Thursday, April 24, 2014

U = Understand Your Craft


If you don’t read, you’ll never write as well as you could. I could make the blanket statement that, “If you don’t read, you can’t know how to write,” and probably be accurate for about 98% of the writers out there.

Most writers have a love of reading. Reading is what inspired them to write, in most cases, stirring their imaginations and transporting them into worlds previously unexplored. Reading is a comfort. The characters are friends; the places are as familiar as home.

I understand there are authors who have precious little pleasure-reading time, but these are not the writers I’m talking about. The ones I’m talking about use the same tired plot devices and phrases because they don’t read enough to know how tired and overused those things are.

Creative storytelling is a gift—a talent that some people have in abundance and some people have in small portions. It can’t be learned in the same way other skills can be taught and learned. But the basics of writing really don’t change from one generation to the next. Not in a “macro” way, anyway. There are nuances of style that might sway with the trends, but the basics of spelling, grammar, punctuation and structure can and should be learned.

My posts for this month have been all about understanding the writing process in one way or another, whether from the pre-publishing or post-production end of things. I firmly believe that a writer can not write effectively unless he understands his craft. If you don’t know the foundations of how to write, you need to learn them, and that’s that.

But only if you want to excel.

44 comments:

  1. Hello Lynda - I admit that I do not read as much as I would like to. I'm unable to read while writing in case I absorb something from another novel which will somehow find its way into mine. I often find myself dwelling on sentences, and that's perhaps why I'm a slow reader.
    Some months I read avidly, and other times I only manage the newspaper. I really should read more. Thanks again for the advice.

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    1. A lot of authors do what you do, Fanny, and stay away from other people's books when they're writing, for exactly the reason you've described. The important thing is that you have the *desire* to read and try to fit it in when you can.

      Of my three children, two are fast readers and one reads slowly. Oddly, the fast readers prefer fiction and the slower reader has always gone for non-fiction—even as a young child, he would get children's encyclopedias out from the library—and he's the one who can usually quote what he's read, verbatim. Slow reading isn't so bad.

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  2. I suspect that it's possible to go too deeply into craft, particularly structure. There are many books on structure out there that suggest their approach is the only way to do it (the hero's journey is probably the best known). The result of this tends to be exactly the sort of by the numbers plot that people are trying to avoid.

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    1. Good point, Stu. I believe the more well-rounded a person's reading, the more he'll realize the writing doesn't need to be formulaic.

      I'm just discouraged when I hear authors say, "I can't manage to read other people's books." I've looked into the book samples of a few of those people, and I wish with all my heart that they'd read *someone's* book just so they can see how it's done.

      Thanks for your visit and comment! Great tips for the medieval writing on your blog...I guess I have a few letters to catch up with, don't I?

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  3. I'm a big reader, and I tend to read across genres and also across audiences, like MG and YA. I read books on the writing craft, too, but I try not to overdo those. Reading is such an important part of my life - if I don't read, I get cranky. :)

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    1. Not finding time to read is one of many reasons I get cranky, but it's a big one. Reading can provide useful information as well as a good ol' escape from reality now and then.

      Reading across genres is something I find myself doing more and more, as I discover indie authors whose online personalities I enjoy. I think it helps me as an editor, too, to know what's being overdone already.

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  4. I always say, readers make better writers. To understand one's craft they must experience the craft. As you said Lynda, the mechanics are stagnant, style is not. To truly understand how to write one needs to read and read a lot. They need to read fiction non fiction, newspapers, magazines, any form of print or eprint. These not only give you a better understanding of how to write but of the current political climate, how political intrigue would truly form, what is current technology, what are new discoveries, etc. These all give your stories life and make them more believable. Listen to people talk. This makes your dialogue more believable. Groups like the military (if you are writing about them) have a particular vernacular and specific way of speaking (minimal use of contractions and pronouns). To make their dialogues believable you have to understand these things.So reading (and by default studying) makes you understand your craft better and provides you with information and knowledge to make your stories more believable with richer characters and locations.

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    1. Right-o, JT! Not being aware of the nuances will make or break whether a Civil War novel has authentic weapons, a Regency romance has believable clothing style and dialogue—or, as Martyn V. Halm (author of the Amsterdam Assassins series) stresses, whether your story has any verisimilitude at all.

      The more a person reads, the more those subtleties are noticed and appropriately adjusted.

