Monday, June 22, 2009

How I Learned to Write

posted by Loucinda McGary aka Aunty Cindy

Tomorrow evening, I'll be giving a talk at a local library as part of their "Summer Reading Program for Adults." The librarians have asked me to talk about my some of my experiences reading and writing romance, so today I thought I'd give you all a little sneak preview of some of the things I'm going to say.

I like to say that I started writing at the age of nine. Before that, I printed.

From the time I learned to read, I made up stories. As a child, if I didn’t like the way a book ended, I made up my own ending. I guess that makes me one of those people who writes because they don’t know how to “not write.

I’ve written all kinds of things, fiction, non-fiction, even poetry. I took creative writing in high school and college because it was an ‘easy A’ for me. I was one of those people who liked essay questions on tests and loved to write term papers.

But even though I loved to write, I didn't necessarily think of myself as a writer. That was an exhaulted title reserved for those very special people whose work was published in books and magazine. Those people belonged on a pedestal because they were not mere mortals such as me!

Until one day...

I was a 20something first-time, stay-at-home mom who was going stir crazy with just me and an infant. Desperate to get out of the house, I signed up for a one-day-a-week class through the local adult education program. It was called something like 'Writing Fiction and Non-Fiction for Publication.' The instructor was a sweet little grandmother who wrote non-fiction travel articles and 'nurse' romance novels.

I'll never forget the first day of class. This adorable white-haired lady stood up in front of us and said, "Other people get paid to write, and you can too." It was a revelation! Writers really were mere mortals after all.

I learned a lot in that nine week course, but two of the most important things I got out of it (besides the fact that writers were ordinary people) were 1) I learned how to write a query letter, and 2) I joined my very first critique group. Once I learned how to write a query letter, I began submitting things for publication. And after I joined my first critique group--3 non-fiction writers, another fiction writer and me (all women)--I learned how very little I actually knew about writing.

I began my journey of education myself on how to write. I read copious amounts of how-to books about writing, and I attended every kind of writing workshop and writing conference I could afford. One of the most interesting workshops I attended was taught by a professor of poetry from San Francisco State University. His name was Stan Rice and he was an excellent teacher whose insights and techniques I still employ in my writing. But I went to his workshop because I'd heard that his wife had just sold her first novel for what was then the largest advance for an original mass market paperback (I think it was $650,000) and I was curious what her husband might be like.

Oh, her name was Anne Rice and the book was Interview with the Vampire.

I learned a lot about writing over the years, and had a lot of starts and stops. At one point, I quit writing for about twelve years while I pursued my civil service career. But I was never able to completely quit, because I kept journals, wrote poetry, and even finished a couple of novels. Mostly, I continued to dream of the day when my book would be in the bookstores and library shelves.

Finally, in 2003 I was burned out in my career and decided since I definitely wasn't getting any younger, I needed to actually DO THIS THING. So I took a leap of faith (or maybe insanity, I'm still not sure which), quit my day job and made a serious commitment to writing and selling a novel... as soon as I took a much needed vacation!

Okay, so the vacation lasted almost seven months, and was actually several consecutive trips (including 2 or 3 cruises).

In the Spring of 2004 I started writing the story that would eventually become The Treasures of Venice. I finished it a year later and started writing a second book. And when I finished that book, I started a third (in between vacations, of course). In September, 2007--almost four years to the day after I quit my dreaded day job--I sold that third book!

My dream came true last October when The Wild Sight was released.

So what was the ultimate thing I learned about writing after all these years?

Just like the old joke about How do you get to Carnegie Hall? the only way to really learn how to write is PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE!

My long-ago writing teacher said it best: The first million words are the hardest. Back then I thought she was kidding. Now I know she was serious. And she was right.

Oh, and one last thing I'll say about learning to write is that the single most valuable tool a writer can have is a good critique partner! I've had quite a few over the years. I have some great ones right now. Another writer's perspective can make all the difference in the world! And remember that first critique group I joined way-back-when? I am still in touch with two of the members. In fact, one of them served as my First Reader Extraordinaire for both The Wild Sight and The Treasures of Venice. Some relationships are meant to last!

Okay, now it's your turn! Share with Aunty and the other CasaBabes some of the things you've learned reading and writing romance!

27 comments:

  1. It sounds as though you went at this with a lot more planning than I did, AC. Though I've been writing off and on for the past thirty or forty years, I have had exactly one college creative writing class, which was required for my nursing degree. However, as opposed to fiction writers, nurses are taught to write clearly and succinctly, and "Just the facts, ma'am" is the standard for charting.
    I wish I'd had a bit more training when I started writing in earnest (also in 2004). I saw Under the Tuscan Sun and remarked to my DH that it would be so cool to be a writer living in Tuscany, his response was: "Write!" So I did.

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  2. Aunty Cindy...

    It's all true, true, true!

    I always put writers on a pedestal, too, until I realized I was a writer, too! Then I just had to write several books until I finally wrote one that was publishable. LOL. Maybe if I'd actually taken a course it would have happened more quickly!

    Great post.

