Monday, May 28, 2007

Writing school of self-taught

By Josi S. Kilpack

I was recently interviewed for an article and the journalist asked how I learned to write. I hadn't thought about this for awhile, and even after the interview was over I found myself going back to this one question. I do not have a college degree, I wasn't on the newspaper or yearbook staff in high school, I never won a writing contest or took anything beyond 101 writing classes in the one year of college I attended. I don't say this to brag, it's rather deflating to see that I missed so many opportunities--but I did. In many ways it made my road a harder one, I started several layers lower than most would-be-writers, and yet, I have written seven novels and my ability to write has definitely improved. Somewhere, somehow, I learned how to write. But how?

In dissecting the answer to that question I have found three points that were true to me, and I believe they are true to other writers in varying degrees as well. Not only were they helpful in the beginning, but they continue to be powerful. My challenge to each of you, is to consider each point in your own experience and your own writing, see how it measures up and if your current ability could be enhanced by going back to one of these points that perhaps has weakened.

1--What others Write--After I started writing my reading changed. I found myself taking apart books I read, even going as far as to write down what I liked and didn't like. I would often end up with things like. "I thought the main character was shallow." Then ask myself "Why?" At that point, I had to figure out why I felt that way so as not to repeat the mistake. Or perhaps I would observe. "I really liked the way the romantic tension increased" and ask myself "Why?" and I would ponder on this and answer it, thinking of ways I could use this information in my own book. This was MY university--the School of Other Writers. It's not simply 'editing' as you write, it's focusing on specific points, researching, putting into words the impressions you get.

2--Books on Writing. My first writing books were purchased without any recommendation. I simply went to Amazon.com and looked up writing books. They showed me the most popular ones and I bought three of them. To this day they are three of my favorite books, I go back to them again and again. Since then I have met many more writers, I've joined writing book groups, and I have a shelf of writing books to reference. No matter how many books on writing I have read, I find something I didn't know before. Rather than read them straight through, I often study a specific element such as "dialogue" and look it up in several resources to see what each author has to say about it so as to get a universal view.

3--Rejection Letters. The best thing that ever happened to my writing career was a lengthy rejection letter on my first book. Yes, I was hurt and emotionally wounded for a day or two. But when I got over my self-pity I realized it was like getting the answer sheet for a test in school. They rejected me, but they told me WHY. I was able to take different points of that letter and research them. Those weaknesses in my first book often show up over and over again. When I get a new rejection I get this "buzz" as I scan it looking for what I need to work on--it's like that friend who really will tell you if that dress makes you look fat. Are the editors always right? No--but they do read a whole lot of manuscripts and they didn't like mine. Knowing why helps me fix that one part rather than doing a complete overhaul.

All three of these things take effort and time--what have any of us accomplished without investing these two things? All three of these things are available to everyone, there is no discrimination, no entrance exams, no ACT scores required. And each of them will strengthen your writing--I guarantee it.

2 comments:

Heather B. Moore said...

Great blog, Josi. I did finish college, but I didn't major in English Lit or anything connected with writing. When I became serious about that first novel, I felt like I was in college again . . . with all the workshops and writers conferences I've attended and learning the details of a major craft.

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