Writing Apprenticeship

Monday, September 9, 2013



We all have our opinions on what it takes to be a writer. For me, it's not so much about attending classes and knowing a list of literary definitions/devices, but more about honing my skills. In school, I was a good English Lang/Lit student. By my early high school years, I was crafting love stories that were passed around by my classmates. I'm not sure why I stopped writing, but twenty years passed before I was doing anything other than letters, proposals, reports and minutes.

Having come back to writing, it took me a while to realize that books were no longer written the way they were in the past. No longer were complex sentences in vogue. For someone like me, who has a love for sentences that can be classified as flowery prose, it took time to adapt.

In seeking to better my writing skills, I joined an online writing workshop and to date, it's the best decision I've made. I met some good, helpful and selfless writers, who were patient in helping me with point of view and punctuation issues. Added to that, I've read scads of articles on just about every aspect of writing. I also have a stash of books on the craft.

A few years ago, when I wanted to break in on the local scene, I did a course with a respected Caribbean writer and teacher, who is now deceased. He had scant regard for commercial fiction, which is exactly what I wanted to write. However, I'm eternally grateful to him because he taught me some valuable lessons. I was blown away by the fact that he thought I should never have stopped writing and that I was good at it. The other thing he told me was that I needed to simplify my writing. Always use $5 words over $10 ones, he said.


I've never forgotten his advice. The problem was, by the time I met him, I'd already written a half dozen manuscripts. Over the last few days, I've been looking at one story I wrote during that time and it's amazing how the advice I received then is going to be useful now.

Another writer who helped me tremendously with the ms mentioned above, kept telling me that Latinate words were bogging down my story. Boy, do I know what he means five years later. You see, in Jamaica we use British English and the first words I reach for (in combination with my writing style) are usually clunky when applied to storytelling. Add to that my love for complex sentences and you see what a challenge it becomes to weed the story from the jungle of words.

I’ve come a long way since I took up writing again in 2004 and as I like to say, there should be some kind of rule against writing novels before we know what we’re doing. The agony of multiple edits is the root of that opinion, but then how else do we learn other than by practising? I don’t know any other way, so like any other job, a period of agony  apprenticeship is a must.

The good thing is, with the experience I’ve gathered, I’m better able to mould those earlier stories into what I want them to be. 

Don’t get discouraged, thinking you can’t write unless you have a degree, or attend countless workshops and conferences. All those things are desirable, encouraged, useful, but not mandatory.

I haven’t done more than that 8-month stint I talked about earlier and that was after my writing was raked through hundreds of critiques (some of which left me feeling violated) on that online workshop. And might I mention that I’ve gathered some local awards from judges who are tough critics?

In short, if you have the desire to write and the stick-to-itiveness it takes to do multiple edits, plus a yearning to have your stories published, then I say keep on doing what you’re doing to get there. 

Your turn. What do you think it takes to be a writer. Book learning? Hours of practise? Natural ability? A little bit of everything?

27 comments:

  1. Experience and good guidance make a world of difference.
    Rule against writing before you know what you're doing - yes!!

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    1. Hey, Alex. True that. We all need a mentor at some point in time.

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  2. An objective eye would be nice, but sooo hard to come by when we read our own stuff. But that develops with time and crits and practice.

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    1. True, Holly. I've grown wiser from critiques. If one too many persons take issue with a particular thing, then I know that's gotta go. :) And I've also learned to make sensible decisions. If one particular scene or storyline isn't adding anything to the book, then that's gotta go too.

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  3. I had to laugh at the mention of looooong sentences. I get called on that a lot by my critique partners. I'm learning! << see, that was really short. :)

    But, yeah, the thing most writers need in order to write is a desire to write. If you have that, you'll read, you'll study, you'll listen, and you'll improve over time.

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    1. L.G.,
      Good points. The studying NEVER ends and that has helped me to improve as well.

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  4. I too miss the language and structure of older novels. I still love a book that has gorgeous writing and descriptions. I am constantly pursuing self-education, workshops, online workshops, books-- always learning too.