      You win this morning's prize for comment-that-is-almost-as-long-as-my-post. Congratulations! Just keep your head lower than mine and we'll be kosher. This may be difficult, as I'm not quite 5'3", but I'm trusting you to do the right thing.

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  5. When it comes to writing, I think I'm in the small portions category. Music is a different story though.

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    1. Small portions are still better than no portions, Alex. And music...well, I'm with you on that one. We listen to everything and anything in our household, it seems.

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  6. I have always loved to read. Since I launched into this journey of writing a novel, I find that I read differently than used to. I pay attention to active versus inactive verbs. How is the story layered? What did this bit of information bring to the story? Why is it important? Why right now versus earlier or later? How are characters described? I read from the perspective of enjoyment, but I also read with the Craft always in my mind.

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    1. Robin, what you've described is exactly why authors should read each other's work. Since I started editing, I also read differently. I look for what is redundant, what might sound clichéd, plot lines that are predictable, and more.

      Reading with more awareness can still be enjoyable!

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  7. Yes. THIS. Reader = writer. Non-reader = non-writer. It is that simple. Now if only everybody who aspires to be "a bestselling author (like JKR!)" would just understand that.

    To be honest, convincing other people to read is probably one of the most difficult things to do... it's also one of the most frustrating for me. So many people I meet tell me all about how they want to be an author, and my very next question is, "So, what's the last book you read?" If they don't have an answer, chances are they don't actually write, either, they just say they want to. Or, perhaps they spend time writing, but it's never stuff that contains coherent sentences.

    I actually had one person respond, "Oh, I don't read." When I reacted with incredulity, her response was, "Well, we're not talking about reading. We're talking about writing." Facepalm.

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    1. Yes, H.C., I've run into those same people, and the urge to facepalm (MY palm, THEIR face) is almost overwhelming. One gal on Goodreads said she thought other people's books were "boring" and she just couldn't get into them or understand them, regardless of genre. I read a bit of her first chapters and the writing was appalling. I was not surprised.

      If you want to be an author, talking about writing IS talking about reading.

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    2. Sometimes, just to play games with these people, I say something like, "You want to be a writer? Cool. I want to be a professional baseball player!" When they act shocked, I just stare at them, willing them to make the connection. Sometimes they will even ask, "So you really like baseball? What's your team?" At which point I can say, "No, I don't really watch baseball, I just want to be a baseball player." It is surprising how few of them will make the connection, and how many will just stare, mystified.

      Hours of entertainment, I tell you. Hours.

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    3. I love it! I would most likely do the same thing. The sheer entertainment value of moments like those is well worth the effort. Kudos!

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  8. I've found that reading is important, but so is attention to story structure in general, in movies, tv shows, etc. I can't read or watch anything without judging it from a writer's standpoint. One of my favorite things to do is to spout a character's dialogue before he or she does.

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    1. You would be a fun person to watch a movie with, Silver Fox! Last spring, friends and I were in Turkey for ten days, and we amused ourselves one night by watching a Turkish soap opera and making up the dialogue to see if the actors' actions would correspond with our predictions. It was uncannily accurate.

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    2. A friend and I did something similar over thirty years ago. We were watching a poorly written, predictable Western and were able to anticipate the dialogue for 95% of it. I used to watch sitcoms and beat them to the punchline quite often, too.

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    3. Ah, good times. I often think if I'm ever hard up for money, I can write cheesy soooo well.

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  9. I can't imagine how one can love to write but not love to read. Maybe it happens, but it's impossible for me to understand lol. There are only two things that helps us better our craft: keep writing and keep reading. (Oh my third, which goes without saying, is coffee.)

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    1. As an experiment I would like to see you and Lynda put in a room for five days with no coffee. I mean I wouldn't be the person that let you guys out, but it might be fun to watch. :)

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    2. Umm, yeah...I can handle it. I have my moments where I've gone with no coffee for months at a time. And even now, some days I skip it all together. Its just a guilty pleasure. I'm pretty sure I'm a pleasure to be around too...pretty sure... o_0

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    3. I want to believe you, I really do. lol

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    4. Brandon, if you're the one who wants to see it, you're the one who has to open the door to let us out. That's the deal.

      Together, though...I have the feeling SK and I would somehow come up with the world's greatest ideas, and emerge victorious...in much the same way we close out our daily chats.

