Welcome to the next in our series of special guest blogs from authors sharing their writing tips. This week we hear from L.A. Fields.
She lives in Dallas, Texas and her short fiction has appeared in anthologies of horror, erotica, and academia. She’s also the author of The Disorder Series, the short story collection Countrycide, the Lambda Award finalist My Dear Watson, and Homo Superiors, a modern retelling of Chicago’s Leopold and Loeb crime.
1. Consider The Source
The first piece of advice I have is to suspect all advice and don’t take too much of it. Writing advice is like religious doctrine: you can take any rule and make it mean whatever you want it to mean, you can cherry pick and quibble and deflect, you can defend and attack with the same phrase if you want—it’s nothing but words without substance at a certain point. Just because one successful writer says something about writing doesn’t mean it’s universally true; writing effectively is the goal and everyone’s playing for personal best.
If you find a piece of advice that works for you, from someone whose achievements you admire, take it: hoard it, tattoo it, stitch it on a sampler, engrave it on your possessions, whatever. If some other author you don’t admire says that’s bad advice, ignore them; everyone has naysayers, you’ll have them too, don’t worry about it. It’s a big world, lots of room on it, other kinds of writers can be correct in their realm, and completely opposite from what you do in your tribe where everyone speaks the same language, it’s not a zero-sum situation, it’s personal best, remember that.
Honest example: I was writing and publishing before I took any writing classes at the graduate level, and what’s fun about that is knowing for sure when a teacher doesn’t know what they’re talking about. I was told that if you want to get published, you have to rewrite and revise, must, there is no other way to do it. Really? Because I don’t rewrite or revise, I only edit, and I get published all the time. Who’s telling me this again? Oh, someone who has never published a novel, but presumes to know the right way to do something they have never done themselves. I’m the authority in that situation, not my professor, and likewise when you come to advice with an objective mind, you can weed out the garbage and noise that is inapplicable to you no matter how hard someone else insists that they know the one and only right answer. “Well, I don’t mean you can’t get published since provably you can, but if you want to be taken seriously by people who speak and think in platitudes, you know . . .” Yeah, I know bad advice when I hear it and what to do with it, that’s what I know.
Never take advice from someone who hasn’t done what you’re trying to do; they literally don’t know what they’re talking about.
2. Say Nothing Twice
I’ve been learning this the hard way for ten years, and that’s the double-edged blessing of writing that other cool abilities don’t have. If you want to be an astronaut or a ballerina and you haven’t already done it, you’re too late, but that’s not true about writing, you can always flog yourself into this practice. In one way that’s comforting (it’s never too late to come to Jesus here), and in another way it’s annoying, because (1) a lot of astro-ballerina types will assume they’ve always got the potential to become a writer (I don’t even have the energy to roll my eyes at those idiots—have you got the talent, discipline, and drive, you fool?), and (2) you’re never sure that you’re not one of the astro-ballerinas yourself. I mean, can you really be sure? I mean, you try hard enough but no one likes you for it; you publish but make no money; you’re a writer but you’re actually a fraud, right? You’re really a normal civilian, and you’re not worth the energy it would take serious writers to roll their eyes at you, stupid.
But I’ve found in that fiction (the books I read and the books I write) the good stuff feels a little bit like poetry. In poetry, you don’t have pages to waste, you’re not fleshing shit out, you’re not meeting any minimum to go from short story to novella to behemoth, you’re just trying to convey one true thing the best and finest way you can. I bet bi- and multi-lingual authors get this faster than I have, because you wouldn’t say the same thing in two languages, would you? You’d pick the one that says it best, and let your audience do the work of understanding why. Don’t belabour the point, don’t assume your audience is too dense to catch your meaning the first time (you insult the intelligence of your readers and yourself doing that), and the highest level of saying nothing twice is to say two things (or more) at once.
Honest example: If I’m taking my own advice, then when I’m comparing a character’s movements to those of a bird, it’s not just to point out to my reader that he’s an ornithologist, it’s also to illustrate how awkward he feels (I pick an awkward-seeming bird), and to highlight that he feels that way because he’s about to experiment sexually with another guy (so I’m going with a flamingo). Three birds, one stone; write the kind of sentences an English class could extrapolate on for days. This tip, however successfully or deftly or not it is practiced, makes a writer think more deliberately: don’t just pick random crap out of a hat to fill page space (not just any bird will do); you only have one shot to say this as best as you can, so make it count.
“But what if I want to write a huge, looping, epic behemoth of a novel? Other people have done it and I want to be like them!” Then refer to tip #1 and disregard what I just said; I’m clearly not one of your teachers, go find the classroom you belong in and listen to those writers instead.
3. Read A Lot
I won’t tell you to read everything, because some books are terrible. Some books are useless to you but gold for someone else, and don’t waste your own time with those either, just get the gist and then drop that book into someone else’s hands. But do read a lot and read all the time, all the stuff you like and all the stuff those authors read so you can start to see the seams of the craft. There is no writing education better than reading a book you know is a perfect whole cloth, picking up one thread, and following it back through generations, thus revealing to yourself the mechanics. It’s like finally realising what you’re looking at in one of those Magic Eye pictures; writing looks like magic until you understand the schematics behind the trick, and that’s what writers do, they draw in the scaffolding and images behind all that busy, dense text, and wait for people to focus enough to see it.
It’s not long before you realise there are no new stories under the sun (just new accessories to augment and reinterpret the same stories for new generations and situations), all the best writers steal (you’re making a quilt, not a handwoven tapestry, you’re patching things together into that whole cloth; there will always be seams and you will always know where yours are), and you could learn how to do this too. I don’t really believe that writing can be taught, but it must be learned, and a library card can give you everything you need to know. Don’t read How To books about writing, don’t even bother knowing the exact, stern rules of grammar; read what you love and you’ll learn all of that as you go: scene, dialogue, description, how good grammar does the job of a discreet stage hand or page turner when the focus should be on the performance, and that breaking grammar rules can highlight other important things, like dialect, emphasis, framing. I don’t recommend breaking rules just because you don’t know them (that’s ignorance and it won’t help any of us), but learn the rules and then learn the shortcuts—the tricks of the trade, and the artful breaks done by the best—then sit down to write and see what you can get away with, what you can justify.
Honest example: I have two phrases in my books that are third generation stolen gems, phrases I gathered from authors who had found them somewhere else. I literally picked them both up from reading writer’s tips essays like this one, where those authors told me what I’m telling you: that fiction writing is a hand-me-down, patch-work, Frankenstein-monster kind of creation. You can’t make something from nothing, you’re no god, but you can bring dead things back to life, you’re a reanimator, and you have access to the wealth that is everything that came before you. William S. Burroughs took the phrase “eyes unbluffed, unreadable” from somewhere (he forgot where), and I picked it up too. Poppy Z. Brite borrowed a descriptor from Stephen King, about a character with a personality like the sensation of biting down on a piece of tinfoil you didn’t expect to find in a sandwich. I needed that one too, I know that kind of guy, and so does everyone else; that means my readers will feel what we’re all talking about.
Not only would I not know where the best stuff to steal was without reading, I wouldn’t have all the defences in the world to cite as validation for my thievery. The ultimate purpose of writing is to make the best story you can with the tools and abilities you have at the time; get your ideas, get your hands on anything that isn’t nailed down, and then get creative in making it all coherent to someone else who wants to hear a story.
Thanks very much to L.A. Fields for sharing her writing tips this week. You can find her online at http://la-fields.livejournal.com/
Next week, more tips from author, J.P. Bowie.