I feel like the poster child of learning to write on-the-job—and I like it. One of the most gratifying aspects of writing the Countdown to Publication blog has been the support of my sister (and brother) writers on She Writes. My journey to becoming a writer and to publication has been a very long and rocky one. I’ve been upside down hanging by my fingernails for years. Yet some She Writers, who like me, are unanointed by an MFA, have asked me for writing advice.
Disclaimer: I am not a writing teacher or a teacher of any subject. But I am willing to share the little that I know on the chance that it might help others.
First, read. Read. Read. Read.
It seems obvious that one should read as much as possible of one’s chosen genre (poets read poetry, etc.) but I actually know a novelist who professes to never reading novels. I don’t know if this is something to brag about. Yet, she might not read novels now but she had to at some point in order to learn what a novel is. Another writer friend prefers to watch movies rather than read books yet she tries to write books. I’ve never attempted to write a screenplay but I know that it’s not written like a novel. For most people, it helps to see how other writers wrote their books, paying attention to how a story feels, what makes up a scene, the way atmosphere is depicted.
Spend your precious time wisely. Read the kind of books you want to write. I was always a big mystery fan but when my kids were little and my reading time was more limited, I gave up reading mysteries in favor of literature, my first love. Now and then (like during vacation) I’ll pick up a mystery, but mostly I don’t regret giving them up. I need to sleep some time.
Improve your writing by reading the Masters. For example, I read Chekhov because he could tell me everything I needed to know about a character in a single sentence and I figured that maybe I could try to do that too. Jane Austen with her witty, brilliant prose showed me how a family drama could be enough for a book. I didn’t have to get all experimental or try to write an epic. I studied modern day novelists too like Cristina Garcia for language and Oscar Hijuelos for rhythm. In addition to books on plot, structure, point of view, etc., I took a poetry class or two to help me say what I wanted to say in as few words as possible and still tell a story. I took a fiction class at my local junior college and ended up befriending the professor who was closer to my age than any of the students. He became my close friend and best reader. The rest of my resume includes four workshops, but not one of my most important accomplishments—I learned to embrace revision. This is critical. If you don’t love to revise already, at least, TRY to like it. It’s another opportunity to refine what you want to say and show what you got.
Don’t take rejection personally. For the last ten years, I have been writing and sending out drafts to a few writer friends and partials to agents who might possibly be interested in my work. With every rejection, I became determined to figure out what wasn’t working and why. Sometimes, in my opinion, everything worked. It just didn’t thrill the agent like it thrilled me.
Keep the faith. Years ago, I took a workshop with the writer Rosellen Brown who read a sentence aloud that I had written for my novel THE LIBERATION OF CARMELA LOPEZ. She lingered over the words, mulling over the sounds they made as she spoke them. I sat awed that words I had chosen and strung together could elicit such interest and I have been striving for that ever since. All I can do is keep trying and that is what I say to my sister (and brother) She Writers—keep trying.
She Write Amigas, what about your journey?