Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Writing Basics

By Mark W. Danielson

A recent speaking engagement to a group of aspiring writers took me back to the basics of writing. Upon hearing their introductions, I soon realized these people were members of a critique group who were interested in hearing what published authors had to say.
Some in attendance were writing non-fiction while others were working on fiction. Still others were writing their memoirs. All wanted to know how to find a good editor or a good publisher. My best recommendation was for them to review blogs such as this one that include advice on those and other writing related topics.

Following this meeting, I decided to summarize some basic writing principles for the benefit of anyone who is seeking similar information. I’m hopeful that other authors will chime in with their own recommendations or experiences. Having said that, I’ll proceed with some writing basics.

First and foremost, no one speaks to wanna-be writers better than Stephen King in his book, On Writing. King truly wants writers to benefit from his experience and even offers them an exercise that if you follow precisely, he or a member of his staff will offer their critique. To me, this book is as important as a thesaurus, dictionary, or style guide. If you don’t already own it, buy it. You’ll also learn some interesting things about King.

A key point made by every successful author is that writers must also read. As King bluntly says, if you don’t have time to read, then you don’t have time to write. How can you understand different writing styles if you haven’t read them? I’ve put many books down because I couldn’t force myself to finish them. Since I never want anyone doing that with my own books, I analyze what it was that turned me off in a particular story and learn from it. Conversely, if I like a story, then I try to determine why the pages kept turning.

People frequently tell me they would like to write, but don’t know what to write about. Certainly, everyone has at least one story in them, and that’s the story of their life. One of my fellow pilots just told me about his surviving a plane crash during an air show. He was one of two that survived. The other four died. His story was a remarkable testament about flying and survival. Burned over forty percent of his body, he made a remarkable recovery and was flying again in four months. Since them, he has performed countless blacked out landings with the Air Force in various parts of the world and is currently flying as an airline pilot. No one will ever know about stories like his unless they are spoken or written down. Writing your memoirs is a great way to re-live memories while developing a suitable writing style. The key is to write the story as if you were telling it at a family reunion. Don’t throw in an overabundance of detail for it will slow the pace. Deduct ten points for every unnecessary adjective.

Regardless of what you write about, you must read it out loud during the editing process. Doing so catches the majority of your grammatical errors and also flags bad dialogue. What may look good on paper may not sound believable when read aloud. Whatever you write about, keep it real.

Accuracy is equally important in both fiction and non-fiction because inaccuracies dissolve credibility. In non-fiction, inaccuracies may also warrant libel suits. No author can afford either.

There are plenty other important items worth passing on. Published authors, remember what it was like when you first started. Think about your mentors’ best advice and please offer it generously.


Ben Small said...

I agree, Mark. King's book should be required reading for anyone who wants to be a novelist. Enjoyed your article.

Jean Henry Mead said...

Good article and advice, Mark. I also treasure Stephen King's book, On Writing. My best piece of advice is to put aside your "finished" manuscript for a month or two, then take it out and read it as though someone else had written it. I guarantee that you'll do some serious editing.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Thanks Ben, Jean. I agree that setting your work aside for weeks or months gives it a new perspective. Even for business letters, setting them aside for a day or two and then re-looking them ensures they remain business letters and not emotional rants.

Anonymous said...

The only advice I have to offer is: never throw anything away -- a scrap of an idea, a page of rough draft written in the first flush of enthusiasm. You never know when such flotsam and jetsam will come in handy.

I'm in the midst of a massive cleanup of old files. Among other usable stuff I found a filler-type article written God knows when -- 434 words about my mother. It's funny, and apparently I meant to enter it in a contest. There's a sticky note attached that says,"Entry fee -- check for $4."

I need to check around for contests. It's never too late.

Pat Browning

Mark W. Danielson said...

Great advice, Pat. I had to buy a new computer and since it won't accept floppy discs, I'm downloading the floppy info onto my old hard drive and transfer them to flash drives. Plenty of old material there that may be of interest later.

It's also best to write down ideas when they come -- even if that means jotting note after a dream. Writing deals as much with the subconscious as conscious, so doing so may spur some great stories.

Thanks all for your thoughts.

Beth Terrell said...

King's book is one my favorites on writing, along with (of course) Anne Lamott's BIRD BY BIRD, Lawrence Block's SPIDER SPIN ME A WEB, and Julia Cameron's THE ARTIST'S WAY.