Thursday, April 14, 2011

how to write

OK, this will be a little bit Zen, but my wife and I wrote six books about a samurai detective and his adopted son. So...
The Japanese tea master Sen no Rikyu, who originated the "rules" for what is still the tea ceremony today, was asked by a student to explain the mysteries of the tea ceremony. Rikyu replied, "Tea is nothing but this. First you make the water boil. Then you brew the tea. Then you drink it properly. That is all you need to know."
The student was disappointed by this answer, and said, "I know all that already." Rikyu replied, "Well, if there is anyone who knows it already, I should be glad to become his pupil."
This story reminded me of the time when I enrolled in the University of Iowa Writer's Workshop many years ago. I was expecting that once I got there, somebody would explain to me how to write. We had our choice of five professional writers, and I picked a then little-known science-fiction writer named Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
Let me say that Kurt was very entertaining. But he told us at the very first class, "Nobody can teach you how to write. You have to teach yourself." He had us buy an anthology of short stories by masters of the form, read them all, give them a grade, and then justify the grades in class. Besides that, he had us write our own stories that he mimeographed and distributed to the class, and had the other students comment on them.
As far as I can recall, Kurt never told us anything about writing, although occasionally he approved or disapproved of the grades we gave the master writers in the anthology.
I recall vividly one day when Kurt came into class with some galley proofs. These were long sheets of paper that publishers printed books on before they were divided into pages. They were to be used by proofreaders, and often were sent out to people that the publisher wanted to give a blurb to the book. That's how Kurt came to have them. This particular set of galleys was for an annual anthology of the Best American Short Stories. Kurt had read them the night before and entertained us students by mocking them cruelly. (As you know if you read his books, he could be very cruel when he was funny.) He finally threw the entire set of galleys across the room, where they separated like party streamers, and yelled, "Stories written by English majors for other English majors!"
Can you learn anything useful from Sen no Rikyu and Kurt Vonnegut? I think that Rikyu would want you to write as well as you can, and let the writing flow naturally. Let it become as natural to you as breathing and walking. That doesn't come easily.
And Vonnegut would want you to remember that you have an audience. You are trying to please that audience, in one of a number of ways. You might want to make them feel an emotion, you might want to make them think, you might want to amuse or entertain them--I could go on, but the point is, you want to write something that other people will want to read.
I think I'm going to mention here that your spouse, your mother, your children, your friends, will probably all praise your work. That's not helpful, but they can't do otherwise. Think of a reader who has never known you. What will that person think when they read your writing? How will they feel?
I know this is bragging, but I got an email just a day or two ago from a reader of the Samurai Detective Series. Here's what it said:
"I love these books. I don't like to read much cause when I do it takes a long time. But now I have finished the series and I was wondering if there were any more planed for Seikei? I would really like to keep reading about it. And also are there any spin-off stories I could read?"
So that makes me feel like I'm doing something right. It makes up for the fact that the publisher of these books (Philomel) has never made any effort to sell them, has in fact been hostile to them, and has told our agent they don't want any more. I know--because this was not the only letter that I've received from readers like this--that the publisher is simply wrong. And that's because publishers are generally business-school graduates who don't know much about books.
And that's why, in my opinion, that in the next few years, we will see more and more writers skipping the ink-and-paper publishers and just putting their books online as e-books. I know I'm going to be one of those writers, and I think you should be too. And if you need any other reason to do so, remember that by putting your own books online you get 60 to 70% royalties--far more than any paper-and-ink publisher will give you.

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