You Want to Write? Read.

I have a confession to make: I don't know when I'm splitting my infinitives.

I can't tell my past perfect tense from my future positive. My technical grammar skills are terrible. Although I know a noun from a verb, and an adjective from an adverb, if you wrote a sentence on the blackboard and asked me to deconstruct it, I couldn't do it.

I blame this on my elementary school and high school education. When I went through the Ontario Public School system, the emphasis was taken right off of English. Shakespeare was no longer taught in grade nine. Grammar was nowhere to be seen after grade six. This drove my mother to distraction, especially when the English representatives at Harbord C.I. told her "we didn't correct our students' grammar because we don't want to stifle the natural creativity of our students."

My own jaw drops to the floor just thinking about this. Excuse me, but you have to know what the rules are before you can break them creatively. The absolutely desperate state of English among first year University students is the direct result of this policy.

So, what the heck am I doing here, writing this blog, writing fan fiction and trying to get a young adult novel published? Well, for that, I credit my high school. Although they did not teach grammar (save for Mr. Walker's "Super Bonehead" grammar game which he played with students on his own time), they did set aside twenty minutes each day for silent, personal, uninterrupted reading (S.P.U.R.). Everybody in school had to read and, to their credit, the English department took this seriously, and incorporated SPUR into their marking structure.

Thus my understanding of grammar is instinctive. I am able to write because I've spent a lot of time seeing how others write. I can hear it in my head when sentences come out right or wrong. It was the best education High School ever gave me.

So, those of you who want to write, the second of piece of advice is as simple as the first: read. Not only will reading help you get the grammar right, reading in the genre you hope to write in will help you write a book that both fits in and stands out.

Kathy Stinson gave this same advice during one of her seminars given while Writer in Residence for the Kitchener Public Library. She said that, contrary to avoiding other books in your genre (which some people do to build their own style and prevent themselves from being influenced by others) reading what others had written was one of the best ways to get ideas for your own story. She actually encouraged us to take ideas written about in other books and run with them.

She was called on this by a startled member of the audience, who asked why this wasn't stealing. The point that she tried to get across (I don't think the student was buying it) was that writing was a path that many people had walked before. No matter what you do, you are going to follow in another's footsteps. Reading those other authors will tell you how not only how to avoid the tiger traps, it could help you identify a less travelled path.

In writing, there are very few totally original plots waiting to be discovered. But there are, however, infinite variations to the plots that have been discovered. Reading will suggest to you what will work and what won't. You will see the ideas developing and, possibly, while the crowd turns left, you may discover a branch that allows you to turn right.

This doesn't just work for plot, but for narrative, dialogue and characterization. Do authors spend much time telling you what the characters think and why, or do they just show you the thinking? Or do they concentrate on the body language associated with the thinking?

You'll only find out through reading.


Google works in mysterious ways. Just by entering the words "Talentless Hack" into my blog, I'm was number 10 on the list of searches when you enter "Talentless Hack" in Google (I'm now number 36).

Years ago, somebody figured out how Google ranked its searches and figured out a way to play with this. With the consent of mutual friend Alan Pressman, they pushed Alan's website to the top of the list under the search "Talentless Hack", just by convincing dozens of other individuals to link to Alan Pressman's site with the words "Talentless Hack" very near that same link.

Now everybody wants to be a Talentless Hack. I actually got traffic out of this.

Weird.

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