Sunday, May 1, 2016

Learning on the job

This month is a themed month on Novelspaces where each novelnaught blogs about a common topic. Blogging on the first of the month means I set the tone. So when Liane presented me the list of topics I tried to steer her away from the topic that I knew everyone would like, “favorite books on writing.” I even suggested another topic that I thought would woo the other voting members away, but to no avail. Favorite books on writing won hands down.

So why was I running away from blogging about books on writing? You’ll probably think this is an oxymoron, but I don’t read books on writing. I can see your faces right now all distorted with disbelief. A writer who doesn’t read books on writing? How does she improve her craft? That’s a fair question, to which I respond, “I learn on the job.”

“Huh?!” you ask. I can see the blank looks on your face. Let me give you an example. I had been writing poetry and short stories for many years. When I entered graduate school I was faced with the task of writing my research for publication. Of course having written fiction I delved into long flowery prose. My professor looked at me and asked, “What the hell is this, a mystery novel?” He then said, “Cut out everything five prime of the verb.” (He was a geneticist so in laymen’s term, remove every clause in front of the verb.)  As we proceeded with the editing he advised me to “Tell them what you are going to tell them, tell them, and tell what you told them.” From that I learned that technical writing is very different from fiction. It is succinct, to the point and information driven rather than prose driven. In fiction we build suspense and steer the reader in a certain direction, in technical writing we just tell you the facts and how we perceive them; you can interpret them how you want.

In writing fiction, I was just loosely aware of POV and the importance of telling the story from a particular point of view. I would write like I was the omniscient God knowing what every character is thinking, feeling, and doing at all times. When my first book got accepted for publication I was assigned a wonderful editor: Monica Harris. In her first edits I would see little notes saying, “pov”. So I called her up, and we spent a few hours on the phone, both her and my kids screaming in the background, discussing points of view and the importance of not switching pov in the middle of a story. I again learned some important lessons on writing and I learned them on the job.

After years of writing romance I decided to dabble in children’s literature. Was I in for a surprise! As great as I thought my writing was, when I gave the manuscript to a focus group of kids to read, they could not get through it. So it was back to the drawing board, editing it to death. Children’s book author and publisher and former novelnaught, Carol Mitchell helped me make it readable for kids. And of course my co-author and a child herself, Lynelle Martin, ripped it apart and made me take out every big word, rephrase every rigorous sentence, and remove everything too “sciencey” for kids to understand. Several things I learned about writing fiction for children include letting the protagonists be slightly older than the target age of the readers and making sure that they solve their own dilemmas. Again I learned on the job.

I haven’t read any books on writing recently, yet I am constantly working on developing my craft through practice, through suggestions from editors, through reading blogs, articles and of course other novels by various authors. So my favorite book on writing isn’t a book after all. It is experience, and that you can only get by leaning on the job.


Charles Gramlich said...

I like the challenge of writing both technical stuff and fiction, though certainly prefer the fiction. I tend to read a fair number of books on writing, but partly just because i read books about everything

Jewel Amethyst said...

You have mentioned a few books on writing on novelspaces over the years. I read widely, but amid the surplus of books on writing, I haven't gotten around to reading any.

Linda Thorne said...

I've stopped reading books on writing and just writing now, but I've read a lot. The well known ones like Syd Field. Some that I really liked and had not heard much about were, The Weekend Novelist and Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Another one was Don't Murder Your Mystery. Some others that are not so well known were just "so, so." I'm glad I read them all though. Every one has helped me. I'm like you, now, I learn new things about the craft through sources other than self-help books.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I'm glad you found most of those books helpful, Linda. They are to many people. Unfortunately the new writer can sometimes spend a lot more time reading about writing and never get up the courage to actually write. It's a balance.For those who choose to read books about the craft, kudos. I find that experiential learning works better for some of us.

Liane Spicer said...

Jewel, there are many ways to learn practically any skill. I'm sure most writers over the centuries never read books on writing. They learned on the job--like you. I myself never read a book on writing until after my first novel was published. That was Stephen King's 'On Writing' - half of which is really a memoir written in his typical spellbinding narrative style.

Your mention of Monica Harris brought back memories. She edited my first book for Dorchester as well, and I remember our telephone conversation and yes, I could hear her children playing in the background. She was taken much too soon.

Dayton Ward said...

I don't read books about writing to learn about writing. As you say, it's mostly done on the job.

Instead, I just like getting insight into the way other writers do things. So, I'm drawn more to things like King's On Writing versus something like How to Write a Novel In A Month/Year/Whatever.

I don't even know how I'd approach writing a book about writing. It'd probably just be a laminated Post-It that read "Sit your butt down and write."

Jewel Amethyst said...

Liane, I thought I was alone in this, that most writers gobbled up all the books on writing that they could. It looks like I'm in good company.

Definitely Monica was taken from us way too soon. She was not only an editor, but also a nurturer of writers. I can attribute so many writers' careers to her.

Jewel Amethyst said...

Lol, Dayton, I'll publish the post it note for you :)