ideas with no thought to paying jobs after college. And I had no biblical knowledge to speak of really. The most interesting thing, as you’ve already guessed by now, was my translations compared to theirs. Both technically correct, but vastly different in nuance and occasionally significant word choice. Then to see what you get inside an English Bible! Incredible.

      • green_knight

        You need to be very skilled before you can start to copy someone consciously. (Unconsciously, well, you read a lot of x and don’t do anything else, and most people will pick up everything from the kind of stories x writes to their style and word choice.) But there is just *so much* in a book, and you cannot easily separate things out like you can attempt to copy a painting. A copied painting, however badly done, is always a unique entity – but taking somebody else’s words is just taking their words, not writing.

        Learning to write your own stories is, in many ways, easier than trying to write somebody else’s stories.

    • ranger

      I am embarrassed to admit that when I was 10-12 years old or so I loved reading the Hardy Boys books, despite being a girl…so much so that I wrote a novel in class in the same sort of style (only I had three boys, not two…using that peculiar kid logic that says if two is good, three must be better). I moved on to science fiction shortly after, and much later on to fantasy (I had read some REALLY bad fantasy early on and thought it was all trash for a while…so glad to find out I had only read the wrong stuff).

      Now the stories I write are definitely my own, but I have learned so much through reading heaps of books and engaging in a little youthful imitation 🙂

      • CJ

        I read the Hardy Boys, and the Scouts mag serials, but when I discovered Tom Corbett, Space Cadet, I was gone…

  17. CJ

    I did an article once: Arms and the Writer—for Writers’ Market. It was pretentious and not very good style (magazines at the time baffled me) but they liked it well enough they kept reprinting it in various yearbooks of their publication. Curiously enough it hasn’t been pirated, so I can’t readily grab it and post it here, but if you can track down a copy, it says a lot about my using those sources.

  18. makoiyi

    I don’t think I could ever stop writing no matter how many rejections I get. My trouble is I’m too shy or perhaps unconfident to sell myself. I do totally realise that one has to believe in the novel and I do, but as soon as someone asks ‘what is it about’ I waffle. I get my writing friends to encapsulate it for me. I’ve done writing workshops. I know people really enjoy what I write but selling it always lets me down.

    It’s a hard call because I always tell myself, it’s just not ‘good enough’. Nowadays it seems one has to be a publicist not just a writer. If I waffle it’s very easy to think, well, there is no plot therefore you can’t tell anyone, but that isn’t true.

    So how do you convince yourself you are good enough to ‘make’ it? I don’t have huge ambitions but I would like to share what I write.

    • CJ

      You sound just like me at a certain stage. And if somebody asks what it’s about, tell them: “I’m a novelist. If I could give short answers, I wouldn’t be writing novels.” 😉

      Go out and buy a really crappy, badly writen book. Take after it with a blue pencil.Never show it to anybody or take the unfortunate author’s name in vain, but anytime you can point to someone who’s in print and you’re better–you should take heart.

      There is a dreadful ‘down’ time when you’re as good or better than what’s in print, and it’s a terrible time of self-doubt because you’re NOT in print. So put that really awful book on your bookshelf, and say to yourself, “If THAT’s in print, I’m better than that, so there!”

      • ranger

        Ugh…my boss had one of those bestseller paperbacks you find in all the drugstores/groceries/airports at work, so I took a peek at it to see if it was any good. How can anything that sells that many copies be so dull? Predictable plot, stock characters, grade 2 vocabulary…and this is what makes the bestseller list? Yes, you could probably sum up what the book was about in one or two sentences, but I wouldn’t give it any brownie points for that.

  19. makoiyi

    Lol, I’ve seen a few of those; unfortunately you just about fill my bookshelf, so I wouldn’t make room for a piece of crap. :). But, I take your point, and thank you. Confidence is a funny thing. I’ve worked with horses most of my life but I’d never owned one. I wasn’t confident about that either, but I took a pyscho nutbag and tuned him around and that gave me huge confidence in many things. I *know* I can write, I’ve been told often enough not to disbelieve it, but, boy, it’s hard walking through that door. The hardest thing isn’t the writing, it’s finding the discipline to edit. I’m so glad I’ve found your site. I read your journal for years. You say that above, about editing ‘brilliantly’. That truly is the hardest thing.

  20. HRHSpence

    #
    HRHSpence
    June 1st, 2009 at 4:18 pm · Reply

    What about creating a circle of readers? I have space on a site I am storing one of my novels-in-the-process. Is there any interest in some of the writers here to post some work there so we could all discuss it?
    #
    CJ
    June 1st, 2009 at 4:31 pm · Reply

    Power to you, Spence. I think it would be great. I haven’t the time to play editor: I’m too overloaded to do it, and sometimes you just need Other Readers, to boot.

    If you’ll take a few suggestions from me: first, post your copyright notice as you work: that protects you somewhat…you’ll get it actually officially copyrighted if you sell something.

    2. remember it’s as important to tell someone where they’re doing right as it is to tell them where it needs improvement: it’s actually harder for a writer to tell where their own good stuff is, even though they may have a pretty good idea where the iffy spots are. So spend at least as much energy doing that.
    #
    HRHSpence
    June 1st, 2009 at 6:14 pm · Reply

    Here is the link to my site: http://z3.invisionfree.com/Chanur_Compact_space/index.php?act=idx

    Anyone reading this post is invited to join. It used to be a RP site set in the Chanur/Union/Alliance. But, it fell into disuse after a bit of time. Here are the new rules:

    This is a readers’ circle. Here budding writers can post their work and the others may read it. We have a few rules:

    You may read and post your reactions, but be kind and discuss at least one good comment for every point you would wish to see edited. You may ask questions as this helps the writer focus in on his/her work.

    Copyrights
    We are a non-profit site. But, all text and posts are copyright protected, and are held by the posters themselves on the date of the posting. However, please post a copyright notice on any work you post.

    Any one misusing materials found herein will be prosecuted.

    [I moved this over from the wrong thread]

    • makoiyi

      So I’ve logged into the site, Spence, now what? In other words, how would you like us to proceed?

      • HRHSpence

        I have one story there, “the Institute of Manamancy” is the working title. There are all or parts of 5 chapters, each in it’s own thread. If you care to comment, go ahead. If you wish to post your own work in progress, let me know and I’ll make a forum just for you.

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