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I have a zillion “how to write” books. They seemingly multiply on their own in my bookshelf, but if I think my way through it, they all appear when I am feeling uncertain about my writing and feel the need for a “helpful book” to sort myself out. I buy them, maybe peek through a bit of them, and then toss them for the next novel.
Jodi Meadows, in Pub(lishing) crawl, has written a blog entry that really says all you need to do:
1. Read. Read lots and lots and lots and lots.
2. Write. Write lots and lots and lots.
I’d probably add #4, since that’s where I fail worst: Send stuff out.
I think the critiquing and sending stuff out parts are the most important for me, anyway, at this point. Critiquing your own work is one thing, but learning to critique others’ is even better. The Canadian Authors’ Association has these carefully defined critique groups, with rules that are followed religiously and which result in real progress with writing. The process allows writers to hear criticism of their work without the duty to respond, and let’s them take away the critique and choose whether to use the info. Because of this everyone takes the time to write a careful, thoughtful comment on the story. I’m a member of the Early Reviewers and Member Giveaways groups on LibraryThing, and in exchange for free books, you are asked to write a review.
Some I’ve sloughed off, I admit, mainly because I either didn’t like the book or couldn’t remember it (argh!)(I do read a LOT). But others I try to write a good review for, with few details of the story but creating the desire in someone to read it. It helps me see the good parts of some not great books, and the review as a whole helps me find the problems in my own writing.
The sending thing in is a battle for me. So I’ve made a pinky swear to send in at least one of my mystery stories for publication. I’ve got my class holding me accountable. That, and contest entry deadlines, mean that I do send things in occasionally. I realize I should be keeping track of them in a book somewhere, or on my computer, and I’m thinking now, ooh, I should get that organized RIGHT now.
Somewhere back in Nanowrimo land, I read a commentary about the piles of dreck being produced through the month. The quote above comes from that commentary, but I can’t find the reference this morning, peering as I am through the slits of eyes produced by profound weeping as I realize another dream is lost, down the drain. That writing dream. You know. THAT one.
I’ve produced a lot of that dreck. I know. People have ever so sanctimoniously, kindly, gently, and viciously told me so. (Just GET all those -ly words in one sentence! That takes skill, that does!)
I’ve been “working on writing”, interspersed with sessions of intense parenting, higher education, day jobs that consume my soul, and fighting the urge to nap, for the past 20 years or so. Should I succeed now, I’d likely kill whoever called me an overnight success. Wait, that’s a good idea for a plot…
And therein lies the rub. Like many people, especially the insufferable woman who sat beside me the other day, plots are a dime a dozen. At least in the idea stage. The stories, the ones that grip your heart and make you sink into an alternate reality – well, those are harder. For me, anyway. I imagine insufferable woman could just whip them off in a second, or so she tells me.
There are hundreds of books produced every year. Many of them are simply awful. (see: 50 Shades of Grey) Some of the really bad ones get made into movies, even, and their authors lie about and eat bon bons forevermore. This leads many of us to think that we, too, could wield that magic.
But like the lion in the Wizard of Oz would say, “Whadda they got that I haven’t got? Courage!” I somehow can’t get myself to offer my dreck to the wider world. I feel I should do better. So I paralyze and refuse to write and don’t. And, quite frankly, my skills get rustier and rustier.
So, a few tips for those who want to do this crazy thing (and by the way, my assembly of writing books is going up for sale on Kijiji in a moment).
1. Write. Yah, you knew this.
2. Learn to touch type. My mother never let me take this class as she thought I’d end up as a secretary or something. She didn’t see the time of keyboards. I still type fast, but my error rate is huge, and my hands get weary using only four fingers total. It wastes time, and frustrates my flow of thoughts.
3. Read. Write reviews of the books you read. This will make you look for the things you read that worked, the things you didn’t like, and, more importantly, will stick those things in your mind for when you write your own stuff.
4. Avoid writing courses. I’ve taken dozens of these. They either tell me what I already know, or decimate my confidence. Free ones are okay. I’ve paid thousands and am genuinely no further ahead. Read instead.
5. If you must take courses, pay attention, participate, suck the pith out of them. Squeeze them dry. Pester the teacher for additional help, especially if they’re good. Find kindred spirits in the class and form a reading/writing group for afterwards. This will be the most useful thing of all.
6. Get a group together to share your writing with. Make sure you are on the same level. This is tougher than you think, and it is terribly irritating to have someone ask you the meaning of words or tell you they haven’t read anything much since the Twilight series when you write historical fiction. Plus it is really really hard to critique really bad writing without being mean-sounding.
7. Read some more. TV or movie renditions of writing do NOT count. It’s not the same. Read widely, outside “your” genre. Well, except romance. Don’t read that if you don’t like it. It will just lead you to think you can write it, and good romance isn’t easy, either. It’s easy to shower scorn on things you don’t understand. I know. Bad romance (writing) isn’t something you want your kids to remember you for.
8. Buy books. Go to readings. Talk to authors. For me, going to the Bloody Words Conference – I plan to kiss their feet. I’ve tried to do what they do, and I can’t. I bow before them, trying to let my envy go and to embrace them with all my heart for the pleasure their books have brought me.
9. If you can, give up. It’s tough out there. It’s lonely. And it can be soul-destroying. After trying for so many years, I feel like a Hollywood starlet, who went west to become a movie star, tried and tried and got some bit parts, a little taste of possible glories, but never a big break. Now she’s old, tired, and wherever she goes, she can hear the whispering, “Of course, she never really WAS anyone…
10. If you can’t give it up, make sure you have other things to fall back on in times of duress. Friends help, but no one can patch the gaping hole in a heart when you’ve very nearly almost made art and have just missed. You need something else that deals with internal trauma. Work out, make something out of clay or cloth or wood or anything tactile that does not involve words. Physicality is key when you’ve been working so hard with the verbal mind. Go punch someone. Maybe the insufferable woman. That would be fun.
Try not to look pathetic.