Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Q&A: Aspiring Writers


My next question in the queue is from none other than Sarah Kiesche, my very own little sister. Proof of her relation to me is evident in the fact that she now has the writing bug, which makes me proud.

Her question: Do you (meaning me, James Dashner) have any advice for beginning writers?

This is a good one since I get it without fail no matter where I go. When all else fails, people either ask, 1) Where do you get your ideas? or 2) Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

Although a good question, it's also very difficult to answer. It'd be like me going up to an artist and asking him or her if they have any advice on how to paint portraits. I'll start by sharing something I learned from Stephen King that is very wise: you can either write, or you cannot. You either have the talent or you do not. While you can become a BETTER writer, you cannot BECOME a writer.

So, first, ask yourself honestly if you think you might have a knack for it. (And no, Sarah, I'm not trying to give you a hint. I've seen your writing, and you have talent.) There's no magical formula. There's no checklist. Pick up something you've written and read it again. Is it okay? Passable? Not THAT bad? If so, then you're on the right path.

Next, you need to work your bootie off. I'm not sure why, but many people seem to think writing is different from any other talent. They think you just do it, and your skill level never changes. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Writing is like basketball. Writing is like dancing. Writing is like playing the piano. You must practice, practice, practice. Write, write, write. Everytime you do, you will improve. Don't worry about how good it is yet. Just write. Then write some more. By doing this alone, you will improve drastically. That is, if, like I said earlier, you have the raw talent.

In the midst of all these obsessive compulsive writing fits, read a few books on writing. Go to the Reference section of a bookstore and you'll see a ton of them. If anyone reading this blog has suggestions on good ones, please leave a comment. Read some books and make sure you're sound on the technical aspects of our craft.

Go to writer's conferences. You won't believe how many of them are out there, some cheap, some not. Google for them and attend one. I guarantee there's one within 100 miles of you in the next 6 months. Unless you live in the boondocks or on a boat in the middle of the ocean, like a character in my upcoming book. (BAM! I figured out a way to throw in some shameless promotion!)

Write a novel from beginning to end. I mean it. I don't care if it's the worst book in history, write a beginning, a middle, and an ending, and everything in between. You won't believe the magical power that will come over you once you've accomplished this task. Is it easy? No. Will it win the National Book Award? Probably not. Do I hate when people ask rhetorical questions over and over? Yes.

If you write and finish a complete book, you will suddenly find it much easier to do the next one. It's like a marathon, I suppose, though I've never done it. (Though I did come in 12th place in my neighborhood 5k. Yah, that's right.) I imagine the first marathon is brutal and full of wanna-give-ups. But once you KNOW you can do it, the 2nd time around becomes much easier. I'm guessing.

It took me 3 years to write my first book. The second one, 9 months. My last one, 7 weeks. I'm talking first drafts, here.

Write a complete book. If it's pretty decent, rewrite and rework. If it stinks, trash it and start another one.

Finally, FIND YOURSELF A CRITIQUE GROUP. Notice the annoying usage of all-caps there. A critique group will change your life. Week in and week out you can meet with a few friends who also like to write, people who understand you, people who are as weird as you, people who are as oblivious as you are to the pundits who say you can't do it. Help each other, read aloud, be honest, grow thick skin, push each other. Start searching for these whackos today.

Well, I don't know what else to say. I'd love to hear from anyone else if they have advice. Please comment and help us out.

Once you, New Writer, have some good material, THEN you can worry about how to get published. That day is down the road, in the future. For now, just start writing. Then write some more.

I know I haven't given a lot of tangible, take-away-point-ish type of advice here. But I guess that's what you get with such a broad question. A broad answer. Feel free to follow up with more specific inquiries. Ooh, such a big word.

Q&A will be a regular part of this blog. If you ever have a question, just post it in the comments, and I will save it in my file until it's your turn.

Now go write!!!!!! 1000 words, tonight. No matter what. Promise me. I don't care if it's about Snuffalupagus, just do it.

Have a great day.

33 comments:

Dedee said...

Wow. I like the idea of writing that first book, no matter how bad it is. That way the next one becomes easier. Nice marathon analogy.

