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Unconventional Learning

Being a professional writer, I’ve taken any number of writing classes, workshops and courses, of course.

I’ve also read a never-end of books on writing, some very useful, a lot not so much.

But for my money, as a writer (and reader) who lives too much in her own head, my best training to become a writer was the unconventional one, where people didn’t know they were teaching me to write.

I was talking to a friend who is a doctor and he told me that every young man or woman who wishes to be a writer should have a first job in customer service, preferably in fast food.  Why? Because you learn to deal with irrational customers, and to stay polite, and take complex orders, and such.

And I realized for my money the best training I’ve had is the one that wasn’t meant to be training.

in 1996, without any clue why I kept getting rejections, because even my personal rejections were singularly uninformative. They said things like “Good one. Try us again.”

Honestly, you could be excused for tearing out all your hair.

Mind you, I’d sold one short story. Several times. But the magazines or editors died so it hadn’t been published.

It didn’t start as an attempt to learn. It started as an attempt to walk away without walking away.

I’d decided no one would ever buy me. Just then, at that time, we were making enough money without my income. I was home with the kids, anyway. But I still wanted to write. And more importantly I wanted to be read.

So, I obviously went about it in the strangest way possible. I realized that I could get to write and be read in fanfic. at least be SOMEWHAT read. I looked at various sites and realized that some people had fewer readers. but it was free ice cream, so someone would read you.

Right. Most fanfic sites were for TV. But you know, I don’t watch TV (which my dad always announced to people as if it were a sad handicap.) So, that was a problem. I found a site with Pern fanfic, but just as I found it, it got shut down.

So I did what I do, and went looking for fanfic for properties that were out of copyright.  Dumas… Don’t go there. Too many movies, the movies are crazy and fandom tends to be slash, which was not what I wanted to write.

Then I found Austen.  Read a lot of it. (It’s mostly Pride and Prejudice, btw.) Then I wrote some.  And watched the comments, and I found out several things I was doing wrong, and things I had had trained wrong into me.

For instance, I found out that making your story “too difficult” will lose you readers. And what normal people consider too difficult is not what I’d think.

I mean, look, this is a Jane Austen fanfic. You’d think people like historical stories. But you know? Not so much. People much preferred stories with Pride and Prejudice like plots, set in the present day.

Why? Because it’s less work.

In the same way if you create a really difficult, hard to penetrate world?  Which some of us are prone to?…. well, you’re going to lose readers.

In the same way a lot of the “literary” stuff I’d learned just by virtue of having a degree in literature, was off putting to normal human readers. Like for instance making my heroes and villains “realistic” by giving the two strong motivations, or giving the hero bad characteristics and the villain good ones, or….

That just lost you readers. Sure, you can make them SOMEWHAT realistic, but you can never forget the reader needs to know whom to root for.

Also, this being Jane Austen fanfic, the main couples have to end up together.  You can toy with the readers — ah, the sweet cries of “fix this” in the comments — but you have to make it right in the end. This was an important lesson on remembering your readers’ expectations.

Something new, genuinely new will bring you more readers — Sofie Skapski and I just about blew the doors off comment numbers, etc. with A Touch of Night (which we need to bring back online, yes) which was Pride Prejudice and Shifters. And one of the “burning up the charts” fanfics on Amazon right now is pride and prejudice and elves (which is sad because I have one started.) — but it has to be accessible, and you have to keep it interesting.

Since a lot of writing is playing chess with yourself, it really helps to figure out how readers — your normal average reader (and in JA fanfic usually pretty much the sort of bookish readers most of my stuff is aimed at, even if most of my stuff isn’t romance) — react to various things.

Other things I found is that I wasn’t showing emotion nearly as clearly as I thought I was.  I wasn’t really foreshadowing either, but I didn’t have a word for that for some years yet.

The readers’ reactions — when they had absolutely no reason to fake them — gave me more insight into what I was doing right, or wrong, than a hundred classes.

I don’t even know if that kind of thing is possible, anymore, mostly because most fanfic these days ends up indie published, either with serial numbers filed off not. But if it is, I highly recommend it.

In the same way, I highly recommend, for your dialogue, getting up bring and early and going to a diner, where working people eat breakfast, and just listening to talk and the rhythms of conversation.  Particularly if this is not a level of society you normally engage with.

