Please just hit me if I’m starting to sound like a broken record, but one of the most amazing aspects of this new author gig is how much teaching is suddenly required of us. Well, not required, exactly, but requested. And I think those reading along are getting the picture of how much we all enjoy, and more, are fascinated by the teaching side of this profession.
So instead of writing more about Romantic Times (except just to say that no matter how much I think I’m immune by now to these obviously staged displays, I still nearly fainted at the waves of testosterone wafting off the collective cover models when I walked into the conference last weekend…) I’m going to talk about something else that has been… um.. bothering me.
Given the gigantic slush piles and the sheer numbers of aspiring authors out there competing for publishing deals, what IS it about a book that makes – agents, publishers, readers – say yes? And exactly how do we describe that something to an aspiring author?
What is it that makes a book ALIVE?
I just recently got a slew of first-five-page submissions for a workshop I’m going to be teaching and OH MY GOD, what an interesting experience it’s being.
This is not my first rodeo, mind you. Before I sold my first script and broke into screenwriting as a living, I worked as a reader (story analyst) for several Hollywood production companies, so I have all kinds of experience with sorting through mountains of submissions and having to cull the likely ones from the pile.
That may sound hard, but believe me, there’s nothing easier. A script is either THERE, or it’s not. Same with novels. It’s either a book, or it isn’t. The more of them you read at once, the more obvious that becomes. Now, beyond that, a book needs to fit someone’s particular taste – you have to find an agent who loves it and an editor who loves it and a house who loves it, and THAT is more intangible.
But before all of that it simply has to be an actual, living, breathing book.
And if you get, for example, twelve submissions at once, and read them all in one night, there is nothing in the world easier than picking out which of them, if any, is a real book – or not.
There are all kinds of ways to write a book. Plotting, pantsing, obsessive outlining, index cards, collage books, writing in layers, writing beginning to end, writing one chapter at a time until it’s perfect, writing reams of back stories….
And certainly by now we all know that authors often go through holy hell trying to get a book to LIVE – that we throw manuscripts against walls and go on drinking binges and tell everyone we meet that our careers are over and throw out hundreds of pages at a time and tear our entire structures apart and start over when it’s not working.
But all this drama means only one thing, really. We all know… that there’s a certain point that we have to get to in which the book takes on a life of its own. No book is ever going to engage every reader – there’s too much individual taste involved to hope for that. But we all have to get every book we write to a state in which a decent percentage of readers will pick the book up and say YES to it – that they will somehow, someway, find themselves so caught up in the world that they forget that they’re holding a book and reading, and instead are just LIVING it.
But what the hell IS that? How can you possibly TEACH that?
You can teach all the building blocks to writing but how do you teach someone how to make that conglomeration of parts LIVE, to the point that it’s a fully-dimensional, breathing, seamless experience?
Well, first, art is imitative. Just like children learning to be adults, we as authors imitate our author idols – in characterization, structure, rhythm, pacing, dialogue. We have to have finely developed ears for all of those things. We have to learn to speak novelese, so fluently that when we speak we are indistinguishable from natives.
We also have to have enough detachment to pull back from the writing process and read our work simply as readers, and see where the book is engaging us and flowing, and where it stumbles, where we are engaged and where we couldn’t care less.
Maybe what we really have to do is create a world, or a stage, that’s detailed enough that we can coax real live characters (wherever the hell they come from) out onto it, who will do the work for us.
Or maybe it’s all just a Jedi mind trick. Look, I’m not kidding. Maybe it’s actually magic. Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Morgan Le Fay-style magic.
But CAN that be taught? Or if you don’t have it from the beginning, can you get there?
If an aspiring author isn’t trying hard enough, if the book is just lying there like a dead mackerel, what might get them motivated to DO what it takes to get to the next level, a living, breathing level?
I honestly don’t know if that is something that can be specifically taught. I think it might be more of a Dumbo’s feather kind of thing. You, as a teacher or a mentor or an advisor, are not going to know what it is for any particular student that gets her or him to that magic place. Sometimes you may click with a student and say the right thing – but probably, most of the time, not.
That’s kind of scary, considering the fact that while you may sometimes do great good, you could also do great harm.
For example. I have to admit that personally, coming from a dance background, I am highly responsive to someone with a cane following me across a dance floor screaming in my face – TURN! TURN! Get up on top of that leg! MOVE!
Dance teachers, like football coaches and Army Sergeants, don’t pull any punches. And you know what? It works. The adrenaline of terror will push you to a certain level of competency that you were not aware you could achieve. (This, I feel, is part of the psychology of deadlines….)
There’s a certain magic to dance, after all – there are so many things that you have to do perfectly all at once to do just a simple triple pirouette that if you were only thinking about the component parts you would never, ever get there. What you need is the level of sheer adrenaline that makes a mother not think about what is possible or not possible but allows her to lift a three-ton truck off her trapped child. You need a level of WILL that transcends your physical and mental capabilities, right? That’s what writing is all about, because if you really think about what we’re doing, let’s face it, it’s completely impossible.
Going back to the Jedi analogy, maybe for some students what it takes is a teacher that you worship, who is your ideal of what you want to be and where you want to go, screaming at you – JUST FUCKING DO IT!
And somehow the combined rage and worship and terror flips you into an altered state in which you can levitate the Death Star, or do a triple pirouette, or set your book on fire.
Now, I’m not willing to apply those take-no-prisoners dance teacher techniques to my writing students. At least, I have not been – so far. I have also not, so far, been willing to say to aspiring author friends – “You know what? You’re not trying hard enough. Stop whining, get your head out of your ass and work on ONE book until it’s right, until it’s ALIVE.”
But I’m beginning to wonder – am I doing these people a disservice? Am I letting them down by not being as hard on them as I am on myself? Are great teachers hard on students precisely because they know they need to instill that sense of rigor and perfectionism in their students, if those students are ever to have any hope of being professionals?
Or is tough love a terrible gamble that could break a talented student if applied at the wrong time in that student’s life?
On one hand, I think any student has to be responsible enough to pursue the teachers who teach in a style that is compatible with the student, and drop flat the teachers who they sense could harm their development.
But maybe… maybe… as teachers we have to be responsible enough to look a promising student in the face and say – “Do better or get out.”
Just exactly as we say to ourselves, every day.
Maybe the point is – the BOOK has to be the most important thing, always. It has to be more important than your agent or getting an agent, it has to be more important than your editor or publishing house, it has to be more important than anything. Until you get to the point that the book lives, no matter what that takes, then nothing else matters.
So my questions are – what worked for YOU? Do you remember the point at which you first wrote something that you knew, unequivocally, was alive? Did a teacher or teachers help you get there, or is that something each of us has to figure out on our own? Is there a teaching style that works best for you, as a teacher or as a student?