Sunday, August 08, 2010

Writing Life: Tips For Beginning Writers (Part 3 of 5) - Learning

I went on about the importance of experimentation during my last post. And I've talked about learning from reading all the time. I've read many books on writing but have not fully immersed myself in one for a long time (such as diligently doing the exercises, etc.). I think doing such work is very worthwhile but I find myself just wanting to write rather than take the time to work on learning how to write. It's the same attitude I have about writing practice: worthwhile but I'd rather be spending time on my WIP. Still, I've been telling myself lately that I really do need to go through one of my many books to see if I can make my writing better.

I've only taken one class on writing. It was at City College here in SF and it was an okay class. The most valuable thing I got out of it was I wrote a short story and read it out loud in class, something I'd never done before. It was surprising and gratifying. Surprising because people were coming up with different ideas and interpretations of the characters and their motives than I ever dreamed up or intended, and gratifying because my story, even though it was written on the fly and only a first draft, had enough depth and emotional complexity to elicit such a response. Other than that, I didn't learn anything new about writing at all. Out of all the students, I had the most writing experience which I found surprising. The rest of the students had only completed a short story or two at the most. This was probably seven years ago when I first arrived in SF and before I started blogging.


Speaking of which, I highly recommend people start blogging if you want to attempt to integrate writing into your life. While it's difficult to keep posting regularly, the experience of blogging is very useful for learning about writing in general. I've said it before but it bears repeating: for me, blogging is a completely different animal than writing a short story or novel (even my personal short stories are different from "regular" fiction that I write). To me, a blog post is just straight writing and minimal editing. It's always written with my very small readership in mind even if I write for myself.

Below are the many valuable lessons I've taken away from blogging:
  • This is an egotistical thing to say but I love reading my own entries. Blogging has taught me to really love my own writing and to savor the process of coming up with a post, writing, posting, and getting a kick out of it.
  • On some level, it seems I've developed my own blogging and writing style. It wasn't intentional and I never thought about it but I've enjoyed the process of developing my "voice" here on Mock Turtle's San Francisco Life.
  • This is the first place where I realized that I could move myself and others with something I wrote down. Some of the posts I've written have made me cry and from some of your very kind comments I've seen that I can move other people too.
  • Lastly, I love all my characters (Mr. Gryphon) and this crazy, weird multi-verse I've come up with on this blog.
You may not get as much of out blogging as I have but I still think it's worthwhile. One thing almost everyone talks about with blogging is they want comments from people. They want feedback (presumably positive feedback). Blogging is not about feedback. If you get comments then that's fantastic but don't blog just to get feedback because comments tend to be few and far between. I'm very fortunate that I sometimes get comments from you but no one should blog solely to fish for comments.


An MFA is a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing (and other things). From what I can gather, MFA programs are very difficult to get into and tend to be expensive. I'm always eager to talk to anyone who has been through the program and/or majored in Creative Writing in school because I'm curious about what they learned over the course of 4-7 years.

I talked to a young woman who was the roommate of a guy I went out with briefly and she acknowledged that her writing was beautiful but that's all it was. She was in the middle of her MFA program at SF State. She had no body of work as of yet. Part of her class assignment was to draft a novel, something she'd never done before. She was blown away when I told her that I had drafted my second novel and was pondering how to revise it (this was about three years ago) when I'd only taken one (sort of) writing class. She kept saying "but you have a novel! YOU HAVE A NOVEL!" even as I protested that it was unfit for publication and needed serious revisions. I asked her if she thought it would be a good idea to take writing classes, she said, "Not really. I think it's far more instructive for you to keep writing, to keep doing what you're doing."

More recently, I spoke to a guy who had completed an MFA program at a prestigious private college. I asked him what he learned and he said all he learned to do was write sentences. He was working on his first (!) novel and wanted to write a bestseller so he could make a ton of money. I shared some of the tips I've learned about writing bestsellers such as writing down to a high school level, writing short chapters that get shorter as the action progresses, and making sure there's plenty of white space. This doesn't guarantee your novel will become a bestseller; there are PLENTY of great, difficult to read books that make the bestseller list but this is a formula that some people follow (by the way, I'm not following this formula). I explained to the guy, "Think about the folks on MUNI who read during the commute. Most of them probably check to see how long the chapter is before they decide to put it away or keep reading. If the chapter is short they will probably keep going." Unbelievably, he had never heard of such ideas before. I was also surprised that he had never written a novel but maybe you don't write novels during MFA programs. What do I know?

As most of you know, I haven't really been to school. All my writing has been self-taught. It occurs to me on a regular basis that my writing could be so much better if I had gone to school for it but then I stop thinking about that and just concentrate on my WIP. On the other hand, while it is important that I try to keep improving my writing, I don't see myself as someone who will ever write "beautifully" or will ever write "literature." That's something other people do. My job is to tell stories and try to tell them well.

I love my stories and I love my characters but sometimes I worry I don't have the skill or education to pull this off. Whenever I feel this way I just tell myself to keep going. The only way I'm going to know if I can pull it off is to do it. And if I don't pull it off then the process will be instructive anyway.


As you can see on the sidebar there I've participated in the NaNoWriMo or National Novel Writing Month. The NaNoWriMo takes place in November and it challenges you to write 50,000 words in one month. I drafted my current novel during it and will definitely be participating in this year's upcoming NaNoWriMo so I can draft my third novel. Your novel most certainly will fall into the category of "1st Draft" and will likely require plenty of tweaking and rewriting but the experience of participating is invaluable. You may not think you can write 50,000 words in one month, much less a coherent story, but I'll bet you'll be surprised with what you come up with. When I last participated, I had no endurance for writing at all so I was literally running to catch up each week to make my word count. There was no time to think about whether my novel made sense or should be edited. I just kept going and the story took on a life of its own. The characters started doing things on their own and I was REALLY surprised at the end. The novel is quite a bit different now but I've still maintained the general structure even if the characters have all "matured" into themselves.

Since I have very good writing endurance now I'm curious to see how it goes this time. Will I finish early? How will I approach it this time? I'm really looking forward to it.


Fan Fiction or FanFic is taking well-known characters and writing stories about them. There are numerous blogs and websites where people are writing fanfics all the time. Some popular examples include Harry Potter, Star Trek (I believe the original Star Trek series spawned the first known fan fictions in the 1960s), and not surprising, Twilight. Fan fiction is also based on movies, TV shows, comic books, etc. I'm working on one myself, just for fun and to test drive Scrivener, and it's turned into a serious project. The most instructive thing I've learned so far is the importance of immersing myself in the source materials. I felt it was important for me to learn about the characters and the story world so my story "felt" right. This showed me how important it is to immerse myself in my own characters to the same degree. I may have made up these characters but that doesn't mean I know everything about them. In fact, they're starting to emerge as "real" people only very recently.

This is a difficult concept for some people to understand and is largely dictated by your writing style. How can you make up a character and not know everything about him/her? Maybe other people know everything about their characters but for me it's all part of the writing process. When I was writing my novel during the NaNoWriMo I mentioned to someone I was working with at the time that I didn't know what was going to happen next or how the story was going to end. She said, "How can you not know what's going to happen next when you're the one who's writing it?!" She clearly thought I was an idiot. I felt stupid at the time but now I know it's entirely possible to not know about your story or characters until you've been able to spend more time working on it. There are plenty of famous writers who say it takes them several drafts to even begin to figure out what the story is about. This woman clearly knows nothing about writing even if she is a voracious reader.

Next post - Fuel

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