How to educate yourself as a Writer

Categories Learn, Improve, Discover

If you were born in a country, in a town, on a road, and in a home, then you will have everything you need to be a fiction writer. The stories are there in your head, hiding and brewing in your childhood and adolescence; the stories that become limitless in our adulthood.

The very real events we encounter every day inform our stories. We find them in the heroes and the villains who walk our streets. We meet them in those who serve in public office. And we may even discover them in those who eat and sleep beside us in our homes.

But sometimes, having a story to tell is not enough.

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In those times, you need to know what style is, and how characterisation informs plot and, how plot defines and refines characterisation. Having a good working knowledge of your writing voice is to acknowledge its strengths and weaknesses. Being able to define what narrative structure (or lack thereof) fits your particular story will improve your telling of it. These are all aspects of fiction writing that can make or break your story, no matter how hot you think that story is.

But you need not pay thousands for a course or a degree in creative writing to be a fiction writer. While that route works for a number of established writers, you can discover the art of crafting prose on your own. Many of the bestselling and literary icons of the written word were self-taught masters of putting a pen to paper, and of pounding away at a typewriter and a keyboard.

And perhaps, what may be the most surprising thing about learning how to write, is that the best advice and crafting methods come from the books themselves. No other art form has the ability to educate of its own conception as entertainingly as the book. But even the books on storytelling are not the only and definitive references on learning how to write. The journey is long and each writer has their own path to make and take. And most of it is lonely.

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To write is to be alone with yourself, tapping into the deepest recesses of your memories and consciousness. Writing a story is to visit and stay a while with old friends and terrifying enemies; running through the entire worlds born of fantasy and science fiction; seeking out and capture the culprit of a suspense-filled mystery; and finally, attempting to answer the quiet questions of identity and the human soul; questions that reside in the extraordinary characters of literary fiction.

Let’s explore the books and the lessons I have found to be crucial in my self-education as a fiction writer.

On Writing by Stephen King

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This book is a comfort for any writer who has found themselves lost and confused in the great journey of writing. Stephen King’s On Writing is both a memoir from one of the world’s most prolific and successful authors and a travel guide for the intrepid but hopelessly naive writer. There are many moments throughout King’s journey that will move you with its unnerving familiarity, before his signature voice allays you with his timeless wisdom on the craft of writing.

I discovered On Writing many years into being a writer. By then, I was frustrated and depressed by the countless rejections and the singular publications. Many of the ideas and notions in this book were already ingrained in me by that point, thanks to the many hard lessons I experienced beforehand.

To read On Writing is to read your own writing journey. And while not all of us will be as wildly successful as King, his advice remains consistent and applicable to any writer starting their first story.

It is important to note that while King has been very successful as a writer, this book can only serve as an introduction to your education. King omitted many technical aspects of writing and storytelling from this book. These aspects require a concise repository; one detailed and blunt about the practicalities of telling a story. While King does touch on these ideas, including his bias towards ‘pantsing’ a story versus ‘planning’ it, this book is not the definitive guide on writing for all writers.

Read this book while writing and completing the first draft of your first-ever story. In it, you will find much of the motivation and creativity needed to turn your hunch into a story.

But following this book alone will get you into trouble if you are new to writing. Not everyone starts off with a strong sense of story. It often requires a fundamental obsession with telling and experiencing stories to be able to write brilliantly from the get-go. In the hands of an experienced writer, King’s advice is solid gold. But in the hands of the novice, that same advice can cause a disaster.

To be a writer is to have a healthy disrespect for authority. And, as such, King’s brilliant and sagely advice must be contrasted against a book offering an unflinching look at the reality of writing and publishing fiction.

Story Fix by Larry Brooks

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Larry Brooks’ Story series comprises of three useful guides on storytelling (Story Engineering, Story Physics, and Story Fix), which are filled with his many years of experience in writing, editing and publishing. In Story Fix, Brooks compiles a vast repository of information into his series. This information is the well-understood advice and concepts cherished by successful storytellers. And most of them are the beloved voices behind the great genre fiction in literature and film. If you have the time and resources, you could find the information on the Internet and in many other guides by yourself. But that information is ready and available in this book.

And if you aren’t living in the USA or any other part of the world with a robust education system introducing you to the storytelling and publishing industries, the content of the Story series will prove to be invaluable. The series is revelatory and unflinching with its hard lessons on storytelling. And no more so than with Story Fix.

The concept behind Story Fix’s usefulness is plain; you have created a masterpiece manuscript that rings true with its characters, has a great plot, and tells the best damn story you’ve heard of. As such, you have laboured over it for many years, hanging onto it as your piece of redemption against an unforgiving world. You even fully agreed with the brilliant On Writing, using Stephen King’s advice to craft good stuff. All of your friends and family swear that it is brilliant, and you know it is award-winning material in the making.

But most of the publishers aren’t replying to your submissions. And of those that do, many of them reply with the standard templated letter that all have the same line – We regret to inform you that we do not find your work suitable for our publishing house, but please do endeavour in your attempts to craft a publishable story.

It can be devastating to receive that after months of waiting for a reply. Enough of these letters can kill the hopes of many aspiring writers. Many already face open hostility from their loved ones for choosing to become a writer. And the worst thing about this churned-out sequence of words is that it offers little or no insight into what went wrong with your story.

But you could convince the submissions editor to send you a short email about why they rejected your manuscript. And often to your horror, they tell you that they stopped reading after five pages. And when you ask why, they all say the same thing – it just didn’t hook me.

Hook? You scratch your head and wonder what the hell they meant by that. And for many months and years after, you plod along, trying and trying again to reinvent your work, desperately trying understand what the hook meant for your story, as your life passes you by.

