On Writing: Lessons Learned

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Not long ago I read a blogpost by Barbara O’Neal at Writer Unboxed about the lineage of a writer. It’s a great post that I invite you to click over to read, but I do hope you’ll come back.

That post really resonated with me as an editor and writing coach, as well as an author. The blogpost is chock full of important points about how we absorb so much from reading, and the value we get from reading in a lot of genres and mediums. It’s so beneficial in helping us grow as writers and improve our craft.

Even though we might not be aware at the time, authors can always be influenced by the books they’ve read – as Barbara points out, “This is essentially the process our brains use to learn something, too. As human readers, we absorb the thousands of books most of us have read by the time we begin writing, with enormous emphasis on the writers we adore.”

As for my writer’s lineage, the primary influencers when I was in high school and college were Steinbeck, Austin, Hemmingway, Bronte, and Faulkner. While reading their novels I marveled at their abilities to create living characters, set vivid scenes, and write wonderful dialogue. While genres differed, the quality of writing was high in them all.

While I wasn’t aware of the influence way back in school, I realized it later as I worked to craft characters as memorable as George in Of Mice and Men and Jane in Jane Eyre; and the depth of emotion in Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying. Who could forget the reactions of the main characters as they took note of Cash building the coffin for Addie? Written in short, concise narrative for the most part, the emotions are shown so vividly in the first few chapters of the start of the story.

In my earliest childhood, when I was obsessed with horses and dogs and western stories, the authors I read were Terhune, Farley, Zane Grey, McCormack, McMurtry, and many others too numerous to list.

I’m not sure what direct influence those authors had on my writing, but the stories sure stirred my soul. In fact, just now when checking something about the novel The Black Stallion, a link to the clip of the stunning race that occurs at the end of the movie popped up. I watched it with the same thrill that I had the first time I saw it, feeling my heart and soul soar.

If our souls aren’t ignited, how can we write? Fiction is as much about the heart as the head.

In high school, when I started writing short stories about people, and not animals, my main influencers were Oates, Poe, O’Connor, Chekov, and Twain. From them I learned the varying techniques for writing an entire story in a few thousand words and how to make it as satisfying for a reader as a novel.

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When I was heavy into screenwriting, I was advised to watch as many movies as I could in a wide variety of categories. That taught me a lot about how film is used to tell a story in visuals, as well as the nuances of excellent dialogue.

In a class with Joe Camp of Benji fame, he told participants to watch the movie and note how many lines of dialogue were in it. Not a lot by the way.

Then there were questions to be discussed in the next session. How was the progression of the story presented? Did we connect to Benji as a character? If so, why and if not, why? Did the absence of dialogue make the story hard to follow?

In another session we were given an assignment to write the first ten pages of a screenplay with little or no dialogue. That was a challenge at first, but the more I visualized how the characters could express themselves by use of expressions, gestures, pointed silences, the easier it became to write.

That exercise was written in a notebook that has been lost in the many moves since I took that workshop, but it sure would be fun to find those pages to see how I handled the assignment.

Carrying the lessons I learned from Joe Camp forward, I know that I cut way down on some of what I call “little dialogue exchanges.” The greetings, the polite dinner table manners, the verbal yesses and no’s.

Sometimes a picture is better than a thousand words.

Joe Camp wasn’t the only filmmaker to influence my writing. When working with Stephen Marro in New York to write a screenplay together, he made me watch the movie The Terminator as part of some advice on screenwriting.

Any of you who are familiar with the movie know how it opens with The Terminator dropping out of the sky and landing on a street. No explanation. No backstory on who he was. No explanation as to why he’s there.

I remember asking Stephen lots of questions, and he just said, “Wait. Wait and watch.”

Finally, the aha moment came. Sometimes a story works best when the action just starts. Drizzle the information in thin lines throughout, just enough to satisfy, but not too much at one time. Sort of like a thin drizzle of frosting on a cinnamon bun.

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When I give writing workshops, I often tell attendees not to stop the momentum of a story to give a lot of plot or character information, or drop paragraphs of description. Give the reader some cake to eat in between the reveals.

My go-to answer when asked what advice I’d give to a beginning writer is this: Read, read, read, then write, write, write, and read some more; doing the latter with a critical eye for what works in a particular story and what might not.

Rarely do I hear an author say that they’re not also a reader, but when I do, it makes me wonder how they ever write a novel. I truly don’t think I could have ever written even my first short story had I not been immersed in fiction from the time I learned to read. And when I moved from journalism to fiction writing, I was so thankful for all those writers who taught me so much without me even being aware until much later.

If you’re a writer, what do you think? Could you still write if you didn’t read? Who are the authors who most influenced your work?

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