“How did you learn to write?”

(Just a note, folks: this is going to be my last Magic District post for awhile. Between grinding away on Book 3 and the imminent publication of Book 1, and my own day job, and family stuff, I’ve got too much on my plate, so am trimming back. Not permanently, but consider me on hiatus for a bit. To quote Ahnold: I’ll be back.)

In a recent conversation I had with some other professional authors, one of them related an exchange she’d once had with a professor of creative writing. On learning that she didn’t have an MFA, this person asked, “But how did you learn to write, then? Who taught you?” This is not meant to be a commentary on academic elitism, note — I’ve gotten similar questions from family, friends, and random acquaintances, when they learn I’m a writer. It’s one of those questions writers get all the time at parties, right up there with “Would you like to write my book?” and “So what do you think of Stephen King?” (Lately that last question has been either Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer instead. But I digress.)

Anyway, my answer to the “how did you learn to write” question is complicated. Like most authors in fantasy, I’m self-taught, through a combination of formal and very alternative education. I don’t have an MFA; my masters’ is in a branch of psychology. I didn’t even take English courses in college, since I’d AP’ed* out of them in high school. I was fortunate to have a very good English teacher in high school, who veered away from the strict AP curriculum and encouraged her better students to explore their passions. Since I was already writing novels by then (but they sucked), I decided to do some in-depth study of some famous authors and their techniques. I still remember how hard I worked on that paper about James Joyce’s use of stream of consciousness and epiphany in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. Got an A, too — and better still, I actually enjoyed reading Joyce, mostly because he was a choice; I didn’t have to do it for some class assignment. The lesson I got from this was a) there might be something to all the hype heaped upon authors considered “great”, and b) self-teaching was the way to go. Way more fun than sitting in a classroom passively absorbing factoids and rhetoric.

From there, piecemeal and over years and not quite intentionally, I cobbled together a sort of textbook list for my own long-term writing independent study:

  • How to Write Science Fiction and Fantasy, Orson Scott Card**
  • Characters and Viewpoint, Orson Scott Card
  • Science Fiction Writers’ Marketplace and Sourcebook, David G. Tompkins
  • On Writing, Stephen King
  • About Writing,Samuel Delaney
  • Assorted books on mythology, primarily Greek and African since those interested me most — notably Mythology: An Illustrated Encyclopedia, Richard Cavendish
  • The Elements of Style, Strunk and White
  • Every SF/F novel I could get my hands on, and some mainstream stuff too.***

If I were compiling this list today, I would add Farah Mendlesohn’s Rhetorics of Fantasy, though not for beginning writers — for them I would suggest Diana Wynne Jones’ The Tough Guide to Fantasyland as an introductory text. But I read those only recently, so I can’t honestly call them formative.

I would also subtract a number of books I read that were recommended to me as good guides on writing, but which I found either useless or actively harmful. But that’s for another post, on another day.

So that was the theory. Then there was the practical component: I started writing novels when I was about nine or ten years old. They were very short back then — novellas at best — and kinda terrible (though probably not bad by ten-year-old standards). But I liked the feeling of writing them, and seeing the story shape itself. I shared them with friends, and also with my father, who patiently read each work-in-progress and then talked with me about them, letting me bounce plot ideas off him, etc. There was no mention of craft or technique in these discussions, because that wasn’t what I needed at the time — I was a teenager, my ego was fragile, I wasn’t even sure I was “supposed to be” writing at that point. What I needed was encouragement, and that’s what Dad gave me. But I was experimenting with different techniques as I went along, and slowly improving. I started out writing third person omniscient, hated that, and quickly jumped into first person — only to realize that first person was nowhere near as easy as it looked. That book ran out of control on me, and I didn’t finish it. The next book I went back to third person, but tried limited; much better. The next book was a real experiment: a female protagonist. I’ve mentioned here before that I’d absorbed some problematic ideas about gender at that point (and we won’t even get into my messed-up ideas about race right now), so yes — my first four or five novels had male protagonists, and writing women was actually very hard for me. That first female-POV book had more sexist cliches than a Tailhook Convention. It was sad. But then I wrote another. I got better.

Things changed near the end of college. By that point I’d come to need more than my father’s gentle encouragement; I needed specific technical critique, from people who knew what they were talking about. At first I found a group of friends in the fanfiction community — folks who seemed to be good writers, who cared about technique and style and so on — and exchanged stories with them for critique. Later I joined Critters.org, an online writing workshop, and got the same treatment from strangers. That was harder to deal with, but it helped me develop necessary detachment and objectivity. And more importantly, being in a workshop forced me to read other people’s works — which was even more instructive, frankly, than getting feedback on my own work. I began to recognize patterns: these kinds of openings worked, those didn’t. This prose jumped off the page, that prose sat there and yawned. I got better.

The result was the proto-version of what would eventually become The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms. It still wasn’t good enough for publication — a fact I did not realize until it had been rejected by every agent and open-slushpile publisher in the industry — but it marked the jump from amateur-level writing to pro-level… in my personal opinion, if not others’. (Mine was the one that counted.) If I’d been in a formal writing program, I would say that was my baccalaureate exercise.