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  3. I think I have to echo you AC, that practice is what it takes. I know just from chatting with you lovely ladies that you write whenever you have a spare chance--no matter if that means a sleepless night or being a few minutes late to that board meeting. You write whatever comes to you and eventually that perfect scene flows on the page (or computer screen)!

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  4. Hi Cindy! Great post! Enjoyed reading how you got started writing at such an early age.

    And the most enlightening thing I have learned about writing is that the more I write, the more I want to write.

    See you at conference!

    Amelia

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  5. Great post, Aunty!

    I've never taken a creative writing course, but I've always written. I never thought about making a living or getting published until a friend who is a professor at Oxford read my modern-day retelling of Pride and Prejudice with a twist of Persuasion and told me I should get it published. As if that's an easy thing to do. Still, she planted the seed and I started writing Romeo, Romeo. I found my true calling at the early age of 40 and never looked back.

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  6. Aunty Cindy,

    I was reflecting on this very question a few weeks ago. I can't remember not writing. There was always a story in my head. I wrote in high school, most of my extra credits revolved around creative writing classes and science.

    I was one of the those young girls with big dreams and great plans for her life. I was one of those girls who got sidetracked. I got married and started having babies, but there was always a notebook somewhere. I loved to write, even when it didn't make sense.

    I was introduced to romance novels at the age of 25. Before then, I had had the misconception that they were no different that porn. *rolls eyes* I was so very naive. But Lord have mercy, that first romance novel, changed my life. I devoured it in four hours, and I was hungry for more. Soon I found that my mind wouldn't shut down unless I wrote. I even started hand writing stories that swirled in my head.

    But then I realization hit me hard, I wasn't college educated. I was nothing but a stay at home mom with fantasies screaming in her head. There was no way I'd be able to successfully write without a degree. So I gave up.

    In 2006, with the aid of the Internet and Victoria Alexander, I found some of the most wonderful people in the world. The best critique partners anyone could ask for, and wonderful published authors full of advice. I'm writing. I'm writing a lot. I've finished two books, one will never see the light of day, the other I pray will see publication. And I'm half way through two more stories.

    Whoooooo! I'm very long winded. My apologies.

    This is a great topic and I love the idea that you are speaking to others about your passion.

    Renee

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  7. Lucinda, love your post! It's interesting to see an author's journey - it makes it seem more attainable to me.

    I've been an avid reader all my life and a chronic daydreamer. I loved writing classes in school but never thought I could actually write a book that would sell. I, like Renee, discovered an online writing contest and on a whim entered a chapter. I ended up meeting a wonderful group of people - fabulous crit partners and lifelong friends!

    Now I can't imagine not writing, even if I don't sell. I love it! And I'm looking forward to my first conference in DC this year!!

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  8. You all know by now that I came at this totally wrong, at least as far as the standard way seems to be! For me the greatest learning was in reading. I have read every kind of book known to man, discovering how incredibly diverse writers can be. I have read good books, bad books, and many that are in between. But even the "bad" books can have moments of brilliance or maybe teach you what doesn't work. For me it came together in my weird brain without really thinking about it. When I began writing I simply put into practice what I loved most about reading. I guess it has worked! LOL!

    Thanks for sharing your journey, Cindy.

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  9. I took one creative writing course back in college from which I concluded I wasn't a writer. Not the real kind. My professor explained, very kindly, that my poem was not poetry but "poetic prose" and my story, well, it was nice but hardly realistic.

    I wish now I'd taken more writing classes, but I understand too that part of a writer's development includes learning her own process. The path is similiar for each of us, but also different.

    The similiarities, the differences and the need for self-discovery make this an endlessly fascinating topic. Thanks for bringing it up.

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  10. Great post, AC! I loved reading about how you became a writer.

    I'm a journalism school grad. The training I received in college and then working for two intense years on a small-town community newspaper taught me to be an efficient, economical writer. I've made a living writing and editing my entire adult life, which is lucky for me since it's the only thing I've ever really been good at :-) I found that fiction writing required a whole different set of skills, but the newspaper training still comes in handy. All writing is creative writing, whether it's fiction or corporate or technical. You start with a blank page!

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  11. Morning Everyone!

    Yes, it's still morning here on the West Coast. Thanx a bunch for reading and commenting on my blog, which is doing double duty as part of my presentation tomorrow.

    I hope my audience is more that my DH and my CP, and I hope they enjoy it as much as you all have!

    AC

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  12. Cheryl,

    It gives me the 'warm fuzzies' when I know that others have been writing for decades, same as me!

    As so many will testify, writing courses aren't really necessary to become a writer. For me, I think they helped put a little upward mobility in my otherwise pretty flat learning curve. :-P And they definitely kept me motivated and in touch with others who were trying to write. That was the biggest "value" for me.

    Tuscany is GORGEOUS as you could tell from the movie. I HIGHLY recommend you visit!

    AC

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  13. Donna,

    I still sometimes do the pedestal thing, most recently with editors and agents. But more and more I learn that they really are 'nice folks' the same as the rest of us.

    Sometimes I still have to pinch myself, like in Reno when I ended up at the same lunch table as Nora Roberts, Jayne Ann Krentz and Christine Feehan. The moment Nora sat down and started eating her dessert first, I became her fan for life!!!

