Getting Through the 3 Filters

Let’s say you have a thought in your brain, a thought you want me to have in my brain also. Since you and I lack mental telepathy, we must settle for some other communication method. For our purposes today, we’ll say you’ve chosen written communication.

You convert that thought of yours into words of a standard language, a language you can write and I can read. You put those words into tangible form, either electronic or printed. Someone conveys your written document to me by some means. I read it, converting the words I read into a thought.

Will the thought in my brain match the one in yours exactly? Probably not. Considering the signal loss in the filters through which the thought passes on its way, it’s amazing two people can communicate at all.

The process is usually not as bad as the way I’ve dramatized it in the accompanying image. Still, it’s a less efficient transmission method than mental telepathy would likely be.

The part I’ve depicted as the “writing filter” consists of many things standing between pure thought and actual words. These include the clarity of your idea, your understanding of the meaning and connotation of words, your mood, your skill with language, your vocabulary, etc.

I’ve named the filter in the middle the “copying filter” and it represents any errors that creep into the text between the time you write it and the time I read it. For e-books, there could be a transmission error and some text becomes scrambled. For paper books, there could be smudges, spills, or torn pages that make some of the text difficult to read. Luckily, this filter usually results in negligible signal loss.

The “reading filter” is akin to the writing filter, but it’s everything between the words I read and the thoughts they cause in my brain. These include my understanding of words, my mood, my vocabulary, my ability to interpret meanings on several levels, my attention span, my life experiences, etc.

Remember, your goal was to create a thought in my brain matching the thought in yours. What can you do to increase the likelihood of the thoughts being identical? You can’t do anything about my reading filter; that’s solely up to me. You usually can’t do much about the copying filter, and it’s not much of a filter anyway.

Your focus needs to be on the writing filter within you, the only part of the process under your control. Work toward clear ideas, firm understanding of word meanings, mastery of language, increased vocabulary, and keeping your passing emotions from distorting your writing.

The best authors have nearly transparent writing filters resulting in negligible signal loss. That’s your goal.

I touched on this topic in a previous post, and neuroscientist Livia Blackburne explored these transmission filters in the context of getting bad reviews, in a guest post on Joanna Penn’s website, well worth the read.

Good luck, Writer! Improve the transparency of your writing filter so you can convey thoughts crisply to the world, and especially to—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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As Hobbies Go…

For me, writing fiction is a hobby. Maybe it’s the same for you. I figured I’d do a little comparison of writing to other hobbies you (and I) might have chosen instead.

hobby montageWikipedia defines a hobby as “an activity, interest, enthusiasm, or amateur pastime that is undertaken for pleasure or relaxation, typically done during one’s leisure time.” The entry categorizes hobbies as Collection, Competition, or Observation hobbies, with indoor and outdoor subsets of each. Writing, though it usually occurs indoors, doesn’t fit cleanly in any of the prime categories, since it’s not really about collection, competition, or observation (though it has elements of each).

Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be a definitive study of the most popular hobbies, and the various website lists are all different. On the lists I’ve found, the following hobbies seem to keep cropping up as the most prevalent: Reading, Watching TV, Family time, Fishing, Going to movies, Gardening, Computer activities, Walking, Team Sports, Exercise, Renting movies, Listening to music, Golf, Traveling, and Entertaining.

I was intrigued to see Reading as #1 in a couple of lists; great news for writers! I also noticed how the most popular hobbies are low- or no-cost activities; no wonder they’re popular!

I found a list of hobbies that actually make money, and writing comes in at #3 on that list: Web design, Photography, Writing/Editing, Crafts, Coaching sports, Playing guitar, Organizing, Baking, Walking Dogs, and Shopping.

By definition, hobbies are for pleasure and relaxation, not necessarily for earning money, but it is an added bonus if your hobby pays you. And writing certainly can. For many writers, their dream is to shift their hobby to their livelihood, and that is possible.

How, then, does writing stack up against other hobbies? Some may consider these to be its disadvantages:
• It’s solitary
• It’s sedentary
• It requires some talent, or the willingness to develop talent
• It may take years before you’re published, or paid for your writing

Regarding those first two, you could always supplement with another hobby to make up for them.

