Today we had a quark writing group party, and it was lots of fun! We all went up to drek‘s new house, up in Draper, and read some of our really old, really bad first attempts at writing stories. Good times!
Drek, Nick, lexish, slipperyjim, jakeson, gamila, aneeka, and one of my friends from the FLSR writing group all came up. Jakeson and his crew got lost on the way, but we had a good time hanging out, chatting, eating the pita bread and hummous that I’d cooked (I figured everyone else would bring sugar-heavy treats, so I cooked something a little more on the healthy side–still delicious, as evidenced by how much everyone ate!), and talking about how we’d gotten started writing.
I think a lot of us had similar stories–while we all wrote for different reasons, we all tried to do something big in high school, something that marked a turning point of some sort. The other common thread that ran through our stories was…how laughably bad they were! There were gradations, of course (Nick’s story that started with the word “Gandalf” and only got worse was pretty ridiculously crazy), but all of our stuff was pretty bad.
It can be both fun and painful to look back on past stuff, especially the stuff you wrote back in high school. It’s like, all the painful awkwardness of high school is not limited to your social life, it seeps into your writing as well, especially if that’s when you first try out your hand at the craft. So many cliches, so much bad grammar, so many viewpoint errors and info dumps…ARGH!!!
Of course, that is precisely what made it so entertaining. The awkward, emo, immature teenage grasp of the universe, combined with dozens of stale cliches and atrocious grammar–brilliant! I’m glad we were all at a point where we could look back on this stuff and laugh. It can do you good to air out your closet and let go of some of the old stuff you are sure would destroy you if you ever let it saw the light of day.
My first writing attempt was a novel that has since been entirely lost. I printed up a hard copy, once a long time ago, but I’ve lost that one and really have no desire to try and dreg it up. Of course, all the digital copies haven’t survived. My second novel attempt, however, I have in both digital and hard copy. That’s the one that I dipped back into for this writing party.
I actually sent out a copy of this to my aunt in Washington DC, who is/was an editor for a magazine. She read about the first twenty or thirty pages and sent me this letter, which I will use to finish off this post. The only places I’ve used ellipses are when my aunt described problems specific to certain passages and quoted them.
October 14, 1999
Dear onelowerlight [name, obviously, has been changed ]
The manuscript your mom sent home with Evan has proven to be an interesting read in many ways. It is wonderful to see people take an interest in writing. This pastime has given me many hours of satisfaction. I find that the joy is in the journey and that the process is as important to me as the finished job. However, it is always satisfying to have a finished product that I feel good about.
What it looks like you have is a wonderful outline for a novel. Your language is colorful and descriptive. The battle scene held my interest and made me want to know what was going to happen next. My intent was to read the manuscript from beginning to end purely for the joy of reading it. The urge to edit, an urge that often gets in my way as I write a first draft, got in my way as I read. Hence I was not able to follow through. I have written on some of the pages. What follows are a few other observations.
A really good writer named John Gardner said that a piece of fiction opens up a dream to the reader. Anything that causes the reader to become aware of the author or that jolts him out of the fictive dream does not belong. It is always helpful to let a manuscript cool for several days and then begin to read it. This will help you be more objective. Sometimes the things that seem marvelous turn out to be less enchanting than one thought during the rapture of creation.
Titles are difficult. Would anyone have read Catch 22 by another name? Some people don’t think so. It has been postulated that the reason the story about The Man Who Went Up A Hill And Came Down A Mountain didn’t do better as a movie–and presumable a book–was because of the length of the title. For many authors the title is the last thing to be written.
Your first two or three pages contain a good deal of “throat clearing.” An opening needs to grab the reader so he will continue. There needs to be a problem, action and change. It should be action that is vital to the story. Someone is going on a trip. Someone is going into battle. someone is getting married. Someone is being born. Unless you want to write erotic literature it would be better not to start with conception. Work the background in later. In The Gospel of John the first few verses talk about the Word. Immediately the Word is identified with the Son of God and the story of his baptism. The problem of establishing himself as a teacher is presented. In episode IV of Star Wars the force is not explained to us at the beginning, rather we see what it can do. It isn’t until Solo talks about fools who believe in an ancient religion that we begin to have some idea th at the force is more than magic. The characters give all this information to us.
Point of view is the perspective that the story is told from. T he most difficult and therefore least used these days is the omniscient narrator. A good rule of thumb is to see the story through the eyes of the person with the problem. Many authors write in first person. One can also use second or third person. Third person is similar to first person except the pronoun I isn’t used as much. (Actually it is more complicated than that, but that will suffice for now.) Sometimes a narrator who doesn’t see into anyone’s mind tells a story. Most fiction that looks like omniscient narrator is actually being told from the point of view of one of the characters. The narrator can then see into the mind of one person and all the other action is viewed through his eyes. Sometimes a novel will contain oone person’s point of view in one chapter and that of another character in another. This seems to work. It is confusing when shifts occur without warning.
Psychic distance has to do with how close you want your reader to be to the story. Stephen King wants to inspire terror. He gets his readers as close as he can. You hear breathing, feel sweat, hearts race. Jane Austin keeps her readers at a great distance. You see the lights, you hear the conversation, it is all very proper–no sweat, no breathing, no racing hearts. Just as with the point of view, the important thing is that the narrative remains consistent. It must not switch in the middle of a sentence, paragraph, or chapter.
Write in active voice as much as possible. Your English teacher will tell you all about this. Be aware that verbs ending in “ing” do not help your story. (Running up the hill after Jill and tripping over a rock Jack stumbled.) This slows the action of the story down but when used sparingly can add emphasis. The following construction works better (Jack ran up the hill after Jill. He tripped over a rock and stumbled. “D___!” he grumbled. Jill took water from her bucket and soap from her pocket and washed his mouth out.)…
…You have many long sentences. Your writing will be tighter and stronger with shorter sentences and fewer prepositional phrases…
…There are lots of ways to deal with dialogue. You can put the dialogue first and description second…you can put the dialogue at the end…you can break it up the way you have in your manuscript or you can put description on either sie of it…Like every other element of your story, you don’t want it to call attention to itself.
I believe you changed fonts to show a change in viewpoint or in who is speaking. For me this is very distracting. There are other good ways that work. Also it is easier for me to read when it is double-spaced.
Two books that I have found most helpful are John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction. It is out in paperback. John Gardner also wrote a wonderful fantasy called Grendal. It is not very long. It is told from the point of view of the monster. The other book is The Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
Thank you for sharing your manuscript with me. It takes great courage to share one’s work. I admire you for starting out early. Remember free advice is worth what you pay for and don’t let anybody discourage you. You learn to write by writinig. You have a good start.