Writing advice

Schopenhauer’s Rules for Readers (Revised for Writers)

Last weekend I did not post to the blog because I was neck-deep in the South Coast Writers Conference. As always, it was great experience, meeting all sorts of new people and learning new skills and new ways of looking at old ones. The one drawback to an experience like this is that you are flooded with so much information you have no time to internalize what you’ve learned.

It took me three days to establish enough equilibrium again to write anything.

So I will not be sharing what I learned just yet. I need a little more time to make it my own.

So I’m going to write about something I stumbled upon on the web the other day. It was an article (more of a list than a real article) about the German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer’s seven rules for reader’s. I was intrigued and decided to reinterpret them for writers.

So I present Schopenhauer’s Rules For Reading Writers:

Don’t read without reflection.

It is only by reflection that one can assimilate what one has read. If one reads straight ahead without pondering over it later, what one has read does not take root, but is for the most part lost.”

I agree, for the most part. If you read nothing but Hemingway for a couple of months, you will begin to assimilate his style unconsciously, whether you want to or not. Pausing to reflect on what you’ve read will speed this process up because you will be engaging both your conscious and unconscious mind.

Don’t waste time with bad books.

The art of not reading is highly important. This consists in not taking a book into one’s hand merely because it is interesting the great public at the time… In order to read what is good one must make it a condition never to read what is bad; for life is short, and both time and strength limited.”

On this point I have to disagree somewhat with the great philosopher, but only because we are reading to different ends. He is advising students whose goal is to enrich their minds. As aspiring authors, we can learn a great deal from works that aren’t written well, provided we accept that they are not done well. We have to read these with the mindset of asking why they aren’t done well and how we might do it differently to fix the problems.

Don’t read only new books.

What can be more miserable than the fate of a reading public of this kind, that feels always impelled to read the latest writings of extremely commonplace authors who write for money only, and therefore exist in numbers?… It is because people will only read what is the newest instead of what is the best of all ages, that writers remain in the narrow circle of prevailing ideas, and the age sinks deeper and deeper in its own mire.”

Yes. Sometimes the cultural ideas will be dated, as will the mechanics (fiction from the Dickens-Hardy era was allowed to move at a much slower pace than modern fiction) but the rules of drama, characterization, and storytelling remain much the same.

Don’t just buy books; read them!

It would be a good thing to buy books if one could also buy the time to read them; but one usually confuses the purchase of books with the acquisition of their contents.”

I will be the first to confess that I am guilty of this. I buy three times more books than I can ever read, which does me no good. If you can’t or don’t ever read them, owning them doesn’t help.

Reread important books.

Any kind of important book should immediately be read twice, partly because one grasps the matter in its entirety the second time, and only really understands the beginning when the end is known; and partly because in reading it the second time one’s temper and mood are different, so that one gets another impression; it may be that one sees the matter in another light.”

I cannot agree with this strongly enough. One can only truly understand how an author structured her work when you know the entire work as a whole. It is only when we reread that we learn how the author constructed the beginning, it’s relationship with the middle and end, and how the author ties everything together. In the first reading, we are caught up in the story (or should be if it’s done well); it is in the second reading that we notice the mechanics that so captured us the first time.

Read the classics.

There is nothing that so greatly recreates the mind as the works of the old classic writers…Is this due to the…greatness of the minds whose works have remained unharmed and untouched for centuries?…This I know, directly we stop (reading classic literature)…a new class of literature will spring up, consisting of writing that is more barbaric, stupid, and worthless than has ever yet existed.”

I don’t know that there’s anything terribly wrong with what Schopenhauer would call “barbaric” literature—or popular fiction as we would call it—but I can see what he is trying to say. As writers, if we no longer familiar ourselves with the great works that have come before us, we will be constantly be reinventing the wheel and therefore make no progress in the art form. Literature becomes static, going over the same ground, generation after generation. The best art builds upon the art that has preceded it. To do that, we need to read it.

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Writing advice

Three Strategies For Better Writing

One day this week, as I stood in line for my morning coffee, I overheard two gentlemen speaking ahead of me in line. They were older men (fifty to sixties) and one was talking about the difference in eloquence between letters home from Civil War soldiers and soldiers today. He thought it was like no one had a decent vocabulary any more.

Point taken. My immediate thought was of the epistolary form of early English novels (Tristram Shandy, Joseph Andrews, Frankenstein) and how that form wouldn’t really work today. Largely, because the action would be too slow, but more than that, it wouldn’t be believed because people don’t write letters like that anymore. They text. They post to Facebook. They don’t write letters.

I recently read a short article on the web comparing an 1880’s textbook to the classroom work of modern students. The United States is not producing students with the ability to write well, to be able to fully express themselves with nuance and complexity, not like generations past. The article asserted that the reason for this lack is the way students are taught to use the language these days.

They proposed three principles we should use to improve modern students’ writing abilities. I think they merit some discussion. Being neither an educator, nor a parent, I feel particularly underqualified to comment on this subject. However, they seem like valid excercises.

Naturally, being interested in improving writing (all writing in general, my own in particular) I wondered if these principles would also be of value to the adult, already more accomplished writer.

I think they would. You can make your own decision as to their value.

Read good literature.

