Sunday, July 16, 2006

How to Write Good

Grabbed your attention, didn't I? You just had to know what was coming next, even though you already had set yourself as the author's superior. But you knew, deep inside, he had in actuality set you up to make you keep reading. That, my friends, is the secret of writing for publication. It's like this: writing-- more than music, more than painting, more than any of the so-called arts-- is the ultimate act of ego. We write for one reason (and you know in your heart of hearts this is true, so don't bother taking me to task about it) and that reason is we just absolutely know what we have to say is important, and by god, you damn well better listen.

Here is what writing is all about: baring your soul naked for the world to see. What you're writing doesn't matter--if your soul's imprint isn't there, it will ring false--and your audience will know it straightaway. They're not idiots--after all, they do read and they're giving you a moment of their time to state your case. As a writer, you have a responsibility to make the most of that moment. You have to scream "fire!" at the outset--not explain the origins of fire. Ideally, you do this in the title itself--if not, you have two opening sentences at most to alert the reader that they have just booked passage on your ship, and there will be no turning back, come hell or high water. The reader has signed on for uncharted territory and it's your responsibility to deliver.

.That is the first lesson of writing well--"lesson", not "rule", because in order to communicate, you have to take what you know and realize that all the so-called rules you learned in journalism and creative writing classes were there only to give you a foundation--they were not meant as a stone tablet delivered from on high. There is nothing--and I mean nothing-- more boring than writing that adheres to textbook rules. It may impress your professors, family and friends, but trust me--it won't impress an editor.

To write well, you must plunge headfirst and unafraid into the abyss of the blank page, which, as Conrad noted, is the most terrifying realm of all for a writer. It's a stygian wasteland of random thoughts, all clawing for your attention while they point to this rule or that, each one taunting you and gnawing at your confidence. This is the moment of truth, the point where you shrug off all those self-imposed notions of the so-called creative process, gather your thoughts, take a deep breath and say to yourself, "There ain't nothin' to it but to do it."

And you write. Those first words fall onto the page trepiditiously, as a babe taking its first uncertain steps. And you see those words and realize you have just given birth to something that never existed before this moment. The terror that was the blank page has fallen victim to the higher force of a confidence that had lain dormant moments before. Those few words that you birthed are the core of your universe, and it is a universe over which you hold sway. You have, in effect, become God.

In an infinite set of possibilities, universes are equally apt to thrive or wither of their own doing, wholly dependent on how they reconcile those possibilities within their boundaries. That said, those boundaries are limited by the imagination of the universe's creator. For your universe to thrive, you must take those first stumbling words and nurture them with every ounce (or however it's measured) of your soul, with no apologies and no regrets.

How you build your universe (and it can be anything from a critique to a novel) is dependent on your personality. Some writers build their realms strategically, discarding draft after draft until they have exhausted all feasible strategies and are forced to either publish or discard their work, never to be seen again. Those writers wrangle with the demons of art. Others, myself included, write from the gut and shoot from the hip, as if everything is on deadline, and justify first draft publishing as the essence of emotion. These writers don't fret over art, they wrestle the demons of immediacy..

Your personal habits are of no consequence. All that matters is that you transport your reader into those squiggly lines and dots that somehow congeal into a universe they've never visited. You do this by employing skullduggery and chicanery and any other devious methods at your disposal to lure them into the thrill ride of their lives. The title of your piece, or at least the first sentence, absolutely must have that effect. Otherwise, your would-be audience will wander to the next universe.

I realize that writers are fragile creatures, by and large, and resultantly, by and large, they don't get published. Why? Firstly, they state the obvious. For instance, the phrase "in my opinion" should be stricken from the English language. Unless you're a robot, anything you write is your opinion. Don't belate the obvious. I could go on and on here, but this is the absolute worst creative writing cliche ever perpetuated on the human race. Under no circumstances, even under threat of death, ever use that phrase.

Secondly, far too many writers (or painters or musicians or what have you) set themselves up as artists from the outset. I cannot emphasize this enough: you are not, by virtue of saying so, creating art. You are writing and attempting to gain recognition--nothing more. You are no different from a house painter when you bottom line it. To paraphrase Margot Fontaine, taking oneself seriously is disastrous, taking one's work seriously is essential. History will decide whether your ramblings mattered in the scheme of things.You are way too closely involved to declare yourself an artist.

Finally, writers who don't get published don't understand the business of getting published. You have to understand that publications, no matter how lofty their mission statement may be, exist to sell advertising. That doesn't mean you whore yourself out to get published--unless, of course, you're a copywriter, but that's a completely different story. What it does mean, however, is you write from your heart whatever it is you write, without looking back, and then seek out a market that is sympatico with your vision.

This isn't theory--it's reality. To write, and to get your writing read, you have to be willing to descend from the godhood of creation to the melancholy of being a hired gun. Is it writing well? That depends on how you load your words.


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