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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, March 4, 2012

How Do You Learn To Be a Writer?

I’m often approached by parents or grandparents of children who’ve shown a talent for writing. They ask how a child can learn to be a writer. Or sometimes a person going through a mid-life job change will ask my advice about going back to college to pursue a long-deferred writing dream.

I have to tell them the truth: learning to write is hard--and earning money from writing is way harder.

I’m not saying certain types of writing can’t be lucrative—“content providers” can find careers in advertising and various tech fields—but that’s usually not what the doting grand/parents or career-changers are thinking. They might be imagining plays or screenplays, or even journalism—fast-fading professions too—but mostly they’re thinking memoir and novels.  

But writing book-length narrative is one of the toughest ways to earn a living—and it’s getting tougher all the time. The average book advance is less than half of what it was ten years ago. Almost all writers need day jobs.

So the question arises: how much money should people put into educating themselves to be writers? 

Anybody who visits a lot of writing sites has probably been followed around the ’Webz by ads for college creative writing degrees. Do those give students a jumpstart or prepare them for a writing career? 

Unfortunately, they usually don’t. They’re often based on very old ideas of what the publishing industry is like. 

If you have the privilege of attending college, by all means take courses in creative writing. Also take courses in business management, advanced string theory or Athenian red-figure vase painting—whatever interests you. None of your time learning will be wasted, and a college education is massively helpful to any career.

But don’t go to college expecting to be taught how to be a professional writer who can enter the workforce and earn back the cost of college like somebody studying accounting or medicine. It won’t happen.

I’m not saying degrees in creative writing will hurt, but they’re not necessary for a writing career. And they’re usually expensive.

Thing is: the number one thing that’s NOT necessary to any creative career is…DEBT. Debt is a prison that can keep you locked into a job you hate, living in noisy, crowded circumstances, and plagued with anxieties that are the enemy of creativity

“But, wait!” says Aspiring Young Writer, “What about an MFA? That gives you a leg up into the publishing business doesn’t it?”

Um, not really.

Not with most agents and publishers (although a prestigious school can provide valuable contacts.) What an MFA will do is steer you in the direction of literary writing, which tends to be less lucrative for a publisher (and you.)

An MFA DOES qualify you to teach creative writing at the college level, and as a day job, college teaching is a pretty good one. But be aware of the implied trade-off.

Think of getting an MFA like studying ballet or learning to play classical music—you’re entering a fiercely competitive field with a niche audience and not much remuneration…but a lot of prestige. For those who love it, there’s also a fulfillment that can come no other way. If writing and teaching literary fiction is your bliss—follow it! The world needs you to carry on that tradition.

But if your goal is writing popular fiction, treat your education more like preparing for musical theater, playing roots music, or ballroom dancing—and take a more eclectic route in your training. (And prepare to work a day job.)

Of course you first need to learn the basics just like a literary writer: grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and word usage. If you didn’t get that in high school or college, you need to take some brush-up classes. Language is your instrument, and you need to learn to play before you can get in a band.

NOTE: Don’t count on some hired editor to clean up your stuff after you write it. Editors cost a bundle and they can’t do it all. Good language skills are essential. You wouldn’t try to be a carpenter if you couldn’t pound a nail.

But once you have that down, what do you do?

There’s still a whole lot to learn. Straight-A grammar skills don’t help you with learning how to tell a story. You need to educate yourself on story structure, how to create compelling characters, pacing and all the rest.

For that, the best approach is to study widely. Get as much education as you can from many sources as you can find. There is no one right way. You can enroll in inexpensive classes at your local adult ed. or community college extension programs. Short online courses can be really helpful, too, especially ones that concentrate on structure and story-telling techniques. Read the classic books on writing. Go to writers’ conferences, especially local ones where you don’t have to pay for room and board.

Sometimes professional writers will offer workshops in person or online. A short course from a well-known author is usually worth the price, because their name will hold weight in a query and you may be lucky enough to have them mentor you.

If you live in a place where there’s a local writer’s club or chapter of organizations like RWA, SCBWI, or Sisters in Crime, join. Clubs like those can be amazingly valuable resources. And a good critique group can sometimes teach you as much as a college class about how to write. (But beware group-think. Critique groups are only as good as their members, and ignorant people can spread bad habits. See my post on Bad Advice to Ignore from your Critique Group

And these days, a whole lot of what you need to learn is available on the Internet for free. I know people who have learned a huge amount by working with other writers in various writers’ forums.

