Saturday, March 26, 2011

Knowing Too Much and Telling It All Is Bad...

John Ramsey Miller

I once knew a man named Bill W., now dead, who was a lawyer in a small delta town in Mississippi. Bill was extremely intelligent and just a great-big-hearted man of some substance. Bill was always smiling. Bill loved art and owned the worst examples of several well-known artists. He knew a lot about art, all of it technical. In fact Bill was one of those people whose mind was a sponge, soaking up everything and maintaining every last bit of it. If you asked him how cotton gins worked, you would know every nook and cranny of a cotton gin before he finished on the subject, and you would feel like you'd worked a ten hour shift there. After that he might tell stories about cotton gin accidents, the number of bales on any farmer's harvest of whatever year, and he 'd tell you how much change Eli Whitney had in his pocket the day he started work on the first gin. I spent a lot of time around Bill because I enjoyed listening to him go on and on and on... I had lots of questions and he had the answers and more. Once his daughter was planning to go to Europe and her mother saw her reading a guide book. She told her daughter to ask her daddy about Paris, one of his favorite cities. The daughter looked up at her mother and said, "But I don't need to know that much."

It has been my privilege to have known a great number of dedicated authors. Most of the authors I have known share two things: a natural curiosity about damned near anything and knowledge spanning a wide range of subjects. It takes more than that to be a good writer, but I think those two things are necessary for successful storytellers. It isn't so much "write what you know" as it is "know what you write." And the more you know about something, the less you have to write about it to say the least that needs saying. The reader will feel that you know more about 'it" and although they will understand that there's more about "it", they as readers don't need to know any more than you tell them. I hope that makes sense.

If I know how to completely break down a Colt 1911 and reassemble it blindfolded, and have fired it thousands of times, one short sentence will make the reader understand how the gun functions to the extent it is relevant to the story. I don't need to show off my in-depth knowledge, just allow the reader believe its made its appearance and done its job. We fictionalistas aren't writing text books, biographies, true crime, or books about the Battle of Shiloh or worm farming. We write about imagined people in real or imagined places doing all manner of things that people might be doing. We are magicians pulling rabbits out of a hat, cobbling together tales that have never been told to them before. There are a finite number of situations, names, motivations, and actions, and there is some closeness of some stories to others, but each of us tells our stories in our styles and from our own perspectives––each as unique as a fingerprint.

At a cocktail party a few years ago a physician told me that as soon as he retired he was going to sit down and write novels. I told him that when I retired from writing I was going to become a surgeon. He looked at me in stunned disbelief. I told him I could be trained to do his job a lot faster than he could learn to do mine. I wasn't completely serious at the time, but I'm convinced now that I was probably telling the truth. I do know that he isn't a published author. I don't know if he tried his hand at our thing, but I doubt it.

After thinking about doing these first page critiques, I was thinking about new authors and about what advice I'd pass along.

I had no idea what the odds were when I decided to write fiction or I’d probably never have done it. I tell aspiring authors that it’s a bad business to get into. I say don’t go into writing because you expect to make a lot of money at it. You’d probably do better panning for gold on a sandbar on the Mississippi River. I once read that ninety six percent of published fiction authors don’t make a living writing novels. Also remember that being published by a reputable house doesn’t mean your book will sell. And self-published books rarely sell more than a handful of copies. A person only has a limited number of friends and relatives to market to.


The problem with most of the books I read is that they have nothing new or different to say. Books are like drugs in that the more you read the more it takes to get you to the same place. A well-written book is just another book unless the writer has a memorable voice and isn’t writing a story you can see on television every night. Style means little if the author doesn’t have a slant on a story that grabs the reader, characters that are alive, and these days a way to market a book so that it breaks out of the hundreds of thousands of books that are competing.


That said, trying to keep an author from writing, is just as futile as trying to get a teenager not to try a first beer. Every day of the week a J.K. Rowling, Stephen king, or Truman Capote is putting a pen to a piece of paper, or opening a laptop for the first time and the best of these beginners don’t give a damn about their odds. Even if the know the odds they also know in their hearts that it’s what they have to do, and they believe they will make their mark. Thank God for each and every one of them.




