August 8th, 2012


Preparing to Be a Novelist

I sort of failed at birthday yesterday. My plan was to take a little shopping trip, pick up the Grimm BluRay set and get some other fun stuff at Target so I'd get gifts on my birthday. I went to Best Buy first because their advertised price was lower and it's closer -- on the way to Target. But they didn't seem to have it even though their web site said it was currently available for immediate pick-up at that store, and I couldn't find any employees to ask for it. When I went back out to the parking lot, the sky had turned a sick color of black and I thought it might be best to get home rather than be caught in a nasty storm. Then we got all of about three drops of rain. That was when I made some of my Magical Cake. I just reheated leftovers for dinner since ballet started last night. I had my first intermediate class, and my thighs currently hate me. I came home and had more cake. So I ended up doing nothing much special for my birthday. Yay, me. And I was just about to go do yesterday's shopping, but the sky got black again and now there's thunder. It's a conspiracy. Rain would be nice, but the way Texas storms can be, I try to avoid being out in them because I don't want to have to deal with hail damage to my car.

However, I did manage to write nearly 3,000 words in spite of being kind of a slacker. I think I'm at the halfway point in the story, also known as the part where I've been saying I'd figure out exactly what happens when I get there. In the synopsis, I spent most of it on the first quarter of the book, a page or so for the middle, and then I wrapped up the last half of the book in about four paragraphs. I guess that means I need to figure it out now.

For this week's writing post, I had a reader question about getting started as a writer. If you're a young person who aspires to be a novelist, what can you do?

I think the most important thing to do is read. You'd be surprised by how much you absorb about storytelling and character development from reading the kinds of books you want to write. When you read something that really grabs you as a reader, re-read that book and think about it as a writer. What was it that grabbed you? How did it affect your emotions, and can you tell what the author did to affect you that way? What is it about the characters that made you care about them? How does the pacing work -- is it a non-stop thrill ride, or did you find yourself enjoying the smaller character moments? Identifying what works for you as a reader is a good step toward finding your voice as a writer. It doesn't hurt to do a similar exercise with a book that you wanted to throw against the wall. Why did you dislike it? Were there plot or character elements that bothered you, or was it the writing style? Look at online reviews of that book to see what it is that other readers liked or disliked about it. You can sometimes learn a lot by trying to understand why people love a badly written book. Obviously, they're responding to something.

While you're still in learning mode, I recommend reading as widely as possible. Read from a variety of genres and read a mix of current releases and classics. That will help you figure out exactly what you really want to write. Once you start narrowing in on a genre, read as much as possible in that genre. That will make you more likely to know how original your plot and characters are, which will push you to move past the genre cliches.

It's also a good idea to learn about the industry. When I was a teenager, one of my favorite things to do at the library was to read the writer's marketplace books -- those listings of publishers and agents, what they publish and how to submit to them. It was mostly dreaming at that time, but it meant I learned the difference between a legitimate publisher and a scam, I knew what a query letter was, what a proposal was, and about how long a novel should be for the publishers I wanted to target. Those books tended to be in the reference section, so I couldn't check them out, but I'd sit and take notes. Most libraries also have a pretty good "how to write" section -- even my neighborhood branch library has good stuff -- and you can teach yourself a lot by reading the books you find there. The Writer's Digest series on the elements of writing fiction is particularly good. I also like reading screenwriting books for story structure.

Other than reading, the best thing you can do to learn to be a writer is to write. You don't have to be writing publishable stuff at this point. Just write. Write plot outlines, even if you never write those stories. Create characters and think of situations you could put them in. Write short stories or scenes. Let yourself explore and experiment. I have spiral notebooks full of this kind of stuff that I did when I was a teenager. Most of it will never see the light of day, but there are a few characters that started back then that I've worked into books, and I think all that writing ended up being part of those however many words you supposedly have to write before you can write something worth publishing.

When it comes to formal education, there are a few degree programs in commercial fiction. However, most creative writing programs lean toward the literary side of things, so you won't find much support from your instructors or classmates if you try to write something like fantasy or romance. There aren't really any "entry level" jobs for novelists, so you may need to major in something that will allow you to earn a living until you sell enough books to make a living as a novelist. Otherwise, I'd recommend taking courses that give you something to write about. If you want to write science fiction, take astronomy to satisfy your science requirement. History can be useful for writing fantasy. Psychology and communications courses are wonderful for character development. Acting classes are also good for character development. I majored in journalism, which helped me have a way to earn a living as a writer, but I think it also taught me to meet deadlines, write quickly and have a writing style that's easy to read. Even so, it's my non-journalism courses that I tend to draw upon the most in my career as a novelist.

So, bottom line: To become a writer, read and write.