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Parker's Place

Step 1: Read; Step 2: Write; Repeat as Needed

July 21, 1994|T. Jefferson Parker | T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month.

Once a year or so I am asked to participate in a "writer's conference," and occasionally I accept. Just last month a local school sponsored such an event, and I was on a panel to discuss "the writing life."

As I sat with the other writers at the head of the class, I got to wondering if the students were getting their money's worth. Tuition ran something like $125 for a two-day enrollment or, strangely, $225 for the full three-day treatment. By the standards of tennis pros, fly-fishing instructors or golf coaches, these fees aren't outlandish, but let's face it--you can do a lot with $225, even in 1994.

You've probably heard the old saw about the purpose of newspapers being to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. This is somewhat true. So, in the interest of offering the afflicted (people who want to write) the comfort of attending a writer's conference without spending all the dough, I will now offer a condensed writing program for what you just paid for this newspaper--25 cents.

OFTEN ASKED QUESTION 1: How do I get an agent?

ANSWER: From a book called "The Writer's Market," available at bookstores everywhere. You must be able to write an intriguing one-page query letter explaining your work. If you can't write a great one-page letter, chances are your manuscript needs work also. Of the 100 agent-seekers I've talked to at conferences, maybe three have also had truly good, finished manuscripts. Those three have agents now. If you have a good manuscript, an agent is easy to get. Until your manuscript is good, don't worry about them.

OFTEN ASKED QUESTION 2: How did you get your first book published?

ANSWER: I sent an agent a novel manuscript that had been written, rewritten and rewritten again six times over five years. I was thoroughly sick of the thing at that point. If you're not sick of your manuscript yet, it probably needs more work. Don't send out something you're not tired--and proud--of.

OFTEN ASKED QUESTION 3: Should I enroll in an MFA program in writing?

ANSWER: If you get accepted, yes; if you don't, no. It doesn't matter. There are many more ways to write a book than there are stars in the sky. If you look hard enough, you'll find your way.

OFTEN ASKED QUESTION 4: How important is it that I have a publishing track-record?

ANSWER: Not important at all. Writing credits might make an agent or publisher a little more interested in your material, but not interested enough to draw them into a story that isn't compelling. If you have published before, flaunt it. If not, don't worry.

OFTEN ASKED QUESTION 5: Can writing really be taught?

ANSWER: Yes, but only by you. MFA programs, workshops and writers' conferences are just learning aids. Use them if they fit your temperament; eschew them if they don't.

OFTEN ASKED QUESTION 6: Is there a danger that my story idea will be stolen by a publisher?

ANSWER: No. There's no reason for anyone to steal something that you've already created and are offering to them. Exceptions to this are few and far between. Don't worry.

OFTEN ASKED QUESTION 7: Should I keep an eye on publishing trends to see what might be selling?

ANSWER: No. By the time you see a trend, 50,000 other writers have seen it too. New trends come from new writers, and you are one of them. Make your own trends--that's one of the things you'll be getting paid for.

There are other questions that are less often asked but more important to answer.

CRUCIAL QUESTION 1: How do I learn to write?

ANSWER: The process is very simple. First, read a lot of good books. It is imperative that you read good books, because you have no other way to know what good writing is. Composers learn from composers, poets from poets, painters from painters. Learn from the best. Read critically. If a book seems dishonest to you, stop reading. Every book you read will lodge in your being somewhere and carry a lesson with it. You will learn that lesson without knowing you are learning it. It's as easy as learning a foreign language while you drive!

Then, sit down and try to write a good book.

Study every line after you've written it and ask yourself: 1) Is it interesting to read? 2) Does the story need it? If the answer to both questions is yes, go on to the next line. The same principle holds true for paragraph, scene, chapter, passage. If the answer to either question is no, delete the line (paragraph, scene, etc.). The more you do this, the easier and faster it will become. It's an exercise, a skill--something you develop, just like a muscle.

CRUCIAL QUESTION 2: Is that to say, then, that I should revise as I go?

ANSWER: Not really. Just ask yourself those two questions before you go on to the next line, paragraph, chapter, etc. If the answers are "yes," then let it fly. Write fast. Don't sweat the small stuff, yet. Finish. Finish. Finish.

CRUCIAL QUESTION 3: How will I know when my manuscript is good?

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