This is part two in a three-part series on “How To Become A Better Writer”, or at least “Sam’s Opinions On How To Become A Better Writer”. The difference is small but important.
As I said in the last post, creativity is different for everyone; this isn’t a generic guide to writing, but rather a list of opinions I have and truths I’ve found for me. For you, they may be different. So, today let’s talk about what to do when you aren’t writing.
One of the primary things I think people forget to do when they’re working to be a writer is to read, and more importantly, read critically.
When I was studying theatre, most students only worked on shows, never attended them, and that was a problem in theatre schools across the country. I read an article about how graduate schools were beginning to ask not just “what have you done” but “what have you seen”, so I started going to shows I hadn’t worked on whenever I could, financing my train fare and ticket cost by writing reviews for the school paper. And I became a much better artist and thinker because of it.
I have always been a voracious reader. I learned to read young and my parents, while not great readers themselves, always made sure I had enough books and all the encouragement they could give. By the time I started writing at fourteen, I had read a lot of really great books — classics, popular literature, genre novels. I’d been reading above my grade level my whole life, and as a freshman I was working my way through the books the seniors in my high school were reading that year. I’d never studied grammar formally, but I’d had paragons of English grammar and storytelling in front of my eyes my whole life.
AND I SUCKED OUT LOUD.
My story structure, my grammar, and my prose were dreadful, and that’s not false modesty. I can say that, because I was fourteen and a dumbass, and I own my dumbassery since it led me to my current state of lesser dumbassery in my thirties.
How could I not comprehend the basic grammar of dialogue? I’d have three people speaking in one paragraph. I had been reading books for twelve and a half years. How is it that I didn’t look at every book I owned and go “Welp, one person talks per paragraph, okay.”
I wasn’t reading critically.
There’s nothing wrong with reading for pleasure, and I do it a lot. But reading for pleasure had not actually helped me become a good writer. Reading critically doesn’t just involve forming reactions to the prose, but studying how it’s put together, how information is conveyed, when information is conveyed. My problems with grammar could have been fixed if I’d ever had a class in it, but shouldn’t have existed anyway, given how much I read. If I couldn’t absorb grammar from books, what else wasn’t I absorbing? And it’s not like this is uncommon — terrible grammar abounds in fanfic, and indicates a lack of bigger things. Critical reading may be a given for some of us, but not nearly for the majority.
That’s not an inherent character flaw or something to be ashamed of. It’s something to fix, by thinking about what you read and studying how it functions. It takes practice to internalise it all, but if you love reading anyway that shouldn’t be much of a chore. And this can extend, of course, to other media — being able to dismantle a TV show or film to figure out why and how it works is a natural outgrowth of critical reading.
Okay, so I lied a little; this is about a form of writing, but not the writing that directly leads to publishing original work. It does lead their indirectly, however, and it’s not a new concept. Plenty of people say that you should learn to write by imitating your favourite writers.
Why hello there, fandom.
Emulation does work. It gives you a greater understanding of a writer’s style and the way they assemble their work. It allows you to see, in some writers, how they express their ideologies through their work. It encourages you to reinterpret their characters in your own words. I think a lot of people forget to talk, however, about the next step after emulation: independence. In order to write original fiction, you can’t lean too heavily on another canon. It rarely works. Don’t get me wrong; I know that taking the step away from fanfic and into original fic is a difficult one. It’s not about abandoning fanfic — I still write it, and there’s no reason anyone shouldn’t — but in terms of training to be a writer, there is work involved in transitioning.
Fanfic depends on common touchstones derived from canon. There are givens that almost everyone reading the story already knows — basic personalities and appearances associated with names, and usually a few things about the setting and way the universe functions. So if you have only written fanfic, there are skills that have likely been underdeveloped: character-building, world-building, certain forms of exposition. These are things that fanfic writers coming to original fiction may need to work on.
A lot of it may simply be a matter of practice; if you’ve been working within fanfic to develop your craft, you should have developed good instincts about how to keep going on your own, too. I’ve found writing Alternate Universe stories to be worthwhile in that respect, because it’s at least a start towards developing those skills: building new worlds, dealing with characters who are similar and yet different at the same time. And for the rest, there are books one can read:
So…there are things that writers should know, basic stuff about grammar and structure and composition and character, and I’m absolutely shit at outlining what it all is. But I do know books!
Undoubtedly some people are going to tell me I am SO WRONG about this, but the best book I have found for providing the fundamental tools of fiction writing is On Writing by Stephen King. By the time I read it I didn’t actually need to be told a lot of what he was saying, but I did agree with a lot of it and he put it better than I would have. The book is split in half — the first half is basically an autobiography, while the second half is concerned with composition. If you don’t like Stephen King, that’s fine, just read the second half and ignore the personal bits (the way in which he became a professional writer is essentially obsolete anyway). It will introduce new writers to some very important concepts, and might freshen things up for experienced ones. Most of what I would say about actual story development would just be a retread of On Writing.
