Next update January 25 2014
Welcome to part two of “How I became a writer”. If you missed part one, you can check it out here. Just to recap, this is the long, winding story of how I became a successful writer. I’ll throw in random tips and philosophical musings on writing in general as I trace my progress through my career. You might find it interesting, you might even find it useful. Or not, but it’s free so suck it up.
In case you forgot, in part one I talked about where my ideas come from (everywhere) and the importance of being ”original” (it’s overrated, everything’s been done before, the details are what make something interesting and unique). I also spoke about the importance of style and voice. But I didn’t get into HOW you develop those things. That seems like a good place to pick up.
By the time I was in high school, I knew I wanted to be a writer as a profession. I seemed to have a knack for it (though I still had a long way to go to become “good”). But my talent didn’t just spontaneously appear – it slowly grew and developed over time. You’ve probably heard this before, but it’s worth repeating: if you want to be a writer, you need to do two things – read and write. Most of us probably start with reading. Reading gives you the foundation to be a writer, and to have a good foundation you need to make sure you read a wide variety of authors with different styles. But you also need to read different types of media; don’t just focus on novels.
I’ve always enjoyed reading, and by the time I hit high school I would devour books. In addition to assigned curriculum (text books, “classic” literature, Shakespeare) I plowed through literally hundreds of other works. I focused mostly on speculative fiction novels: horror by Stephen King, Clive Barker and F. Paul Wilson; sci-fi by Asimov; fantasy by Tolkien, Brooks, Eddings, Donaldson, Hickman and Weis. But I also read a lot of non-fiction, like newspapers and magazines, and I read a lot of short stories.
And I didn’t just read them for enjoyment. If you want to be a writer, you need to develop a critical eye. You need to be able to analyze what you are reading as you read it. When you read something amazing – something that stirs up passion or emotion in you, or makes it so you can’t put a book down even though it’s 3am and you have school or work or your wedding the next morning – you need to take some time to try and figure out WHY it’s so good.
Stephen King is a master of creating characters and small scenes that resonate with the reader. He’s so good at it that sometimes he throws in characters that really don’t have anything at all to do with the main story. In a lesser writer’s work these would be extraneous chapters that could be cut out, but for him they are compelling and entertaining enough to make the story better. A good example is The Stand – the original version was “only” about 800 pages long. The unabridged version released years later was about 1200 pages, and most of that new stuff was side characters that didn’t actually affect the main plot. But the unabridged version is wildly popular, largely because those characters are so damn fascinating.
That’s something I recognized early on in his work, and it’s something I’ve tried to emulate to some degree. I try to make the small side characters that make cameo appearances into something more. In the first Darth Bane novel, there’s a healer he goes to for help. In the original Dark Horse comics, that healer doesn’t even have a name. But I felt like he needed more – I gave him a background and fleshed him out. It worked so well, that he became relevant in the second and third books of the series. That would never have been possible if he was just some random healer dude who helped Bane out.
Other writers had other things to offer me. When I read David Eddings’ Belgariad, I was blown away by the rapid fire dialog and the witty repartee between the characters. (I’m guessing an entire generation of fantasy authors felt the same way, since it’s almost impossible not to read a book now where virtually every character is brilliant, witty and silver-tongued.) Now, I’m not saying Eddings invented this, I’m not saying he was the best at it. But when I read his work this was something that jumped out at me.
Every author I liked had something I could steal for myself. Clive Barker’s descriptions were so visceral and powerful (and grotesque) that I couldn’t get them out of my mind. I found the pacing of Terry Brooks Shannara books drew me in and kept the story going. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant offered a dark and grim style I was unfamiliar with - they seemed to have more weight and gravitas than anything I had read before that.
As for the short stories and magazine articles I read, they taught me a lot about structure. I’ll let you in on a little secret: novels are the EASIEST form for writers to work with. Novels, even the good ones, are often loose and even a bit sloppy. Because there are no word limits – no constraints – authors can get away with some elements or sections that aren’t perfect. If a book is 500 pages long it’s unreasonable to expect 500 pages of brilliance. There is probably going to be some heavy-handed exposition, or a slow part, or some scenes that don’t quite work as well as they should, or bits and pieces that feel disorganized or disjointed. But because there is so much other good stuff, most readers don’t notice. (Or if they do, they let it slide.) But in a short story or article, these kinds of flaws become much more obvious.
