Learning to Write by Rachel Neumeier

Hello, Nerdfighters! I have a special post today from fantasy author, Rachel Neumeier, with some advice on writing... Are any of you aspiring authors? Let us know in comments what you think of Rachel's post!

Rachel's latest book Black Dog, published by Strange Chemistry this month, sounds fantastic:

Natividad is Pure, one of the rare girls born able to wield magic. Pure magic can protect humans against the supernatural evils they only half-acknowledge – the blood kin or the black dogs. In rare cases – like for Natividad’s father and older brother – Pure magic can help black dogs find the strength to control their dark powers.

But before Natividad’s mother can finish teaching her magic their enemies find them. Their entire village in the remote hills of Mexico is slaughtered by black dogs. Their parents die protecting them. Natividad and her brothers must flee across a strange country to the only possible shelter: the infamous black dogs of Dimilioc…

Learning to write

by Rachel Neumeier

So, how many kids are sometimes bored in class? All of them, pretty much, isn’t that so? You, probably, right? How do you handle this? I remember very clearly how I handled it: instead of paying attention to the teacher, I made up stories in my head. (Sometime in high school, I developed the trick of being able to “replay” the last couple of sentences the teacher had said, so I could answer questions if called on by a suspicious instructor who had noticed my abstracted not-quite-there expression.)

I don’t necessarily suggest you tune out during class unless, like me, you’re pretty good at just learning stuff from the book on your own. But I do suspect that making up stories in your head is one early sign you might someday become a writer. Even though those first stories, the privateones in your head, are no doubt utterly dreadful. I certainly recall a personal trend toward self-indulgent adventure stories featuring a heroic me, and I’m sure I’m not alone. And there’s nothing wrong with that, either, when you’re six or eight or whatever.

But what about if and when you decide you want to tell stories to other people, and you want them to be really good stories rather than self-indulgent or otherwise dreadful? How do you make that leap toward getting outside your head, and also toward quality?

Well, first, of course, you might want to quit using yourself as the protagonist. You may know that a “perfect you” protagonist is called a Mary Sue (or a Gary Stu) and it’s not a compliment when someone says that your main character is a Mary Sue. To make sure you really do cut that out, it might be a good idea to make your protagonist much older than you are, or the opposite sex, or a dragon. Or all three, why not? That ought to make you think hard about what it would be like to be that other person, instead of just making up a protagonist who is a heroic you. Or what if you lift a character from a book you love, and then tip that character sideways into a different reality? What would Aragorn be like if he were blind, or a woman? Or a dragon? What would the world have to be like, if Aragorn were a dragon?

Once you have a few ideas about your main character and your world, how about writing a quality story? How do you even aim for that? Of course you can read all kinds of advice about plotting and worldbuilding, but if you’re like me, you will never, ever have a detailed plot or a developed world in your head when you start writing. Those are things that, for me, develop as I’m writing, but can’t be forced beforehand.

Instead, how about this? Decide who the very best fantasy writer is (or SF or romance or whatever you like). It would be nice if you picked someone who writes with a perfect ear for grammar; whole subgenres today are rife with verb tense problems because influential early authors in those subgenres did not handle their verb tenses correctly and readers absorbed the wrong feel for verbs. Pick someone who has written at least half a dozen books, preferably more, preferably not all in one series. Read everything by that person, one after another. Then sit down and write your own book.

Don’t worry that you might be copying bits of plot, or basing your character on one of the characters from a particular book. I expect your plot will go off in its own direction, and I bet your characters will go off in their own directions, too. The idea is to learn to write, not by reading or thinking about writing, but by absorbing – by osmosis, as it were – a feel for language and character and plot. And the point is, you want to develop that feel by reading great books, the very best in your favorite genre.

This is advice that actually comes from personal experience. I read a piece of advice somewhere, something like: if you want to write, skip aiming for mediocre and aim right for the top. I thought that was good advice, and I had decided to write a real book, a publishable book. So I picked Patricia McKillip as the very best fantasy writer alive and read everything by her, then wrote THE CITY IN THE LAKE, which did indeed get me, quickly, first an agent and then a two-book deal with Random House.

Of course, I was old enough at that point that I had read a whole lot of books and I knew very well what I liked, and also I had learned to tell the difference between really good books and mediocre books. I do think that’s important – learning to judge the books you read, deciding which ones are really objectively great stories and which are catchy but mediocre and which are just plain clumsy.

What about “finding your own voice”? Is your voice likely to get lost, if you deliberately set out to absorb a feel for someone else’s style? My advice is: Don’t worry about it. I doubt you can really write like that person anyway. Your writing might be reminiscent of that other person, but you have undoubtedly absorbed a different feel for story and language already that will set your stories apart. Also, as you go on, you will almost certainly move farther away from that other author’s voice anyway. Though you will probably feel flattered forever when people compare you to your favorite author. (I sure do.) Or, hey, if you actually do capture another author’s voice and style, you may well have a very bright future writing tie-in novels for your favorite tv shows, something I’m completely unable to do.

Okay, and in case you’re interested, here are a handful of my picks for authors whose every book may not be flawless, but whose writing in general is absolutely top quality:

High Fantasy – Patricia McKillip, Guy Gaviel Kay

Adventure Fantasy – Martha Wells

Urban Fantasy / Paranormal – Patricia Briggs, Ilona Andrews

Smartass Fantasy – Stephen Brust (the Vlad Taltos series)

Adventure SF / Space opera – Lois McMaster Bujold (the Vorkosigan series)

Military SF – Tanya Huff (the Valor series)

Classic SF – CJ Cherryh, Orson Scott Card, Octavia Butler (Dawn and sequels)

Epic SF – Kim Stanley Robinson

Mysteries – Barbara Hambly (the Benjamin January Series), Rex Stout (the Nero Wolfe series)

Historicals – Gillian Bradshaw

Romances – Laura Florand

Thank you so much for that, Rachel!

To find out more about Black Dog, or Rachel Neumeier, do visit the following websites:

Rachel Neumeier ... Rachel on Twitter

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Tags: advice, books, writing


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Comment by Leanna Danielle Shaffer on March 6, 2014 at 2:54pm

I am a young aspiring author, I have just began to write my first book. I understood very well what Rachel was saying as I seem to be like her in many ways. Honestly, I had already tried most of what she talked about and I am hoping that it works.

Comment by Lorena Patricia Perez Cruz on February 19, 2014 at 3:20pm

I like it but I don't think I will follow it.It seems a little mechanical.

I will try to read her books anyway because she reminded me a little of myself in highschool,I was a distracted child xD


Comment by Gabbi Carson on February 5, 2014 at 2:55pm

I've never heard of this method of learning to write, and I don't know if I agree with it, but this Rachel Neumeier person seems very interesting.

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