Monday, July 13, 2009

Learning to Write, in 5 Easy Steps

.... If only it were as easy as the title of this blog post.

A few throat-clearing items.

1) Hi! I'm thrilled to be your guest blogger this week.
2) I'm the author of "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything," a novel set in Silicon Valley, which you can find on the shelves of Kepler's in newly-released paperback form.
3) It's lovely to meet you all.

Now, on to the meat of my post.

I've been a writer -- in the loosest interpretation of this word - since I was in second grade, composing poorly-spelled stories about my pet basset hound. And I've been a professional writer -- as in, making a living putting words on paper -- since I got my first job as a journalist at Wired Magazine in 1995, when I was just out of college. So you could say I've been writing for nearly three decades.

But when I quit my staff writing job at to try my hand at writing fiction, back in 2002, I realized I was starting at zero again. I knew nothing about the process of fiction-writing. Although I'd known I wanted to be a novelist since I was about seven years old, I'd never really written anything but journalism (outside of some rather execrable prose-poems I wrote in a narcissistic love-stricken stupor, back in college).

Many would-be authors "learn to write" by signing up for an MFA program and heading off to university to spend two years in a sheltered bubble of all-prose all-the-time. It's an expensive luxury, a bootcamp for the privileged few. But I didn't take that route. Instead, I took local workshops (including with Palo Alto writing teacher Tom Parker) and fiction writing classes at UC Berkeley extensions and UCLA extensions (once I moved to Los Angeles). Through these classes, I wrote a whole drawer full of short stories, 99% of which I should probably burn. They were not good -- hesitant, light on character, and poorly structured -- but the point was less to write publishable works than it was to simply get in the habit of writing prose.

I also read. And I didn't just read for the joy of reading - I read in order to learn. I went back to some of my favorite books, ones that I already knew what happens in the end (so I wouldn't get distracted by plot), and re-read them in order to dissect them. I took notes as I wrote - wrote outlines of the book's structure, made narrative and character maps, wrote down favorite lines of dialogue. I tried to look under the hoods of these books in order to see how the author had constructed their stories, their characters, and their language.

Next, I copied. I transcribed short stories that I found interesting, typing them out word by word, in order to get a feel for the rhythm and pace of great writing. It was a fascinating exercise, almost like stepping into another author's shoes.

Eventually, I began to write a novel. I wrote and threw away vast quantities of material: I didn't regard my writing as precious. I wrote words that were disposable -- long character sketches that I knew would never make it into a book, scenes that had nothing to do with the story that I was telling, background material that I wanted to know about, but had no intention of putting in the novel. I knew that in order to write one good page, I would have to throw away ten bad ones, so I tried not to worry about quality as much as simply getting lots of material on paper. The quality, I figured, would come later, as I got better at what I was doing.

And finally, I sought feedback. I assembled a trusted group of writer friends and we started a writer's group that met every Thursday and gave each other regular feedback on each other's works. I found this invaluable - their reader's eyes could see the holes in my work that I couldn't, because I was too close to the material.

Even then, the process of learning to write was tedious. It took me almost six years after quitting my job, and four complete drafts of my novel, before I finally had a book published. And I feel like I'm still learning how to write every day. Even now, when I'm feeling rusty, I go back to some of these exercises (especially reading books to deconstruct them) for a little jump-start.

... and I'm always interested in collecting other people's stories. I'm curious what exercises you do to learn how to write -- Do you take classes? Have you come up with your own learning exercises? Or do you just write and figure the learning will come naturally?


ps - the photo is of me, with my dog Guster, in my backyard.


  1. Janelle,

    One of my favorite exercises was to type "The Boat," a short story by Alistair MacLeod from his collection "Island," pretending that I'm writing it. It was a wonderful experience!

  2. I can't remember starting to write and I found most writing classes in college horribly depressing. I've found that reading and editing have helped my writing, and listening to feedback. But beyond that, you're on your own.

    Great photo!

  3. Writing classes were a nightmare for me, too. At Brandeis, a professor held up my story and said, "Now, let's discuss this garbage." When I published my first novel and got some notoriety for it, I mailed him the NYT review. He insisted he was trying to get me angry so I would succeed! Uh HUH. I think just writing writing writing and reading, reading, reading helped, but so did John Truby's story structure.

  4. Hi, Janelle--what a good post. Thank you! I might just have to try that typing-out exercise. It will be a first.

    Now here's an interesting, if disturbing, bit of news. I've started reading Malcolm Gladwell's *Outliers,* about new angles of view on success and how to achieve it. One of the chapters is on the fact that true mastery of virtually anything, from art to music to athletics to computer programming, requires 10,000 (ten *thousand*!) hours of practice. That's 416 twenty-four-hour days, which is a year and 51 days without sleep, or 1250 days (almost 3 1/2 years) of eight-hour days, or, in my case, godknowshowmany days of an hour here or five there or ten there. I have no idea whether I've reached the magical ten thousand.

    But it seems the old joke about getting to Carnegie Hall is true! Practice, practice, practice. That's my personal road to whatever expertise I have, barring a craft book or two and lots and lots of reading of other people's fiction. No classes, no exercises except the work itself. I wouldn't call it efficient, but it's mine.

  5. ...And then the big conundrum is whether the 10,000 hours you spend mastering that craft will turn out to be worth it, financially. Let's say you get a $50,000 advance (which is very typical, these days) -- that means that each hour you spend on your craft is recompensed about $.05.

    Which is why you should write because you love to write - not because you think you're going to get rich doing it!

  6. Um, hate to break it to you Janelle: $50k is not typical. It's fairly large. But those of us who write, keep on doing it. (And as I wait for my ninth book to be published in the US, I can tell you that one very real advantage of smaller advances is quicker royalties).

    But, no, if you write because you think you'll get rich, you should stop.

  7. Oh, my, what I could do with a $50K advance. Except, as Clea suggested, I do prefer smaller ones so the royalties come in faster.

    I think we all agree that we write for the love of it and not for the money. I just find that 10,000 hour rule fascinating--to think that's what it takes to gain the mastery we seek. I wasn't think of it in terms of what each hour is worth when, and if, payback ever comes. Just thinking that this kind of commitment and preparation is the sign of true passion. When we're passionate, we put those hours in because we want to, we have something inside us that compels it.

  8. I stand corrected. My apologies. And yes, there's a lot that can be discussed about the whole advance vs. royalties publishing structure - but that's a whole different topic!

    The point, really, is that it's impossible to do anything for 10,000 hours unless you really love it. The process has to be its own reward or there's no reason to do it, especially when it comes to this particular art.

  9. Point taken -and agreed with. And if you got a $50k advance, more power to you!

  10. "All We Ever Wanted Was Everything" Great title and, I love the Ice Cream Sunday on the cover!

    This reminded me of what I said to my husband many years ago. I said to him that, "I want it all." I've always wanted to be a great wife, an at-home mom and have a career that I love, and soon found out that it was a bit harder than I thought. Now I just try to follow the words that I think Carey Fischer said, "You can have it all, just not all at once."

    As for writing exercises, I find that I just write as often as I can. I liked the exercise that you wrote about and will translate a short story myself.

    I enjoyed reading your post and, look forward to diving into your book. I just picked up a copy at Kepler's this morning.