Writing Quote: The Classics

Today’s Writing Quote comes to us from the author of one of those old classic novels, Ethan Frome, as well as of many other works: Edith Wharton.  It is perhaps an irony that her quote concerns the nature of the classics of literature – considering that she was herself the writer of what may now be viewed as a classic.

A classic is classic not because it conforms to certain structural rules, or fits certain definitions (of which its author had quite probably never heard). It is classic because of a certain eternal and irrepressible freshness.

~Edith Wharton

Allow me to translate:  The classics are the classics not because they belong to some vaunted category of “classic literature” – a circular defintion, of course.  They are classics because they are good.  They’re classics because they’re still relevant.  They’re classics because there’s still something to learn from reading them.

And this observation makes this quote the perfect compliment to a post from about a month ago in which I try to demonstrate the absurdity of dismissing genre fiction that happen to be classics because they are classics.  What makes them classics – and worthy of reading and admiration – is that they can’t be dismissed so easily!

It’s kind of my belief that every writer secretly hopes that his or her work will one day bear the label of “classic”.  I won’t lie: I secretly hope it for my work.  How awesome would it be, ten or twenty or a hundred years after my death, if school children were still reading what I wrote?

I give myself a 12% chance of achieving that level of classic-hood.

Writing Quote: I’m Not a Good Writer…

Today’s writing quote comes from well-known historical fiction writer James Michener.  Let’s dispense with the formalities, and get to the quote:

I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter.

~James Michener

Yeah.  What he said.  This quote interested me this week because I was thinking that, although I’ve gotten a little better at my first-draft, first-pass attempts at writing stories over the past several years, where I’ve really improved in my skill is in rewriting.  I’ve developed a more critical eye.  I can better diagnose what’s wrong with a story.  And I can prescribe a viable solution.  And I can write it.

This, I think, will be the skill that will most contribute to the potential I have for an eventual career as a writer.

Take, for example, the short story I will (hopefully) be sending off to a publisher in a few days for editorial consideration.  I wrote the original draft about three and a half years ago, give or take.  I thought it was a pretty good story, at the time, but I never sent it anywhere.  I picked it up again when Dear Wife encouraged me to take a story that I thought was in good shape and give it some revision to spruce it up a little and send it off.  We both expected this could be accomplished in the amount of free time I might have over a holiday month between semesters.

But upon actually rereading and considering the thing, I realized it needed a lot of work.  And I’ve put a lot of work into it.  It’s like a whole new story.  There was very little from the original draft that was immediately salvageable.  But that draft provided a good starting point, and new ideas fleshed the story out and made it much better, in my opinion.  The story I wrote 3-ish years ago?  It was unpublishable.  The story I have now?  May be the best piece of fiction I’ve ever completed.

This worries me a little about the new story I hope to start work on soon, “What Happened in August Valley”.  I’ll be writing this one from scratch, not working from an old draft.  (I have several old drafts of stories that I want to work on and rewrite, but I feel strongly about doing this one, first.)  So, whereas the story that’s going out this week went through 3 or more drafts (depending on how you count) this one is starting brand new from rough draft, and may only get a single revisionary draft, depending on my ability to get some good feedback.

Regardless… I think there’s a lesson here for my future.  I’m excited to be developing this skill, and hope to be able to continue to put it to good use.

Happy writing.

Writing Quote: Revelation of Meaning

There are many sides to writing stories – be they fictional or non (I personally prefer the fictional variety, as you may have gathered).  We write to entertain.  We write because we “have to”.  But we also write to elucidate some moral or ideal, to find meaning in what can sometimes seem a meaningless life.  Philosophical, no?  Today’s Writing Quote comes from philosopher and “political theorist” Hannah Arendt.

Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it. 

~Hannah Arendt

What is it about stories that catches the mind’s eye, and that causes us to pause and think more deeply about our own lives?  Is it the role of the writer to be intentional and persuasive in imbuing story with meaning?  Or should the writer be transparent, invisible in the story, allowing the tale to take its place and the meaning to be woven from those threads organically?

No answers, today.  Only questions.  What’s your take?  How do you approach meaning, moral, and purpose in your stories?  Do you often think about these things when you read stories?  Do they inform the way you live and think about life?  Do they make you reconsider your perspective?

Writing Quote: Professional Writing

I actually found this quote first on the blog of fellow writer-in-training Juanita McConnachie, aka Writer’s Block NZ.  So I dug into the internet to find out a little more about it.  It’s a delightful little quote, one that offers a tidbit of hope out to those of us who are still amateurs on the periphery of the world of writing:

A professional writer is an amateur who didn’t quit.

~Richard Bach

Of course, there’s truth in there, logically.  Nobody who calls him- or her-self a writer started that way by getting paid for it – and that’s what we generally mean by “professional writer”.  We all spend time being amateurs, first – people who hone their craft because they love writing.  Some of us amateurs will go on to a “professional” career.

Where the quote misses the mark, perhaps, is in suggesting that the mere act of “not giving up” is sufficient to achieving professional status.  There will be amateurs who also persist, and despite their persistence never attain to professional status.  That’s a sad truth, but it’s still the truth.  That sad amateur who persists and fails – it could be me!  Time alone will tell that story.

