Friday, July 21, 2006

You Have To Read Before (and After) You Write

How does a writer learn to write? Of course, there are conferences and seminars, books and articles. All of these are good, and I've benefited from them all. But, as a retired physician, it seems to me that learning the craft of writing is quite similar to the learning process for a medical student.

You begin by listening to people who have knowledge of the subject. They categorize it and impart it to you in a systematic fashion. You read books and journal articles. But eventually, you have to see the disease process in action, by observing trained physicians as they interact with real patients. When you're ready, when you've had enough training, you try your hand (under supervision) at diagnosis and treatment. And eventually, you have enough experience to become one of the teachers, instead of one of the pupils. There's an aphorism in medicine--not necessarily true, but so close to the truth as to carry a real message: "See one, do one, teach one." More accurately, it's "see a hundred, do another hundred, spend the rest of your life continuing to learn and teach."

Now compare that with writing. The would-be writer absorbs all kinds of "how-to" knowledge from books. He sleeps with THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE under his pillow, brushes his teeth while reading PLOT AND STRUCTURE and GETTING INTO CHARACTER, and does his daily devotions out of TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER and SELF-EDITING FOR FICTION WRITERS. And that's as it should be. If you haven't read (and re-read) these classics, you must.

In addition to that, you go to conferences: Mount Hermon, Glorieta, Blue Ridge--so many, and all have something to offer. You write, and you get critiqued. After that, you cry and sulk, then write some more, and yet again. Rejection follows rejection, but you're smart and you improve with every draft and every new project.

What's missing? Reading the works of successful writers. Not just those authors whose books are listed above, but those whose writing resonates with you. If a Christian author's book doesn't float your boat, move on to the works of another one. And remember that some of the best, most classic writing comes from the secular side, as well. I'd kill to be able to write like Robert B. Parker (well, not really, but he's one of my heroes). Like a surgeon who tries to do an appendectomy after reading it and practicing a time or two, without ever having seen a masterful surgeon perform one, you'll flounder if you aren't a reader, as well as a writer.

So, why are you reading this? Read something that matters. And then write.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Rejection Is A Way Of Life

My first novel was sort of "written to order." At my first writers' conference, I met an editor who was a huge baseball fan. He discovered that I had played in a number of baseball fantasy camps, alongside some of baseball's greats. He said, "Why don't you write a novel about a doctor who goes to one of those camps?" Having no better sense than to think writing a novel was something that could be accomplished by anyone who put their mind to it, I did just that. I completed it in four months, and sent it off to him. He encouraged me to revise it, which I did, and then he took it to the editorial board, who turned it down. "Oh, well," I said, "this is easy. I'll just send it to somebody else."

I obtained permission from several editors to send them a proposal. I also sent my proposal off to The Writers' Edge, a web site that judges your work, and if it meets their standards (about half the submissions do), they send it to a number of publishing houses. I was thrilled when a major publishing house contacted me and wanted the full manuscript of the novel. "Aha, they don't do that with every submission." (True) "They're going to accept it." (False). I got a very nice form rejection letter from them.

But the story doesn't end there. Two weeks later, I got a letter from the same publisher (different person), advising that they'd seen my novel's posting on The Writers' Edge, and asking for the full manuscript. So, I got it printed up (again), and sent it to them (again), and it was rejected (again). It doesn't quite measure up to Steve Laube's story of the writer whose rejection notice came FedEx (they really wanted to be sure, I guess), but it's close.

By the time every publisher to whom I'd submitted novel #1 rejected it, I was well on the way to completing #2. Then, through a series of circumstances, and attendance at another writers conference, there was renewed interest in novel #1. So I've rewritten it yet again, and it's under active consideration, as is novel #2.

If there's a moral in there somewhere, it must be that rejection is a way of life for authors. Don't give up. True, write new work, but keep the old one around and pitch it every once in a while. You never know what's going to come of it.