Learning to Write

Sunday, February 05, 2012
I've been ignoring this blog lately. It's not because I don't enjoy blogging--far from it. I've learned that I have to make some hard choices if I want to reach my goal. In case you're new here, that goal is to be a published author of multiple books. I've been pursuing that goal for the better part of ten years. Ten years? Yes.

Half the people in the world want to write a book--or so it seems. Everyone has stories to tell. Lots of people believe that they could write a book as good as any on the bestseller list if they just had the time to sit down and do it. Reality is somewhat different.

A new writer, full of enthusiasm and dreams of making the rounds of talk shows talking about her book, sits at her computer and rapidly types up thirty or forty pages of the story she's been thinking about. That's where most beginners run into a wall and find out this writing thing isn't quite as simple as it sounds. Lots of people quit at this point, some telling themselves they'll get back to their novel when they take their vacation or after the kids are back in school or after the holidays. Most never get back to it.

If New Writer does complete the book, she's sure it's wonderful and can't wait to get an agent, a publisher, and a multi-book contract. She might give a copy to her mother or best friend to read, who will tell her it's a wonderful story--even if it isn't. When the form rejections, or, worse, no response at all, come back from her queries, she moans about the gatekeepers of publishing.

If she's smart, she'll find a critique group or join a writers' organization like Romance Writers of America or Sisters in Crime. She'll learn that her experience isn't unique. She'll learn about writing craft. She'll get honest feedback that will tell her that she needs to do more work before her book is ready for publication. Because the book on the page doesn't match the story she had in her head.

I don't know about other writers, but I tend to visualize scenes from my novels as movies in my head, complete with swelling orchestral themes at the climax. Because I've seen the movie and lived with my characters for months on end, what I've put on the page is clear to me. Readers, like those in my critique group, sometimes have lots of questions because they don't have the same experience. You know you've grown a lot as a writer when you read what you wrote and despair because it doesn't match the beautiful story you dreamed in your head. You've learned to see your story as others see it.

There is so much to learn about writing. Even bestselling authors are still learning their craft years after being published. When you start out, you have no idea how much you don't know. Personally, I started with plot. I mean, there's no story if you don't have a plot, right? And the reason so many writers quit after the first forty pages is that they have no idea what the plot is that brings them from that opening to the climax at the end of the book. So you study the three act structure and the four act structure and the hero's journey and buy books on the nine or thirty plots (depending on which book you read) and get an idea of what kind of plot your story has.

Then there's character. You have to have character sheets, lists of physical and psychological descriptions of the people in your book. You spend days figuring out their favorite foods, what their house looks like, what skills they have, what mannerisms, and on and on and on. And you learn how to work those into your writing so you have more than action figures moving through your story.

And dialogue. You start paying attention to how people talk. You eavesdrop on other people's conversations in restaurants. You read your dialogue out loud and wonder if it sounds natural.

After you think you've got most of that down, you start worrying about grammar and punctuation. You start listening to Grammar Girl's podcast, buy a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style and Strunk and White, and obsess about whether you need a comma or not.

At this point, you think you've improved so much that you're ready to push your baby out into the world again. You enter a contest or two. You send out new queries with sample pages. The good news is that you have improved. You know that because the rejections come back with a personalized note about what isn't working. Your contest scores are higher. But you didn't get a request for a partial or full manuscript and you weren't a finalist in the contests. You're still not there yet.

I'm a firm believer in mentors. You can only learn so much from reading books or studying another author's writing. Books give you guidelines of what usually works. Other writers may have a beautiful style, a unique voice (whatever that means), but they're not you. A mentor is someone who has been down this path before and can take those guidelines and show you how they apply to your work. They can evaluate where you are in your process and help you move to the next level. They are unique and treasured individuals. Like most treasures, they're hard to find.

Last year I took Holly Lisle's How to Think Sideways class. I'd heard lots of good things about Holly and her classes and thought that the cost of the class would be worth it if I could find that mentor to help me get to the next level. I didn't expect a lot of personal attention, but I was hoping for some.

