Learning How to Be a Writer; Thinking About Where

In case you missed the earlier parts of a writing series published in Eagle Peak Quarterly, we are running re-edited excerpts here. First is how and where. From Part 2 of that series. Maybe you know much (if not all) of this already. If you do, look at it as a refresher. If not, use it as new perspectives to help you on your quest.

Ernest Hemingway writing at a campsite in KenyaYou want to write. Books, short stories–whatever. You’re ready to get started. Maybe you already have. You fire up your computer or your tablet, or you pick up your pen or pencil. Maybe you’ll end up like Hemingway, writing at a desk in Kenya.

Sure, you can just jump right in. You can start a blog, if you don’t already have one, on Blogger or WordPress.com. You can post your poems, your short stories or whatever thoughts may occur to you on Google +. You can find many sites on the web to submit flash fiction—the really short bits of writing that are much less than the typical short story. You can submit feature articles or stories to print or online magazines. You can even go to Amazon and create a Kindle account to upload your work to publish an eBook. Or you can use CreateSpace on Amazon to create a print book. There are plenty of other options for self-publishing as well–Kobo, Smashwords, Lulu and many others.

Should you? No, not right away,

Why notBecause you want to make sure what you write is of a quality that won’t embarrass or short circuit eventual success at attracting readers or selling your work in whatever market fits what you are writing. If you surf the web, you will find countless complaints (rants even) about the “crap” that can be found among eBooks and on websites. You have probably seen some of it yourself. What should you do? Learn more about writing well and before putting something out there in print or as an eBook make sure it has been edited. Take your chances on blogs and social media if you like, but remember—nothing ever leaves the web, it will be discoverable forever. OK, enough of what not to do; read on for how to get there.

As Stephen King emphasizes, the best way to learn how to write is reading a LOT. What can you learn? How other writers show the conflict that a protagonist must deal with and how that moves the story along. How a plot works. What works and what doesn’t. Finding ideas for content is the easy part—they are everywhere. People around you in cafes, stores, waiting rooms, etc., talking to one another or on their phones—heedless of anyone within earshot. You will hear many interesting things. You will also learn something about creating realistic dialogue in the process. Ideas for content are all over TV, the web, print media and in school or the workplace. You don’t need the ideas of other writers for creating your own work. But you can learn how other writers express those ideas.

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Still in college? Take some literature classes. Take some composition classes. Take a creative writing class, if there is one. Out of school? Try a community college for writing classes or adult education through the local school system. Find writing prompts online. Writing prompts typically include a few sentences, sometimes more, to stimulate thought that will get you started. Find a writing group at a local writing group when you have something to share.

If your grammar, syntax, sentence structure and the like are not optimal, you can get help through classes or from books.

The venerable Strunk and White’s Elements of Style.

Eats, Shoots & Leaves, by Lynne Truss with its somewhat more humorous way of explaining the importance of grammar and punctuation.

Less didactic but very helpful books like:

Stephen King’s On Writing

William Zinsser’s On Writing Well (for writing non-fiction)

Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird

Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life

Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way

Ray Bradbury’s Zen in the Art of Writing

Philip Gerard’s Writing a Book That Makes a Difference (for both fiction and non-fiction)

Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir—to name just a few.

You can find most of these books in your local library. Many are now also available as eBooks in multiple formats. They are also available from used bookstores, new from brick and mortar stores or online.  For many more books on the inspirational side, you can also see Stephen King’s list of books that have influenced him, at this site.

OK, you have done all that or decided you will just wing it, now what?

Next week we will mention some general principles that apply to anyone who wants to write. We will start with suggestions that apply to both fiction and non-fiction and then will move on to concepts and tips that apply specifically to one or the other. Some of them may seem simple or obvious but many people still overlook them. The most important advice is this: there are no hard and fast rules to technique; there are strong advocates for one prescription or another but ultimately you have to find what works for you and not feel you are “doing it wrong” if you don’t follow some “expert’s” advice on how to write. It is important, nonetheless, to know what those “rules” are so that you can break them not out of ignorance or impunity but because you know when it’s OK and again, what works for you and your writing.

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5 thoughts on “Learning How to Be a Writer; Thinking About Where”

  1. Great article John. Happy to say I’ve read all your listed books, except Artist’s Way which is waiting for me on my bookshelf, and Philip Gerard, which I can’t seem to find a print version available. 🙂

        1. You should try a used book store. You can get it on Amazon used too (both .com and .ca) for so little that the shipping will cost more than the book itself.

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