Wednesday, May 5, 2010

How did you learn to write?

Writing Wednesday

Many writers will tell you that they learned their craft by reading and by writing.

With many things in life, the best way to learn something is to jump in and try to do it. This is particularly true for writing: Slamming words together on a regular basis in a way that makes sense to someone else is harder than it looks. It's certainly much harder than reading tamed words lined up smartly in a row and showing no sign of the struggle required to beat them into submission. (If you think that last bit sounds overblown and is just a pathetic play for sympathy, consider that English, as a mongrel and acquisitive language, has the largest vocabulary of any human language. This means that having put down one word a writer working in English has far more choices of what word to use next than writers working in other tongues.) The best way to truly appreciate the nature of the work involved is to try and do it.

Once you've tried putting words together to express your ideas, you can learn a lot by reading the work of other authors and seeing how they handled similar problems. You'll also learn a lot about conventions, cliches, and readers' expectations. I should add that I'm talking here just about reading in your 'genre' or reading works that are similar to the the ones you wish to undertake. Writers should also be widely read outside their genres--it's the best way to keep your idea pump primed.

Having repeated the orthodox answer, it's time to confess that for all my reading and writing, I really learned to write by watching TV, composing music, and developing software.

Reading and Writing

I started doing a lot of reading and writing when I was young. Indeed, I did so much reading and writing that they because a constant part of my life as I did various things. I got very good at academic and techicnical writing. But my attempts at fiction were less than satisfactory--something was missing, but how can you name something you can't see?


Meanwhile, I was developing software. If buildings were built like software, you would constantly be tearing them down and rebuilding them. There are thousands (sometimes millions) of things that have to be right in order to get a non-trivial piece of software working. It's overwhelming unless you can see the larger patterns and relationships. There's a lot more to say about the parallels between writing and developing software and I trust I'll return to this topic often. For the present it is sufficient to say that I learned about balancing abstraction and concrete implementation and how to move across concerns at multiple levels of magnitude without getting lost. A writer must be able to do the same thing, keeping in mind what the current section and chapter and part and book are all going while crafting the current paragraph to do its job in a what that supports all the other levels.


There's a strong connection between writing and music because both forms of expression are experienced linearly. I've composed a fair amount of music for my own use. Doing so has given me some feel for theme, motif, tension, resolution, anticipation, and direction. I'm not making any claims about my music other than to observe that you can figure out whether a song is going somewhere interesting more quickly than you can make the same determination with a novel.


Before I get to the punch line, I want to point out that when talking about "writing," we're talking as much about storytelling as about a way with words.

So how did I learn to write from television (a medium that hardly seems to belong in the same sentence with the phrase "great literature")? I watched Babylon 5. Okay, I also followed along as J. Michael Straczynski, executive producer and primary writer for Babylon 5 described what he was doing on the internet over the roughly seven years from the pilot to the final episode. I found it immensly enlightening to read what Straczynski said he was trying to do in an episode and then to see how it actually played out. I was finally able to see concrete examples of things like character development and multiple themes weaving into large story arc playing out in a way that clicked for me.


So, was that it?

No, I'm still learning how to write everyday, but neither you nor I have time for an endless post.

Image: Simon Howden /

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