Best writing advice? READ

Reading everywhere photo

Jakub Pavlovsky  https://www.almaalexander.org/read-anywhere

A couple of years ago, the Odyssey Writing Workshop in New Hampshire invited me as a guest lecturer and asked some interesting questions. (Slightly abridged)

What is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

One young and aspiring writer unforgettably told me that she “didn’t have time to read.” I knew then that she would never really be a writer.

Reading is the primary education for any writer.  You need to have an inoculation of language in your writerly stream before your own words can take form. People who don’t read never develop the love and the reverence for the written word, how then can they hope to tease out its wonders?

If you are serious about pursuing writing as a craft, as a vocation, as a career… well… Read, Write. Practice. It comes only with practice, this inner instinct about whether something you’ve just written is good, or if there is something wrong with it, and what, and how it needs fixing.

I remember writing a page and half of something once and stopping and staring at this thing I had just produced and coming a realization that what I had there was a dense–a very dense–summary of the thing I needed to actually write. Eventually that page and a half turned into nearly three chapters of the final book. But without the millions of words of practice I had already put in… I would not have known this, recognized this, figured out what I needed to do to fix it.

So–two very obvious pieces of advice.  Read.  Write.

Rinse and repeat.

Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?

I always wrote seriously. I won national writing awards when I was a pre-teen. I sold stories way way wayyy back… for pretty much almost nothing. I was into my 30s when I wrote the first published book, Dolphin’s Daughter, a collection of fairy tales.

As to what I was doing wrong… I don’t think I was doing anything “wrong.” I was not ready. That doesn’t mean I was wrong. I was raw, and unpracticed, and maybe sometimes hasty (I learned the more intricate truths of self-editing as I went along). I was… young. With some writers maturity comes early–with others, you have to grow into it.  

Here’s an example–at age nineteen, I wrote a novel about the Matter of Britain, from the POV of Guinevere that almost got published. An editor who was quite taken with it, enlisted the aid of a very senior beta reader–a man who was a Big Name in South African publishing at that time (that’s where I was living). The only problem was that he was very much a High Literary Guru, and entirely the wrong audience for my work. He nixed the Guinevere book and it didn’t go anywhere after all.  

His report began like this: “I have no doubt that this is a writer who is destined for great things in times to come.”  Unfortunately that was followed by the proverbial BUT. His objection was that my story lacked, in his words, “…what Kazantzakis called ‘madness’…” That was true, because I was young  and my understanding of what drove that story–betrayal and adultery and sexual obsession–was limited and flawed. I would write a very different story if I were writing that thing today.

In other words, he was probably totally right. Although I hated him for saying so at the time.

Why do you think your work began to sell?

I have no idea. What sells or doesn’t sell is so, so subjective and audience-driven. Luckily there are as many kinds of readers as there are writers and there is an audience for any storyteller. The problem is connecting with it, of course–and sometimes you connect on the level of a Gaiman or a Rowling, and sometimes you barely scrape together a fiercely devoted but numerically small following. In my mind it never mattered whether it sold–it mattered whether it connected.

How many stages does your work go through? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft? How much time is spent in revision?

I tend to blurt out a very clean “first draft” but that’s because I don’t really just put down whatever comes into my head. In some sense my truly awful chaotic first draft tends to get distilled into a second iteration while still inside my head, and it’s the “second draft” that becomes my “first,” in a way. 

Then it gets tossed to what I am very fortunate in having–an in-house editor, my husband, who is a professional in that field and who is always my first reader and my first editor. He’s pretty damn ruthless and does not pull his punches. When he tells me there is a problem there usually is. That’s my polish pass–taking his suggestions on board, going through the manuscript for anything that I myself may have missed or want to add. Then I’ll let it sit for a little while just until the image and the imprint of it drains from my system, and I”ll give it another reading, another once-over, cold.

After that, it’s ready to go out.

But revision and rewriting is my least favorite part of this whole process. I will do the edit and the polish and the rewrite–but I won’t bury myself in those. They, to my mind, are just the final tweaks. My work has already been done.

The kind of revisions I find myself doing most often tend to be two of my husband’s favorite editorial caveats. There are scenes which I may have avoided writing and fleshing out for whatever reason, and they need more development–and I have to go back and fix that. Or there are scenes which I fleshed out a tad too much, and which actually need condensing. I’ve done both. It’s story, and pacing, that I sometimes do need to pay closer attention to.

What’s the biggest weakness in your writing these days, and how do you cope with it?

My husband has these things he calls my “weasel words” and he goes after them with a passion and a vengeance. I then need to go through my manuscript expunging wishy-washy descriptors like kind ofsort of, almost, nearly, apparently,  and the like. I get told very firmly to decide what it is that I want to say, or what is going on, and to go there, and to stop dancing around the edges.

A writer’s work is often done in solitude, but the writer often craves community. Do you find community or solitude more helpful.

