Thursday, May 19, 2011

How to Be a Good Writer, Part 1

Recently I received notice of an anonymous comment posted to an old blog that said simply, “How do I become a good writer?” I’d like to respond with my own thoughts on how I’ve gone about that very thing. Keep in mind that there is no formula; there are no quick and easy steps to take to become brilliant. It’s all about the hard slog.

Now—I don’t want to be presumptuous here—I know I’m not God’s gift to writing—but I know at least enough to offer up three recommendations:
  1. Read.
  2. Read.
  3. Read.
Stick with me. There’s a method to my madness.

Point one: Read. Read books about how to write. I will cover this in an upcoming post (titled Archetypes), but read Booker's The Seven Basic Plots. Hugely instructive, that. I cannot recommend more enthusiastically a book written by Stephen King, entitled On Writing. You may or may not be a fan, but King is one of the masters of the craft. He’s also been quite successful. Besides, getting outside the boundaries of your preferences occasionally is part of what transforms your writing from ordinary to extraordinary.

Point two: Read. Read history. This is, in my opinion, one of the most important disciplines for any member of society to undertake because the reading of history provides so very much in the way of foundation of character in a person. It’s not to say that you have to go and pick up some dry old tome on the foundations of colonialism in West Africa, either, unless of course that interests you. The key here is to find something that does interest you and then read about it. I personally found Stephan Talty’s book Empire of Blue Water, a gritty and honest thrill ride about the real pirates of the Caribbean and the actual Captain Henry Morgan, to be one of the most entertaining books I’ve ever read. It was one of those books you don’t want to finish because you don’t want it to be over. Anyway, read history—for your own good, for the good of those around you, and for the exercise of reading.

Point three: Read. Read fiction. This is something I’ve had to work at. But if you aspire to be a writer of fiction, that is, a storyteller, you can’t get around reading it. The only way to discover how to produce good dialogue (i.e. believable dialogue) is to read how other writers have done it. Some of it will be crap, and some of it will be stunning. You never know until you try. And you’ll never know how to construct a plot, develop a character, devise a good mystery and on and on, until you read enough of them to get some ideas of your own. One book that simply blew me away was Stephen King’s Desperation. Not for the faint of heart, but very rewarding. Another King novel that's not quite so gruesome, and still excellent, is Duma Key.

The idea, and hopefully you’ve guessed it by now, is to read enough different things that your mind is stimulated in new directions and then follow that stimulus on to wherever it leads. For now, remember that the only way to grow as a writer is to grow as a reader. Good writers are always reading. No excuses. On the treadmill. During the commute (if you drive, get into audiobooks). As an alternative to watching the drivel that spills out of the TV. Read several books at once, and on wildly different topics. You get the idea. And one last thing: get to know your public library. That place is amazing.