    AC

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  14. Danielle,

    OOPS! Our secret is out! Yup, we really do write whenever and wherever!

    I do find I operate best for the long haul when I have a set writing routine. But when the muse strikes, I've also learned that I need to obey and get that idea/thought/tidbit DOWN before it flits away. ;-)

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  15. Amelia,
    You are soooo right! Writing perpetuates itself. The more you do it, the more you want and like to do it, and the better you get at it! That's kind of the idea of the "first million words" quote. :-) And also why I like to keep to my regular routine. The writing comes so much easier that way.

    Of course, I do like to take a break from my routine now and then for things like cruises and RWA conferences!

    Can't wait to see you there!
    AC

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  16. Robin,
    LOL on your professor friend telling you to "get it published." Ah yes, to quote my favorite playwright, "...therein lies the rub."

    But YOU DID IT! So if that's what it took to get you on that road and writing Romeo,Romeo then I'm SOOO glad it happened!

    AC

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  17. Renee,
    Isn't it funny how so many of us came at this thing in similar ways? Certainly nice to NOT feel like the Lone Ranger. LOL!

    ANd HOORAY for Victoria Alexander for setting you on the writing path! Keep going, Sweetie! Sometimes it's a long and winding road, but with faith and persistence, you'll get there!

    AC

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  18. Lara,
    Trust yer olde Aunty and the rest of the CasaBabes, being a published author IS attainable!

    Practice, practice, practice! And keep submitting your work. Those are the two things you must do.

    HOORAY for online contests if that is what got you started! Honestly, I don't know what we writers would do without the internet nowadays. :-)

    Glad you're going to DC! Be sure to look for all us CasaBabes at the Literacy Signing on Wed. night and the special Sourcebooks signing on Sat. afternoon!

    AC

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  19. Sharon,
    You didn't do things totally wrong. You did them totally right FOR YOU! :-) And you bring up another excellent point. To be a writer, you must also be a reader. I do think you can learn from a bad book as well as a good one! And sometimes seeing a bad book published will fire you up enough to keep submitting your own work. I know that's worked for me in the past, but I'm crotchety like that. LOL!

    AC

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  20. Hey MM,
    I took a course like that too. The teacher hated everything I wrote. I believe she thought me a 'whippersnapper' and in retrospect, I probably was! ;-) She also made me very determined to PROVE HER WRONG!

    Well, it took over 20 years but NYAH NYAH! Hmmmm, guess I never outgrew those whippersnapper tendencies...

    AC

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  21. Hey Marie,
    You are LUCKY to have made your living writing and editing! I did take journalism in high school and it was definitely NOT my forte.

    As for all writing being creative writing, I AGREE! Back in my "other" career, I had to do something called Legislative Analysis. I analyzed pending legislative as it pertained to my department, and made a recommendation as to whether or not the department should oppose or support the legislation. Here's the catch: anytime there was money involved with the legislation, we had to automatically recommend "oppose" BUT we couldn't give that as our reason for opposition. Talk about CREATIVE WRITING! Try coming up with a half-dozen reasons to oppose something when the only REAL reason is that it costs money! HA!

    Nope, don't miss that kind of creative writing a bit!

    AC

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  22. Thanks for all the encouragement, in the article and in the comments. I'm still dreaming and writing, and my two and only efforts at romance are still unfinished. So maybe I'll just leave my casa friends on that pedestal and enjoy the fact that my statues talk to me.

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  23. I've made up stories forever, and I don't mean the kind to get myself out of hot water either! But when I was in a creative writing class in high school, I got up to read my suspenseful story, and the teacher stopped me and asked if it was a true story. Uhm, I thought it was supposed to be made up. Nope. Now I was REALLY shy, but the only thing I wasn't shy about was about my stories. That was it. I NEVER EVER offered to read a story out loud again. *sigh*

    Now, you can't pay me to shut up about telling about my stories. :)

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  24. I am an avid reader but never written and I am so grateful to all of the authors who take me on wonderful adventures around the world and in different era's which gives me so much pleasure.

    I do love hearing how authors begin their careers and I do appreciate all of the hard work that goes into a book that brings heaps of pleasure and fun to us readers.

    Thank you Aunty Cindy for that wonderful post and the pleasure I got from reading TWS and the pleasure to come when I get to read TTOV can't wait.

    Have Fun
    Helen

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  25. Naw Sheila,
    It's not comfortable up here on a pedestal! :-)

    Just keep writing and dreaming! I have started waaay more books than I have finished. But that's okay because every word you write counts toward that first million.

    AC

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  26. Terry,
    WHAT was your teacher thinking?!?! Oh well, at least being shy didn't stop you from writing. And now, I'm like you, I LOVE to talk about writing! My BFF asked me how long the librarians expected me to talk. When I said 45 mins. she laughed and said, "For you, that's a piece of cake!"

    AC

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  27. Helen, THANK YOU!

    It is readers like you who make the writing worthwhile!

    Thank you again for your compliments and support for The Wild Sight. Only 70 more days til TToV hits the shelves!

    AC

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