Tuesday, June 29, 2010

To A Writer

The other day, someone of my acquaintance asked me a question about how they should go about getting started trying to write. Here was my basic response, with details changed to protect everyone’s identity.

The first thing a writer does is write, and it’s very easy to start. All you need is paper, and a pen or pencil. I use a computer word processor myself but that isn’t necessary. You start out writing about something that engages your emotions. You write what makes you angry, or afraid, or happy. You write about loves won and lost. You write memories that you have; you write about experiences you really, really want to have. And if what you write seems ugly, so be it. You still don’t give up. If it’s on the page, it can be fixed.

The second thing a writer does is read. Not only in the genre the writer wants to work in, but in all kinds of genres. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry. They all feed your head. Besides, if you don’t like to read, why on earth do you want to write? That’s like saying you want to be a master chef but you don’t really like food.

The third thing a writer does is treat writing with respect. That means actively working toward improving your skills. Reading books on writing and grammar, such as William Zinsser’s On Writing Well, is one example of treating the field with respect. Using a dictionary to make sure you get the nuances of words right is another. Becoming your own harshest critic is yet another. Quality control for a writer is in him or herself. You are inspector number 1.

Since writing is a lonely business, you might also want to seek out the company of other writers. Joining a writing group is a way of doing this. Writing groups often form around universities or libraries in big towns and cities. In small towns, you might need to take out an ad in the paper and start your own. There are also many, many writing groups online. I’ve been a member of both online and in person groups, and I’ve gotten a lot out of them.

There’s really nothing magical about the act of writing. It shouldn’t be a scary process, although it often is for people. It can be frustrating, but it can also be immensely rewarding, especially on an emotional level. Besides that, it’s a lot of fun.


David Cranmer said...

That was said perfecto, sir. ("That means actively working toward improving your skills" is the part that escapes many a newbie.)

Lisa said...

I am taking with me each and every word from beginning till end. Thank you.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

You nailed it!

laughingwolf said...

all true, charles... add to that: NEVER write down to your reader, treat them all as you would yourself

mybillcrider said...

I love Zinsser's book. I have multiple copies of different editions.

RA said...

Intelligent words, indeed. Sadly enough, too many wannabe writers forget to read. And it does show in their texts.

nephite blood spartan heart said...

Great advice Charles. For me the more I read the more I want to write.

Charles Gramlich said...

David Cranmer, that's pretty much the hard part, I think. Takes the most work.

Ocean girl, glad you enjoyed. Thanks.

Alex, thanks, I appreciate that.

Laughingwolf, yes, for sure. Part of the respect I think.

Bill Crider, I do too. I even have his very old "writing with a word processor" book. I use his work a lot in my nonfiction writing class.

RA, I know that's true but it never ceases to amaze me.

David J. West, for me too. It's a pleasant rather than a vicious circle.

Ron Scheer said...

I totally agree. Good writing starts with curiosity, a precious desire that can easily be rubbed out by 12 years of schooling. Curiosity leads to observation and learning, and finally to the "need" to share what you've observed and learned with others.

BStearns said...

Very well said! That's definitely the one thing that is overlooked a lot if you want to write, you have to read. Thanks Charles!


Deka Black said...

"That means actively working toward improving your skills" ---> I have learned this after write a good amount of pure crap. I feel really, really ashamed of my firsts writings.

About improving skills, well, i have a personal battllefield: dialogue. Dialogue to me is like fighting Godzilla with a wooden spoon. Broken.

In fact, is the first thing i check when i'm done with the story.

One must behave with his work like with his girlfiend: With tons of education, respect, and love. In the good things and the bad ones.

Bernita said...

"Fiction, nonfiction, poetry. They all feed your head."
Well and truly said, Charles!

Charles Gramlich said...

Ron Scheer, it's true, but amazing how much schooling can serve to quash curiousity instead of honing it. Happens, though.

BStearns, thanks for visiting. The reading is so important, I think. And it helps if you were a young reader.

Deka Black, dialogue was one of the hardest things I ever learned to write and I still think I need to improve. I've spent a lot of time listening to others just trying to pick up the nuances. I like the "girlfriend" analogy. I agree.

Bernita, Gonna feed my head on some Dark and Disorderly soon.

Deka Black said...

Yeah. For example: Now i'm writing a new story. And have a scene with plenty of dialogue. In fact, today i was not able to type more than 600 words due to this. I feel frustrated.

And thanks for yur liking of my analogy ^^

sage said...