On the positive side, writing has the following advantages:
• As discussed already, you can earn money
• It’s relaxing
• It’s a wonderful outlet for creative impulses; you create people and worlds
• There are few joys that can compare with getting a story accepted, and then seeing your name in print

As hobbies go, writing may not be for everyone, but you might end up loving it as much as—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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November 23, 2014Permalink

The Trick Is…

Remember the TV show ‘Cosmos?’ No, not the new one starring Neil deGrasse Tyson (though I enjoyed that too). I mean the original Cosmos, starring Carl Sagan. There’s a brief part of one episode that’s stuck in my mind for all the decades since that show first aired.

CosmosTCYou can see the episode here and the part I recalled is from time 41:45 to 42:30.

In the clip, Carl Sagan is standing in a library. He says, if you read one book a week, over a normal human lifespan you can read only a few thousand books. (50 books per year times 70 years would be 3500 books.) He then paces off a distance across some library shelves to indicate that many books.

After remarking on how that’s only a tenth of a percent of the content of a library, he then says, “The trick is to know which books to read.”

That’s it. No follow-up. He goes on to discuss other things.220px-Sagan_planetary_orbits2

Thanks, Dr. Sagan, for clearing up that mystery of the universe.

How about telling us which books? Is there a list somewhere? Don’t just leave us with “the trick is…” without solving it for us!

Okay, okay. I do really like Carl Sagan, and loved the show. And I get what he was saying. His main message is that our lives are too short to permit soaking up all of human knowledge. As you choose books to read, go in with the understanding that you ain’t gonna read ‘em all.

Moreover, there can’t be one right answer to the question of which books to read. There are billions and billions of answers. (Yes, I had to say that.)

But allow me to take up Dr. Sagan’s challenge, and to set up some criteria for selecting books to read, given that you can’t read ‘em all. Here’s my answer to “which books to read:”

  1. Read books you think you’ll enjoy. This is the most important criteria, since if you don’t like reading, you’ll stop. You’ll never come close to reading a book a week for life.
  1. Read some classics, on occasion. They represent the greatest wisdom of the ages, and they have persisted because their value and relevance is timeless.
  1. Read way outside your interest area, on occasion. This helps broaden your knowledge, and you never know when one such book might spark a new passion for you. Try to eventually cover the whole Dewey Decimal System, and all fiction genres.
  1. Read both fiction and non-fiction. You can choose the percentage of each according to your preferences, but I think there’s value in both.
  1. Read books by authors you enjoy, and also give different authors a chance. There’s a strong temptation to keep reading books by the same author. After all, you liked the previous one; chances are you’ll like the next one. That’s fine, but it’s okay to read books by authors who are new to you, every once in a while.
  1. Give each book you select a chance, but don’t be afraid to abandon it. Read past page one; often the value of a book won’t become apparent until later. However, if you’re well into the book and getting nothing out of it, stop and get another. Your lifespan is too limited and there are too many better books for you to slog through reading a bad one.

That’s it, my attempt to respond to Dr. Sagan’s challenge to all of us, to figure out which books to read.   They may not be the best criteria in the cosmos, but they’re good enough for—

Poseidon’s Scribe

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November 9, 2014Permalink

The Publishing Times, They Are A’Changin’

To distort a line from a Bob Dylan song, times are indeed a’changin’ in the publishing industry.  In the long march from storytellers to clay tablets to papyrus scrolls to bound books to electronic books, each technology has brought a revolution and we’re now in the middle of one.


After Gutenberg’s printing press and right up until the Internet, the book publishing industry had optimized into a fairly lean and stable operation, full of specialized tasks.  Each task was fairly well understood.

The writer wrote, and sought an agent.  The agent sought a publishing house and handled all the contractual details for the writer.  At the publishing house, of which there were only a few big ones, the editor polished the prose.  Upon agreement about the text, the publisher took care of cover design, printing, distribution, and marketing to booksellers.  The bookseller catered to the reading public, offering books for sale from their stores.

Despite all the middlemen, that process had been pretty well honed such that readers could still obtain books inexpensively.

With the advent of the Internet, much has changed, and it’s got all of the middlemen wondering what their future role will be, if any.

For the writer, there are software word processors and Internet research options, but not much else has changed.  A writer still must create the prose.

