On Becoming a Writer

How do we become fiction writers? What do we need to know? How do we learn writing it in the first place? Answers abound: schooling, reading, expert advice, books, conferences. However, the usual answers may be wrong or naively relied upon. And oddly, aspiring writers often avoid the best training.

Can School Teach You to Be a Writer?

Yes, if you love analyzing fiction from an academic perspective. Go ahead, get an MFA if you want to learn how to craft metaphors, subtle characterization and stupifyingly dense prose.

Isn’t an English degree, at least, going to provide a writer with the basics? Afraid not. I have an English degree, and I don’t regret it. It gave me an overview of English literature and I certainly learned my grammar. For example, I know when i-t-s needs an apostrophe. But if you’re serious about being a writer, a review of English literature is a luxury, not a necessity. And there are cheaper ways to learn grammar.

On the subject of grammar, if you don’t know what a hanging participle is, your grammar is weak. If you don’t know what commas in a series means, look it up.  Did you think “woe is me” is grammatical? Nope, it ain’t. And as for i-t-s, mistakes make me irritable. There are many books and internet resources for learning grammar. No excuses not to have thorough command. Using an apostrophe incorrectly, as in, “Virtue is it’s own reward,” will give agents and editors (threshold guardians, you know) just the excuse they need on a busy Wednesday morning to pass on your manuscript. While it’s (yup) true that agents need clients, they’re also inundated by manuscripts and are human enough to look for reasons not to read any further. (Not “farther.”)

Save your money. Formal schooling won’t help and may hurt.

What if I Find a Mentor Who Will Coach Me?

We aren’t this delusional, are we? Published novelists are chronically busy, writing to deadlines, planning the next one, promoting, having a real life. Authors at publication stages above yours will occasionally be an inspiration to you, whether consciously or unwittingly, but they will almost never take you under wing. They might, in a long shot, recommend you to their agent. But that would mean having to read your manuscript, and they do not have time to read it, believe me.

The Shortcut to Getting Published

There are no shortcuts.

You may have heard of someone who appeared to have studied not a whit who writes a brilliant novel that not only gets published but connects with a gazillion readers. Don’t try this at home. Ask, rather, if they published a second successful book. Because occasionally there is a story you were born to write and if you’re gifted, it spills right out of you and gets stage time. But after that, you’re back to having to learn stuff.

It’s the Story, My Friend

Besides grammar and basic writing tools, storytelling is the thing you must master. You will need it for your current novel (usually), and the next ten or forty,  for as long as you get to stay in the game. They do not teach storytelling in undergraduate school nor in most master programs. Why don’t they teach it? Because they don’t know from story. If they did, they’d be selling novels and not teaching a classroom full of people who they know will never sell a novel.

Why is story the main skill you need to learn? Because this is the basis of commercial fiction. The commercial novel, with its demands for a dramatic and meaningful plot, drives publishing profits. If you are a superb stylist with a sense of humanity and humor you may write prose at a sophisticated level and still tell a good story. But if you want to write literary fiction, you’ve raised the bar, and hey, I admire your suicidal courage. Now you need to do everything that the successful commercial novelist does plus deliver perfect-pitch style that doesn’t get in the way of your story.

Learning Storytelling

We learn from gifted teachers who know their chops. We learn by trying out what we’ve learned and putting it out there for critique, including our own evaluation.

There are writing conferences, stand-alone workshops, on-line seminars, writing talks and how-to books. There are writing blogs from published writers and writing groups to provide support and feedback. You will also meet other writers at your level whom you can reasonably ask for feedback; these people crucially may have a gift for an area of fiction that is your weakest.

A few caveats:

Not all teachers are legitimate.

If you have attended workshops and come away raring to write, chances are you got your money’s worth. But buyer beware. A workshop may have a slick workshop title (“Characters to Die For”), but what has this presenter published? Are they self-published? Winning or being nominated for awards is one indicator of quality. Furthermore, many writing teachers have published nonfiction books on writing. They have a lot to say, and they’ve sold a ton of work to people who agree. Look for credentials before you sign up for yet another rip off of the hero’s journey.

Writing Groups Are No Shortcut

Writing groups have their uses, but let’s not lean too heavily on them. I like critique groups as a social support in the lonely craft of writing. Sometimes the feedback you get on your writing is spot-on. Their great weakness is that you likely cannot assemble a group that knows more than you do. Often the members are struggling to write well, but they resent intrusions into the story itself. And story is where most novels go wrong.

For the unvarnished truth about writing groups,  see my post on this topic.

