I am a one pass writer as it plainly shows in my articles. Worse yet, I can easily hold two thousand or more words in my head in some form of index-sequential recall. I say these things not to boost m ego but to illustrate a point. Most individuals who write anything are multiple pass people. They need to write, edit, and write, and edit, and write again and edit again to get their work into a decent shape for others to read. The second point is that most people need to outline their thoughts several times in order to put their words onto paper. Now, I am hardly a best selling author and I doubt that I ever will become a best selling author. I write for my own enjoyment, not yours, and won’t have it any other way. If, for some reason unknown to me that I should become a best selling author or even one who has sold one hundred copies in a venue other than Amazon, then I will accept that accolade for posterity. I think that is why we have some many individuals telling us they love writing and yet committing an abomination on the written language. They are padding their obituaries.
So what makes good writing? Well, a writer who has become a follower has a blog where he discusses the mechanics of writing. And I must say that he does an excellent job. Now if you have spent time attending a college or university and obtaining your degree in English, then you would amply profit from such a discussion. If, on the other hand, you are the product of a public school education you might have a difficult time makings heads and tails of such information. You see, by the time we are eight years of age we are competent speakers of our individual language. It doesn’t matter what language that is or if you happen to be in a position through out those eight years to learn two different languages, you will become a competent speaker of at least one and possibly more. No one needs to inform you of subjects, verbs, or their agreement. You know the difference between an adjective and an adverb and never confuse them with objects, direct or indirect. Our problems begin once we start to take that intuitive and often rote learning to the level of formal learning and all the logical propositions one might use to establish a second and foreign language, a written language. An oral language is far more concrete that a written one and yet we tend to believe the reverse. A written language is far more arbitrary in its use of symbols. I say tree and point to one and you see that same tree and now we are both in agreement as to what tree, what kind of tree, and its exact location. Try to do that with the written word. I must use symbol upon symbol to describe exactly what I see and you can only interpret as an approximation. So let us correct those who profess most profusely that they love writing. They love slobbering words about paper or screen. The difference is that there are those who are in love with the sound of their own voice and seek to ensure that others enjoy that same sound as much as they do, and those who enjoy actually conversing about topics at hand as a social function, an exchange of human warmth.
Are you with me so far? Serious writing, that is, writing in which you strive to say something of importance, whether it be a memo, email, poem, short story, advertisement for a can of beans, or even a tweet, seeks to convey meaning. When someone walks into a room which I and perhaps other occupy at the moment, and says;”Yo, bros, what’s up?” I know I am now in the company of an abject idiot whose oral communications skills are little more than the demonstrations of primal screams. If I do not answer maybe he’ll go away, quickly. If I were to walk into a room where a few Black men were standing and yell out: “Hey, bros, what’s up?” I would not make myself instantly popular, indeed, I would be the object of immediate scorn. Writing works in the same way with the exception that we writers must convince some other human being to read what we have written. Did you ever try selling cookware at a dinner party? It’s not easy to get people to even come to such a thing let alone part with their money. Do your friends wince when they are asked for the umpteenth time to read your last gloriously prize winning blog or journal entry? Getting people to read your work is a lot like pulling teeth. The patient is not always willing and it hurts both of us during the process. I think if I were an English teacher in public school or a professor of literature I should become an alcoholic after a few short months of being forced to read so much gibberish and having to look at smiling expectant faces all filled with the desire to be name writer of the century. Ah, to worship that porcelain each day of my tenure, Prometheus had it easy.
When we write we must, not should, have a purpose in mind. The first question must be; What am I trying to communicate and why? If I write an article on my blog about the political and economic situation in Greece then it is because I see a need to inform those four or five who will actually read what I have written something about that situation that is not normally addressed by all those investigative reporters who obtains degrees in journalism and believe themselves to be great writers and hard hitting reporters, neither condition of which is true. I like complex sentences for a reason. They can, sometimes, take your breath away. One of the reasons why journalism has acquired a bad reputation is because it has acquired all the bad habits of bad writing. It is bombastic, it is salacious, it is half truths, it is everything that can be used to gratify our baser instincts while obtaining money under false pretenses, that is, good writing. Well, that also describes the current state of fiction writing. We forget that our Western Culture of Literature rests on our collective religion. Back in the days when the printing press showed that there was money to be made printing books, that is the reproduction of written material, fiction started to evolve for the middle class. The masses still couldn’t read or afford their own purchases to show a sense of literacy. The various systems of monks found one of their sources of income, the reproduction of hand written texts, which at that time sold for a king’s ransom, literally, was disappearing, but with a little investment they, too, could turn a fast buck in the publication business. Most fiction was based on religious themes upon which love, requited or not, could be dramatised for the good of god. And as the good of god slipped slowly out of these themes, men could discuss the burning political ideas of the day even if, by custom or by safety, veiled in a manner to hide treachery. One travels from the Song Of Roland to the Canterbury Tales to Paradise Lost with a sense of wonder and political caution. The English and the French men of letters have always exchanged correspondence with one another as well as with men of wealth and political standing. That the trend now is TED talks has made such a past almost forgotten. And I suspect that the next trend in blogging will be the video rather than the written blog. God, one can hardly wait for the ugliness to appear. Yes, I know, we have You Tube but I am sure that such a platform will be extended now that the masses have smart phones, or not so smart phones when one considers the use to which so many are committed. Talk about crimes against nature.
