I learn something new in every article or book I write, but perhaps never as much as I learned while composing my latest book, The Bard and the Bible: A Shakespeare Devotional, a book of daily reflections drawn from a quote from Shakespeare and a verse from the King James Bible (created in the same period and the same city as Shakespeare’s works). Writing that book was not only stimulating but also educational. Because even after more than forty books, hundreds of articles, and thousands of blog posts, I learned from the Bard of Avon at least eight crucial and valuable lessons:
This guest post is by Bob Hostetler. Hostetler is a self-confessed Shakespeare nut, award-winning writer and speaker from southwestern Ohio. His 45 books include the historical novel, Northkill, and the one-year devotional, The Bard and the Bible. Bob and his wife, Robin, have two grown children and five perfect grandchildren.
Visit him at bobhostetler.com.
Study thy Craft
No one knows when Shakespeare started writing poems and plays. Scholars are pretty sure, however, that he became an actor first, probably between 1585 and 1587. There is no indication that he was a great actor, but he probably learned stagecraft and playwrighting while trodding the boards as a young apprentice. In so doing, he probably learned from the likes of John Lyly, Thomas Kyd, and Christopher “Kit” Marlowe—the best of his day.
I am sometimes approached by people at writer’s conferences who say something like, “I’d really like to write fantasy.” So I ask who their favorite authors are, and they reply, “Oh, I don’t read that much fantasy.”
Seems to me that’s part of knowing your craft.
If you don’t read voraciously in your genre, pick another genre. If your grammar needs work, take a class or read a book. Subscribe to Writer’s Digest. Absorb The Elements of Style, On Writing Well, Stephen King’s On Writing, Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, and everything else you can find about the craft of writing. Read blogs like this one. Make writer’s conferences a part of your growth strategy. Enlist a good critique partner.
Know thy Audience
Shakespeare knew exactly who would be in the audience, from the “groundlings” to the nobility. He injected specific elements into his writing for each part of his audience, and may even have revised his plays when they were presented at court (as opposed to in the countryside or theaters).
What is true of his plays is also true of his poetry. Many of his sonnets, for example, were clearly written for a specific person in a specific situation. So be that specific in identifying and writing for your audience. You can’t and you shouldn’t write for everyone. You need a target to shoot at, an audience to play off, a clear picture of who your reader is for any given project.
Take the time to find the best word
Do not dip your pen in an inkwell of ordinary language. Take the time and trouble to find the best word, the just-so turn of a phrase, as Shakespeare did in one of his most justifiably famous scenes, as the dying nobleman John of Gaunt describes his homeland:
This royal throne of kings, this scepter’d isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for herself
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in the silver sea,
Which serves it in the office of a wall,
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England
(Richard II, II, 1).
Maybe those words came to Shakespeare in a rush of inspiration. . . or maybe he polished them until they shone like that. However it happened, he found just the right words, words that would be imitated and quoted often by his contemporaries and by generations to come.
You have tools Shakespeare lacked: a thesaurus and Google and probably a larger library than Shakespeare, who never owned more than a hundred books. So take the time to find the word that best expresses what you want to say.
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Find thy Funny Bone
Shakespeare’s reputation was made on his early histories, the tales of kings and wars and death and succession. But he would not have had done so well if he had neglected the funny bone and never created Falstaff, the fat knight, or Mistress Quickly, the innkeeper.
In fact, you could say that Shakespeare invented both the stage musical and the romantic comedy. He used humor everywhere in his plays. He wrote scenes for specific company “clowns,” writing to their particular talents. He even inserted comic relief into his darkest tragedies, like Macbeth and Hamlet.
“But I’m no comedian,” you might say. You don’t have to be. Start with what makes you smile or chuckle. Use surprise, exaggeration, and unlikely combinations. You don’t have to get readers to laugh out loud, but lighten things up occasionally. And remember that humor always works best when it has an element of truth.
Do Something New
Shakespeare started his career where others did—imitating Chaucher, Milton, Spencer, and others. He not only borrowed and stole from other writers (as everyone did back then), but also chose subjects to compete simultaneously with competitors’ plays. What set him apart from everyone else, however, were his powers of innovation. He invented new words. He coined memorable phrases. He took old plots and gave them new twists.
In earlier versions of King Lear, for example, the tale ended happily. In Macbeth, he borrowed characters from different periods of history. In Othello, he made the noble African of the title a Christian instead of a Muslim, as would have been expected.
Whatever you’re writing, ask: what’s new about it? What’s fresh? Are you breaking new ground or at least putting a new twist on something?
Roll with the Punches
Shakespeare was just getting started as a player and playwright when London’s theaters were closed in June 1592 due to an outbreak of the plague. Suddenly, there were no theaters in which to perform and no crowds to applaud.
The theater closings—which happened several times during his career—totally erased his source of income. So what did he do? He may have returned to Stratford-upon-Avon to see his family. He may have traveled with his theater company through the English countryside. We don’t know, but we do know that he produced two long poems for patronage and publication during that period: Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece, which became his first published works and probably established his reputation as not only a “player” and playwright but also as a poet.
When the theaters close, you turn from plays to poems.
You have to learn to make adjustments as a writer. If you hit a roadblock, strike out in a new direction. Try another market. A different genre. A fresh tactic.
Most would agree that Shakespeare’s most famous words are Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy. But did you know that famous speech exists in at least three versions? The differences suggest that Shakespeare was still rewriting and revising long after his plays were produced.
Similarly, the modern text of King Lear is based on three versions, each of which contains lines not found in the others, suggesting that Shakespeare revised the play more than once.
All good writing is rewritten. And great writing is rewritten many times—even for someone as gifted as Shakespeare. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.
Never ever send “foul papers” to an editor or agent. Like Shakespeare and his contemporaries, your first draft should be rightly called “foul papers,” and it takes many “foul papers” to produce a “fair paper,” as they called the production draft.
Write to Change Minds and Lives
The predecessors of Shylock in the Merchant of Venice (in plays with titles like The Jew and The Jew of Malta) were characters that inspired only contempt. But Shakespeare crafted a far more complicated, even sympathetic character, while depicting the ugliness of vengeance and beauty of mercy.
Othello is a compelling warning against jealousy. Measure for Measure borrows from Jesus’ words about refraining from uncharitable judgment of others. The Taming of the Shrew, while it offends twenty-first century standards, actually challenged Elizabethan beliefs and practices relating to marriage.
So how will your next piece of writing change minds and lives? How will the reader be better off for reading what you wrote? Realistically? Specifically?
Stephen King says, “Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates . . . or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.”
John Green says he writes to “build a fire in the darkness.”
So how will your next piece of writing change a mind? Enrich a life? Light a fire?
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift book Oh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.