writing advice from kate wilhelm

Kate Wilhelm is a Nebula  and Hugo Award-winning American writer.

Read her full post here.

Words of advice.

There are generalizations that can apply to all writers, such as: In a query letter don’t misspell the editor’s name. Keep records of where and when you submitted your story. Keep financial records to keep the IRS happy. Don’t spend the money until the check has cleared. And so on.

Then there are specific bits of advice that may pertain to any given writer, or not. I agree that writing should be taught by published writers. No matter how long the string of letters behind the teacher’s name, unless there is the experience of writing, rewriting, revising, of hearing what the editor is saying, of bleeding, it doesn’t count for much. Any instructor who is still teaching grammar, syntax, the difference between a gerund and a participle, and so on is not teaching writing. Some years ago a professor we knew was assigned to teach a composition 101 class, to her chagrin. Damon asked her if she was teaching commas, and her reply: “I’m teaching them how to hold their pencils.” A little bit of bitterness there, and a damning condemnation of education. Any beginning writer who has not mastered the tools of the trade by the time he/she graduates high school is in trouble. Most writing workshops have a sorting mechanism in place, a committee or even one person, to determine if the applicant is ready to tackle the difficult process of learning something about writing. It’s a waste of everyone’s time if the workshop has to deal with commas, syntax, formats. Those tools necessary to any writer can be taught, but there is an open question of whether writing can be taught. I can take either side and make a case. I’m reminded of a movie from decades ago in which the director of a Broadway play in rehearsal says to one of the dancers: “I can’t make you a great dancer, but I can make you a better dancer.” I think, at least most of the time, that that is what a good writing workshop can do. It can make almost any writer a better writer. Much of the advice from a professional writer in a workshop or class setting is about what not to do and, more important, why. Usually that is good advice. Don’t make every sentence a simple declarative sentence. Don’t use substitutes for the word “said.” Don’t interrupt a scene to fill in background, have a flashback, or define exactly what the gizmo was supposed to do, and on and on.

For specific advice, sometimes it fits the new writer’s personal style or vision, and sometimes not so much. There is a fiction arc that encompasses the minimalist approach as used by Carver and at his best Hemingway all the way to the other side with the overwrought, some say hysterical, prose of a Poe. There are fans for every style, and writers who lean toward every style ever invented. A Poe enthusiast might not appreciate the Carver style, and advice aimed at the Carver adherent would not be useful for the Poe type. I can tell a writer who wants to be Carver-like how to come closer to that. Take a piece of your fiction and delete every single modifier, every adverb, every adjective. Compare the two pieces and determine what you have to restore, or if by changing a noun or a verb you have to restore any of them. Can changing the verb “entered” to something else–sidled, crept, slithered, crawled–work better? By the time the writer has examined every modified noun and verb and replaced some of them with stronger words, the need for the modifiers may evaporate to a manageable number to produce a leaner, sparer and more effective piece of writing. Also, by now the writer is tired and bored with the piece and my advice is to put both versions aside for a day or two and then compare them. It can be an illuminating exercise. I can’t advise on how to make one’s writing more Poe-like because I don’t admire purple prose. And that’s the point to keep in mind when gathering advice like rose petals. A professional writer’s advice most often reflects what that particular writer finds useful, or tends to reflect what that writer admires, and it may be far from what the new writer needs or can use.

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