A good book for reading about the creative process is John Steinbeck’s Journal Of A Novel, which is the journal he kept while writing East of Eden (I admit bias: I personally love Steinbeck’s writing and East of Eden in particular). It’s a fascinating poke around the mind of a veteran writer composing a story not just to be his magnum opus but also as a gift to his son, conveying all the lessons and feelings he wanted to share with a child he felt was drifting from his paternal reach. Again, if you don’t like Steinbeck, just ignore the more personal bits; he might have been an occasional misogynist and kind of a prick sometimes but he was undeniably a good writer and someone who’d been doing it for decades by the time he started the Journal.
These are fiction books I really like and think, structurally, are worth a look: Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton, which is a perfect story with stunning, beautiful prose; The Three Musketeers by Alexandre Dumas, particularly the masterful corruption of Felton; and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins, which has one of the best examples of an unreliable narrator ever and is good for studying shifting point of view. These impacted me. They may not do much for you, but if you can find or think of books that impact you, they’re worthy of study to find out why.
One final personal tool, for what it’s worth: when I was in college I deeply and thoroughly loathed Death of a Salesman. I’m very fond of Arthur Miller’s work in general, it was just…THAT PLAY. I probably can’t even tell you why at this point. But I was struck very much by a passage I read about a critic who had seen a translation of Death of a Salesman performed in Japan, and he’d been impressed to see so many people weeping at the end of it. The play is heavily rooted in American culture, but it touches on themes that are common across many cultures: loss, pride, ambition, obscurity, the plight of the misfit. The idea of writing specific stories that still address the universal has always stuck with me. I don’t always do it, I don’t always even try, but just keeping the concept in the back of my head has made me more capable of achieving it when I do.
Fandom is a fantastic way to learn to write, not just because of the benefits of emulation but because we have a culture of reciprocity. You post a story, people tell you what they think. This is a good way to get feedback because while you can bother your friends and family to read your stuff, it’s easier (and in some ways, more polite) to put it out there and let people take it or leave it. I like blogging for the same reason — I can air my opinions or tell my stories and only the people who actually want to hear them have to read them.
There are some problems with using fandom to get feedback on your writing, of course. When I started writing and posting in fandom, lo these many years ago, there was a more open exchange in terms of critical feedback, where readers would provide suggestions and corrections. I had a lot of great mentors who helped me stop being such a dumbass because they felt permitted to criticise. Fandom feeling has shifted to a more positivity-oriented system where critical feedback is often discouraged in favour of supportive-praise-or-silence. I don’t want to argue with advocates of this, because I understand their position, and I don’t want to lament the old days, because there was a lot about usenet fandom that I wouldn’t take back if you paid me. But I do yearn for a community where crit is more acceptable, where it is encouraged. It’s one reason I always encourage critical commentary on my work, because I want to set an example.
In the end, I can’t really tell you how to get more feedback. I’m not sure myself. I know there are certain things that help encourage people to comment, like engaging with civility and being open to commentary, commenting on others’ fic, developing circles of friends who are willing to share their work and read yours. The way I came back into fandom and started making friends again was to post a fic in an active community, and then contact the first few people who commented intelligently to ask if they’d beta my next fic. That seems to work well.
But overall, this process of developing a readership is one of the great mysteries of fandom. It’s like going viral; nobody has successfully worked out the formula yet. Though it does appear to frequently involve cats.
What I can tell you is how to deal with the feedback you do get. There are two things a writer has to do in order to interact with criticism: learn to accept it when it’s genuinely helpful, and learn to tell genuinely helpful from genuine bullshit. This is haaaaard. It’s so hard. Possibly The Hardest. The best advice I can give for both is to trust your instincts and be honest. If you find yourself getting defensive, take a long hard look at why. Sometimes it’s justified! Often it’s not. Most of the process is learning what to accept and accepting it in the spirit of improving the work.
One of the hardest pieces of criticism I ever got was someone saying “He can’t kill his darlings” about me on an anonymous messageboard. I still get defensive about it, and I still don’t believe “kill your darlings” is always the answer, or even most-of-the-time the answer. But I also stopped and thought, well, yes, okay, sometimes that is true. It’s something I work on (not, I admit, with any great success yet).
These are the tools I’ve used; I hope they’ve been helpful, or at least not pointed you in the wrong direction. And now that we’re done with writing and learning, we get on to the fun stuff: the third and final part in the series, where we talk about Where To Get Your Ideas.