12 comments:

  1. Some great advice here for all of us, John. Writers are a lot like those birthday cake candles that keep reigniting no matter how many times you blow them out.

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  2. John, I agree with you that there are people who, if you ask them the time, will tell you how to build a watch, and although sometimes they're fascinating, sometimes they make me want to run. At first, I took exception to your conversation with the surgeon. Then I did the math.
    I spent three years in college, four years in medical school, and four years in specialty training to achieve board certification. I took up writing after my retirement, and it took me nine years of learning the craft before my first novel was published (by a royalty-paying publisher). So you were pretty close.

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  3. "If you want to write fiction, the best thing you can do is take two aspirins, lie down in a dark room, and wait for the feeling to pass. If it persists, you probably ought to write a novel." -- Lawrence Block.

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  4. Dr. Richard, was that you at that party in 1997?

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  5. Nope, John, wasn't me. Believe me, I didn't set out to be a novelist after retirement. Long story, but James Scott Bell bears a great deal of blame for getting me into this crazy business.
    I enjoy your posts, and all the others here at the Kill Zone. Thanks for sharing.

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  6. Loved this post John and your new picture. I got up this morning in need of some inspiration as I approach deadline on my second novel for publication. And I'm not too proud to say I'm more than a little anxious. So of course I had to come here, and Jim will smile to know that I pulled out War for Writers and read the Mby Dick story and thoughts on mere fiction. Now I have to go practice my magic.

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  7. Good post, John. I'm afraid I may be one of the people you're talking about, but wasn't aware of it. Recently at church, where I teach a study group, another teacher popped his head into my classroom to say hi. I invited him in to chat - it was before classes started - and he said, "Sorry, class starts in twenty minutes, and you talk too much!"

    Speaking of new pictures, Nancy, why don't you or someone at TKZ blog about the author's pictures on their books, blogs or websites. I'm fascinated by the whole topic. I always check new releases to see how the writer has changed since their last photo. For me it's like seeing an old friend after a long absence.

    Some writers never change their photo from book to book, if ever. Then it's such a shock to meet them or see a news picture of them and see how different they look.

    Is it vanity? Promotional hype? Fear? It just intrigues me.

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  8. Oops! I meant "speaking of new pictures, John," not Nancy.

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  9. Can a person like that actually write mystery or suspense? I mean you have to reign things in, and give away little pieces- you can't do that if you spill everything at once.

    People like that tend to end up with subtitles- "TMI" - too much information or "oversharer", shortly to be followed by "get thee behind me Satan".

    Nobody likes a know-it-all. Then when it's that bad there is usually no room left for imagination either.

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  10. Thanks to photoshop we can stay young forever.

    I was at one of my signings a few years ago and bantam had sent a poster with my photo on it. This man and his son came up and I was talking with the father. The boy asked me, "Is that a picture of you?"
    "It is," I said.
    "It looks like you, only you look a lot older. A whole lot older."

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  11. One of the great niblets I got at a conference was that the secret to research and editing is the ability to cut a 500-page book into a 300-page book and have the 200 pages still be in the background. I don't like under-researched books, especially if they are in a subject I can ramble about (I confess, my knowledge is a mile-wide and an inch deep). On the flip side, too much technical detail has me shouting "I get the point!"

    One writer of tech-thrillers (that I will never read again) went on for pages about the co-centric and overlapping rings of fire in a carrier group. Okay . . . fine . . . I got the idea two pages ago. Can the bad guys please fire some missiles now, cuz I'd really like something to blow up.

    Awesome post as always!

    Terri

    PS: Just pre-ordered John Gilstrap's latest, Threat Warning, for my Kindle! At first, I was a bit miffed to see it on Amazon when I had not been notified on Facebook or by newsletter. We, your fans, have a bit of a sense of entitlement you know. However, since it was a pre-order, all is forgiven and now I can't wait!

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  12. Sometimes it seems the author is so impressed with their knowledge on a subject, they don't imagine that 99% of readers will be yawning by the second detailed paragraph.

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