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Sunday, October 12, 2008


Learning to be a writer?

Donalbain asks:

Kit! I has question!

I can not write. At least I can not write in the make-up-things-and-enthrall people style. I am very good at the writing of factual, specialised sciencey nerdy journal articles..

Do you think it is possible to LEARN to write? Not to a published, proper writer level, but so that I can enjoy doing it, and maybe someone might enjoy what I write?

That's a difficult question. Some writers say no, some say yes; a lot, I think, depends on how much they feel they 'learned' to write themselves.

I certainly think it's possible to educate oneself out of one style and into another. I've worked as a copywriter, for instance, but when I came out of university, my non-fiction writing style was extremely dense and academic, totally unsaleable. I'd picked up the technical style of a university, but it was completely wrong for jacket copy or press releases; I had to learn a new style. I was lucky in my first boss, who was a real mentor and helped me learn how to be punchier. That learning experience was a success; I've been paid for copywriting since, and wrote my own jacket copy for both my novels, at least in the UK editions (and did some tweaking on Benighted as well).

So do I think it's possible to learn a different style? Yes, definitely. Fiction, though, isn't just a matter of style. A good style helps, but fiction has an unsual problem: you're on your own resources when it comes to substance as well. Analysing a text, blurbing a product, describing a theory: all of these situations give you something to work on. You don't have to invent a new scientific theory or gadget before you write about it; some of the thinking has already been done for you. You're describing something that's already there.

With fiction, you're on your own with a blank page. There's nothing there unless you create it. You need to do your own plotting, character development, scene-setting and so on. Learning how to do those things well is a more complicated question.

If we get into how to learn those things, I at least fall into a bit of a haze. Mostly I learned about character development from watching how people around me behave and speculating about how they feel, and from paying close attention to my own thoughts and feelings and postulating that probably everybody thinks and feels according the same basic principles but widely varying experiences. Plotting I simply don't know; I'm a maker-up-as-I-go who tends to have a basic end in mind but no clear picture of how I'm going to get there, so it's a question of working out what would be plausible and what would be interesting. Scene-setting is about balancing what the reader needs to know against what the narrative voice is likely to observe.

All of these issues, I have no personal prescription for; I have to work it out as I go, mostly by instinct. Instinct can be developed, but in my experience it's been a solitary course of self-education, and I'm wary of drawing any general conclusions from it. I can get away with basing all my characters' reactions on my own thought processes because I control their world; if I try that on real people, I'm likely to come a cropper.

I'd say that writing fiction requires an informed imagination. By this I mean you need a combination of several factors. Part of the 'informed' element is that you have to read a lot; I can't think of any writers who don't love to read, and if someone doesn't love to read, I find it hard to imagine that they'd enjoy writing. Making notes while you read isn't necessary - or at least, I don't do it; instead, you just put yourself in a nourishing bath of good fiction and start absorbing by osmosis. The more good stuff you read or watch, the more experience you have of what works and what doesn't, and that's knowledge you need to have.

At the same time, you have to be an open and thoughtful observer of the world around you; as Ruskin says, 'You will never love art well till you love what she mirrors better'. Even very fantastical art has to be drawn from life; Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell wouldn't be half as good as it was, for instance, without its sense of history and landscape, of scholarship and climate and human behaviour. Unless you can figure out a way to write a story without characters (in which case you probably don't need anybody's advice), you will at least have people in your story, and the more close to real people they are, the better the story will read. You have to educate yourself by living as well as by reading.

The other factor is imagination, and that's the kicker: different imaginations work differently, and some people have more trouble accessing theirs than others. To some extent it's a matter of habit - once you get used to using your imagination, it comes easier - but there's a difference between imagination and fantasy. I might spend ten minutes at the bus stop noodling away with a vague story in my head about how I defeat the Martians and get personally thanked by the Queen, but I wouldn't say I was composing fiction in that moment. Because it's a daydream, I can skip the difficult bits. How would I get through the hull of their battleship? Oh, well, I'll deal with that later, but it'll make a big, satisfying explosion anyway. Why don't their megawatt cannons destroy me? Well, I have a cannon-proof outfit that, um, that Nick Cave gave me! Yes, that would be fun. Would I have to curtsey to the Queen if I didn't want to? Well, it's my daydream, so she can make an exception for me. And so on. It's a silly example, but it points up the problem: a story in the head can be fudged. If I was sitting down in front of my computer to write the story of How Kit Defeated The Martians, I'd have to start using both rigor (Nick Cave probably doesn't have a cannon-proof suit, and even if he did there's no reason he'd give it to me) and genuine invention (I'd have to figure out how I'd actually get through the hull of their spaceship, and that would involve coming up with some imaginary technology, maybe some new characters who could provide it, backstories and personalities for them, resolutions for their personal stories, and some scenes in which we see the technology introduced).

