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Question of the Month: Lesson

by Susan Henderson on September 7, 2009

What’s the most important writing lesson you’ve learned, and where did you learn it?

litparklessons

Wednesday, Judith Ryan Hendricks will be here to talk about her newest book and what she’s learned after publishing four novels. I hope you’ll be here to welcome her!

{ 61 comments… read them below or add one }

Nathalie September 7, 2009 at 7:18 am

I am learning every day…
I think the magic of writing was the biggest discovery back when I was 5 or 6. You rub letters together and they become alive, something else entirely; weird and wonderful creatures come to life on the page. And if you mix and match these … wow, stories.
Nice to see them come alive for real when before they where just the background noise in my head.

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ceishaw September 7, 2009 at 7:19 am

To write from experience. If the story is already there, than it is so much easier to write. Jack London and Ernest Hemingway would be examples.

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 7:22 am

I think there’s a lot more emotional power when you write from emotional experience, too. (Glad you’re here!)

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 7:23 am

I’m dying to know what you looked like at age 5/6. What hairstyle? What kinds of clothes?

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noteon September 7, 2009 at 7:26 am

Finish.

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 7:30 am

Ha ha! Love it!

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Nathalie September 7, 2009 at 7:36 am

There is a view… Not that the clothing is typical because I am on stage. Check out the other two of me as a kid to get an idea of what I was like (the attitude hasn’t changed much).

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 7:48 am

WONDERFUL photos! And a great big personality! 🙂

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Bass Reeves September 7, 2009 at 8:22 am

Bass Reeves
it’s all about the “re-write” Drummed into all of my quarks and strings by a certain television producer when I did a few shows for him…come to think of it….probably the best lesson i’ve learned along the way…..

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 8:44 am

I find a lot of times the emotional zing is in that first impulsive draft. But, yeah, all the real work, all the good stuff comes from chipping away the gunk, and unpacking a sentence and finding an entire scene that was swimming there like a shak below the surface.

(If you guys don’t know Bass Reeves’ music, you can check it out here: http://www.myspace.com/bassreeves)

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billiehinton September 7, 2009 at 8:45 am

Dive deep – came from a writing teacher, Laurel Goldman.

Always keep in mind this question – what’s at stake, from writer Peggy Payne.

These two are always in action when I work, especially during revision.

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 8:51 am

Hi Billie!

Another way to look at the question of what’s at stake is to ask what your character wants desperately and then make sure the other character has an opposing desire. Only one can win.

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ceishaw September 7, 2009 at 8:54 am

Emotional experience is experience.

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 8:57 am

Hee, that second “emotional” was just a typo. Now the coffee’s going in…. brain should recharge shortly.

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5speener0 September 7, 2009 at 9:00 am

“rub letters together and they become alive” Love this image! Thanks for this description of literary discovery. Original. 🙂

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5speener0 September 7, 2009 at 9:09 am

Let go.

Write it, work it, do what you do and put it out there, then find some way to let go of the emotional attachment or the editorial and public comments will kill you. Sort of like letting go of the ego.

Writing is a way of communicating with others(nothing new here). Some will agree, understand, appreciate and connect positively with what the author says; others will not. You have to find a way to take in the negatives (right along with the positives), process them and learn, then move on.

This has been a huge help to me, as I build my writing career. It helps tremendously, when I’m doing marketing work and writing for a client, so that I take ALL of their feedback and apply to my work accordingly. If I couldn’t do that, I’d be an emotional wreck.

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5speener0 September 7, 2009 at 9:11 am

Forgot to answer, “Where did you learn it?”

Well…it just took years of feeling hurt, misunderstood and inferior to others, so I learned it as part of growing up and all overe the place–work, home, groups…

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5speener0 September 7, 2009 at 9:14 am

So simple. SO true. 🙂

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Amanda F September 7, 2009 at 9:29 am

A New York Times writer came to my MFA program and looked at some of my work. He told me I didn’t know how to write a sentence. Then he took me through four pages. He had edited every sentence. He wasn’t the nicest man, but his comments were invaluable. I have learned the most about my writing in moments when my pride is at stake.

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Ric September 7, 2009 at 9:39 am

Stephen King’s admonition in “On Writing” to eschew the use of adverbs. At first, this is completely wrong – believing, as do most folks, that adverbs add color and explanation. But, if you take them out, the prose left is sparse, and clean, letting the reader put the color in.
You don’t realize how well it works until you set the search and destroy mode on your Word program and read the new result. Adverbs are not needed in nearly all cases and the end result reads so much better.