At the other end, the reader has more options, including e-readers and audiobooks, but for the most part reading is unchanged.

But agents, editors, cover designers, marketers, distributors, and booksellers are all left wondering what’s going to happen to them.  These days, writers can connect directly with readers, bypassing all the former steps.  An author can work with a single website such as Amazon, Smashwords, Kobo, and others, to get e-books directly to the reading public.

These websites offer many services, but the writer must do most of the tasks formerly accomplished by middlemen.  This includes reviewing the contract, editing, cover design, and marketing.

So where is all this going?  At what sort of equilibrium state will all this turmoil settle out?

It may be too early to tell, but I think there will be places for all the publishing middlemen in the future, assuming they adapt to an Internet-based world.  Some writers still need agents, editors, cover designers, and distributors.  Some readers still want bound books.  Much like the continued (but low) demand for horseshoes and oil lamps, there will be niche markets for all these functions.

As for me, I have yet to take the full plunge into self-publishing.  So far, with my short stories, I’ve been dealing with an independent ebook publisher, and with publishers of anthologies.

If Bob Dylan’s right, and the times they are a’changin’, where do you think the book publishing industry is headed?  What change would you like to see?  Leave me a comment and perhaps we can change things together, just you and—

                                                  Poseidon’s Scribe

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December 29, 2013Permalink

The Life Story of a Short Story

AlexandersOdyssey9Hello.  I’m a short story.  Since Poseidon’s Scribe never got around to blogging about the whole short story process, he invited me to guest blog today.  My title is “Alexander’s Odyssey,” and I was written by Steven R. Southard.  My life story is typical of other tales, and might be obvious to many of you, but the steps weren’t clear to Steve when he started.

Idea1.  Idea.  I started as an idea.  You did too, I suppose, but with stories you only need one human with an idea, if you know what I mean.  Getting a story idea isn’t as difficult as most believe.  Ideas are all around you.

Outline2.  Outline.  This can take many forms, not just the standard I-A-1-a-(1) type.  It can be a mind-map, for example.  An outline can keep you focused as you write, but don’t be afraid to deviate from it if the story takes off in a different direction.  Steve used an outline for me, but if you don’t want to, just skip this step.

Research3.  Research.  You might have to conduct research for your story like Steve did for me.  Use the most authoritative sources you can.  Steve didn’t include all the researched data when writing me, just a tiny fraction.  You might enjoy research, but don’t get stuck at this stage.  At some point, enough is enough.

First draft4.  First Draft.  Steve wrote my first draft fast, without caring about quality.  He didn’t even stop to correct typos.  He got it all down, the emotions, the drama, and the character interactions.

Edits5.  Edit.  Steve did several drafts of me where he corrected typos; deleted extraneous stuff; added in foreshadowing, metaphors, similes, and symbolism, etc.  Don’t get stuck at this stage either; some stories never even get submitted.

Submit6.  Submit.  Steve located a suitable market, and had to modify me a bit to conform to the submission guidelines.  After much hesitation, he submitted me.   These days, you writers have the option of self-publishing us stories, so you could skip this step.

Reject7.  Rejection.  Actually, I didn’t get rejected the first time, but I know the feeling.  I don’t understand why writers take rejection so personally; the editor is rejecting me, not you.  Just shake it off and submit your story to some other market.  Keep us moving!

Accept8.  Accept.  I was pretty happy when an anthology editor accepted me, but Steve was positively giddy.  I’d never seen him so thrilled and, frankly, the details are embarrassing, so I’ll just move on.

Rewrite9.  Rewrite.  The editor suggested Steve change me a bit.  He agreed the changes would do me good, and made them.  I’ve seen Steve agonize over suggested changes to other stories, though.  I’ve even seen him push back against the editor.  In the end, they always reach agreement and Steve signs the contracts.  I guess he could always refuse and walk away if he wanted.

Launch10.  Launch.  These days, publishers don’t just publish us, they launch us.  It does make me feel like a rocket going off, sort of.  Again, Steve seems really happy when a story launches, and again it’s awkward to watch.

Market11.  Market.  If I’d been picked up by one of the top publishing houses, they’d spread the word about me.  Steve didn’t send me there, so he had to do it.  Boy, does he hate that part, though I’ve heard some authors like marketing.  Use social media, newsletters, writing conferences—anything to advertise.