It didn't work for me. Part of the problem was that Holly ran into a slew of personal and health problems that interrupted the class. My impression of Holly is that she's a workaholic who drives herself to exhaustion, until her body breaks down and forces her to rest. This results in bursts of enormous output (sometimes too much output), followed by periods of none. It made for a very rocky class.

Another problem was that shortly after the class got started, Holly "discovered" self-publishing. I kind of laughed because I'd been reading the blogs of Joe Konrath and Dean Wesley Smith and Kristine Kathryn Rousch and Passive Guy for at least six months before Holly found John Locke's book and got excited about the possibilities. This caused another break in the class as her priority became to self-publish her backlist and start earning the majority of her living from writing new fiction as opposed to her classes. I don't blame her for this. Writing is the way she earns her living and, if there's no income, she's not going to be able to eat or pay the rent or any of that other good stuff. But it did cause another break in the class as she focused on self-publishing and then revising and adding to the class to change how to get an agent and work with a publisher and the other aspects of traditional publishing into how to self-publish.

But, most of all, Holly and I think differently. Part of it is genre-related. Holly writes mostly fantasy and science fiction. I write mysteries. Her obsession with worldbuilding isn't one I have, so I don't need to learn how to limit it. She is artistic, expressing herself in drawing as much as writing. Me, I can't draw a straight line with a ruler. So where she's a big fan of clustering or the snowflake method or mindmapping, this doesn't really work for me. I do the same type of brainstorming, but I make lists instead. Although she says in her lessons that everyone has their own techniques, she keeps using hers (of course) and it was hard for me to relate to those methods.

So it was with great trepidation that I signed on with another well-known writing teacher for her January class. Margie Lawson is famous in writing circles, particularly romance, for teaching how to get to the next level. Since romance isn't my genre either (although there is some romance in my mysteries), I wasn't sure her classes would work for me any better than Holly Lisle's had. But, unlike Holly's six-month class, Margie's was only one month, a lot less expensive, and sounded like something I needed.

I think I might have found my mentor.

Margie is an enthusiastic teacher, upbeat and full of energy. (Okay, sometimes her energy and cheerfulness do make me tired just reading her lessons and comments!) She's consistent and reliable and managed to get me to do some things I didn't think were possible.

One of those things was to use fifteen minute intervals of time to do something related to my goal of being a writer. Since it takes time for me to get into writing mode, I've always thought that I needed at least two hours of uninterrupted time in order to accomplish anything. Because it was a class assignment to list things I could do in fifteen minutes and then do them, I tried it. I was surprised to find out that, while I couldn't write a part of a scene in fifteen minutes, I could do other things related to writing. This has helped me feel like I'm working harder on my goal because I'm accomplishing something toward it on a regular basis, even if I don't have two hours.

The other thing I learned was that I could get up earlier and work on my novel for an hour before going to my day job. I'm not a morning person. Back when I could, I was more likely to stay up until one or two AM and sleep until noon than get up early. Because employers frown on that schedule, I taught myself to get up earlier. In fact, I got up an hour before I needed to shower and dress so I could sip my coffee and write in my journal and wake up before starting my day. I told myself that I needed that hour to become human before doing anything.

But my plan of writing in the evening wasn't working for me. After a full day at work, the fatigue and stress weren't conducive to writing. I couldn't get in the zone then, despite there being two hours available. So I decided to try getting up a half hour earlier than I had been, skip the journaling, and go to my computer to work on my novel. Imagine my surprise when I found that I could do that. I may only write half a scene or revise a few paragraphs, but I'm making more consistent progress and I feel better about myself. I'm not flogging myself every evening that I don't get to my computer because I've already worked on my writing that day.

Changing my behavior includes spending less time blogging. I've been working on this entry for two hours, two hours that could have been spent writing another scene of my novel. I know that sounds like a lot of time for a short entry, but it takes me time to organize my thoughts, write them down, then go back and correct what I've written so it flows and makes sense. That's time I need to spend on other things--including working on the next Margie Lawson class assignments. Because finishing the book and getting it published is something I need to do. I'll get back to a regular blogging schedule when I have more time.

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Elise's bookshelf: currently-reading

A Clash of Kings
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