Imitate the Masters of Your Preferred Style
You don’t have to study great musicians very long to discover that they start by imitating the techniques of their heroes. I recall an early interview with Eddie Van Halen where he challenged the interviewer: “Name me any song by Cream and I’ll play it for you.” Who was the guitarist for Cream? Eric Clapton. Well, Eddie certainly developed his own unique style, but he began by imitating the masters.
Before I acquired a publisher for my music book, I gave the manuscript to Josh McDowell, one of the most popular writers in Christian evidences and Christian issues. He also had a huge platform, having spoken on more university campuses than probably any living person.
Now why would Josh McDowell be interested in the youth minister at Flat Creek Baptist? Because he was currently traveling with the Christian rock band, Petra, and was getting flack from traditional pastors. I knew he was into the subject and would be interested in my manuscript.
One of his comments on my manuscript was that I needed to declare war on any academic language, editing it down for the common reader. “If you write for academics,” McDowell told me, “only academics will read it. If you write for a broader audience and everyone begins to read it, then the academics will have to read it to be in the know.” Wise advice.
Thus, my mantra became “well-researched, simply written.” Is there a place for academic writing? Certainly. But it’s not my chosen style for the audiences I’m targeting and the subjects I’m tackling.
Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) mastered the nonfiction style I imitate. It’s not “great literature” as most would define it. Rather, he wrote plainly and simply, similar to how he spoke. I prefer that type of writing for most non-fiction that I read, although some would snub it as "dumbed down" or "journalese." (And those who snub his style, I might add, are generally not consistently ranked in the top 125 sales of Amazon 70 years after their publication, as is the case for Carnegie.)
You can’t write for everybody. Choose what style works for you and your audience and simply ignore the critics who don’t like it.
Carnegie did extensive research, but presented his research as fascinating stories. In his book on public speaking, Carnegie notes,
“The rules from How to Win Friends and Influence People can be listed on one and a half pages. The other two hundred and thirty pages of the book are filled with stories and illustrations to pint up how others have used these rules with wholesome effect.”
It’s not easy to do this style well. To say this style is breezy doesn’t mean it’s easy. Carnegie was a master organizer and story-teller.
Your chosen style may be different from mine. That’s fine. Whatever your style, study authors who have mastered it. (2)
Get Lots of Honest Feedback
It’s one thing to know the principles of great writing in your genre, quite another to be able to objectively evaluate your own writing.
I want to emphasize “lots of” in this subtitle. (I could have entitled it “a plethora of,” but remember, I’m the simple writer.)
Three thousand years ago, Solomon wisely wrote:
“In the abundance of counselors there is safety.”
The Hebrew word for “abundance” here means “lots of.” Why not get input from just a few? Simply because those few may not appreciate your style or might not share your passion for the subject matter. I suppose Solomon could have also written, "In just a few counselors, there might be lots of b.s."
Before I decided to write the music book, I sent an early, thirty-page manuscript on the music issue to some people I respected - the president of a college and a couple of musicians. Not “lots of.” Just three. Since I never heard anything back I assumed that I wasn’t saying anything important.
Then, years later, I heard back from the college president: “Our music department is in turmoil over the music issue and your manuscript was the best thing I’ve ever seen on the subject. But I’ve lost it. Could you send me another copy?” That reply let me know that I was onto something. As a result, I began writing the book.
Now doesn’t it give you the creeps to realize that I took the silence of three people as rejection and wouldn’t have written the book at all had this academic not lost my manuscript?
Catherine Lanigan grew up dreaming of becoming a writer. Pursuing her dream, she took a creative writing seminar in her first year of college, led by a traveling Harvard professor. One of the assignments was to write a short story. But the day before she was to read it to the class, the professor called her to his office, telling her that her writing stunk. Among other things, he said,
“You have absolutely no idea about plot structure or characterization. How you were ever recommended for this class is beyond me. You have no business being here. One thing’s for sure, you’ll never earn a dime as a writer.”
