Saturday, March 24, 2012

The rules for writing

Hi everybody, this is Mario Acevedo. Welcome to my inaugural post to Type M for Murder. I’m honored by the invitation.



Since I am published, as I have five novels from a major NY house (don’t be too impressed, this means I have boxes of remaindered books), when I teach writing I get the impression from my students that I have in my possession THE SPECIAL KEY that will unlock the vault of the “How do I get published?” secret. Sadly, I have to disappoint them by admitting there is no key. I wish I did because I’d use it for my personal gain—lucre and the adoration of millions.

Which brings me to the rules of writing, which are summed up by this wonderful quote by Somerset Maugham:

There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately knows what they are.

Most people chuckle at the quote, as I did at first. But the more I write, the more I appreciate Maugham’s wisdom.

Truth is, no one knows what’s going to hit. Not all the time. It’s a pretty sure bet that the next novels by Robert Crais and Suzanne Collins will be blockbusters. But even the consistent NYT bestsellers falter. There is no literary sausage machine where you dump in words and ideas, flip the switch, and out plops an international bestseller. If that device did exist, then every book would make bank. Even the most savvy agent or editor can tell anecdotes about a particular manuscript they passed on eventually stuffed money in someone else’s pocket.

I’ve learned to caution myself about the advice I give my students. There is a tangible quality to writing, and every work needs a level of competence to make it readable. But to judge writing above that level is where I can get into trouble. It’s easier to critique newer writers as their work is full of craft mistakes. Stories from a more experienced writer leave me wondering if I can tell where the problems lie in the work because it’s just not my style.

In fairness to myself, I have judged books in major contests and my finalists correlated to those picked by the other judges. So my judgment isn’t that far off base...usually.

But when teaching, for every suggestion I might tell students, there’s a mega-seller showing them the opposite. Cut the exposition, but then there’s the work by Stieg Larsson. Add dialog tags to keep the reader oriented, unlike Elmore Leonard with pages of dialog with no attributions. Stay in one POV per scene when Jennifer Egan (A Visit From The Goon Squad) keeps the story plunging forward with her kinetic head-hopping. Plus, I’ve noticed that the more rigid an instructor is in following THE RULES, the less likely that instructor has serious publishing cred.

And we circle back to the how do I get published question?

Nothing new to tell. Keep practicing, keep improving, and don’t give up on yourself. And take writing classes; we impoverished novelists need the money.

17 comments:

Mary Gillgannon said...

Oh, Mario, your dog is so cute!!

You're writing advice comments are spot on, too. Beyond a point, no one really knows what's makes something "good". Persistence and continuing to write and work on your craft are about all there is.

I'm sure you're a great writing teacher!

Mario said...

Mary: What I like best about my editor is that he works cheap. Table scraps and doggie treats.

Karen Duvall said...

Great advice, Mario. I agree with all of it. The best a writer can do is write well, and the writer him or herself is rarely the best judge of what that is. Which is why we have critique groups, writing contests, and freelance editors. Never rely on your mom or your best friend to tell it like it is. :)

Ema Thayer said...

Your dog and your room are perfect really. : )

Hannah Dennison said...

Yes - no one knows what will be a hit - it's the same in Hollywood too. I just LOVE your dog ... and your office looks just like mine!

Charlotte Hinger said...

Mario--I'm always nervous about critquing beginning writers' works. It you could see my rejection slips! What one editor loves, another hates. It you want absolutely certainty about processes you won't find it pursuing a writing career.

Donnell said...

Mario, great advice. Thanks. I particularly related to your comments about those who stay stogidly to the rules. One rule that you didn't mention, and, as a writing instructor, I'd be curious to know your thoughts. It's important to know the rules, but equally as important to know when to break them. Congrats on your knew blog!

Donnell said...

new blog (sigh)

Mario said...

Thanks all for your welcome welcome and comments. The instant I figure out this publishing biz, I'll post it first on this blog.

Mark W. Danielson said...

Mario, your quote reminds me of Jack Palance's line to Billy Crystal in City Slickers where you only have to know one thing, but only you can figure out what it is. The publishing world is as fickle as the market, and the publishers are always guessing. The one thing I know is I write because I enjoy it, and if my work entertains those who read it, then it's even better.

John R Corrigan said...

Mario, Great post. Thanks for sharing.

Jeanne Stein said...

Mario-- I see you cleaned up your room for the picture.Only two liquor bottles in view!

J.

Unknown said...

Jeanne, You aren't looking hard enough. There are more than two bottles, but perhaps you were distracted by the very handsome freelance editor in the photo.

Bonnie B

Anonymous said...

Love the full body beard. New look for you. And the collar--très Goth.

Thanks for coming out of the publishing closet with your post. Love it. Get so tired of all the "Have Tos" that fly in today's writing circles. Sure, some of it will better a work, but most of it one just doesn't know. Plenty of work out there that makes me shudder when I read it...and think, well, SOMEONE liked this enough to slap it between two boards....

F. P. Dorchak

Mario said...

Thanks for the comments. My editor is waiting for Happy Hour and his bacon martini.

Daven Anderson said...

There are three rules for writing a best-seller, but no one knows what they are.

If an agent said they rejected "Harry Potter" for being too sophisticated for children, or "Twilight" for a multitude of possible reasons, you would probably still understand their basic reasoning even now, all of those books/movies/dollars later.

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