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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

LEARNING TO WRITE THE HARD WAY (Not Recommended)

Please welcome guest blogger Lynn Kerstan

A couple of decades ago, Life as I’d known it came to an end. My wonderful mother required a caregiver, and I was it. Time spent with her was no burden, but my nights were a black hole of doom. So when a friend came up with a plan to fill those empty hours, I recklessly pounced.

“You should write a romance novel,” she said.

Well, why not? How hard could it be? A former academic, I’d taught literature and writing for many years. I considered myself an excellent writer. True, my fiction output consisted of three of four pretentious undergraduate short stories, but I’d always made up stories in my head. And while teaching Shakespeare and Homer and James Joyce, I was secretly reading spy novels, science fiction, fantasy, anything historical, and mysteries. I’d even read romance. Well, one author. During a summer of studying Shakespeare in Stratford-upon-Avon, a classmate handed me a worn paperback. “You’ll like this,” she said.

And oh, I did! The author was Georgette Heyer, and I spent the summer trolling through bookstores in search of more Heyer Regency romances. To this day, I enjoy reading them.

Next, I needed a computer. Back then, $1200 would buy you 64RAM and two big floppy disk drives. I worked with DOS and Leading Edge Word Processing. I hadn’t a clue what I was doing, but every night I spent five or six hours working on what was sure to be a best-selling novel. In my ignorance, there was no room for humility. And I was working in utter solitude. I’d never heard of RWA or Romantic Times.

A year later, I knew that I had a vivid imagination, the ability to create fascinating characters, and the stamina to have produced 200,000 words of sheer brilliance. My mother, who’d always thought I should be a writer, wanted to read it. Took her a month, and she said only one thing: “Does it have a plot?”

Of course it did! It had several plots. And at some point, they would all come together in a yet-to-be-determined way. Plus, I had revised and polished and spiffed up every phrase and sentence and paragraph several times, so my work thus far was flawless.

Two years later, my not-nearly-done-with Magnum Opus had reached 600,000 words. And I’d finally made contact with a few writers and learned about agents, who responded to my queries far more kindly than I deserved. One generously gave me two pages of feedback on the four chapters she’d read, and three of her words are to this day seared in my brain: “This is overwritten.”

No kidding. A sane person would have brought out a shredder and taken up another profession, but I still had faith in my convoluted, overwrought, never- ending tale. Never mind the first 45,000 words were all about the hero’s adventures in India, and that he didn’t meet the heroine in England until page 260. Some books would be over by then.

I’d also produced some of the lousiest writing ever perpetrated on hapless agents and longsuffering friends who slogged through as much as they could stand. To avoid simple words like “said,” I trotted out every inane speech tag (save only “expostulated,” which even I knew was awful) and festooned them all with at least one cutesy adverb. My protagonists, being aristocrats, had names and nicknames and pet names and titles by which they could be called, and I used them all indiscriminately. Indeed, I could put the two of them alone in a room and you’d think there were a dozen people in there.

Even faced with reality, I could not abandon my firstborn novel. But to prepare the way for when my Magnus Opus was ready for submission, I decided to toss off a short Regency romance and try to get a toe in the door of a publisher. Being me, I wound up with 97,000 words, and only one publisher was buying Regencies that long. So I sent it over the transom and ten days later, Kensington bought the book. It went on to win a couple of awards and was a double RITA finalist. Despite all those adverbs I wish I’d cut before submission.

These days, a copy of the Magnus Opus, now known as The Book of My Apprenticeship, sits in a box under the bed. In a backhanded way, it taught me how to write, and it also taught me how to teach writing. Whatever any student may be doing wrong or badly or inadequately, I’ve been there and done that. I understand how it happens, why it happens, and the reasons we get wedded to writing choices we shouldn’t even date. What’s more, I know what to do about it.

We all write differently, of course, but our goals are essentially the same. Today, with excellent teachers providing workshops and on-line classes and seminars at RWA functions, no writer has to work in isolation or learn to write by doing everything wrong.

Nor should we ever stop learning and improving. Every good writer I know is dedicated to improving her craft, and we all love a good debate about prologues, backstory placement, POV shifts, and yes, even punctuation. At a recent RWA Conference, five of us went several rounds about the use of colons and semicolons in fiction. Wine may have been a factor.

Hope to see you in my upcoming class, The Purpose-Driven Scene!


Lynn Kerstan,  former college professor, folksinger, professional bridge player, and nun, is the author of nine Regency romances, seven historical romances, and three novellas. She is presently developing a paranormal series. 

A five-time RITA Finalist (one win), she is regularly featured on awards lists. Since Romantic Times launched its Top Picks feature, every Kerstan novel has been a Top Pick. Two have been selected by Library Journal for its Best Books of the Year list (2002 and 2003), and Dangerous Passions was named to Booklist?s Top Ten Romances of 2005 list.

For many years a teacher of English literature and writing at the Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. and the University of San Diego, Kerstan now conducts popular-fiction workshops for writers groups and conferences. An Internet junkie, she can be found online at StoryBroads, blogging with Anne Stuart, Maggie Shayne, Patricia Potter, Tara Taylor Quinn, and Suzanne Forster.

Kerstan lives an exemplary life in Coronado, California, where she plots her stories while riding her boogie board, walking on the beach, and watching Navy SEALs jog by.

The Purpose-Driven Scene runs from September 27, 2010 through October 24, 2010.

4 comments:

danicaavet said...

Lynn, great post! I love your honesty. I think we all start our first book with the thought that it'll be so good we'll be beating the agents and editors off with a very big dictionary.

lynnrush said...

Great story. I'm so glad you shared it with us. It's nice to see how people started out.

I, too, learned off my first book. I think lots of writers have a "first book" they learned off.

Thanks for this!!

Marcella Burnard said...

Oh dear. How painfully familiar. I'm not certain what it says about my learning curve that it took four or five books to figure it all out. Thanks, Lynn.

Marie Andreas said...

Thanks for the great post Lynn. It's reassuring to see that someone I've read and admired had a learning curve too!