But this pompous twit of a pseudo-professor (my characterization) encouraged her that the good news was that he’d caught her at this cross-roads of life so that she wouldn’t waste her time and money studying something she wasn’t suited for. So he worked a bargain with her: “I will get you through my class and give you a B if you promise never to write anything ever again.”
She didn’t write again for fourteen years. Fortunately, after those wasted years she mentioned her story to a journalist who said, “Why, I’m ashamed of you. You never even tried. Here’s my card. If you ever write anything, give me a call. “ She immediately went home, wrote her first novel, and sent it to the journalist. A month after receiving it he called her, pronounced it good and asked if he could send a copy to his agent. The agent called her from New York, referred to her as “startlingly talented," and immediately starting asking whether she thought soft cover, hard cover or trade would work best. A publisher snatched it up by Christmas.
She went on to write twenty novels in twenty years, including Romancing the Stone, Jewel of the Nile and Wings of Destiny. But what kills me is that she might have written 37 novels had she not trusted in the counsel of one supposed authority who just happened to be an imbecile disguised as a scholar with his professional degrees and tweed jackets. (From Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul. Yes, you should read it.)
My point? Don’t base your opinion on one person’s input or a few people’s lack of enthusiasm. The fourth person may rave over it, or have one suggestion to fix the problem that turned off the first three. Get lots of input. A writers' group is a great place to start.
Great Businesses Are Idea-Driven
Cherie and I read a good deal on great businesses, looking for the characteristics that distinguish them from losers. One common characteristic we’ve found is that they are idea-driven, searching constantly for the best ideas for direction and improvement. Rather than just listening to the MBA’s with their formal training, the leadership listens to people at all levels of their organizations. They also listen to their competition and their customers.
So we find Michael Dell listening intently to his computer customers, Jack Welch at GE finding creative ways to get everyone sharing ideas openly, Sam Walton waking up early on Saturday mornings to buy donuts for his truckers to get their insights on the stores they visit.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not very objective about my own writing. One day I’m overconfident, thinking I’ve come up with a brilliant angle that’s never been explored in the entire history of ideas. The next day I wonder why anyone would ever buy this crap of a manuscript from such a low profile amateur. That’s why, after doing some initial edits with my wife and mom, I put my Enjoy Your Money! manuscript into as many hands as I could, including my children, experts in the field, and anyone who owes me one or might be remotely interested in the subject. I even got input from an 8th grade writing class. They were honored to meet a real live author. Their input was unique and led to several important changes.
After getting input from well over thirty people (not counting the writing class) I can say pretty confidently that there’s a niche of people who would love my book on finance. I also know what others won’t like about it, but I’m okay with that. It’s not for everybody. I’ve found my audience.
Another case in point: Steven King’s wife found her husband’s first book manuscript in the trashcan, read it, and encouraged him to seek publication. Apparently, even though King was a college English professor, it was hard for him to see his manuscript objectively. He went on to publish it and see it made into a film: Carrie.
And don’t just ask writers for their opinion. We’re not normal. Writers look for cool turns of phrases, complex sub-plots, etc. Normal people will tell you the important stuff, like if it makes sense and entices them to read the next chapter.
What to Do with All that Advice
Take it seriously, because each opinion probably represents a group of people. But also take it with a grain of salt. You can’t please everyone. Concerning my book on money, some tired of the story angle and just wanted me to tell them what to do with their money. Others loved the story angle, saying it was what kept them reading.
Several said that the mild cussing by some characters in my book was a deterrent and that they couldn’t recommend the book in its present state. I had no idea that they would react so strongly to it. The opposite opinion came from a chemist in his late 20’s who helps lead worship at a church. He said, “you’ll never know how much it means to younger people to include those cuss words.” I’ve got to make the final decision on this issue, but I’m glad to know where both sides stand.
A Writer’s Group and the Georgia Writers Association
Benjamin Franklin met with Junto, a varied group of people whom he described as ingenious and lovers of reading. They would write papers, have each other read them, then critique them in the group, thus improving their writing. C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met regularly with The Inklings, a group of writers who gave input on each others’ writing. It’s doubtful whether Einstein could have figured out e=mc2 without the collaboration of The Olympia Academy, an informal group of thinkers who would go for long walks in the mountains and talk about subjects of import and interest.
