Authors discuss their writing techniques.
Hi, I’m Mark O’Bannon. Welcome to this rare look into the secrets of storytelling from published authors. Today, I’d like to feature an Urban Fantasy writer, Karen Chance, the author of numerous books and short stories, including “Touch in the Dark,” and “Midnight’s Daughter.”
Karen has a very instinctive approach to writing.
Here’s an excerpt from an online Q&A series on her views on writing for her readers (used with the author’s permission):
“My sister is in the second year of her GCSE and is interested in becoming a writer, could you give me some advice to help her on the steps she needs to take to be able to do this?”
Okay, so this question came up on the wall, and there was no way to answer it there (as you can see if you scroll down, the answer is stupidly long, and that’s the condensed version.) But I wanted to answer it somewhere because I get this pretty often. And although it won’t interest most people in the slightest, for those contemplating a writing career, it might be somewhat useful.
So. There are two answers to your question, depending on what you meant by “steps.” If you’re asking how someone submits something they’ve written to a publisher, the answer is fairly simple.
I usually suggest that people pick up The Writer’s Market (http://www.amazon.com/2012-Writers-Market-Robert-Brewer/dp/1599632268), which can also often be found at your local library (in case you just want a quick reference.) It explains the basics, like how to write a decent cover letter and what to include in a submission packet, and has names and addresses for agents, editors and most publishing houses. It helps to send your manuscript only to those editors who handle the kind of work you do (fantasy, mystery, romance, etc.) as otherwise you’re wasting their time and your postage. It also helps to pay attention to which houses read unsolicited manuscripts (those without an agent’s recommendation) and which do not. The process is pretty straightforward, and while it may help to attend a few writers’ conferences to pick up additional tips or to meet editors in person, it’s not really necessary. Basically, you will get published if your writing engages an editor’s interest and happens to be what he or she is looking for at the time.
Okay, then. That was pretty easy, right? And if all you’re looking for is technical advice, you can stop reading right there. If, however, you are actually asking not how to get published, but how to write, then the answer is a little more complicated.
There are tons of guides online that promise to teach you how to write (some freebies are here: http://diplomaguide.com/articles/Online_Creative_Writing_Courses_Offered_Free_by_Top_Universities_and_Educational_Websites.html ) and there are plenty of other people who will be happy to sell you a writing course, magazine, or book purporting to do the same. And, of course, you can also go to university and specialize in fiction writing. But will any of this really help?
Here’s the thing. My personal opinion is that writing courses (the better ones, anyway) are useful for certain things: improving your grammar, giving you the motivation to write, and/or providing you with practice. And therefore I certainly wouldn’t call them useless. But what they can teach you is going to be limited.
You see, I took some creative writing classes in college. And while they were fun, I can’t honestly say that they taught me anything. The problem is that writing isn’t a science, it’s an art. And art isn’t about a set of formulae that you can memorize or rules that you can learn. Art doesn’t follow the rules. Art bends the rules, shatters them, breaks them into tiny pieces and stomps on the bits, and then (hopefully) builds something new out of the rubble. And it tends to be more instinctive than learned, which makes it very hard to teach.
So giving useful advice to the would-be artist is tough. Not that that is going to stop me from trying, of course. To keep this from being ridiculously long (too late), I’m going to boil my advice down to three main points.
So you want to be a writer? First ask yourself three things:
A. Do you have the talent?
And no, it isn’t always that easy to tell. For example, my first novel (which was never published, thank God) was actually written a number of years ago. And it was bad. So bad, that it probably doesn’t even deserve the name of “novel.” Even book is too good for it. Waste of paper might be edging up on the truth, but still misses the mark by quite a bit. Not to put too fine a point on it, it blew. But did that incredibly bad first book stop me from inflicting my “talent” on others? No. No, it did not.
Now, this could have ended several different ways. I know this because I was also passionate about something else, namely music. I was going to be a great pianist. Or possibly a flute player (that’s flautist to us in-the-know musical types.) Or possibly the guitar…
I wasn’t real clear on the instrument, but damn, did I want to play something. Until, at long last, I finally realized that there was a slight problem with this plan: namely, that I have no musical talent. And I don’t mean I have a little but was too lazy to develop it. I mean I do not have the skills. Not mad skills; not any skills. I am the musical equivalent of Forrest Gump.
