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Thursday, July 17, 2008

Reaching for the Brass Ring

When I find an author I like, I will frequently go to their backlist and begin reading everything I can find. I did it when I discovered Dean Koontz in 1990 after reading Mr. Koontz’s most recent release, The Bad Place. I was deeply intrigued by the way he was able to get inside the head of Thomas, a character who has been diagnosed with Down’s syndrome.

In fact, I was very intrigued. So, I began hunting for as many of Koontz’s previous works as I could find.

I haunted used bookstores, libraries, and yard sales. Within eight weeks I found and read 13 of his previous novels and learned one inalienable truth during the process.

He got better with every book.

Does improvement in the craft of fiction happen in a vacuum? Can we become better writers by simply getting published more often?

Perhaps, if we learn from our mistakes.

But I think there is a better, more logical approach to improving our craft and it goes beyond the practice of simply writing more often. It’s an approach I’ve learned from Koontz, Grafton, Parker, Follett and others. I learned it by reading their works in the order in which they were written and by reading interviews they’ve given on the craft and techniques of fiction. There are no great revelations. There are no fast tracks or easy answers. But there are some tips – most of which you’ve probably heard – that bear repeating. And, I hope, some different approaches, as well. After all, one of the quickest paths to learning well is to learn from others.

As it has been said, “A knowledgeable man learns from his mistakes; but the wisest man learns from the mistakes of others.”

So how can we improve our craft? What must we do if we are to develop the kind of fiction and craft that we all know lies within us? How do we do it better?

As a weight lifter, I can tell you that the old axiom, no pain, no gain, is a reality. It is possible to lift a twenty pound dumbbell at 10 reps for 3 sets for 6 weeks and see some real gain. But at week 7 and beyond, the gains stop. Why?

Because the lifter didn’t tax himself.

Rule number 1: If we are going to improve in our craft, we must push the envelope.

In his early work, Koontz stuck to science fiction stories which, although they were delightfully entertaining and broke some new ground, didn’t seem to change much from one novel to the next. In interviews he’s given since his switch in genres, he’s said that he deems his real career to have begun with Whispers, his breakout novel.

During the writing of the book, Koontz managed to write around the clock on many days in order to stay in the flow. He built characters with believable motivations. He worked hard, labored long, and gave birth to the book that, in turn, would birth his breakout career.

Dean pushed himself. He researched the psychology of his antagonist, Bruno Frye, and took the time necessary – and the pain – to craft a book like none he had ever written before.

Does that mean he could have done this earlier in his career and gotten on with it? By no means. Dean’s success in pushing the envelope with Whispers came in part from the techniques he learned in his previous writing. And that, leads me to point number 2.

Rule 2: Learn from past mistakes.

None of us like a bad review. In fact, very few of us like mediocre reviews. But there is usually some truth in them, and we would do well to search it out.

I received a mediocre review for my first novel, Original Sin, which I will admit, hit me below the belt. But after reading it again – and again – I found that the reviewer was dead on. What he said not only made sense, it would also have made for a better novel.

Now I’m not saying you should love bad reviews. But if 7 out of 10 are saying the same thing, maybe you should listen. In fact, if 1 out of 10 said something that you know to be true, regardless of how painful, lick your woundd and then incorporate what was said. Make the bad reviews work for you.

Of course there are other methods for uncovering fallacies in our work, and that don’t necessarily have to be performed in the glaring spotlight of public scrutiny. If we’re honest with ourselves and diligent in our work, we can be quite capable of giving ourselves the thrashing we need without having an audience around when we do it. There are several ways to do this.

Rule 3: Take time to think about your story before you write a word.Have you ever read a novel and wondered why the author went down the road she selected rather than the one that you think would have made for a better novel?

I have.

By not taking the time to think – and I mean really t-h-i-n-k – we rob ourselves and our readers of the full flavor of the meal we’re trying to prepare. The result is that we (and by extension, they) will miss the nuances, the texture, the richness of subplot, and the opportunity for an ending that resonates. Like a good meal that wasn’t allowed to marinate, stew, or roast long enough, our readers will be served the literary equivalent of fast food.

Genre fiction and genre readers are no less deserving of a good meal. Genre fiction is not the gutter of the literary world. It is, in fact, the Main Street on which most readers live.

Give them a good meal.

Rule 4: Another technique to literary self-flagellation, done to avoid the public skewering of a bad review, is to put the manuscript away for a while and begin work on something else. Then, after several weeks or months have passed, pull the thing from the drawer, dust if off and give it a cold-eye reading. You just might be surprised by what you find.