(There will also be amateurs who persist in writing but who have no overwhelming desire to attain to a professional status.  I’m not sure if these count as those who did not “give  up” or what.)

But there are things amateurs can do to even the odds a little.  They can improve their craft and write better, more brilliant prose, for one.  There are probably other things that I, as an amateur, don’t yet really know.

Still, I will persist.

Because I believe in my prose, and because I love writing.

Happy writing.

Writing Quote: Demanding to Be Written

Time is short these days, and I don’t get much time for writing, except here on my blog (and it looks like I’ll be cutting back on that for a little while).  But for almost as long as I’ve thought of myself as a writer, I’ve been working on, to some degree or another, the same book.  While I started the book when I was a kid, it’s grown and evolved with me, becoming more complex, more mature, and to my mind more entertaining.

For the past couple years, due to various circumstances, I haven’t really worked on my book in any significant way.  Sure, I’ve made notes here and there about ideas and plot points and characters, and historical background.  I’ve got a notebook where I make those notes, and sometimes I type them up into my computer.  But I make a new note on average once every two or three weeks, and then its usually only a few short thoughts.

In the meantime, I’ve come up with a few new novel ideas for books that I think I may need to write before returning with full attention to that book that’s been with me since forever, if for no other reason than to test and grow my skill as a writer before trying my hand at rewriting my defining saga.

It’s sometimes a melancholy thought, to be apart from this book for so long, to have made no progress in it.  I long to write it.  I yearn to write it.

And for this reason, today’s quote caught my eye, by esteemed African American author Toni Morrison:

If there’s a book you really want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it. 

~Toni Morrison

You see, that book of mine: it’s like the fantasy novel version of me.  It’s not a dramatization of my life’s history, or anything so dull as that.  But the book is as though the character of who I am, and of all the little bits of my life, are transformed into this little world, and these characters, and their lives.  It’s a reflection of myself.  And, all the while, I think it’s just a good old-fashioned adventure tale of the good-versus-evil and coming-of-age and finding-yourself and boy-meets-girl and love-conquers-all variety (it’s not a romance by any means – far too much violence in it for that – but like all good stories, there’s a bit of romance on the side).

You know, I think it’s the kind of book I’d like to read.

Writing Quote: The Long and Short of it

Yes that’s right, folks.  It’s time for another episode of “Writing Quotes”.  I  missed last week’s episode due to various circumstances, but I’m back with a vengeance*.

This week, in answering the call of Bazelli’s Author Aerobics challenge to write a story in 3 acts in under 1,000 words, I responded by writing a story that was…

2,000 words!  That’s right, I wrote a story that was double the length suggested in the challenge [the story is perma-linked in my “Stories and Scribblings” page].  In thinking about that, this quote caught my eye:

I have made this [letter] longer, because I have not had the time to make it shorter.
~Blaise Pascal
Apparently this quote comes from a rather wordy letter written by Monsieur Pascal, and what he’s trying to say here gets to the heart of the matter I was approaching above.  Brevity is hard work.

I don’t say that facetiously.  It’s serious.  Writing doesn’t come easy to a lot of people, but it’s always come easy to me.  But what’s hard for me is writing succinctly.  You can see that in my progress meter to the right on the short story I’ve been working on.  I originally targeted 6,000 words on that story.  It’s not pushing 11,000, and I imagine it could come close to 12 before I’ve finished revising.  And I’m about to say I’m prepared to accept that it’s length will make it unpublishable (few markets will accept a short story that long) even though it’s one of the best stories I’ve ever written, rather than try to cut out stuff that I really feel is integral both to the plot and the character development.

And that’s writing for you.  It’s not as easy as you think, and one of the great ironies is that fewer words often will take more work and more time.

Which begs the question: if fewer words are actually harder work, why do most short story magazines pay for stories by the word?  Does this not motivate short story writers to put less work into perfecting their stories?

The answer, I suppose, is: it doesn’t matter.  There’s such a huge supply of people trying to break into the story markets that only the ones who do put in the work will actually succeed, word-count questions notwithstanding.

So, I’ve gone on overlong on the topic (*snicker*).  Get to work!

…Brevity is the soul of wit,
And tediousness the limbs and outward flourishes…

~William Shakespeare, via Polonius, Hamlet, Act 2, Scene 2

*Vengeance not valid in all areas.

Writing Quote: What’s that word that means…?

Today’s writing quote just struck me as funny, because I have this problem all the time in writing:

A synonym is a word you use when you can’t spell the other one.

~Baltasar Gracián

This so often happens to me.  I’m buzzing along, writing my happy little heart out.  The words are cascading out of my like droplets forming a hazy rainbow around a waterfall.  And then, BAM!, out of the blue, I come to a screeching halt.  Because something in the story happened for which there is a perfect word to describe it.  But for whatever reason, that perfect word escapes me.  Like, it’s there, on the tip of my tongue.  I know the word; it’s part of my regular vocabulary.  But I just can’t force the word out of the back of my mind where it remains half-formed and onto the page.

Finally, I will give up, fill it in with a synonym that means almost the same thing, and move on.  But the groove was broken, and I’ve been taken out of the moment, and that lousy synonym just sits there screaming that it’s just slightly out of place.

Ultimately, I have to shrug my shoulders and move on.  Some day the word will return to me.  But it will be too late, by then.

Has this ever happened to any of you?