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Thursday, February 24, 2005



This is another of a series of published articles on the art and science of writing I found on a dusty floppy disk as I cleaned out and organized the detritus of almost nine years of living in the same "writing room." I will post what I consider to be the best of what I found and continue to find. When you have written the quantity of words I have been accused of producing, you tend to forget the earlier works, some of which can be recycled and continue to have some merit.

If you like them, let me know. If you don't like them -- it's not too late for me to change them. Writing is organic and never stops growing. That is why works have multiple editions. Many times, the succeeding versions are subtlely different as readers find "misteaks" and writers discover a better way to express the same idea.

I added a few lines to this work just now and found that it gave an immediacy that was lacking. I used Hunter Thompson, the "gonzo journalist," as an example. He killed himself earlier this week. I would never attempt to shoot myself in the head as he did. With my luck, I would miss wide left and blow away my wife's favorite vase -- the ugly one her sister gave us when we bought our home ten years ago. Maybe I should just shoot the vase. Funny? My lovely wife wouldn't think so!

Learning to Write: A Formula for Success vs. a Recipe for Failure
Milton Trachtenburg
copyright 1998
revised from an article originally published in Novel Advice 6/98

There are few guarantees for the outcome when you sit down to write, however, with the help of hard reality, I've discovered that there are a many paths that promote success and only a few twisted and bumpy roads that lead to failure. If you read a hundred works of fiction and nonfiction you will notice that, although each work has a unique voice that identifies the writer, they have common elements that can be learned and applied. The authors of most published works show their story rather than tell it. Their dialogue is crisp and fraught with conflict. Their opening hook sucks you into the piece before you can think of putting it down. Their plot flows smoothly. They don’t keep secrets from the reader, but what they do reveal creates an old answer and a new question.

Not every story or article is Pulitzer prize-worthy. Not every writer can paint a story with the power of a Toni Morrison. However, published writers follow basic rules -- developing characters, dialogue, point of view, voice, hooks. They also use the basic tools available to writers: dictionaries, thesauri, books on grammar and punctuation.

Read novels from different eras and different genres. The characters will speak a different form of the language but the conflict they display in their dialogue is always there. One may say, “What hast thou wrought?” while the other says, “What are you doing to yourself?” The nature of both statements is to arouse questions in the mind of the reader by creating conflict. The technique is simply one person confronting another. It worked in ancient times and it still works as a literary device.

Compare Shakespeare’s works to Hemingway’s. The common thread is characters who are whole people in commonplace situations (or not) that test their mettle through plot devices. There are few themes we can choose as our focus. There is love, death, deceit, war, pestilence, cowardice and heroism, youth, aging, relationships, honesty and dishonesty to give a few examples. What makes any story stand out is how you use the common threads of life and weave them through the perceptions and actions of characters to make an old idea fresh and alive.

Having traversed the road toward writing success for over thirty years, I’ve discovered a number of principles that apply. I choose to call those principles: A Formula for Success.

A Formula for Success

Writing for publication consists of tasks you need to perform and rules to which you should adhere if you want to take control of your story (or article, for that matter) ideas and mold them into publishable works. A work of writing is like a jigsaw puzzle with a thousand pieces. Pour the pieces in a pile on the table and you see no meaning in them. However, when you sort out the borders and begin establishing some form to the chaos, you begin to see a picture emerging. Writing is taking the disparate parts: your idea, your first outline of the idea so you can see it as a progression of points, your determination of how the idea will be best presented to the reader, and translating the puzzle into a story that will interest a stranger who has no vested interest in your life. Few writers are allowed to break rules and ussually, they developed that permission from their peers after long years of struggling to be heard. Hunter Thompson broke all the rules of journalism by writing in the first person rather than as a neutral observer. It doesn't work for the next guy in line.

Magic incantations alone do not lead to publication; they are simply a convenient way to access creativity and organize information. Daydreaming, using the information you gather from everyday life, having tales of wonder and awe at your command do not begin to guarantee that you will have something that is publishable. When you have clarified your story idea is when the work of writing begins, not ends.

