Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Question #2

The second question is from Clara, who asks:

Did you always have a knack for writing really well, or did you read a book on becoming a good author or something like that?

My Answer:

*blush* Thank you for the compliment, Clara! I’m glad you think I write really well.

I wish I could say there was some secret formula or handy manual that contributed to my development as an author. When I was in high school, I read a bazillion and one different books on writing and developing authorial technique, etc. The first of these was Stein on Writing by Sol Stein.

The reading of that book was the beginning of a long dry spell for me. Not that there weren’t useful tips in it! I definitely gleaned information from his pages that I use even today. At the time, my mother was writing professionally (look up her work sometime!), so she and I both read Stein’s book and were very excited about the suggestions he made.

But within a month, my writing dried up. Everything I wrote had to conform to Stein’s very contemporary standards . . . strict third-person point of view, constant, fast-paced action, sparse prose, etc. My writing got thinner and thinner, my characters flatter and flatter. Although all I was cutting out ever “ly” word I could lay my hands on, my work was not becoming the tightly composed, impossible-to-put-down prose Stein praised. It was dying.

Now granted, that may in large part have been due to the projects I was working on at that time. In early-to- mid high school, I had not yet hit on a winning idea, though the seeds for Goldstone Wood were already there. But even those young ideas I had swiftly perished under the highly edited, edge-of-your-seat prose being practiced and praised in the current market.

I went on to read other books on writing . . . books that promised to help you write a rough draft in 30 days, books that promised to make you a bestseller, books that taught complicated character-development charts, the snowflake method, each and every one of them full of rules, rules, rules, rules . . .

My writing came to a complete stop.

Actually, stopping entirely was probably the best thing I could have done for my work at that point. Usually I am a huge advocate of the, “If you want to be a writer, write ALL the time!” philosophy. That being said, writing is skill. Like all skills, it has different stages of development. When a tennis player worth his salt realizes he has built up bad tennis habits, he doesn’t shrug and keep on playing the same old way because, well, it works well enough. He goes back to the hitting wall. He goes back to the drills. He goes back to lessons and coaching. He retraces his steps to the place where he went wrong and starts learning again from the ground up. Sure, by going back like this, he won’t do as well in games as he did with those bad habits . . . for a while. But he now has the hope of playing vastly better than he ever could have had he simply pushed on with those ingrained habits and never sought change.

This is absolutely true with writing as well. I had developed habits of spare prose, driving action, and flat characters that did not suit me at all. And when your writing doesn’t suit you, it’s not going to suit your readers either.

So I stopped reading books on writing, and I stopped writing as well. Does that mean I wasn’t working on my craft? Absolutely not! I made what I believe is the most important step any young writer can make.

I started reading the classics.

I had read my fair share of classic literature before, of course. But I had never read it, never studied it, never looked at all the levels and intricacies of theme and plot and character depth . . . intricacies you rarely find in contemporary writing. Intrigued by what I saw in these novels, I also began reading biographies on some of my favorite authors, curious to know what they did to become such brilliant writers.

You know what I discovered? They read the classics too! What’s more, they studied languages and read classics in Greek, Latin, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Sanskrit . . . all the languages of the world, in fact! They were constant scholars. They were philosophers and theologians. They drew parallels in their work to the works of Shakespeare, Milton . . . parallels to the Bible and to the ancient Greek plays. They understood much more beyond simple “How to Write a Bestseller” techniques. They understood that their work was built on the foundations laid by giants!

I took my first college English class at age 17. In that class, I studied Beowulf (which I had already read, but not studied), I studied Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, The Canterbury Tales . . . all sorts of old, old, old, English poetry and prose. Under my professor’s guidance, I saw how these authors wove their themes together in sometimes blatant and sometimes subtle patterns. There was so much to be read in each one of these pieces, both short and long! You could read any one of them ten times over and still have more to discover.

Not something you see in most modern literature, is it?

I decided then, in my arrogance (because at 17, I believed I could conquer the world if I wanted to), that this was the sort of writer I wanted to be. I didn’t want my plots to be written on a single level. No, I wanted each book I wrote to be one that needed to be read five or six times before the reader would possibly glean everything that was to be had out of the story.

On the surface, I wanted my books to be simple fairy tales . . . but if a reader were to scratch the surface, I wanted for them to find a wealth of themes and symbols and literary connections that deepen the work into something much more than simple fairy tale.

I started writing again while taking that college English class. I wrote longhand in a red-spiral notebook to keep myself loose. I wrote in the omniscient narrative (a style severely frowned upon in the modern market), telling the story I had in mind as it came to me.

The result was a novella I called, Lord Aiven’s Daughter. Those of you who have read Veiled Rose might recognize the name. The Dragon refers to Rose Red's goat, Beana, as “The Lady of Aiven,” and the sylph sings a song that includes the stanza:

"She stood upon the shadowed hill
And downward turned her glist'ning eye.
She looked on Aiven great,
Upon the closed gate,
But saw the Final Water flow,
the darkened water flow."

Yes, indeed. The first project I wrote with my new stylistic approach was about Beana. It was the first finished piece in what is now that much bigger and more complex Tales of Goldstone Wood. While that novella remains unsold, it forms a portion of the backdrop of the stage on which the characters in Heartless, Veiled Rose, and especially, Moonblood perform.

