Whenever someone tells me they would like to write, my first question is always, What do you read? Writing is not for you unless you have spent a lifetime reading, a lifetime savoring stories. All too often, the answer I receive to my question is, "Oh, I don't have time to read. I watch TV and movies, but I would like to be a writer." The conversation usually ends there.
Writing is a craft, like playing a musical instrument or painting with oils. Every aspiring writer must acquire this craft, just as every musician must learn his or her instrument. Today some high schools and most colleges offer creative writing courses, and so do various writer's workshops. If you look around you will undoubtedly find one in your area. Some of these folks charge for their services.
Whether you take a formal course or not, most of the craft must be acquired on your own. The best place to begin is the public library, which is full of good books written by people who know how to write. Check out good books by good writers in the genre in which you are interested. Analyze their styles, see how they set up a scene, how they do dialogue, how the characters are introduced and developed, how the writer makes the names memorable or fails to do that, how the story is paced, how the action unfolds, how the conflicts develop, how the subplots are made part of the story, how the climax is handled. Analyze the scenes, find the key words which bring out the emotion of a scene, study how the writer got his effect, how he uses verbs and adverbs, try to decide why he used the key words he did. Why did the writer choose the point-of-view he used, did he shift verb tenses, why are the paragraphs where they are, why did he use action verbs in one place and "to be" verbs in another? What are the rules this good writer follows?
This stuff is not magic: it's all right there in black and white. You must dissect it and study it and think about it. And you must learn.
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Beginning writers are well advised to write about something they know. Many beginners try to write about people and places and events that they know absolutely nothing about, and consequently expend vast quantities of time and effort but cannot get the story to read right. Do not write about the world of Manhattan high fashion and glamour unless you have been there and seen it from the inside. Do not write about the sins of the Hollywood film industry unless you know this world well. The sole exception to this rule is this: you can write about anything that no one else knows anything about--this category would include science fiction, fantasy, and, perhaps, Jean Auel's caveman novels. Even so, you must always master the rules of the genre in which you wish to work. Sci fi sells to hard core fans who read little else. You have to know this genre inside out if you expect to write and sell books to the Trekkies. Ditto horror, romance, porn, and a few others.
Writing is very hard work. Those folks who try it for any length of time understand that fact. Writing good fiction is so damn tough very few people succeed at it. It seems that those people who do it best are thoughtful, careful readers who study successful writers and learn the techniques. Like glassblowing or painting, writing is a craft that can be learned, but it must be practiced diligently and painstakingly.
Like every craft or art, good writing requires a spark of originality or all the sweat will have been in vain. Talent is an elusive, hard-to-define quality. Yet, like pornography, most of us know it when we see it. Craft compliments talent but is not a substitute for it. Talent needs workmanship and sweat to succeed, but workmanship and sweat are not enough. There are thousands of bricklayers yet only a few artists in stone.
Craft aside, to write successfully you must have something to write about. Every word you write is a distillation of everything you know about life, about how the world works, about how people think and feel, their motivations, their hopes, their dreams, and so on. How do you write a woman in love? Well, if you are not a woman, it would help a lot if you had known one or two who were desperately, hopelessly in love. To write successfully you must understand what it is to be human. Only then can you reduce the human experience to language and put it on paper. Our best writers drank deeply of life. I give you Mark Twain, Winston Churchill, Ernest Hemingway.
One of the common mistakes of aspiring writers is to write about themselves. Some do it to explore their inner emotions, others do so for the simple reason that they know themselves best. Regardless, writing about yourself is a literary dead-end, a place where readers do not care to go.
Students of writing must write about other people, learn to create characters that live within the boundaries of the fictional world created by the writer. This is the very essence of the craft, without which you cannot progress.
At some point every aspiring writer must evaluate his or her work and make a realistic appraisal of its worth. Are you just laying bricks? It helps to have unbiased readers who will give honest criticism. Do not try to write unless you are willing to fail. If you are unwilling to let your friends read your stuff because they might not understand it, it is unpublishable--the book buying public won't understand it either. This leads inexorably to my next point: if you have to explain to a reader what they should have gotten out of a story, it didn't work. Go back and work on it some more. The story must stand on its own. How well it stands is a direct measure of how well you have mastered the craft of writing.
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Speaking of the courage to fail, through the years I have noticed a curious phenomenon. People who are experts in literature, who know grammar, who can discuss the intricacies of plotting, characterization, setting, pacing, etc., until hell won't have it, people who seem to have all the equipment necessary to succeed at writing fiction, rarely try it. Although these people sometimes have PhDs in English and literature, they seem quite content watching hacks like me turn out commercial novels. I'm not complaining, you understand, but I have a theory about why this is so. These folks would be satisfied with nothing less than writing a masterpiece, and since they know that is highly unlikely, they write nothing. On the other hand, I have no ambitions about masterpieces--I just want to write fun books that entertain people and make a living doing it. I want to write the kind of books that I like to read. So I write and the experts read. In a way it's sort of sad.
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This year only three dozen people or so will have novels on the bestseller lists. You have a better chance of becoming a U.S. Senator--we have 100 of those folks. If you want to make money in your spare time, get a job at McDonald's. If you want to get rich, buy a lottery ticket.
Write because it's fun, because you enjoy the creative process. If what you write ever gets published and you make a few bucks, that will be the icing on the cake.