Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Don’t Read? Don’t Write

Would you walk into an operating room without having taken any formal training? Or stand in a courtroom defending an innocent man, if you didn’t have any knowledge of law or proper courtroom etiquette? Just as in anything you want to do, you need training. You need to learn what works and what doesn’t work before you can step outside the box and stretch the rules.

A crucial component to becoming a successful writer is to read everything you can get your hands on. Read the types of stories you want to write. Examine the story and figure out what it is you like about it, what makes it work. Are the characters compelling? Does the plot sing? Is the end satisfying or leave you hanging? But there are people that believe they do not need to read, that the words that spill from their fingers or the end of their pen is perfect and publishable the way it is.

Several years ago I had a debate with a co-worker about the need to read in order to become a successful writer. He believed that a writer did not need to read to be able to write while I strongly believe a writer needs to possess a passion for the written word in order to have faith in his craft, a passion that usually stems from childhood. How can you claim to be a good writer if you don’t like to read or don’t have the time to read? If you never sat down and read a book in your life except for the prescribed reading list in that high school English class, how could you even develop a desire to write?

Granted, in theory, you don’t necessarily need to read to have that desire to write but what’s the point? Why would you spend long hours over a keyboard if you don’t appreciate the end result? Why do the research for an article on weapons of mass destruction if you wouldn’t read an article on the topic? Why become a lawyer if you hate lawyers and everything they stand for? Why become a doctor if you can’t stand the sight of blood or you’re germaphobic?

In order to become published and have your readers take you seriously, you need to establish your credibility as a writer. Take classes to perfect the craft. Learn new techniques on how to get your work from the hidden confines of your computer or notebook to a broader audience. There are no real rules on how to attract a publisher but when you’re attempting to break into a market as a new writer, you want to avoid common mistakes. Want to make your writing stand out from the rest. You can’t do this unless you already understand the basics of story arc, character and plot development, dialogue, tenses and especially point of view.

I have been writing for as long as I can remember. Since my father read to me as a child and I developed that love of words, I wanted to be able to string those words together and create stories of my own to entertain and instill emotion. And so I wrote. But I didn’t care if it was actually any good because no one was going to see it anyway.

About eight years ago I was on a roll. I wrote a 10,000 word short story and thought it was brilliant. The words that flowed from my fingers just couldn’t have come out any more perfect. I edited, I packaged it up and sent it off to a contest. I didn’t win. Meanwhile, I decided to bide my time and take some classes for the fun of it. If I learned something along the way, then great, if not, at least I had something to do.

A few years ago I went back to that story and was completely appalled at what I read. I was embarrassed to think that someone had actually read that piece of drivel. Every other paragraph I switched point of view. Tenses were all over the place and I really knew nothing about my characters. The plot was weak and the ending bordered on plain bizarre. Knowing what I know now, the only consolation is that the judges probably didn’t read past the first page so they didn’t see how bad it really was.

At some point a writer needs to trust in the knowledge of those that have been successful, those that know the business. Whether you write short stories, poems, creative non-fiction or have a desire to write a novel, read everything you can get your hands on to learn what works, take classes, join a critique group and then submit, submit and submit some more. You’re certain to be demoralized by rejection but keep going. To get published is as much about luck as it is about talent. Stick to what works until you’re comfortable with overstepping the boundaries.

Learn how to self edit. Use your spell check. Rewrite. Don’t be afraid of losing something in a rewrite. The words that spill onto the page the first time are not the words that the reader will see. The theme, the concept and the characters will be the same in most cases, but the words will become better. The story will become clearer. Stronger. More emotional. Re-read. Edit until that piece is the best that it can possibly be.

Few book publishers will take a second look at your work if you have not already established your credibility as a writer. (You wouldn’t hire a lawyer that didn’t have a good track record or go to a doctor with numerous malpractice suits against him.) And if you are fortunate enough to have written something that resonates with the editors, don’t be surprised when they ask you to rewrite some scenes, maybe even whole chapters. They may find a scene that doesn’t seem to serve a purpose and ask you to delete it.

I’ve heard writers express concerns about their stories not being their stories anymore if they have to rewrite it to please an editor. But you have to believe that the editor knows what they are talking about. And maybe you should re-evaluate why you write. Is it in the hopes of fame and fortune, or for the delight of seeing your name on the front of a book? If it’s the latter, self-publish. If the former, compromise, let go of your ego and do what the editor has asked of you. Believe that they have your best interests in mind, even if they don’t.

And through it all, read. Read everything. And if you don’t read, then don’t write.

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