Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Advice from and for writers

At a meeting of the California Writer’s Club last Saturday I heard Susan Straight speak and read from her latest novel, A MILLION NIGHTENGALES. Susan has long been one of my favorite authors, whose authentic life in Riverside, California makes her writing sing like a New York diva.

Susan voiced something I have internalized since I began writing fiction seriously, but have never heard from other writers: She says she's constantly working on her novel--even when she's not sitting in front of the work, she's ruminating over characters, setting, conflicts. Susan is one of the few authors I know who write complete novels longhand. Her method of choice are yellow legal pads, which she then transfers the work to her computer. Susan teaches creative writing at the university where my daughter is an English major, considering a minor in creative writing. If she takes one of Susan's classes, I'm going to crawl into her backpack and listen through the zipper.

Tonight I'm going to hear Anne Lamott speak and read from her new collection of essays, Grace (Eventually). I've heard Anne before and she speaks just like she writes--from the hip and heart. Stay tuned.

Before Susan's talk at the CWC meeting on Saturday, we were given an exercise to write advice to ourselves that we wish we would’ve received early in our writing career. Here’s what I wrote:
Read good books. Reading is the most important element of writing. Reading opens the door to worlds outside your own, will expose you to foreign cultures and diverse lifestyles, and will reveal the thread of humanity that we all share. Only through discovering the outer world can you hope to share your inner world.

Experience life. Plan for your future, but live in the moment. Observe people and places around you; participate in what is going on around you. Remember how you felt when you reached important milestones.

Discover what you like reading best. Read the kind of books you want to write. Study how they’re written: setting, characters, motivation, plot, conflict, story arc, pace, layers, subtext, theme.

Devote yourself to craft. Writing begins when you put one word in front of the other, but there’s more to writing than nouns, verbs, and adjectives. Study and practice the rudimentary elements of literature: theme, metaphor, exposition, dialog, narrative, and story. Remember that conflict is the heart of a story; without conflict there is no plot, and without plot there is no story.

Learn to edit yourself. Don’t fall in love with your words. Even the best writers have editors, but editing begins with the writer. Look at your words and imagine them written by someone else. Strike out the dead wood, kill your darlings. Stroke and polish. Send your baby out into the world dressed for success.

Accept criticism. Critics are everywhere. Learn to discern true criticism from the emotionally charged ranting of ignorant critics. True criticism offers suggestions for improvement or comments intended to encourage the author to strive for excellence. Accept good criticism; reject ignorant criticism and reviews.


billie said...

Great post - I'll check out Susan Straight's book.

Hope you had fun with Anne Lamott - I heard her read years ago and before the reading she walked up and asked me where I got my shoes.. :) I got a kick out of that!

Carolyn Burns Bass said...

Billie~ I won't bore you with the pain of my broken tooth that held me back from going to see Anne last night, but suffice to say I was disappointed.

I did spend those hours reading A MILLION NIGHTENGALES; it's a superb historical, both literary and engrossing.

Devon Ellington said...

Sounds like a great book.

Will you write about your definition of "an authentic life" sometime?

Hope your tooth gets better soon.

Carolyn Burns Bass said...

Oh, Devon. You've challenged me. An authentic life. Now I'll have to sit down and put this conceptual phrase into meaningful words. I do love a challenge, especially a writing challenge.