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    5. True. I have a feeling if I was the one that put you in I might be the recipient of some of these ideas. Maybe this experiment would not be quite so fun. lol

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    6. Oh you don't even know, Brandon. Our ideas are brilliant...everyone should be lining up for the job of opening the door and receiving...a little pat...along with the ideas. A little sympathetic pat in the head with my fist will be well worth one of our plans. Seriously. WORTH it.

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    7. High five! To the face. With a chair.

      I need to start writing these ideas down. They come and go, and if we ever implemented even ONE of them, we'd be filty, stinkin' rich. Rich, I say.

      And probably lords of the universe.

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    8. A time without coffee is where the "Marketing Associates" came from. And that was just a few hours, you son't want to see me without caffeine very long. I think we should combine a few of our "good ideas" we create without coffee.

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  10. Reading is the gateway to good writing. How else can we learn the things we love and the types of scenes we want to write. How to build to them. I guess one could learn through trial and error, but then they miss out on all those amazing stories.

    Brandon Ax: Writer's Storm

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    1. Trial and error takes so much longer than learning from other avenues! Yes, sometimes it's necessary, but in this case, a little research (reading) can help you focus on what works and what you didn't like.

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  11. So true, so true! I've learned over 33 years of teaching in the elementary school is to model reading and writing ALL OF THE TIME - I integrate both in all subjects, get the kids excited and they respond by following step! Great post!

    http://www.door2lore.com/3/post/2014/04/uniforms-war-stories.html

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    1. Too many teachers seem to think writing and reading are reserved for Language Arts classes only. Sounds like you do a great job!

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  12. Amen!

    I just received a review on Moonless raving about how utterly refreshing and new the plot is from an experienced book reviewer. It made me happy. I read approximately 6 books a month in my genre. I know what's out there. I know what's trending and what's been done to death. There's power in that.

    True Heroes from A to Z

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    1. Way to go, Crystal! You should feel great about a review like that. There's great power in knowing what's out there and how to work around it or within it.

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  13. I always find that I'm more inspired to write when I'm reading. I just wish I had more time to read.

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    1. When I'm editing, I don't have much time for pleasure reading, unless I'm tired enough that I can't concentrate and only need a distraction. I do try to make up for it between edits, though, because it keeps my observational skills sharp.

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  14. Here! Here! or Hear! Hear! Knowing your craft is key.

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  15. I completely agree about reading and being creative enough to come up with things that aren't overused. I have to admit that I enjoyed reading much more before I learned to write. Now I can't help seeing every passive verb, repetitive structure, cliche phrase, info dump, not to mention giant plot holes that I would have glossed over before. It ruins the books for me.

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    1. I have to consciously turn off my inner editor when reading for pleasure. If it's bad enough, though, I can't help but notice. The better ones, I simply enjoy.

      Your reading might not be as enjoyable as it used to be, but you do recognize all the pitfalls, so your writing ultimately reflects the good lessons learned.

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  16. Since I became a writer, reading is often like watching a movie with a film student talking through the movie going 'tsssk, why the hell did he use that camera angle', 'way to cut to the next scene, doofus', 'Christ, I can't believe he did a close up, when a half-shot would've been way better'.

    Still, I read everything. I often end up with strange words in my head, wondering where I read them. A passing truck? A medicine bottle? A flyer?

    I also steal a lot of stuff, although I do what most good thieves do and call it a homage, which is like calling second hand clothes 'vintage'. It adds a little 'faux cachet' to used crap.

    By the way, I put in the 'faux cachet' to have all of you reach cursing for your dictionaries. Yes, I'm evil.

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    1. I'm a cereal-box reader from way back. I can't help myself: if there are words on it, I'll read it.

      My pleasure reading is often less pleasurable if my inner editor is shouting. But I consider that the author's fault, not mine. If the writing is great, the editor in me shuts up and overlooks the occasional typo. If the writing is bad, every little error begins to look larger and larger until the experience is on par with finding yourself counting how many time someone says, "like," or "you know" as he's talking.

      And yes, curse you for the "faux cachet" —I was looking it up before I even read your final sentence.

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    2. We didn't eat cereal, just cardboard when I grew up. So while I'd be pulping the cardboard and the ink would turn the milk grey, I'd read the labels of the jars on the kitchen sink. I think one of my first word was Formaldehyde...

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