If You’re an Avid Reader, Congratulations

You need to be. It’s one way we learn. But not all reads are of equal value for learning to write fiction. We have limited time to read books, so what choices do we make? The classics? Maybe. I’d hate for you to miss Jane Austen, but I’d also hate for you to base your cozy mystery on her dialogue techniques.

Are you passively accepting the books your sister passes on to you? OK, but are they recently published in your genre? Are they recent recipients of awards? Is the subject writing or an area of research? Did they recently get rave reviews or briskly sell? You’ll notice the emphasis on what’s being published now. Stay abreast of who is selling what, particularly in your chosen genre or in mainstream. Just-published novels show you where the bar is set, especially in the case of new authors.

So, if you read extensively, have strong grammar, belong to a writing group and attend workshops, you’re well on your way. But make sure you’re picking up the essentials.

Structure, Strategy, Skills

Writing is a craft you learn by fearlessly researching the elements of fiction (point of view, scene-building, dialogue, indirection) and what Larry Brooks calls core competencies, expectations for the things your story will deliver (e.g., concept, character, theme.)

Fiction writing calls on us to master the elements of fiction and story structure to drive home your drama. How-to books and teachers can provide access to this learning. See my post, for example, on scene-writing. It will lead you to some of my favorite learning sources.

Occasionally you will find a teacher who opens doors in your understanding and speaks to you in a way that other speakers on the topic have not. This can be a life-changing experience. The teacher will dispense knowledge that seems to filter through you, filling empty spaces. At last you get it.

But we have one more thing to do.

We Must Write to Be Writers

The best thing you can do to learn your craft is to write. At first, it will not be for publication. You will be practicing. And then, as you move up the learning curve, you’ll be practicing better.

Even your first less-than-stellar efforts will have the advantage of teaching your brain to attend to writing. And your writing results will expose the things you need to work on, those essential elements that you haven’t yet mastered. Weak plot? Derivative concept? Passive characters? You have work to do. Using your own material you can diagnose weaknesses, seek out new strengths, new competencies.

Say you’ve finished a novel and polished it. The next step is to find an agent, right? Hold on. Is this book as strong as it can be? Really? How did that concept work out? Startling, original, compelling? If not, can you bear to move on? Because marketing that first book is a crucial step. Even if it gets published, a weak debut will hurt you. If you fail to hook an agent, don’t turn to self-publishing–write a better a novel. (I get to say this, because I have a first novel living under my bed that will never be published.)

Learning to write is a patchwork adventure of gleaning from people who’ve done it, keeping faith with your own writing practice, and learning to analyze others’ work and your own.

There are no shortcuts. Nor does the journey end with publication. I’m still growing as a writer, discovering new strengths, uncovering pesky weaknesses.

In other words, I’m still learning.

10 Responses

  1. Angelo says:

    thanks very much for sharing this, Kay!

  2. Kay says:

    You’re welcome, Angelo. I am nothing if not opinionated!

  3. Josh says:

    Excellent touches on vital steps, Kay. I appreciate that you don’t try to sugar-coat things for aspiring writers.

  4. Julie Musil says:

    “In other words, I’m still learning.” Love that! Thanks for this amazing post.

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Julie Musil, Josh Vogt. Josh Vogt said: Kay Kenyon's post On Becoming a #Writer – http://bit.ly/a6DCo7 #amwriting #writers […]

  6. Kay says:

    You’re welcome, Julie. I actually wrote a dumber version of this post; hated it; re-thought what it Really takes to become a writer, rewrote. Glad this one connected!

  7. Kay says:

    Oh good, I’m not too tough, then. I remember teaching a novel-writing class about ten years ago. After about the sixth week, I asked a nice couple how they liked the course. She said: Oh, we’re quitting. We just never realized how Complicated and Hard novel writing was. That was when I realized I could lighten up a little!

  8. Doug says:

    Thank you for this post. As an English major myself, I couldn’t agree more with the assertion that an English degree can hurt you as a writer. It trains your analytical brain, which is very helpful during revision, but, from my experience, inimical to the creative stages. To write a powerful story, you must play around in the imagination–picture images and feel sensations and emotions. Paying too much attention to the words and thinking about what you’re writing gets in the way of that.

  9. Kay says:

    Oh good, another English major steps forward. I would just add to your comment that academic analysis (which I loved, in its place) also gets in the way of story telling; that is, it persuades one toward indirection and ambivalence, rather in keeping with literary distrust of too much plot.

  10. Augie Hicks says:

    Kay thank you once again for this post. I have taken academia creative writing classes for years, but the most valuable lessons I have learned in writing were from two editors, who advised me to write from the heart, and revise, revisit, revise, reconstruct, revise, revisit and let go (maybe not in that order all the time). Thank you again. augie hicks

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