21 April 2011

Becoming an educated writer

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Becoming an educated writer

The split between the writer and the storyteller has been absorbing a lot of my thoughts lately, as shown by a guest post I wrote for the Astraea Press blog last Writer Wednesday. While it’s true that epublishers are demonstrating their willingness to accept manuscripts that are less than grammatically or stylistically perfect, so long as the flame of a good story is present, it’s also true that we owe it to our craft to educate ourselves and become the best writers we can.

Whichever genre we love, there’s so much to learn about writing within that category. Not only the specific genre requirements—whether we put a body on the first page or have two people notice each other across a crowded club—but also the many elements that combine to create good fiction, from story structure to dialogue, pacing to characterization. These elements of the craft hold true across genre lines, and writers who learn to conquer them for one category of fiction can then learn the genre requirements and adapt the same elements for another. Being an educated writer means being a flexible one.

So how does a writer become educated? We read, both how-to manuals and novels within our genre, learning how a good story is told in theory and seeing how it’s done in fact—or seeing how it didn’t work and what to avoid. We hang out with other writers, in forums, on Facebook and Twitter, through long, silly email conversations that keep us giggling although we aren’t getting much work done. And when we’re lucky, we find a few select, knowledgeable fellow writers who understand our stories and what we’re trying to say. These writers we invite to join us on the journey, as critique partners or beta readers, as they’re called now. (Hey, does anyone know the difference? Or is that just semantics?)

We also attend conferences, where hanging out and learning both take on a whole ’nother dimension. Some of us even return to university, mortgaging the house and both cars to attain a master’s or MFA in writing. (Gotta plug my alma mater here: if you’re looking for graduate studies in fiction, there’s no better place than Seton Hill University. And even if you’re not convinced three extra years of studying for an MFA in Writing Popular Fiction is absolutely essential for your career as a writer, they offer the greatest annual retreats around.)

Most importantly, we write. Every day, we plot, outline, draft, compose, or polish, working on the kernel of a story idea until it glitters like a diamond set in a matte black sky. And we market, sending the finished manuscript around to editors and agents, and while they’re reading that polished masterpiece we return to square one and start all over again.

But there’s a danger hidden within this process of becoming an educated writer, and that’s the danger of losing the good-story flame. It’s the danger of overpolishing, grinding away until the completed manuscript no longer glitters but instead feels stilted and ponderous. Sometimes the damage is done even earlier, perhaps through a too-intricate outline or by creating stilted characters. Anyone who’s ever read a novel with beautiful writing that nevertheless left the reader flat, knows exactly what I mean here.

There’s educated writing. And then there’s too-educated writing. The first is a good story told to the best of the writer’s ability, containing good measures of both style and substance. The other is so dry, all style and no substance, it may as well be used to start the fire.

Learn everything you can about writing. And then learn when to put it all aside. Draft a good story, but don’t kill it with edits.

Okay, enough pontificating. Let’s give away some books. There are two up for grabs, so we’ll select a winner for each:

Many Genres, One Craft is the equivalent of a fiction-writing master’s degree between two covers. Because it’s composed in short essays, quickly read and easily digested, it’s especially great for busy people who only have limited time for studying. MGOC will be released April 29, and the lucky winner’s book will be snail-mailed that day.

In August 1940, German Army Major Faust is unexpectedly captured by the English and he must escape before they break him. But every time he gets away, a woman is raped and murdered, and the English are looking for someone to hang. Faust must catch the killer, even though he’s helping the enemy—even though he’s making a Deal with the Devil. This historical mystery will be released in two parts, the first on May 3 and the second in June, and they’ll be emailed to the winner upon release.

2nd Excerpt:
About an hour ago he’d struck the northern edge of a line of trees. He cut south beneath their shelter and felt his first satisfaction when the ragged line widened about him into a small sheltering forest. Soon he’d stop for the day and rest in the comfort of the trees’ cover. He’d walked all night, and driven all the previous night, and he’d earned a rest. But maybe he could manage another mile first.

And then he stumbled from cover and fell down a little slope into a pool of dawnlight which splashed across his hands as if he was the pebble tossed into the pond, and when he raised his head to look about, he found himself staring across a kitchen garden into the eyes of the most beautiful girl in the world.

He couldn’t move. He crouched on hands and knees, gasping for breath, and measured the depth of surprise in those incredible eyes. Everything around him faded into insignificance, even the pain pounding its insistent rumba rhythm. Confused thoughts stumbled through his brain, each just showing itself for a moment as if afraid to break cover, and he wondered who she could possibly be. Had Sir Thomas Wyatt seen such a look in Anne Boleyn’s fine dark eyes? Whoso list to hunt, I know where is an hind, But as for me, alas—

“Alcock?” she called. Her voice was English, of course, cultured and measured like a poetry reading. “Alcock, is that you?”