Luisa Perkins said...

The only thing I would add to your excellent advice is that the writer should read, read, read.

My Reference Bookshelf:

On Writing, by Stephen King
Bird by Bird, by Anne LaMott
Elements of Style, by Strunk & White
Roget's 21st Century Thesaurus
The Little, Brown Handbook, (ed. Fowler & Aaron)
The Chicago Manual of Style
Words into Type (Prentice-Hall)
The Compact OED
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

Jeff Savage said...

Sometimes the Magic Works by Terry Brooks

Character and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card

so grateful to be Mormon! said...

hi james,
i came over here from the buzz. thanks for sharing this. good words, kathleen

Kimberly said...

I'm following the write the first book advice. NaNoWriMo! Whoohoo!

Really enjoyed this post, James. Fabulous advice for novices like myself.

Ajoy said...

That puts it right into perspective for me. Either you can write or you can't. Now the real question is...do you THINK you can write but nobody else does? haha

I love your advice to get involved with a critique group just as weird as you are. I haven't done this yet. But, I think I will now. Thanks D.D. :)

Don said...

A whole group of people as weird as me? Do I really want to find that? :-)

Nibbling my way through this first novel has been quite an experience. The characters won't leave me alone, and now you've confirmed that the process will be good for me, so guess I'll just keep writing.

Hopefully it won't be too long before I actually have something worth finding a critique group for.

so grateful to be Mormon! said...

hi james, i liked this so much, i did a shout-out to you about this on my blog last night. very cool, thanks for sharing, g'day kathleen :)

James Dashner said...

I really appreciate the book tips. Thanks. Man, I've got some really non-stupid people reading this blog. Cool.

And I'm glad to hear that some of you are committed to finishing that first book.

When you realize you have the capacity and will to do something once, your ability to do it again increases tenfold.

Thanks for the shout out!

so grateful to be Mormon! said...

hey, you're welcome for the shout-out. i wanted to put it on my blog, so i could remember to come back to read your good advice. thanks again, kathleen

Luisa Perkins said...

Oops, I forgot the book 20,001 Baby Names (I use it for naming characters. It came in handy when our kids showed up, too.)

~paulette said...

-The Atlas of Experience by Louise Swaaji (and others)

-The Writer's Guide to Character Traits by Linda Ph.D. Edelstein

are two that i like that weren't mentioned yet. The Atlas one is more of a thought leader/provoker rather than a How-to book. :)

oh ya... and of course, "Writing Secrets" by the LDS storymakers, right? ;)

and "Flip Dictionary" by Barbara Kipfer is a fun tool to look up info.

Laters

Tamra Norton said...

Woohoo! Paulette mentioned Writing Secrets by LDStorymakers! Read Chapter 16--Writing for Younger Readers by James--his-always-humble-self--Dashner, with thoughts, inspiration, and that feminine touch, by...ME! :)

James, why didn't we continue our writing collaborations? Whatever happened to our plans for Jimmy and Molly?

Ah, well. Anyway...the critique group idea is a must! And write, write, write!

Anne Bradshaw said...

And that book hugging picture is wonderful. I'm stealing it for a future blog. Is that allowed?? Is it up for stealing?

James Dashner said...

Tami, Jimmy is still far too busy in the Yumeka to even consider taking time off for a date with Molly. Though he is 16 now.

btw, I do have a sequel series planned out. I really hope I get to write it someday.

Thanks for all the continued suggestions!

Rachelle said...

Other than the ultimate writing conference, LDSStorymakers, can you tell us about some other great conferences that you've attended? I know that there are a lot around but I've heard that some of them aren't worth the money compared to the ultimate writing conference. I plan on attending the LDSStorymakers for the third time next year but would like to find some other great ones. I'm in Utah County.

Tristi Pinkston said...

Writing your rough draft in seven weeks. It's a good thing I like you because I find that very irritating.

I love the picture on this blog, by the way. Can I steal it?

JanaeWatson said...

