AdviceSo You Want to Be A Writer...

Being a series of nine articles of advice to would-be writers, originally written 1988-1990, published in various fanzines, and then updated slightly for the Web. Much of this is out of date, though not as badly as some of the other installments; the text has not been revised since 1999.

Part Three: What Do I Need to Do?

by Lawrence Watt-Evans

So you want to be a writer. Does that mean you need to go to college and major in creative writing? Does it mean taking night courses? Attending writers' workshops? Shelling out hundreds of dollars and a couple of weeks for one of the super-intensive workshops like Clarion?

Nope. None of that.

I never took any writing courses in college. I never finished college, for one thing; my first time around I intended to be an architect, rather than a writer, so I really didn't have any reason to take writing courses. After I flunked out of architecture school, I spent a year trying to sell my stories, and didn't do very well--I sold one rather silly little tale. I got re-admitted and went back to college majoring in myth and religion for two years, and then dropped out because my fiancee had a good job lined up about five hundred miles off campus.

I'd been thinking about taking some creative writing courses my senior year, but since I never had a senior year, I never took 'em.

From what I've seen of creative writing classes, though, they wouldn't have helped much.

Consider: If these creative writing teachers actually know that much about writing, why aren't they selling stories regularly? (A few are, at the best schools, but most aren't.)

I'd also noticed that while lawyers all went to law school, and doctors all went to medical school, most writers I met had not majored in creative writing. And while most law school graduates became lawyers, and most med school graduates became doctors, it didn't seem like most creative writing majors actually wound up as writers.

So I came to the conclusion that writing is something that you can't really teach, the way you can law or medicine or engineering. I still think so.

This isn't to say that all writing courses are completely worthless, because some of them are and some aren't. There are parts of writing that can be taught--grammar and punctuation and other such basics, and also what Frederik Pohl calls "monkey tricks" that help a writer make the impression he's trying to make, things like using sentence structure, repetition, alliteration, and so forth for a particular effect. (For example, using a single short sentence as a paragraph all by itself heightens its impact.)

Like this.

And if you're going to be a writer you really should learn the terminology--plot, theme, style, character, setting, etc. But that should have been taught in your high school English classes.

If you feel you already know the basics, then I don't think you can learn anything useful from taking courses, with two exceptions:

If the course is in the form of a writing workshop, and is run well, and everybody actually does what they're supposed to, writing a story every session and critiquing the work of the other students, then that can be very beneficial indeed--for some people.

I was never fond of workshopping stories myself, but there are writers out there who swear by it. Gene Wolfe, I am told, still runs every story through his workshop before submitting it for publication. Alexander Jablokov, D. Alexander Smith, Steve Popkes, Martha Soukup--they're all published authors who still workshop stories and are convinced that it does them a lot of good, makes them better writers. I'm sure there are dozens of others I just don't happen to know about.

And the other exception is if there's a real honest to God good writer teaching the course, who knows both how to write and how to teach. Such people are very rare. Joyce Carol Oates is one; she's teaching at Princeton. Toni Morrison, also at Princeton, is another. Off the top of my head I cannot name another one alive today.

Finding either of these exceptions isn't easy. There are plenty of "writers' workshops" around, but a good many of them really aren't what they pretend to be. A group of a dozen rank amateurs does not a writing workshop make; you need to have someone in there with some idea what he's doing. And a group where nobody ever actually writes the assigned stories isn't going to do any good, either, nor will a group where nobody ever makes any serious criticism, nor one where people get nasty and do nothing but rip each other's stories to shreds.

The most famous SF-writing workshop is the Clarion series--two-week intensive courses with two or three major pros running things--but they're expensive and hard to get into, and even then, they have more failures than successes. They're so intense that while some people come out as better writers, others, who might have had just as much promise, emerge convinced that they just aren't Writers, and never put another story on paper.

So, in short, while it's possible to learn something from writing classes and workshops, it's not easy and I don't recommend it.

