Learning to Write

I started writing in 2011. It didn’t come easily to me. The following is the process I followed.

Learning to Write

I have never approached learning in the way others do. A fact I gave little attention to until recently when I thought about how I am learning to write.

First, I should explain that writing is an avocation for me which I started in 2011. It was never something I meant to make a living doing, so I didn’t take any writing courses while I attended school.

I wrote after I retired from the work-force and the first thing I wrote was a novel. Yes, I’m one of those; always wanted to write a novel, never got around to it until I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. That changes priorities. I started my first manuscript a short time before my radical prostatectomy and finished the novel while recovering. It is not a memoir although the book contains many references from my life.

In the introduction to Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut wrote, “I think I am trying to clear my head of all the junk in there—the assholes, the flags, the underpants.” I would never compare my writing to Vonnegut’s, and I was not aware of this when I did it, but I believe that I was emptying myself of all the concepts (some would say baggage) I had accumulated over the previous sixty years—all the psychology, philosophy, religion, science, and technology that ended up being stored in my mind for future consideration; the stuff that made me who I am. I feel freer now.

I felt, mistakenly it turned out, that because I had read extensively for the past fifty years I could write a good science fiction novel just by putting my mind to it. The novel was completed, but it wasn’t good. It wasn’t crap, but it wasn’t good either. I had it edited professionally and submitted it to three agents. That experience made me appreciate what black holes are like. I published the novel myself, eventually, as an eBook on Kindle, Kobo, and Goggle. Some friends and family read it. No one said it was terrible, so I wrote another novel to add to the saga, and somewhere along the timeline I joined a writing group.

I realized that I am a person who doesn’t understand that I don’t know something until I begin to learn about the things I don’t know about. With two books self-published as eBooks I acknowledged that I knew nothing about good writing. It was time to learn, so I bought a book, but before I talk about that let me clarify something. I am not ashamed of the first two novels I wrote.

Hosting and Swords and Symmetry are poorly written when compared to some other works. They are not works of literature, but they were never intended to be. I made a lot of beginner’s mistakes. I liken the books to primitive art. They are primal. They are boring in parts, they are exciting in parts, and they are entertaining most of the time. They are also thought provoking. The concept of the Core that is introduced and explored is a marvelous creation as one of my friends put it. They are also a compilation of the ideas that influenced my life. They are in fact me.

The first book I bought to help my writing was the Chicago Manual of Style. It was used to help format my first eBook. It is a reference book worth having if you are self-publishing.

The first book I read on writing was one my son gave me called, How to Read Literature Like a Professor, by Thomas C. Foster. I think it was my son’s way of saying, ‘Dad your writing sucks’. It helped me realize how little I knew and how much I was missing in what I read. I suppose the point I took away from it was that it isn’t enough to just read. You have to analyze as well. It is one way to improve your writing.  My son also gifted me another book by the same author called, How to Read Novels Like a Professor. It is also a worthwhile read.

The second book I read on writing was, Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Browne and Dave King. It was depressing because I realized how many errors I had made in my first two novels, but it was also very informative. I used it like a textbook, highlighting sections and making notes for quick reference. Appendix 2 in this book is a list of, Top Books for Writers that directed me to other books to read. I have picked up three so far.

On Writing the short story by Hallie Burnett was purchased as a used book on Amazon. It cost more to mail it than the book cost. Ms. Burnett is an experienced writer and editor. She was a partner/editor in the magazine, STORY. Her book is not a how-to manual. It covers the basic points which every book on the subject of writing covers; plot, character, and style. She covers the subjects by telling you what they are and giving examples of how other writers have done it well, and that is where she excels. She has experience through STORY with some of the biggest names in 20th century literature. I enjoyed her book, but I have read better. My primary take away was one example of a short story she included in the book. Address Unknown, by Kressmann Taylor (published by STORY in 1938) is one of the finest, most moving, short stories I have ever read. If you can find a copy, read it.

Of the books I have read so far, Stein on Writing by Sol Stein is the best. Mr. Stein is a writer, a famous editor, and an educator. His book is full of useful and interesting information and tips about writing. It will be my go to book for years to come. Stein also worked with some of the premier writers of his day and has written many well received novels and textbooks on the subject. I recommend this book as the best I have read so far.

While I was reading Stein, I was writing my third novel and some short stories. I prefer novels, but short works give you almost immediate feedback, and a better chance of being paid to write (I read that somewhere). The feedback cycle, the publication cycle, and possibility of payment or prize money is faster. My first published work was a short story I did for a contest by Buzz and Road Publishing. They publish the winners of their contests in their catalog which appears a few times a year (it might be a seasonal publication). My story, Of thieves and wizards, received an honourable mention (one of three in that contest). I also received an honourable mention for a story about the same characters which I submitted to a contest by Writers of the Future. My reading was paying off.

There is one other book which was mentioned in Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Steven King’s, On Writing. I have heard good things about it which must be true because it took me ages to find a copy in a used bookstore and when I did locate one, the price was exorbitant for a used book. King’s book is good. I have read and will read it again.

I entered a short story contest a while ago run by The Write Practice and ended up receiving an eBook called, Lets Write a Short Story by Joe Bunting, as part of the deal. It is a short, little, easy read, and I got a few things from it.

I write, I read, I analyze, I submit, and I attend occasional courses and summits, so my message is do the work first. You can try it the other way, but that way only works for a few extraordinary people. We all hear their stories; video store clerk writes novel and succeeds beyond everyone wildest dreams. You might be one of those. I’m not.