Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How To Learn To Write

I've been mentoring an advanced student into the giant leap from novel-length story writing to novella.

Yes, it's a giant chasm, a leap upward in skills as monumental as the leap from novel to screenplay. 

Just like so very many of my prior students, this one keeps reverting to PASSIVE VOICE when summarizing the story in order to pitch it to an editor for a specific anthology aimed at a specific market.

Hitherto, the one student has been writing stories in personally created worlds.  Now the pressure is on to meet a particular external set of requirements -- a specific "trope" if you will, the action/adventure trope for the 10,000 word max story form.

There's a terrific story, great material, fantastically valuable wide-audience characters and plights, and a rip-roaring adventure during which much of the worldbuilding can be shown without being tediously told. 

But though the writer has an intellectual understanding, and is absolutely personally convinced, that the point of view character must drive the plot, the description (the pitch) keeps turning passive voice.

Obviously, it's a major, huge, giant, incredible STRUGGLE to get the writer's hand inside the main POV character and dive into action.  We are on, I think maybe, the fifth iteration of my saying NO MAKE HIM ACT and the outline coming back to me saying "THIS IS DONE TO HIM." 

The first iteration of the outline was a couple pages of long, dense paragraphs with multi-syllable words, a complete brick wall between the editor and the pitch.

See my series on What Is an Editor.

http://aliendjinnromances.blogspot.com/2010/09/what-exactly-is-editing-part-vii-how-do.html   has links to the previous 6 parts.

Don't make your editor struggle, and don't make your editor suspicious that you don't know what you're doing. 

The pitch outline must contain the information "I know how to write in this trope."  Whatever the editor needs, you can supply it, no sweat.  Really, the Hollywood truism holds in publishing, "Don't answer on the first ring, and never let them see you sweat.'

This raises 2 questions:
a) How do you create a pitch that shows-without-telling that you can write this particular trope
b) How do you write such an outline and such a story? 


That's the answer in a nutshell. 

This new writer is experiencing the learning curve for PERFORMING AN OUTLINE.

That's what a pitch is - a PERFORMANCE of an OUTLINE.

It's just what a pianist does when practicing scales.

All piano pieces contain some of the notes of one scale, but a pianIST can play all the scales.

Proficiency at scales goes hand in hand with proficiency at playing whole pieces.

An editor looks at a a pitch letter and assesses the skill of the writer from the form and mostly from the SEAMLESS EASE with which the pitch letter reads.

If you sit and sweat and strain, pondering each word you type, re-reading and re-editing and polishing and polishing your pitch, it will be summarily rejected across the board.

If you are asked for a "story" with certain parameters, and blink and write a 1 page pitch without thinking about it, without strategizing about whether it will be bought, without anxiety or effort, it will be bought instantly. 

Think about that.  Do you want to sit in a piano teacher's living room and listen to a 9 year old laboriously work their way through chopsticks?  (if it's not your 9 year old, that is)  Would you pay $100 to sit there for an hour?  But $100 to listen to a true master render a Chopin etude and some other pieces would be a bargain! 

In fact, one lifetime highpoint I remember was watching Victor Borge (a so-so piano player with pizzaz http://www.victorborge.com/ ) render Chopsticks in a concert hall.

Writing stories is just like that.  The story you are writing, however original, is not original.  It is a RENDITION of something everyone loves, and whether they want to read it again or not depends on how well you render it, how you perform THEIR STORY. 

If it's all about the ease with which you perform, how do you acquire that ease?  How do you get to where you aren't giving editors a hard time and making them teach you writing while they desperately try t save their job?

Just like piano playing, practice-practice-practice.

How do you live long enough to practice that much novel or story writing?

You practice by creating OUTLINES.

Yes, the power is in the outline.  That outline is not a "rendition" of the story, but a rendition of the trope, the scale behind the piece.

If you see a passive construction slip into your outline, you know your subconscious is fighting your purpose, that you are not well tuned inside yourself.

The objective of practice with writing is the same as the objective with the practice of music, or the martial arts! 

The part of you that does the actual work is not your hands, your eyes, or your conscious mind.

The part of you that does the actual work in music, driving a car, martial arts or writing is your subconscious mind.

The objective of practice is to train the subconscious, because it can not learn.  It's not conscious, it doesn't KNOW, it only FEELS.  But random, rambunctious, flashes of feeling can't perform a structured piece.

The subconscious mind does not "mature" at the same rate as the conscious mind.  Think of a teenager, 14 years old going on 5.  Blows hot and cold, bursts of insane jubilation followed by blasts of depression, absolute confidence and ten seconds later total terror.  Now think of a 35 year old who has actually matured.  The same sensitivity is there, the capacity for jubilation, depression, confidence and terror in response to changing situations, but the magnitude of the emotional blasts is tamed down, and the power behind those blasts is used not for sound-and-fury but actual, visible accomplishments.

The subconscious is like a rebellious little puppy, eager to please but easily confused.  The trained subconscious is like a mature professionally trained guard dog, sounding off only when there really is an intruder (e.g. a passive verb in your pitch).  The trained guard dog's tail wags with delight, but he sits decorously until released.  The emotions are there, but they don't take over and dominate the direction of events.

But how does a puppy get turned into a guard dog?

It's that consistent, kind, generous trainer who rewards good behavior and steadfastly ignores bad behavior. 

The trainer shows the puppy the task, over and over leads the puppy through it, then gives a treat for success.  As the puppy matures, the tasks get more demanding but anticipation of a treat keeps the puppy trying to perform.

The new writer's subconscious is a PUPPY ever so eager to please, dashing this way and that, pulling on the leash, jumping on the trainer with muddy paws, chewing on everything in sight. 

The writer's imagination incites that puppy to yap incessantly.

The one command the writer must first teach that puppy is NO.  Then "here, like this" -- that's reading other  published works, dissecting them, copying them.  Get a good copy, give the puppy a treat.  Eventually, with REPETITION (e.g. writing many story outlines though not the stories), with practice the puppy starts to perform well enough to go out in public on a leash (make a story submission to a paying market.)

So I have this writing student I'm taking out in public on a leash, and a pocket full of treats waiting for performance.

Know what?  Life is FUN! 

Jacqueline Lichtenberg

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