And always, particularly if you want to write historical (which yes sells less, but eh) I recommend reading biographies.

Sure, that’s not how you’re going to write things. Real life has no coherent plot. But it gives you a feel for “how life was.”  If you’re writing anything set in the last century, you might even find countless auto-biographies of average joes and janes, which are even more invaluable, because it gives you the background of expectations and how things were.

But overall? Writing instruction is where you find it. If you’re a writer, you should seek out lots of new things to learn, lots of places you’ve never been (even if — particularly if — they’re in your own city.) It doesn’t have to be glamorous. You don’t need to run with the bulls in Spain. Instead — if you don’t do this — go browse your local comic store, and listen to the people there.  Go off to a place where you’ve never been and soak up local color and then let it settle into the compost pile that is the writer’s brain.

From which it can emerge, eventually, to feed your imagination.

13 Comments
  1. It’s similar to how the best life lessons I ever got… were from an improv club. This is partly because this particular club wanted to train everybody, instead of focusing on the quick & dirty funny people who did shows only. So they got deep into how to do better at whatever level you were at, and how to build a more complex scene.

    One of the best lessons I learned from four years of that was to immediately assess a situation and start from there. A lot of people, possibly most people, waste a lot of time trying to fit “how it should have been” into the current situation, and that gets you nowhere. You can’t approach your goal if you’re backtracking to find a different starting point.

    (It did also help with storytelling, in that there is nothing so ridiculous that you can’t work with it. Stuck somewhere? Get a random suggestion and write based on that. Either it moves the story forward or it unlocks where you wanted it to go. Or it just makes you laugh and improves your mood.)

    February 12, 2020
    • My husband used to do this, way before I was published, when I was stuck fast.
      He’d get up early or in the middle of the night, take my story in progress, and write the most ridiculous scene he could.
      I remember one he had an entire sword-and-sorcery court have this bizarre orgy out of nothing.
      The problem is he can mimic my style, so until I caught on he was doing it I was scared I’d gone nuts. 😀
      BUT here’s the thing, it loosened my subconscious up.
      Nowadays we just go out to dinner (or breakfast) and he gives me suggestions. Which are usually outrageous,b ut clarify things.

      February 12, 2020
      • snelson134 #

        And I’m sure you get the strangest looks…. This is especially true in modern urban fantasy, which tends to involve thing most people associate with serial killers…….

        February 13, 2020
        • remember I write mystery too. Talking about disposing of a body, and having the waitress hear you? Priceless.

          February 13, 2020
      • 😀 😀 😀

        February 13, 2020
  2. Diner is good for older characters. For the younger ones, I drop by the local mall food court, which is one of those that is right outside the movie theater. Helps me work on one of my weaknesses, which is physical description. Take a notebook and describe at least ten people with fifty words or less apiece.

    (If you are a grey-haired male like myself, you also get to practice your “gestalting” from a quick look. Lest you find yourself escorted out by security…)

    February 12, 2020
    • Good idea.

      February 12, 2020
    • Zsuzsa #

      You still have a local mall? With a food court?

      Ours has long-since turned into “an environmentally friendly community space,” which in practice means a strip mall with a number of restaurants, very few stores, and pretty much no people just hanging out.

      February 12, 2020
      • Could have to do with this being Tucson – May through about September, it’s largely stay home or find someplace with AC. We also (right now, demographics change of course) still have a lot of the 15-24 group on this end of town that it makes a good meet-up place for.

        Actually, I think we still have two – although I haven’t been to the other one for quite a while; it sits on the far side of town from me diagonally.

        The one in the “middle” – the first one in Tucson – is defunct in essence as a mall. Home Depot, Walmart, Target, Burlington, etc.

        February 13, 2020
      • Fox Run Mall in Newington, NH still has a food court area. I haven’t checked out the Mall of New Hamphshire in Manchester in the last couple of years so I don’t recall if they still have a food court or not.

        February 13, 2020
      • WestGate Mall in Amarillo has a food court, and some niche shops, plus two anchors. They’re not as busy as they used to be, but they stay in business.

        February 13, 2020
  3. Mary #

    There’s nothing quite like getting a rejection with a personal note that the story’s fine, it’s just not right for the magazine, and then reading in the magazine that they would publish more stories of the genre it was if only they got them. sigh

    February 12, 2020

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