I write mostly suspense fiction, ranging from horror to mystery and detective. It is the type of novel I enjoy reading the most and am most familiar with. So, it’s what I know and I write what I know. While many (or most even) of these are very well written, the quality is usually emphasized less than the plot, the puzzle, or even the characterization.

Would I benefit from reading more of the classical masters of the language, from Shakespeare to Dickens, Twain, James, Hemingway and Faulkner? Yes, in all probability I would. By studying truly good literature, perhaps I could learn some of the skill those masters demonstrated.

Does that mean I stop reading murder mysteries? No. It just means I read some literary classics in between the latest Lee Childs and the new Stephen King. I just add it to what I’m already reading.

When you do read, don’t skim. Read it slow.

It is one of the problems of the modern age: time. In too many instances, both students and adults alike are encouraged to rush through tasks, gleaning just enough information to pass a test or produce a presentation, before rushing on to the next assignment. We are judged so much now (by ourselves as well as others) by how quickly we can get through something, not how deeply we experienced it.

I am probably as guilty as anyone in this. Because I am able to read very fast (some would say extremely) with comprehension, it is far too easy for me to breeze through a work in a couple of days without letting much of it sink in. It would benefit me greatly to slow down and fully experience the prose.

In the article, they suggested reading aloud as a way to fight this urge. Most of us read much, much faster than we can talk, so reading it aloud forces us to slow down. It also allows us to better appreciate the natural musicality of the language and the prose as a talented writer has constructed it. How many of us were impacted by the music of Dr. Suess primarily because we read it aloud to our children and thus internalized it?

A wonderful goal would be to pick a classic work and read a passage aloud every day.

Memorization.

No one memorizes anymore. Other than the alphabet and multiplication tables of our youth, and a few common formulas in the sciences, we don’t commit much to memory anymore. Why? Personally, I think it has to do with convenience. With the advance of technology, nearly all the information we might need is only a couple of moments away on the internet.

Heck, young people don’t even memorize phone numbers anymore; their phone does it for them.

So why bother to memorize? Isn’t it a waste of valuable time? Time you could be spending reading something new, or even trying to write something new? It depends on what your goals are.

Memorization is like reading aloud from the previous principle, but on steroids. The insights and depths we’ve found by slowing down and reading aloud are only amplified when we memorize the same passage. By memorizing, we force ourselves to learn every nuance, inflection, every minor melody and rhythm of the prose.

Think of it this way. We read because we want to learn how authors put together their stories, how poets construct their poems. When we read the works of authors we admire, we begin to internalize the manners in which they create their works. If you spend a week reading nothing but Hemingway short stories and then sit down to write your own story, odds are good that your prose will bear a strong resemblance to Hemingway’s. Without trying, you have internalized his style.

Now imagine you have memorized an entire Hemingway story. There is no internalization stronger than actually memorizing something. By definition, you carry that passage around within your memory. It has become a part of you.

But memorizing an entire story is a tremendous task. Better to memorize a shorter meaningful passage. Perhaps a soliloquy from Shakespeare. Perhaps a poem by Keats, or Wordsworth. Just make it good and meaningful to you.

I think this is an exciting plan, that promises to improve the quality of our prose. In fact, I like it so much, I’m going to start this very evening, spending a few minutes reading aloud to myself. Tomorrow, perhaps, I will work on memorizing one of my favorite poems.

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Writing advice

Five Tips for Beginning Writers: Tip # 1

I was approached a while ago at a book fair by a woman, who after chatting about my books for a while, said her son wanted to be a writer and asked what advice I had for him. I don’t remember what I told her, but it felt inadequate, so I went home and wrote up “Five Tips for a Beginning Writer”. I will look at one tip in each post.

1. Read. Read a lot. Read some more.

Probably the most important thing a writer can do—other than the act of writing itself—is to read. Every author is first and foremost a reader. It’s the best way to learn the craft.

But you need to read like a writer.

What does that mean?

Think of the apprentice to a master carpenter. How does he learn the craft? There is some direct instruction by the master, but for the most part the apprentice follows the master and watches him work. He sees the master choosing the mahogany and asks why that particular piece? He watches the master plane, carve and sand it, noting which tools and techniques the master chooses and why. He watches and learns how the master seamlessly joins the various pieces to build the cabinet. He learns by watching the master work.

Now if you are the apprentice, your reading material is the work of the master craftsman. Enjoy the story, but pay attention to the craft as you go. Ask yourself why the author chose to begin her story when she did? Why not at another time or place? There are an infinite number of possibilities. Why that one? Why did he chose that particular point of view? How does she handle dialogue? Are the descriptive passages lean and factual, or are they lyrical and poetic? How does that affect the story?

Everything the author puts on the page—down to the very word—is a conscious decision. As a writer, we need to understand why the author decided on that particular word, phrase, or scene and how it enhances (or detracts from the story).

Read everything. Read the classics,. Read today’s popular authors. Read histories, newspapers, magazines, self—help books. Read advertising copy. Every one is the polished work of someone good enough to be published. Read books that aren’t quite as good. Search out and learn from that author’s mistakes. Take notes. Memorize passages you find particularly good and ask yourself why it’s good. (Or not). What did the author do that made it so good? (Or not).

This is how we, as writers, learn our craft.

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