A Writer's Dozen: The Twelve Lessons I've Learned So Far

by Talia Carner

I began my writing life eight years ago, when, previously unaware of such a desire, I sat at my computer and poured out a 640-page novel. I knew I had found a new calling -- the first task of which was to fix that maiden effort. Since then, I've learned a lot, although I am just beyond the novice stage at this craft. Here is my newly accumulated wisdom:
  1. Stay away from Big Theories and those who espouse them; they are stifling, disheartening, self-indulgent -- and deadly. A Big Theory is one that tells you that you shouldn't even attempt to write unless some very big -- and usually impossible-- requirement is first met (for example get an MFA first; get reborn, this time in an exotic land.) These theories often come out of academic circles, and if you listen to them, you'll never produce a single finished piece of writing. Big "how-to write" books with writing tips are okay as long as they are not Big Theory books.

  2. When it comes to fiction, you may write about what you know, but don't limit yourself to your own narrow, unworldly experiences. Write more about what you don't know. Like an actor on stage, immerse yourself in the heads and hearts of other characters. Give them jobs you need to research, or set them in places you've only glimpsed. If you write only about what you know, you'll exhaust your material before your first book is complete.

  3. Study grammar. Keep a grammar book on your night table and read it when you go to bed. (As a bonus, you'll get a good night's sleep.) Dog-ear the rules you never knew existed or ones you have forgotten. In the long run, there is no escape from it: you must know your grammar.

  4. Collect interesting new words, exquisite phrases, strong adjectives, and sentences you wish you had written. Dream up similes and images, note impressions and germs of ideas, and store them away for future use. Develop a computer database and categorize your collection for easy retrieval. While doing so, get rid of your pieces of paper, envelope backs, restaurant napkins. Go 21st century. No more notebooks. I know writers who have accumulated thousands of pages they must scan to find a single thread of an idea. Grrrrrrrr. Think of it as your own personal Thesaurus, Flip Dictionary, Book of Quotations, Word Power, Fact Finder, and Encyclopedia of Proverbs rolled into one.

  5. Ask for feedback -- and listen to it. You are in the business of communication. If the ideas and emotions expressed in your writing meet a blank wall, is it the fault of your readers who "simply don't get it"? Leave your ego in the basement and don't explain to your reviewer verbally what your written words failed to communicate. I never think that my work is so perfect that it is beyond improvement, especially when the feedback is seconded by other readers. And by the way, if you stay up to write the story all night, it is not ready in the morning. Not only you should wait (days, weeks, months) to reread the story, but also it would be wise to first pass it by some fellow writers whose constructive critiquing might save you a retraction or a rejection.

  6. Read how-to books and articles: How to structure a story, how to write a dialogue, how to develop a scene, how to sharpen your prose. Apply the newly acquired lessons to your current writing, but also keep going back to older pieces. If they weren't published but still possess something unique and fresh, perhaps you can salvage them with new writing tricks.

  7. Read Dear Abby and other advice columnists. Their readers' letters reflect life's vicissitudes and tribulations. Choose a letter whose topic makes you stop and think, then write a story from the point of view of one of the characters. Emotions are everything. Reach deep into that well, and hook your readers. Even if you're not a proficient typist, close your eyes, get into a trance, and type away. Who are you? Where are you now? What are the details of the moment, of your surroundings? What personal dynamics have led to this particular predicament described in the newspaper column?

  8. "Kill your babies" was the hardest rule to impose upon myself. I found, though, that when I love a particular sentence or word so much that it escapes every round of editing unscathed, chances are it no longer quite fits in the story either in content or in spirit. Oh, I have so many babies crying in the bowels of my computer. I compensate for my loss by entering them into my database for future use.

  9. Multiple-submit. Forget editors requesting exclusivity. Your beard will reach the ground as you wait for life to happen -- and for them to respond. A full 1/3 of editors will never use your SASE. If you seriously want your story to see the light of the day, send your story -- workshopped and polished, of course -- to 20-40 suitable publications in each round. Ditto for submitting a manuscript to agents. That would be the day when two agents offer you representation. (They multiple submit to publishers!)

  10. Listen. Really listen to life shaping around you. I must admit, I had no idea that I wasn't taking enough notice until I began to write. Now I listen to cadence, word choice, voice, non-verbal communication, the development of an idea -- especially when that party guest or the girl in the bus or the man in the restaurant has a problem expressing themselves. How else can I write a meaningful dialogue, get ideas for new stories, build characters?

  11. Use all your senses. Check each piece of your writing for taste, smell, sight, sound, touch. Start experiencing the world again by reviewing your own impressions. The other night, during an ice storm, I went out to smell the air (burning wood), hear the sound (tinkling bells, occasional snapping of a frozen twig), see the sight (light flickering through crystal-covered tree branches), taste (careful here, my tongue could stick to the lamppost) and touch (luxuriantly smooth and almost stinging).

  12. Experimental writing and breaking the rules work best after you've mastered the craft. Picasso was an extraordinarily accomplished figurative painter before he chopped up his subjects' faces and limbs. The lack of balanced composition and sure-footed knowledge of what should be on the canvas (or paper) bleed through in amateurish work.

  13. Don't launch your adult life by devoting it to writing a novel. Unless you are extraordinarily talented, get a life first. If writing is your calling, it will come knocking; you won't escape the urge. But until such time, you must develop life experience: suffer an obnoxious boss, forgive your parents, get betrayed by your best friend, get to know closely people from all ages, races, classes and parts of the world, from all religious and political affiliations. Experience the range of emotions only life can bring -- success, betrayal, obsession, loss, love.
Whoops. Here I go with a Big Theory. What did I tell you about Big Theories? Ignore them!

Talia Carner **Talia Carner's just-released novel, Puppet Child, is listed in BookBrowse.com's Top 10 Favorite First Novels 2002. Her short stories appeared in Rosebud, Midstream, and others literary reviews. Her award-winning personal essays appeared in The New York Times, Lilith, Glory (9/11) and Chocolate for Women, (a Simon & Schuster anthology series) among many others. Please visit her website, www.TaliaCarner.com.

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