Good advice... I read "On Writing Well" years ago, long before blogging. Since blogging, I've read two more of his books which I've reviewed "Writing About Your Life" and "Spring Training." The last one isn't about writing, but about the Pittsburgh Pirates, which is another worthwhile topic (except for this year)

Steve Malley said...

Excellent advice. Good too for those of us who've been plugging away at it awhile... :-)

G. B. Miller said...

So very, very true.

Practice makes perfect, but three quarters of the fun is getting there.

Rick said...

Hey, Charles. I've never heard of this book, but I'll buy it and give it a read.

ivan said...

Yes, the way up the montain is well described.

...And yet, atop of all ths is the plus factor, the success factor.

I have read somewhere that it's 99 per cent talent, 99 per cent hard work and 99 per cent luck.

I have been trying to beat that trio of propositions for thirty years, and I seemed closer to overground success when I was still in college. There, you were sort of in the sandlot still, and publishing people (scouts?) were there to seek you out.

But once in the big leagues, it begins to dawn on you that in this race you have to be more talented, smarter, luckier than those in the race with you....And in Canada, especially, they will bring you down, especially if you show above average ability.
I think it was Joseph Conrad, a hundred years ago who said a perfectly written book will gain you no mileage at all.
Maybe 99 per cent talent, 99 per cent hard work and 99 per cent luck?...And knowing the local Count doesn't hurt.
But above all, it's artistic singlemindedness that carries a maturing writer through. Push through no matter what.
You have passion and that passion will demonstrate itself, even onto self-publishing to make your statement.
Statements like postmodernism is largely shit... Cutting corners with
a zippy style.
There is no excuse for awkward writing. Like Charles says, you must read, read, read-- and then write, and not just in one genre, because you might write your way into a corner.

Learn your craft and learn it well.

But the odds are about 360 to one on any hope of superstardom, or just plain stardom, or even becoming an interesting minor.

Still want to be a writer?

Surprisingly, many still do, especially the young.
Take a college course in writing, with a successfully published writer as your teacher...No, not remustered English teachers.
There, you will gain a little success , but it will be something of a false success as the real nature of the business show itself to you. It's still the big fish eating the little fish.
Of all things, this writing game seems the hardest of all.
But how well it goes if you miraculously succeed.
I know something about this and have tasted the sweet of it.
But it's something like middle age, certainly with the middle aged writer.

Glen Campbell. "You can jump as high as the young guys, but you can't stay up as long."

Travis Cody said...

Those do seem to be the basic things, don't they? I remember being so frustrated that I didn't seem to be writing very well when I first got the urge to do it. The best advice I got was...just write it down and don't worry about the grammar and form and punctuation.

jodi said...

Charles, great advice. I like the fun aspect the best.

Charles Gramlich said...

Deka Black, the key, I think, is to make progress. Even if it's a little bit of progress you are still moving forward and eventually you'll reach "the end."

sage, I need to get his "writing about your life." I have an old book of his called "writing with a word processor." I don't know if I could read a book about baseball.

Steve Malley, thankee. I need reminding an awfully lot myself.

G, yeah, the journey is certainly most of the fun in writing.

Rick, it's primarily about nonfiction but I find it good advice for all writing. It's also got quite a lot of humor in it.

ivan, there's a certain stubbornness to writers who manage to keep selling. There's a bit of obsessiveness, especially in those who do make it big. I said in Write With Fire that a book written by someone who isn't famous is worth the reading because most writers aren't famous.

Travis Cody, that's what I tell students. Get it down. It can always be fixed, but if it's not on the page there's no fixing that.

Jodi, me too.

Angie said...

Not only in the genre the writer wants to work in, but in all kinds of genres. Fiction, nonfiction, poetry.

Yes! Whenever I run across a writer who says he/she only reads the genre they write, I want to headdesk really hard. :/ Reading fiction from different genres, different eras and different cultures expands your options for style, voice, character, setting -- everything. And reading non-fiction gives you more things to write about. IMO an omnivorous reading habit is vital to a writer.


Deka Black said...

Thanks Charles ^^ (And for discipline, keep a blog helps a lot)

the walking man said...

Whenever someone asks me how they should start writing I tell them to watch the movie "Throw Momma From The Train."

"Writers write"

Charles Gramlich said...

Angie, I tihnk that creativity in writing style actually comes from the mixing of many elements from many genres. Otherwise you sound just like the more narrow style that characterizes a single genre.

Deka Black, yes it does. Having to come up with consistent material really makes you work at times.

Mark, I've seen that movie but it's been a long time. I'm not sure how it relates to writing but I'll take you word for it.

BernardL said...

