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Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Writerly Virtues Part 2

If I could give one piece of advice to young writers (crusty older ones like me, too), it would be this:  Never stop learning!

Not all of us have the time or money to attend writer's conferences or work on MFAs; but, like any professional, writers should be constantly studying and improving their craft.

The day I made up my mind to seriously pursue publication was the day I planned a trip to the public library.  I don't recall the titles of the books I checked out, but I invested a good deal of time reading about plot, characterization, and setting.

One early title I still remember is Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King.  If you read only two books, I recommend theirs and Donald Maas's gem, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook.  Writers Digest's Write Great Fiction collection is another excellent resource, and, for teen writers, I suggest Spilling Ink: A Young Writer's Handbook by Anne Mazer and Ellen Potter.

The next step is to study the writing of authors who've demonstrated their mastery of technique.  During the Middle Ages, aspiring young artists sought apprenticeships with master sculptors and painters.  You can't become your favorite author's apprentice.  (All right.  You can try, but I doubt she'll go for it.)  But you can analyze writing technique and personal style as you read her novels.

While reading Maggie Stiefvater's The Scorpio Races, I found myself marveling at her enviable ability to create unusual details.  I particularly loved the following descriptions:

While describing a visit to a seaside pub:  I could eat my shame for dinner, it's so thick, but I take the back door and leave Brian Carroll behind.

Describing a bathroom:  It's a tiny room, just big enough for a tub and a toilet and a washbasin if they're very good friends and don't mind rubbing shoulders. . .

During a trip to confession:  I wipe a tear off my cheek.  It's a very cunning tear, because I didn't even feel it coming.

Not only are these details out of the ordinary, they also create a distinctive voice for the story's feisty heroine, Puck.

From Allie Condie's Crossed,  I learned a few things about using irony to heighten tension.  Even before Ky and Vick realize the new "villagers" will be girls, a reader can anticipate that Ky will escape the village shortly before Cassia's arrival.  The stage is set for Cassia's disappointment and the inevitability that she'll attempt to follow Ky into the Carving.

The third stop along a writer's educational path is potentially the hardest.  In fact, some of the most successful authors find it impossible.  This is the kind of improvement that comes from listening to the suggestions of your agent, your beta readers, or an editor.  It involves swallowing your pride and seriously considering the merit of their criticisms.  If you're fortunate enough to be published, it might also involve learning from reader reviews -- the positive and the negative.

Anna DeStefano calls writing a "hard-working, digging-deeper-until-you-get-it-right, you're-going-to-need-to-learn-how-to-work-with-a-team, job."  (Click here to read her full article.)  In other words, no writer is an island.  If you want to write something that will sell, you're going to need the input of others.

Hopefully, no one reading this will ever become so sure of her or his abilities that she or he can't continue to learn from others.