Sunday, April 20, 2008

Advice for Writers by Aaron Paul Lazar

In my job as an electrophotographic* engineer, emails fly across cyberspace faster than my colleagues gobble free chocolate chip cookies. The content is always something very technical and ho-hum boring, on topics such as transmission density or fusing quality. But sometimes I sense a “writer’s voice” within the scientific flurry of words. And on occasion, I’ll get really bold and ask if they’ve dabbled in writing.

A year ago, one of my coworkers answered, “I loved to write in high school, but I just don’t have time anymore.”

This mother of an active two-year-old commuted over an hour each day to her full time manager job and naturally, handled all household tasks. Just like almost every writer I know.

She already felt overloaded, but I sensed a unique talent in her words. I didn’t hesitate.

“Just write,” I said. “Take fifteen minutes at lunch each day.”

“But what would I write about?” she asked as she shuffled mountains of papers and ignored the ringing phone. “I have no idea where to start.”

“Write whatever comes into your head. It doesn’t matter what it is. Once you get going, it’ll just flow out of you. You don’t need a plan. Just do it.”

She wrote during a break the next day and sent me a page of lovely prose. I encouraged her to continue. We began to exchange writing daily, swapping edits and chapters with glee. Mind you, this was as good for me as it was for her.

Six months later, she completed the manuscript for her first novel, a delightful historical time-travel piece. She’s submitting it to publishers as I write this, and has already started on the sequel.

Over the years, I’ve collected little buds of knowledge through my association with other writers, voracious reading, and through the joy/hell of relentless writing.

Following are ten suggestions that can help a writer tone up his or her skills.

1) Just write. To start, write for a few minutes every day. If your passion is genuine, you’ll find that you can’t stop. You’ll finagle a way to squeeze writing into your day. I schedule very early mornings for writing, from 4:00 to 6:00 AM. It’s the only quiet time in my hectic life and I couldn’t accept spending less time with my wife, daughters, or grandsons. So, I go to bed early and forget about TV. What’s more important? In doing so, I’ve written twelve novels in a bit over seven years.

2) Cut out the flowery stuff. I adore adjectives and adverbs, and I ache to describe scenes in lush detail. But in the end, I hack away at all the excess. If you read a line out loud and it feels stilted – stop! Take out all the extra words that slow you down, and just tell the story. Use the descriptors sparingly. I’ve found that after writing twelve books, my style has become simpler and more streamlined. I’m going back now and redlining much of the early work before it reaches the bookstores. It hurts like hell to do it, but it’s absolutely necessary.

3) Observe, observe, observe. Soak in every tiny detail that surrounds you. Colors, textures, sensations, expressions, birdsongs, sunlight, and the ground you walk on... notice everything, and brand it into your brain for that next chapter you’re going to write. Okay, so this seems to completely contradict the previous suggestion. But it is possible to insert a lyrical scene painting at the right time where you might want to slow down the pace a little. And readers love to be transported. Just be careful not to overdo the adverbs and adjectives.

4) Listen to the voices: the grocery clerk, the bank teller, children at play, professors, grandparents, and neighbors. You’ll never create natural dialogue without eavesdropping.

5) Tap into your emotions. When someone close to you dies, it’s an overwhelming, dreadful experience. But, the same emotions that flatten you at that time will be indispensable when you write about loss. Recreating the deep-seated feelings will make your book come alive and ring true with readers.

6) Make your characters feel deeply and give them a rich history. This takes time and is particularly important if you’re writing a series. If readers don’t care about the characters, they won’t come back for more. Don’t worry about defining them in detail in the beginning, just start writing and they will develop. You can always go back and add more detail to support your characters’ growth.

7) Perfection comes later. Just get it out there, get it down on paper. Then, when you go back to it, hack away at the unnecessary prepositional phrases and the ungainly adverbs, extract those awkward scenes that stand out like sore thumbs, and supplement those that seem abrupt. Then, set it aside for a while. After I’ve completed a novel, I put it down and start on the next one. Many months later, I’ll come back to it. It’s best if I don’t remember much (I’m often surprised at how much I’ve forgotten) as that’s when one is in the best position to challenge one’s own work. Sometimes I’ll be surprised at an unusually eloquent passage, or humiliated by a flimsy section through which I obviously rushed. That’s the time to roll up your sleeves and be ruthless. Cut out the excess and fortify the weak!

8) Find a skillful editor. I’ve been lucky. I have friends with eagle eyes who will scour my manuscripts and be brutal where necessary. Try to find folks who are willing to follow along with the book as you create it. Share this service. Swap chapters as soon as they’re done. Don’t be shy about helping one another – if a passage sounds stilted, tell your critique partners. If you want to “see” more of the details in a scene, ask them to elaborate. And pray they’ll do the same for you.

I also have an “inner circle” of readers who’ve traveled with me through the series far in advance of publishing. They keep me honest and provide feedback about the characters that they’d come to love.

9) Maintain the tension. You want your readers to need to read more. Keep up the pace. Make it flow seamlessly from chapter to chapter. And try to avoid unnecessary excursions into boring territory. I use lots of dialogue; it moves the book along quickly. Short chapters also help the reader feel as if he’s made progress. Readers say that with short chapters they’re more apt to think, “Just one more chapter before I go to bed.” Of course, if the tension and suspense are stimulating, the dear reader will stay up way past bedtime.

10) Polish it ‘til it shines. Don’t send in anything but your best work, buffed to perfection. You may have to go through it dozens of times, but it’s worth it. Have your friends and family do the same. Each time they scour your manuscript, they’ll find something new. It seems endless. But if you keep at it, you'll produce a superior product.

* Electrophotography, or xerography, is the science behind the digital presses that we design and manufacture at Kodak. You might recognize it more readily as the science behind copiers. It's the physics behind the toner, developer, imaging surfaces, and the hardware that delivers the copy when you push that green button.
Aaron's books can be found at:


Marta Stephens said...

Aaron, you've posted another excellent list of tips all of which are well worth remembering – no, printing -- no matter where we are in our writing.

I keep a log of observations no matter how insignificant they may seem. I never know when I'm going to need to describe what it's like walking on frost-covered grass or create a character with a peculiar look; how does he/she walk, hand and facial gestures, etc. I also include how I feel when I make an observation—what are my thoughts at that particular moment? I have one entry that describes how a milkweed seed flutters in the wind. Haven’t used that one yet, but you never know.

Weather often plays an important role in my series because it can affect (alter) the evidence that has been left out in the elements. Temperature and precipitation is a factor on how quickly or easily Harper can solve a case. Unfortunately, it may be the middle of June when I’m trying to describe a winter scene so referring to my notes is helpful.

Kim Smith said...

Wonderful reminders all, Aaron. Thanks for posting this!

Aaron Paul Lazar said...

Thanks, Marta and Kim! I came up with this list quite a few years ago, but figured it might come in handy for our readers. ;o)