Grad school started when I decided to go to Viable Paradise, an intensive one-week writing workshop on Martha’s Vineyard. There wasn’t a lot of work on craft at that workshop — it was only a week — but I did learn about how to live as a professional in this field: how to break in, what to do once I did break in, what not to do. Even more importantly, through VP I met the members of my future writing group, the BRAWLers. When I talk with people who’ve been through MFA programs, even prestigious ones like the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, what they did sounds much like what a good writing group does. With BRAWLers, every few weeks each member of the group got a “slot”, or an opportunity to present his/her work to the group. This was generally a short story, but some of us used it to present novel outlines that we hoped to send to agents, etc. Skipping a slot on occasion was fine, but we were strongly discouraged from doing that regularly, because that meant we weren’t contributing to the group. Peer pressure was a more than sufficient goad, though, so most of us used our slots whenever they came up. This forced me to be much, much more productive than I’d ever been — writing as many as six short stories a year. I kept working on novels too, seduced by the opportunity the group presented, because we critiqued those too (via a special procedure). I spent five years with the BRAWLers and produced two novels and maybe twenty short stories during that time. Several of the short stories were published in semipro and pro markets, and one of the novels got me an agent.

(I also began marking another critical writers’ milestone at this point: rejections. One of the great things about BRAWLers is that we celebrated those too — 50 rejections meant a celebratory drink, 100 rejections was a party, and so on. Writing is about persistence in the face of failure, not just success.)

I’ll stop here, because I think you get the idea by now. I don’t have an MFA — but I’ve worked hard enough to earn one (and then some, probably). This is probably the case for most pro writers, whether they’ve got the credentials to go with their learning or not. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with going the traditional-education route; classroom learning works better for some people than others, and it’s probably faster/easier than the roundabout methods I used. But those methods worked for me — and continue to work for me, since I haven’t exactly stopped learning. Getting a book published was the culmination of one journey, but also the start of a whole new one: I don’t just want to break in, I want to stay in. That means I’ve got a lot more hard work ahead of me. And a lot more fun.

So, if any of you here are writers too: how did you learn to write?

* For non-USians or those unfamiliar with the Advanced Placement system, it’s basically taking college-level courses in high school.

** These days I’m loathe to recommend anything by OSC, for reasons of principle. But this book really did teach me a lot, and I’d be a schmuck not to acknowledge that.

*** Much later I began studying short stories, which I’d ignored for most of my life because I reasoned that I wanted to write books, not that short stuff. I got over that, BTW.

11 Responses to ““How did you learn to write?””

  1. 1 Terri-Lynne
    December 17, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    I think we went to the same schools. 🙂

  2. December 17, 2009 at 6:36 pm

    Great post, Nora. Really enlightening to see how you got where you are.

    I started _writing_ (I made up some pretty complicated stories in my head in middleschool, but never put anything on paper) when I was in my freshman year of highschool. Before that, I was already a voracious reader of the Spec Fic genre, so I had a lot of environmental experience. The first story I wrote was actually a YA mainstream mystery/suspense/thriller(?) story that I expanded from a play for my Intro to Drama class. I got about ten pages before I realized I would prefer writing SF. So I cribbed a bit off Jordan and Lackey to write two more stories I didn’t get very far on. These were both high fantasy. Most of the people I knew ta the time were not interested in this genre, and I was a rather shy child, so I just kept it to myself.

    The first story (novel) I ever finished a draft on was an epic fantasy with some inspiration from Jumanji. At this point, I had joined a writing forum to get critique for my poetry, which I had been writing since middle school, and I posted a section of my story. Unfortunately, there wasn’t a large spec fic section on the forum, and to this day, it focuses more on short stories in the mainstream and litfic genre. I still have hopes of selling a revision of that first story, which has evolved quite a bit.

    I got most of my craft experience in writing from online forums and some from my high school AP English teacher, who was absolutely fantastic, even if he was more into litfit short stories than my genre novel preference. I even set up an independent study with him where I proposed to write about half a novel. I had great fun and got a lot of work done.

    I’m always on the lookout for a good writing group, online or not, but so far I’ve done best in online critique forums. I am getting my degree in Linguistics, and I doubt I will take many lit classes in college as I tested out through AP credit. But I imagine my majr will have lots of indirect benefit for other parts of my writing.

    So, basically, I’m self-taught as well, along with most of the aspiring writers I know.

  3. 3 hayleyelavik
    December 17, 2009 at 8:04 pm

    I always enjoy hearing about other people’s path along the road to serious writing (although I still need to hit the ‘paid for it’ milestone). Mine started with terrible ‘short’ novels as well, a focus on poetry in high school because while my English teacher was lovely, she was a poet rather than a novelist, and she would have expected painfully modern fiction out of me if I wrote stories, so I didn’t go there. I did do the university thing, recently finished my BA in English, but as far as writing goes that was more the icing on the cake, and taking an education in what I absolutely love. I could go on to an MA or MFA now, but unless someone wants to foot that tuition I really don’t see the point for it. I know how to write, and right now I need time to finish projects, submit them (get rejected) and get publications.

    I actually never went into the writing book route, aside from awesome collections on mythology and fairy tales if those count, but I’ve had several recommended to me lately. I’ve sort of steered clear of books on writing and storytelling because I feel I don’t want something trying to mold my voice into something different, but I also don’t want to shut out useful info. I’d be very interested in hearing which books you felt actually steered you wrong and harmed your progress, if you get the time to post about it.

  4. December 17, 2009 at 8:06 pm

    Whoops, signed in on the wrong account there. Actually forgot I even had a wordpress account. Oh well 😀

  5. December 18, 2009 at 3:33 pm

    I’m still learning 🙂

    But when I started out, those Card books helped me a lot, largely by introducing me to books that illustrated the lessons well, particularly Octavia E. Butler’s WILD SEED. Aside from learning the mechanics of writing in school, I learned how to tell a story through a lifetime of reading from a young age, and it’s still my best method of improving and figuring out techniques. The biggest help was probably my stint at Clarion West, and then joining a professional writing group.

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