Monday, December 12, 2011

How I Learned How To Write

"Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose."

When I did that post on whether Indie writers need editors or not, I heard from a few newer writers who were concerned about how to learn writing in this new independent age of writing. The old way provided editors and mentors and all that. How on earth do you learn all on your own?

The first thing to remember (as the French epigram says above) is that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The best way to illustrate that is to to tell you a little about how I floundered my way into writing.

When I was little I played pretend. I learned a heck of a lot from this (as I mentioned in one of my posts about Mary Sue) but I didn't try to write it unless it was a school assignment.

When I was in high school, I wrote for fun. I wrote a children's novel in an old diary. I drew pictures of the stories in my head. I wrote a page or two here or there. These were all awful, and mostly unfinished, and even though Heinlein says you must finish what you start, it really was not a bad thing that these were never finished. For many writers, this period is when you write those embarrassing first books you talk to newbies about.

But what I really wanted was to make movies, so I went into the film program at our local college -- where I was taught nothing about storytelling and script writing. We learned the technology, and how to storyboard -- but even format for a dramatic screenplay was outside of what we learned.

And when I hear young writers say "But how can I do this on my own!?" I recall that time. Because I had no one to mentor me.  Plus, I'm a homebody. And not social.

Most of the films I made in film school were animated, because then I could do the whole thing myself. The whole concept of recruiting a cast and crew was well beyond me. So when I realized that I would have to move to Hollywood to learn even whether I was really interested in what I had to do to make movies, I knew that wasn't the right thing for me.

I was a true auteur: an author -- lone and penniless and on my own, but in charge of my own destiny, as long as that destiny could be made up inside my head.

And I still lived in a tiny town in the midwest where nobody was doing what I did, and there wasn't even an internet yet.

But there was a university and there was a library.

So what did I do?

Before I even decided to be a writer, I was reading interviews with my favorite writers. I used the periodical indices and noted down every reference to Donald Westlake in every magazine in the index. Then I looked up all the ones that my local library had. Then I went to the university library and read everything I could find on microfilm. (NOTE: I wasn't just doing this with author names. The truth was, I'd been doing this for years on favorite movie titles and directors as well. I create my own IMDb in my head.)

Once I decided to be a fiction writer, I subscribed to Writer's Digest and The Writer, and I haunted the MSU library and read every back issue too. After a while I realized that what goes around comes around, and if you read a 5-year cycle of a writing magazine you will have read every bit of advice they have to give.

I also checked out books on writing. My family tended to buy me more fun books about fiction-- for readers -- which were at least as useful as any of the writing books. For instance, my sister got me a book called Murder Ink, The Mystery Reader's Companion, which was a series of fun little essays -- some useful, some silly, some commentary -- which gave me a much greater overview of the mystery field than a dozen of those "how to write a mystery" books put out by Writer's Digest.

And, of course, being in an academic family, I did what came naturally: I took writing classes.

You'll hear a lot of pros tell you not to take college writing classes. They'll tell you they're useless, because they give you awful advice about the business of publishing. But let's face it, an indie writer doesn't need to know how to submit manuscripts and negotiate a contract -- and can easily pick up that information from blogs and magazines and books.

But a face-to-face writing class gives you something else: people. People who will respond with extreme prejudice (that's what people are good at). They'll laugh at your jokes, or not get your jokes. They'll obess over nonsense, and give you insight into just how many different ways people can misinterpret your work -- but they'll also show you they "get it" and that you actually nailed it.

They also give you deadlines and criteria to meet. They force you to treat writing as a job.

And best of all, you can (and should) change teachers from semester to semester to be sure you get different points of view. This is different than an ongoing writer's group (online or face-to-face) which doesn't change much.

I was very lucky in one way: Michigan State University was home to the Clarion Workshop for many years, and so, even though I had limited funds and could not have traveled to attend, my family was able to afford my attendance in 1982.

Clarion gave me an intense version of both the best and worst of having a mentor: I had friends for life, and a secret handshake to making more friends among other Clarionites, but I also had a really intense peer pressure group. These were people who really KNEW EVERYTHING, and thus had a disproportionate influence on me -- which is a bad thing, because if you start following a particular school of thought, you stop following your own light. The good thing is that one of the "rules" they taught was to follow your own light.

