.... 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 Salon.com 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.