Friday, May 13, 2011

5 things fiction authors can learn from academic writing

As I've been wending my way deeper into the writer's community, I've seen lots of lists of tips and tricks for the trade. Sometimes I agree with what I've seen, and sometimes I don't. I think the difference comes from having been in a program where I was specifically trained to write, but as an academic facing strict deadlines and stricter peer review rather than a fiction author. I'm starting to feel like I have a different perspective on writing in general because of that experience, and so I've decided to put together my own list of writing advice: What novelists can learn from academics.

1. Oh for a Muse of Fire - so that I can watch her crash and burn.
Writing has nothing to do with inspiration. Inspiration is what happens beforehand, to let you know where to start. But the actual process is much more mechanical. I'm used to writing, and writing lots to meet a strict deadline. I actually started my novel because when I scrapped my thesis, I had written three 30-page drafts of it within a month and a half, and I just couldn't stand not to be writing 4 or 5 hours a day anymore. Ninety pages in 45 days may not sound like much, but that kind of writing is a lot more demanding - I can manage about twice as much fiction as academic writing in a day before my brain just cries "no more!" (my limit in academic writing is about 5 double-paged spaces per day, at one page per hour). The point is that there comes a time when you just have to sit and write, no matter what, and write until your eyeballs bleed and your brains leak out your ears. This is done regardless of mood and inspiration, and this is enabled via my next point: planning.

2. The all-holy word count is no such thing.
In writing papers, my general modus operandi is to plan out the point I intend to argue, and the sections of supporting examples that I'll need for that. I write it, I make sure it's well supported and annotated, and I check to see if I've met the page requirement. If I have, hooray. If I'm under, I start to slot in secondary examples that I'd left out of the previous draft because they were perhaps weaker. If I'm over, depending by how much, I start weeding examples. I write books and stories like this as well, with the main points of the plot and important scenes planned out, but adding or subtracting random extras of scene or description as the mood strikes me. I'm also of the opinion, however, that indy authors who intend to e-publish frankly shouldn't be that concerned with word count. There are no publishing companies to enforce strict word count, no rule that a work must be 50,000 words or more to be sold as a novel, no physical binding to worry about if the work is too short or too long for structural integrity. I don't think this means that people will suddenly start flooding the market with shorter works, because the price point and purchasing trends mean that you can price a work appropriately for its length, and if customers feel like the price is too high, or that they've been shorted, they simply won't buy it or recommend it. My hope is that this will not only reduce bloat in authors who have felt pressed to meet a minimum, but also enable more people the freedom to write their 900 page epics without worrying how it's going to be printed. The point to take away from this is that you should be focused on scene, pacing, and plot, and measure your progress by how many scenes or chapters you've written, how far you've progressed through the plot, not by word count. Number of words is essentially meaningless.

3. If you're uncertain how to use a construction properly, don't use it at all.
Unlike in the academic world, fiction authors are unlikely to get shouted down at conferences if they've made an obvious error in their work. On the other hand, that's simply because fans aren't as inclined to voice their displeasure so, well, vocally. They just won't buy your next book. This is especially the case with historical novels, because history buffs tend to be sticklers for authenticity, but it applies to pretty much any grammar at all. Obvious mistakes are turn-offs and marks of amateurism to knowledgeable readers, and they're simply things that you shouldn't let out the door. What academics know, and more writers should learn, is that this is your job, and you had darned well better be professional about it. Catching mistakes is much, much harder when you're using grammar for which you don't know the rules. For example, I've read a couple of medieval novels that attempted to use the word "thou" in its various forms. In one case, the author clearly didn't understand that the word actually changes from case to case, and that there are rules about when you use "thou" as opposed to "thee" and "thy" or even "thine". It drove me absolutely nuts, both in terms of having to figure out what the sentence was actually intended to mean, and in terms of not wanting to believe that an author who chose to write a period book had so little respect for his topic that he did absolutely no research. I have no intention of ever buying a book by that author again, and that's a statement you never want one of your readers to make.

4. Foreign languages are your friend.
This is partly related to my previous point, and it's probably not the point that you're thinking it's going to be. I'm not encouraging you to go out and buy "learn Russian" tapes and start dropping random phrases into your work. Every academic has to learn at least one foreign language so that they can keep up with the progress being made by colleagues worldwide. I personally can read ancient and medieval Latin, as well as modern and medieval German. My personal opinion is that this process massively improves English grammar skills. Most of us who have been through American schools know that grammar is taught haphazardly, and that most students don't pay much attention. On the other hand, in order to learn a foreign language well, you have to understand the grammar, or you have know way of knowing what's going on in a sentence. Since basic grammatical structures like case and tense are common from language to language, learning grammar for a foreign language greatly improves your English grammar as well, if you let it. I've often been known to say that I didn't know an thing about English grammar until I started taking German. If you have the time, go and take a foreign language 101 at a local college. Even in the first level, you'll learn enough about how grammar works to be able to answer questions like, "Should I use who or whom here?" because you'll be able to tell what parts of speech and what case each and every word in a sentence features.

5. Quantity comes before quality.
Like any other art, the only thing that can improve writing is practice. Although I never had the free time to take him up on it, one of my professors in graduate school offered this piece of advice: "Always leave yourself enough time to write three drafts. Write the first one, then delete it. Don't even read back over it, it was full of mistakes that you needed to get out of your system, and you don't want to get too attached to them. Your second draft will be much cleaner for it, and that's the one that you need to revise. Once it's revised, you can turn it into your third and final draft, which will be the completed project." I have to admit the wisdom of this advice, particularly the bit about not reading over things. Even when I objectively know that a section needs massive revision, if I read back over it to try and figure out where to start, I get into the flow of it, and I just can't figure out where to cut and where to add. The wiser course is just to start over in a fresh word doc, and cut and paste the results.  When I do that, my revisions are much more thorough, complete, and meaningful. So write, and write a lot. Don't be afraid to trash things completely, because you can't think of it as time wasted. No time spent writing is wasted, because even if you screw up, it's a mistake you can learn not to make again.

I hope this list will prove useful, and I hope it didn't come across as too didactic. The fact is that academics have to know as much or more about the craft of writing as professional authors do. In fact, given how low salaries are for professors as compared to other professionals, it's a simple fact that many humanities professors actually make the majority of their money from royalties, just like authors, especially if they study history or literature and can write books that will appeal to a broader spectrum than just the academic community. I feel lucky that I've been able to be a part of both communities, of both authors and academics, and I hope that the advice I've shared here will help others feel like better, more professional writers.

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