Read12.  Read.  My favorite step.  When a reader buys me and reads me cover to cover, that’s what I live for.

Reprint13.  Reprint.  When the rights to me reverted back to Steve, he submitted me for publication as a reprint.  After three rejects, another market accepted me, but asked for significant changes.  My reprint version states where and when I was published the first time.

Spin-off14.  Spin-off.  Oh, I hope, I hope I can get spun-off into a novel, a play, or even a movie.  Hey, a story can dream, can’t it?

That’s my story.  Forget about Steve, or Poseidon’s Scribe.  Address your comments to—

                                            Alexander’s Odyssey

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December 8, 2013Permalink

Giving and Receiving…Critiques

‘Tis the season for giving and receiving, so I thought I’d discuss critiques of fiction manuscripts.  Last time I did so, I said I’d let you know how to give and receive critiques.  My critique group meeting 2experience is based solely on twenty years of being in small, amateur, face-to-face critique groups; not writing workshops, classes, or online critique groups; so the following advice is tuned to that sort of critique.

First of all, to give the critique, keep the following points in mind:

  • Read the submitted manuscript straight through once, and just note where you were “thrown out of the story” for some reason.  Jot down why and come back to those points later.
  • Re-read the manuscript again. You could mark some of the grammar or spelling problems, but don’t concentrate on those.  The author wants you to find the bigger stuff.
  • Where there are stand-out positives (“Eyeball kicks” in TCL parlance) note those and praise the author.  The word critique should not have solely negative connotations.  A positive comment from you could keep the author from later deleting a really good description, metaphor, or turn of phrase.
  • Be clear and specific in the comments you write; avoid ambiguity.
  • Look for the following story elements and comment if they’re not present or they’re weak:

1.  Strong opening or hook

2.  Compelling, multi-dimensional, non-stereotypical protagonist with human flaws

3.  A problem or conflict for the protagonist to resolve

4.  Worthy secondary characters, different from the protagonist, who do not steal the show

5.  Vivid settings, not overly described

6.  Consistent and appropriate point of view

7.  Appropriate dialogue that moves the plot and breaks up narration

8.  Narration that shows and doesn’t tell.

9.  A plot that builds in a logical way, events stemming from actions that stem from understandable motivations

10.  A story structure complete with Aristotle’s Prostasis, Epitasis, and Catastrophe (beginning, middle, and end)

11.  Appeals to all five senses

12.  Active sentence structure, using passive only when appropriate

13.  Appropriate symbolism, metaphors, similes

14.  A building of tension as the protagonist’s situation worsens, followed by brief relaxing of tension before building again

15.  An appropriate resolution of the conflict, without deus ex machina, resulting from the striving of the protagonist, and indicative of a change in the protagonist

  • If your group shares comments verbally, do so in a helpful, humble way.

You think all that sounds pretty difficult?  Ha!  It’s much harder to receive a critique.  When doing so, here are the considerations:

  • Submit your work early enough to allow sufficient time for thorough critiques.  Be considerate of your group members’ time.
  • While being critiqued, sit there and take it.  No comments.  No defensiveness.  Just listen to the honest comments of a person who not only represents many potential readers, but who wants you to get published.

So, when it comes to critiques, is it better to give than to receive?  In contrast to most gifts, it’s harder to receive them, but it’s still a toss-up which is better overall.  But perhaps both are just a bit easier for you to deal with now, thanks to this post by—

                                                      Poseidon’s Scribe

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December 30, 2012Permalink

What the Web Wrought on Writing

We still live near the dawn of the Internet Age, of course, so it’s perhaps a bit early to assess the web’s impact on writing.  But here goes, anyway…

First, it’s instructive to recall the past technological developments that aided fiction writers, or allowed them to better connect with paying readers.  Here’s a partial list:  libraries, bookbinding, printing presses, mass production of paper, mail delivery, bookstores, dictionaries, typewriters, computer word processors, and eBooks.  Each of these innovations aided storytellers in significant ways.

(By the way, I’m aware of the difference between the ‘Internet’ and the ‘World Wide Web.’  Even so, they’re intertwined enough that I’ll use the terms interchangeably.)

