Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Lisa: On learning how to write

I've been writing seriously for almost ten years, and during that time, I've often wished I could pursue a formal education in creative writing. But it's not something I've been able to do for a lot of different reasons.

So, I've had to learn the old fashioned way.

That is, by writing a lot. And reading a lot.

Oh, and there have been some conferences thrown in to the mix too, and I always make a point to attend more craft-oriented sessions than publishing-oriented ones.

Anyway, when I say writing a lot, what do I mean?

I mean that if I have an idea I like, and a character I want to get to know, I write the story. Sometimes I check with Sara about what I'm writing, but often times, I don't. Because for me, writing isn't simply about publication. Writing is how I learn. And, there's something sort of soothing about writing a story for myself, just because *I* want to find out what happens.

I wrote some books before I had an agent that didn't sell and I've also written books since having Sara in my corner that didn't sell. And although there may have been some disappointment at times about not selling something, I've never thought of those books as a waste of my time. They are my schooling. They are how I learn. With each book I write, I learn things, and I hope that I become a better writer.

Writers write. And so I do, again and again, each time thinking about my weaknesses and trying to improve in those areas.

I believe writers also read to help them become better writers. In fact, I'd argue, one of the best things a writer can do for his/her career is to read. Have fours a day to spend on your writing career? Spend one of those hours reading. And here's why:

Because I have learned about memorable characters from John Green, Gayle Forman, and most recently Matthew Quick.

I have learned about voice from Cheryl Renee Herbsman and Saundra Mitchell.

I've learned about humor from Kristen Tracey and L.K. Madigan.

I've learned about timing and pacing from Suzanne Collins and Neil Shusterman.

I've learned how to make a setting come alive from Heidi R. Kling and Christine Fletcher.

And I've learned about the importance of connections, big and small, that make all the difference in a story, from Sarah Dessen, Nina LaCour, and Cynthia Lord.

I read so much, I have my 14-number library card memorized. I figure over my lifetime, that memorization has saved me hours of time, since I don't have to find my purse to get my library card every time I want to reserve a book on-line. I visit the library weekly, and usually have two books I'm reading at any given time, one downstairs and one upstairs. Well, I mean, who wants to spend precious reading time climbing stairs?

Reading books also gives me something to talk about with other writers and bloggers. And sometimes, a book can be a point of reference when talking to Sara about a project I'm working on or about editors or whatever (and I'm so impressed that often times I'll ask, have you read XYZ, and Sara will say yes, when she is also reading a manuscript a night! Can you say agent extraordinaire!?).

So, I guess all of this is to say, when writers ask me what do they need to do to get published, I say these things, to start with:

Write a helluva lot, always trying to improve and grow. Don't write the same story over and over if it's not getting you anywhere.

Read a helluva lot, taking in what an author does well and how that can help with your writing.

And sleep with a rabbit's foot underneath your pillow, keep a four-leaf clover in your wallet, and wish on every falling star you see. (Okay, so that's just me, but it can't hurt, right?)


  1. Thanks for the post Lisa- great advice! By the way, I was proud of myself for having my 9-number library card memorized (even if the new check-out girls think it's a tad bit strange)--14 numbers is way more impressive.

    I loved reading about you and a book signing for It's Raining Cupcakes on Shannon Whitney Messenger's blog a few weeks back :)

    1. I usually went to the library for the study and want to complete my assignments easily. Nowadays I was researching medical assignment help and got new points that I mentioned in my book.

  2. Great post!!

    I've always been someone who reads at night. I've just shifted some of my reading time to the morning (time I consider my "writing" time), and it has definitely helped me grow as a writer.

    I LOVE that you have your library card memorized! I have mine on a cyber-post-it that is on my computer screen, so all I have to do is copy and paste it when I log into my library account!


  3. Great post, Lisa. Thanks for the mention. It makes me happy to think you learned something about humor writing from reading my books. Up next, I hope to teach you about how to survive being adrift at sea and getting attacked by sharks. I know. I tackle big issues. Again, great post. You and Ray Bradbury are my two favorite self-taught writers.

  4. Great post! I've also memorized my 14-number library card, which definitely comes in handy when I'm putting holds on books on the library website. At least I'm not the only one. :)

  5. Library card *sigh*, we have no libraries in Cyprus for English readers.

    I finished my novel this weekend, and I can honestly say by reading different genres to my norm, have helped me grow as a writer.

  6. You're experience in learning to write is a lot like mine. I too have been writing and learning writing by reading for years and, hopefully, now have something worth publishing.

  7. Very nice post. I'll share that with my students.

  8. What weaknesses?

    If you ever had any ... they're gone.

    Thanks for the mention, Leese.


  9. This is definitely a great post. :)

    And I, too, have memorized my library card number from placing all those holds!

  10. Love the post Lisa!
    I haven't memorized the library card number but use the txt file on my computer to copy and paste.
    I'm working my way just like you. Started writing seriously three years ago, but been reading and writing my whole life. And I know there's a lot I still need to work on just to send something out. But just working each day. Reading, writing... I use most of my commuting time to read, though sometimes I write longhand, mostly during first draft writing.
    Tried to comment with my livejournal account, but it didn't let me. So using the google one.

  11. Great advice that should be heard again and again!

  12. Interesting post. You seem to be saying to read (like a writer) and write (like a writer and a reader)--excellent advice. Thanks.

  13. kindred spirits...very cool post.

  14. Wonderful post, and so heartening, in an age when it seems everyone is taking Creative Writing degrees, to hear that I'm not the only person who is still doing it the old-fashioned way. As a writer who is still seeking an agent/publishing deal for my books, it's always reassuring to hear that clocking up the rejections is the norm. Thanks! I feel inspired and encouraged!

  15. I, too, am completely self-taught. I read a lot, so when my story attacked me (in the middle of the night, no less) and demanded I write it I knew pretty much what I wanted to do, and what I didn't want to do. I just had no idea how to do it. So I just wrote, and wrote...

    Marc Vun Kannon

  16. Thanks for all of the comments everyone! Keep writing. Keep reading. And keep wishing!

    Honestly, I think a lot of this business comes down to sheer persistence and right place/right time.


  17. I loved this post, Lisa. Graduate school was great, but the best part about it was that it forced me to write so much. It sounds like you don't need any help in that area. (And thank you for the very generous words!)

  18. Thanks, Lisa! You explained the heart of a true writer- we write because we love it. We love to get to know the characters, to tell their stories, to find completion in them somehow. I have two complete YA manuscripts and a novel for grownups (ha) from years ago 3/4 done, and no matter what happens professionally, they are all a part of me and I'm so happy to have them! I feel I have dozens of books in me, and can't wait to meet each one.

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