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Editorial March 2003
Writers on Writing

By Hilary Williamson

How can you write if you can't cry? (Ring Lardner)

Ever had the urge to put pen to paper and create a novel? Do you have the compulsion to write, but wonder how to perfect your skills? Where better to learn about the craft of writing than at the feet (electronically speaking) of the masters? Some have written books on the subject, for example Stephen King On Writing, in which the celebrated author combines his memoir with commonsense advice on what writers need in their 'Toolbox'. He includes practical tips on the mechanics of the craft, as well as pithy, humorous suggestions on how to develop from competence towards excellence, and how to get published.

Another wonderful resource is Sol Stein's How to Grow a Novel. Stein speaks from both sides of the writing/publishing divide about 'The Most Common Mistakes Writers Make and How to Overcome Them', adding depth to his advice with many literary examples. He covers topics like scene based plotting, and the handling of point of view and dialogue. He talks of use of conflict as the engine of fiction. Stein encourages writers to create 'an experience so involving that the reader is not aware of turning pages'. The differences in approach that he discusses 'to write a good book' or 'to write a good read' are fascinating..

While not all celebrated authors have published books on the subject of their craft, quite a few of them generously share what they have learned on their websites. One amazing resource for wannabe writers is Uncle Orson's Writing Class, where speculative fiction superstar Orson Scott Card has been posting questions and his in-depth answers on the writing process and the writing life since 1998 - more than twenty lessons on topics like writing dialog, beginnings, inventing aliens, the author's views on the digital world of books, and so much more.

Here's one of his answers to a question on distracting story ideas: 'Here's the secret. None of those ideas is ready to write when you first think of it, anyway. Get enough ideas moving through your head -- and I don't just mean vague concepts, I mean ideas that you have seriously developed and started working out -- and pretty soon you'll find two completely unrelated stories that, when you combine them, suddenly come to life in a way that is so rich and inventive that all your ideas that keep coming up now fit within the story instead of distracting you from it.'

Another writer (one of my favorite fantasy authors) who has always been generous with advice is Jane Yolen. Read her insightful Musing on the Muse, which includes links to articles and summary advice like: 'A writer puts words on a page. An author lives in story. A writer is conversant with the keyboard, the author with character'; 'You are--after all--the very first reader of what you write. Please that reader'; 'Selling the piece is only an exclamation point, a spot of punctuation.' She tells us in an excellent article, The Alphabetics of Story, that 'We write to know ourselves' and has written Take Joy: A Book for Writers to be published this spring.

Once you've gleaned all the words of wisdom that you can from author websites, have a look at interviews with writers. Cecelia Holland, one of the greats in historical fiction, echoes Jane Yolen's sentiment (writing to know ourselves), telling us that 'Writing is the way I figure out what's going on, around me, in me, to me, what I'm doing. It still amazes me that a couple of black marks on a page can inspire a whole cosmos in someone's mind. That's magic. That's the best magic there is.' She also tells us that she picks the little people as protagonists because 'Kings and Queens and Popes get a lot of press but the real momentum of events comes from the ordinary people struggling with their ordinary lives. That's what real power is, anyway - not giving orders and commands, but getting control over your life - making meaning out of reality.'

The author - Jan Burke - of the Irene Kelly mystery series and the recent thrillerNine has this to say about the product of her efforts: 'One of the most wonderful aspects of this process is that in a sense, each reader creates his or her own book - what I write is just the jumping off point for the reader's imagination. The reader's own ideas about these issues and their experiences will bring them to pass judgment ...'

When asked how she knows if an idea will work, veteran romance writer Marsha Canham says 'I never know it's going to work. Not even when I've typed THE END. Every book is a crap shoot, and it doesn't get any easier trying to think of what will work and what won't. Having been in the business for twenty years, I've seen a lot of changes, favorite time periods that come and go, subjects that were popular then that are shunned now -- like pirate adventures. So when you decide to go against the grain, as I usually do, you don't know if it's going to work until the book is on the shelf and you start getting reader feed back.'

And Deborah Smith has this to say on the same topic: 'I love my early books but consider them "romances with training wheels." I worked long and hard to understand the accepted themes and structure of the short, series novels, and those first books show my doggedly intense efforts to follow the crowd. As time progressed I began to realize that *not* following the crowd was more important. On the other hand, a writer in a commercial genre like romance has to be smart enough to stay *near* the crowd, at least. Which is where each of my books becomes a new challenge--trying to be different without being too different.' When asked what she'd like readers to take from novels like her latest, Sweet Hush - 'A laugh, a few tears, and a feeling that they've taken a trip into a wonderful world with people they like.'

So, if you want to be an author rather than a writer, and prepared to work on mastering the craft, have a look at all these excellent sources of technical tips, in-depth topical advice and just plain inspiration ... and as Jane Yolen exhorts us, 'Take Joy' in the process.
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