You have probably always wanted to write a book. You have probably tried to start writing it several times and gave up. Or maybe you did write it, but it didn’t quite turn out the way you wanted it to. You have most likely been scared and frustrated by the writing process, as well as exhilarated and thrilled. And you probably wondered how you could tell exactly what you wanted to tell, and tell it well.
I’m not going to give you an answer to your burning questions. I’m still searching for it myself. But I will maybe alleviate your pain in sharing with you my own search on the way to telling my stories in the best way I can. After four years of writing full-time, I have turned a corner and am no longer scared. No, this is a lie. I am scared, but being scared no longer stops me. And the answer is simple: study the craft of writing. How? By doing it and by learning how others did it before you.
When I started out, I charged ahead like mad, high on the possibility of writing my very first book and actually doing it. I disregarded rules and channeled my inner self on the page, believing it was true art (not that I understood what that meant). I was fine for a while. But on my fourth book I got lost and quickly finished it because I didn’t know how to make it better. And on my fifth book I got stuck and had to scrap everything and reengineer my entire writing process. Why? Because I ignored the rules. I thought writing was an expression of something intangible and divine that couldn’t be touched lest it be wrecked by such rudimentary and boring things as plotting, theme development, grammar, character arcs, etc. And I was wrong, and maybe because you read these lines you will trust that what I’m sharing with you is true and will spare yourself the pain I went through (or maybe you won’t, but you will remember these lines when you hit rock bottom).
Know what they expect 😉
Writing isn’t some nebulous ethereal substance to be caught from the air and randomly spun into a story. Writing is both an art and a craft, and the two can’t be separated from each other. If you’re a painter, you must know the types of paints and brushes you use. What would happen if you didn’t? Same with writing. The boring grammar is not boring at all. It’s a wonderful tool to help you say exactly what you want to say the best way you can. It’s a tool that you have to learn and allow yourself to be awkward with, at first, and keep practicing until you master it, and it becomes a skill that you don’t have to think about.
Jemaine Clement as frustrated author Dr. Ronald Chevalier in Gentleman Broncos.
That frustration we talked about, remember? It comes from the feeling that something isn’t right, but you can’t pinpoint what exactly. Studying the craft of writing will show you what’s wrong and how to fix it. Without it you’ll be lost and tempted to give up.
But there are so many ways to write! You might be thinking. There are writers who plot, and writers who don’t! You’re right, of course. But here is what I’ve learned. Until you study the rules of your craft, you won’t know how to break them. And by not studying the rules at all you’re robbing yourself of a chance to learn how to tell your tale and tell it well. You might get lucky and stumble on it. You might not. Are you willing to spend days, months, years groping around in the dark? That’s what I did, and it’s not an easy road. I nearly quit writing altogether several times, that’s how bad it got.
So where do you start? You start by doing and learning. What do I mean by that? Simple. Start writing your tale. Just start. When you get blocked and don’t know how to proceed, look at what’s stopped you and study it. Read about it. Is it grammar? Revisit your grammar. Is it sentence structure or style? Read about style. Is it your character who gives you trouble? Study how to write characters. Plot problems? Learn about plotting. And so on. You will find that every time you get stuck you will get unstuck, and with new knowledge keep charging forward. You will see that learning how to write well takes time, and you will allow your tale to be bad and awkward and messy, because you will know that it’s normal, and this is what will keep you from quitting. That’s huge. I wish someone told me this when I started.
I had to find out for myself. I hope my telling you this now will keep you from quitting. We need your tale. We want to read it. So tell it. And while doing so, learn how to tell it well. It may be that it’ll take you ten bad tales to arrive at one good one. Or maybe twenty. Or thirty. But never give up. Do and learn, do and learn, and you will get there. And now I’m done telling you my tale about how I learned that to tell my tale well I needed to study how to do it. Your turn.