But when it comes to fiction, theme is much more compelling. If I were to ask you what is the theme of Angela’s Ashes, what would you tell me? I may be an unkind reviewer when I say that the authors main theme was one of complaint of his childhood poverty. I kept reading the book expecting so much more than complaint and yet that is all there was. Yes, one can read more into that childhood. But if it were a personal memoir, which I don’t believe it was, then perhaps it is best left unwritten. Yes, we expect a few warts in our lives but to be covered by the hundreds is a bit morose. I have never read anything else by Frank McCort and since it was an Oprah selection and thus assured the Pulitzer Prize, I never take any of her recommendations for books or authors. I find her judgement suspect. But then I find most modern fiction suspect. When I was a child I loved comic books and even those stories had themes, good themes. True, Mad Magazine’s theme was make fun of everything and everybody, and it did that so very well. But I also read an autobiography, God Is My Copliot which was later made into a movie about the Flying Tigers in China. Robert L. Scot’s theme was clearly stated in his title and yet for his life one could see that it rang so very true. But if we were to read the biography of Chuck Yeager, what would you believe his theme in life to be? That one is not so easily answered. Was it about having the right character in life? Well, just what is the right character and how do you obtain it? If you want a good theme to explore in a fictional work, then pit a man of god against a man of daring, actually it has been done many times, and put your own twist on it. It is god or man who lets him down. A. J. Cronin wrote the novel Keys To The Kingdom many years ago and later on the story was made into a movie with Gregory Peck as the lead. Again, the theme makes the novel and the movie. Yet people would rather read Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas because it is so gonzo and counter culture while signifying nothing.
What is my point about theme? If you want money, if you want popularity of the moment, you write using themes the average person wants to read, finds attractive in life, tends to live their lives by. In a word, you write shit. You write shit because it pays. But what does that say about your own character? The problem is, if writing shit was so lucrative then a great many writers would be rich. But even writing shit is difficult to do well. Do you follow? Either you understand the idea of theme when you write or you don’t. I may believe that gonzo journalism and novel writing is morally bankrupt but it still have themes that appeal to the masses and it is the ability of a good writer to see and feel those themes when writing. So the question is not so much as to whether you are born with good themes in your head but whether you can learn most effectively what these themes are. How does one learn to recognize the themes that people will read and enjoy? By reading those books that people read and enjoy. Sounds a bit circular, doesn’t it? Well, many successful playwrights have been asked how to write successful plays. Their universal response has been: first act, get a man up a tree; second act, shake a stick at him; third act, get the man down from the tree. The devil is in the details. My advise for learning how to critique literature is simply. Try to write a novel. I mean make sure your effort had two or better yet three hundred pages. You learn a wealth of knowledge in failure. And you will fail, so don’t be dishearten. Once you have attempted that little quest then you are ready to learn from the best teachers, the very successful novelists. You start to see how they put things together, how they told different stories. You become so much more aware of the various devices they use. Now you may lose heart and decide that novel writing is not for you and that would be okay. Not everyone in this world is given the talent or can develop the talent to write novels, and the world possess enough bad novels to fill more landfills than is needed by any sense of reason.
This last area to which I expect you to pay attention is that of editing. First, write your seven hundred or a thousand words for the day. Usually two pages of writing is more than enough for any writer, just ask the successful and they will tel you. The you are going to go and do something else for the rest of the day. Go read, that is something you should be doing as part of your job as a writer. Then in the morning you are going to examine what you wrote the day before. Gover over each sentence and assuming you have no grammar or spelling issues, take a look at the structure. Take a look at the words and phrases. Do you have all those pet phrases that never belong, as it were (like this one)? I will tell you a truth right now that is as plain as the sun at high noon, we stuff our writing with junk words and phrases. We fill out writing with so much redundant and overstated bullshit (notice the redundancy) that we need to take the sheers and prune most aggressively. Computers/laptops make us lazy because they have the back space button (use key instead), so we become complacent and drivel on. If you are serious about good writing purchase an old manual typewriter. Don’t get one of those with the electronic junk that holds so many characters. You want the old style with the ribbon and the keys that push the levers to strike the ribbon against the paper. Yeah, that kind. Why? Because, unless you are going to use pencil and lined paper (always skip a line for corrections) by having to retype your work you get a second chance to edit each line. Yeah, a lot of extra work, but who told you that writing was quick and easy, some stupid high school teacher? Get off it, his is work, just like a carpenter pounding nails into two by fours. And believe me, once you are forced to work hard you get very serious about not making mistakes, using less energy by padding word count, and smarter in seeing what needs change almost immediately. You learn how to write smarter by having to do more of it. Throw that laptop away, pick up a pencil and a pad of paper and get to work. The more effort you have to put into doing something the smarter you become in reducing wasted effort. That is what editing should do for you. As for that publishing house editor, they can tell when something needs to be rewritten here and there so that the books flows more smoothly. How do they know? By constant and long practice. And to cap today’s lesson, if I took my same advice and most fearlessly edited and rewrote this article I bet I might reduce it to sixteen or seventeen hundred words. But I am not getting paid to work that hard. Hell, I’m retired, I don’t have to work, period.