An easier way to learn things is to read books. There are lots of good books out there on learning to write. One of the best is The Writer's Handbook. Any good library should have it or be able to get it through inter-library loan. It has articles on various aspects of the craft by various famous writers; the single most obvious but useful advice in there comes from Stephen King, who says that good writing is the trick of leaving out the dull parts.

And Writer's Digest Books has turned out dozens of useful books. A few clunkers, too, of course, but if you get them from a library, who cares? Just look under "Writing" in the card catalogue.

Now, did I do any of this studying or reading myself, before I broke in?


All I did was practice. I wrote, and wrote, and wrote. I burned about a quarter of a million words at one point and then just went on writing. When I finally sold The Lure of the Basilisk, I had written about three quarters of a million words of fiction, 90% of which was garbage. I'd written thirty-six short stories, two novels, and uncounted fragments that never got finished. In the ten years since then I've sold two of the short stories and a rewrite of one of the novels; the rest is still filed away.

So you do not need any sort of training or study to be a writer. You just need to read and write, and do plenty of both. That's all.

So much for that; let me now address another question.

What should you write?

I don't mean what genre--you know whether you want to write sword-and-sorcery or murder mysteries, and you don't need me to tell you. I mean what form you should write in.

Well, first, finish what you write. There's no market for unfinished stories, scenes out of context, and other such exercises; only for stories with a beginning, a middle, and an end. This brings me to a piece of advice I haven't seen other writers give much, but I think it's important: Finish the first draft!

It's far more important to have a complete story than to have a perfect story, and it's much easier to rewrite after you know how everything's going to come out, so even if you know you messed up that scene in Chapter Three, and that the description of the magic tortoise is all wrong, just leave it until you've got a complete first draft.

Don't stop and fix it; just go on, finish the story!

Then go back and rewrite whatever needs rewriting. You may find (as I often do) that only after you finish the story will you know everything you need to know about the characters in order to do the rewrite properly.

And if you can't fix it, can't make it into the story you wanted it to be, go ahead and submit it somewhere anyway and go on and do something else.

I believe that Ray Bradbury disagrees with me on this one; he's been quoted as saying to rewrite every story until it's perfect.

That may be fine for him, but I've seen too many young writers bog down because they kept rewriting the same story over and over, instead of dropping it and going on to something better.

Just get it done. That's the hard part. Then worry about improving it.

And now for a piece of advice on what to write that has nothing to do with what's best, what will teach you the most, or any of that artistic stuff. It's pure marketing.

Write novels.

Short stories are fine and elegant things, but the odds of selling a short story to Asimov's, last time I checked, were about 1:300, while the odds of selling a novel to Del Rey were about 1:35. [Note: These figures are hopelessly out of date, and were never really as relevant as I thought when I wrote this.] There's a much larger market for novels right now, and far more money to be had. Money may not seem like the important part now, but if you ever get a writing career off the ground it sure will eventually.

Also, the novel form is more forgiving. If you go off on a tangent in a 100,000-word novel, it's no big deal; at worst, the editor will cut it out. If you go off on a tangent in a 3,000-word short story, though, you've probably ruined it. In a short story everything has to fit together perfectly. It's like a fine old Swiss watch, compared with a plain old-fashioned cheap wind-up alarm clock, the kind that got thrown against the wall a lot--they both use the same mechanism to do the same thing, but it's much, much harder to do on a small scale, and there's no room for anything to be out of place. A speck of dust will clog a watch, while a clock just ticks away after being thrown across the room.

So while short stories might seem easier, since you can write one in a day or so while a novel takes months, I'd advise you to write novels. I learned more from botching my first novel than from all those thirty-six short stories I didn't sell, and it was my second novel that finally sold, not a short story.

And that's it for this installment; next time, the mechanics of actually selling the stuff once it's written.


All contents and referenced pages are copyright by Lawrence Watt Evans except as noted.
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No reproduction permitted without permission of the author


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