Learning To Write, Part 1
James C. Rocks
So, I want to tell a story but it turns out that isn't quite as easy as it sounds or rather it isn't quite so easy to do it well. Since well before I started writing my current masterpiece/toilet manuscript [delete as applicable] I have wanted to know how to go about it. There are writing resources out there (on the internet) but not that many good ones. Whilst I have some experience of writing I have doubts it is all that useful; I was writing for a very different, very specific fan audience. I have no "professional" fiction writing experience and the cold, hard truth is I don't even know if I truly know how to write. By that I mean to write material that others outside of a narrow clique will appreciate; do I have the requisite skills? Which begs the question, what are the skills? I will deal with these across several posts. In my not-so-humble opinion, the first has to be language; you have to be literate, to love your language and to master it as best you can. That's not to say that one can't write a story without a good command of your chosen language but too many errors are distracting and there's a far greater chance the reader will lose the thread. My language is, as you might expect, English but my assumption is that that same general principle applies regardless of the language in which you choose to write. So how do you improve your literacy skills? Reading is, perhaps, the most one obvious way and it will surprise few to know that I read a lot. I write a fair bit as well both for web articles and in my role as a senior engineer at work. I watch film and television; though I primarily watch action, science fiction and fantasy material I like to think that some, though not all, of my choices, are fairly intelligent. I surf the net for interesting material frequently using web-applications like StumbleUpon (http://www.stumbleupon.com) to introduce a more random factor. I use YouTube to find interesting speakers on subjects such as science, religion, humanism, history, computing and comedy. I've found comedians, with their keen ability to take ordinary situations and twist them into something both clever and funny, to be some of the most literate speakers on the net. But I'm writing a novel so it seems to me that reading has to be the best way to develop my literary skills. Despite the cynical derision of some, I mainly read science fiction, perhaps a little fantasy or horror. I imagine the better writers will read (and quite possibly write) almost anything but my aim is to be a science fiction writer so I hope that my experience will give me a good insider's view of the kind of thing I want to write; every cloud 'n all that! My spelling is excellent, my grammar is very good and my main writing issue seems to be typographical (I make mistakes) which are sometimes hard to pick up when I reread my work. Having read quite a few self-published authors on Amazon it appears I am, to quote a friend who has been reviewing my progressing novel, "streets ahead" because of my literacy skills. In my opinion you need to be able to differentiate "affect" from "effect"; "further" from "farther"; "there" from "their" and "they're"; "to" from "too" and "two"; and, of course, everyone's favourite, "your" from "you're". It's handy to marry a pedant (my wife is a university dyslexia support tutor) and perhaps grow your own resources; my youngest is studying "English and American Literature" at university, my best friend a new author with a lot of knowledge and, at times, a rather specific view of the way language should work. Of course nothing should stop you telling your story if you feel you have one to tell but you should be acutely aware of your skills or lack thereof and, assuming you do find you're in need, find solutions to them because the use of poor language in writing can be as distracting and annoying as a dull or amateurish story. As I said above, I read a lot and the one thing I know is true for me is that whilst I can forgive the odd spelling or grammar mistake the greater the incidence of such errors the greater the chance I will get frustrated with a book and ditch it. That seems particularly relevant today as, in parallel with the rise of SMS texting and social networking, English language skills feel like they are on the decline. Arguably this is just language evolution in action but to me, it feels wrong and when work emails arrive tell me they have assigned a given task to "yourself" rather than the grammatically correct "you" I cannot help but think less of the person sending it. Fortunately, we have yet to reach, in work emails at least, the declining standards of text messages though have had emails and other communications substituting "u" for "you", "ur" for "your or "you're" and "r" for "are". Nevertheless part of my role at work is to create technical documentation and to communicate technical issues to others and that, in combination with the pseudoscientific papers I used to write in response to the ignorant assertions of fundamentalists, has helped to develop my writing skills. It's all about communication so, in summary, I think my message to the budding author is, be aware of the relevant skills, improve them when you can and if you can't find a way around the problem. In my next blog post, I'll deal with the second requirement, inspiration.