How not to be a writer (part 2: you mean I have to learn?)

It seems obvious, but if you want to write and get paid for it, you need to learn the craft. Sadly, in my youthful ignorance and arrogance, I assumed that enthusiasm and natural aptitude would suffice. (It’s a position I could probably have justified more easily if I had practised more, but I already ‘fessed up to that mistake.)

In my defence, a couple of small early successes – winning a poetry contest judged by Roald Dahl when I was 13, getting a short story published in (what claimed to be) a professional magazine when I was 19 – plus top marks in English, and some encouraging story rejections, gave me an unrealistic idea of my abilities. However, even if I really had been in possession of noticeable talent, I needed to learn the rules: character viewpoint, plot progression, narrative structure and all that jazz, along with the skiffy special, infodumping and how not to do it.

Some of these rules and conventions are quite arbitrary, or even counter-intuitive, and are a matter of fashion: what was acceptable 50 years ago looks dated now; today’s top prose will look odd – probably long and cumbersome – in 50 years’ time. But that doesn’t change the fact that if you expect an editor to read past the first line, you have to demonstrate that you know the accepted rules as they are here and now, even if you subsequently break them.

I did browse a few ‘how to’ books in my twenties but they weren’t genre-specific ones, and it all looked like such hard work. And besides, I had games to write and run.

The One Step Beyond SF writers workshop gave me a much needed kick up the arse. By the end of that amazing week I knew (some of) what I’d been doing wrong, and resolved to actually make the effort to learn to do it right.

After OSB, I signed up to a creative writing evening class. I was, inevitably, the only SF writer in the class, but that in itself was good training, bringing home that the genre I love is a minority one, and often misunderstood. When the class wrote pieces for a local radio competition with an SF theme I saw how the tropes and ideas I had digested, accepted then discarded as outmoded were presented as fresh and original by people who didn’t read SF (‘…and their names were Adam and Eve’ ‘… but actually, he was an android’ etc). I’m sure that if the competition had been for romance or detective fiction I’d have been the one trolling out the clichés.

I then went back to those ‘how to’ books, this time specifically the ones slanted to what I wanted to write. The two I would recommend most highly are Orson Scott Card’s How to Write Science Fiction and Ursula le Guin’s Steering the Craft; the latter should stand any writer, in any genre, in good stead. I haven’t read a ‘how to’ book for a few years now, but that doesn’t mean I won’t ever read another one. I’m still learning the craft; I hope I always will be.

Next time: does my plot look crap in this?

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