Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Never Open a Book with Weather

By David Biddle for Talking Writing

Laura Miller has a nice little writerly piece in today called "A Reader's Advice to Writers." It stems from a fabulous two-part presentation in The Guardian providing bulleted advice from 20+ writers. All three of these are worth your time (after you write today).

Miller's piece at Salon is as useful, if not better, than most of the ones at The Guardian (to my mind). We can learn more than we know from readers -- although I disagree with her point that readers usually don't care about the quality of the writing. All readers were forced to write in school for 15 years or so. Everyone likes to read good, interesting prose, especially if the characters, plot, theme, and setting are also interesting.

The Guardian's set of lists was inspired by Elmore Leonard's original list of "Ten Rules of Writing." If you're going to read just one author's advice list, his is the one. Leonard's points are quite similar to James Ellroy's in the Fall 2009 Paris Review. Their thoughts and ruminations on craft, plotting and character are funny, spot on, and hard to put into practice.

The advice lists are presented by The Guardian in alphabetic order. Part I runs from Margaret Atwood, Roddy Doyle and Richard Ford to Jonathan Franzen and PD James, among others. (As an aside, once again Jonathan Franzen worries me. I just don't think he knows what he's doing. Will someone tell him to stop taking himself so seriously?) Part II includes Hilary Mantel, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, and Zadie Smith.

The most important advice some of these writer's give: Read your story out loud (I do this in front of a mirror sometimes).

The worst advice -- or something I refuse to believe here in 2010 -- is that you shouldn't write connected to the Internet (watch for my next submission here on the new frontiers of publishing).

The logical thing for me to close with is my own advice to writers. I'm not going to do that. I have five points posted on a bulletin board somewhere in our house, but until I've published a book or two, I think my words would be rather silly.

I close, then, with two pieces of advice I was looking for but never found:

1). Get your spouse to read what you write first and listen to what they say because more than likely they're right (if you're not married, good luck!).

2). Understand that being a successful writer and good writing are two different things and that none of the advice most writers give has any real thing to do with being successful. Success in the writing world is no different than success in business, sports or politics -- you need quality product, for sure, but you also need to be a pit bull, pay attention to details, have a sense of humor, fake it when you have to, and be lucky as hell.

All the best to you as spring and the 2010 baseball season approach!

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  1. Yes! Reading your work-in-progress out loud is definitely a critical step. Just be sure to warn everyone around you that you're about to do this. There's nothing as disruptive to the flow as having people ask you to repeat yourself because they think you're talking to them!

    I also agree that it's helpful to stay connected to the Internet. I'm constantly verifying (or disproving) my facts and assumptions as I write and edit.

    Thanks, David, for this helpful piece!

  2. Must be wonderful having a spouse that actually reads your work and comments intelligently about it. Some of us aren't so fortunate. That's why we join critique groups.

    My favorite list of rules for writers comes from George Orwell. In number 7, Orwell states the following:

    "If the writer's meaning remains hidden from the reader because of his using euphemisms and complicated language, what is the point of writing the piece at all? (Unless the writer is a politician and deliberately wishes to use ambiguity and obscurity to dupe or confuse his readers in the first place...) If the reader must guess the meaning of the piece, let the reader beware."

    Jack Kerouac wrote some excellent pointers for writers also, liberated edgy spirit that he was. If I can figure out where I stashed them, I'll post them.

    Good stuff here, David. Thank you!


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