Over the President’s Day weekend I will be teaching at the Southern California Writers Conference. Because I am no stranger to this conference, its director rarely consults with me regarding what courses I will be teaching. This week I learned that one of my classes is, “Russell’s Rules to Publishing Success.”
Given a choice, I wouldn’t have picked that title. In previous years I taught a course titled something like “Russell’s Riting Rules” (clever alliterative touch, right?), which provided writing tips for the pre-published. The new course title suggests I know something about publishing success. Although I have had my share of novels published, I still don’t feel like a publishing success. Stephen King or John Grisham should be teaching this class, not me.
One rule I will probably emphasize is that writers must back up their work. The reason this will be on my mind is that 10 days ago I lost several weeks of work because I wasn’t practicing that cardinal rule. I set out to do the right thing. Because the rain was producing gremlins on the electrical grid, I asked my born with a silicon chip son to back up two files on an external hard drive. This is a kid who will be majoring in computer engineering next year. This was child’s play for him, a trifling task, a quick favor for his Luddite father. So what did Mr. Digital do? He took the old files (same name) from the hard drive and rewrote them over the new files on my computer. My son had never made this mistake before, and felt terrible. It really was my fault, though. I should have been doing my own backing up, but I’ve never been totally comfortable with the hard drive. Having learned my lesson I went out and bought a laptop. Now I’m backing up my writing with a USB memory stick, and the laptop.
However, I’m betting the class won’t be gasping with admiration when I tell them that they should backup their material. I suspect they’ll want a roadmap to the New York Times bestseller list, and not my pabulum about it being the journey and not the destination.
Years ago my friend Ken Kuhlken and I did a booksigning at a mystery bookstore, and we were told by the owner that if we wanted to write a bestseller we should have the plot revolve around cats and chocolate. It’s possible the bookseller’s advice was right on the money. Maybe if he had said dogs and beer I might have even considered it.
Ken and I responded to that advice by writing a tongue and cheek book called, NO CATS, NO CHOCOLATE. In the book Ken and I are the main characters, traveling from one unsuccessful booksigning to another. During the journey, the two of us decide that since we can’t make a living from legitimate writing, we might as well sell out and write romance novels. By book’s end we have the revelation that if we’re going to write about murder, we aren’t going to do it with high tea, doilies and bon bons (or cats and chocolate). To thine own self be true.
Good writing explores theme and character – it shouldn’t be about exploiting mediocrity. I hope that doesn’t sound elitist. Mickey Spillane once said something to the effect of, “What the literati don’t realize is that there are a lot more people that like peanuts than caviar.” Peanuts work for me if they are done well, and salted perfectly.
In writing, like medicine, I think the goal should be to first do no harm (that applies to both the writer and readers). To my class I am going to offer such tried and true advice as:
*Create specific images.
*Don’t trust the opinions of your family or friends.
*Omit needless words (thank you Strunk & White).
*Don’t let the reader be complacent.
*Write the book you most want to read yourself.
*Don’t chase whatever’s trendy at the moment.
*In the words of E.B. White, “Don’t write about Man, write about A man.”
*Study the magic. Reread your favorite books. Why do they work?
*One good page a day for a year equals a book.
*Read your dialogue aloud.
*Develop your authorial bullshit detector.
*Repeat the mantra of every good writer: show, don’t tell.
*Do the research, but don’t feel you need to bludgeon the reader with all that you’ve learned.
*Writing is a marathon, and the race is not always to the swift.
*Read Storytellers Unplugged every day so you can benefit from the advice of fine writers (I might really use that one).
*If you’re stuck in your writing, deviate from routine (Sully’s Rule).
That’s the kind of pithy advice the class will be getting. I am sure some of the students will be disappointed at the “elementary” nature of my rules of writing. I would appreciate any comments about your own “rules for publishing success” (whatever the hell that is). Tell me what works for you. It always means more if you get it from the horse’s mouth. I thank you in advance, and so do the students.
February 5, 2010