Your characters might possibly be more hackneyed that you originally thought. The situation they find themselves in will probably turn out to be the same as the novel you were reading when writing your own (another no-no), and you will probably find yourself stumbling over your diction.

The Chinese have a saying. “Revenge is a dish best served cold.”

Now revenge isn’t something I practice, but I do write fiction, and I can tell you first hand, reading a cold manuscript is the surest way to uncovering the faults that lie therein.

Rule 5: Read your manuscript out loud. If you can’t do it without stumbling, stuttering, or finding phrases that stick to the tongue like super glue on flypaper, then your readers probably won’t be able to either. Both Dean Koontz and Michael Crichton have said they use this technique before submitting their work. If they do it, then maybe you should too.

Rule 6: Have a group of first readers. An odd number works best.Get them a hard copy of the manuscript and then let them have at it.

If 7 read your work, and 7 rave about it – get a new group.

If 7 read your work and 7 hate it – ask why.

If 7 read your work and 5 have a problem with it – ask why. Then fix it.

If 7 read your work and 1 has a problem with it – take him off your Christmas list.

But please remember, your first readers have done you a tremendous favor. Reward them. At the very least, give them a signed and personalized copy of your book as soon as it is available. A ‘thank you’ within the book would be a nice gesture too.

Rule 7: Get a grammar book and read it. Then, like the apostle James says, put it into practice.

Rule 8: Read. Read widely and then deeply.

This is a no brainer, isn’t it? Is there any reason to elaborate on this?

Rule 9: Look in the mirror. I mentioned at the beginning of this article that nothing I was going to say was new. But this one is--sort of. Don’t rely on articles or Writer’s Digest How-to books to tell you how to improve your craft.

Begin there, of course. Read them. Practice them. But then come up with some of your own. You already know things that you can do to improve your fiction and your craft.

Take a good look in the mirror. Take an honest look. Where do you fall down? Where do you need improvement? What area of your craft causes you the most concern or embarrassment?

Find that weak spot and work on it. Pick up the dumbbell and push ourself. Be second to none.

Rule 10:
Avoid the cliché.

See? I told you there was nothing new here. Cliches fall on the ear like a trumpet played by a lipless man. (This is another reason for reading your manuscript out loud.)

After all, take a look at the title of this article. Reaching for the Brass Ring? Geeshsh. Is that really the best I could do?

How about, Going for the gusto? Or reaching for the stars? Or, even, going for the Brass Ring? Or …. Hey, why don’t you come up with one?

Check out Brandt's Website: www.brandtdodson.com


Blogger Ed J. Horton said...

Thank you for the helpful article, Brandt. Perhaps not all of the rules were new, but you put a fresh spin on most of them. And, I learn best from the constant repetition of concepts/tips anyway.

Also, your Rule #9...it scares me. Sometimes I get tied in a knot during that long, honest look. Let me explain. During the 'mirror' experience I will find some of my weak spots and work on improving them, then put the manuscript away for weeks, sometimes months (rule 4), only to pull it out and read it aloud (rule 5) and discover it still needs a whole lot of work. So I repeat the whole revision cycle. Of course, during this process I am writing, taking steps to hone my craft, and reading the stuff of other writers. My struggle...how will I know, I mean really know, when a proposal or manuscript is polished enough for an editor or agent to read?

8:40 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

First of all, thanks for writing Ed.
I had the same question when I first began writing and I didn't like the answer. You may not like it either.

Q: How will I know when it's good enough?
A: You won't.
Sorry, but it's true.

Even now, I never really know if it's "good enough", so I've learned to go by instinct.
If I can give the manuscript a cold reading, not stumble over my syntax, find the story appealing and become involved with the characters in a plot line that interests me, then I go with it.
Dean Koontz once said, "You've got to write for yourself. You've got to write the kind of book you'd like to find in the bookstores, but can't."
I agree. If YOU find the book entertaining, chances are someone else will too.

Good luck to you, Ed. And never, never give up. Nothing can replace the power of persistence. It will drive your desire to improve, to write, and to ... well, persist.


8:15 PM  
Blogger Ed J. Horton said...


Okay, so there's no secret formula for knowing...

I followed my 'instincts' (gulp) and sent off a requested proposal today. Here's an additional tip that worked for me...read the manuscript aloud to another person. I had already read it aloud to myself, but the last thing I did was read the sample chapters aloud to my wife. Guess what? As I read, each of us caught a different plot detail I had overlooked.

3:22 PM  

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