Monday, February 28, 2011

Getting started: My Foundations

So you want to follow in my footsteps and become a full-time writer.  You're wondering, how did I become a good writer?  What makes me think I can just jump into writing and pull off a full-length novel?  That takes a lot of confidence in my ability as a writer.  So what makes me think I'm good enough?

Talent? Or education?

Can anyone pick up a pen and write?  Yes, and no.  I won't claim that I was always a great writer.  In fact, I actually have learning disability in written English, diagnosed in the first grade.  I didn't find out about it until I was in late high school, but it's because of that disability that I am a good writer, above and beyond most of my peers (it's true, as humble as it isn't.)  My mother should be given credit - having been a teacher herself, she knew what to look for, and furthermore, she advocated to make sure I was tested and then fully supported throughout my earliest education.  Thus, I (and all my classmates, too!) received extra instruction on grammar and mechanics during an educational time period when the fad was to ignore the mechanics and expect kids to develop them on their own. 

I was slow to learn to read.  Most of my friends were bookaholics much earlier than I was, and to tell the truth, for a long time I read at or below grade level.  At an age that most of the friends I would meet in years to come were reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, I was reading Barbie books, The Boxcar Children,  and Animorphs.  But once I started reading, I couldn't stop - reading is in the family, and what's more, it's just fun.  So although I started behind most of my peers, I caught up.  And I also began applying what I was reading to what I was writing.  By the time I hit fourth grade, I was in the top of my class in writing, especially in descriptive writing.  Reading is one of the best ways to become a good writer, because it lets you learn what you like and don't like in other people's writing.  Plus, I had developed an exceptional vocabulary for my age (mostly written - I still occasionally mispronounce words learned from books!)  Most importantly, I liked to write, so I got a lot of practice, between me and my friends' early attempts to write our own stories. This led me to be placed in advanced English classes, and having great English teachers in later years kept me challenged and inspired.  Was I the best?  By no means!  But even in elementary school, by the end I was good. 

The Foundations of Choice: Write what you know

"Write what you know."  This doesn't mean, of course, that I've ever had a perfect romance myself, or that I've been catapulted through the Bronze Age and cast spells to repel invading Mycenaeans.  It does, however, mean that I've been reading sci-fi and fantasy since I graduated past Barbie novels and Babysitter's Club.  I started my sci-fi obsession with Star Wars, way back in my tween years.  And, as some of you know, there's a rather large argument that Star Wars should actually be considered a third genre: Science Fantasy.  Not surprising my next steps were into the fantasy world with Tamora Pierce, and fantasy-like sci-fi with Anne McCaffery.  Pretty much everything I read in my developmental stages were in those genres, with occasionally a little hard sci-fi thrown in. 

Behind the Scenes: The training wheels

During middle school, my fellow writer friends and I began a little writing circle, where we began writing "books" (trust me, the quotation marks are justified, at least in my case!) and sharing them with each other.  I began two stories: One, I decided I wasn't a good enough writer yet to do the story justice as I wanted to see it done.  The other, I wrote over three hundred pages (by hand!), during which no plot ever came to the surface, the characters remained cheap knock-offs of a popular TV show, the romance was trite and overly mushy, and my writing became virtually illegible.  I also gained a deep-seated addiction to writing, one which settled into my bones and never left, and gained a little notoriety amongst my friends for having 300 pages of handwritten story.  I learned to give my characters distinct voices, and discovered the power of first-person narrative (the first fifty pages ended up with a lot of crossed-out "she"s!)  I've since lost the journals in which this novel was written and never finished, but the memories and lessons are well ingrained in my psyche.

I also go into anime during my middle and high school years.  My first attempts at "published" writing were "fanfictions," or stories written in the settings of another writer's work and put online with disclaimers admitting that you owned nothing of the characters or world, and were neither gaining nor expecting income from the stories.  I taught myself very basic HTML and set up a website posting them online (it was on Geocities.  I'm afraid it was all lost when Geocities shut down.)  They weren't bad, and I finished a novel-length fanfic - although the first three chapters were written by someone else.  I began writing that one back in the ninth grade, and finished it... two years later?  Three?  A long time ago.  I can't remember exactly, I'm afraid!  But by then, I actually had enough skill as a writer to compose a storyline and keep to it, and keep my characters in distinct personalities - the joy of writing a fanfic is that your world is already set, and your characters already have defined personalities, so it's like training wheels for an author learning to keep things consistent ("In character," in the terminology of the fanfiction world!)

