In a previous post for this series, I wrote about how hard it was to wear ‘L’ plates again after deciding to become a writer in my early forties. Today, I’m going to talk about how I actually learnt the craft of writing.
At the time I started writing, my children were still young and because I’d stopped work to be at home with them, enrolling in a formal creative writing degree or post-graduate qualification wasn’t really feasible. Instead, I tried to learn how to write in a bits-and-pieces-cobbled-together sort of way. I didn’t know if that would be enough to learn how to write a book, and for a long time I worried about the huge gaps in my knowledge and the skills I didn’t have.
I often wondered if I should just be done with it and enrol in a course and learn it properly. Each year I promised myself that if I hadn’t progressed by the end of the year, I’d enrol in university and formally learn the craft of writing. I looked up courses a number of times and even rang a uni and made enquiries.
However, every year I made headway—I had a story published, or I was awarded a residency or my novel was shortlisted for an award. So, I kept going as I was, learning in my rather ad hoc manner. (I still haven’t ruled out that one day I will study creative writing formally and learn it properly.)
I READ WRITING TEXTS
I knew nothing about the craft of writing when I started, so the first thing I did was fill my shelves with how-to-write books. Over about two years, I read them all cover-to-cover, and did all their suggested exercises.
Most of the texts were really useful, and some of my favourite writing books are: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, On Writing by Stephen King and, probably my most treasured of all, The Little Red Writing Book by Mark Tredinnick.
There are many, many more good writing texts covering all aspects of the art or craft of writing, as well as the different genres. Later, I’ll write up a post with a list of the books I found useful and share it as part of this series.
However, I couldn’t learn to write only from reading books. I needed guidance from more experienced writers, so:
I DID WRITING COURSES
The very first writing course I ever enrolled in was online. It was cheap and there were over 200 in the class, so it was also fairly anonymous. The instructor even moved house midway during the course and disappeared for a couple of weeks. Still, I loved it, and by the second assignment, I knew I’d found what I wanted to do.
I deliberately chose an online course, not just for the ease of being able to work from home and at anytime, but for the anonymity of being able to hide behind a computer screen. This was back in 2010, and at that stage I’d told barely anyone I wanted to write, so it was a safe way to test the writing waters.
I did a beginners’ course that was designed to unlock creativity and teach everyone a few grammar basics. As soon as that course finished, I enrolled in another one that was targeted towards writing fiction. At the same time, I enrolled in local workshops and short courses, things I had to actually attend, and tried to soak up as much as I could as quickly as possible. I found these courses through local writers’ centres, the Australian Society of Authors, and university extension programmes.
I didn’t just do courses on the craft of writing, but on the art of writing, too. On learning how to trust yourself, tap into your creative side, let go of inhibitions and fears, and silence that annoying critic who sits on your shoulder constantly telling you you’re no good. These psychological aspects to writing are just as important as learning the craft, if not even more so, because you have to stop judging your work, and yourself, in order to find that seam of gold we all have within us. In many ways, this is the hardest part to master because we’ve been conditioned for so long to believe otherwise.
But you can’t learn to write without practice, so:
I JOINED A WRITING GROUP
I still attend the first writing group I ever joined. We meet fortnightly, write for about half an hour, then read our work aloud. We comment on each other’s writing, but we’re not allowed to give negative feedback—it’s a first draft and we’re commenting to a group, so we don’t want to publicly humiliate anyone.
In this group, no topic is off-limits, and while the facilitator gives us a prompt, we can write whatever comes up—in fact, we’re encouraged to go wherever the writing leads us. In other words, this group is safe. And that feeling of safety was a godsend for me as a beginner, because it meant I could write whatever came up without the fear of it, or me, being judged. Whatever I wrote and however I wrote it, it was always acceptable. Without a group like this, it would have taken me a lot longer to develop as a writer. These days I’m pretty fearless in what I write, and that’s largely due to the support of this group in those early days.
When I was ready—which wasn’t until I’d been writing for a few years—I joined a critique group. This group is very different to the one above and serves a different purpose: this one isn’t for writing practice or exploration, but for writing after it’s been edited and when it’s ready to be critiqued. As I said above, I waited for a few years until I was ready to join a group like this, once I knew that critical feedback on my work wouldn’t destroy my confidence.
