Thursday, March 24, 2011

To Caroline Wojo

Well, I just formulated a reply to a certain lady in the USofA only to have the email bounce. So, I thunk to myself, how can I get the response to her. Well, my thunking proceeded, hows about making it a blog post, that way she just might stumble upon it. So here it is...

(apologies to long time Sundergirdians if I repeat myself)

Dear Caroline,

I have indeed read your email and here I am replying (at last!!!) just cause I can and, well, because more importantly you had the goodness to write so a reply is the least I can do.

As to advice about writing, I always find this a perplexing question - I am not a product of some tribe of formal training, it is an intuitive process for me, learning by doing, rather than the application of set rules. I am sure there are rules rolling about in this great intuitive blob but they are not what I am most aware of (argh! I ended a sentence with a preposition!!!)

Probably the best formal "rule" given by another author is: Plot is Character in Action.

As for the writing of fantasy: Avoid All Cliches like they are Swine Flu... ... that said, you might still perpetrate a few, but if your general intent is to avoid them, then you general will, and just might give to the world something that lightens and improves people's lives, not just numbs them with frothy oft-repeated blah.

The best practice I ever had and will ever have I think is reading, and reading well, by which I mean those books acknowledged as "classics" (though I do not find them all so), written with truth and mindful intent by folks with clear skill, not just to cash in on the latest fad. Having said that, it has not been some deliberate intent on my behalf, just that after reading Lord of the Rings I found that the only texts that really hit the same "button", that approached the same delight were not all the pulpy (in the worst way) fantasy fare, but the likes of Steinbeck, Kafka, Fitzgerald, Hesse, Galico. You see, my conviction is that if you're going to write it ought to be as good as you can make it, not just hammering away on the keyboard to get out a product, but show the contents of you soul to others in a way that is both utterly true of you and considerate of them.

I hope I am making sense.

Perhaps the best thing I can do is tell how it is that I have some thing to even write about, a bit from my own life, maybe that will help...? See, the real moment for me where a light bulb clicked and I really wanted to write was the reading of Lord of the Rings when I was 12-13. I immediately pulled out a large sheet of paper and began drawing my own Middle-earth-esque map, begun to write my own story (all 26 foolscap pages of it! - which I thought a lot at the time). Yet barely begun I quickly realised I was not able to really say what I wanted to say, that I was not quite long-lived enough, that I knew in my soul what I wanted to achieve (something even half as life changing as LOTR) but that I had not been on the earth long enough nor yet possessed quite the capacity to do as my hero, Tolkien, had done.

So, I stopped writing.

(Actually, I did at about 15 or so begin a new tale all my own, with my own ideas that after 60 odd pages devolved into teenage angsty blah, but I WAS writing, so that is something)

Yet in me continued to burn a desire to create a work that shifted me as LOTR shifted me. Finally, in second year uni and with and hour and a half bus ride one way I was reading all manner of goodly books, until finally I hit one - Titus Groan - and then pop! The dual inspirations of LOTR and this combined and I began to invent what eventually became the Half-Continent.

That was 20 years ! ago. It has grown little bit by little bit ever since, drawn from all those things around me that delight me, working them into my own distinct whole.

So my intent in this little tale is to say most of all, be patient with yourself, writing is a skill that will only (Lord willing) improve with age and experience, indeed, it is a journey of a lifetime. So keep writing, that the great ideas you are having now will unfold into even greater ones.

Now, as to developing characters: well, I suppose I ask myself how they might react in a given situation, and am a bit tough on myself to make sure that I keep the character true to how they would really be, not just making them go they way I want to plot to go. So we come back to it, Plot is Character in Action. The best advice I can give here is let your characters tell you what they would do next rather than you forcing them against their true selves to go in some predetermined direction. This forcing of a character ALWAYS breaks either them or the integrity of your story. And if you are wondering how they might be, watch people, see how they are for real, and read history and/or biography to see how folks in time have behaved - real life is always odder than pretend. Doing this I reckon will give you a much bigger pallet of reactions and emotions to draw from. Also, I would say the writing of characters is acting on slow motion, that you become that character like an actor might and perform their part (in your head of course, though you might yourself like to be more demonstrative - each to their own).

The writing of detail is a craft my editor will tell you I am still yet to master myself. You must remember in reading my words or those of proper writers is that we have all been edited, all been helped hugely to be the best selves we can be. What I can say is that detail for me is a matter of passion, I really care a whole lot about all the bits and pieces, the lay of a belt, the fold of a cloth, the bend in a road and the lean of a stand of young pines - you know what I mean. Description of details in NOT an Inventory of Stuff - just some long list of objects, it is an expression of my delight in the all the "bits" that make this character, this scene, this (pretend) world tangible, visceral, right here and now. I get the feeling you love details too, so write from that love, that passion, your own delight for all the accoutrement's that matter to you.... And be prepared to edit edit edit it all down to the best of it.

A great adventure (and trials too) stretches out before you... But you don't need me to tell you that, I can tell you already know it.

Phew, and here was me thinking I was just going to give you a quick missive in response to let you know I received you email and was thinking about how to answer... Well I guess I have done that then... :/



Carlita said...

I'm glad to see another post, especially about the writing process, no less! And here I was, about to tell you, Mr. Cornish, that I'm imitating your writing style for the editing class I'm in. Plus, while you might not know of the 'set rules,' I do, and I have to say, after dissecting the last ten sentences of Factotum's chapter 27, you use a ton of verbals (along with other things, but these are most difficult for me to understand). Finally, I'm glad to see a writer admitting to letting their character write themselves, which some authors (I can't remember who off the top of my head) deny happens and characters do what the author says they'll do. I'm a characters-write-themselves person, so I like seeing this advice for characters.

And Caroline, thank you for writing Mr. Cornish an e-mail. Without you and a bounced e-mail, we might not have gotten this wonderful insight into writing.

BrandenRose said...

This is great advice for any write, and I'm certainly happy it went out to us all, for I certainly can use such a letter for my own purposes....what a concept!As always, waiting ravenously for any news :)

monday said...

Yes! Characters like to run off and do their own thing, whether it is conducive to the plot or not! THANK you.
Just grateful for any mention of that. People look at me like I am schizophrenic when I talk about it.

Ken said...

You see, my conviction is that if you're going to write it ought to be as good as you can make it, not just hammering away on the keyboard to get out a product, but show the contents of you soul to others in a way that is both utterly true of you and considerate of them.

Extraordinarily well said.

Although Stephen King doesn't (I dare to propose) write "classics" per se, his On Writing is a terrific book on the topic. Another good one is Bradbury's Zen in the Art of Writing.

Caroline Wojo said...

Dear Mr. Cornish,

I just wanted to thank you very much for attempting to respond to my email; sadly my email address got suspended for reasons I don't know. Finding your response here seriously just made my day (after losing 26-1 in a softball game)! It was very kind of you to write me such a thorough response. With all the invaluable information you just gave me, I'll be a much better writer than I think I am, but I know I can be.


Caroline Wojo

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