Imagination, the source of stories and characters, is raw and undisciplined. Like the unworked jigsaw puzzle, it has potential to become a picture, but you will be required to perform a great deal of work before your raw ideas create a competed picture. The key words here are raw and undisciplined. Imagination is like a child who has been let loose in FAO Shwarz' magic kingdom of toys. She may have fun there, but I wouldn't want to be the person who has to clean up after her. When the store opens in the morning, displays are set up to trigger children’s imaginations. When the children are through with the store at the end of the day, they have added their own imaginings to the milieu and all sense of organization is gone.

Writing is a set of tasks that takes your ideas, translates them into acceptable prose and markets them with the skill of a successful refrigerator salesman whose sales territory is Greenland and the North Pole. Writing is not a single act of sitting down and putting your ideas on paper and passing the result off as a completed work.

Read published stories. Note how writers followed the paths I described. Examine the conflict in their dialogue, the depth in their characters, the constant movement in their plots. Read the acknowledgment page and see how many people the writer had to thank to make the story a success. The list always includes an agent, one or more editors, experts to make the fiction "factual" and numerous others who read, commented upon and critiqued the manuscript as the writer developed his material.

As we grow in our knowledge of writing as an art and craft, we discover that successful writing combines layers of skills and techniques, natural story-telling talent, attitudes, values knowledge and beliefs. Accompanying the rules and tools of developing professional writing competency are a pair of forces that always accompany success and, without which, failure is almost guaranteed; the qualities underlying success in any professional field are: discipline and continuing willingness to learn new techniques and keep abreast of market trends.

A Brief Recipe for Failure (far fewer ingredients needed than the Formula for Success)

Some newcomers to writing arrive with a set of false beliefs, that, combined with limited knowledge of the practical aspects of professional writing, serve as a roadblock to attaining publication.

To guarantee failure in this exacting profession, begin with the attitude that you know all you need to know. Never listen to anyone. Emulate the style of successful writers. Spend all your time with other pre-published writers talking about your writing but not listening to criticism of it. When your submissions are rejected, make certain to knock the editors and agents. Assert that published writers belong to a closed club and that there is a conspiracy to keep you out. Wait for an invitation to become successful. Begin at the top. Why should you waste time trying to get published in smaller venues when Time Warner costs the same thirty-two cents to query?

Never join a writing or critiquing group. Share your writing only with your friends and family. Believe their impressions when they tell you that your writing is great. Never open a dictionary or thesaurus. Never read a book that forces you to think. Listen only to others who share your opinions. Never allow anyone who has achieved success tell you anything about how “instant success” took her ten to twenty years of struggle to reach..

Choosing a Path to Follow

Professional writers write for publication. Writing for amusement should be built in to the goal. I enjoy the discoveries I make through characters or insights caused by following a writing idea. I consider a perfectly tuned sentence as a mind confection and a reward in itself. However, I always think of the needs of the market when I choose my words. The best words are the ones that best serve the reader.

Writing for your own pleasure is like singing in the shower. You may be the next Mario Lanza, however, nobody but your tolerant wife will ever know. Art is meant to be shared. Even early cave paintings were intended to be seen by someone other than the painter. A story unshared is not yet a story. Like acting, writing needs at least two parties: a writer and a reader. A published piece of writing needs a full cast of characters that include editors, printers, salespeople, librarians.

Writing is an old and noble profession. Just like anyone can call herself a therapist, only licensed practitioners with years of professional education and training can identify themselves as psychologists, psychiatrists or social workers. Likewise, anyone can call herself a writer, but to become a professional writer, you need to develop the writing, editing and marketing skills that give you the ability to compete in the marketplace. The world places a great deal of emphasis upon credentials. Writing credentials need not come from college; they can come from building your writing skills and publishing in increasingly demanding venues. However, you need to learn rules of writing, editing and marketing thoroughly to assure that your work will be considered by editors.

Sometimes, a positive rejection is a door opener, not the end of the line. If an editor likes your work but doesn’t have need for the particular work you submitted, you have an open invitation to submit something else.

Make the choice. Do you want to be a professional writer or are you simply interested in sharing your stories and opinions with friends? People born with a clear-cut writing style make great letter writers. To take the next step up requires an understanding of all of the rules and tools we discussed above -- and many others not mentioned . . . .

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