Please welcome back Barry Knister, one of our own here on Writer Unboxed. After a career in college teaching, Barry returned to fiction writing. His first novel, a gritty thriller titled The Dating Service had been published by Berkley. More recently, he has self-published a suspense series featuring journalist Brenda Contay. Godsend, the third book in the series was released last month, joining The Anything Goes Girl and Deep North. Barry also published a novel for adult dog lovers, a work of magical realism titled Just Bill. The book will be re-released by BHC Press this spring.
Barry served for four years as secretary of Detroit Working Writers. For two years, he was also the director of the Cranbrook Summer Writers Conference. More recently, he wrote “Let me get this straight,” a weekly column on language for the Naples (Florida) Daily News. He lives in Michigan with his wife Barbara, where they serve as staff for Skylar, an Aussie/Sheltie rescue. Barry wants to hear from you, and hopes you’ll contact him through Facebook or his website.
Back to the Future: How to Use Our Craft’s Own Backstory
In the biopic Genius, Jude Law plays Thomas Wolfe to Colin Firth’s Maxwell Perkins. In one scene, it takes three workers to haul boxes of foolscap manuscript into editor Perkins’ office at Scribner’s. Perkins’ job is to machete his way through this scribbled jungle, and turn Wolfe’s undisciplined effusion into Of Time and the River.
Genius isn’t a very good movie, but the story of what Perkins did, for F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway as well as Thomas Wolfe is the stuff of legend in our time. These days, writers must be their own Maxwell Perkins, their own mentors and critics. They must rely on beta readers, other writers in groups, and professional “hired gun” freelance editors to help them identify and develop the potential in their work.
Light My Fire
And we now also rely on accelerants. Arsonists use accelerants like gasoline to set fires in buildings for which they want to cash in insurance policies. I use accelerants to light charcoal briquettes when I grill.
For readers of Writer Unboxed, the idea of accelerants can be applied to the many aids for speeding up the pace of progress as writers. I’m talking about craft books, workshops, online courses, software, conferences, coaching, and probably half a dozen other strategies and “tools” that have come on the market since I started typing this post.
I am a firm believer in the whatever-works-is-good school of craft development, and I know craft aids are highly valued. Occasionally, I make use of such products, especially when I learn about them through an ethical source like Writer Unboxed. I count Self-editing for Fiction Writers by Dave King and Renni Browne among my most important resources. That goes as well for professional editors who have helped me with manuscripts.
That said, I think it’s worth noting that until recently—say, within the last three decades, a time marked by the rise of self-publishing—the process of learning how to write included almost no such aids. There were summer conferences, but otherwise those who got the writing virus looked to the only remedy available—good examples in the form of published stories and novels.
What Was Then Is Now
Is there any way to preserve this traditional, long-haul approach to mastering craft through reading major works, and the new methodologies of our time? I think there is, and I want to illustrate by way of K.M. Weiland’s annotated edition of Jane Eyre.
Weiland brings a great deal to the table. She is a bestselling author of both novels, and conventional craft books (Structuring Your Novel, Outlining Your Novel, Creating Character Arcs, etc.). But please note: a simple online search for “annotated novels” will give you more options.
When I read Weiland’s edition published by Writers Digest Press, the experience was eye-opening. First, Jane Eyre proved again to be a novel fully deserving of its status as a work in the canon of English literature—a classic. Charlotte Bronte reveals her story with a level of command and perception that can’t be lost on any reader who appreciates those attributes. Second, Weiland’s annotations demonstrated for me how a novel first published in 1847 could serve to illustrate, 170 years later, the structural and stylistic elements widely accepted for novels in our time.
Let me show what I mean. [Read more…]