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Friday, October 15, 2010

A letter to aspiring writers

Writing books is an exciting career that requires four things: an active imagination, some life experience, a broad world view, and language skills. Add to that list the discipline needed to sit alone in front of a computer and hammer out a story, and you can see it's not an easy job to obtain. But the rewards can be tremendous.

As a college professor, I love to see my students furthering their education in preparation for a career. As a published author, I am familiar with the educational road that aspiring writers must walk to reach their dreams. While some people get lucky and find a publisher for their first creations, most writers must advance step by step toward publication.

So what steps can you take to become a writer? Unfortunately, there is no map guaranteed to take you to the golden cities of Fame and Fortune. But certain things are essential to the journey.

First, prime your imagination by jotting down story ideas as they come to you and save them all. Some will be good, some will not. Some will inspire stories to write now, and some will be for future use.

Second, be encouraged by the fact that life experience is not limited to adults over 30. Anything from a kindergarten memory to a tour of duty in the military to a visit to a grandparent in a nursing home can inspire a story. Experiences give you something to say about being human that will hold the interest of a reader. Write your memories of these meaningful experiences in a journal.

Third, develop a broad world view, which means studying humankind and learning what motivates people of various races, religions, and ethnicities. This sounds like a big undertaking, but if you continue with your education, your views will expand as you learn new things. If you decide to further your formal education, choose a major that involves both reading and writing. An English major will bring you into contact with many great authors of the past and present. A liberal studies degree will take you into many areas of knowledge. Journalism, history, psychology, and political science are also important areas of study. Begin now to read great works of literature.

My favorites are Charlotte Bronte's Jane Eyre and anything by Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace, Herman Melville's Moby Dick, and Nathaniel Hawthorne's Scarlet Letter all provide windows into the past and inform us about our common humanity. Some of today’s popular fiction can be fun to read but might not provide the depth a serious aspiring writer should seek. On the other hand, some popular fiction can plumb the depths of the human condition just as deeply as literary fiction. Know your aspirations and be prepared to write what you know best.

Fourth, hone your language skills. No matter how poorly you may have written in high school English, you can still grasp those concepts that communicate your story to readers. Stuff pride in a drawer and take a grammar class. If that isn’t possible, you can hire someone to work over your manuscript. In addition to being a writer and a college professor, I'm a freelance copyeditor. That means people send their manuscripts to me to “correct” before they submit their work to editors. I polish the grammar and offer suggestions on characterization and story structure. One literary agent who refers clients to me calls me a book doctor. And there are many others like me who can help you. Further, keep adding new words to your vocabulary and don't fall into the bad habit some of my students have of using abbreviations in school papers that should be used only in emails and text messages.

Finally, develop the discipline required to sit alone at your computer (or with your pad and pencil) and actually write that book. Commit to putting so many words on the page every day, even if it’s only 200. By the end of a year, you’ll have a complete book written!

Long ago when I was studying music in hopes of becoming an opera singer, I wrote to a renowned soprano asking her why I couldn’t just quit school and become a professional singer right away. After all, everyone in my small hometown thought I was an amazing singer. This woman responded in a lovely, encouraging letter advising that I stay in school and continue my musical training. Did I follow her advice? No, I dropped out. And my opera career went nowhere.

Years later, I found a new dream: I wanted to become a writer, so I returned to college and earned my degrees, learning along the way what it takes to write well. Sure, I still fight the “lazies.” It’s way more fun to play spider solitaire or Text Twist than to hammer out plot problems or deal with a character who insists on going her own way. (Hmm, wonder where she gets that.) But believe me, all that discipline is worth it when I hold each newly published book in my hand and run my fingers over my own name. This time, I did it right. And it was worth every step of the journey.

Why not start your journey today?


Blogger Jaimn said...

Thank you! This is just what I needed today!! Good adice for anyone - get your building blocks of life completed before starting a new adventure (school!!)

April 4, 2011 at 2:20 PM  

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