After Clarion, I pretty much continued taking writing classes once in a while, along with all my other classes in languages and Classical Studies, and anything else that attracted me (I was in college for what, nine years? Oy!) In graduate school, I taught creative writing, and a friend and I formed a writer's group.

But other than Clarion, I don't know that I learned much from the classes themselves. I can't really say that the teachers were mentors. My real mentors were people I'd never met, like Lawrence Block. (Find the collections of his columns which he wrote for Writer's Digest -- there's a writing class for you!)

So I kept reading articles, and browsing writing books. And when the internet came along and I joined the GEnie network, and reconnected with all my Clarion pals and also made a bunch of new friends -- including some great mentors. And when those small proprietary networks disappeared, I moved to the web -- forums, blogs, communities like LiveJournal.

But note: these were colleagues and friends. I met them the same way any indie writer would meet them. 

NONE of my mentors came from the publishing process. Not one.

It went the other way, the connections I made on my own helped me with traditional publishing. The connections I made through the publishing process, well, frankly, I never met an agent who really had a clue about writing -- they know selling. And editors are too busy to be your buddy. Besides, most of them don't know about writing either. They know about presentation and how to spot the end product they want, and how to shape something into that thing they want. (But not necessarily into what anybody else wants.) They know, in other words, about how to be an editor.

And though I don't read the magazines from cover to cover any more, I do read blogs, and now and then I'll still buy a writing book. I don't take classes so much, and workshops don't do me as much good. (The organized face-to-face stuff is less necessary once you have your confidence up and your feet under you.)

The main way I learned, though, was by writing, and by reading the kinds of things I wanted to write.  Exactly what writers can and should do today.

Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The more something changes, the more it stays the same. Learning to write, finding mentors, just DOING it -- all that is still the same in this new world of publishing.

See you in the funny papers.


David Michael said...

In the 1990's, I read a *lot* of books about writing. Here's my accumulated library of writing books:

Once I (finally) started writing fiction in the early 2K's, I found I read those books/articles less frequently. It was like I had hit a "saturation point" with information about writing. I needed to start using what I had learned. And only then did I actually get better at the whole thing.

I've never had any luck with writing groups.


Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

The library is my favorite resource. I think you can find out anything you need to about writing there. Reading about writing, reading good writing, then practicing writing is a great way to go about it, I think.

Angie said...

Wait, you're a GEnie person? :D I was too. In the writing areas, I hung out mostly on the Writers RT and RomEx, and just a bit around the edges of the SFRT, which was a bit intimidating to a twenty-something in its agressive hugeness and agressive agression. [wry smile] But yeah, I learned more about writing there than I have anywhere else. RomEx in particular had great writing discussions and an excellent workshop; a lot of writers from other genres hung out there on the boards.

Who were you there? I was RHIANNON. :)


The Daring Novelist said...

Hitting a saturation point, yeah. I hit them several times. (Clarion was one.) I did the same thing learning music -- absorb info until you hit a plateau, and then you just sit and play for a while until you've processed it all.

What I learned to do after a while was to not read the whole book, but to browse for tidbits that suited what I was interested in at the moment.

Elizabeth: Yeah, Libraries are an essential resource. I worry about what is going to happen to them between budget cuts and the internet and the advent of ebooks.

Angie: I was mainly on the Writer's RT and SFRT. (I was introduced to the writing culture via Clarion, so the, uh, forthright nature of many of the discussions was old hat.)

Rhiannon sounds familiar, but I can't say for sure if we crossed paths. I think my screen name was "Camille."

Angie said...

I'm thinking CAMILLE is familiar too, although I might be confabulating after the fact. Still, it'd be pretty awesome if we knew one another back when. :)


The Daring Novelist said...

That was, like, twenty years ago. I remember following the opening of the first Gulf War via people's reports on GEnie.

We were out in the country and didn't have cable TV, and people who did have cable were live-blogging the updates minute by minute on GEnie.

I'd print the reports out every half hour or so and rush them downstairs for the family to read. It was like standing around a ticker tape machine.

(Nowadays, I got rid of cable, and I follow breaking news on Twitter. The GOP debates are MUCH more fun that way.)