Very well stated response. I would only object to the 'group'. One of the best things about writing is it can be done alone. :)

AvDB said...

Those are indeed the basics. Nothing guarantees publication, but one can still be a damn good writer, nonetheless. In fact, I hear it helps with attaining the former.

Another key point to new writers is--do not try to write to the market. Yes, vampires are all the rage, but, by the time you're done with your vampire romance not only will the zombie craze have taken over and passed, mermen love stories will be the next hot thing and your vampire will be severely outdated and ignored by everyone.

Cloudia said...

Things have been CRAZY here! Check out my Wednsday post if you can

Aloha from Waikiki

Comfort Spiral

Angie said...

AvDeeBee -- I agree completely with your principle, but not with your example. :) Romantic vampires have been around since the seventies (check out Yarbro's Saint Germain books) and have been a major "fad" since the eighties. People have been predicting the passing of that fad for almost thirty years, but it's still with us. I have a feeling vampires have a bit more staying power left in them. :)


X. Dell said...

I think a lot of people associate writing to their schooling, where the process always seemed esoteric. A teacher or professor would say yea or by inserting a red-pencil mark, often with little explanation. There then developed this mystery about the finer points (why not split inifinitives; why not end sentences with prepositions; or are those both allowable, but only under certain circumstances--like when you're describing a death scene while writing underwater with your shoes untied).

I can understaned why many folks find writing somewhat intimidating. They fear the craft, it seems, much more than the expressive aspects. Taking the plunge is often the hardest part. Most of the great American novels out there never make it to the first page.

Harry Markov said...

Very well said. I'd add to never ever take criticism as personal attack and start attacking back. Unproductive.

Charles Gramlich said...

BernardL, I like that most of the writing time is spent alone. I'm kind of a loner, but I've been in groups for quite a while and taking just that one day a week, for a few hours, has turned out to be energising to me.

AvDeeBee, Once or twice I've been tempted to chase the market, but the market also comes back around so if you have a zombie book say, the time will pass, but eventually come again. If you can be patient.

Cloudia, not so bad here. I've been busy but not distracted by much outside stuff.

Angie, vampires may be the exception that proves the rule in other cases. They've certainly shown staying power.

X. Dell, I think a lot of folks are scared about what they'll find out about themselves. There is an honest that is required in writing and it can be frightening.

Harry Markov, certainly. We nearly lost a guy just recently from a group because of that. He stood up and said, "sorry to have wasted your time," and was headed out the door just because of a criticism. At least this time it wasn't mine.

AvDB said...

Angie -- You are right. I should have been more specific. Pitching a vampire to the current, "A vampire is this __________ (insert popular notion of a vampire's traits)" trend is unwise. By the time one is finished with their portrayal of the sensitive schoolboy vamp, the market will probably have long been saturated.

X. Dell said...

Lol. Judging from some of the memoirs I've read, honesty doesn't always enter into writing.

Michelle's Spell said...

Hey Charles,

Very well said. I think writing is too often coded as mysterious. I read all I can to improve and work as hard as possible. That's it.

Charles Gramlich said...

AvDeeBee, vamps in many incarnations do seem to be pretty capable of Morphing into new forms. They are the true shapechangers.

X. Del, well there's two kinds of truth, objective and subjective. Few people tell the objective truth about themselves, but many do believe their own subjective truths.

Heff said...

Thanks for explaining that "paper & pen" part.

I had NO IDEA how to begin, LMAO !!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I read this book years ago and need to read it again.

Charles Gramlich said...

Heff, that's the most complicated step.

Pattinase, it's definitely worth the rereading.

Barbara Martin said...

Reading and writing every day keeps one in a discipline to succeed as a writer. Perfect post, Charles.

Erik Donald France said...

Absolutely right on. Enjoy reading tons -- and also listening, and observing, and remembering telling details.

Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back . . .

Mona said...

I wrote today..more with my head than with emotions :D

Charles, I have a post at my blog about Ivan's Fire in Bradford. I request you to please read and offer your valuable comment/

Thank you :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Barbara Martin, thanks, Barbara. I do think I do allright on the discipline side of things. Most times.

Erik Donald France, lol. I like that about the cat.

Mona, as long as you get it down then sometimes you can get the emotion right later.

Stewart Sternberg (half of L.P. Styles) said...

Lost here, among the 44 other comments, I have to say, I don't know which I worry more for, people who want to write, or people who go into education.

A Cuban In London said...

I liked the fact that you think a writer should read. A lot of writers would scoff at that notion, especially the published ones. Or in some cases they would read other 'established writers', whatever that means.

Great post. Many thanks.

Greetings from London.