Tuesday, January 31, 2012

An Informal Education by Joanne Kennedy

This article was originally published in the January 2012 Rocky Mountain Writer, the official newletter of Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers.

I have a confession to make: I don’t have a college degree. My misspent youth was spent collecting the many experiences that have fed my fiction, but I was never focused enough to spend much time in the classroom.

Part of the problem was that colleges didn’t seem to teach what I needed to know. I wanted to write, but I didn’t have a talent for poetry or short stories. I didn’t have anything profound to say, no matter how well they taught me to say it.

So I veered off the beaten path and cobbled together my own course of study. I don’t have a degree to show for it, and I never got to toss a mortarboard in the air and declare myself done. But it was fun, and I didn’t end up wrangling a crippling load of college loans.

I don’t recommend skipping school. When you’re a writer, every experience counts, and I’m sorry I missed that one. But once you’ve laid the groundwork and gotten your degree, you’ll still need to take a crash course in writing popular fiction. Here are ten easy steps that worked for me.

Read. This is the fun part. Read books you love, in your genre and others. Study story structure and character development. Watch what makes you turn pages, and what makes you turn away. If you read enough, storytelling will be second nature and the rhythms of prose as natural as breathing.

Write. Focus and determination matter as much as talent in this business, so write a whole book, start to finish. Don’t obsess over the first few pages and stall your career before it even starts. You need to learn storytelling as well as style, so get the plot on paper and then make it pretty. And then write another one. And another.

Connect. Find people who share your passion. The support, knowledge, and friendship of your peers will last a lifetime. Writing conferences offer opportunities to meet other writers and learn from the best in the business. They’re one of the few building blocks in this education that will cost you real money, but the benefits are huge.

Critique. Find a writing group that fits you—one that offers constructive criticism and sends you home energized and ready to write. If you feel down and defeated at the end of the session, you’re hanging out with the wrong writers.

Synopsize. I’ve learned a lot about writing from crafting synopses and query letters. Putting your story into a marketable framework may send you back to the revision process as it reveals the weaknesses in your story, but you’ll have a better product when you’re done.

Submit. I believe in submitting to agents before you risk rejection from editors. It always helps to have another pro on your team, and since agents don’t get paid until they sell your work, it’s a win-win proposition.

Endure. Got a thick skin? Good. Rejections are a part of the process. I received over 90 before I was published. A rejection doesn’t mean your work isn’t good enough; it just means an agent isn’t willing to stake her career on it. How many books have you read that you would risk your livelihood for? Keep trying.

Listen. Editors and agents have been my best teachers, showing me how to take a good story and make it glow. You don’t have to slavishly follow every one of their whims—it’s your book, and most of them respect that. But don’t ever discount their advice.

Read some more. If you’re having trouble breaking into the market, read novels in your genre and then check out customer comments on Amazon and Barnes & Noble as well as professional reviews. By learning what readers like and dislike, you’ll find the flaws that are holding you back.

Enjoy. Whether or not your writing education pays off in the traditional sense, I guarantee that thinking like a writer will make every experience in life richer and more meaningful. It’s a writer’s job to observe and record—and that means paying attention to the world around us, being conscious of meaning and connection, and finding the magic in the everyday.


Joanne Kennedy is the author of contemporary Western novels with ranch settings. Her most recent book release is Tall, Dark and Cowboy. Cowboy Crazy and Cowboy Tough are coming soon. She hangs out on Facebook, too, so drop by and say hi.


Margot Kinberg said...

Joanne - Thanks for your insights. I couldn't agree with you more about the value and importance of reading. The more an author reads, the better she or he learns the craft.

Mary Gillgannon said...

Wonderful suggestions, Joanne! Amazingly good advice presented succinctly and in a way that's truly encouraging.

Joanne Kennedy said...

Margot, I think reading is by far the most important step, especially if you pay attention to what works!

Joanne Kennedy said...

Mary, thanks! Your books are among the ones I learned from - CIR readers, check out Mary's new e-books on Amazon!

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Good checklist. I went to college, just not for writing.

John Big John said...

Perfect advice!

Patricia Stoltey said...

Studying accounting and business, sociology, and political science haven't helped a whole lot with writing mystery and suspense. I had to educate myself when it came to writing, and I'm still learning, mostly by reading. This is great advice, Joanne.

Shannon Baker said...

Looks like a great syllabus for life, Joanne! However you were taught, you sure picked up the lesson.

Joanne Kennedy said...

Thanks, Alex. I think it's actually best to study something other than writing. There are plenty of writers (like me) out there writing about writing - it's great to have expertise in some other field.

Joanne Kennedy said...

Pat, that makes you well-qualified to write a Brad Meltzer-style financial thriller, or a Vince Flynn political suspense story! I know - often our everyday work is the last thing we want to write about!

Shannon, thanks for the compliment. I'd say you figured it out too:)