Sometimes writers can be private folks. But I can’t urge you enough: FORCE YOURSELF OUT OF YOUR SHELL AND SPEND TIME WITH OTHER WRITERS.
Listen, you don’t have to be good at every aspect of writing. My mom never got a four-year degree, but loves to read and is a stickler for grammar. She and Cherie (my wife) are my two, frontline editors. I don’t care how much I polish something, they almost always find multiple goof-ups that should have been obvious to me. George Lucas never learned how to spell well. But he's a great story-teller. You may never be a great speller, and spell check on your computer won’t solve all of your problems. But you can work around that. Just pull people around you who are great spellers.
Study and Apply Great “How to Write” Books
Although I had to do a lot of writing in college and graduate school, I never took a class specifically on writing. I did study public speaking and applied those communication concepts to my writing.
So when I began writing books, I did my own self-study on writing. One of the most important books for me was The Elements of Style, which is about sixty pages. Read it and digest it. I read it again recently and was shocked to discover how many grammatical mistakes I've been making. An acquisitions editor at InterVarsity Press suggested that anyone writing for publication should read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and do what he says. I read it and made a little checklist for self-editing, such as, “Am I using active rather than passive voice?"
(Word to the wise: Don’t go to the bookstore manager and ask for “On Writing Good.” He won’t find it and you will be embarrassed.)
I’ve continued to read writers on writing and find that there’s always more to learn. Cherie and I listened to Steven King’s book on writing via CD in the car. Fun, fun, fun!
Professional Courses of Study
Cherie completed her undergrad degree in Communications and Masters in Professional Writing at Kennesaw State University over the past five years. I bugged her relentlessly each week to tell me what she was learning, so that I benefited from her experience as well. One of her texts on writing stories gave the most wonderful synopsis of a great story. I put it on my pin-up board beside my desk:
"According to Rubie and Provost, the following is the plot for 90 percent of the stories you’ve ever read, 90 percent of the films you’ve ever seen…in fact, 90 percent of all stories ever told in all the world in all time."
“Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.”
In one brilliant paragraph, the author gave me a template to compare my stories to. It’s not that I want to always follow it to the letter. But I typically find that if I’ve missed an element, my story will be better by adding it.
This little tip helped me in a way that none of my 30+ readers ever mentioned. Comparing my book to this template, I decided that there was not enough at stake for my characters. So these high school seniors wanted to do better than their parents with their finances. Let’s do a collective yawn. It’s not exactly Luke Skywalker longing to get off the farming planet and save the universe from the evil emperor with the beautiful Princess Leia.
So how can we up the ante, making the stakes higher? Let’s make Akashi, my oriental character, the intellectual black sheep of her high achieving family. Her older siblings are studying at Georgia Tech and MIT, while she struggles to eek out “C’s” in high school. Her problem? She has undiagnosed learning disabilities. Her nonchalant and counter-cultural attitude towards school hides a relentless fear that her C average will result in a C career and a C life. She desperately needs someone to tell her that she can make it in life.
With that small addition, I’ve made the stakes higher. Now readers are identifying with Akashi and pulling for her. Now I’m interested in where she goes in life and care about what she becomes.
Learning the Craft as Platform
In an earlier article, I mentioned the literary agent who soundly snooted me. One of the questions she asked to size me up concerned what writer’s conferences I had attended. At the time, I hadn’t attended any. I’m sure that she took it that I wasn’t serious about my craft. So in your proposal and author site, include information about your writer’s group, your membership in the Georgia Writers’ Association, your attendance at the Georgia Writers conference, etc., to establish that you’re a serious writer.
Even better, get into a good writing program.
So keep growing as a writer. The better your write, the better your odds of getting published. There's always more to learn!
Input: What do you do to improve your writing? What are the best books on writing that you would recommend?