To become a professional, you need to learn the business side of publishing as well as grammar and story structure. They are equally important these days. Agent blogs are a valuable resource here. Agents like Rachelle Gardner , Kristen Nelson and Janet Reid offer mini-courses in publishing in their archives.

And you’ll need to learn to use social media. It’s as important to a writer today as it is to know how to use an apostrophe. I recommend Kristen Lamb’s valuable blog and her book We Are Not Alone: The Author’s Guide to Social Media

If you ask most professional writers what’s the best way to learn to write, they’re going to tell you two things:

1) Read
2) Write

And some will add:
3) Live

Malcolm Gladwell’s dictum that you need to do something 10,000 hours in order to learn to do it well is a valuable one to keep in mind. The corny old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall applies: practice, practice, practice.

Writing may not be a lucrative profession, but creating worlds out of words is still one of the most exciting ways to spend your time, so I tell those parents and grandparents and mid-life career-changers that nobody should be discouraged from following their dreams.

But I also warn them not get talked into expensive college courses they can’t afford. (And people should especially beware writing degrees from for-profit colleges. Recruiters can tell a lot of half- and un-truths and provide a slick, easy path to a lifetime of debt.)

The electronic age may bring more responsibilities to writers—social media and online marketing can seem like a huge time-suck—but it also opens up hundreds of new paths to our goals, many of them inexpensive or free. So I say embrace the journey and accept the abundance of information at your fingertips.

Now I could use your help, scriveners. Tell me how you learned/are learning your craft--and how you’re educating yourself in the business of writing for a living. I’d love for you to give some tips and suggestions for things that worked (or didn’t work) for you.

NEWS: On Wednesday, March 7th, I'll be talking to Roz Morris at her blog Memories of a Future Life for her Undercover Soundtrack series. I'm talking about the "soundtrack" for my Fitzgerald-themed mystery, THE GATSBY GAME. This one is from another Fitzgerald: Ella. 

DECADES CONTEST: Our two winners, selected by Random.org, are Steven J. Wangsness and Martha Reynolds. Congrats! Steven and Martha, contact Ruth at rca.harris at gmail dot com for your free books. 

INDIE CHICKS: This week’s amazing installment is from Barbara Silkstone, whose comic mysteries were inspired by some pretty grim real-life villains.

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Blogger Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've no aspirations to write for a living. Too much pressure!
What I've done alone the way is read a lot, taught in an illiteracy program, and I've done A LOT of technical writing. And I just practiced my creative writing. Does learning storytelling and character creation from movies and TV count? Because I've done that as well!

March 4, 2012 at 10:06 AM  
Blogger Ranae Rose said...

Nice post, Anne - all your tips are good. Personally, I love how much useful info is available on the internet.

I think the #1 most useful thing any aspiring writer can do is to read. Especially for kids, who want to be professional writers someday. While I've learned a lot from many sources, varying from bloggers to editors to other writers, I think I can credit most of my writing ability to my voracious reading, which I've done since an early age. Even if you're not consciously thinking about things like story mechanics or arcs or grammar, by immersing yourself in books you're sort of absorbing it all, like a sponge.

Sometimes I meet people who think they need to have some sort of degree to be a writer. Although I'm sure there are some relevant and useful classes out there, I don't think something like an English degree (college is so expensive, and like you said, it's difficult to scrape a living from writing) usually offers a very good return on investment for an aspiring novelist. Whenever I was entering college, I was encouraged by some to pursue an English degree (because of my desire to be a novelist), but I went for business instead. I don't have any regrets about that. :)

March 4, 2012 at 10:10 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I've been writing for almost 20 years now - most of it for 2 hours before work each morning - avoiding that debt thing... Weekend workshops, conferences, MANY great books on character development, dialogue, etc. I'm grateful for SLO NightWriters. One of the best ways I've learned is through my critique groups - thoughtfully processing stuff that is poorly written (mine and others...) is so very valuable. It is hard work. I think you just have to love it to hang in there.
Sherry Heber

March 4, 2012 at 10:19 AM  
Blogger Ruth Harris said...

