How I Learned to Write by Alison Bruce

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
Ernest Hemingway

As a professional copywriter, the two attitudes I most came across was that either anyone can write, so why would I pay you to do it for me or, I could never do what you do.

Neither are correct. Not everyone can write... but writing is a skill that can be learned.

If you have the time and money, taking courses makes sense. I never managed to have both at the same time. I did take a Science Fiction course at university because it promised to be part writing course. I got through it but neither my professor nor I enjoyed it much. I did my term paper on a book about an apocalyptic future where women ruled. He didn't like it. My story was even worse. I don't write hardcore science fiction. I write social-science fiction. He hated that. We ended the semester mutually happy to see the last of each other.

When I finally found out that there were college programs for writing, I was already shoulder deep in student debt. As a result, I continued to learn my craft the old fashioned way, by observing the masters, that is, by reading.

“If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”
Stephen King

I have eclectic tastes. I read mysteries and paranormal suspense, historical fiction, science fiction and fantasy (oh my). I usually latch onto an author, consuming their works with the ferocity of hungry wolverine (with less blood and fur left behind). When I'm done, I think about what I liked and didn't like and why. It's not that I read with the intent of learning all the time, it just happens as a by-product of being a writer.

“There simply must be a corpse in a detective novel, and the deader the corpse the better.”
SS Van Dine

There are rules to writing fiction and rules to each genre of fiction. A Romance must have a happy ending. A romantic suspense, paranormal romance, or any other genre where the "R" isn't capitalized, doesn't necessarily have to follow that rule. This is especially true if the book is part of a series.

Mysteries must have a crime to solve. It doesn't have to be murder, although that's a classic. As the novel unfolds, clues to the solution of the mystery must be dropped so that the reader participate in the investigation. The ending can be a surprise, but it has to follow from the evidence presented.You don't have to do that for a thriller. There the element of danger is most important. The higher the stakes, the better.

Like grammar, I picked up the rules partly by experience and partly from having them laid out for me. I might not have taken a course, but I had some fine teachers who shared their craft in nonfiction books.

"Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it."
Joss Whedon

Not all my teachers were novelists. I also learned a lot by reading and watching interviews with screenwriters. Mel Brooks and Joss Whedon are favourites of mine. I love their work and I love reading about/listening to how they work.

In an interview about Young Frankenstein, Gene Wilder talks about collaborating with Mel Brooks. Brooks wanted him to cut a scene. Wilder thought it was a great gag. That's why Brooks wanted it cut. But he told Wilder that he could keep it if he could show that it was necessary to the plot. That has been one of the most useful pieces of advice I've come across.

"Read it out loud."
Alison Bruce

The most useful piece of advice I can give is to read your work out loud. Better still, have someone read it to you. I learned this through experience.

My sister always wanted to read my stories and would always read them as written. This led to moments of hysterical laughter when she came to parts where my mind was running faster than my fingers or I'd misspelled something to unintentional comic effect. It could also be very irritating being made fun of by your little sister when a small plot hole became a gaping chasm.The process made me a better writer (and speller) in self-defense.

As the storyteller, I know what I'm trying to say. I don't always know if I'm succeeding. Reading aloud helps. Listening to someone else read my work gives me a whole new perspective.


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