Riffs on Writing

…Any craft, whether woodworking or writing (and here I mean authoring), requires three basic components: talent, skill, and dedication…

This is a collection of odd bits: answers to questions people have asked me about writing; my own musings on the subject; collects from other writers. I suspect that most of the people who read it will be playing with the idea of becoming a writer. If so, I hope it offers some direction.

What does it take to be a writer?

This is a very common question, though it’s usually not worded quite that way. Most people ask, “What’s it like to be a writer?” or “Is it hard being a writer?” or “How do you write a book?” These are not quite the same question, but from most questioners they express the same desire – often closely guarded – to be a writer.

First, I like to distinguish between “writer” and “author.” I am both: a freelance writer in my day job and an author in my avocation. In the first case, I write non-fiction (occasionally semi-fiction, when it comes to marketing). In the second case, I write pure fiction – fantasy is, after all, about as fictional as you can get. Both require a grasp of language: a wide vocabulary, the rules of grammar, an appreciation of style. Beyond that, they diverge. Freelance writing requires a facility with words, plus a fussy attention to detail and exactitude. Fiction writing requires a vivid imagination to drive your facility with words, the same fussy attention to detail and exactitude regarding the imaginary world of your current creation. You cannot be sloppy with the personalities of your characters, the physics of your world, the chronology of your events, or the rules of your magic!

Any craft, whether woodworking or writing (and here I mean authoring), requires three basic components: talent, skill, and dedication. A talent for authoring is a complex mix of imagination, grasp of language, and narrative sense – the ability to conceive a story out of characters, events, and places. You don’t learn talent; you’re born with it.

Skill is a set of techniques that you do learn. Skill is what turns raw talent into a polished gift. For a writer, it is the details of vocabulary, grammar, style, characterization, dialog, description, plotting, pacing, and all the other tools of fiction.

Learning to use the tools of writing – in other words, developing skill – takes practice. That’s where dedication comes in. An author has to be dedicated to writing. Writing has to be one of your favorite past times. You have to enjoy the process. But more than that, you have to be driven to it. Authors write for two reasons: because they want to, and because they have to.

And by the way, to be a writer, you have to be an avid reader. That is how you learn to recognize talent, to compare styles, to consider ideas, to broaden your appreciation of literature.

Read often, read widely, read deeply, and always question what you read. It’s one way that you refine your writing skills.

There are skilled authors who lack talent. Their work is often a pleasant escape, but it can be stereotypical, repetitive, unoriginal, shallow, or a mix of all these. Too many flaws and it won’t get published, of course. There are also talented authors who lack skill. Their work is often fascinating and rich in characterization, mood, and theme, but uneven and inconsistent. It doesn’t keep its promises. If you’re reading carefully, you can spot the differences among authors. The author who is both talented and skilled is an absolute pleasure to read.

(Disclaimer: I like to believe that I have some talent and am always developing more skill. If you believe otherwise, please be gentle. An author’s bluster often covers a fragile ego.)

Where do you get your ideas?

Ideas come from everywhere: the news, the events of your life, other books, history, the quirks of your friends and neighbors. The hard part is not coming up with ideas, it’s sorting out the good ones and then developing them into full-bodied and original stories. A good idea is one that can become a story.

An idea begins with a “what-if”: What if there was a boy who found a magic wand? Okay, so what? That question sparks a dozen other questions: Who is this boy? Where does he live? Is magic normal there? What kind of magic? How does he find the wand? What does he do with this wand? What kind of wand? Why is it important for him to have this wand? Who else wants the wand? What about the magician who owns the wand? And so on, each question raising a dozen more that have to be answered before you have a real story.

Probably the most important question in the list above is “Who is this boy?” People are the engines that drive stories. It is the actions of people that cause events. Faced with a wand, what does the boy do? Why? What are his dreams and desires? What does he want out of life? How was he raised, to make him desire what he desires and act the way he acts? Why are his actions important, to him and to us, the readers?

One final thing to keep in mind about ideas is that few of them are original. Someone somewhere has had this idea before and already written a book about it. Do not despair: you are not that writer. You are a unique person who can rephrase the idea and use it in an original way. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery (and it is a good way to practice skills), but never copy someone else’s finished work. Instead, build on the idea, evolve it, and make it you own.

When do you write? (And also, How do you write?)

As often as I can. And when I can’t, I still jot notes. This falls under the Dedication trait. You have to make time to write. You can’t back out because you’re tired or are fighting off a cold or someone wants you to come watch a movie or there’s this TV show . . .

(Which reminds me: TV kills budding writers. It distracts them, dulls them, sucks out their imagination and replaces it with vapid drivel. Shoot yours now while you still have the will!)

Back to the When question: I have found that squeezing in even as little as an hour of writing in an evening always makes me feel better about life. Try it: it’s like a wonderful, free drug. Hopefully, it’ll become addictive for you.

As to how I write: on a computer. First I jot notes, then I arrange the notes in a notebook (or in files on line) according to the type of note: characters, background, setting, events and plot line, theme. Then I write a fairly detailed synopsis of the events, then I divide the synopsis into rough chapter breaks, and then I start writing. I add characters and events as I go along, and about half-way through I have to stop and rewrite the synopsis of the second half or final third or whatever is left. I also rework chapters as I go along.

When I’m done, I let the manuscript sit unread for a couple of months, then I read, edit, and rewrite. Then I show it to my wife and son and a select group of literate friends. I think long and hard about their suggestions, rewrite, and finally send the manuscript, now in its third or fourth draft, to my editor.

That straight-forward description covers anywhere from a year to a year-and-a-half of writing time. (It would be less if I could do it full-time.)

But please note: Every writer has a different process. Jane Yolen does not use outlines, according to her book Take Joy, A Book for Writers (a good book for the aspiring writer). Ursula Leguin hand-writes her first draft, as did Frederick Pohl. Pohl also disciplined himself to write or edit four pages every day (that’s “on average” – if he missed a day, he tried to do eight pages the next day). Stephen King doesn’t set a page limit; instead, he writes for five hours each day. I don’t set limits. Sometimes I set loose deadlines for getting a manuscript finished. Mostly I just try to write whenever I can and, as I said, to jot notes when I can’t.

If you have a question about writing, please send it along. I’ll try to answer it as best I can, as soon as I can. And there are lots of other web pages about writing, including some in the “For Authors” section of the Science Fiction Writers of America web site. There is a wealth of advice and encouragement out there to help you turn your talent into skill.