So imagination and daydreaming are not necessarily the same thing. To get to the imagination, the fertile source, the best method I've found is through forms of play. I write three pages of whatever I like every morning just to get my hand moving; automatic writing, in which you can say whatever you want, is a good way to get going. (I'd recommend Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way and Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones for more on this subject.) Playing with your imagination versus daydreaming is the difference between playing a sport and watching it: the former is more rewarding, more engaged and fun and leaves you with better memories, but it takes more energy.

But because everybody's imagination is different, everyone has to be an auto-didact. I know how I learned to use mine, but I can't speak for anybody else.

The question of whether you can learn to enjoy writing is something I couldn't comment on. Enjoyment is subjective. If you're writing for fun, then you know whether you're having fun or not, and if you're not, then you have to ask yourself, What can I do to make this more fun? If you're not trying to sell anything, that's very liberating: you can do something completely silly. I can't introduce a brass band of ducks parading in a victory march around the ankles of my heroes when I'm writing a novel professionally, but if you're just entertaining yourself, why not? The idea is to please yourself, and you're your best judge on that.

Writing things that other people enjoy is a question I find best left alone. I know I sometimes say, 'Your readers won't enjoy it if you do this' ... but I'm putting myself in the category of 'reader' there: I wouldn't enjoy my work if I scamped on this or that. You're always your own first audience; if other people enjoy your work too, that's a bonus. But it's something to think about after you've finished writing. If you think about it while you're writing, your attention is on the end, not the means - and writing is all means. Other people are a question for later. If you're writing something specifically to amuse somebody else, that's a different question; then it becomes a game between the two of you. The Exquisite Corpse game I posted recently, for instance, was a game I was playing with two other people, and baffling or amusing each other was part of the fun. That can be a good way to play; banging ideas around with friends is great entertainment. But if they're not doing audience participation, I wouldn't worry about 'em.

Can some people never learn to write stuff that others enjoy? This is a question that sends many a published writer into diplomatic knots, because if you say 'no', people leap to accuse you of arrogance, meanness and trying to keep the competition down. Being completely honest, I'd say that probably some people can't. I base this less on other people's writing than on the knowledge of my own limitations. For instance: I could study and study, but I seriously doubt I could ever learn to compose a good tune, never mind a symphony. I enjoy listening to music, but if I try to compose it, I feel like I'm trying to see with my elbows. If I'm like that about music, it seems logical to assume that some people are like that about writing. On the other hand, this doesn't mean I'm not allowed to hum in the shower.

The question, really, is why you'd want to write if you feel unable to. There are lots of other hobbies. Wanting to write suggests one of two things - though if I've missed something, do say so. First possiblity: you feel, for some reason, that you should enjoy writing, because you enjoy reading or have friends who enjoy it or believe people who think writers are better than other people or some other reason. If that's the case, then take it from me: you don't have to enjoy it. (Even I don't enjoy it all the time, but that's a separate question.) If you don't enjoy doing it, then don't stress yourself; go have fun doing something you actually like. Second possibility: you actually do enjoy it, but are worried that you're only allowed to enjoy writing stuff that's 'good', and that if you 'can't write', you need to learn better before your fun is justified. To which I'd say: fun is its own reward. I'm a rotten draftsman, but I enjoy the odd doodle nonetheless. I mean, look at these shaky little rabbits I drew. If I think I have to draw like Durer before I'm allowed to enjoy sketching bunnies, then I'd have to feel bad about my drawing. But I don't. I love those little guys. There's no technical skill in them at all, but who cares? It was fun.

