Sunday, May 1, 2011

Learning the Craft of Writing

I've met some people who want to write fiction but don't want to spend time learning how to do it. Or more precisely, they think they already know how -- they usually graduated from high school, at least, and many have gone to college, perhaps on to advanced degrees.

We learn to read the written word early, maybe even at age 4 or 5. Reading is magical in a way that no other activity is, opening the door to worlds not even imagined. And then we're taught the physical mechanics of writing, penmanship. I don't know how old I was when I first learned to spell my name. Or how to put letters together to represent the concept of my cat, or hat, dog or log, or boat or coat or any other simple words. But most of us learn to read, and write, well before we hit double digits in age.

And then we use those skills the rest of our lives, every day probably, in small and large ways. We write out numbers on a check, we make out a grocery list, we read the newspaper or a magazine or the instructions on a new gadget or even just the television programming notes.

So when a person is told if she wants to be a fiction writer, she needs to learn how to write, it may not register at first. "I know how to write! I just need to come up with an idea and then get it down on paper." And she may, indeed, get it written down and expect everyone to be impressed.

I don't think that's true of most of other artistic pursuits. No one expects to just sit down and be able to play the piano without lessons, or paint a canvas without knowing how to use the tools, or dance in the local ballet without undergoing years of rigorous training.

So why do we think we can just sit down and write a good story? A story that resonates with others, entertains, is put together in such a way that the reader gets caught up with the characters and wants to keep reading, keep reading, keep reading - and then hopes the writer has written another story to read. Especially with the novel format, the long form of fiction writing.

Perhaps some novelists are inherently good - their first offering out of the gate is a smash with both readers and critics and they go on to have a long, successful career. I imagine the truth is that 99% of professional novelists work hard on their craft, learning from their own efforts and the efforts of others, getting instruction from books and workshops and online groups and always reading, reading, reading to see what works for them.

Yesterday I went to a one-day writers' event, Terroir Creative Writing Festival,  about an hour away. I attended three classes by local novelists and two talks by other local writers, one of them Jean Auel, who just released her sixth, and final, book in the Earth's Children series.

She spoke about her writing, how she just wrote it all down in one big manuscript and then had to go back and make sense of it all. It was her first novel, and she sold it, and that set the stage for the next 30 years. Everyone would call her a successful author. But she took the time to learn to write. She had a story, and then she set out to learn how to write it. She took classes, she read books on writing, she knew she had a lot to learn.

My next couple of posts will, I think, be about the classes I took and what I gathered from them. I hope to put down some actual information rather than rambling thoughts like today.

And other resources I like are posted under the tab above labeled "links for writers." I've started amassing them as an easy reference spot for myself, but maybe you'll find something helpful there, too.


  1. Your points on writing are well taken. I especially appreciate the Links for Writers section of your website. Thanks!

  2. I'm ashamed that it's taken me this long to get to this post. I've been slammed lately. I totally agree that nobody approaches any other artistic endeavor with the idea that they're already an expert. Good point.