One of the few who got it right

In nearly every creative writing guide, the author eventually refers to “success stories”, explaining how out of the many who want to become writers, only a few “got it right”.

I recently reread the book The First Five Pages by Noah Lukeman (Fireside, 2000) and enjoyed it as I did the first time, but with the added awareness that this book is a rare specimen among its kind.

Lukeman’s book is “A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile”. In other words is it a book intended for writers about how to write books and present manuscripts.

Since it has become the “in” thing for people to become writers – and with every university offering “creative writing” degrees and producing countless ‘experts’ professing to pass on their knowledge – books like this are flooding the market, in addition to books about how to get noticed in that same market.

The latter are trying to teach writers what is not their natural talent (so they can compete), while the former are trying to make writers out of those whose natural talents may lay elsewhere.

Sure, techniques need to be learned. After all, the great painters of the past, despite having the natural talent, went into apprenticeship with a master painter to learn the techniques and the great classical composers all took music lessons. But the vast majority of such writing advice presents the techniques not as guidelines, but as a regimen. They will even add a chapter on how to behave as a writer – such as “organize your desk” and “discipline yourself to sit down for four hours each day” – or they devote an entire chapter on where to find inspiration and how to overcome “writer’s block”

But inspiration isn’t a technique; it is that what forces writers to write regardless of what is happening in their lives. Those who need to be told what to write about or have to discipline themselves to get around to writing are not natural born writers.

“The art of writing cannot be taught, but the craft of writing can,” says Lukeman  (p 15), yet “… ultimately, the only person who can teach you about writing is yourself” (p 11).

The question that is relevant today more than ever: Is the measure of an artist in the quality of the art, in the mastering of the technique, or in the success of the marketing?

Rembrandt, had he simply copied the techniques he had learned, would have never stood out as a great painter and Van Gogh is certainly not considered a great artist because he managed to make money doing so.

Many of the great composers took what they had learned and turned it into something unique, often deliberately ignoring the rules.

So techniques are useful, but they don’t make art, because art needs creative space to develop. No artist has ever become great from following techniques without experimenting.

Art is subjective; some works of the greatest artists are rejected based on taste, yet those who are born with the drive to write for the sake of the art; those with the inspiration (and even desperation), cannot be stopped. As Lukeman says, “Here lies the difference between someone writing for money and a writer.” (p 152)

Psychological type explains why some people are born with a talent for marketing (or business), others with a talent for visual arts, for musical or for performing art, and yet others with a talent for writing or for editing and proofreading. Editors are not the same type of people as are writers. The latter tend to naturally grasp the big picture and focus on the semantics, the social message or the human relationships, while the former have an eye for syntax, detail and composition. So the two complement each other and in a respectful relationship both are aware of that.

And the beauty of Lukeman’s book is that he realizes this.

Most books (or classes) on writing are condescending toward writers, proclaiming their importance because “most writers don’t know….”  – and then berating these same writers for not respecting their readers.

But Lukeman is different. His book doesn’t say “Hey stupid, here is how you should do it”. He says: I am an editor and here is what I look for when I reject manuscripts, so if you want yours to have a chance, consider the following. He doesn’t say that his advice should be followed to the letter or that his methods are right, but only that they are common.

Additionally, his book doesn’t just spit our cliché advice, like “don’t hit your readers over the head” and “show, don’t tell”, but it actually gives examples of what he means by that; what not to do.

Besides, Lukeman acknowledges that the phrase “show, don’t tell” is not very accurate. Writers need to show and tell, as long as they don’t tell what they have already shown. Telling is not the same as making statements and it has its place in fiction.

Writers (especially independent writers) experience a similar sort of being talked down on when trying to present their books to booksellers, because they don’t have the money to employ big distributors. Book sellers don’t want the trouble of having to deal with only a few copies of a title that is not guaranteed to sell because nobody knows it exists – one even told me that it isn’t worth their time in administration and book keeping to deal with individuals – yet titles need to be on display before people can notice them.

Others believe that independent writes cannot produce a product of quality. One manager of a book shop chain, without even asking for samples, picked up a book from his counter and continued to show me that books have a cover and are formatted, apparently under the impression that a self-published book consists of a number of stapled together sheets straight from the printer.

Of similar intelligence was the book seller I tried to show my science fiction to. – Okay, writers in Paris or New York may not experience the following problem, but I live in New Zealand, which only has four million inhabitants, and which has a strong national pride, so that most publishers only accept books that are distinctly local. For example, a detective novel has to be set in a local town or it won’t get published.

But considering that New Zealanders are not immune to the lifestyle of the twenty-first century, all the social issues and human emotions that affect New Zealanders are the same issues and emotions that affect people in all other countries, so that they will read books that are not local even if they refuse to publish them. And the inventors and scientists in New Zealand build on and exchange information with their colleagues in the same fields abroad – because science (and therefore science fiction) generally does not limit itself to national borders. Yet stepping into book sellers, I am told that their readers want local books and that “New Zealand readers don’t buy science fiction”.