Behind the scenes: My first original works worth mentioning

In high school, I did more than write fanfics and continue a handwritten atrocity; I also began writing shorts and tidbits that were actually good.  Most of my closest friends were also writers, and we geeked out together constantly.  In my junior year, three of us formed the "Lunchroom Stories," where we'd get together every Friday, choose a random topic, and present something written based off of last week's topic.  We also compared our individual projects and, of course, just chewed the fat together.  My sophomore, junior, and senior English teachers were beyond comparison - they were tough, they were strict, and they taught me more about writing than I could ever have imagined possible.  Kudos to them - I have to say they are a very large part of why I'm now a writer.  My junior year English teacher also imparted on me this:  "KISS: Keep it short and simple."  That's stuck with me through the years, and become an important element of my own writing - I try to avoid unnecessary "dross."  Interestingly enough, my sophomore year World History teacher also played a big part of my writing education: he required essays, a lot of them, and long.  He taught us to be concise and focused, and just as importantly, taught us how to write long essays on a non-English subject.  You'd be surprised how much that helped in college, when writing essays came in every subject, not just English!  In my senior year, I joined the school Literary Magazine and Newspaper.  Writing was a part of my life, and I kept to it. 

College and After: the final steps

In college, most of my writing was essay- or school- focused.  Not surprising! My first years, I took a lot of interdisciplinary courses, so almost every subject included several 10+ page essays per semester.  I found I liked essay-writing, and for most of those interdisciplinary courses, we could pick truly intersting topics!  But I also occasionally made time for writing on the side, although nothing I ever felt like publishing.  I took up playing Dungeons and Dragons, and most of my free-time writing went into developing characters and worlds of my own.  I also free-form roleplayed with some of my friends, coming up with worlds and characters, but I never turned any of the roleplaying into full-length stories (despite a few plans to do so.)  After college, I began a new job and quickly discovered it wasn't right for me.  I was pretty miserable, and I returned to reading as an escapism.  Oddly enough, this was the first time I'd ever willingly cracked a romance novel.  I found quickly that I had little interest in historical or contemporary romance, but paranormal romance caught and held me (big surprise, right?).  I read a lot of those books, and even dragged a good friend into reading them with me so I could have someone to discuss them with. 

I kept reading romance the following year, in a new job, and then began writing short projects on the side, too.  I wrote several novel-length fanfictions on romance stories (and being as they're fanfictions, I have no intention of revealing them - I will not capitalize on them in any way, because the worlds and ideas are not my own.)  When I finally decided to leave my job as a florist, I knew writing would take a lot of time and energy, especially for the amount I planned to do.  So I took an old romance story idea (begun, of course, during my romance binge of the previous year) and began writing on it while working.  I wrote every day, large amounts, and got myself back into shape as an endurance writer.  Then I quit my job in actuality, and began my journey as a novelist.

So what about the rest of us?

You don't have that kind of background in writing?  Don't worry.  What gives me confidence in writing is the fact that I know I've matured into a clean, concise writer, with the knowledge of constructing a storyline from scratch and keeping more or less to it.  My grammar is excellent, and I happily deviate from it with full knowledge of why what I'm doing is wrong.  My first drafts are often as good as other writers' second-to-final drafts (this post, for example, was written straight and barely edited.)  But you know what?  I'm not the best writer I know.  Many of those second-to-final drafts turn into final drafts that blow mine out of the water!  And those writers who are better than me, they can't all claim the same creditials that I have.  They've got their own.

You can't be a writer if you can't write.  So, make sure you know how to be grammatical, how to plan, and how to edit.  However, you don't have to be perfect your first time through!  If you're not a clean writer, then fix it in editing.  Don't expect to become a full-time writer if you can only write a page a day, but remember: writing is like a sport.  You can train yourself to be able to write more!  Just keep at it!  Set goals and reach them. 

I guess that's all my advice right now (the fact that I have to go has a lot to do with this...), but that's where I come from.  Every writer comes from somewhere different, so don't let my accreditations alarm you.  After all, I'm not even an English major!  And I've taken almost no creative writing courses in my life.  You'll have your own strengths and weaknesses, too.  It's up to you to decide when and if you're ready.

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