“Language is the expression by a speaker of his intentions. Its origin is in the desire to convey meaning, and it must become a habit on the portion of the body that produces it: that is, the tongue.” – The Muqaddimah of Ibn Khaldun
I first found that quote at the head of one of the chapters to one of my favorite books by Laurie R. King, O Jerusalem. It struck a chord with me, and also got me thinking about writing and practice. He was right, Ibn Khaldun. How could I expect to be an author, if language and writing were not a habit I cultivated?
Practice makes one, if not perfect, certainly more skillful. I’ve heard that you don’t get published until you’ve written a million words. Fortunately, writing is not only my passion, it’s also a substantial part of my day job as well. Although I can’t tell you whether or not the million word thing is an urban legend, since I’m pretty sure between work and fiction I’ve written well over a million words, and since I’ll be self-publishing, I guess you could say there’s the ring of truth to it one way or another.
From that million words and counting, I’ve learned two things that helped me to make writing and language a habit.
The first thing I learned is that I never really understood English until I learned another language. I learned English like all babies learn their native language. I learned it long before any schooling by hearing everybody around me speak it.
We’ve all sat through English class learning how to parse sentences and identify subjects and verbs. But you pass your English tests in part, because you know when something looks or sounds wrong. It’s in your blood by the time you hit school. You know it’s “I am” and not “I are” because it sounds wrong to say “I are”. Nobody ever says “I are” (unless you’re me, and you’re being a smart alec). English class often felt frustrating for me, at least the grammar part, because that little gorilla in my head kept saying “I know it’s “I am” already…this is boring…can we move on to reading Once and Future King, please?”
But the problem was, I understood that language worked, but not why it worked. Dangerous thing for someone who wanted to grow up to be an author…like building a pyramid on Jell-O. One good quake and the strongest structure known to man falls to pieces.
The light bulb finally went on in high school. I was sitting in Spanish class learning how to conjugate subjunctive verbs. Okay, I geek out a bit over conjugating the subjunctive because it’s hard to do, and even harder to do right. When I finally figured out the trick of how the letters and endings changed on the Spanish verbs, I was inordinately pleased with myself. But while I was sitting there in class, conjugating away, a lightning bolt hit me in the head… Yes it was painful… All of a sudden, I realized that there’s subjunctive IN ENGLISH!!!
I had seen it on TV the night before – the cowardly lion in the Wizard of Oz! He sang “If I were king of the forest…” Not “If I was king of the forest.” And even more of a woohoo moment, I realized why he said it that way. It was a wish. He wasn’t actually king of the forest, he was just dreaming about it. Subjunctive is for wishing. WOW!!! I got it. I truly got it. OK, I see you scratching your head out there, me going gaga over something so obvious, but for me it was a life changer.
I was so excited by my epiphany that I started looking at all the other things I was learning in my foreign language classes. And I found another one! German has sixteen ways to say “the”. Another lightning bolt. ENGLISH has sixteen ways to say “the” but we just spell them all the same way so you can’t tell the difference between them anymore! Choirs sang. Sunlight poured down. I felt I had just learned the secret of the universe. Learning a foreign language is the absolute best thing I’ve found to help me really understand my native tongue.
On to the second thing I learned. This one came from Novel and Film, one of our high school English electives. Mr. Metzger had the most diabolical rules for our essays. First, pick a movie. Any movie you like. And write a paper on it. Sounds easy? Not quite…
All of them had to have exactly the same format. The opening of the paper had to clearly, concisely, and completely lay out the entire plot of the movie in exactly eight sentences using only three “be verbs.” No cheating. You couldn’t describe the plot of Hamlet as “everybody goes nuts and dies”. You had to hit all the plot points. And he would ding you on your score for any run-on sentences that weren’t constructed properly. It’s much harder than it looks. Doing Jaws was hard enough, but try explaining all the twists and turns in Inception in eight sentences.
This exercise, more than any other, taught me how to build strong sentences, and introduced me to my favorite punctuation mark…the semicolon. All hail the semicolon, for he is small but mighty!
Next you had to analyze three scenes from the movie, talking about everything from camera angles to metaphors. You had to describe how that scene not only moved the plot forward, but how the director passed critical information to the viewer without words. How did the director make a particular scene scary, or happy, or suspenseful, or depressing?
The second part of the exercise really hammered home the advice all editors and writing books give to fledglings: show don’t tell. One of the aha moments I had for this was in when the Orca was out at sea before the shark had arrived on the scene. By showing Matt Hooper crushing the Dixie cup in his hand as a response to Quint crushing the beer can, Steven Spielberg showed the character of each man more eloquently than any amount of dialog would have done.
By watching how the directors told an author’s story visually, I also learned that everything in your plot should have a purpose. Chekov (Anton, not Pavel) and Scooby Doo are alike in that way. If Chekov had a gun by the front door in one of his plays, the gun had to go off by the end of Act III. If Scooby Doo met old Mr. Hanson in the beginning of the episode, you could pretty much bet he was the guy in the mask at the end.
I will still pick a movie every now and again and do this exercise for practice. Practice makes one, if not perfect, a little more skillful. And how do you get to Carnegie Hall (or to the top of the bestseller list)? Practice, Man, Practice.