Monday, November 8, 2010

To Study or Not to Study

A few nights ago, I was hanging out at the house of a friend and fellow writer. While I was there drinking sangria, binging on chocolate and listening to more late '90s R&B music than I ever thought I'd hear in one sitting (don't ask), I flipped through my friend's plethora of books on craft.

When I say "plethora of books," I mean it. They filled an entire shelf of a fairly wide bookcase.

I also had a long conversation with owner of said books - who's started and stopped one novel and is now working on a second - about her writing process. She got started the same way I did - the same way a lot of us did, I bet. One day she was a young professional with a run-of-the-mill day job. The next day the Great Idea hit, and suddenly she was a young professional with a run-of-the-mill day job and a side gig as a wanna-be novelist.
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The big difference between us is the way we approach our writing. When I started writing my first novel, I just let myself loose on it. I'd never written fiction before (at least not since the book about the girl and her dog I wrote in the third grade) and I had no idea what I was doing.
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And I knew that I had no idea what I was doing.
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And usually I'm a play-by-the-rules kind of girl, but when it came to this, I made a conscious decision to throw rules out the window and just go with it. I'm pretty sure that decision was based on fear that if I started researching the way I was supposed to write a novel (or anything about the publishing process, which terrified me then and still does), I'd psych myself out to the point that I wouldn't actually write the novel.
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So I decided I wouldn't even think about the fact that I might one day try to get what I was writing published. I didn't surf publishing websites or writing blogs. I didn't research agents. And I didn't read much while I was writing - in part because I didn't want other writers' styles to creep into my language, but mainly because reading other writers tended to give me a killer inferiority complex.
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I also didn't read any books on craft. As a matter of fact, I didn't even know to call it craft. In every conversation I happened to have with the friend mentioned above - the only other person in my social circle who's working seriously to become a published author - she taught me a new term simply because she knew and spoke the language of a writer.
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I was not yet fluent.
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But it worked for me. At least, it kept me focused on my book and getting it finished, which I did in eight and a half months despite the fact that I had a day job, a side job, a toddler and an overstuffed calendar. I stayed true to my original idea (for the most part) and just kept typing until I reached the end. Once that happened, it felt like a huge reward to finally order a few books on writing, google "getting published" and start mingling in the world of writers. It was also a huge reward to start reading again. I counted it up the other day, and I've read 39 books in the seven months since I finished my first draft.
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Here's another confession: Only one of them was on craft. I want to know the rules of writing, and especially of editing, but I don't want to stifle my creative side. Letting loose on the page was one of the best experiences I've ever had in my life. I can't wait to do it again.
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And I want it to feel a little like the first time.
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What about you? How did you "learn to write?" Did you just start doing it one day, or did you study the craft of writing first? If you could go back and start again, would you do things the same way?

9 comments:

  1. I don't think writing is so much a "deliberate" act that we learn. I'm from the school of thought that subscribes to the belief that true writers are "born" with the ability. Of course there are rules and techniques and terms to pick up along the way---but I see that as being icing on the cake.

    I do think, however, to hone one's craft it's crucial to read authors in various genres, to identify creative weaknesses, and to always actively seek to become better.

    I was never "formally" trained. I would not change things if I could go back.

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  2. Hi Jennifer,
    I completely agree with that. I think we can study the rules and practice, practice, practice to hone our craft, but writing is just one of those things: You've either got it or you don't.

    I also agree that reading is a crucial part of studying the craft of writing. Not only do you get a chance to study other writers' techniques, but you learn what you like and don't like as a reader, which can help inform your own writing.

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  3. I finished a first novel last spring and wrote it just the way you did yours, I think, I simply wanted to get everything down on the page. I had some vague notion of what the plot would be, more of who the characters were, and would just sit down and write. Once finished, I planned to go back and edit from beginning to end.

    And I still do. But soon after finishing the first, I began on the second and a circumstance made it clear to me that I should proceed with this second before revising the first.

    The second is being written much differently. Each chapter is coming out almost as a stand-alone short story and making it easy for me to go back and revise as I'm going along. It's also being written more chronologically than the last.

    I don't think there is any right way to write. I think the key is to just write ... the rest is details.

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  4. That's interesting, Richard - thanks for sharing that. I really WANTED to plow right into my second idea. In fact, I have a working manuscript for my second novel and a rough outline jotted down in my journal. But something in me - I guess the same instinct that makes me write and edit chronologically - won't let me get moving on that idea until the first manuscript is query-ready.

    Have you found any good critique partners for your fiction writing, btw? I've been looking for local writers to commiserate with....

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  5. I had fully planned on doing nothing but revising the draft of the first novel once it was done (with the occasional short story thrown in, of course).

    However, I wrote a short story that was turning into something larger as I was finishing the first novel, and that short story just won the Mem Mag fiction contest. So I decided it would be smart to try and capitalize on that win and placement.

    Now I'm about 40,000 words into the new piece and I divide my time between obsessing over the first and the second. Usually I get stuck somewhere in the middle of both and play on Facebook instead.

    I'm in the Moss Fiction Workshop with Richard Bausch at the U of M, so that's where I've been sharing fiction. Sharing it is all new to me, though, and it's a difficult thing to do, I'm finding.

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  6. (Richard Alley and RJA are one and the same)

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  7. Congratulations, Richard, on winning the fiction contest and being selected for the Moss workshop! I'm sure that is tough, sharing work aloud. I cringe at the thought, although I know I need to be doing something like that. I've halfheartedly searched for local writing groups or classes but haven't taken any real initiative yet.

    Meanwhile, I've been learning what I can about the publishing world and trying (unsuccessfully) not to feel overwhelmed or intimidated. And of course, I get distracted by social media, too....

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  8. I first started writing humor essays in college, so it was off the cuff. My first novel was humor, also off the cuff. Then I decided to get "serious" in my Advanced Creative Writing class and outline. That novel was science fiction. Then I went back to off-the cuff-humor.

    Yes, I read about the craft--ravenously--and applied what I learned, but when it comes to to plotting and outlining, I just like to sit down and let it go onto the page. I have a couple complete novels (unpublished) but I figure that's practice for the one I'm writing now with a partner, which WILL be published. (That's me being positive, not because it's not done, nor has it been accepted anywhere.

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