Anne, As usual, very informative post. People NEED to know all this stuff.

Back in the day, there were lots & lots of newsstands and the magazines needed to fill them were published every month. It was a big, hungry market & writers starting out could write for the men's magazines, mystery/suspense magazines, sci-fi, true confessions, movie star magazines—the array was huge. The pay wasn't enough to get rich but added nicely to day job salaries.

The magazine editors—most of them writers themselves—really knew their business & taught young writers how to write a killer first line, a vivid description, action, character, cliff hangers—all the nuts & bolts every writer must know.

Too bad that whole world has disappeared. Lots of terrific writers like Mario Puzo, Larry Sanders, Patricia Bosworth, Lawrence Black emerged from those days & those pages.

March 4, 2012 at 10:42 AM  
Blogger christine A said...

Thank you for a great post. I believe that reading is the most important thing one can do to learn about writing. Then, like you said, practice, practice, practice! Not only being part of a critique group but being open to critique is important. I review my instructional books occasionally to refresh my memory of rules. I like to break rules but I think you can only do that if you know the rules you are breaking and break them consciously. If there was one thing I wish there was a quick fix or an injection for it would be poor spelling. I am what I call a "creative" speller. Ha!

March 4, 2012 at 10:49 AM  
Blogger fOIS In The City said...

Thanks for another stellar post, Anne. Read, read, read ... then write, write and write some more. Live well, keep moving ... they can't shoot a moving target :)

Tons of movies, TV, plays and anthing that highlights the word. Listen to your muse and let music be an inspiration. The arts are not as separate as some believe.

In the end ... nothing teaches us like "doing." So, what are you doing here ... go write !!

March 4, 2012 at 10:53 AM  
Blogger Annalisa Crawford said...

I don't actually think writing can be learnt. It can be honed and nurtured, but the germ of it has to exist. Reading and writing are the only things really necessary. Learning how to be published is slightly different!

March 4, 2012 at 10:56 AM  
Blogger Christy Farmer said...

Anne, I loved what you said about discouraging debt. That is so important.

Some things I am learning is: Learn something new everyday. Pay it forward as often as you can. None of my favorite writers of all time ever held a college degree. Learn everything you can about the business. DO participate in social media. Write the stories of your heart as opposed to what is trending at the present. Never put all of your eggs into one basket.

Excellent post, Anne!

March 4, 2012 at 11:00 AM  
Anonymous D. August Baertlein (Dawn) said...

Anne, I have always wished I had the time and money to spend on an MFA, but as you say, there’s always the need to keep fed and sheltered, which requires that “real” job. Thanks for the reassurance that an MFA is not required.

This writer’s training is pretty much as you advocate – Reading lots of fun books and analyzing what I love about them, writing and rewriting, attending short local workshops, maintaining membership in SCBWI, following great blogs like yours, lurking around in cyberspace soaking up all the good advice and trying to be smart enough to ignore the bad advice.

I love the advice about getting out and living to fill up the well so we have something to draw from when we sit down to create our fiction. It makes such a wonderful excuse to actually get out and have an adventure of my own.

There’s a shelf in my library for books on writing, but for some reason they always inspire me to get back to writing before I get very far into reading them. I’m ashamed to say, most of them are left half-read. Someday! I swear!

March 4, 2012 at 11:41 AM  
Blogger Charley Robson said...

Thank you SO much for this post Anne! As someone who hopes to BE a writer, this is really useful. I've never been sure about those college courses and things, but hearing from you that they're not really worth my while (on top of the research I've already done abou them) is a massive help. Your posts really are perfect for a naive little critter like me, you know?

Awesome as always :D

March 4, 2012 at 12:15 PM  
Blogger Charley Robson said...

Thank you SO much for this post Anne! As someone who hopes to BE a writer, this is really useful. I've never been sure about those college courses and things, but hearing from you that they're not really worth my while (on top of the research I've already done abou them) is a massive help. Your posts really are perfect for a naive little critter like me, you know?

Awesome as always :D

March 4, 2012 at 12:15 PM  
Blogger Juli Page Morgan said...

