Teaching Yourself to Write the Jack London Way

jack londonOnce I made the decision to become a writer, I went after it with everything I had. There would be no going back, no surrender. In this I found myself feeling like one of my writing heroes, Jack London.

London was a self-taught writer who achieved success through an iron will and disciplined production. He also wrote one of the best novels about a writer, the largely autobiographical Martin Eden. There are long sections that get inside the writer’s mind and heart, and also chronicle London’s own efforts as a young man struggling to teach himself to write fiction. I thought I’d share a few of those with you today.

Study, Don’t Just Read, Successful Authors

[Martin] went farther in the matter. Reading the works of men who had arrived, he noted every result achieved by them, and worked out the tricks by which they had been achieved—the tricks of narrative, of exposition, of style, the points of view, the contrasts, the epigrams; and of all these he made lists for study. He did not ape. He sought principles. MartinEdenHe drew up lists of effective and fetching mannerisms, till out of many such, culled from many writers, he was able to induce the general principle of mannerism, and, thus equipped, to cast about for new and original ones of his own, and to weigh and measure and appraise them properly. 

When I started my writing journey I went to a local used bookstore and picked up an armload of thrillers by King, Koontz, Grisham and others. As I read these books I marked them up, wrote in the margins, talked to myself about what I was discovering, made notes about the techniques—sometimes on napkins or other scraps of paper. I still have all these, by the way.

Collect Examples of Style

In similar manner he collected lists of strong phrases, the phrases of living language, phrases that bit like acid and scorched like flame, or that glowed and were mellow and luscious in the midst of the arid desert of common speech. He sought always for the principle that lay behind and beneath. He wanted to know how the thing was done; after that he could do it for himself. He was not content with the fair face of beauty. He dissected beauty in his crowded little bedroom laboratory, where cooking smells alternated with the outer bedlam of the Silva tribe; and, having dissected and learned the anatomy of beauty, he was nearer being able to create beauty itself.

I have a notebook full of examples of great flights of style. I’ve copied, by hand, passages I’ve admired. The object was to get the sound of sentences in my head and expand my stylistic range.

You ought to do the same. Re-read and even speak out loud examples of what John D. MacDonald called “unobtrusive poetry” in the narrative.

You Can’t Learn to Write Just By Writing

He was so made that he could work only with understanding. He could not work blindly, in the dark, ignorant of what he was producing and trusting to chance and the star of his genius that the effect produced should be right and fine. He had no patience with chance effects.

This resonates with me, because I’ve often heard the advice that you should shun craft study and just write. Like you should shun medical school and just perform surgery. I did a whole post on this, and refer you there.

Beware the Perils of Pure Pantsing

He wanted to know why and how. His was deliberate creative genius, and, before he began a story or poem, the thing itself was already alive in his brain, with the end in sight and the means of realizing that end in his conscious possession. Otherwise the effort was doomed to failure.

Jack London knew what he wanted before he started to write. He had plot before beginning and developed the tools to pull it off. Now, I love all you pantsers out there. I want you to succeed. Just beware the perils and trust that your left brain is actually part of your head, too. Give it a listen every once in awhile.

But Don’t Choke Off Inspired Moments

On the other hand, he appreciated the chance effects in words and phrases that came lightly and easily into his brain, and that later stood all tests of beauty and power and developed tremendous and incommunicable connotations. Before such he bowed down and marveled, knowing that they were beyond the deliberate creation of any man. And no matter how much he dissected beauty in search of the principles that underlie beauty and make beauty possible, he was aware, always, of the innermost mystery of beauty to which he did not penetrate and to which no man had ever penetrated.

There are time that something may “work” even if you don’t know why. So go with it, try it, let that character or section of prose fly off your fingertips. Just be ready to “kill the darling” if enough people tell you it ain’t working. I’ve reached for many a metaphor that my lovely wife has told me is more confusing than enlightening. She is almost always right about this.

