Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Becoming a Writer

I recently got involved in a discussion on Goodreads.com regarding the craft of writing--improving writing skills and quality--vs. marketing.  That sparked me to want to write a bit more (but of course!) on the subject.

(Query: is there any writer out there anywhere who hasn't at least wanted to write about how to be a writer?  Or at the very least, about how I, myself, go about being a writer?)

What got my attention was that the original question was phrased as "But do we need to spend as much time on improving our skills and delivering a quality product as we do on marketing?"  To me that was the wrong question, because obviously (to me, of course) you need to hone your writing and become an accomplished writer before you publish, and marketing comes later.  [Not as much later as I thought.  Since I didn't start looking into marketing until my book went live, I failed to realize that you would ideally do a fair bit of marketing before you publish.  So the question isn't a off-key as it at first sounded.]

On the topic of marketing, I'll just say that it is definitely a skill and maybe an art that requires a significant investment of time.  If I ever get it figured out, I'll share my wisdom on the topic.

To return to the question of becoming a good writer, though, I see several aspects of the process, and I don't think that any can be ignored, nor are any ever completed.

1.  Become a reader.  Preferably, from about the age of 5, or younger if you can manage it.  Read good books, well-written books, though I don't think a moderate amount of trash will ruin you (I have certainly read a fair bit of trash, especially in Jr. High and High School, as well as last week).  If it is at least grammatical, it will help you internalize the rules.  But to master the graceful use of language, I believe, you need to steep yourself in graceful language.  I don't think any amount of study of the rules of grammar will get you there.

2.  Write.  Write tons.  Then write some more.  Then toss all that and write some more.  Like any art, or craft, no amount of natural talent can make you an instant good writer.  You have to practice, and most of what we practice, whether it's scales on the piano or dance moves or prose, is not meant for nor suitable for performance.  I don't count any of the awful stories I wrote in grade school and high school as wasted, though they will certainly never be inflicted on the wider world.  Nor am I intending to share my first novel, and probably not the second and third, either.  I used them to learn how to shape a story, write a sentence worth reading, etc.  Practice, practice, practice.

3.  Seek outside feedback.  When you were in school, teachers made comments on your papers in an effort to get you to improve your writing.  That feedback is still necessary.  I don't care who you are--J.K. Rowling, Will Shakespeare, or F. Scott Fitzgerald, you need someone to read your work and let you know both if the story works and if the prose is good.  Ideally, you find someone who can manage line edits, as well, before publication (that's the nasty work of finding every typo, every slightly misused word, every misplaced comma).  Readers and editors are good to have even when you are pretty sure the work you're doing is finger exercises.  Just like those English papers, you learn more from your writing when you get some feedback.  But all levels of editing are a MUST before publication (or submission to agents and publishers).

4.  Actually, I don't think I have a #4.  Read, write tons, and get feedback.  If you do enough of that, I believe you will become at the least a competent writer.  Here's the uncomfortable part: that still might not be enough.  Let me explain.  I minored in music in college.  I played French horn, and I took lessons, practiced daily, and really gave it a lot of my time and energy.  And I got good.

But I never got good enough to be a serious performer.  I believe that I could have practiced until the sun burned out and never reached that point, because I just lack some basic abilities.  So I settled for playing for my own enjoyment, and being part of amateur ensembles.  And that was okay (I didn't want to be a starving musician anyway).  But that wouldn't have been okay about my writing, and I honestly don't know if that feeling (that I had to write and I had to find some readers) means that I have a greater natural talent for writing than for music or if it just means I want it more.  In other words, I'm not sure if the un-ignorable urge to write necessarily means that one has what it takes to be a writer.  And that's an uncomfortable thought indeed.

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