Books | Eight more insights from the Hank the Cowdog School of Writing
by John R. Erickson
Posted 1/19/19, 08:05 am
In 2009, Maverick Books published John R. Erickson’s Story Craft: Reflections of Faith, Culture and Writing from the Author of Hank of the Cowdog. With permission from the publisher, we’ve posted in our Saturday Series a chapter a month since August. Last month, we shared Erickson’s “Eight Keys to Good Writing.” In our final posting, he lists “Eight Traits of Good Writers,” which, in the book, started with a quotation from Nancy Pearcey’s Total Truth: “The best way to drive out a bad worldview is by offering a good one, and Christians need to move beyond criticizing culture to creating culture.” —Marvin Olasky
Eight Traits of Good Writers
1. Aspiring writers should be producers, not consumers.
We could list several reasons why aspiring writers, especially Christians, should limit their use of television, but for our purposes, we can trim the argument down to one main point: Watching television is a passive experience that turns the viewer into a consumer rather than a producer.
Anyone who claims to have ambitions of becoming a writer can’t afford the luxury of being a heavy consumer of entertainment.
Television is only one of many time-wasters. Modern society offers us a host of others: email, the internet, video games, iPods, movies, cellular phones, amusement parks, sporting events, and beer gardens.
Our society is a consumer’s paradise, but when you’re consuming, you’re not producing. A writer must produce.
2. Writers learn to write by writing.
At the University of Texas, I had a friend who once told me, “I’m thinking of going to Mexico to do some writing.” I didn’t know much about the writing profession back then, but I found myself wondering what kind of special magic he would find in Mexico. If he wanted to write, why couldn’t he do it in Austin?
My friend was what we might call a “professional non-writer.” I haven’t seen him since the sixties, but I would bet that if he went to Mexico, he read a few novels and wrote exactly as much as he’d written in Austin. Nothing. If you met him at a social gathering today, he’d probably tell you that he’s still thinking of going to Mexico to do some writing.
When I encounter people who say they want to become writers, I ask, “Are you writing now?” If the answer is no, I don’t have much to say. Writers don’t talk about writing or read about it or dream about it or take courses. They do it.
Talkers talk. Dreamers dream. Writers write.
To write, you don’t need a college degree, a license from the state, a financial statement, a credit report, a foundation grant, or a note from your mother. You don’t need a laptop computer, an office, or even a desk.
All you need is a pencil and a pad of paper. Oh, and it helps if you have something to say.
3. A writer should have something to say.
I once did a program at a homeschool convention. After the program, I sat at a booth and signed books. A twelve-year-old boy came striding up and tried to give me a manuscript. (I declined the offer.) He announced, “I’ve written a novel and I want you to help me get it published.” His father walked up just then, beaming with pride.
Clearly, I was in the presence of a young genius. Early achievement and fatherly pride are worthy of praise, but the realist in me wanted to say, “So you’ve written a novel at the age of twelve. That’s pretty amazing. In your twelve years on this earth, what have you done that is worth a reader’s time and money? What stories do you have to tell?”
That’s what I wanted to say but didn’t. The last thing a young novelist wants to hear is that he might not be a genius.
Content is the most important ingredient in good writing. “Content” means “something to say, a story that needs to be told.” At the age of twelve, Mozart was writing operas, but most of us don’t have great music or great stories inside us at such a tender age. Sometimes it takes decades for those stories to take shape. Sometimes they don’t come at all.
You can teach students to compose sentences that are solid and honest, but how do you teach them to put life into their words? Where do we find stories?
I found story material working as a ranch cowboy. Louis L’Amour worked as a prizefighter, lumberjack, and hunting guide. Mark Twain drove steamboats on the Mississippi River and panned for gold in California. Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent a decade in the Soviet gulag. Dostoyevsky served time in a czarist prison. Arthur Conan Doyle worked as a ship’s doctor and made long voyages to Africa and the Arctic. Herman Wouk served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.
But we don’t always have to visit exotic locations to find stories. Novelist Elmer Kelton spent his youth on an isolated ranch in West Texas and later worked as an agricultural journalist. Poet Baxter Black started out as a large-animal veterinarian, as did Ben K. Green. Many writers have discovered characters and stories through their work as teachers, lawyers, doctors, nurses, social workers, or ministers. Erma Bombeck found delightful stories in a place where most people would never think of looking, in the daily experiences of a suburban housewife and mother.
Oftentimes, story material is right in front of us, and all we have to do is open our eyes and notice it—at weddings and funerals; in a church, airport, supermarket, or hospital room; at a rodeo or family reunion. The common thread in all these examples is that we’re not sitting around watching television or playing video games. We’re not merely describing the wallpaper in our bedroom or the pattern of our brainwaves.
Before we write, we should live.
Somewhere in this big world, there may be a twelve-year old who has stories worth telling, but most of us need to spend some time accumulating experience, and maybe wisdom too, from some sort of activity outside of ourselves: building a house, punching cows, baking bread, comforting a sick child, burying loved ones, raising a garden, laughing at dogs, gazing at the stars, keeping a marriage strong.
