Advice to Aspiring Writers
Ed Greenwood is a treasure trove of experience for young, aspiring writers. I asked him to give his advice for what aspiring writers should do—and not do:
Writers should . . .
Read. Read, read, read. Not so you can copy stuff, but so you can experience all sorts of styles of writing, so you can learn what’s popular now, what’s falling out of popularity, and what’s rising into popularity. I never learned much formal grammar, but my writing and spelling are far superior to most of what I encounter in modern writing. And I read so darned many good writers of the past (Kipling, Wodehouse) that I can fall into their styles and cadences if I want to. Reading also shows you, even unconsciously, how writers handle scenes such as funerals or angry confrontations, how they describe places and characters at the reader’s first contact with them, how they cover the passage of time, how they draw the reader in to see and feel and smell a place, and dozens of other elements of storytelling. You can learn a lot about pacing or when and how to use humor without even noticing you’re learning it, if you read enough, and widely enough. You can also learn a lot of useful facts without ever setting foot in a boring classroom, too.
That’s step one. Step two is: write, write, write. Lots, and do not avoid rewriting your own stuff. Don’t think it’s carved in stone because you wrote it, but don’t delete it constantly, either. Keep your prose, even when you wince at it. Rewrite it without destroying earlier versions; try scenes from different viewpoints or at different lengths—play around with words.
Writers write. Only a few of them put on funny jackets and stick pipes in their mouths and give lots of interviews—or lectures, for that matter. Your worst book is the one you never wrote, not anything you have written. Get your backside on a chair and your fingers on a keyboard and write. I went to university and got a journalism degree not to become a journalist, but to train myself to write in noisy conditions of many interruptions and distractions, not when I was alone, in my favorite slippers and in the right chair, with my mind “just so.” And it worked. I wrote most of a chapter of my current book with a pencil and pocket notepad because I was ten minutes early to a restaurant dinner, a week ago—the way I used to write in the old days. I’ve also written three novels, two full-length game books, and a raft of magazine articles and short stories all in the same year (and all of them subsequently got published), because I get on with it. During my most productive years of Realms writing, I was commuting a hundred miles to work six days a week, working an eight-hour day, then driving the same distance home (to an old farmhouse that needed its share of running repairs).
So I tend to reject claims of “Oh, I’d like to be a writer, but I just don’t have the time.” Horse-puckey, to put it politely; it can be done. I’m not advocating an arms race; if it takes you four years to write a good book, take four years, because I like to read good books. If you want to make a living at your writing, though, it’s best if you can write slightly more than one book a year.
Writers should NOT . . .
Stop reading or stop living or fall into routines because life is too busy. The worse the input into your brain, the worse your output. You stand in peril of starting to write dull “same as the last one” books. From cooking something new (or learning to cook!) to looking around a different country (even if only on television), make sure there’s always input in your life. Feel overwhelmed and bombarded by new stuff? Learn how to control what’s coming in, to take time to think. Go visit an old barn and just tramp around smelling and looking (haven’t got one? find a pioneer museum and get away from the guided tours).
If you bog down on what you’re writing, start something else that’s different. Keep multiple things “on the go” all the time, even if you never intend to finish them all and just use them as “breathers” from your main writing work. As the old adage insists, “A change is as good as a rest.”February 10th, 2010
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