I would love it if everyone wrote for fun. It doesn’t matter how terrible you think you are, or how tenuous your grasp of your chosen language. Just write! It’s a wonderful thing to see the dreams and fleeting thoughts in your mind take form, hewn out in the rough constructs of language. Yes, rough–for who has managed to perfectly represent the vivid clarity of our thoughts with words alone? But we try, and sometimes we come close enough to that representation to touch someone else’s heart, regardless of whether our words are the stick figure drawings of a child or the works of Michelangelo.
But it’s another world when one decides to take writing as their profession. One analogy I use often is that of a cook. I can throw together a meal that is edible and tastes somewhat decent–at least, decent enough that everyone doesn’t turn it down from the get-go. But place me within a professional kitchen and the other chefs will tell you that I am more likely to slice my finger than the onion, that I have no subtlety whatsoever with flavours (salt, salt, oh and a pinch of chicken salt for variety!), and that by the time I’ve got anything ready to serve, the customers will have tired of waiting and left the restaurant.
I can cook. It does not mean I can do it for a living. I could become a professional cook if I spent the next few years doing nothing but learning the basics. Good knifework. Discovering the wide variety of flavours in this world. Learning to combine and layer them into a mouth-watering whole.
Anyone who tells me I am a wonderful, stunning cook before I’ve mastered any of this is setting me up for failure. I will continue to believe that salts are the flavour of life. That a slightly charred omelette–with, gasp, different spices!–is the paragon of culinary excellence. And as I continue in these bad habits and beliefs, they will become ever more engrained in me and harder to shake should I ever decide to get serious about cooking.
I’m pretty sure you’re seeing the parallels in my long-winded analogy here. But this has been an especially big bug-bear of mine since I started critiquing other people’s writing a few years ago. There are far too many people who say they want to find a publisher, or self-publish, and do this writing thing seriously–then you discover they never even bothered learning the basics. Punctuation, for starters. Grammar. Spelling (of basic words, at least).
And when it comes to fiction writing, there are the structural basics you can learn from a decent book, class, or even, heaven forbid, the internet. The three-act structure. What point-of-view (POV) is and how it’s used. How to (and how not to) use speech attributions. The difference between passive and active voice. Paragraph, scene, and chapter breaks. I don’t mean that the person should know how to use them perfectly–just know of them and the very basic ground rules. The rest is practice, practice practice. Hell, I’m still in practice mode and I’ve written at least half a million words in the past few years.
Even not knowing the fiction-writing basics is excusable if you don’t have the expectation of being at publishable quality. But I’ve seen too many people who think they’re ready to go to an agent, or ready to self-publish, and they wouldn’t have the first clue about most of these things. Yes, including things like punctuation. It’s enough to make anyone cry.
I suppose you could simply call me a grouchy old woman who expects too much of people. I’ll be the first to admit that I have high standards, even for my own writing. But when someone says they want to write for a living and are oblivious about their ignorance, it’s frustrating to have to be the critiquer to have to plough through the sludge and point out all the issues. It’s even more frustrating when a lot of them simply shrug it off and don’t make any effort to improve, but plough on and either self-publish or try to find some secret formula to getting published. It’s gotten to the point where I’ll gently suggest that need to get back to the basics and point them in the right direction, then leave it at that. In most cases, it’s a waste of time to do anything more.
If they are truly determined to go pro, they will put in the time and the effort to learn. They will spend the endless hours spend alone in front of a notebook or computer to practice. They will read widely and analyse what they read. They will endure through the paralysing bouts of self-doubt, through the numerous rejections. They will come back in a year, maybe even a few months, and be able to pinpoint why their older pieces didn’t work.
And they will be professionals, published or not.
Leanne Yong is an aspiring Aussie author who is working on her second young adult novel. Check out her blog at Clouded Memories for more information and a journal chronicling her latest foray into novel writing.