But the greatest lesson on writing came in Ninth Grade Study Hall, when I discovered I could write quick stories using my friends and classmates, putting them in sexy stories and everyone, EVERYONE, couldn’t wait to read more. Ah, a talent, everyone likes my stuff! And for a four foot tall, skinny kid with a smart mouth, what could be better? Since football was not an option, and fading into the woodwork wasn’t either, being the kid who wrote stories about the other kids in compromising positions worked.

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 9:47 am

You know what helps so much for this? Think of the book or the piece of music that brings you to your knees. The one that changed you. The one that carried you through. Then look on Amazon, or wherever, and read reviews of that book or that song or that album. Some people hated it. Some thought, Eh, didn’t impact me one way or another. And what if that author or musician had not released that work because he received or feared that kind of feedback? What if the fear of something negative kept that work from being a part of your life?

I just think it helps to remember that there are people who think Hemingway’s stale or Alice Munro is navel gazing or Freddie Mercury is too showy …and so what? How great that their work is here for those of us who love them.

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Aurelio September 7, 2009 at 10:54 am

I’m still learning lessons, and my generally contrary nature forces me to be a learn-by-doing person. Advice always makes my brain go, “Yeah, but…” I’ve read On Writing and a bunch of other how to books – all good, but I think the best advice I’ve been given so far is to stop talking about it and sit down and write. To be productive. Like so many things: gymnastics, art, playing an instrument–writing takes practice. It takes falling on your face and getting back up, over and over.

What I really struggle with is the patience needed to trust in the practice-makes-perfect process.

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lorioliva September 7, 2009 at 11:43 am

Great topic! I’m really enjoying reading the different perspectives. One valuable lesson that sticks out for me is something writers, Dianna Love and Mary Buckham taught me. They stressed the importance of creating a sense of urgency, and identifying how that urgency relates to your character’s goal.

Today, I think about the ‘ticking clock’ in just about everything I write. It helps me keep the story moving.

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 12:23 pm

Hey, Amanda! How’s Cairo?

I think that kind of criticism you got would break a lot of writers and make them throw their pencils away altogether. That you were able to improve after that says something about how tough you are.

P.S. Thought I’d link your piece that’s on Brevity today: http://brevity.wordpress.com/2009/09/07/chipping-toward-the-center-the-art-of-brevity/

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 12:27 pm

I loved that book, and not so much for his advice on writing as for his personal story of being hit by that car and trying to pull his life back together.

Taking your adverbs advice a little farther, I think one of the greatest things I learned, which Ron Carlson reiterated over and over at Squaw Valley, is to put your characters in action. Whenever you’re trying to find a new word for bored or angry or whatever, scratch it out entirely and simply show what the body is doing. Don’t worry about interpreting the behavior, just describe everything you can about what that body is doing and how someone else’s body reacts to it.

(Great story about study hall!)

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 12:29 pm

I have the opposite problem, which gets me into just as much trouble, and it’s that I tend to trust everyone else’s advice and opinions over my own. But the solution is the same for both of us: just sit down and write and write and write.

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robinantalek September 7, 2009 at 12:29 pm

The best advice? Sit in that chair every single day and write. If your house is anything like mine with teens and dogs, embrace the chaos. That very same chaos that might seem impossible to ignore might unearth the most amazing things. And read, read, read. Read everything you can get your hands on. Read until you need glasses, read until you need a new prescription. A writer needs to read as much as a writer needs to write.

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 12:35 pm

I think a lot of us who write literary fiction would do well to tape that advice to the top of the computer screen. Because for all of the compelling description and reflection on what it means to be human, etc, it’s all about having a reader engaged and turning the page.

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 12:42 pm

Great advice! And thank you for mentioning reading. Painters learn by coping the masters over and over and over. And I think writers train their ears and learn so much about character and pacing, etc, by constantly reading.

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Aurelio September 7, 2009 at 12:53 pm

I do firmly believe in receiving criticism on my work after the fact, I don’t want anyone to misunderstand. Criticism is crucial to improvement–how else will we know if what we are trying to communicate through our work is actually doing so without it? It’s only that we can get so hung up on doing everything “right” by all the generally held writer-rules it can feel daunting and undo us. I have a couple of writer friends who have trouble finishing anything because it is never “perfect.”

