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.