Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Best Advice I Ever Got

By Man Martin

“Experience is a dear teacher, but a fool will learn by no other,” Benjamin Franklin

I am a school teacher, and one thing life has taught me is that you have to be very careful what you say around students. The same child who cannot master a simple lesson you have drilled into his head for three weeks will be able to recall verbatim a random wisecrack you made in passing and quote it back to you, often in the context of a parent-teacher conference.

I myself, who have been educated to within an inch of my life, have often taken away more from a teacher’s passing comment than from all the carefully planned curriculum on earth, largely because most of what writing teachers have to offer is advice, and I have never been good at taking advice. This is not owing to a lack of good advice coming in at regular intervals from all sides. I am not proud of the fact I’m not good at taking advice. Had I taken advice, my teeth would be whiter, my cholesterol lower, my waist slimmer, my bank balance fatter. But, like I said, I’m not good at taking advice.

I do not know if this is because I’m cocksure, stubborn, or just a slow learner. Certainly being a slow learner is part of it. Usually I appreciate the value of advice – “Check your tire pressure every week” – only when I’m already stranded on the side of a long, deserted stretch of black top with a broken jack and a spare that is – also – flat.

I have received boo-coos of writing advice, all of which I’ve ignored, which is understandable enough when it comes unasked from friends and family, but which is downright inexplicable when it comes from respected professionals whom I’ve paid, at least in part, for the valuable advice they offer. I’m talking here about college professors under whom I’ve studied writing and who must have on more than one occasion shaken their heads in pained wonderment at my mulish stubbornness, persisting in doing things the way I want to do, dammit, and not listening to their seasoned wisdom which would have made my task lighter in oh, so many ways.

Or if not lighter, at least more productive.

Tonight as I type this the advice that comes to mind is from my dear teacher Tony Grooms. Grooms, author of Trouble No More and Bombingham, was one of my writing teachers at Kennesaw State University and taught me many things. He taught me the essential quality of a character is that he or she must care about something. “It doesn’t matter as much whether they care about their lover, their children, or their rosebushes, but they have to care about something or the reader won’t care about them.” He also said that while an ambiguous phrase might be very nice in poetry, it should probably be avoided in fiction. Clarity is the sine qua non of fiction. Next to characters we can care about, what the reader wants to know is just exactly what the hell is going on.

But all of this wisdom, plus much more besides, wisdom that I heard and neglected until I’d pounded my own fool head against the concrete for myself, testing that, yes, pounding your head on concrete probably is a bad idea and something that should be desisted from in future – Tony also warned me against excessive cleverness or “cuteness” in my writing, a lesson I may never learn – the thing that sticks in my head is one phrase.

Two hundred words a day.

He said this in an off-hand way during a summer workshop. He had graciously opened his home to his class, and we met there weekly to exchange and critique stories. It was there I debuted the first chapter of Long Gone, my novel and Masters Thesis, the only copies of which sit on a shelf somewhere in the KSU Library. The thing was never published and never will be; it was what we euphemistically call a “learning novel.” Too much ambiguity and the characters didn’t care about anything, is my post-mortem diagnosis.

Anyway, one summer afternoon before or after workshop when I was enviously admiring the tomatoes he’d already gotten from his garden long before ours were ripe, he said apropos of nothing much, “If you wrote just two hundred words a day, at the end of a year, you’d have a seventy-thousand word novel.”

He said this in the most casual way imaginable, a man nonchalantly observing that three hundred sixty-five times two hundred is seventy thousand, but what a light bulb went off in my head! Two hundred words a day. Anybody could do that! I could do that!

Thank you, Tony.

I have written two novels and am well into a third. Given my nature, I have had to learn the other lessons you taught me the hard way, pounding my head over and over against stubborn realities until the stubborn realities sank in. Stubborn Realities: 1, Head: 0. But I was able to learn what little I have because of that other thing. The two hundred word thing. I know I have a lot more to learn, and God willing, I’ll learn at least some of it before I die. But if I do, I’ll learn the hard way. Pounding my head. Pounding my head. Pounding my head.

Two hundred words a day.

Man Martin is the award-winning author of Days of the Endless Corvette and Scoring Bertram Wiggly, a novella.  His second novel, Paradise Dogs, was selected by Atlanta Magazine's December "Best Of" issue, as one of the top five novels for 2011.  He is writing a third novel, 200 words a day.  He blogs at


Shari Smith said...

I love that; the reader will only care about them if they care about something. Great advice. That is advice I can learn from, Man. That thing about commas and shortening run on sentences,I cain;t stand THAT sort of help.

Shari Smith

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Andy Straka said...

Great post. Great advice, especially about characters. Characters who care about something drive every story worth reading, and it's obvious from your words that you care very deeply about your writing, your students, and mentors from your past.

JLC said...

Anyone seriously trying to write has to agree with everything in this post, including the insistence on not automatically adopting anyone's advice. There's one thing you left out, though--nothing is as likely to let you now you're right than a contract--preferably from a "traditional" publisher. Congratulations!

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