Tuesday, January 10, 2012

How Do You Get To Carnegie Hall?

You've probably heard it before--it's an old joke. A tourist stops a young man on the streets of New York and asks, "How do you get to Carnegie Hall?" The young man shifts his violin case to the other hand, wipes his brow, and says, "Practice, practice, practice."

It borders on the ridiculous, which is why it's funny, I guess. But the story is no more ridiculous than the question published authors get asked all the time. And the answer is pretty much the same.

It's always interesting to talk with readers, whether in a group or singly. And after the usual questions--where do you get your ideas? how do you go about getting a publisher?--there's usually at least one person with a variation of this story. "I have an uncle/friend/golf partner who wants to write a book. What advice would you give them?" And I'll fall back on a variant of the Carnegie Hall story. Practice, practice, practice.

Imagine sitting down and stringing together 60 or 70 or 80 or 100 thousand words. Tough? Yes. But that isn't enough. I minored in English in college. I've written or edited a number of medical textbooks and had more than 100 professional papers published. And when I started trying to write, I found that I knew almost nothing about writing fiction.

The writer must learn to avoid passive voice, to keep point of view consistent, to constantly consider story arc, to maintain the interest of the reader through every scene, to avoid adjectives and adverbs in favor or strong verbs and nouns. And these are just a few of the "rules" of writing. And notice I said "learn." Not just read through and say, "that's nice," but learn, as in make them a part of what you do.

And then comes the practice. When I decided to start back playing golf, I went to a pro, who reminded me that practice doesn't make perfect. Perfect practice makes perfect. Otherwise, you're just setting bad habits into your muscle memory. The same goes for writing. The writer has to submit his/her work for critique by someone who is expert enough to give good advice. Aunt Gertrude may love your work, and your children may think you're a whiz, but if they don't pick up your tendency to overuse the same word, to sprinkle commas too liberally through the work, and to craft one-dimensional characters, having them read your work isn't going to help you grow.

I may come back to this theme as the year goes by, but my advice for as-yet-unpublished writers for the twelve months we have ahead of us is this: hook up with a good critique group, write, edit, write some more. Lather, rinse, repeat. In other words...practice, practice, practice.

What one bit of advice would you give someone who wants to become a writer?

4 comments:

Anne Mateer said...

The other piece of advice I give--besides practice, practice, practice--is read, read, read. I am convinced that those who have read many, many good books are intuitively better writers.

Richard Mabry said...

Anne,
You're exactly right. (But then again, if I used "read, read, read" I couldn't throw in the Carnegie Hall joke).
Seriously, for a writer, reading and writing go hand in hand. Read to see what's good. Read to see what's bad. Then write, revise, write some more.
Thanks for stopping by.

Erica Vetsch said...

I'd echo your advice to new writers. Writers write. So just start writing.

Richard Mabry said...

Well-put, Erica. Thanks.