Sometimes a 9.5 can still take gold, and there’s always another shot to better nail your landing, but you need to first enter the event to even hope to win.

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JordanRosenfeld September 7, 2009 at 1:13 pm

Oh wow! I know Judith and she is good people, as well as a lovely writer!! How great that she’ll be here.

The most important lesson I’ve learned is quite dull: that the only way to get better and to finish a novel is to write all the time. Not just “every day” as the advice goes, but wherever and whenever you can. To keep a notebook with me at all times for ideas that stray…and as a still relatively new mother (my son is 15 mos), to never take free time for granted.

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 1:14 pm

Great metaphor, and I totally understand the paralysis you’re talking about!

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 1:19 pm

So true how babies teach you a lot about time!

It’s funny, combining your advice with Robin’s right below yours… because I’ve had to keep long long writing hours, partly because of deadlines and partly because I know my writing style is slow and involves a lot of smashing and rebuilding. And because I hate sitting and just feel like I’m going to go berserk if I sit in a chair for very long, I’ve picked up a habit of taking a pen and two pages at a time and walking with them until I’m unstuck. I’m sure this looks very strange to my neighbors, but I have to get my work done and I just can’t keep my butt in a chair.

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robinantalek September 7, 2009 at 2:00 pm

Walking and writing…I love it! I often take to the pavement when I’m stuck, but it’s mostly muttering to myself as I work out the kinks…perhaps the next time I’ll just take the pages and a pen.

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 3:38 pm

Try it and tell us how it goes. (And careful not to walk into parked cars!)

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5speener0 September 7, 2009 at 5:20 pm

Amen, Susan! You say it so passionately and beautifully. It is so encouraging to “let go” and just write. Say what you need to say…a song, methinks?

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5speener0 September 7, 2009 at 5:23 pm

Thanks for the link. You know, I love my music, so I’m always looking for new sounds. 🙂

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SusanHenderson September 7, 2009 at 9:02 pm

I think it’s our job as writers to be boldly ourselves. (Sorry for the adverb, Ric. I’d catch it in the editing phase, though!)

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aimeepalooza September 8, 2009 at 9:06 am

The best writing lesson came through reading. I was in high school. My Brother came home from college and left me some work by beat authors. Reading their work, I learned that I didn’t have to follow the strict writing rules I’d been taught. It was a total relief!

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SusanHenderson September 8, 2009 at 9:34 am

That is so awesome.

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5speener0 September 8, 2009 at 12:37 pm

Rules, hah! They’re merely “suggestions”. 🙂

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5speener0 September 8, 2009 at 12:48 pm

Reading great writing keeps me humble and grounded.

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chuckles September 8, 2009 at 12:58 pm

I’ve learned a lot about writing from trial and error, compulsive re-reading of things I thought were finished, and from quizzing myself about what was so great about a really great story or sentence so I could try to incorporate those qualities into my own work. But the best actual “lesson” I ever got was from Nancy McHugh, my English teacher from senior year of High School – and it wasn’t about writing in terms of “me being a writer,” but about the nature and essence of literature and literary criticism, which I think is the ocean in which each of us, as writers, swims. During classroom discussions I’d too often indulge in pretentious, verbose commentary, blathering about things I hadn’t really taken the time (or was not yet equipped) to understand. She made a little sign for me for those occasions that simply read “B.S.” and she’d hold it up when she’d had enough. It was embarassing but effective. Now when I start to “hold forth” I need to ask myself if what I’m saying is worth hearing, or merits the “B.S.” sign. A lot of strike-out edits ensue. Thanks, Nancy!

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5speener0 September 8, 2009 at 1:03 pm

Brevity? I can certainly use that! Thanks for the link. You always have so much for us to use and take home with us.

Amanda, that sounds so painful.

I remember sitting in on and editing session at a children’s book writing conference about two years ago. I went in ready to hate this guy. What do editors really know! Ha! They just suck the sould out of writing!

I came out a believer. He showed me the best of what an editor has to offer: Look for excess and redundancy to clear away like wild brush, consider the type of piece you’re writing (novel, short story, magazine article…) and see if your words are a luxury that you cannot afford or a good seasoning to add flavour to each sentence, re-read after editing to make sure you haven’t lost anything. It’s sort of like cooking, where you taste periodically, to insure that the stew tastes the way it should.

I know believe that a good editor can be an essential ellement in writing, especially if that person understands you and your story and is able to help without changing your style or lose the flavour you have in mind.