It can be hard to feel like you're entitled to write, even just in the privacy of your own home. Heaven knows why, but I've felt it, and so do a lot of people. Other people enjoying your work is very validating; it makes you feel like you have some kind of permission. So, if that's what you're worried about, then here: have my blessing. I'm officially permitting you to have fun writing if you want. Same to everyone reading this: I hereby mandate that you can all enjoy yourselves writing, and as it's my blog, this law is now absolute. But worry about whether you're pleasing yourselves rather than other people. When it comes to writing for fun, this is the principle: Other people? Stuff 'em.

I has answer!
Thank you nice lady!

I wouldnt say that I *want* to be able to write. My motivation for the question was mostly idle curiosity. Everything I have done for a career is something that people definitely CAN learn and indeed that I believe EVERYONE can learn. I wondered if that was the same for what you do as a career.

There was another aspect to the question though and it basically that writing looks like fun for the people who do it. They seem to genuinely enjoy doing it. Like those annoying people who can draw, writers seem to get a great deal of pleasure from the process. As such, if I genuinely thought it was something you could learn, I would consider giving it a go.

I tend towards thinking that I lack the creative aspect needed for any of the arts. I can't draw/paint/write/dance/whatever. I
As for the permission thing, that wasnt the point. My point is that I dont enjoy something unless I am at least partially proficient at it. If I was to write anything now, I would suck so hard that it would be no fun.
This is also a "just curiosity" question. I heard a novelist say recently that when she began to think seriously of writing fiction for publication, she was advised to begin with short stories. The implication being, I guess, to start small and work her way up. But she tried writing short fiction and hated it, feeling more at home with the novel form from the beginning.

So, did you begin with short stories and move on/up to novels? I see you've got two excellent stories posted here; do you still write short stories for publication? for practice? For fun? Would you advise an aspiring young writer to begin with shorter fiction?

Again, this is more, or mere, curiosity on my part. I'm not likely to take to writing fiction; my mind doesn't work that way. But I enjoy your writing-life posts as a kind of conversation with a mind that does think in that creative fashion-- and she even answers questions!
Good question, Amaryllis; I'll get to it...

Everything I have done for a career is something that people definitely CAN learn and indeed that I believe EVERYONE can learn. I wondered if that was the same for what you do as a career.

Well, you say that - but from what you say, I'm guessing that you work in something science-related, and let me tell you, I couldn't learn how to do that up to a professional standard.

Here's an autobiographical factoid: my maths class sat GCSE a year early (the exams UK kids take at 16), and I passed without too much trouble. Then they had a bunch of 15-year-olds they were legally obliged to teach maths for another year, and rather than teach an AS level (halfway between GCSE and A-level, the tests everyone takes at 18), they decided to teach us an A-level module, one-sixth of an A-level, presumably to give a taster to students who were considering taking maths A-level next year.

And wham, I hit my maths ceiling. I spent an entire year in baffled incomprehension, looking at my book and whimpering, 'Why not just not ask the question? That would solve the problem for you!' The book had answers at the end, but often I couldn't understand the questions even when I looked up the answers. I just couldn't learn any more maths. I got nought out of twelve in my final grade, and I wasn't surprised. I didn't have enough talent to learn it.

So when you say that anyone can learn your trade, Donalbain (what is it, anyway?), I suspect you may be underestimating your own aptitude for it. It's one definition: having an aptitude for something means it's easier for you to learn it. Other people might find it harder.
I can't introduce a brass band of ducks parading in a victory march around the ankles of my heroes when I'm writing a novel professionally

Oh, I bet you could. Go on, I dare you.

Actually, I'm interested in Amaryllis's question, too. I have found, to my horror, that my "natural" writing length seems to be the novella -- which is fine if you're already a successful author, but impossible to get anyone to take seriously if you're not. So I slice, and lose the heart of a piece; or I pad, and bloat the thing into verbal gas. Neither of which is a happy ending for me OR my stories.

Because I sorta disagree with something you said in this post. A story doesn't have to "professional" (= "somebody pays you for it") to be successful and enjoyable. But a story that isn't read is only half a story.

(P.S. I got "doncob" as my word verification. Now my brain is wandering off, picturing a very elderly but dignified broken down horse, perhaps a dappled grey, with a straw hat and a tolerant eye...)
A story doesn't have to "professional" (= "somebody pays you for it") to be successful and enjoyable. But a story that isn't read is only half a story.