I think the most important way to learn is to be willing to learn. I know people who have stellar ideas and a passion for writing, but their stories suffer from bad grammar, clunky sentence structure and poorly defined characters. But they're not willing to learn the basics of writing and are left wondering why no one likes their stories.

I agree about the degree. (That rhymed! *snicker*) I saw the same thing in my former career, radio broadcasting. I had a few coworkers who had broadcasting degrees, but the majority of us had little to no schooling in it. I had one year of college majoring in Mass Comm before I dropped out to take a job at a radio station. Though I regret not getting a degree for personal reasons, it didn't hold me back in my career. I was willing to learn from those coworkers with years of experience, to find out how to do almost every job in the radio station and to do it well and to master any new technologies in the industry so I could make them work for me and not the other way around. At the end of my career I was the Operations Manager of a group of five stations, four of which were #1 in the market in their respective formats.

So be willing to learn, to do the jobs that are no fun but that give you knowledge and experience, to roll with the changes in the industry and make those changes work in your favor. That's how I've done it, anyway.

As always, Anne, a splendid post!

March 4, 2012 at 12:16 PM  
Anonymous MIndprinter said...

Great post a usual, Anne. Tried before to post so hope this comes thru. I'd add reading scripts and theatrical plays for three act story structure, dialogue and punch. Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf is still a standout for crisp dialogue; Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile by Frank Darabont are models for story as well. Then there's Robert Towne's script for Chinatown for all of the above.

Everything you said about degrees makes sense. I'd go for the writing groups face to face and online and writing conferences anyday.


March 4, 2012 at 12:18 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alex—You certainly seem to have found a great balance. And you still find time to visit other people’s blogs, which is awesome :-). I agree that film and TV and many other art forms can contribute to our skills in storytelling.

Ranae—You’ve got the best advice of all: read. I’m amazed at how many people want to be writers who don’t actually read much. And your college career makes so much sense: take creative writing courses, but major in business. That’s smart.

Sherry—You’ve hit on a great point. Sometimes you can learn more from what doesn’t work than from what does. Critique groups provide a lot of that.

Ruth—The “pulps” and popular fiction magazines were such a great training ground. I wonder if anything will rise to fill that gap? Now most of the short stories published are literary, and although those are good for cutting your teeth on too, they don’t pay and they’re not as much about storytelling as they are about use of language. Not as good for teaching how to write fiction that sells.

Christine—Another great point: learning to take criticism is an essential element in learning to write well. Critique groups can help with that.

Florence—Thanks for adding that element: music. Music tells a story, too, and often listening to music can provide the rhythm you need for a story. That’s what Roz Morris’s series on “Music Soundtracks” is all about. Amazing how one album shaped my mystery THE GATSBY GAME.

Analisa—Interesting perspective. I think the craft of writing can be learned, but maybe writers really are “born that way.”

Christy—That eggs/basket thing is SO important. There are many paths, so it doesn’t make sense to limit yourself to one. I hate seeing so many young people get into debt in order to get an education that may not enable them to pay it back. We need another way to educate that doesn’t involve enslaving people.

Dawn—LOL I have all those half-read books, too! I never thought about it, but of course the books DID succeed, because they got me to put down the book and write. Great insight.

March 4, 2012 at 12:22 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Charley--I'm so glad I'm helping. Since you're still in school, this must be something you've pondered a lot. I'm not saying college isn't vitally important--just that focusing on creative writing is limiting and may not help your career in the long run.

Juli--How great to hear from somebody with experience another creative field. The apprenticeship model you followed is probably a good one in a lot of fields, not just broadcasting.

Mindprinter--Since you're a former college professor, that's saying a lot. I'm glad you agree with me. College is a great training place for creative artists, but more because it gives you tools and teaches you to think than because it can train you for a lucrative career.

March 4, 2012 at 12:32 PM  
Blogger Susan Gourley/Kelley said...

Great advice about the trade off or lack of for spending a lot of money on MFA or other college programs and expecting to step into a lucrative writing career.
I first read tons and tons of books and then when I decided to write, I joined a writing group, attended conferences and workshops. It's a tough business and I'm a long way from quitting the day job.

March 4, 2012 at 1:02 PM  
Blogger jbchicoine said...