Truth be told, that novella wasn't very well written. The story was great, the characters intriguing, but the writing was rough, rough, rough. Just like a tennis player relearning his skills, I was relearning how to write a story. But rough as it was, it was full of life! There were colors in my narrative, in my characters. For the first time ever, I toyed with literary themes and allusions and a dash of allegory. I wrote loosely, I wrote badly, but I wrote with so much joy! And I learned tremendous amounts in the 20,000 words of that manuscript.

So there is an answer for you, Clara. There is no easy route to becoming an author. I do have a knack for writing . . . much more importantly, I have a desire to learn! I read, not the books on writing, but the great literature by the great authors. They understood writing on a level scarcely considered in the modern market. They understood character and humanity, and they expressed their understanding with such beauty and care.

My recommendation for any aspiring writer is to take time away from your writing . . . set aside that troubling story for a while . . . and read the classics. Don’t just read them. Study them! Search out the secrets the authors are waiting and willing to reveal! They have so much to teach if we will but take the time to learn.

Another fun question! Don’t forget that you can still add your questions to the list by either posting it the comments section here or in the comments of the “Bring Me Your Questions” post. If you have already asked a question but have another, feel free to add it! I am writing this series throughout the month of August, so there’s still plenty of time for yours.


Angie said...

So what are your favorite classics? I haven't read too many (hope to change that) but I think one of my favorites has to be Jane Eyre.

I have to say I may be in the minority but I actually love books written in the omniscient narrative. Granted I haven't read too many books written in that narrative but the few I have I love. It's like your part of the story. :)

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...
Because classics are a passion, I'm adding your question to the list! Will blog on it in another week or two. :)

I just reread Jane Eyre a few weeks ago and was impressed all over again by Charlotte Bronte's skill. I need to write a whole post (or several!) of my thoughts on that book. There were so many fascinating elements!

Glad to hear you love the omniscient narrative. It is my very favorite narrative voice, but I did have people tell me I would have to stop writing in it if I expected to publish in the CBA market. I even went to a conference where the guest speaker told all the young writers that the ONLY rule in writing is to never use the omniscient narrative! This is crazy to me . . . and very sad. So glad to hear there are readers like you in the world! :)

Angie said...

Oh good! I'll look forward to reading that post. :)

I just read Jane Eyre for the first time this Spring. Amazing is all I can say so I'd love to read your thoughts on it if you ever decide to post about it.

Do you have any idea why the omniscient narrative is so frown upon? That is sad though. Although, Siri Mitchell's latest book, A Heart Most Worthy, is done in the omniscient narrative. So maybe there is still hope for this narrative. :) I sure hope so.

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

As to the omniscient narrative . . . well, that's such a great question, I'm adding it to my list of blog posts as well! Seriously, Angie, thanks for providing me with so many great blogging topics! :)

I was very excited about Siri Mitchell's latest book and the narrative she chose to write in. Good for her, I say, and I hope more people will follow in her footsteps!

Anonymous said...

Wow! That's really great brother is interessted in writing and he's ordered several how-to-write books, but I didn't know how much help they would be to me or him. Now I'll have to start studying classics and biographys!!!


Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

I'm glad you found this helpful! Learning to write can be an overwhelming task . . . but it helps to remember ALL Of those who went before you. Begin learning from the masters, and you'll find you have the best teachers possible. Prayers for your success! :)

Anonymous said...

Hello. I just finished reading Heartless and loved your book. I thought the imagery brilliant and the flow of your story lyrical. I found out about your book through Marcher Lord Press/Where the Map Ends newsletters. Have you heard of them before?

Your answer has confirmed what I've been thinking this past year. I've been editing my fantasy novel to death. Granted…I've learned a whole lot through this process and from the how-to books I've read over the years, but I started thinking that there comes a time where we just need to let it all go and fly with our ideas. I didn't want to think too highly of myself and writing abilities, but one gets to a point where those books just rehash the same information and some contradict each other as well. There is a lot of good information in those how-to books and that information does build a foundation we can build our stories upon, but it is when the author lets it all go and writes with abandonment from the heart where we find our voice/style that captures our readers/publishers/agents… maybe?

Your post reminds of something Chip MacGregor said in his blog awhile ago, about how so many manuscripts that have crossed his desk have started to look alike and he said that it was because everyone is going to the conferences and reading the how-to books and trying to write the next bestseller. Which isn't all bad, but about balance I suppose. So as Elizabeth Swan said, "Hang the code, and hang the rules. They're more like guidelines anyways." :-)

Anne Elisabeth Stengl said...

@Jennette: Yes, I am familiar with Marcher Lord Press! I recently did an interview with them on Where the Map Ends:
It was a fun interview. So glad to hear they are helping get my work out there!

I agree that there are good things to be had from some of thoe writing books, but they do create a dangerous tendency toward sameness. I rarely read CBA fiction for exactly that reason . . . everything reads alike. But in the classics, even among books of similar style, the individuality of each author shines! I love the spontaneity and freshness they created.

Love your Pirates quote! I think it is absolutely true when it comes to writing. Don't let anyone tell you how you are "allowed" to write. Write from your heart. This doesn't mean not studying. You will have to study even more when you don't have other people dictating to you how you are allowed to develop your work. But it will be YOUR work, based on your specific experiences and influences, both as to the subject matter and the style.

Happy writing!