Man, I feel sooo out of the loop. It really has been too long out of my writing community. I love the baby name book. I use the online lists for my characters when I come up blank. (which is frequent) James, do you remember me finishing my first book way back in 2005? I am proud to say that I havnt touched it since; yes, it was that bad. But it dosnt get me down! I am still passionate, and love the process. Unfortunately, learning German has it's huge disadvanages. I have absolutely no motivation for long projects. Shame 'cause I have some pretty good ideas.
(ignore the typing mistakes, and blame my German.)

Tiffany said...

Hi James, i was wondering what did you do to help yourself become a better writer? I have been writing a book for about seven months now, and I feel like my writing has improved immensely, but I would love any advice you could give me to help me out!

The Girl in the Other Room said...

As an aspiring writer, I have found it helpful to try to write short stories. It's helpful to be able to write and finish a project in a short period of time. Then you get some practice with everything (introductions, characters, plot, editing, etc) but on a more manageable scale.

Short stories rock!

Michelle Garcia said...

One book I would suggest (says the person who is not finished with her first book yet) is Elements of Writing Fiction: Plot. It's one in a series and it's really good so far. James, here's a question though: In several of your blogs, you've suggested a writing conference. Any annual ones that you would suggest (especially in Utah) and any advice once you're there?

Michelle Garcia said...

I also wanted to say, that before reading this I had affirmed myself to write my first book. I'm really hoping I have talent (my family graciously says I do) but in the mean time, I just really enjoy coming up with ideas and characters and, this may sound weird but, alternate lives. What if? is a big part. Neway, I had another question that kind of kills that magic of writing (and keep in mind that I'll keep writing no matter what) but, are you able to support yourself on writing? Were there every any scary times? Did you write while you had a job? K, so that's three questions. Please forgive me :D

mimilee said...

Hi James! I came to your book signing in AZ. This is really great advice for aspiring writers! My bug for writing was dormant until I started taking more English and writing classes in college. Then I couldn't stop! Now I have to write essays and critiques and I wish I had more time to write my own stuff. But after reading this post I feel a bit more rejuvenated and ready to get back at it! Thanks again for coming out to AZ.

RED said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ice dude said...

This is really good advice, man. I am writing a book, so I know how hard it is to come up with everything.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

Something I wish I knew before I sat down to write my first novel is: know your characters inside and out. It took me several years to really grasp this (of course I started when I was a teen, a little more maturity and experience really helped also), but once I knew my characters that really helped me know what would happen next.

My characters took on a life of their own from there on out and I felt like I was writing a journal of events rather than making it up as I went. I knew how my characters would react, and then they did it. Bam! A story...of course that isn't all that goes into it =). But it is a good part of it.

Kathryn Packer Roberts said...

Oh, and I also agree: Read Read Read. Many revising books and agent blogs (as well as reading works of fiction in my genre) helped me see where I was making mistakes and taught me how to avoid them in the future.

Anonymous said...

That really helped me a lot!!! Thanks :D

J. Arbuckle said...

Thanks for the Advice. I have been orking on a book actually, and this advice helps alot. I'm a big fan. I know two friends who are making books. I'll see about making a writing club.

Anonymous said...

I love it when authors give advice to aspiring authors (like me!) it really helps me out. I've gained some really good advice from those places and the comments other people place. Thanks!

Josh said...

I just wanted to let you know that your books do become VERY handy when I'm slumped over the occasional stumbling block of a read in my 11th grade AP English class. I can write fairly well, but whenever I try to take on something with too much jargon and mixed ideas, I'll pull out The Maze Runner or 13th Reality simply because takes my headaches away. Haha

But the main reason I read your books is simply because I want to write in a very similar way: not to bore my audience to tears but to entice their imaginations. How cool is that? Keep on doing your thing Mr. Dashner!

pen master said...

I love your advice!!! Several of my favorite authors give advice for aspiring writers on their blogs and so far yours has been my favorite. Sometimes I look at my work and think I might not be so bad after all but lately I have been thinking of myself as a talentless lump. But I think it's because I'm so scatterbrained and write something new everyday. I think sticking to one thing is what will get me out of my rut. Thank you.

Brit Shay said...

I have to admit, my critique group saved my life! They truly helped me become the writer I am. I would be so lost without them!

Writing and Selling the YA Novel by K.L. Going