Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border

Kootenai River in NW Montana, near Canadian Border
photo by Gene Tunick of Eureka, Montana

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Tip O'Day for Writers #139

Guest blogger Vanessa Cavendish warns that tips will cause you extra work.

This article HUMAN XEROX originally appeared in "The Asylum" (used with permission). Longer than usual for this blog, but I found it interesting.

I recently suggested to my fellow inmates at The Asylum (J. S. Chancellor’s blog http://welcometotheasylum.net/ ) that the best advice is the kind you learn the hard way. That goes double for writing tips, because what you get from a tip is only the sharp end of the arrow, minus the parts that make it fly. What else you don’t get is the litter produced by the sharpening process—all the chips that get knocked off the stone to make it pointy and slender enough to bind to the shaft with a strip of rawhide from an animal you did not have to hunt and slaughter and skin. Also not included is the bird from which to pluck the feathers to fletch the other end of the shaft and the prayers you have to say as you apply your personal and tribal markings to the branch you have to strip and shave and balance for your lonesome.

Do I mean to imply that writing tips are worthless? Not in the least.

I do mean that each piece of writing advice you decide to act on will cost you a ton of work that might seem unrelated to your own writing, until you develop the knack of seeing how one activity complements another. And because a knack is something you pick up gradually, through something akin to what a pianist or a kick-boxer calls muscle memory, each thing you do as a writer, you have to do over and over again in order to get the hang of it. I’m sorry, but you have to drill. And you are going to get your ass handed to you time and time again.

So here is tip number one for the new writer and a reminder to the veteran: Shake hands with Sister Frustration; she will be your constant companion, nemesis and mentor. If you do not sense her near, you must have invited Miss Complacency to your party, and the two of them cannot be in the same room together.

Tip number two: When you find a writer who does a particular thing really well, copy it. I did not say emulate, I said copy. Find the passage that struck you dumb and write it out, longhand, word for word. A scene, an opening, an exchange of dialog—whatever it is that you wish you could do that well. Copy it down verbatim, over and over and over again. Ien Nivens, who taught me to do this, says the rule of thumb is to copy a passage 20 times. I say, do it until you have internalized the flow, the thought process, the rhythm that went into the creation of that piece of writing—until you feel something click inside you and, if only for a split-infinity, you become that other, better writer.

Let the work sink in. Go take a nap.

Tomorrow or the next day, copy someone else who is good at the same thing. Get a notebook, a thick one, and use it for nothing but copying. Fill it up and buy another one. Think of it as learning how to chip a flint. You watch your elders do it, and you copy them exactly. You tie your ego, your identity, to that other writer and forget about things like style and voice, because in this business, vocal chords need time to develop.

Ien estimates that two writers in ten thousand will take this advice. Five years from now, we’ll be reading both of them. Her vocal range, his command of human emotion, will astonish us. We’ll wish we could write like either one of them.

Vanessa also blogs at http://vanessacavendish.wordpress.com/

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