Thursday, June 25, 2015


In the past few days, you've noted bits of conventional wisdom thrown at you after you'd made your intentions clear about becoming a writer.  Such intentions came to mean earning enough from your writing to be able to live at some standard approximating comfort.  

True enough, when you began to see how much the cost was for living at standards you considered comfortable, you expended considerable time pursuing the ways of radio and television script writing and, in one whoop-de-doo period, writing for the screen.

Let's drawn a line in the autobiographical sands, separating the need to indulge such jobs as auctioneer's assistant, mail order copywriter, night watch person, greeter for a hot dog stand, and television non-speaking extra to the point where your earnings came as a direct result of something you'd written or from your editorial activities relative to things other persons had written, or to you teaching university-level courses relative to things that had been written.  This would place you in at late twenties to early thirties.

You were well aware of being on the other side of the line when at one point of remarkable financial nadir, the only job you could get was writing novels for various series in which no by-lines were given.  These jobs were arranged through a literary agent you'd met earlier--and quite fallen in love with--when she was an editor to whom you sold massmarket rights to hardcover books your company published.  This very former editor, now agent, warned you off of writing under such conditions, completing the established cycle of irony.

Other conventions of which you were apprised had to do with not setting anything you wrote in a Latin American country, not wasting your time writing modern Gothic, not writing multiple point of view novels, not writing mystery novels in which there was only one corpse.

You've been scolded on numerous occasions in the matter of showing versus telling, a conventional wisdom in constant replay down the corridors of writing programs, writers' conferences, and writers' workshops the way Al Jolson's voice sings for the ages from a PA system mounted within his sarcophagus in the La Brea Avenue Cemetery where his mortal remains reside.  You've also been given that most ubiquitous of all assertions of conventional wisdom, the exhortation to kill my darlings.

By that expression, kill your darlings, two approaches are meant.  The most severe intends that you go through the entire manuscript, therein to delete any description you labored over to the point of making it sound literary, in similar spirit removing metaphor, simile, amphibole, and, if possible, synecdoche.  The less hawkish approach intends that you regard your last description or metaphorical device with the cold eye of Dick Cheney assessing a potential hunting partner.

Were you to have nothing to say about these exhortations, your silence itself would be voice enough even in the breech to say something significant about you.  But this is not about you in connection with them, this is about you in connection with the one convention you appreciate most, even to the point where, for some time now, you've been bringing together the pieces of a book on the subject.

The conventional wisdom here is of simultaneous great importance and irony in your estimation. The convention urges, exhorts, evangelizes reading.  Indeed, there have been novels appearing within recent times of which you've not only said, "This novel is itself a course in fiction writing," you've made the novel in question the armature about which a writing course was wrapped.  Try, for instance, Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves.

If a writer were to spend significant times each day writing and reading, that writer would be increasing his or her chances of  (a) publication, (b) making a living from writing, (c) having his or her works withstand the fifty-years-in-print test, and (d) extend the probability of landing a good teaching job to support additional writing.

Reading gives the writer a chance to see what works and how it is brought into use, as well showing what does not work because of the distractions, speed bumps, and inelegance it brings onto the page.

Thus the return of irony:  Many beginning and intermediate writers resent reading as a distraction from spending time with their own work, adding the compound thus whereby the work they produce directs us back in time to the moment these unfortunates stopped reading.  No question about it, they are unfortunate because they are missing the fresh tides, the new impressions, and the old themes in the newest costumes and attitudes.

Here's a simple equation:  When you discover a writer you consider better in reach and voice than you, without exception, that writer is better read than you, and yes, the work you're engaged with at the moment is The One Hundred Novels You Should Read Before You Write Your Own.

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