I would argue the Internet’s impact on writing is (and will be) as great as any of those previous technologies.  It’s true, those who created the Internet did not have authors specifically in mind.  But some of the Internet’s attributes have eased the processes involved in the writing business:

  • Span.  The Internet covers the world; and to a greater extent every day, it is spanning all of human history; and encompassing a larger fraction of all human knowledge.
  • Search and Retrieval.  Internet search engines provide a way to sift through the vastness and find desired, specific information, no matter how obscure.
  • Permanence.  To some extent, the Internet represents a permanent record.  I believe the way data is stored and backed up renders far less likely a tragedy such as the destruction of the ancient Alexandrian Library.
  • Speed.  Everything you can do on the Internet, you can do fast, much faster than using the mail, or hunting through a library.
  • Availability.  The Internet is within reach of nearly everyone, and at very low cost.

In short, the web eases the way people connect to information and to other people.  The sudden ease of those connections has been a boon to writers.

Here are some ways the web has improved several steps of the writing process:

  • Research.  It is far easier for writers to research specific topics using the Internet.  There are gaps in the web, of course, and problems with accuracy of information, so trips to the library remain necessary on occasion.
  • Co-authorship.  E-mail makes it easier to collaborate with another writer when both are contributing to a book.
  • Critiquing.  It’s no longer necessary to find other writers in your local area to get your manuscripts critiqued.
  • Market searches.  Websites like Duotrope, Ralan, and Doug Smith’s Foreign Market List make it much easier to compile a prioritized list of ideal markets for each of your stories.
  • Submitting.  Most markets take online submissions, either through e-mail or their own online form.  Much faster and less costly than mailing.
  • Publishing.  As with many other businesses, the Internet has allowed people to quickly form small businesses operating out of their homes.  This has resulted in a proliferation of publishers.
  • Advertising.  The advent of websites, blogging, and social networking has opened up new ways for authors to reach readers.
  • Book-shopping.  For readers, the Internet’s search features and various online booksellers have eased the process of browsing for the next book to read, no matter how obscure the reader’s interests.
  • Reviewing.  Online bookselling sites have made it easy for anyone to post a book review.  These reviews help other readers make their purchasing decisions.

The Internet has helped writers in every way except one.  It won’t write your book for you!  And maybe that’s a good thing.  Still writing my own stories, I’m—

                                                          Poseidon’s Scribe


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September 30, 2012Permalink

When Authors Speak

When you’ve had a few stories published, you may be asked to speak at a conference.  It may be a chance to speak alone about a topic, to speak on a panel, or to read some samples of your writing.

I’ve had that honor twice.  In February 2010, I read a portion of my story “Within Victorian Mists” to an audience at the Crossroads Writing Conference in Macon, GA.  I was with a group of other steampunk writers (Emilie P. Bush, Kathryn Hinds, Alexander White, Lainey Welsch, Dwayne DeBardelaben, and Austin Sirkin), and here’s a picture from that event.  In November 2011, I served on a panel with some steampunk experts (Mark P. Donnelly, Elektra Hammond, and Kevin Houghton) at the DarkoverCon in Timonium, MD.

For both conference speaker and conference attender, there are likely to be some unmet expectations.  I fear that conference attenders who hope to be authors someday think they will learn the hidden secrets of great writing and be handed the golden keys to fortune and fame.  In some cases, conference speakers may expect to earn flocks of new fans, all captivated by the speaker’s charm or wit and eager to part with their cash in exchange for the author’s books.

So if you’re the writer who’s given a chance to speak, what should you expect?  Perhaps one or more audience members will feel moved to purchase something on the spot.  Others may think about it and investigate your presence online later, before deciding to buy and read one of your books.

Those attending your panel, or lecture, or reading, must lower their expectations as well.  After all, it’s not like you have surplus fortune-and-fame keys to hand out.  The most they’ll receive are a few nuggets of wisdom about becoming an author, or reminders and reinforcements of previously learned knowledge.

As the speaker, then, your purposes are clear.  (1) Present yourself as an engaging, interesting personality.  (2) Convey some useable advice or recommendations about getting published. (3) Inform the audience about your books without being pushy.  In this way both speaker and audience can leave knowing they’ve received something of value.