I spent most of my life just messing around with my writing and having a blast! Then, when I wanted to get serious, I read a couple books--I think maybe one of Noah Lukeman's and Donald Maas--gleaned some good information there. I invested in The Chicago Manual of Style. But most of the really helpful information came from blogs (like this) and meeting other writers (online) whose work I admire. Having a good crit partner has made all the difference. At least enough difference to land me a publishing contract.

So, all in all, I spent less than fifty bucks on books and many hours reading up on writing and many more hours writing my heart out!

March 4, 2012 at 1:10 PM  
Anonymous Terry Galanoy said...

Gene Fowler said it best :

Writing is easy: All you do is sit staring at a blank sheet
of paper until drops of blood form on your forehead. ~Gene Fowler

March 4, 2012 at 1:53 PM  
Blogger Vera Soroka said...

Reading is very important because writers can be the greatest of teachers. One of my favorite authors, Maggie Stiefvater has talked a lot about the writing process she goes through and I really got it. I just had my own work critiqued over at Janice Harddy's blog and it was interesting but helpful.

March 4, 2012 at 2:39 PM  
Blogger Patricia said...

Thank you SO much, Anne, for another great Sunday post. I've only been in this writing gig for about 3 years now and i've learned a ton from joining online writer's groups like RWA/Women's Fiction and RWA/Elements and Kristen Lamb's classes and groups like WANAMinions. I read the work of writers I admire and follow and comment on blogs. BUT, I think I've learned the most from just writing and having my work edited and critiqued by a professional editor/author/used-to-be agent. THAT has been invaluable.

March 4, 2012 at 4:03 PM  
Blogger Cathryn Leigh said...

I did a lot of reading in my younger years. Then I had a time of not reading much at all, because it interfered with life too much (like an addiction). Same sort of thing happened with writing as well. I suppose you could say I took step 3) Live, to the extreme for a few years *grin* But now I'm getting back to steps 1 and 2 and it feels awesome.

I always wondered about the degrees. I remember I entered college as undecided because I loved art but wasn't sure about a whole degree in it, so I ended up with a BS. It's served me well for getting me into my current career path, and now I'm glad to hear I don't need to go back to school for writing.

But gosh that really opens up the possibilities of what I can take... Oh where do I begin (she says with a grin)? *giggles*

:} Cathryn

March 4, 2012 at 7:30 PM  
Blogger widdershins said...

What is this strange thing you call 'advance'?

March 4, 2012 at 7:33 PM  
Blogger Anne Gallagher said...

Great post. Although, I've always wanted to get my MFA. I studied Native American Ethnology in college with a minor in Creative Writing. It was fun and I learned a lot. But truthfully, I learned how to write from following blogs. Everyone is so generous with their information out here it's like being in college. You get out what you put into it.

And writing. They say it takes a million words, and I think I've probably got about 999,999 already in. And reading. EVERYTHING. From the classics to genre hopping, and poetry, and everything in between.

And then of course, there's the dedication. You need to practice. You can't just be born a great writer.

How are you feeling? Better I hope. My daughter caught something this weekend and we're going to the doc today. I blame it on the weather.

March 5, 2012 at 5:25 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Susan—Books to start, then groups, then conferences seems to be the path most of us follow, doesn’t it?

jb—Noah Lukeman’s “First Five Pages” is one of my absolute favorites. I learned a lot from Donald Maass too. And the Chicago Manual of Style is a great investment. You chose some of the best books around.

Terry—I think that’s true sometimes, but it’s amazing how much joy there is in writing, too.

Vera—I agree that Janice Hardy’s blog is one of the most informative for in-depth work on craft. I don’t know Maggie Stiefvater’s work, but I’ll check her out. How great that you got a critique from Janice. That’s golden.

Patricia—If you write romance or women’s fiction, there’s no better resource than RWA. The dues is a small price to pay for all that education and networking. It's great you found such a great editor. A good editor can teach you tons, but I’m not in favor of hiring an editor too soon, unless money is no object. You can learn a lot of the basics on your own first.

