The Three Best Books on Writing I’ve Ever Read, Part One

I thought I’d take a moment to sit down and talk about my writing process a little, namely, three books that transformed the way I write.  In the interest of keeping the blog entries short and to the point, I’m going to talk about one per week.

The first book is Dean Wesley Smith’s Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing, which sprung from ongoing discussions on his website (in fact, those discussions are still available on the website, so you can sample it for free).

Smith and his wife. Kristine Kathryn Rusch, are both extremely prolific writers who have made an excellent living doing what they love without ever becoming household names.  This is important because it means they have the credibility of having made it without relying on luck.

There’s an element of luck involved if you write a single series and become a super-wealthy household name: even if the books are good, you have one product (one series) to sell to editors, meaning it can take a very long time to break through.  And if you get a low-end deal with no publicity, you’re not likely to make J.K. Rowling money, even if you’re as good as she is.

On the  other hand, Smith and Rusch, have made a career-long living (and not a ramen-noodles/efficiency apartment living, either) writing without having an explosive breakout.  They do things that can be replicated by the great luckless masses, through intelligent planning, hard work, business savvy, and honest self-evaluation.

What does J.K. Rowling have to teach us about writing?  If you did everything exactly like she did, if you managed to write as well as she did, would your book series make you a billionaire?  Unlikely.  Lighting doesn’t strike twice, and the Harry Potter series has already been written.

On the other hand, you can get consistent electricity if you wire your house correctly and pay your power bill.  If you wire the house just right, and install wind turbines and solar panels, you can even get electricity without having to pay the power company.  Lighting doesn’t have to strike, even once.

Runaway success is not something you can control.  You can hope for it, but you can’t control it.  Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch talk about things you can control as a writer.

So while my literary hero is still C.S. Lewis, my publishing heroes are Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  And R. A. Heinlein manages to score an honorable mention in both categories.

In addition to his own excellent advice, Dean Wesley Smith introduced me to Heinlein’s Five Rules of Writing:

1. You must write.
2. You must finish what you write.
3. You must refrain from rewriting, except to editorial order.
4. You must put the work on the market.
5. You must keep the work on the market until it is sold.

From Heinlein (1947) “On the Writing of Speculative Fiction.”

Supposedly, Heinlein added that he was happy to give away his rules, even though they allowed new writers to reach a point where they could compete with him, because he knew that hardly anyone would ever follow them.  That may be apocryphal, but it certainly is true.

Even before I read it in Heinlein’s rules, Dean Wesley Smith introduced me to the idea that an author does not need to rewrite, and, in fact, rewriting can be a trap.  New writers are struggling just to be good writers, so what makes them think they just automatically have the skill to be good editors, too?  Rewriting can polish all the personality out of your writing.  Fix all the typos and misspellings and send it off/e-publish it.  Don’t send it off with typos and misspellings – proofreading is NOT rewriting, and NOBODY is saying not to proofread.

Now, maybe this isn’t right for everyone, but it was tremendously liberating to me.  I had basically given up on writing, after spending YEARS spinning around the black hole of a novel I could never get “right.”  When I read Dean Wesley Smith’s chapter on rewriting, I ended up abandoning ship on that novel, letting the vortex have it (as long as it didn’t suck me down with it), breaking free, and starting to write the Blood Oath (Benedict) series.

Rewriting is a tempting trap, especially for new writers, because it’s something that “everyone does,” and of course all those “how to write and publish a novel” books written by agents and editors recommend extensive rewriting [That reminds me of Dedeaux’s One Rule for Books About Writing and Publishing:  If the person who wrote it isn’t making a living writing fiction, leave it on the shelf.]  But Dean Wesley Smith taught me that rewriting is NOT the same as writing.  You’re not making progress, you’re just chewing your literary cud.

Now, I’m being extreme for the sake of being extreme, but I was SO trapped in the purgatory of rewriting, doing only harm to the already shoddy books I’d written, that I consider Dean Wesley Smith’s explanation of Heinlein’s rejection of rewriting to be nothing short of life-changing.

Now, Smith doesn’t suggest that you just let your first draft first book be where it all ends.  The goal is to keep writing, constantly identifying areas that need improvement, and trying to do them better in each new thing you write.  The idea is that like any other skill, you can train yourself to become a better writer (he has several articles about how to do that).

Rewriting won’t help you become a better writer – at best, it will allow you to make a given work look like it was written by a better writer.  Only writing will make you a better writer, and then only if you focus on fixing your weak spots.  For example, I began with plot (see next week’s post on Algis Budrys’s Writing to the Point, and the following week’s post on Don Miller’s A Million Miles in a Thousand Years), and now that I have built up those writing muscles, I’m working on sensory details, trying to write them in as I write.

It may be that I’ll never get the sensory details at 100% first-run.  When I write a conversation, I tend to write the words as they flow, often leaving out any indication of who’s talking (I know who’s talking).  When the conversation ends, I go back and write the rest of the scene.  Is this rewriting?  I don’t think so because I know the scene isn’t finished, and I rarely change the dialogue after it’s written.  It’s a personal quirk – all writers have them – but I find that dialogue feels more natural if I write it at conversational pace, with my fingers flying across the keyboard, thinking of nothing but what’s being said.

So maybe I’m a hypocrite.  I prefer to think that every author is different, and we all have to forge our own paths at least a little.  I’m mostly following in the footsteps of Heinlein, Smith, and Rusch, with regard to writing style, but ultimately, I am I, and no one else.


1 Comment

  1. […] of weeks I’ve been writing about The Three Best Books on Writing I’ve Ever Read, starting with my post on Dean Wesley Smith’s electronically publishedKilling the Sacred Cows of Publishing, and then […]

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