Embrace the Wonder

He knew full well … that the mystery of beauty was no less than that of life—nay, more that the fibres of beauty and life were intertwisted, and that he himself was but a bit of the same nonunderstandable fabric, twisted of sunshine and star-dust and wonder.

The story of Martin Eden proceeds from this point to a tragic ending. I think it’s because Martin failed to follow his sense of beauty to a Source, and instead succumbed to a meaningless Nietzschean void. That matter is best discussed in a classroom.

For our purposes, keep the magic alive in your writing. Don’t you love being a writer? Doesn’t it feel sometimes that you are made up of sunshine, star-dust and wonder? Yes, there are also times you feel like the tar on the bottom of a dockworker’s boot, but you accept that as the price for feeling the other, don’t you?

How are you teaching yourself to write?

How are you embracing the wonder?

[Note, I’m traveling home from ThrillerFest today, so may not be able to comment much. Talk amongst yourselves!]

15 thoughts on “Teaching Yourself to Write the Jack London Way

  1. How am I teaching myself to write?

    Good question. When I was young and unspoiled, I just wrote my stories. In high-school, they taught me not to use my imagination, but to “compare” and “analyze” stories and texts. That subdued my imagination for decades.

    I’ve always wanted to be a writer. A “real” one, meaning a fiction writer. So I decided to go 20% down in salary to spend one day per week writing and learning the craft. That must have been in 1993 or so. I signed up for a home study course. I did all the exercises and had a short story published.

    After I quit my day-job, I read a lot of books about writing, but I never got further than page 60 before I ran into a block. Non-fiction? Yes. No problem. But fiction… Nope.

    It was only when a mentor kept telling me that I could do it that I finished my first novella. And by then I discovered that learning specific techniques only makes sense when you write. Not when you plan to write.

    Now I teach myself to write better by writing. And by still reading books about the craft (yours for example). And by reading the Kill Zone Blog and other blogs for writers.

    I’ve found that the more I write, the better I like my writings. So that’s a great teacher: writing. That and reading good and bad books.

    I allot a certain amount of time daily for these two things.

  2. Great post~ I must admit my ignorance, tho, to London’s ouvre~ limited as it is the better known _Call of the Wild_, _White Fang_, _The Sea Wolf_, and the short story “To Build a Fire” ~ so thanks for adding to reading bucket-list~ 🙂

    I seem to have stumbled into several of these suggestions, though I don’t recall marking-up fiction reads, except in one case (the book was SO poorly written AND edited~ yet published?),

    As much as I want to “pants”, I’m just OCD enough to want some sense of structure and destination, but I do leave room to chase a rabbit now and then (This kind of traveling frustrates my bride to no end~ but my inate” homing pigeon instinct” usually gets us where we need to be~ again, knowing the destination…).

    And thanks to blogs, especially TKZ, I’ve started reading for “pleasuable-study” ~ both good and bad books (too, Ms. Malka), and it’s made a world of difference to both my writing and my reading~

  3. Jim, great post, as usual.

    Thanks for the reference to London. I believe you had discussed him in a post in the past. I was excited then, because of his interest in agriculture and nature. But after reading more about some of the controversy surrounding him and his philosophical beliefs, I didn’t follow through with more study. But his book, MARTIN EDEN, sounds like something worth studying.

    As to “How are you teaching yourself to write?” I’ve taken correspondence courses. I attend conferences. I’ve read all of your craft books. And I try to spend half my reading time reading craft books.

    What your post today has motivated me to do (as have your instructions in your craft books), is to reread and analyze the successful books. Thanks for hitting me over the head with a 2×4, and finally getting me attention.

  4. Jim, Although I’m one who “flies by the seat of his pants,” I heartily agree with this statement about London’s writing: “…with the end in sight and the means of realizing that end in his conscious possession.” Of course, both these could change as the plot develops, but just sitting down at the computer and starting to write without some sort of road map makes about as much sense as giving typewriters to a roomful of monkeys, then waiting.
    Thanks for all you’ve done (and undoubtedly will do) for writers…oh, and for readers, as well.

