Thursday, April 25, 2019

Learning How To Write

As a student of Spanish, my goal was to think in Spanish. Skip the word-by-word translation so I'd have the necessary speed to speak and listen. I know words in Spanish that I'd be hard pressed to translate. Usually profanity, I confess. Chingow!

Back when I taught English in China, my students studied grammar for years, and knew it better than you or I. They read. They wrote. But speaking involves moving faster than that. In conversation, we don't have time to write it first and make sure it's all grammatically flawless, then read it aloud, perhaps after a bit of rehearsal.

So, I tried to give them a chance to practice putting words together on the fly, rules be damned. The rules they'd internalized would kick in and keep them comprehensible, which would build their confidence in their ability to keep creating conversation that way.

This is not unlike what we go through as authors. First we study rulebooks, perhaps take some classes, and conclude just about everything we're doing is wrong. So many rules to memorize. We might dread sitting down to write with all those constraints.

But, really, it's not about memorizing rules at all. It's about internalizing the rules, following them (or not, if you prefer) without being consciously aware of what they are. They're there, but in the background.

The story's what matters. You're supposed to be having fun, not "working." At least not during the creation phase.

We don't always take the time to say, "I've written ten active sentences in a row so maybe I'll whip in a passive one now" or "I need a beat for every X lines of dialogue." I published four novels and edited dozens more before I learned what a beat was. (It's a pause so the reader can catch his/her breath.)

And, of course, since it is writing and not speaking, we can always go back and revise later. Then rely on editors to catch what we missed, or at least make us wonder why we wrote it this way instead of that way.

Some authors aren't even consciously aware of "the rules." They've never taken a class, never read a book about writing. They're simply avid readers who one day decided to write. But they've internalized the rules. It comes from reading.

I've said it before and I'll say it again. If you want to write, you must read. If you don't like reading, maybe writing isn't for you. It's not about writing because you want to say, "I am a writer." It's about writing because you enjoy writing.

And, it's really nice when you've been writing for a long time to go back and read a book about how to write. You might find one or two things to tweak in your technique, as opposed to a daunting laundry list of flaws. It's much easier to internalize one or two new rules than 50 or 100.

Michael LaRocca has been paid to edit since 1991 and still loves it, which has made people question his sanity (but they were doing that before he started editing). Michael got serious about writing in 1978. Although he’s retired more times than Brett Favre, Michael is writing his 19th book. Learn more about him at MichaelEdits.com, GoodReads, or Amazon.

Image: "Rules" by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images

5 comments :

  1. I read novels in almost every genre as well as non-fiction, including books on writing and the writing life. I still sometimes feel (even with four books traditionally published) that I don't know what I'm doing. :D

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  2. I wish I could write ten sentences without beating them to death. I know everyone says to get that first draft down, then go back. I can't do it, and my first drafts aren't any better than first-draft quality. I have picked up so many of the rules that have become second nature, but that's because my friend, critique partner, and editor knows them ALL. And I read. :-)

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  3. "But, really, it's not about memorizing rules at all. It's about internalizing the rules, following them (or not, if you prefer) without being consciously aware of what they are." This is what I preach to those who don't want to "outline" or "plan." Once you have an understanding of story architecture and how to modify it, you don't have to use outlines. It's like driving a car, you don't need the car manual open every time you get behind the wheel.

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  4. Internalizing rather than memorizing makes so much sense it's almost a no-brainer. As far as rules go, if your work shows you know them well, you can break them with impunity when your story calls for it. Excellent article, Michael LaRocca.

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  5. Terrific post, Michael. I particularly liked, 'It's not about writing because you want to say, "I am a writer." It's about writing because you enjoy writing.'

    Amen to that. And amen to the fact that writers need to be readers. Period. I don't hold to "cast in stone" rules, but that one should be. I cannot fathom how someone could want to write, not having fallen in love with story as a reader first.

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The Blood-Red Pencil is a blog focusing on editing and writing advice.