Last week Rebecca Hargreaves, a blogger I follow, asked her readers whether or not she should take an advanced writing class. (http://bit.ly/cwWq2c) This post and the lively comments that ensued got me to thinking about how a writer trains to be a successful writer. As an academic who went through eleven years of post secondary education to become a professional historian, I have always been bemused by the thought that I could become a professional fiction writer without even one college level writing class, yet I suspect my serious lack of formal training is not unusual.
I did take a college extension novel writing class over 20 years ago when I started the first draft of Maids of Misfortune, and I did find the class useful because it taught me how to find agents, write query letters, and generally what to expect in negotiating the landscape of traditional publishing. In addition, the main assignment was to write the conclusion of your proposed novel, and this initial scene remained a beacon, drawing me on, as I wrote the first draft over the next few years.
But for me, my formal training in the craft of writing fiction came from my writer’s critique group, the two agents who worked with me, the comments from editors who reviewed my work, and the books I have read about writing. I have read books about the writing life, about writing dialog, about writing mysteries, about plotting and punctuation, but I had never before read a book that does the following, which is why I would like to highly recommend, The Editor’s Lexicon: Essential Writing Terms for Novelists by Sarah Cypher (Glyd-Evans Press, 2010, 80 pps, $9.95 list price.)
This delightful guide by Sarah Cypher, a writer and professional book editor, is designed to improve the critiquing process by providing definitions and examples of common terms editors use to describe the strengths and weaknesses of a piece of fiction.
For example, if an author gets back a manuscript with the comment on a section that “the pacing of this scene lacked tension, and could be improved by increasing the stakes,” she could look up these three terms in the index of The Editor’s Lexicon and read clear and concise definitions of each term. She would also see well-chosen, and often amusing, examples-either a piece of writing that demonstrated the term, or a comment an editor or reviewer might make.
How I wish The Editor’s Lexicon had existed when I had started fiction. I was familiar with the specialized terminology of academic writing (thesis, evidence, topic sentences, etc), but when I started getting comments on my work from agents and editors, I frequently didn’t know quite what they were asking of me. I remember struggling to understand point of view, or the admonition to cut back on my exposition (historical non-fiction writing is primarily exposition!) This handy book would have shortened my learning curve considerably.
In addition, the organization of The Editor’s Lexicon means it can be used as a short primer on the basic elements of fiction writing. Cypher lists the terms under five sections (premise, theme, voice, plot, character), and if you read through the terms under each section you learn a great deal about each element and the general craft of writing. I even found this useful as a refresher as I began to outline my second mystery.
Finally, the Editor’s Lexicon would have improved the effectiveness of my writer’s group, particularly during the years when the group had writers with a wide range of experience and skill, because a common language would have helped us provide more objective and useful comments on each other’s manuscripts.
While The Editor’s Lexicon: Essential Writing Terms for Novelists will be most helpful to new writers, because it provides such an accessible introduction to fiction writing and the terms editors use, I believe it will become an important tool for any writer or teacher of writing, self-taught or academically trained, who wants to improve their craft.