Tuesday Therapy: A Few Keys to the Kingdom
Gobsmacking, isn’t it?
Over the past four decades, Jack Dann has edited or written over seventy-five books, including the international bestseller, The Memory Cathedral, the World Fantasy Award-winning Dreaming Down Under (which had the honour of being the first Australian book to win this award) and most recently Ghosts By Gaslight, which was shortlisted for a Stoker Award and also for an Aurealis Award this year.
Jack is a recipient of the Nebula Award, the Australian Aurealis Award (twice), the Ditmar Award (three times), the World Fantasy Award, the Peter McNamara Achievement Award, the Peter McNamara Convenors Award for Excellence, and the Premios Gilgamés de Narrativa Fantastica award. He has also been honoured by the Mark Twain Society (Esteemed Knight). In other words, he knows a thing or two about writing excellent stories, so you might want to take notes.
Anyone who has met Jack knows he’s a legend. I was lucky enough to have him as a tutor at Clarion in 2009, and his passion for storytelling, for teaching, and for people was infectious and inspiring (but how the man still had so much energy after back-to-back-to-back crits remains a mystery…) If any of you get the chance to take a workshop with Jack, jump at it! You’ll leave with a trove full of gems like the ones he has been kind enough to share with us today.
I once wrote an article called “A Few Keys to the Kingdom” for Writers Digest, which was directed to budding writers. It has been reprinted quite a bit. Here are some of those “keys”:
1. You must begin. Every day you must write, no matter what.
2. Give the best part of every day to your writing. Get up early and write if you can. If you can’t, read or put your desk in order or do research. It’s important to establish the habit of working every day.
3. Make appointments with yourself to write. Make yourself feel as guilty as possible. Do whatever you must to get to the computer.
4. Copy! Don’t plagiarise, but find writers you admire, and read and reread their best work. Dissect their prose sentence by sentence and paragraph by paragraph. Memorise passages if you have to, but get into the weave of the writer’s work. It will give an unconscious form and balance to your own work. Don’t worry, no one else will know. You will put these unconscious “forms” through your own sensorium.
5. Read constantly and widely.
6. Be prepared to be surprised and upset by what you write.
7. Don’t try to be a critic while you’re writing. The first stages of writing are often intuitive, right-brained work. But once you have a draft, or you become blocked on a story, you must rethink and rework.
8. If you’re having trouble with a sentence or a passage or a plot twist, ask yourself if something doesn’t need to be cut. If you have an especially elegant sentence that just isn’t working with the rest of your humdrum prose, cut out the sentence. It’s probably purple, anyway.
9. If you find yourself blocked, take a break and read and take notes and read and take more notes. Being blocked is natural. It’s your unconscious asking for more information.
10. Rewrite everything until you feel that what you have on paper corresponds as closely as possible to that wonderful image you originally had in your mind.
11. Keep working toward making clear sentences and building solid story structures. Style is really only transparency of thought and idea. Writing well is a result of clear thinking. Cut out everything that sounds nice but doesn’t convey the specific meaning you want. Find the exact word to express your thought: that’s what Roget made his Thesaurus for. The particular way you think, the way you experience and perceive the world, will become your “style”.
12. Read Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style.
JACK DANN is a multiple-award winning author who has written or edited over seventy-five books, including the international bestseller The Memory Cathedral, which was #1 on The Age Bestseller list, and The Silent, which Library Journal chose as one of their ‘Hot Picks’ and wrote: “This is narrative storytelling at its best… Most emphatically recommended.” Dann’s stories have been collected in Timetipping,Visitations, and the retrospective short story collection Jubilee: the Essential Jack Dann. The West Australian said it was “Sometimes frightening, sometimes funny, erudite, inventive, beautifully written and always intriguing. Jubilee is a celebration of the talent of a remarkable storyteller.” His collaborative stories can be found in the collection The Fiction Factory. Dann lives in Australia on a farm overlooking the sea and “commutes” back and forth to Los Angeles and New York. You can visit his website here.
“A Few Keys to the Kingdom” by Jack Dann. Copyright (c) 1989, 2000, 2012 by Jack Dann. First published in different form as “A Few Keys to the Kingdom: Thoughts on Getting Published, and on Being the Best Writer You Can Be” in Writer’s Digest 69 (January, 1989). All rights are reserved by the author. This work cannot be reproduced–electronically or in any other form–without the express permission of the author.