This same shop is full of mainstream titles that are written abroad and come in bulk from overseas distributors. And that last statement is based on statistics taken from the mainstream bookshops – not counting those books that are bought over the internet (from abroad) and probably not even those that are sold in the second hand shops that specialize in science fiction (because there is a demand for it). So they refuse to put such books in their shops because “they won’t sell”, based on the fact that they have not sold any – which makes me wonder if they know what a blatant circular argument is.

So writers are stuck between the book sellers talking down on them because their work isn’t already in demand and condescending writing instructors that tell them they are never going to make it in the first place because their techniques are wrong.

Thus I wanted to mention Lukeman’s book, which is respectful in the way it approaches writers; it is not pretentious and actually gives sound advice, which makes it a rare exception that deserves to be noticed as one of the few who got it right.

And while we’re at it, there is one book shop (I know of) – Arty Bees in Wellington – that deserves a special mention for the same reason as Lukeman’s book, because it respects the writer (and science fiction).


9 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Astrid Gonlag
    Jun 30, 2013 @ 21:37:30

    Lieve Mirjam,

    Leuke en ware column!

    Een boek dat jij misschien leuk vindt om te lezen is: DE BLOKKADE geschreven door Renate Dorrestein. Dit is mijn lievelingsschrijfster (en jij kent haar vast ook wel). Een chte schrijfster, met een natuurlijk, aangeboren talent en schrijfdrang. Al jarenlang lees/luister ik al haar boeken.

    Haar laatste boek, de Blokkade, gaat over haar writer’s block, maar dan een cht writer’s block, niet dat gezeik van onechte schrijvers die niet verder kunnen. Het gaat over de echte chemie van schrijven, vanuit haar persoonlijke ervaring.

    Het is ook leuk en slim dat ze, juist toen ze na vele jaren en heel veel fantastische boeken, vastliep in het schrijven van fiction, het vastlopen zelf tot een nieuw boek maakte. Waarschijnlijk is het ook wel in het Engels vertaald en misschien te krijgen bij een bibliotheek in Wellington.

    Wij gaan 6 juli een weekje op vakantie naar Knokke in Belgi. Of daarvoor bellen nog lukt weet ik niet. Na 13 juli zijn we weer terug. Hoe gaat het bij jullie en met het huis?

    Liefs, Astrid

    Op 30 jun 2013, om 10:57 heeft nonentiti het volgende geschreven:



    • nonentiti
      Jul 01, 2013 @ 09:27:26

      Hoi Astrid,

      Ik geloof dat ik ooit eens een boek van haar heb gelezen – en ik ken haar naam wel natuurlijk – maar ik weet niet eens de title meer, dus misschien kan je me een lijstje sturen en dan ga ik eens kijken in de bibliotheek.
      Dan bellen we na de 13de, want dan heb jij vast veel te vertellen. Veel plezier.


  2. Trackback: One of the few who got it right | Todd DeanTodd Dean
  3. PJ
    Jul 01, 2013 @ 06:44:25

    I am afraid I have never really perused these kinds of works – I harbor a bit of a suspicion of self-help books in general (unwarranted I am sure – doubtless some contain intermittent gems and insights that might be of use to me)…and have never read any particular ones that pertain to writing or publishing – other than explaining procedure insofar as the submission process is concerned. I am not sure why exactly – perhaps it is because I prefer to (obdurately) pursue my own path irregardless – and do not always desire to be so influenced by others. I prefer to immerse myself in literary works of writers I admire, and then, having found my own way and means of expressing, simply thrill in that process….In that sense I am an advocate of the ‘primary source’ if the analogy fits….without an intermediary. Not that this is necessarily a wise thing, or even a smart thing….but at the end of the day it is my thing.
    Thank you, however, Mirjam, for this wonderful treatise on Lukeman’s work – certainly nice to have such a recommendation when I am ready to mend my stubborn ways!


    • nonentiti
      Jul 01, 2013 @ 09:23:41

      Thank you, PJ.
      Unlike you, I don’t have a background in literature and although I did read, I was never confident enough to take what I needed from there alone – or rather, I thought I was not. In the end, I learned from those examples and in my own time, more than from deliberately written books. Unlike my daughter who posts some of her writing on the net and gets instant responses, I have seldom had reviews – I had some manuscripts assessors – but I used the writing guides to make myself a checklist for when a book is nearly finished, for confidence. You are right, we all have to find our thing, and I don’t think you have to worry about mending your ways. You write beautifully.


  4. Henry Mitchell
    Jul 01, 2013 @ 10:04:53

    Not a day passes that I don’t curse the publishing business, booksellers included and offer humble thanks for my kind and ruthless editor, who consistently makes my stories readable by cutting all my favorite parts, and for my publisher, who likes my stories enough to hoist them into public view. As for readers- well, readers will be readers. A few of them seem to like my stuff. A lot of them don’t- I don’t know what they are reading.


  5. winfieldstrock
    Aug 25, 2013 @ 23:59:48

    The book on writing that I consider my ‘pocket therapist’ is Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott. She doesn’t teach you how to write so much as she shares the emotional eventualities of writing that are so easy to get wrapped up in. Laughing and occasionally tearing up a bit, this book taught me to look at my darker disappointments as an occupational hazard and realize its only the trough of a wave; there’s a crest coming too.


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