For the three years it took me to write my first novel, and for the four years or so following, while I made the transition from newbie to full-time established writer, I don’t think I opened a single book on the craft of writing or visited a single craft-oriented website. It was only once people started asking ME for writing advice that I realised delving into resources of that kind might be useful. Now I do it fairly often. It’s great to read other writers’ tips for success and to share their struggles with all things writing-related, from technical elements to ergonomics to the heart-and-soul matters of the profession.
It never occurred to me to seek out the advice and opinions of experienced writers during my journey to initial publication. I’ve never studied creative writing and, until the last few years, did not belong to a critique group or attend events at our local writers’ centres, which routinely run writers’ groups, workshops and talks by visiting authors. Why didn’t I feel the need for this, and how did I manage without it?
Education: I may not have studied creative writing, but my education gave me some essential foundations for a novelist. I’m of a generation that learned spelling, grammar and syntax as part of the primary school curriculum. At high school we studied classic literary texts – a Shakespeare play each year, novels by Dickens, Jane Austen, Charlotte Bronte, poetry, journalism and essays. We also looked at works by our local New Zealand writers such as Janet Frame and Katherine Mansfield. At university I studied music (I’ve written elsewhere about how useful this was in developing my awareness of balance and flow in writing) and foreign languages (these give you an insight into the vocabulary and structure of English, and open up your cultural horizons – especially handy for a historical fantasy writer.)
Reading: The best preparation for being a writer is being a reader. I read avidly from the time when someone realised I was not educationally slow, just severely short-sighted. That first pair of glasses opened new worlds for me. I have always read quite broadly, and when I started to write seriously, all those years of absorbing other people’s great (and sometimes not so great) style meant I had an intuitive grasp of what to do and what not to do in my own writing.
Life experience: Seems a bit obvious, but for me this had to come before the writing. I showed promise as a writer when young, but other things got in the way and I did not come back to it until my late forties. By that time I had started to grow up, I had made a lot of major mistakes in my life and learned from them, and I was becoming a wiser person as a result. It was only then that I was ready to write novels and able to set down a story that would resonate with readers.
Natural reticence; low self-esteem: I have to include these, because they were instrumental in my decision to show my first manuscript to only one person (my then-teenage daughter) before I sent it to a publishing house as an unsolicited manuscript. While I thought the ms was fairly good, I was not prepared to let friends, relations or local experts read it and give feedback that might be shatteringly negative, or worse, complimentary but insincere. Coming off an adverse period in my personal life, I simply wasn’t armoured against adverse criticism. If someone had to deliver the news that my writing stank, I thought, best that the person be a professional, someone unknown to me, whom I would not have to face afterwards! Most fortunately, the publisher/editor in question liked the manuscript, made an offer, and set me on my way as a professional writer.
What is to be learned from all this? I guess I can distil it down to a few pieces of good advice:
1. You want to be a writer? Read, read, read. Learn via the absorption method!
2. To become effective as a writer, and as a person, first learn to love yourself. Accept yourself with all your strengths and weaknesses, your flaws and talents. From that strong foundation, you can reach out to others and let your creativity take flight.
3. It’s possible to do it on your own, provided you have some basic writing tools and a workmanlike attitude. Take advice – from books, from blogs, from writers’ group buddies – if you think you need it, but don’t feel you must follow all advice. An opinion is just that, an opinion. It depends a bit on who is offering the feedback. If it’s a respected editor who’s deciding whether to take your project, it could pay to take heed!