Writers who work with shorter forms have much less leeway – they need to write tighter and more efficiently. Short story writers don’t have the luxury of slowly building up attachment to characters simply through word count – they need to find powerful hooks. They can’t have bits and pieces that don’t drive the story forward; everything must be essential. Non-fiction writers (text books, magazines, etc.) need to be more organized and focused than a novel. They need to present their themes in more overt ways, especially if they are trying to win people over to their side of an argument or opinion. You can learn a lot about presentation, style, sentence structure and narrative logic from shorter works – things that are often more difficult to pick out in novels because they are more subtle or more deeply embedded in the writing.
Fortunately for anyone looking to become a writer in our modern age, it is very, very easy to find shorter forms of writing courtesy of the internet. Blogs (like mine!) are okay, but they are often a bit too meandering and informal. I’m not saying don’t read them, but be aware that they aren’t always the best example of how to write professionally. However, there are many other websites that offer well-written content, often updated daily. I still read novels, but I also read the websites Grantland and Cracked almost every day. The first is a sports and pop-culture analysis website, the second is an on-line humor magazine. But because they are well written and edited, I truly believe reading them makes me a better writer of fantasy and science fiction.
When I find articles that are particularly good, I take the time to think about why they worked: how did they connect with me as a reader? What did I particularly like about it, and how can I draw on the same things in my own writing? Of course, not everything you read will be good. Some (or much) of it will be mediocre, or even terrible. But even reading bad writing is valuable (though don’t overdo it.) If you read something you don’t like, it’s important not to just say THIS SUXORS! You need to think about why it didn’t work for you. What turned you off specifically, and how would you fix it?
An interesting exercise is to take something that is very popular but critically reviled and try to read it. There are plenty of incredibly popular books and authors out there that “serious” readers dismiss out of hand. But if they are selling millions of copies, they must be doing something right. What makes Twilight and Fifty Shades of Grey so popular? They must be offering something to readers. You might not be the audience for that book, but these authors have found a way to connect to their audience. It might be worth trying to figure out how they did it.
I remember when The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown exploded onto the book scene. It seemed like everyone I knew who had read the book (or read part of it, or simply heard of it) dismissed it as utter trash. But it sold roughly 8 trillion copies, so I decided to pick it up and see for myself. And honestly, I had trouble putting the book down. The pacing is incredible, the chapters are short and punchy and the way he ends every chapter on a cliff hangar makes it very easy for a reader to say “just one more before I go to bed”. Say what you want about Dan Brown’s writing skills, but he creates a breathless excitement in his stories – something I personally want to strive for as a writer.
Even the good authors have their flaws, and recognizing the bad in the good is another great way to improve your own writing. Let’s go back to Stephen King – one of my personal favorites. He’s often said that he doesn’t like to work from an outline; he likes to take an idea and run with it as he writes. Unfortunately, it shows. The process obviously works for him, but I’ve never felt endings were his strong point. It’s really about the journey, not the destination.
Long ago I made the conscious decision that I wouldn’t write like that, because I prefer a powerful ending that I can build to throughout the whole novel, and I don’t feel you will always get that if you don’t plan things out. I always work from a detailed outline when I write. I start with an idea (remember my giant word doc of ideas from part 1?), but once I decide to run with it I will expand the idea into a 2-3 page summary of the entire story. Then, I put it aside for a week or so and let it simmer in the back of my mind. When I return, I will often edit or change the summary based on new ideas that have cropped up, and I will then flesh that out into a chapter by chapter outline of the entire book. I usually have a paragraph or two for each chapter detailing exactly what is going to happen, and by the time I’m done this stage I have a 15-20 page detailed outline of exactly where my story is going. I put this aside for a couple weeks and let it simmer, too. When I come back, I go through the outline and rewrite and change it based on the new ideas I’ve come up with. Only then do I start writing the actual novel.
That might seem like a lot of prep work, but I feel this gives me a solid structure for the plot. It’s easier to use foreshadowing or put in twists and revelations that make sense when you have a strong outline. It’s easier to maintain a consistent theme, and it’s easier to control the pacing. It makes it easier to jump between multiple POV characters, because in the outline you can see exactly who is doing what when, and when readers need to see those particular scenes. I rarely stick exactly to my outline – it’s an evolving document that changes as I work through the novel. But having it there to guide me keeps me focused.
Whew – that’s a lot of words I’ve spewed out just to say “If you want to be a writer read lots of stuff, m’kay?”. But as I said way back at the beginning of this blog, reading is the foundation – I can’t imagine someone ever becoming a good writer without first being an avid and eclectic reader. Of course, that foundation isn’t any good if you don’t actually start writing… guess I’ll get to that next week.