Story Fix attempts to deal with that before the tragedy of the novice writer can continue. You will learn the tools needed to critically evaluate your manuscript; tools needed to determine if the story really is satisfying and wicked. But I say attempts because it can be difficult to own up to truths about ourselves, let alone face them. Writing meaningful prose has us delve into the depths of our own psyches and ideas of self.

These characters are not born from thin air. The stories did not just come to us from over the hill. Writing fiction can be the most self-reflective task a human can undertake because our subconscious dictates much of what our choices of the story will be. Because of this, we can unknowingly render ourselves blind to the faults of our works, much like we blind ourselves to the faults of our own character. And just as we overcompensate for these faults in character, we overcompensate for the faults in our stories, disguising them in fanciful prose or overwrought storylines.

The practical advice, concepts, and methodologies offered by Story Fix allow us to step back from our work to see if it has a healthy heartbeat, or if it is dead on arrival. The ideas provided by this book often contrast with those of King’s On Writing, because they deal with the practicalities of ensuring your story is readable and entertaining. But while it is a useful and introspective guide into evaluating and revising your manuscript on an honest and necessary level, it is a cold piece of work on its own. It does not offer insights into the joys of writing fiction that satisfy the souls of both the writer and the reader; souls entangled across space and time in literature.

I recommend Story Fix to balance the expectations you create as a writer. These expectations can be hardened and made irrationally resolute after many hard years of rejection. This comes from my own personal experience. In reading this book, I overcame the humbling humiliation of discovering the flaws of my works. And from that, I was able to escape the traps I often set up for myself.

Story Fix offers a direct and unforgiving look into your work. But this is for good reason; the best way to learn how to write is to face yourself in your works, making that introspection work for the reader. That could be in the dangers of space; in the forgotten mythical lands hidden away from society; or in the great romantic dramas of lovers separated by war. But you will always be present in your works.

You just have to find a voice that makes reading your works appealing to other people. All of your favourite authors found theirs in due time.

The literature you like and love will guide you as a Writer

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No one way guarantees successful writing. The authors of the above books and many course-givers may want you to believe otherwise. But writing depends on much more than the sequence of words on a page. It depends on the person holding the pen or typing the keys; the person holding great worlds of stories and characters in their fingertips. It takes a long time to identify and hone a voice that reflects you in an honest and definitive manner.

That is why the best teacher of creative writing remains the very books on your bookshelf and the countless other bookshelves across the world. The writer must read over being told how to write. It is in reading that we find the pleasure and love for the written word. So many of us have our favourite authors in our favorite genres. And books are the key to finding out many great secrets of life; secrets that span lifetimes and eons. Whether it is in the great books of old or the latest bestseller, literature offers the best teachings on how to write, if not in how to live.

I became a writer because of I could no longer find what I wanted to read. And so, I wrote, moved and inspired by the great stories that I read.

I explored the cave of lifeless corpses beneath the dark lake, witnessing Dumbledore’s swirling inferno beat back those unliving horrors. And after that, I journeyed with my ka-tet through the dark and treacherous lands towards the ominous Dark Tower that held Mid-World together. When I was a young boy, I cried out in court as a young black man was falsely convicted of a crime in segregated Alabama, tragically sealing his racially-defined fate. And as a man, I struck my hands against the wall, as insurgents forced a young Afghan man and his wife to their knees, and shot them in the backs of their heads.

I mourned the fate of a lovable but tragically dim-witted man, as his best friend comforted him with the hope of owning a farmstead, raising a gun to spare him the dire consequences of his actions. And I breathed in the salty sea air in the old fisherman’s cabin, as he dreamt of lions playing on the beach, breathing as I once had, laying down on the forest floor with the pine needles spread under my broken body.

Read what you love, because what you love to read will inform you of what you will love to write.

Now sit down and write

Of course, you’ll also need a thesaurus and a dictionary. And it doesn’t hurt to intensively study grammar, no matter the language you choose to write in. A good starting point for that would be any one of the books that King and Brooks recommended regarding style. The readability of your work is paramount to your meaning being understood. Bad grammar can hamper that, as no wizard can cast a spell without learning the technique behind expressing it. You owe it to your readers and to your editors to get the basics right so that they meet you on that great narrative level.

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Learn well about plot, characterisation, narrative structure, and thematic sense. Recognise these things in your favourite works and write your own pieces to discover your own voice. And as you write, forget about these things in your conscious mind. Your subconscious will deal with these concepts, even if you mapped out the story in plans and diagrams beforehand. And it will do so if you are gradually discovering your story, filling out the page with your thought-filled words.

Have fun as you write and enjoy the process of editing. It is a long and interesting journey to finishing a story. And contrary to popular belief, you need not make yourself suffer to write. The journey is already arduous and testing at times. Prepare and revel in that fact; nothing good is easily gained. Be easy on yourself, for you can be your worst critic and your best motivator. Find a local or international Writer’s Handbook (Yearbook); consult it for the nitty-gritty of finding a publisher or literary agent.

Find out more about the publishing industry. Spend the time needed to produce a good submission package to a prospective publisher. You must always be humble, polite, and determined for your work to get out there. If you choose to self-publish your work, still make sure you educate yourself, because our voice needs to be vital and strong. You must seek to make it stand out for the billions of readers out there.

Being a part of a critically constructive and diverse Writers’ group is also important. I have found many saving graces in arguing about the magic of writing. A good set of peers can be of massive benefit in identifying and strengthening your voice.

Most of all, be humble and take responsibility for your work in the faces of rejection and acceptance. You are the writer and this is your work. Therefore, you can only benefit from being humble about it.

So for now, sit down on a good and not-too-comfortable chair, at a plain but sturdy table. Take out a piece of paper and a cheap pen, or a disconnected notebook, and write away.

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