Cathryn—I went through a period of not reading, too, for the same reason. I realized I’d been spending so much time immersed in books I wasn’t getting out and experiencing life. They had indeed become a kind of addiction. Even now, I need to time myself and get up and move around, or I’ll lose myself in a book and not take care of business. Me, I majored in art history, because I had no creative aspirations in the visual arts. I could just admire, without feeling envy.

Widdershins—LOL. Actually, although the old advance system may be fading, it’s not the end of publishing. It’s kind of a silly system anyway. Better to get paid a nice hefty royalty and get rewarded for strong marketing.

Anne—Studying that kind of stuff in college is mind-expanding and none of it is wasted. But I’m like you—I learned much more from reading agent and editors blogs than any courses I took. And studying blogs is kind of like being in college. I like the analogy.

I’m starting to feel better—thanks for asking. Because I’m asthmatic, when I get bronchitis it lasts a really long time. (Asthma is new to me. It seems males get it most when they’re kids, and women get it most over 40. Who knew?)

March 5, 2012 at 10:17 AM  
Blogger Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

Wonderful post as usual! When I get my royalty checks sometimes I laugh. If I get enough for dinner in a nice restaurant I'm pleased. But I just keep on writing because I can't help myself.

March 5, 2012 at 11:09 AM  
Anonymous Susan Tuttle said...

First off, I (like most people) learn best by doing, so I've been writing, writing, writing for many years - about 45, to be close to exact (now there's a turn of phrase!). And reading, at least two books a week. Seven years ago I published my first supense novel.

Secondly, I've found for myself the best way to learn anything is to teach it to someone else. That's what I've been doing for the past two years, teaching a writing course called What If? Writing Group. From that experience has come my series on writing, Write It Right. Two volumes are out now on Kindle, with 11 more to come this year. (One student, with a PhD in Journalism, says this course is graduate level - and beyond!)

And a great critique group is indispensible. I've learned to not only be picky about my group, making sure I have good writers with terrific skills in them, but also I don't rely on only one group. Each group has its own view, and each group catches different things. It always amazes me. That's why I put my work through at least two groups before it goes to the final editor.

As for education, I tell people, only half-kidding, that I had the best education for a writer because I have a degree in theater. But I think it was the best for me, because it has helped me truly understand efective dialogue. And having to design sets and costumes forced me to visualize the end products before starting, which has made my writing very visual for the reader. Grammar and craft you can get from books and workshops; good dialogue and narrative skills require a more visceral approach (at least for me).

I've put in my 10,000 hours and am now venturing into digital publishing and social media. Since I quit my job to write full time, I have true motivation to succeed - I have to pay the internet bill (and groceries are helpful, too)! I'm starting slow, with Twitter, FB and a blog (soon to be launched) and working my way up from there. It's a scary, but exciting time to be a writer. So many opportunities, so little time... LOL

March 5, 2012 at 11:38 AM  
Blogger Lee Lopez said...

Anne, great post and so true. I've taken classes, in and out of college, critique groups, joined RWA, you name it. It's all learning process, and there are no guarantees. There some fantastic writers out there, working their day job as a grocery store clerk, waiting for the big break. It most likely won't come, or if it does, the advance is only 5K, enough topay a few bills, maybe.

March 5, 2012 at 12:09 PM  
Blogger Clarissa Draper said...

You said, "the number one thing that’s NOT necessary to any creative career is…DEBT." This is so true and you don't always come out of college being a better writer.

You're also right that getting published is very difficult and there is a lot of competition. Sometimes I think it's luck for some.

I didn't go to college for writing. I had to learn grammar, sentence structure and basic on writing plot and character on my own. Hell, I'm still learning. I think practice is key.

I think it has also been helpful for me to help critique others.

March 5, 2012 at 12:50 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Marilyn--It does seem like a silly addiction sometimes. We do it because we have to.

Susan--You've hit on a great point. The theater is a great place to learn to write. You not only learn what kind of dialogue works, but you also learn pacing, timing and how to get a laugh. There's nothing like that immediate feedback you get from a live audience.

Lee-You're right that it can't be about the money, because there's not going to be much unless you hit that lucky turn of the wheel. So it has to be about the satisfaction.

Clarissa--A number of other commenters have said that too, and I think it's important: critiquing others is one of your best learning tools. Seeing what doesn't work is very valuable. I learned an awful lot reading slush for a publisher for a couple of months.

