Monday, February 08, 2021

Thou Shalt Hoard Notebooks

 By Thomas Kies

Starting today, I’ll be teaching my Creative Writing Class again for the next six weeks.  I always start the first class with introductions.  Then I ask each participant what they hope to get out of the class, what they enjoy reading, and if they have a work in progress. 

Then I spend some time talking about the basics that we’ll be exploring more in detail as the class moves forward.  I always start with some of Stephen King’s rules for writing.  Whether you like him or not, the man is prolific and successful and knows a thing or two about writing. 

First write for yourself and then worry about the audience—I like this advice a lot.  If I think too much about somebody reading what I’m writing, I’d never get a first draft done. 

Don’t use a passive voice--Using the passive voice distances the subject from the action of the sentence, which leads to less clarity and urgency. It can also add unnecessary words to your manuscript, since the passive voice generally requires more auxiliary verbs than the active voice does. You need a lot more space to say :The ball had been kicked by me" than to say "I kicked the ball."

Avoid adverbs, especially after “he said” and “she said”—It’s not that I personally NEVER use them, I just use them sparingly.  

Don’t obsess over perfect grammar—hell, sometimes I’ve made up words.  Not using perfect grammar can drive a copy editor nuts, but as King says, “The object of fiction isn’t grammatical correctness but to make the reader welcome and then to tell a story.”

The magic is in you—I’m not sure what he means by this, but I like it a lot

Read, read, read— I know what he means by this.  It’s really surprising to me that when I ask my students what they enjoy reading, there are some of them who simply don’t read anything. 

Turn off the TV—I’d like to add to that, turn off the internet.  They are both black holes of time. 

Don’t worry about making other people happy—I want to make my publisher, my agent, my readers, and my wife happy when I write.  However, I don’t obsess over the subject matter or how it’s written.  My fourth book comes out in July and there’s lot in there about Climate Change.  I know some people who simply aren’t going to like it. Oh, and spoiler alert, climate change is real. 

You have three months—King suggests that a first draft shouldn’t take more than three months.  Of course, his day job is writing books.  I have a day job that’s not.  I’m not going to take this one to heart. 

Stick to your own style—I read a lot, mostly mysteries.  Sometimes I have to go back and reread some of my own work so that I don’t subconsciously try to mimic someone else’s style of writing.  

Dig—According to King, “Stories are like relics, part of an undiscovered pre-existing world.”  My read on that is digging deep into your own emotions and memories to get to something that connects with your readers.  

Take a break—I like to do this when the book is finished.  Walk away from it.  Don’t think about it.  But come back and look at it again with fresh eyes.  King says, “You’ll find reading your book over a six-week layoff to be a strange, often exhilarating experience.”

Leave out the boring parts and kill your darlings—no matter how clever you think a turn of phrase might be if it doesn’t move the story forward, throw the little bugger off a cliff.

The research shouldn’t overshadow the story—Not always as easy as it sounds.  I did a ton of research on climate science and the oil industry.  I kept wanting to show my work, but honestly, it’s best if it’s kept in the background. 

You become a writer simply by reading and writing— King said, “You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”  There’s nothing I can add to that. 

I like teaching the Creative Writing class because it forces me to go back and look at the basics.  I like to use the NBA as an example.  Even the best players in the world are continually running drills and practicing their layups. Everything comes down to knowing and practicing the basics.

That being said, my wife set up new bookshelves in the hallway and I gave her carte blanche to come into my office and take the books with which she’d like to populate the new shelves.  Along the way, she found about seven notebooks in which I’d started a project, then set it aside.

I recall a saying that goes, “The first rule of writing is thou shalt hoard notebooks.”


Mario Acevedo said...

Great post. I'm proud of my pile of tattered notebooks.

Rick Blechta said...

An excellent post, Tom! Thanks.

And good things to remember whether one is a seasoned professional or someone just starting out. Your students are very lucky.

Susan D said...

I am the notebook hoarder queen. Bar none.