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    1. Julie, you're a woman after my own heart. Unfortunately, these days few people want to read anything that takes the scenic route. :D Learning keeps us on the ball for sure,

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  5. As writers, there is always something to learn, isn't there? I love the advice your mentor gave you - such wise and encouraging words! :)

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    1. Thanks, Karen. I guess we'll never stop learning.

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  6. I worry a lot that I can't succeed in my writing goals because I don't have the right degree, so this was a good thing for me to read. Also love the $5 words instead of $10 words tip!

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    1. Hey, Julie,

      Here's why I've stopped letting those thoughts bother me - Laura Marcella has some awesome info on her blog and I hoped I'd be able to find the article again and I did. :) Read this. It will inspire you.

      http://lauramarcella.blogspot.com/2011/09/fun-fact-friday-education-of-8-famous.html

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  7. I incline a bit to the "a bit of everything" view. A sound grounding in written English will help, but a writer who struggles with grammar can do it, if she knows it and finds an editor who can cover it. Hours of practice, for sure. I wonder if anyone without an MS or two hidden in the back of a drawer can write a publishable book? And without some natural ability (and the drive to write that often goes with it) I doubt a person will ever finish the first MS.

    P.S. I spent years learning to write gawdawful academic prose for my PhD. I then spent years unlearning it so I could write readable fiction. So higher education can be detrimental!

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    1. Rebecca, more than anything, I think a strong drive is necessary to keep at something that mostly looks as if it will never pay a reward.

      Your last comment made me smile as it jogged my memory. Another thing Wayne told me was to unlearn EVERYTHING I'd learned during school years.

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  8. One of the most helpful things I have found is simply reading books I enjoy while I am writing. On the one hand, I am reading for enjoyment, but the other side of my brain is paying attention to word choices, sentence structure, grammar, how each scene contributes to the plot, etc.

    Of course, once you get the first draft done, nothing is better than critique so that when you make changes they are good ones!

    I also liked the advice about the $5 word over the $10 one. Yep.

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    1. Agree with you on the critiques, Robin. Mostly, i worry about the word choices when the story is done. That's when I find all sorts of things wrong with what I've written. Still learning to make good use of $5 words.

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  9. Actually writing is my #1 thought on what it takes to be a writer. Some people discuss writing a novel without putting down a word. I know the deceased teacher you're talking about. I wanted to take on one of his workshops but he died before I got the chance and Sharon Leach from The Jamaican Observer always spoke highly of him in her articles. In writing I'm the opposite in that I have a hard time writing the flowery prose and always knew that was never my writing path. You gave some great insight in your writing journey and I'm glad it all led to you being an author today.

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    1. I do know a small number of people who talk about writing, but never do anything about it. They're waiting for the right time. :) It was thanks to Wayne that I got my first story published locally. He was impressed with the story and told me to send it to Sharon.

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  10. I think it's a mixture. I like reading about and learning from other writer's methods, but I always stay true to my own.

    And that wouldn't have been possible until I've written enough to find what what works for me. :-)

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    1. Misha,
      As you've indicated, it's a matter of finding what's right for us, but we definitely can't avoid practising and reading. Lots.

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  11. I learned KISS (keep it simple stupid) early into my writing career. I learned to use everyday simple words. Also, I only took 2 writing courses. My writing ability stems from my passion and I guess, an inherent trait.

    I understand what you mean by "clunky" writing. A lot of practice has helped me. I also write many drafts.

    Keep chugging away, Joy.

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    1. Peaches, I look at my writing today, versus what it was say 5 years ago and I still wanna write roundabout sentences, but who's gonna read any book written like that? Nobody I know. :D

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  12. I know your pain. I love those long, complicated sentences, too. But we're constantly learning and growing. I take every opportunity to improve my craft. I'm learning the beauty of brevity.

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    1. True, Reece, learning new things is a wonderful part of being a writer, so is going with the flow.

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  13. By nature, I'm probably a writer who loves the long complicated sentences, which I now realise is quite outdated. Writing flash fiction has helped with brevity, since every word has to be chosen with care.
    Writer In Transit

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    1. Hey, Michelle,
      Flash fiction does force the writer to choose carefully which is a good thing.

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Don't be shy. I'd love to hear what you think.