March 5, 2012 at 2:29 PM  
Anonymous Phyllis Humphrey said...

Anne: Great post as usual. My two cents: After 35 years of writing (after 20 years of constant reading) I have to say reading what you enjoy comes first, then read books on writing, subscribe to a writing magazine, join a critique group, go to a conference you can afford and these days, read blogs by successful authors. As for life, I'm also an actor so I get to meet characters. Movies, TV and plays are good teachers too, and many actors are also good writers, as I mentioned in a post on my own blog a while ago.

March 5, 2012 at 2:53 PM  
Blogger Donna Hole said...

I was just thinking about all the grammar and spelling help there is out there on the web. It never sank in during school, but I reference it as I have questions.

Learning to write has been a challenge, but I've enjoyed it. I listen to other writers, and visit blogs where advice is offered - for free :)

Reading and writing are the best ways to learn. For me anyway, as I learn by doing.


March 5, 2012 at 5:37 PM  
Anonymous KM Huber said...

Just a really fine post and so refreshing in its approach to such important information.

Just began following your blog and learn something with every post.

Thanks so much.


March 5, 2012 at 5:57 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Phyllis--I enjoyed your post about actors and writing. I think it's because actors need to find a motivation for everything they do in a scene, so they understand that everybody--even the spear carriers--have to want something in every scene in a book. That makes for tension and good storytelling.

Donna--We used to have to look everything up in big books, and now a quick search answers most grammar questions. Sure is nice, isn't it?

Karen--So glad you've joined us. I'm glad you're finding our posts useful!

March 5, 2012 at 6:41 PM  
Blogger Alicia Street said...

Great post, Anne! As to me, sure I've read broadly and studied craft, and I am a devoted WANA-ite, but I learned a lot about being a writer from my years as a dancer-choreographer. From the creative, structural, communicative process, to the hard knocks, criticism and getting up off your butt when you fall.

March 5, 2012 at 8:14 PM  
Blogger Churadogs said...

Excellent posting. I love the Rule of 10,000. That applies to everything, I suspect.

March 6, 2012 at 7:55 AM  
Blogger Darke Conteur said...

I hung out in the Online Writing Workshop for Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror for three years, and learned so much. It's a crit for crit site and there's a membership fee, but it's spawned some incredible talent.

March 6, 2012 at 9:48 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Alicia--I think you're right. Like the theater, dance teaches you a lot about what it takes to please an audience. It also teaches you to take criticism and play well with others.

Churadogs--Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers is a great work on what it takes to succeed. His 10,000 hours rule does apply to any field.

Darke--Genre-specific organizations do seem to do the best job of preparing a writer to compete in the marketplace. The membership fee is a small price to pay compared with a college course.

March 6, 2012 at 10:47 AM  
Anonymous Kevin said...

Hi Anne, this is an out standing informative post. This is going to help a lot for writers a lot. The suggestions are really effective and discussion that is going on is really outstanding. Keep going. Thanks!

March 7, 2012 at 3:50 AM  
Anonymous Brock Heasley said...

Fantastic, informative advice. I didn't study writing in college--didn't even think about writing until almost a decade after graduating--and I'm glad for it. My life and professional experience informs my writing more than anything else. I love being inspired by unusual sources--beyond books and classes.

Coincidentally, I published a blog just yesterday about how the TV show Mad Men teaches me how to write. If you're curious, here's a link: http://brockheasley.com/2012/03/06/how-i-learned-to-write-by-watching-mad-men/

March 7, 2012 at 9:39 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...


Brock--Great post on MadMen. I agree there's a lot to be learned from good teleplays. Contemporary novels resemble screenplays more than they resemble most classic novels. But I think it's important to study both.

March 7, 2012 at 10:01 AM  
Blogger Pk Hrezo said...

Excellent advice, Anne. Really and truly. I am a self-taught fiction writer. Everything I've been taught is from reading various manuals by writers, blogs, agent advice, and conference workshops. In all honesty, you don't need to go to college at all... other than having a degree to support your fiction addiction. ;)

March 9, 2012 at 5:28 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

PK--I agree. I think most successful writers are pretty much self-taught when it comes to craft. College provides a whole lot of other things that are useful to a writer, though. The most important is critical thinking. A good education gives you the ability to ask questions, the knowledge of where to go for answers, and the courage to think for yourself. Nobody should turn down the possibility of a college education. But for the nuts and bolts of writing, you don't need it.

