How to Learn to Write

Hello there! Welcome (back). So you want to be a writer? Whatever the hell for? Whichever way, here are a few ‘steps’ which are kinda sorta inevitable on this long, arduousadventurous journey to building fiction from scratch.

Read. Read whatever the fuck you want. And don’t just stop at hard copy books available in you language through your local library (though I’m never giving up my Vorkosigans, thank you very much). Since basically anything’s available right now, if you read any major language and live somewhere with a remotely good internet connection, why don’t you take the time to find stuff which’ll feel like it has been written specifically for you? (Oh, yeah, it’s out there. Even when you’re weird.)

I first found my current/recent favourite authors through Goodreads, but nowadays Kobo knows a little more about what I like and I get some awesome recs even there. And, bonus point—if you read ebooks by indie authors, you can buy almost as many books as you want per month and still feel vaguely like a responsible adult managing her money.

Write without a care for quality at first. If it’s a short story somewhere between something the likes of which Enya or Yes (the prog rock band) could’ve written in their lyrics, who cares? If it’s a flimsily masked famous movie fanfic, who cares? If it’s something you feel you’ll never be able to publish, who cares? If it’s something your mom would’ve renounced your for, who cares? You’re only here to learn. (Later, if you write enough, you just might realize every kind of writing is practice writing. Yes, even novels. Yes, even series of novels. We live and we learn, and it’s fun.)

Write exactly what you want to write and avoid what you think you should write. There I go, parroting again, but I cannot seem to stress this nearly enough.

If you’re reading this, I’m going to take the liberty of assuming you want to write; more, better (whatever that means to you), more often, or more publicly, take your pick. There are endless books out there for people who want to write ‘to market’ or whatever the kids are calling it these days, and my take on that* would be—if you want to publish, find the intersection between what you’re truly passionate about (even if it’s the possiblities of inter-species romance on the 17th century border between the Austrian and Ottoman empires), and what people want to read. (I’m still struggling a little with the second part—my first book published in English was a goddamn selfcest romance—but we’re getting there.)

In this great, scary, thrillingly vast post-2012 world of self-publishing, I feel like it’s easier than ever to write what you think you should, in order to sell, but… the people whose (self-published) books I’ve loved the most in the past few years have written stuff I’ve never seen before, not in this form. Yeah, sure, I’ve only read fiction available in a tiny language prior to the mid-naughts, but still—what an era to be alive. (I’m a niche bitch.)

My favourite ‘write what you like’ example—and it’s an old one, and not without its flaws, but bear with me—is Anne Rice in the 1980s. Think of the consequences of her fiction alone. Hell—I’m just gonna go all out and say I wouldn’t have published my first novel (Izazov krvi) were it not for the legacy of her series. And it’s not even that hard to follow—even if I’m imagining it all, and I’m not going to say I’m not—from her to Sookie, from Sookie to Edward and Jacob, from Jacob to my precious, dark-haired Snježana.

And people would say vampire fiction died with Bram Stoker. (For the record, I’ve never heard anyone actually say that, but I’ve met a lot of academic types in my life and it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.)

Get outside opinion. Hello there, can of—I’m not even sure what to call you squirmy little fuckers. A lot of the things I say here on SnW comes with a firm YMMV warning, alright? And most of it comes from my own experience. This is a case of the latter, but not the former. I honestly believe that there is no way to progress in your writing if you don’t get other people’s comments on your fiction. Don’t ask people who don’t read your genre and don’t trust just anyone, but get some eyes on your copy.

I’ve never been a member of a writing group—we’re only just building one, I think—feel—hope?—but it’s a long journey to what everyone might be comfortable with. (Whatever you do, be careful.) I did always have at least one writer friend, though, from as early as 2007, and I’ve had people read my stories from as long as I can remember (because I was a weird animal, for a writer—always wanting to share, almost never shy; every writer’s weird in our own way). These days, a single person reads my fiction before it gets (revised and then) published. I’m not sure I’d be able to publish anything over 7k without that second pair of eyes. It’s just the way writing works. I’ve no idea why, but I still wouldn’t change it even if I could.

Make your grammar teacher proud. Yes, that does mean learning grammar. Maybe even reading books on gramar. (It might mean reading books on grammar in your second language, even.) Maybe even paying people to clean after you. Or having your long-suffering girlfriend do it. Are you willing to bear the consequences?

Finish shit and get it out there. And that’s basically it. You don’t have to start by querying your favourite publisher of all time. (Or agents or whatever it is that people do these days, smack in the middle of the end of a world.) But you don’t have to start by publishing short stories in your local sci-fi magazine, even, no matter the fact that it’s how I started and I still consider myself lucky to have been able to do it. (I won my first major local award for one such story, not to mention bragging rights for life.)

I’m not a patient person by nature—I wouldn’t even be able to do jigsaw puzzles if it weren’t for 2020—so I might be pushing the ‘get it out there’ a little too hard for some people. You don’t have to publish if you don’t want to, by all means. Writing isn’t some sacred shit you need to approach in a certain way—writing is a tool. Sometimes, a skill. Sometimes, just maybe, a job.

But I’m literally scared shitless when I even court the idea of still being unpublished. One of the best things I’ve ever done for my writing—both skillwise and in general—was accepting the offer to send out my then-unfinished novel to my first editor. Finishing a book for publication—and it was something like the fifth longer piece I’d written by that point, not the first one—made me able to write another one, and another one, and then go and publish another one.

Finishing a novel and getting it out there made me learn so many things about plots and structure. Things I’m only just beginning to realize as I’m writing these posts. Who’s to say getting stuff out there won’t completely revolutionize your writing, too?

There. Now you have it. Wasn’t that hard, was it? The only actual problem is that it takes a little bit of time.

But so does life.

And constantly learning to write—more, better, more often, and more publicly—is one of the most fun stuff I’ve been doing with my life, so far.


*and I believe I read something similar first in Write to Market by Chris Fox, literally.

Cover photo by Matt Lamers on Unsplash.