  5. In similar manner he collected lists of strong phrases, the phrases of living language, phrases that bit like acid and scorched like flame

    One of the aging performers quoted in Ken Burns’s Jazz series said that musicians who weren’t performing would listen to others to pick up new ideas and sounds they could modify and make their own.

  6. Excellent quotes! I’ve never heard of that London book before, but then, I’m only familiar with his wolf books.

    I’m to the point where I’ve memorized my favorite craft books. The next level for me is to study best sellers and figure out how they do it. I learned loads by consuming the Dresden books and other paranormal romance best sellers. Analyzing them, figuring out how to write compelling description (it always ends in tiny cliffhangers).

  7. Absolutely, I love being a writer. I also love studying the craft. Finding the right balance between those two loves can be a challenge though.

  8. Lately, I’ve been going through novels that are comps to the one I’m writing and underlining passages that strike me. I also use this technique to analyze how much (%- wise) my comp authors use of dialogue vs. internal thoughts vs. setting vs. flashbacks vs. actions– and of course writing roundtables to get new eyes on my passages and a private coach who keeps me on track (I’m losing your protagonist’s voice – where she’s gone?) . Also my husband is threatening to build a new bookcase to contain my craft books. As Bobby Fischer indicated, it takes at least 10,000 hours to master a new skill. You can’t expect to do it by willpower alone.

  9. When I am debating ways to handle something in writing (such as creating a transition, crafting and formatting tricky scenes), I search through the books of authors I respect to see how they handled a similar issue. It’s enormously helpful, and saves me from thrashing about trying to reinvent the wheel on my own.

  10. I learned to write by writing — for school papers, local newspapers, church bulletins, any publication that accepted free writing, and there are lots of them. Most publications got what they paid for when I was learning. But I also dissected great novels — took them apart chapter by chapter, saw where and how they introduced characters, where they changed plots and added cliffhangers to build excitement. I’m still learning, and I read masters like Michael Connelly and Sara Paretsky to help polish my style. I also teach writing classes. I learn by preparing lessons and listening to my students’ questions.

  11. In college freshman English, my instructor told me I had a gift for bad. I don’t know what that means. A gift for gab sounds as if I were taking a sacrifice to an alien deity.

    Later, my undergraduate writing professors taught me craft without they themselves knowing structure. It was sort of a fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants writing education. The message was, “Learn to drive the Volkswagens, and the 747s will come.”

    Later, the late Foster-Harris and the late Jack Bickham, professors of fiction writing at the University of Oklahoma taught me craft and structure. (I had one one-on-one meeting with Mr. Bickham. I treasure that two hours.)

    But the people who taught me how to write have been those who have discovered what structure is, and how to use it. They have helped me through their books and lectures. But as with any art, it is the master craftsmen, writers such as Jack London, who have showed me how to craft all that instruction into actual stories. I am an old man. I’m still learning from the masters. Jack London is one of them.

  12. Could be mis-remembering here, but didn’t Hemingway once admit he learned his craft by dissecting and imitating other admired writers? Then he went one better and, as the choreographer George Balanchine said about creating ballets, he learned what to leave out.

  13. Very nice, Jim. I think you’ve landed on the most critical piece of the writing journey, at least relative to ascending and maintaining the learning curve, one rarely embraced to the degree you describe (unfortunately). This is never really part of the writing conference curriculum, and yet, seeing the principles of craft at work at the hands of the masters cements the learning.

    There’s a flip side, as well, as one encounters the principles of craft and the practice of high art, and it’s even rarer to hear and harder to access. And that is, find a way to read “works-in-process” and/or rejected work of other (perhaps newer) writers. Critique groups, for example. What’s missing, or what’s weak, virtually leaps off the page at you, further cemented that same affirmation you see on the pages of London, Chandler, King, Koontz, Grisham, and James Scott Bell.

  14. Thanks, all, for the great comments. I spent a loooong day getting to JFK and then back to L.A., where I am happily writing my words, the Jack London way.

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