Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Learning to Write

This may be very basic information for people who are already interested enough in writing to seek out how-to information, but I get a lot of questions about how to become a writer and thought I'd address that topic. Please keep in mind that I am talking about adult commercial or genre fiction here (romance, fantasy, science fiction, mystery, thriller, women's fiction/chick lit, etc.). Literary fiction is a different ballgame, as are non-fiction and children's books.

Writing is the rare career where credentials don't matter all that much when you first start out. When they're considering a first novel, all that really matters is the book. They don't care if you're a high-school dropout if the book is good, and having a PhD probably won't help if the book isn't good. There are some things that may help -- say, if you're writing legal thrillers, a law degree might help because it provides a marketing hook -- but the absence of those things won't hurt as long as the book is good. A truly outstanding, well-researched legal thriller written by a non-lawyer will probably sell over a weak book written by a lawyer (unless the lawyer is famous, high-profile, recently handled a big celebrity case that's been all over the news or has his/her own show on a cable news network). You don't have to submit a resume with your manuscript. Once your first book has been published, they look at your sales numbers.

Of course, the book does have to be good, and that's where training and education may help. There are university programs in creative writing, but if you want to write commercial or genre fiction, they may be more frustrating than helpful because their focus is on literary fiction. You could probably learn something, but there's a good chance you'll get marked down if you turn in genre work. There are also universities that have programs in commercial fiction. The University of Oklahoma has a well-known program, and professors there have written some of the most popular how-to writing books.

But most writers have a less formal education in writing. If they get a degree, it may be in something entirely unrelated that pays the bills until the writing career takes off. And a lot of authors don't think about trying to write until well after they've graduated and are in the workplace. Since writing fiction means writing about people, anything you study that teaches you about people will probably be helpful. I majored in journalism because about the only thing I liked doing that I was at all good at and that might allow me to get a job was write, so I figured I'd learn a way to write for a living while I took a lot of electives that I thought might be helpful in preparing me to be a fantasy or science fiction novelist.

Outside a formal program, there are many, many books on how to write a novel. Look in your library, at the bookstore or search on Amazon. Writer's Digest has a whole series of books on the basics. There are writing workshops, conferences and organizations. Many science fiction conventions offer writing seminars.

But I think the most important thing to do is read. If you don't like reading, this is the wrong business for you. Read widely in your chosen genres so you can get a sense of the genre conventions as well as learning what's stale, what may be fresh and what's a cliche. Read the classics so you know the foundations of the genre (rather than just knowing the copies) and read the very latest books so you know what's going on in the market now. Read outside your genre to get ideas to insert into your genre to make it fresh. Read great literature. Read the bestsellers. You get the idea. I know of a number of bestselling authors who've never taken a course and never read a how-to book. They merely absorbed the sense of what story is by reading a lot.

And then you write. And rewrite. Finish the project (novel or short story). When you think what you've got is ready, submit it to editors or agents, following their submission guidelines. And then write something else.

That last paragraph is the key. You become a writer by writing, and you sell by submitting. That's also the part that trips up most people. They'll go to the conferences, buy the how-to books and talk about writing, but they either don't write or don't finish something and submit it. If you don't submit it, they can't buy it. You'll have to figure out your own threshold for rejection. It's up to you to decide when you've received enough rejections to mean that you don't have what it takes -- but if you do give up, then you probably don't have what it takes. Your first book may not sell. Neither may your second. Or your third. But if you keep writing and keep reading, you'll probably keep getting better. Most of us aren't quite at a professional level the first time we try anything, so why should writing be any different? True, it doesn't take specialized credentials, and it sounds so easy that half the people you meet who find out you're writing a book will say they're going to try that someday. But doing it well and doing enough of it to do it well without giving up is the part that takes work.

Any other questions on writing?

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