Yeah, I did shamelessly steal that title. Why do you ask?
No, I’m not reviewing Stephen King’s On Writing. Though once I get around to reading it I probably will. Before that I’ll probably review Mentor, by Tom Grimes, which was recommended to me by a teacher. But in light of recent posts on 13/31 regarding story ideas and writing, I’ve decided to take a week out of my regularly scheduled programming and talk about my craft.
Now, I’m not saying I’m the best writer ever, or that I’m even particularly good, but I’m pretty proud of my work and that’s all that matters to me. Whether or not I’m a good writer is a moot point. I know about writing, so hopefully this post will help anyone who’s interested.
As I mentioned to typoattack in a comment on his Story Proposal post, writing is an organic process. You can’t just sit down and say, “I’m going to write a story now.” You need some jumping off point, and it won’t work instantly, so you need the patience to let the story come naturally and to deal with editing and changing things as the story evolves. Maybe you’re writing a vampire story and your protagonist is a male, but you realize that a certain plot point requires him to be a girl on her menstrual cycle (look, I don’t know what kind of fetishes you’re into; this is a just an extreme example to show you what I mean. I think I know too many people who like Twilight and this horrible teen vampire lusting culture has gotten to me). You have to be patient enough and willing to rework everything to make that work.
Secondly, don’t be frustrated if something doesn’t work at first. It won’t always be an instantaneous event. Sometimes you’ll have to return repeatedly to something, at different times, in order to make it come together. Stephen King actually threw out the manuscript to his first novel, Carrie, and the only reason it was published was because his wife salvaged it and said he should publish it. One has to wonder where the master of modern horror would be if his wife had left the novel in the trash.
Let’s face it. When you first start writing, you’re not going to write the Great American (or Chinese, or Canadian, or whatever country you’re from) Novel. You probably won’t even write a novel. I’ve been writing since I could form coherent sentences (I’m really not exaggerating too much if at all on this point), and I’m daunted by the process of even compiling a collection of stories. A novel is a very long way away for me. To write a novel you need not only a plot, but side-plots, character development, a complete outline, or at least general idea, of where all the plots go and how they will converge, diverge, or end, whatever the case may be. Even the simplest of novels require planning like this; if you aren’t truly comfortable with that, then don’t even consider attempting an epic-scale, 1141 page apocalyptic tome like The Stand, or a series, like The Dresden Files. Always start small in writing. The basic foundation of any piece is a page; and pages are comprised of paragraphs, which are in turn comprised of sentences, made up of words, which are simply combinations of letters. In the same way, the basic foundation of any competent novelist, in my opinion, is a story. If you can’t write a short story, then how can you write a novel?
Finally, and most importantly, be honest with yourself! If you want to write, it has to come from the heart. Contrary to what most people believe, writing is not a cerebral act. Yes, you have to think and be somewhat intelligent; but mostly you have to have a good imagination and you have to be in tune with what you really want to say. If what you’re writing isn’t what you truly want to say, then it will show. It will seem hollow and fake. And likewise, if you aren’t honest with yourself about where your weaknesses lie, and what you can handle doing, you’ll never improve. It’s one thing to have a goal, but it’s another entirely to think you can accomplish the impossible. Picking up a pen for the first time and trying to write a novel, without an practice or experience, is like walking in to college before graduating 8th grade. You’re not going to get very far, no matter how much you think you can. Confidence is essential, but so too is consciousness.
So there you have it; the basics of writing as I see it. Nothing technical here, just my basic philosophies. Also, don’t be afraid to study your favorite authors and incorporate bits of their styles into yours. Don’t copy them, but emulate them. Channel them, in a sense, so that you are writing YOUR story, with YOUR unique style, but with elements of other styles as well. And remember, the more you write, the better you’ll get. It’s not a job or a hobby. It’s a lifestyle.