The easy part of writing is the writing. The hard part is finding something to say that is worth a reader’s time.
4. Good writers revise and polish.
Our English teachers were right about this. Your first draft might be pretty good, but it doesn’t reach perfection until you revise and polish. Young writers don’t want to hear that, but it’s true.
We can use the present volume as an example. I wrote the first draft in two months but spent the next year and a half revising: adding, subtracting, polishing, refining, simplifying, clarifying. I would guess that I made at least fifty passes through the text, and I continued the process right up to the last possible moment.
The chapter on structure was the most difficult piece of writing I’ve ever attempted, because it required a kind of non-fiction thought process that isn’t my usual mode. I had to describe the intuitive process of writing humorous novels, using the language of a theologian or a scientist. I can’t even guess how many times I read and re-read those pages, but with every revision, it got tighter, sharper, clearer, and better—I hope.
Most of my Hank the Cowdog books sit for three years before they appear in print. During that time, I might go back and do twenty revisions. After the first couple of passes, I’m not making structural changes but rather small revisions that enhance the rhythm and texture of the sentences.
“Rhythm” is not an easy concept to explain. I don’t know that every writer has a sense of rhythm in language, but I certainly do, perhaps because I so often read my stories aloud. When an editor changes my text, I know it immediately. I can feel it, and most of the time it doesn’t feel right. The editor might have changed the text for legitimate reasons, but, to me, it alters the flow of the words and makes them less musical.
The “texture” of a piece of writing is easier to describe, and we can find an analogy in a piece of furniture, such as a table. When you run your hand over the surface of a well-made table, you don’t encounter snags, splinters, or bumps. The surface has been sanded and buffed so many times, it is perfectly smooth. That is the kind of texture I hope to achieve in a story. The language has been polished to such a high gloss that the reader’s mind never hits a snag.
Another analogy would be a waterslide at an amusement park. Once you enter the slide at the top, you go flying all the way to the bottom. In a story, your mind flies over the words and, before you know it, you’ve reached the last page. I suspect that texture is important to me because I’ve always been a slow reader. I look for ways of making the reading process as pleasant as possible.
The first draft of a story is the equivalent of a table that has been assembled. The wood has been measured and cut, the screws installed, the joints fitted, the legs leveled. The structure is sound and functional. You could eat on the table at this point, but you could also get splinters in your hands and elbows.
5. Good writers read but don’t neglect experience.
Writers are often avid readers and are prone to gather story material from books rather than from first-hand experience. Sometimes that works well (it didn’t turn out badly for Margaret Mitchell, who never served a minute in the Confederate Army, or for C.S. Lewis, a professor and voracious reader), but sometimes it produces a kind of infinite regress, like images in a hall of mirrors: books that reflect other books and writers who reflect the insights of other writers.
Back in the seventies, when I was experimenting with different types of writing, I spent a whole year writing a thousand-page novel about the Comanche and Kiowa Indians and their struggles against the encroachment of Anglo settlers in the 1870s. To accomplish that, I had to acquire a small library of sources on that period.
I thought the novel was brilliant (naturally), until I attended a writers’ convention and met five other authors who had written the same kind of novel, using the same twenty books that had made me an expert on frontier history.
All at once it struck me that none of us had any first-hand experience with the subject, were writing about something we really didn’t know, and were dressing up our ignorance with someone else’s research.
I don’t know what happened to those other novels, but mine still sits in a box in my office, and I’m pretty sure that’s where it belongs. Reading can expand our horizons and deepen our knowledge of the universe, but we shouldn’t neglect hands-on experience as a source of story material.
6. Good writers use the subconscious mind.
When I was young, my father sometimes talked about solving problems in his sleep, and he was a firm believer in “sleeping” on a major decision. I didn’t pay much attention to this and saw no evidence of it in my own life until I was grown and trying to make a living as a writer.
Somewhere around the age of forty, I began to notice. I would take an unresolved problem to bed and wake up in the middle of the night with a strong conviction that I should take a certain action. The action itself wasn’t always new or surprising. Often, it had been one of several options I had thought about during the day, but somehow my sleeping mind had ended the debate and rendered a clear verdict.
I have made some important business decisions in this manner, including my decision in 1990 to buy a 6,000-acre ranch that we really couldn’t afford. For weeks, I wrestled with the numbers, my mood making wild swings from sheer joy to sheer terror. Then I woke up in the night with one clear thought: This opportunity would never come along again in my lifetime, and we had to figure out a way to buy the place.
We did and paid it off twelve years later. It remains one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.
My subconscious mind has also helped me write songs and solve plot problems in my novels and screenplays, and these insights seem to come out of nowhere. Sometimes I get out of bed and write them down, and sometimes I don’t. I can’t say they’ve all been useful, but most of them have been.
Ordinary life is loaded with miraculous events, if we pause long enough to notice them. It’s a miracle that we can walk across the room, coordinating the movement of billions of cells, nerves, and muscle fibers. It’s a miracle that anyone can play the piano, type a letter, fall in love, and survive the assault of a common cold, and we can add “nighttime writing” to the list.