March 9, 2012 at 9:54 AM  
Anonymous Glen Strathy said...

The conundrums of the artistic life:

How to earn enough money to live so you have a chance to practice your art without your job taking up so much time and energy that you cannot practice your art.

You cannot give up your art, because it is the longest lasting, most intense passion you will ever know, next to which all other work seems trivial and fulfilling, yet making money as an artist is so hard it feels like winning the lottery would be easier.

You tell yourself, you just need one good book to catapult you to the ranks of Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, while another voice says you're just not that talented or lucky. And you don't know which voice to believe.

March 9, 2012 at 10:48 AM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Glen, I know it can feel discouraging, because the full-time midlist author is becoming a thing of the past. We have to think of it more like playing golf. Not everybody can be Tiger Woods (even Tiger himself, these days) but that shouldn't make golf less enjoyable. We keep going, hoping to go pro at some point, but the fact we do it part-time doesn't make our writing any less valid.

March 9, 2012 at 11:53 AM  
Anonymous Matthew Wright said...

I think you've hit the nail on the head. I was lucky: I was formally taught creative writing at my parents' cost - they sent me to the courses. That gave me a foundation, but the reality was that I actually *learned* the craft by doing what all writers have to do - writing, reading and living. Thanks for a great post.

Matthew Wright

March 10, 2012 at 1:47 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Matthew--Thanks. You're lucky that you had parents who encouraged you that way, and every class you can take will give something that can help your craft. None of that time was wasted. But, as you found, nothing substitutes for actually writing. We need to fill lots and lots of pages, many of which will be pure junk. It's our own mistakes that are the best teachers of all.

March 11, 2012 at 10:11 AM  
Blogger Overdue said...

I'm doing a literature degree and took one module in creative writing as part of that. I was actually really surprised at how much I learned. Even basic stuff that I was doing anyway but couldn't have explained WHY I was doing it. It's all very well to say you need to read and have natural talent, but even if (maybe especially if) you do read and do have some natural ability, you don't really examine your technique or question yourself much and you really need someone to make you think about the theory of it all so you can improve and weed out your bad habits. So I'm all for classes (from good teachers) but I also think it's more important to have time to write than to be overloaded with coursework that doesn't closely relate to your writing, and debt that means you're trying to work out plots while flipping burgers!
My big problem now is that I'm in a small town and I'd kill for a good critique group. I joined a workshop but they're mostly poets and I don't know anyone I have a lot in common with in terms of writing. I'm half way through a YA novel and I think it would really help me to have a critique partner but they're hard to find!

March 14, 2012 at 3:02 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

Overdue--A class in creative writing is great, as long as you're studying other things so you can earn a living. :-) For critiques, try critiquecircle.com, or check around Nathan Bransford's forums to see if somebody wants to swap beta reading. Since you're writing YA, I strongly recommend joining SCBWI http://www.scbwi.org/ You might be able to find an online critique group or partner through them, and their newsletter and conferences are incredibly valuable.

March 14, 2012 at 3:10 PM  
Blogger LK Watts said...

Hi Anne,

I am so glad I found someone else who thinks the same way as I do on this issue. I've been writing all my life but I don't have an English qualification. Sure, having one might be nice but I think I have done okay without one. I think writing can be taught to a certain extent, but having a degree doesn't come with any guarantees. And unfortunately some people think that if they have a degree in the subject, they'll automatically become a best selling novelist. But it just doesn't work like that. How many best selling novelists have a degree in writing? I'm sure the answer is not as many as you would think.

March 17, 2012 at 12:17 PM  
Blogger Anne R. Allen said...

LK--I think you're right about bestselling novelists and creative writing degrees. Some may have degrees in English literature, but that's not the same. I think studying literature does help your writing (to a certain extent--if it doesn't block you with over-think)and a few creative writing classes can jumpstart your creativity, but a lot of the creative writing degrees --especially the ones advertised online--can be an awful waste of money.

March 17, 2012 at 1:37 PM  

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