Shayne on You: Honing the craft of writing

Hello Maggie,

†I am a huge fan, and thanks for the enjoyable evenings, reading your books, has brought me.†

†I have been reading books for over 25 years. I have ideas and thoughts in my head.† I have full stories and plots I am dying to get out of†me, onto paper.††I just donít know where to begin or how. I read some of the books, you posted [on your website] for beginners and tried typing my thoughts down. But when I go back to reread what I type, itís not good.† I am not sure what† I am doing wrong, I just know I need to get these stories out of me. I hope you can understand what I saying. Itís true I might suck at writing,† But I do know one thing, I am almost 40 years old, and I donít want to be 50 and be thinking any thoughts about† ďwhat if?Ē I have to try, if only once.

†Any advice you can give me about writing would be a wonderful help to me.

Aspiring, but Clueless

Dear Aspiring,

Iím always thrilled to get a letter asking about my favorite topic. And itís one I now about, as Iíve been writing for a living for nearly 15 years now.

The thing is, having read your note, which youíll probably notice looks very different here from the way it looked when you sent it in, I can see that you need to work on the very basics first. You wrote just over a paragraph, and I found 15 to 20 mistakes in spelling, punctuation and grammar. This is nothing to be embarrassed about. Most people who write casually produce notes and letters and cards full of mistakes and donít even realize it. But to write professionally, you need to master those basics first. These are the boring parts of learning to be a writer, but theyíre necessary. An editor isnít even going to bother reading your manuscript if it arrives on her desk full of mistakes. So thatís first. Get some books, take some classes, talk to some English teachers or English majors, and learn about basic writing skills. Some excellent books for this are The Elements of Style and The Elements of Grammar, and last I knew, both were still available. Ask your bookseller to order copies for you if they donít have them in stock, borrow them from your library, or check for them on

Once you have a firm grip on the mechanics of writing, you can begin to learn the more advanced techniques and tools of storytelling. Youíll need to learn about dialogue, about scene setting, about pacing, about point of view, about motivation, about transition, about theme and metaphor. And youíll also need to learn a few more boring mechanical things like proper manuscript format and correct header placement and how to write a synopsis and the etiquette of submitting to publishers.

Learning to write professionally is like learning to master any other career. You need to study the basics, take classes, learn and learn and learn, and then practice, practice, practice. Many people think they can just sit down and start writing, and end up with a publishable story. But thatís just like thinking that anyone could walk out onto a basketball court and play on the level of an NBA star, without ever having played before, or thinking that anyone could walk into a hospital and perform brain surgery without having taken a single class in medical school.

I hear it all the time. ďIíd write too, if I had time,Ē people tell me. As if thatís all it takes, and they could be just as prolific and successful if they had as much free time on their hands as I must obviously have. Itís often stated with a hint of resentment and jealousy.

But you donít write because you have time. You make time because you have to write. You learn the craft because you have to write. You practice and study and get better because you have to write. You write for years without earning a nickel from it, stealing a few hours before daylight if thatís what it takes, because you have to write. You pay your dues and you gather dozens of rejection letters because you have to write. And eventually, if you donít give up, you get good enough to have some success at it. But even if you didnít, youíd keep on writing, because you donít have a choice.

It can be a frustrating, crazy-making, heart breaking pursuit. But it can also be the most rewarding, fulfilling, healing job in the world. It took me eight years of persistence, practice, learning and rejection before I finally got an offer from a legitimate publisher who wanted to pay me for the right to publish my story. (This is an important tip to remember Ė real publishers pay you for your work Ė you donít pay them to publish it.)

I wish you all the luck there is! If you have the heart of a storyteller, you can learn the rest. The only sure way to fail is to quit before you succeed.


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