I am struck with wonder that a portion of my mind, over which I seem to have no control, is working in my behalf when the rest of me has shut down for the night.
I don’t understand the subconscious mind—where it resides, how it functions, or why it chooses to bless my life instead of causing mischief. I’m content to view it as yet another breathtaking marvel in God’s creation, and I’m glad to use it in my vocation as a crafter of stories.
I suspect that most of us have this … whatever we call it: gift, talent, skill, or blessing, and it can be very useful for people who are involved in creative professions. When “someone” is working nights to help you write good stories, and not asking for overtime pay, it’s a pretty sweet deal.
How do we cultivate the subconscious mind? I can only suggest that it might help to live by the Ten Commandments, go to bed with a clear conscience, get adequate sleep, and pay attention to those insights that come in the middle of the night.
7. Good writers are disciplined: perspiration vs. inspiration.
When I do programs in schools, I usually leave some time for kids to ask questions. They are curious about where my Hank the Cowdog stories came from and, almost without fail, will ask the question in the same manner: “What inspired you to write the Hank stories?”
It amuses me that they think of writing in terms of inspiration. I wrote my first Hank story as an article for The Cattleman magazine and my “inspiration” was money, sixty-five bucks, that I needed to support a wife and two small children.
A plumber doesn’t wait for inspiration to lay a water line. A surgeon doesn’t have to be inspired to remove an appendix, and a professional writer doesn’t sit around waiting for the muse to whisper in his ear. He has to make his own inspiration, and that happens when he follows a pattern of disciplined work.
When I’m asked how long I’ve been writing, I say that I began in 1967, the year Kris and I joined our lives together in marriage. Before Kris, I wrote when I had an idea or felt inspired. After Kris, I wrote every day—same time, same place, a pattern I still follow forty-two years later.
This morning, I rose at five o’clock, joined my dog Tango at the front door, and walked 400 yards to my little writing office. It was black dark, so I had to use a flashlight. On reaching the office, I turned on the lights, started coffee brewing, and turned on my laptop computer. When the coffee was ready, I poured myself a cup and started working on this project, while Tango chased moths out on the screened porch.
I don’t know if I was inspired or not. I didn’t stop to think about it. I began writing because that is what I do every morning at this time. The routine takes the place of inspiration.
8. Good writers know that every story isn’t worth writing.
Young writers have to figure out what they should write about. What is a proper subject? Out of all the characters we meet in an average week, which ones will make good characters in good stories? Many writers, even Christian writers, would say that any portion of human experience can be a proper subject for a novel or screenplay. I don’t agree.
When I first began tinkering with the idea of being a writer, it never occurred to me that I could or should write about my own background. On Mother’s side, I came from a long line of cowboys, ranchers, and pioneers in West Texas, and grew up in a small farming and ranching community in the Texas Panhandle. I was pretty sure that rural West Texas had never produced anything worth writing about, so after high school, I left town with no intention of ever going back.
I headed for the big lights of New York City and later spent two years in Cambridge, Massachusetts. For years, I tried to write novels that dealt with city people, city life, and city problems. Naturally, I thought my novels were brilliant (I was one of those little geniuses), but they weren’t. They were dark, depressing, and false, and I’m thankful that none was ever published.
Some people can write well about life in the city, but I wasn’t one of them. I loved New York City, with all its noise and soot and shoving crowds, its rainbow of cultures, and the hubris of its architecture. But I wasn’t able to turn that material into stories that had structure and coherence. What I experienced in cities wasn’t worth writing about, and it’s too bad that it took me so long to figure it out.
I made another error that grew out of a comment I heard in a college writing class. One of my fellow students, who seemed pretty sharp, said, “If you want to study human nature, you need to work as a bartender.”
I did that. For three years, back in Texas, I poured shots and observed human nature in a noisy laboratory fogged with cigarette smoke. I studied the employees and customers and made brief notes on cocktail napkins. Later, I wrote them up as character sketches. After three years, I had filled two ring-binder notebooks with typed notes … and to this day, thirty-five years later, I have never used one word from those sketches.
Why? Because in a cocktail lounge, you never see human nature at its best. When people are being served in a setting of leisure, they tend to become self-absorbed, demanding, ungrateful, loud, shallow, vulgar, and overbearing. Liquor makes them worse, transforming good citizens into noisy caricatures who chatter and have little to say.
If you want to study human nature, go where people work, not where they play. The part of human nature that is revealed in a bar is exactly the part we want to hide when we’re sober, and should. It’s mostly shallow and depressing, and I found that it wasn’t worth writing about.
A lot of human experience isn’t worth writing about, and that is an important insight. Everything we do is not worth repeating, and every human activity doesn’t lend itself to the discipline of story structure. A story is not merely a videotape of human encounters. A story, properly done, imposes structure on human experience and gives it a shape that reveals order, justice, and value.
From Story Craft: Reflections of Faith, Culture and Writing from the Author of Hank of the Cowdog by John R. Erickson. © 2009. Published by Maverick Books. Used with permission. All rights reserved.