Sunday, February 27, 2011

So You Want to Be a Writer?

From the In-Box:

Hi, Ami,
Random question for you. I am [doing] a major restructure and semi-retiring from the customer business... My question is this: in all my "free time" how best to study writing? Would love to know more and understand it better - just for interest and fun. Any tips? 

My response:

So you want to be a writer? You realize, of course, that there's more money to be made in playing the lottery. Seriously. At least there's a system to their winning tickets.

I assume that the writing you want to do is non-fiction (magazine articles, books, online articles, etc.). If that's the case, and you want to write about the industry you're already known in, you have a great platform -- you're well known and well respected.  [It doesn't hurt that, in this particular instance, the writer has a book to his credit.]

I'd suggest coming up with a column idea, something you want to write 1000 - 1500 words about every month, and pitch it to some of the larger magazines within your industry.  Build up your readership, talk about things that interest you, and maybe start developing the idea for another book.

If you want to do non-fiction writing that is NOT in a field for which you currently are well-known, then the story is a bit different. (Imagine, for instance, that you're a famous chef who is sick of the food industry and would rather write about travel). In that case, you don't have an established platform or name recognition. You'd have to come up with a proposal for the book or article series that you wanted to do, and shop it around to various publishers or magazines until someone sees the sales potential in it. Then you'd get an advance (if a book), and a green-light to start writing.

If the writing you want to do is fiction, I'd STRONGLY recommend buying that lottery ticket that I mentioned earlier. Getting any sort of $$ for writing fiction is difficult. (Full disclosure: Cracking the novel market remains my brass ring.) Still, if that's what feeds your soul, then learn all you can about writing and craft.

Some excellent resources include Stephen King's On Writing, Anne Lamott's Bird by Bird, Natalie Goldberg's Writing Down the Bones, and the indispensable Strunk & White's The Elements of Style

If you're doing any kind of writing, the best advice I can give you is to write what you love. Work on developing your voice -- the thing that makes your words uniquely yours. You already have a speaking voice.  Recording yourself teaching, speaking, or relating a story and transcribing those recordings can be an invaluable exercise in developing voice awareness.

Also, in your reading start paying attention to things like order and sequencing, use of description, and use of pace. Make note of the things you read that really speak to you, then go back an analyze what makes them work. Likewise, make note of the things you can't even bring yourself to finish -- then analyze them for what makes them suck.

If you're leaning toward fiction, you'll have to spend some time studying and understanding story structure as well. The gold standard is The Hero With 1000 Faces by Joseph Campbell. Chris Vogler has taken Campbell's ideas and run with them in The Writer's Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers. While you may not agree with the concept of the Hero's Journey as foundation for both plot and structure, I would argue that you must understand its prevalence in literature before you refuse to use it in your own writing.

In other words, ignore tropes at your own risk.

I realize that this is just the surface treatment of "how to study writing." But it's the best start I can give you in only a few paragraphs.

Good luck!

What do you think? If you're a new writer, what advice would be most useful to you? If you're established, what advice would you give someone just starting out?

1 comment:

Malin said...

I wouldn't call myself new or established, but my best tips is to take risks - challenge yourself! Try new styles, tools and angles. That's how we grow as people and as writers.