A lot of my writerly interactions actually comes from a network of online friends–and while it is nice to meet those friends every so often at conventions and what have you, my email and chat exchanges are not bounded by geographical proximity. Some of my best friends are in the Antipodes, for Heaven’s sake. But yes, there IS something very nice in just hunkering down over a cup of coffee and hashing out a plot point or whining about current woes.  

But honestly, these days if you and your chum are both on something like Skype, for instance–you can share an hour of writing time while connected and bounce things off each other in real time that way. The Internet is a gift for those of us working alone in our cubbyholes and offices. The whole entire world is just on the other side of our monitors and only a point and a click away. Use that. Find a community. This is your tribe.  Find a way to talk to each other.

Plotters use outlines while pantsers write by the seat of their pants. As a self-identified pantser, how do you make your plots powerful and unified?

Things… worlds­­­­­… live in my head.  Some people may need to have all of that down on a piece of paper before they can make sense of it.  Me, I carry the whole dream inside until it is ready to come out. I’ve occasionally written down things like family trees, but most of the time, it all lives inside.  And it is a messy complex complicated tangle. If anyone could see the inside of my head during the writing of a complex novel it would be a lot like looking at the back of a tapestry–where chaos reigns, and threads intersect and stretch across other threads and interconnect and tangle–and it all looks impossible and utterly without meaning. But on the other side, the tapestry, there is a real picture that you can see and everything makes perfect sense. And there are times that the picture that emerges, when I am done, is a surprise even to me.  That’s what being a “pantser” means.  A plotter would be doing things on a pre-printed canvas or meticulously counting stitches.  Pantsers connect threads by instinct working from the back of the tapestry and somehow… somehow… get the picture right on the other side of the fabric without ever seeing it being made.

Goodbye — and Thank You

I was nineteen years old and a ‘seasoned’ writer who had written between three and six novels, depending on whether you counted only the ‘good’ ones or everything, when I hit upon a brilliant idea.

I would rewrite the Matter of Britain, the body of medieval literature associated with legendary heroes like King Arthur.

In the first person.

As the Queen.

I wrote the book. entitled “I, Guinevere”, and got so identified with it that my boyfriend at the time used to send me cards addressed to “the Princess” (I still have those cards. They are little treasures.)

It was a serious attempt to come to grips with a topic I passionately loved, with characters whom I’d known well for years through dipping into their stories as told by many other people, with the kind of lush language with which I was to become familiar as my writing later grew more fully into that shape.

“I, Guinevere” was promptly handed by my father to a South African publisher who loved it. I was close enough to a published book to smell it.

He said that the novel had to go to a beta reader first for his report. And off it went.

The beta reader… was Andre Brink.

André Brink, 1982André Brink in 1982

He was one of South Africa’s great writers, a Name, and I was stunned. But Brink was perhaps the last person who might have had any sympathy for the kind of writer I was – or I was shaping to be – or for the subject matter that I had chosen.

I waited for his report with something like existential dread.

When it came back, it opened with a sentence which still takes my breath away.

I have no doubt at all that this work was written by someone who will be a great writer one day.

If you can smell the next word, you’re right. It was

But...”

One of the reasons he gave for my novel’s having missed its mark was that it lacked, as he put it, “what Nikos Kazantzakis called madness“. (It was because of this that I went on to read Kazantzakis whom I had not read before then – so thank you, Mr Brink, for Zorba the Greek.) What he meant, I suspect, was that it lacked the rawest kind of passion, a sexual energy with which this story was charged – but with which I had failed to imbue it.

It rankled, then, but of course he was utterly correct – I was nineteen years old, and a very young and innocent nineteen, and my attempts to write adultery in THE FIRST PERSON (even adultery decorously clad in the robes of High Chivalry) were probably laughable.

I say “were probably” because, to my chagrin, I seem to have permanently lost every last copy of that manuscript. I would love to read it now all these decades later just to see by how much I had sailed past my mark but that is no longer possible. All I have is a memory of that nineteen-year-old girl and her romantic-but-attempted-to-be-gritty vision of Camelot and its shenanigans, and of the book that was born out of that.
dad and me lonelier roadA portrait of the writer as a young woman — Alma at 19 and her late father, Hamo Hromic, with an early book of her poetry

And that sentence. The sentence that – in spite of himself – in spite of all his misgivings and his caveats and eventually his veto – Andre Brink could not help but give me.

Thank you for that, sir.

With gratitude, and respect, I bid you farewell. And may Nikos Kazantzakis greet you with a does of ‘madness’ out there in the light where the passion of words (which you have always carried with you) blazes like a star,

Alma Alexander

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Andre Brink dies at 79

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Quote of the day

If I speak with a character’s voice it is because that character’s become so much part of me that … I think I have the right then to imagine myself into the skin, into the life, into the dreams, into the experience of the particular character that I’ve chosen.” ~ Andre Brink

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