Trouble is, the skills you developed while becoming a published author differ from those needed for speaking at a conference.  Public speaking scares most people at first, and only practice and experience lessen that fear.

If you’re the sole speaker during your session, I suggest you come prepared with an outline, so your talk doesn’t ramble.  Remember too, even a lecture is an interactive event, never the same twice.  Watch your audience members for their body language and facial reactions; you’ll know when you’ve said something controversial or provocative, etc.  Be gracious and attentive during the question-and-answer period.

When serving on a discussion panel, now group dynamics enter the picture.  Don’t monopolize the panel; that turns audiences off.  Don’t sit there saying little; you won’t entice future readers that way either.  If you must disagree with another panelist, do so with respect and consideration.  Never get drawn into an argument; that runs counter to your purposes.

If reading from one of your stories, select an engaging passage.  Project your voice.  Enunciate your words.  Modulate as you speak, stressing for emphasis and altering your timbre or accent for different characters in dialogue.

Was this advice helpful?  Let me know with a comment.  Remember, readers love to meet and engage with authors, especially those they find intriguing.  So get out there and be intriguing.  Soon you’ll be winning fans, including–

                                                         Poseidon’s Scribe

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Writing for Young Adults

Want to write stories for Young Adults?  Hard to blame you.  It’s a large market, and some authors have become successful in aiming for it.  If you, like J. K. Rowling, happen to write a YA story that also appeals to adults, then your story’s market is that much bigger.

Perhaps your purpose in writing YA stories is more complex than a direct desire for money or fame.  One web commenter has suggested writer Robert Heinlein wrote YA (then called ‘juvenile’) novels to shape a young audience, to prepare readers for later buying his brand of adult novels.  If true…wow!  That’s thinking ahead!

Whatever your reason for wanting to write for it, the YA market is an interesting one.  It took until about 1900, several hundred years after the first printed books, for the following confluence of events to make a YA market possible:  (1) the price of books dropped to be within a teen’s budget, (2) teen buying power rose so they could afford books, and (3) teens weren’t working so long and had available time to read.  Once the market emerged, authors began aiming for it.

What are YA stories like, and how do they differ from other genres?  Young adults, as an audience, are leaving the comfortable world of childhood and ready to experience adulthood.  They’re curious about it, anxious to try things.  Fiction gives them a safe opportunity to “try” things in a vicarious way.  They’ve grown beyond simple, moralistic tales.  They crave stories with identifiable, strong but vulnerable characters–complex characters who aren’t all good or all bad.  A good, solid plot-line is more important to them now than it was in the children’s books they no longer read.

In short, YA stories are very similar to those written for adults.  I thought I’d read once where Robert Heinlein had said writing for juveniles (the old term for YA) was just like writing for adults except you take out all the sex and swearing.  I can’t find that quote now, but it would need amending anyway.  Notice Heinlein had no problem with violence in YA stories, and that remains true.  As for sex, it’s probably best to leave out graphic descriptions, but don’t pretend the act doesn’t exist.  As for swearing, it’s my guess that mild swearing is acceptable in YA literature these days.

How do you write for the YA market?  I think it’s important to think back to your own teen years and pull what you recall from those experiences.  Remember when the world was new to you, when all your emotions were intense ones, when you longed to be accepted and wondered if there were others like you, wondered if you’d find even one special person for you?  Pick a protagonist who is aged a few years older than your target audience, either in the late teens or early twenties.  Don’t talk down to your readers; they’re old enough to look up words they don’t understand.  Don’t set out to write a moralistic story of instruction; teens are quick to spot a lecture and, frankly, they get enough of those from their parents.  They’re not about to shell out good money and spend their time reading a sermon from you.

My own reading as an early teenager focused on the Tom Swift, Jr. series published between 1954 and 1971.  After that I primarily read Jules Verne and other science fiction authors, mostly those writing hard science fiction.  Now as a writer, I think all my stories should be acceptable for the YA audience, though I haven’t consciously aimed for it.  My tales have very little swearing.  There is a sex scene (of sorts) in my horror story, “Blood in the River,” but nothing too graphic.  However, none of my published stories feature a teen protagonist.

