So, how does one become a writer? The long-delayed post today – because I had a routine doctor’s checkup – gave me time to come back and look at your comments, and we can all agree that a degree in creative writing is about as useful as a meringue hammer. At least I hope we all agree, because I’m sure of this.
In fact, what little I took in terms of creative writing in school probably hindered my writing commercial fiction. It’s sort of looking at things the wrong way. Your Creative Writing professor might have been ecstatic at the bit of symbolism in which you dress a character all in white to symbolize purity, but the reader is probably not even going to register it consciously, and if your character all-in-white proceeds to do nothing much that’s interesting, then well… The reader won’t be happy.
Mostly what the reader wants is to experience emotions. If along with it you can backload some stuff to make the reader think, and if your reader is a thinking sort of person, bonus. But mostly the reader wants to experience something and “emotions” is the common denominator, atop of which you add the peculiar “cookies” of each genre. So, say, for romance, you have to have … romantic stuff and tension between the couple; for SF (depending on subgenre) cool stuff like robots and space exploration; for fantasy everything from LOTR plus some; for urban fantasy shifters and vamps and hot chics (or cute guys) fighting them. However if all those things don’t contribute to the emotional experience, you got nothing.
While from the critics end… well… they’re looking for symbolism and meaning and wondrous stuff like allusions to other books… yeah. And most college courses teach you to be critics not writers.
So – you can’t learn it in college. What makes a writer a writer?
Well, you don’t have to be crazy to work here, but it helps.
Most of us started out telling ourselves stories. Or we told younger siblings stories. (I only had cats younger than I, and they were notoriously averse to standing still while I told them stories.) Or, when we were older, we told our peers stories (guilty!)
I wrote my first “novel” at six. It was ten handwritten pages and Enid Blyton Famous Five Fanfic. (Hey, one does what one can.)
By highschool I was writing 20k word “novels” of very, very bad Clifford Simak pastiche.
And that’s part of what makes you a writer. Like the artists of old who copied the works of the masters, almost all of us started out by writing things in imitation of those authors whose work had moved us the most.
At some point we realize it’s not quite ours, and we start experimenting. For me that was my twenties, which generated a never end of REALLY BAD experiments, including some that can never be buried DEEP enough. In fact, my kids are under notice if they find and publish any of them, I’ll come back and haunt them into the next century.
But in the middle of the experiments, my taste, formed by an awful lot of reading, picked this and that that worked, and that other thing that sparkled, and… And I started to get a clue.
In my early thirties I had the revelation that I was writing for a reader. Yeah, I know. I’m slow that way. Now, I had no idea who “my reader” was or how he functioned, but I had an idea that I would write for the reader I’d like to attract.
And then it became sort of like playing chess on both sides, and things started to work. That mind set is absolutely necessary to know when you’re too slow, when you’re too fast, when you’ve skipped something essential…
So – it’s hard to acquire, though at this point it’s second nature. (Posting at austen.com and getting comments as I wrote really helped that sense of what the readers were getting or not.)
And there it is. You become a writer by:
1- Copying the masters.
2- Learning to go beyond copy
3- Reading an awful lot
4- Learning to write for readers.
Sounds easy, right? Right. And you’re wondering where the part comes where you suffer for your art, aren’t you?
Trust me, there’s suffering enough in there. Like most simple plans, the difficulty is in the execution.
Now – go work.