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SusanHenderson September 8, 2009 at 3:10 pm

Dan! Hey! How funny about the b.s. sign. Someone should have held one of those up for me when I was a kid, and regularly quoted from non-existent articles to prove my point.

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SusanHenderson September 8, 2009 at 3:17 pm

Oh, Brevity is a TERRIFIC magazine run by the great writer Dinty Moore (the other one: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinty_W._Moore). I’m so glad you checked out that link!

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chuckles September 8, 2009 at 4:21 pm

I WROTE THOSE ARTICLES. And I hope you credited me. 😉

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terrybain September 8, 2009 at 7:53 pm

Write every day.

Learned it from one of my first writing teachers, Hans Ostrom.

I haven’t always followed this advice, and when I don’t, I’m miserable.

I don’t like being miserable.

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Carolyn_Burns_Bass September 8, 2009 at 8:15 pm

Susan, first of all I want to begin by saying how much I’ve missed LitPark of late. I was looking through my Facebook and Twitter friends recently and I was struck by how many of them I met through LitPark. I know how much time and heart you put into LitPark every month and I am so glad that you do. Hugs attached.

Now about the question of the month. The best writing lesson I learned was:

“Never let the facts stand in the way of a good story.”

Memorable and ironic, both, as the class was mass communications and the professor was a writer for the LA Times. This little ditty released me from the monotony of writing life exactly as it happened.

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SusanHenderson September 8, 2009 at 9:32 pm

I love when someone has my back.

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SusanHenderson September 8, 2009 at 9:35 pm

I didn’t used to understand why people recommended writing every day, but over the years, a couple of things became really clear: If you write every day, you build that muscle and don’t rely on being in a zone; and if you write every day, it breaks down that fear of being imperfect.

Go Hans!

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SusanHenderson September 8, 2009 at 9:37 pm

Yay, you’re here!

And what a cool and quirky piece of advice. That may just be the help I need… will try it tomorrow.

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Kirk Farber September 8, 2009 at 9:59 pm

I always liked the advice “It doesn’t need to be perfect, it just needs to show promise.” I’m pretty sure that’s from PUTTING YOUR PASSION INTO PRINT by Arielle Eckstut & David Henry Sterry. This helped me a lot when I was getting ready to send my manuscript to agents. Otherwise I might have never sent it.

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michaelmcintyre September 8, 2009 at 11:42 pm

10. Try to leave out the part that readers tend to skip.

From Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing.

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eileen_rita September 9, 2009 at 4:49 am

One of the first things I remember learning was “write what you know”.

It was simple logic from my 5th form English teacher, and probably doesn’t apply to experienced and gifted writers as much, but when I was first starting my screenplay and to be honest trying way to hard, I thought back to this and found my starting point.

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SusanHenderson September 9, 2009 at 2:32 pm

The things that move me are never perfect; they’re wonderful for their unique hearts and voices and vulnerabilities and quirks. Just like my friends.

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SusanHenderson September 9, 2009 at 2:33 pm

Ha! I’m going to remember that one forever!

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SusanHenderson September 9, 2009 at 2:34 pm

My husband uses funny phrases like “5th form” when he talks about school, too. 🙂 Tell us about your screenplay…

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eileen_rita September 10, 2009 at 2:35 am

Ah, yes, sorry about that – I forget myself sometimes 😛

My screenplay is called ‘Please Rewind Me’. It’s about a young woman who, after the death of her mother, inherits a video shop. Although she has no interest in movies, or business sense she immerses herself in it and struggles to fill the void left in the lives of her mothers friends and cope with her own emotional fallout.

I had been managing a video store for about 8 years when I started ‘properly’ writing it, so by setting it in a familiar environment the conversations and the supporting characters were easier to create. From the people who have read it, the most popular scene is one where Michael (the romantic interest) explains his love of movies. I don’t think I could have written that moment if I wasn’t a movie lover myself.

So I think it’s a good lesson for people who are trying to find their rhythm for the first time.

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SusanHenderson September 10, 2009 at 10:27 pm

What a great title! And I love the idea of her immersing herself in the lives of her mother’s friends. Have you workshopped it with other screenwriters yet? You should visit here: http://www.zoetrope.com/

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eileen_rita September 10, 2009 at 11:48 pm

You’re too kind! What a brilliant site…I know what I’ll be doing this weekend. Thanks for your support 🙂

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