I Promise You Won't Learn A Thing From This Blog

The official blog for author Ashley Chappell. Check back every week for a few laughs at my expense or, if you know the love-hate process that is writing, commiseration.

Tuesday, February 05, 2013

Guest Post - Benjamin Epstein, Author of 'Captive of the Orcs'

I've had the pleasure of meeting so many new and interesting people since good fortune (yes, and hard work) favored me with a publishing contract. Some of them I've met through social networking and others have reached out and contacted me via email. But possibly the most fun of all has been getting to know my fellow authors in the Center One stable. Writers tend to be interesting characters (though I've been told 'sociopath' might be a better word), and I have the pleasure today of introducing you to one of the interesting characters I've gotten to know since joining the publishing world. 

Benjamin Epstein is the author of 'Captive of the Orcs' and was kind enough to write a post on his writing process for me to share. Here's the quick list of how to find him:

Thanks for joining us today, Ben!

One of my fellow Center One authors suggested that if I write a blog post about writing, she would repost it on her own website.  So, in the interest of cross-pollination, that will be the subject of my current essay.

           The funny thing is, I haven't often been asked about strategies for writing.  Not that I'm exactly sure what the best way is.  I think there's a lot of stereotypical responses one could get: The types you might find from books, or creative writing classes.  Funny thing is, my old College classes nearly destroyed my writing forever.  My confidence was shattered when I was an undergrad, and I lost all conviction to my own opinions.  If it wasn't for my mentor during my literary internship, I don't know if I ever would have gotten it back.  How that happened is a story I'll save for another time.  

           But if I were to teach a writing workshop, and decide on a way that was generally helpful for aspiring writers, what would I say?  Let me suggest some important components, without much of a sensible order.

           #1: Coffee.  

           Yes, I am serious.  For me, writing without this glorious little stimulant is like driving a car without gas.  I might be able to roll downhill in neutral, but not much more than that. Most of my work was composed in the local Starbucks or Coffee Bean.  I find very little gets done at home.  Too many distractions.  But if I uproot myself and go in public with the intention of getting work done, it's more likely that I'll get a few pages of worthwhile material.  Not a certainty, of course, but it's a little trickier to waste time.  Though hardly impossible.  

           Once I made the separation of home for rest, and coffee shop for work, I grew more productive.  And it gives my day some regularity.

           #2: The slush pile

           This is something I learned back during the above mentioned internship.  If you don't work in the editing business, or a related field, I'd recommend a little gem of a book by Denny Martin Flinn:  "How Not to Write a Screenplay."  Flinn gives a front row seat to the mistakes of unskilled authors.  Flat dialogue. Terrible description. Non-sensical plots.  Too much or too little exposition. Overwriting. Underwriting.  Lack of word variety.  But my descriptions are not doing this justice.  Nothing can make you appreciate a good book until you read a bad one.  

           That may well be a problem with your old High School English class.  Remember how Mrs. Jones gave you great works to read by Shakespeare, Dickens, Twain, Melville?  Works with enough genius and profound insight to withstand the test of time? But if she had you read, say, the short stories left behind by the previous graduating class, maybe you'd have an appreciation for the type of dreck that ends up on the desk of an overworked, underpaid editorial assistant, in a company that's looking for one good manuscript in a pile of a thousand bad ones.  

           It's a life changing experience.  And if you realize that when you submit your own query for publication, even if your work is wonderful, it's going to be tough for that intern to pick it out from the other incoming envelopes. Needle in a haystack indeed! And how do you really know that you're better than the rest?  

           And I ask the same questions of myself: Do I have talent?  Or am I just another egomaniac, hoping that my little thimbleful of ability can compete with the likes of a  J.K. Rowling or a Steven King, let alone the literary voices that still echo from previous centuries?  Sounds awfully presumptuous on my part, even if I recognize that at one point, King and Rowling were also first time writers, and undiscovered.  

           When you become conscious of what the incoming manuscripts are like for the editing company, it may grant a bit of humility to your own efforts.  Not that I'm saying you should give up writing.  Every author hopes that they're the cultural inheritors of an J.R. Tolkien, or a Virginia Woolf.  But we may be another Joe and Jane Unknown Writer, fated to obscurity. So be it.  It is a hard but necessary lesson to learn that the world doesn't revolve around us.  

           #3 Literacy

           Let's be honest: we have moved from a literary culture to a visual one.  Television is accessible to all.  And if not TV, there are movies, video games, and other modes where moving images replace using your eyes to track the printed word.  

           The worst offenders of the above slush pile are those, I think, spend their time watching television, to the point that they can tell you more about the Kardashians than the works of Agatha Christie. (By the way, can someone tell me who the Kardashians are, and why people pay attention to them?)  

           I don't make any claims to be widely familiar with the literary canon, and I am conscious of large gaps in my own reading history.  And I am aware of how many hours I misuse in my leisure time that could be better spent with books. Still, I do remember reading Crime and Punishment and Don Quixote  during long commutes aboard the New York subways.  Not to mention Moby Dick, Treasure Island and the Bible during my dead time in one of the most boring jobs I ever had.  And though I was a little old for Harry Potter when it came out, I still made my way through the series.  It's foolish to be unaware of a cultural phenomenon, past or present. 

           Ah, but here I am again, offering criticism for potential writers, in the form of pointing out the same bad habits I struggle with.  And who am I to be giving this sort of advice?  Is this just my pedantic side of me, the part that wants to lecture and sound high minded, without giving actual description of the craft?

           Maybe so.  So tell you what.  I'll write another essay soon, on some of my personal tricks that probably won't work for anyone else but me.  Call it my coming attraction.