Saturday, January 8, 2011

Writer's Mind: Crafting Fiction by Richard Cohen (1995)

Cohen’s edited, taught, and evaluated written works (and written novels himself) long enough to have clear suggestions for the best ways to go from nebulous plot possibility to finished, polished manuscript. You have to like somebody who says that writing is a matter of the spirit.

One of the reasons I like this book is because Cohen comes up with a sample story idea and shares its progression with readers. He ponders various directions the story or the characters might take at various points. This gives readers a real-world example of how to put his writing suggestions to use.

He says early in the book he wanted to write a book with more technical knowledge than typical writing manuals “to nurture the serious inner development of writers”. He doesn’t rely on rigid formulas to explain how writing “should” be done. He includes practical exercises that make you think and help you write. Toward the end of the book, he does seem to throw a wet blanket on dreams of big-time publishing success, but he also keeps encouraging us to reach for it.

I don’t know about you, but for me, without something to reach for, I can be at loose ends. It makes sense for anybody who wants to get published to stay realistic. I can honestly say that I don’t dream of making a bigger splash than, say, Ms. Rowling. I’d rather have quality admirers of my writing than quantity.

Cohen covers a lot of ground, from why we write to suggestions for getting the best writing out of each of us every day to what it’s like when you finally do get published. For me, who’s decided I need specific help with my WIP, there’s still a lot to learn. I feel encouraged to keep trying, which is perhaps the first step in writing anything.

He does caution that the best ideas may in fact take years to simmer in your muse’s Magickal Crockpot (I added the crockpot reference). Sheesh, I’ve already had the basic idea for over 20 years. I got *serious* about the story only in 2009, so it might take years more?

Even though we’ve all heard this before, it bears repeating: while waiting for that Big Idea, write other things. It keeps your muse fresh and in practice, it helps develop good writing habits that will help when The Idea finally arrives, and you’ll feel like you’re still accomplishing something, because you are. It’s true that you get better at it the more you do it.  Some of us at Critique Circle have decided to create a shared world where we'll write our own stories, using agreed-upon foundations such as politics, religion, magic, and the use (or misuse) of those things.  This gives me a chance to resurrect an idea I've had for a fantasy tale.  Worldbuilding is an involved process that keeps my muse busy, and lets the Crockpot of Neal's story cook as long as it needs to.

Cohen includes lists of books that he feels are great examples of the issues he talks about in each chapter. I’m not totally convinced that books published in the early 1900s are invaluable for somebody who wants to publish in 2011, but at the very least, I’m sure those books offer a starting place.

I did laugh, briefly, at one suggestion. One of the last exercises is to found a literary magazine. Oh yeah, right, me, founding something. A literary magazine! I have no connections, no inkling how founding anything is done. And yet, if we all just gave up without even trying, wouldn’t the world be a very poor place?

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