Friday, April 1, 2011

How Do You Get To the NYT Bestseller List?

by Pete Morin

Bennett Cerf, the co-founder of Random House (better know to the people of my generation as one of the panelists on What's My Line?) told this story in his 1956 book, The Life of the Party: A New Collection of Stories and Anecdotes (now available on eBay for $1.99).

Rumor is that a pedestrian on Fifty-seventh Street, Manhattan, stopped Jascha Heifetz and inquired, "Could you tell me how to get to Carnegie Hall?"

"Yes," said Heifetz. "Practice!"

Clearly, Heifitz's invocation is well-applied not just to music, but practically every skill acquired by mankind.

So how does an aspiring novelist practice? Food fights have started over less controversial questions.

Well, of course, you must write! But what good is writing all the time if you don't know what you're doing? You have to know what you're doing. How do you learn what you're doing? Some insist you must go to school and acquire a Masters in Fine Arts. Catcalls and brickbats ensue.

Here's a suggestion that I learned from James N. Frey, in his superb how-to book, How To Write a Damn Good Novel. [N.B. Frey is one of dozens of successful novelists who've shared their ideas, methods and suggestions. An aspiring novelist who doesn't read these—at least some of them—isn't, in my opinion, serious about becoming a successful writer.]

Besides being a multi-published novelist, Frey has taught creative writing at a number of institutions for two decades. He was Teacher of the Year at UC Berkeley in 1994. His methods of teaching are alluded to repeatedly in his books, which are universally praised. Bottom line, a good guy to listen to.

Frey has his students select a work of fiction by their favorite author. They then select 2-3 pages from the book that they find particularly excellent, and then copy it. Word for word.

Here's what Frey says about it:

You will not only get a feel for how good stylists use words, you will feel the timing and the rhythm of their prose and the snap, crackle and pop of their dialogue.

The next day, write a few pages imitating the style. If the scene you typed out is an outdoor scene with a lot of action, write the same sort of scene, trying your best to imitate style.

Do this with other authors you admire, regularly. Here's what he says the result is:

By doing these exercises, you'll soon discover that your own, individual, distinctive styles will emerge, styles suited to your personality and to the particular story you are writing, styles unlike any of the styles you've been imitating.

We all have favorite authors. They all have their own style and methods. Very few of them are similar. We aspire to write like our favorites, or at least to learn how it is and why it is that these authors succeed in their craft. We can do that by sitting in a classroom and deconstructing sentences, examining their syntax, etc. Like MFA students do, maybe. I'd just as soon jump into the polar bear pit at the zoo.

But here is an exercise where, Frey assures us, we can see measurable results, and rather quickly:

Doing the following exercise a half-hour to an hour a day has made some of the worst prose-writing students in my classes into some of the best... in a few months—or less. Often the improvement is very rapid and the degree of improvement is astonishing.

A final word about reading.

You cannot become a better novelist without reading novels. Not just a few, but dozens. Hundreds. Maybe the exercise above reduces the number of Leonard novels from 15 to 10, but if you want to write mysteries like Elmore Leonard, you have to read everything Elmore Leonard has ever written. Otherwise, you'll probably end up sounding like an amateur who's copying Elmore Leonard.

Until about 7 years ago, I didn't read that many novels—maybe 5-8 per year. Now I read 5-8 per month.

That's practice.

Practice, practice, practice!

(The joke is also referenced in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds when Brad Pitt's character Aldo says "You know how you get to Carnegie Hall, don't ya? Practice".)


Laura Pauling said...

I think reading in your genre is more important that a lot of writers realize. There is so much we absorb without realizing it.

Susan Fields said...

Great advice! I've started reading much, more more than I used to, and it makes such a difference in my writing!

petemorin said...

Hi Laura and Susan, thanks for visiting! I'm still amazed at the number of aspiring writers who eschew the how-to books.

Helen Ginger said...

When you're a writer, you tend to think you don't have time to read - you must write. But I read more now than I ever did. When you come across a phrase or paragraph that makes you think, man, I wish I'd written that!, make note of it. Analyze it. Then write your own "man, I wish I'd written that!" line.

Great blog!

petemorin said...

Exactly, Helen! However, that experience would be eschewed by some writers, from Elmore Leonard to Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, who exclaimed that whenever they run across a piece of their own writing that they think is particularly fine, they delete it.


Rosalind Adam said...

I love this new blog and I will definitely return for more excellent advice :-)

petemorin said...

Thank you, Rosalind! We look forward to your input.

RSMellette said...

I'm reading Giorgio Vasari's Lives of the Artists right now, and it's funny to read of young Michelangelo doing our right forgeries as part of his training. It wasn't a crime back then, just a standard training method. Copying is still a way of training, but one doesn't sell the finished product as an original.