It can be hard to find people with whom to share your writing because:
- You need to be at a similar stage—I don’t know that experienced writers and beginners would mix that well in a critique group (I might be wrong);
- Have similar aims for your writing—It’s nice if you’re all wanting publication, for example, or wanting to write a family history;
- Write in similar genres—or at least enjoy reading the other’s genre;
- Enjoy each other’s work.
Perhaps most importantly, you need to be able to cope with criticism of your work or it’s just a waste of everyone’s time. I’ve touched on getting feedback a little later in this post, but it really deserves a post of its own, which I’ll definitely cover in this series.
How did I discover these writing courses and groups?
I JOINED A WRITING CENTRE
This is where you’ll find writers’ groups and meetings, workshops and courses. Even better, you’ll meet like-minded people, people who share your love of writing and understand why you need to do it. This is where you’ll find your tribe and the motivation to keep you going.
Finding time to write regularly can be hard, and one way I forced myself to write was:
I STARTED A BLOG
A blog is great for developing a regular writing habit. I started this blog in March, 2013, and since then it’s given me a deadline and forced me to write regularly. As a result, I’ve written many more thousands of words than I otherwise would have done. It’s also introduced me to a national and international writing community, much wider than I could have connected with in person.
My blog’s also been a safe place where I could practise my writing and write about any topic I wanted to. Consequently, I’ve done a lot of thought-sorting here, which has helped me develop as a writer, too. About a year ago, I wrote this post on how much blogging has helped my writing.
Before I finish, I’ll briefly mention this important topic:
Feedback is horrible. Because writing is so personal, it hurts when others criticise it, and we all have to brace ourselves for it. The simple fact is, our writing won’t improve without it. We might have been good at English at school and got high marks for creative writing, or we might have read a thousand books or completed a hundred writing courses and think we know how it’s done, but however much we think we know about writing, we still need outside eyes on our work. We can’t always see its flaws, especially when we’re beginning.
I know of only one writer who’s been published without getting feedback on her work, but that’s the exception rather than the rule. I’d say it’s essential to seek feedback on your writing. Before I’ve submitted anything—an application for a residency, an excerpt to a competition, a cover letter to an agent—I’ve sought feedback from others. When I applied to Varuna in 2013, I showed my fifty pages as well as the accompanying cover letter to no less than three writers, and without the changes I made following their feedback, I doubt I would have been selected.
Coping with feedback is such an important topic that it deserves a whole post on its own, so I will return to it later in this series, but I thought it was worth mentioning here.
So, that’s it, basically—how I learnt to write a novel. While I have no formal writing qualifications, I’ve tried hard to educate myself and I’ve put in loads of time and toil. I’ve studied the art and craft of writing and novel writing and, believe me, I’ve devoted myself to it with as much dedication as if I was studying a university course. Like with anything that’s as infinite as writing, there are still gaps in my knowledge and skills, and I’ll always be learning and trying to improve.
There’s just one more thing I did while learning, and it’s probably the most important of all:
I DIDN’T GIVE UP
I kept writing. Even though I was a middle-aged woman who’d suddenly decided she was changing career and would try something she’d never done before. Even though I was a maths/science student at school and English was my weakest subject. Even though I’d not done a creative thing in more than twenty years. Even though I felt daunted and as if there was too much to learn. Even though I’d received harsh critical feedback on my work. Even though I’d missed out on being selected for a manuscript development programme. Even though I’d sent my manuscript off six months ago and hadn’t heard a peep from the publisher. Even though I thought I’d never get published.
Even though there were many times I wanted to give up, I didn’t. I kept returning to my manuscript, redrafting and rewriting it. By the time my book is published in January next year, it will be eight years since I started writing and six years since I began my novel. But, I got there. Finally.
Lastly, I read this quote by Ira Glass not long after I started writing and it gave me much hope:
A reminder that until the end of the month, you can enter a giveaway over at Goodreads to win one of twenty available copies of my novel, ‘The Sisters’ Song’.
Slip over there now if you’d like to enter.