It's not that I disagree with you, exactly; it's more that I don't think it's a good question to dwell upon. It just isn't one I ask myself.

I look at it this way: a story can't be read until it's written. Unless you're an unusual person who can concentrate while someone else is staring over your shoulder, while you're writing it there are no readers except yourself. So worrying about who will read it is a lapse of concentration: the moment of writing is about the writing.

Reading will come later - but writing takes deep focus, and thinking about something else while you're writing will break that. And that way lies all sorts of problems: censoring your good ideas for fear others would think them unacceptable, forcing in stuff that doesn't belong because others seem to like it, comparing yourself with other writers you perceive as popular, anxiety about the quality that'll choke you, and a generally less relaxed mind. Your example is a case in point: thinking about length leads you to pad or hack, because you're thinking about what a reader/publisher would prefer rather than what the story needs in the moment of writing it. Worrying about readers is bad for writing. During editing, it's a good idea, but not during the first draft.

Writing is a self-absorbed activity. You have to be your own reader as well. The way I look at it, other readers are a bonus, but there's always going to be you reading it. By that logic, it's impossible to write an unread story. And if the story acts upon you, it's very likely it'll act upon others - but that's a question for later in the day. Artistic process, I find, is best when you absolutely and entirely do one thing at a time, and writing and being read are separate categories.

I remember hearing a saying when I was a teenager, to the effect that anything done with total concentration is an act of prayer: that's how I feel about writing, and to me, thinking about who'll read the story disrupts the concentration, makes it less of a prayer, and cuts me off from the numinous. It may work differently for other people, but I have a deep, instinctive sense that feeling I need readers to complete a piece is bad mojo.
Hey hapax! I don't know where you live or what sort of stuff you write, but these guys:


publish novellas. There's also another publisher, Telos, who do so, but I hesitate to recommend them to you because I think they're in a bit of a financial mess just right now. Anyway, try sending some of your novellas (or novellae, or whatever) to PS. See how you go!

Man, I need to check your blog more often because this really speaks to me.

I'm a visual artist, drawing is what I do best, but my motivation to draw comes from characters and stories. So I always know that no matter how much I draw, it's just a fraction of what is going on in my head, and sometimes that's reeeeally frustrating. The art style I'm most comfortable with is illustrative and character-based, with a bit of concept design- I'm a worldbuilding nut! It's where all my drive to create comes from...

I feel pulled in so many different directions about this, because I get a lot of pressure from people to draw comics, and I think in a way, it would be the best way for me to tell stories, because drawing is what I *do*. The only problem? I hate drawing comics! The only thing worse is animating. Thousands and thousands of drawings for only a few minutes of animation.. *shudder* My best friend is a very talented writer, a few years ago we had plans to collaborate on a story that she would write and I started drawing comic pages... but the story was just too dense for that format, that or I just don't want to draw a phonebook-length comic. ever. ;)

I think it's an attention span problem? I know I CAN write (I'm not terribly concerned with writing *well*, but that's another rant), because I manage to put out a few pages a year that are at a level I'm ok with. When I was younger I wrote *every day* and I was well on my way to writing the novel about elves that I wanted to do since I was 14 :) but... I burned out and got severely depressed from school and that threw a huge metaphorical wrench into my creative machine. I suppose I also shifted my focus primarily to drawing and while my art improved, trying to write now is like trying to pass a brick. When my story ideas are novel length but I can barely concentrate long enough to write 2 paragraphs what then? When the stories themselves in my head are epic special-effects driven animated miniseries but that's not exactly something I can create on my own. In a way you have to relinquish control of your story to make it a collaborative effort, the thought of having to rely on lots of other people (if I could get my stories produced at all!) to complete my vision makes me uncomfortable, especially since realistically it would mean I couldn't be supreme director-dictator of every aspect of production :( I'm also teaching myself computer animation, but the learning curve for 3D is SO steep that I'm starting to feel pessimistic about my prospects for that as well.

Anyway, didn't mean to whine so much, this is just something I've struggled with for several years now and I still haven't really figured out how to go forward. Why do I want to write if I feel unable to? Cos I gotta get these worlds outta my head or else!
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