Faust shook his head. Nope, not Alcock. And with a beck ye shall me call—

She grabbed a shotgun and rose from the farmhouse stoop. “Who are you?”

Whatever answer Wyatt had received no longer mattered. Poetry vanished like a season past. Cripes, was he still drunk? Mooning away while she shot his arse off? Faust scrambled up and spun back to the little rampart.

But the farmyard, and his head, spun tighter. His feet tried to follow, then the horizon and the rest of the world joined the dance. He hit the ground full-length and cried out as pain ricocheted through his body. For a moment he could only lie still while the echoes faded like ghosts into the depths of his brain. If he could escape back into the forest while she went for help—

He scrabbled up, grabbed for a handhold on the little rampart, glanced over his shoulder. And froze.

A pair of dark brogues were planted among the rows of staked tomatoes, beyond his reach. A pair of shapely, naked legs rose above them and disappeared into the depths of a tweed skirt. Above the skirt rose a body—the most beautiful body in the world—but then he saw the bore of the shotgun aimed at him, a finger curled about the trigger, and his fingers dug into the dirt of the bank. He raised his gaze to meet hers.

Not Anne Boleyn; Campaspe. Cupid and my Campaspe played at cards for kisses; Cupid paid—

—and he’d pay if he moved. The bore of the shotgun never wavered from his center of mass. He couldn’t bring himself to look down, though, because it would mean looking away from her face, a heart-shape framed by a dark auburn bob, the short ends whipped across her mouth and jutting chin. Her fiery hazel eyes, her coral lips, the roses in her flushed face, were mesmerizing. At this range, she couldn’t miss if she was blind—

—At last he set her both his eyes; She won, and Cupid blind did rise—

—and the pellets would rip his guts out.

Maybe he wasn’t drunk. Maybe he was crazy.

“Dad!” she called. “Dad!”

She was calling for help; she wasn’t going to fire; he wasn’t going to die. He dropped his head beneath the edge of the rampart as if onto a pillow, never looking away from her face. Oh Love! has she done this to thee? What shall, alas, become of me?

A voice came from a distance. “Jennifer? What is it?”

Her name was Jennifer. It didn’t fit. It sounded too tame, too un-poetical—what the heck rhymed with Jennifer?—too backwater English village lane-ish. She was ferocious. She should have a name like—

“I’ve caught a German.” Her eyes never left his, and the warmth which seeped through him at the thought was more intoxicating than anything Erhard had served.

Me. Faust smiled. She’s caught me. She should have a name like—

A man appeared beside her. Faust barely noticed him. Like—

“Well done,” the old man said. The barrel of a second shotgun aligned beside the one she aimed at him. It didn’t seem important, either. “Run up to the Hall and fetch Sergeant Tanyon. We’ll wait here.”

He spoke like a professor. Like—

But she turned and ran before Faust could complete the thought, and her spell was broken. Cold reality flooded his soul, routing the warmth she’d provided. He’d been captured.

Sherry, thank you so much for inviting me to share your blog and your wonderful readers. Everyone, don’t forget that while I’ve been over here, Sherry has been hanging out at my blog, Mysteries and Histories. Her two posts discuss judging an ebook by its cover and, ironically enough, guest blogging. Show her some love, too, okay?

Thank you Cheryl, it's been a delight to have you guest here these last few days and for informative comments about PoV and writing. 


Meg said...

It's true Seton HILL has fabulous workshop retreats! And a great program too. So many people ask, "Seton HALL? Isn't that in NC?" or wherever it is... LOL. Anyway, LOVE LOVE LOVE the excerpt! Can't wait to read the whole thing, Cheryl!

That's a really tricky thing, Sherry and Cheryl, about over-polishing. I'm still on the fence about that and leave myself open to a tweak here and there, if something new comes that you wish had been in there from the beginning. Anyway, nice blog!

the1940mysterywriter said...

Thanks, Meg! Over-polishing is one of my worst problems in writing. I'm hoping, as I delve more deeply into MGOC, that I'll find a cure for that one.

kayspringsteen said...

This has been a great, very informative series - on both sides. Some wonderful advice here, Cheryl!

the1940mysterywriter said...

Now we just gotta figure out how to move it from head to fingertips, lady.

Kim Bowman Author said...

I totally agree about it being easy to lose your manuscript. Wonderful advice:)

the1940mysterywriter said...

I wish there was a way to tell when I'm overpolishing, Kim. Right now I only realize it's happening after the fact. Any suggestions, anybody?

the1940mysterywriter said...

Congratulations, Kay Springsteen! You're the winner of "Many Genres, One Craft," probably the most important writing how-to manual of 2011. And Kim Bowman, you're the winner of "Deal with the Devil," part one and part two.

Winners, look for an email from me discussing your prizes. And congratulations, ladies!

Sherry Gloag said...

Congratulations, Kay and Kim on winning a couple of great prizes.