Good luck with the YA story you’re writing.  If this blog post has helped in any way, or if you take issue with what I’ve stated, please leave a comment for–

                                                    Poseidon’s Scribe



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The Classics, Pro and Con

Are you a reader of the classics, those works of literature that have stood the test of time?  Do you think reading the classics would improve your writing?

Most people have a negative view of classical literature.  They associate those books with difficult high school class assignments, slogging through indecipherable prose, writing mandatory reports, as well as answering impossible questions in class and getting the answers wrong.  Little wonder the classics are not more widely read!

You may have your own reasons for not reading the classics.  Here’s a list I came up with:

  • They’re difficult to read.  Often the language used doesn’t make sense to modern readers.  If it does make sense, it’s often overly descriptive, or it dwells on single topics to the point of boredom.
  • They seem irrelevant.  A modern reader can’t relate to the characters in the stories, who face problems today’s readers don’t understand.  As a result, the characters seem unrealistic.
  • They’re not in my genre.  There are several modern literary genres–science fiction, westerns, and mysteries, in particular–for which there are few examples among the classics.  Those who enjoy reading from, or writing in, these genres will not feel any inclination to delve into the classics.
  • Their style is archaic.  One could never write that way for a modern audience and hope to get published.  Therefore it seems unlikely a writer of today would learn much of value.
  • I could never write that well.  For those classics that can be read today with little trouble, an opposite problem occurs.  A would-be writer might well compare his or her own prose to that of a literary master and become discouraged enough to give up.
  • They won’t help me write for today’s readers.  This is an extension of some of the reasons above.  All the works we consider classics today were written for the audiences of eras now long past, not today’s reading public.  Wouldn’t a writer’s time be better spent reading modern works?

Those are persuasive reasons, and perhaps they strike a chord with you.  However, let’s consider my list of reasons for reading the classics:

  • They’re about the human condition.  Though individual situations and technologies in the classics seem historically quaint today, these works deal with timeless aspects of what it means to be human.  In that sense, they will never become irrelevant.
  • They help us understand history.  The present we see around us is only a snapshot, a result of the great chain of causes and effects that is human history.  Our present was forged by events in the past, events described in classical literature.  In that respect, too, they remain relevant.
  • They’re about philosophy.  The classics often explore the deep thoughts, the perplexing ideas worthy of intense study.  Questions about aesthetics, epistemology, ethics, logic, and metaphysics bedevil us still.  They seem to have no right answers and yet we must choose some path to live our lives.  If Socrates is correct that the unexamined life is not worth living, then you want the fiction you write to be about philosophy, too.
  • In context, they make sense.  Whenever I hear the finale of the “William Tell Overture,” by Gioachino Rossini, I imagine what it must have been like for the audiences in 1829 to hear it for the first time.  They did not know a world where it was the Lone Ranger theme, endlessly repeated.  Often a classic literary work represented a break with the past, a novel new way of writing which was fresh at the time.  Though now commonplace or even passé, such works can suggest ways to make your own work fresh and different.
  • They can improve your vocabulary.  In classical literature you encounter such interesting words.  Often they’re outdated and inappropriate today, but you might come across the perfect word for your story.  In any case, you’ll increase your knowledge of English and the derivations and evolution of word meanings through time.
  • They’re often referenced.  As a writer, you’ll occasionally correspond with other writers or appear on panels at conferences or get asked questions at book signings.  Someone will bring up a comparison to a classic work.  If you haven’t read it, you’ll feel a little stupid.  Best to avoid that.
  • Stealing from them is legal.  Modern writers often base their works on the classics.  Hey, if it worked once for Shakespeare…  It’s not uncommon to create a complete retelling of a classic work set in modern times with modern characters, and the similarities can be blatant or subtle.
  • They’re examples of great writing.  The classics have lasted because they are well written.  Their authors were masters of putting words together.  Maybe you and I could learn from their example.  Even if we don’t attain their heights of grandeur, perhaps we can approach a little closer by studying them.

In conclusion, there are good reasons for and against.  You’ll have to choose what’s right for you.  As for me, I read about four or five classic books each year, roughly ten percent of my reading. Not yet a writer whose works are destined to be classics, I’m–

                                                                       Poseidon’s Scribe


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February 5, 2012Permalink