Seven Things I’ve Learned About Writing, Part I

October 29, 2008
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Dissonance
Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
Buy This Book via Amazon.com

The Art of Fiction: 
Seven Things I’ve Learned About Writing, Part I

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

November, 2008

Lisa Lenard-Cook is a regular columnist for Authorlink. She is an award-winning published author and writing instructor. This is another in the series, The Art of Fiction. Watch for her insights every month on Authorlink. Read more about Lisa.

Mind of Your Story
Mind of Your Storyby Lisa Lenard-Cook
Buy This Book via Amazon.com

After writing this column monthly for nearly five years, I’ll be stepping back a bit and, beginning this month, offering something new every other month. That’s good news for me, and, I’d like to think, for you: I’ll work doubly hard to continue to help you create fiction that connects with readers.

So here’s my holiday gift to you: the first three of seven things I’ve learned about writing. The second four will arrive just in time for the new year.

"While all of those daydreams
are permissible adjuncts, there is,
in the end, only one reason to write fiction: passion."

—Lenard-Cook

1. Be passionate.

What brought you to writing in the first place? Was it dreams of being on Oprah or Letterman, your photo on the cover of Time or People, a multi-million dollar advance, or quitting your day job in order to write full time?

While all of those daydreams are permissible adjuncts, there is, in the end, only one reason to write fiction: passion. Why do I say this so emphatically? Because somewhere in the midst of the dark forest of today’s publishing industry, I lost my way. Since the publication of my first two novels, both award-winners, I’ve written three more novels. My agent tells me they’re all wonderful. She also says she can’t sell any of them: They’re either “too quiet,” “too short,” or “too small,” all phrases which, I must tell you, have been used to describe me personally for most of my life as well.

Perhaps that’s why, after my most recent walk along this well-trod path, I was not merely depressed but despondent. We are talking about three “wonderful” novels here, none of which have gone out to editors. Why should I write at all? I wondered.

". . . replicate the last best-selling thing in the new best-selling thing. I write for you, and you, and you. I write because I believe communicating with others. . ."
—Lenard-Cook

But merely imagining not writing made me teary, and so reminded me that I write because I am passionate – passionate about connecting with readers, one at a time, in the quiet of their own minds. I don’t write to satisfy the whims and needs of an industry that seeks to replicate the last best-selling thing in the new best-selling thing. I write for you, and you, and you. I write because I believe communicating with others – really communicating – is the most important thing I do.

2. First things first.

If I had a dollar for each time I’ve been asked, “How do I find an agent?” I wouldn’t need the publishing industry at all. But here’s the way I answer this question, each time it’s asked: “What have you written?” Nine times out of ten (no: more), the answer is, “Well, I haven’t written anything yet. But I’ve got this great idea…”

Thus follows my simple answer to the question of how to find agent: First, you write. First.

"Even if they’re not interacting, they’re reacting differently. What you believe you’re seeing or hearing will not
be the precisely the same as what another does."

—Lenard-Cook
3. Empathy is a prerequisite.

Many first novels are what I call thinly veiled autobiography, and that’s fine (although, in recent years, I often recommend writers call these books what they are, memoir). But if you plan to make fiction writing a career, you’ll need to realize there are other people in the world (and not just in terms of readers and book-buyers).

Consider: If there are two people in a room, each has a different point of view, a different way of seeing, hearing, and understanding what’s going on in that room, at that moment. Even if they’re not interacting, they’re reacting differently. What you believe you’re seeing or hearing will not be the precisely the same as what another does.

It takes a while, but once writers grasp this simple fact, they immediately try to write their fictions from as many points-of-view as possible. But that’s not the main lesson you should take from this concept. Rather, I’d suggest that you use it to consider others’ points of view in all situations, whether it’s that man who pushes past you in line, your mother-in-law asking you the same question (and not hearing your answer) for the hundredth time, or your sullen teenager storming off to his room.

"Being truly empathetic means shutting off your own point of view and asking yourself instead why the other person might have done or said. . ."
—Lenard-Cook

Being truly empathetic means shutting off your own point of view and asking yourself instead why the other person might have done or said what they did if you’re not part of the equation. That man who shoved past you, for example: He probably wasn’t thinking, I’m going to push this short person out of my way because she’s short. More likely, he’s late for an important appointment, or was just fired from his job, or had a fight with his partner, or, or, or… And maybe, ever since your father-in-law died, no one listens to your mother-in-law. Hence she’s got so much to tell you, she doesn’t always listen when you’re speaking. As for that teenager, weren’t you that age once? Don’t you remember, just a little bit, how your parents sometimes said exactly the wrong thing, how they simply didn’t understand you? And didn’t you slam a door or two yourself?

"I believe that the best writing arrives when we observe our worlds
as much as ourselves."

—Lenard-Cook

I believe that the best writing arrives when we observe our worlds as much as ourselves, when we are open to others rather than reactive to them, when empathy is our middle name. Come to thing of it, this could be a prescription for living as well as for writing.

My best wishes for the holidays!

Lisa Lenard-Cook
About
Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook’s first novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, and her second novel Coyote Morning short-listed for the New Mexico Press Women’s Zia Award. Lisa is on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference and Vermont College’s Lifelong Learning Program. Her book about fiction writing, The Mind of Your Story, (April 2008) can be purchased at amazon.com.

 

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