Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Writing - Studying at the Feet of Two Wordsmiths

On my vacation, I have lately taken up the habit of reading a novel (or two, if I can manage it) over the course of the trip. I had planned to take along some I already owned but had not read, but decided late in the packing stages to just buy something on the road if I felt I had the time. So I looked for two of my favorite authors: Jeffrey Archer and Orson Scott Card. Fortunately for my pleasure (though perhaps unfortunate for my wallet) they both had out something new. Archer's newest novel, A Prisoner of Birth, was out in hardback (I had read the first chapter at the tail end of his last short story collection). Card had just published another collection of short stories, several of which form the basis for novels he later published. My wife had already given me a Father's Day present (a Garmin Nuvi GPS) early so we could use it on our trip, but she suggested we buy Archer's book as an audiobook and then I could read the short stories as I had time but we could listen to Archer together. Archer was on top of his game, and I recommend the book to anyone not offended by the use of vulgar language (since part of the book is set in prison). He openly admits throughout the book by reference and at the end through an interview that he was paralleling or updating The Count of Monte Cristo, but it was still a great read (listen). I really appreciated his discussion of just how many hours he puts into each of his novels, and how many drafts he produces (his published book came from the seventeenth). He described professional writing as hard work, and I must agree that to produce something half as good as he does it takes a lot of effort.

Finishing Archer's book, though, set the stage to read Card's short stories. I am not yet done, but I have truly loved the book so far. Each story has notes at the end where Card shares his thoughts on why he wrote the story, why he published it where he did, whether he plans to use it again or whether he has already, and so many other tidbits. He has also broken the book into subsections based on the genre of the short stories conained as well.

I felt like I was taking my own independent study on two of the great writers of today. They both talk of writing as work, and as an evolving process more so than a race to a completed product. Card, who has complained about how "hacks" hide in his primary genre (science fiction), wrote about the dangers of becoming lazy and allowing himself to submit mediocre work just to get a paycheck. He also noted that many publishers would accept such work from an established author just so they could include his name on the book jacket. So many authors today are completely happy with mass-producing formulaic nonsense because they have found a willing victim - er, consumer. The same goes for numerous artists in various fields.

In the end, I took away some great advice that helps me remember why I don't write for a living. I am not dedicated enough, probably not talented enough, and certainly not as good of a researcher as I need to be if I want my stories to come to life the way the works of these two literary giants do. That was something my brother understood, I must say. When he died, he was working on a degree in mechanical engineering, primarily because he wanted to write quality science fiction that was believable because it had a basis in real knowledge. If I ever do attempt a career as a writer, I will most definitely honor the memory of my brother - who would have been forty this past Saturday - by doing it the right way. Until then, I'll have to stick to blogging and the occasional simplistic poem or short story.

-- Robert

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