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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

What are two of the most important lessons you ever learned about writing?


The following is syndicated from Writing Off The Rails and is posted here with permission.


Hey, hey readers. I am fresh from my long hiatus from the social networking sphere, given that I’ve been focusing on my writing and all the organization that comes with writing novel-length works. With that in mind, let me herald my return with an interview I secured with Mr. Thomas McCormack, now a playwright and a former CEO of St. Martin’s Press. So as not to delay, take it away, sir! Ooh, slight rhyme.

Interview Questions and Answers

1. What are your top tips for building up the endurance to finish a work, i.e. a novel or a screenplay?

I wrote a book titled The Fiction Editor, The Novel and The Novelist that summed up most of what I learned about the crafts involved. I confess I don’t anywhere in the book tackle the problem of building the needed endurance. Some fleeting thoughts do come to mind, the first few of which aim at fending off the eroders of endurance. And they’re all a bit obvious: To the extent that staying healthy is a matter of will-power, do it. Avoid addictions, get sleep, avoid taking a day-job that will invade your night hours. For example, being a book-editor can exhaust the pertinent sensibility and energy, and it can require your allegedly off-hours be used to read and work on the writings of someone else.

Adopt and adhere to a writing discipline, ideally every day – a time you will devote to working on your idea or manuscript. At least once a week set aside a chunk of time to read the best writers in the genre you’re pursuing for yourself.

Here’s a suggestion that’s difficult to execute. Make sure the idea you are working on is a good, substantial one, something that will generate enduring determination. In other words, make sure the novel/screenplay involves a subject/plot you deeply believe in. Admittedly, some writers – Doctorow, Didion – have described how they must start writing even when they don’t know where they want to go, they have to discover the book as they write at it.

Still, there will be times when a shiny but shallow idea will start you going, an idea too slight to support sustained attention. This easy to say, but again hard to carry out. When you see the central notion is simply not going to be executable – or worth executing – abandon it. It can eat you up fruitlessly for years.

Just how one discerns the distinction between hard to execute and impossible to execute – I can’t give any rules for this. And it entails a dilemma. A novelist needs determination, application, a ‘heavy ass’ for sitting at the machine for hours. And yet exactly this devotion can blind him or her to the fact that the idea is not viable.

2. What are two of the most important lessons you ever learned about writing?

Read, read, read. Or, if it’s a screenplay, watch, watch watch movies. Second, dare to be different. You mustn’t ignore the audience entirely, but don’t take your assignment to be that of creating a shadow, a replica of some successful work, either its style or its structure. Though when you’re very young, this can be good practice. Just keep in mind it’s practice, not the real thing.

3. In what way has writing opened your eyes, changed your life or given you wisdom?

E.M. Forster wrote, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

I believe Flannery O’Connor said something similar.

My own version of that is slightly different. My fingers are much smarter and more honest than my tongue. My tongue is fast, glib, and it has a knack for snappy phrases, but my fingers regularly say to me, “Now, wait a minute, you.” I have often watched my fingers type out the truer insights. Give your fingers a chance.

4. Do you have a statement for writers, i.e. something to motivate or inspire them?

Nothing general, no.

Occasionally, when you know something specific in a writer’s life, you can say, “You ought to write that.” But if the writer isn’t moved by it, that’s that.

When I was in the army, I had an experience with a beginning, middle, and end, with heroes and villains. People would say to me, “You ought to write that.” But I had to respond that mere reportage did not interest me. Using whatever creative imagination I have is what has regularly motivated me to sit down at the keyboard every morning.

Beware of young allegedly ‘creative’ writers who talk about how much they want to ‘say’. They should go write non-fiction. Guaranteed. Except for a few passing rants, Shakespeare didn’t write Hamlet to say something. He wanted to do something. Which he could – to those who listened, and saw, and felt.

* Well, that’s it, folks. Advice from someone who’s been on both sides of the fence. Mr. McCormack has been in the publishing industry, yet he’s also been in the creative writing set. Currently, he is working as playwright and pursuing his varied interests. You can visit his site by clicking here. If you want to connect with me, on the other hand, I’m always spouting off on Twitter, which you can see here.

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