The difference between these two things was that, with a lot of practice and effort, I did get better at writing. I was practicing on history papers, of course, not fiction, but certain things carry over. But if I hadn’t stuck with both of my dreams, I would never have known which was feasible and which was so very not. And neither will you.
B. Do you have the knowledge?
Because, yeah, that grammar stuff? You kind of need that. Not that writers don’t break the rules all the time–like I said before, that’s even kind of the point. But you do need to know the basics before you start amending them á la Shakespeare. And how long does that take?
Well, according to Learning from Wonderful Lives by Nick Baylis, becoming proficient at something—to the point that people will pay you to do it—takes around ten thousand hours. And that’s assuming you have the aptitude we talked about above. He examined the lives of successful professionals from a number of fields, added up the study/practice time it took for them to master their craft, and it always seemed to work out to the same thing.
So how much is that? Roughly speaking, ten thousand hours is ten years of practicing three hours a day, every day. And if that seems like a lot…well, that’s because it is. But that seems to be about how long it takes for most people to become truly proficient at something, at least according to Baylis. Do I agree with him? I don’t know that I do entirely, because people are all different, and making hard and fast rules for humanity is always problematic. But I will say this: I scoffed when I first heard that ridiculous number, until I did a little math. And figured out that the amount of writing I did in my graduate work was probably something around…ten thousand hours.
Coincidence? Possibly. But remember my first book? The one that was so bad it is actually painful for me to recall it today? Because the same person who wrote that, ten thousand hours later, wrote some essays that earned me a rather nice scholarship during my Ph.D. A rather nice scholarship that funded a year of my education and came from the English department at my university.
Yeah. There are English grad students who still haven’t gotten over that. A historian beat them at their own game, at their own university, in their own department. But it didn’t come easy. And it didn’t come fast.
Want to be a writer? Practice.
C. Do you have the drive?
This is last, because it’s probably the one that gets the most people in trouble. It doesn’t do any good to have all the talent and proficiency in the world if you never use it. Of course, people have good reasons for why they don’t write that book they’re always talking about: they have jobs that take up most of their time; they have kids they prioritize above their hobbies; they just don’t ever seem to be in the mood. And so they don’t write. Or they write, but they put out a short story now and again, or some fan fiction, and call it a day. But to be a professional writer, you have to write all the time.
Unless you’re one of the lucky few who gets published in hardback, you will need to put out at least a book a year, every year, just to make a living. For example, this year I published a 142,000-word novel, an 8,000-word short story, and a 25,000-word novella. That’s 175,000 words, and the year isn’t over yet. And those are just the words I deemed good enough to make the cut. The real total…well, let’s just say it was higher. Last year, I put out a little over 200,000 words. I will probably do about the same next year, or maybe a bit more.
So what’s my point? That when it’s a job, it’s a little different than when it’s a hobby. It isn’t possible just to write when you’re in the mood or when inspiration strikes. You have to hunt inspiration down and make it your bitch. You have to do this each and every day, and often for longer hours than if you had a nine-to-five job. And you have to do it well. Writing, despite what people sometimes think, actually is hard work, and yet you don’t get a pension plan, or medical insurance, or even have your employer chip in on your SSI (that’s social security taxes, for those outside the U.S.) So your tax rate is considerably higher than usual.
Still want to be a writer?
Don’t get me wrong, I love what I do. Okay, most days I do. But I think prospective writers need to know the truth before they decide on this as a career path. It has some wonderful rewards—little is ever as satisfying as having people get enjoyment from one of your books. Just make sure you investigate the downside, too, and that it is something you can live with.
So, after all that, if you still want to write, what do you do? You write. Take classes if they help you, study your craft, and practice, practice, practice. Then tell your stories, the ones you’re passionate about, the ones that just have to come out whether you get paid for them or not. And submit them. And maybe one day, I’ll be reading your books.
Note: If you’d like to read the entire article, here is a link:
Also, are a few more words of advice from Karen Chance:
I’d like to thank today’s author, Karen Chance, for permission to reprint her comments on writing.
I’d like to thank you as well. Please check out the other great interviews in this series with authors, and remember to keep writing! The next published book could be yours.
– Mark O’Bannon
About the Author
Karen Chance is a New York Times bestselling Urban Fantasy author. She has created two series of books: The Cassandra Palmer series and the Dorina Basarab series.
Visit Karen Chance online: