Wednesday, February 13, 2008


Copyright © 2007, Steven E. Houchin
( Originally written 18 January 2007 )

Writing fiction is for "real writers" who have studied for years under the great masters, and have stacks of credentials from prestigious universities. Isn't that right? People who have those credentials may, indeed, become great writers. The rest of us who have a good grasp of the language and dream of writing ... well let's be realistic here. Writing is for the pros.

The problem with this is that average people do become fine writers, and even make money and gain some measure of fame. They become pros. Is it possible that the "only real writers write" syndrome inhibits most of us from pursuing that dream? For far too long, that was the case with me. As an avid reader of fiction and non-fiction, I always said to myself, "I would love to write something like this." That sentiment slowly evolved into, "Gee, I ought to be able to write this stuff." But then, I wasn't a "pro" and didn't know how to take that first step. Where would I get a story idea? How would I turn it into a book?

One evening four years ago, I attended a short talk given by a famous Northwest author. Someone asked her, "How do you go about getting started on a new book? Do you first make an outline?" An excellent question -- one that had been nagging me. The "pros" create elaborate outlines and "story arcs". I didn't have anything approaching a full story in my head -- just a couple of bits and pieces. And I certainly didn't have any intention to sit down and grind out an outline.

The author's answer stunned me. "I don't outline," she said. "I just don't have the patience for it. I just sit down and start writing." How could she say that? She's a "pro", isn't she? The proverbial lightbulb went off in my head. You mean, I can just start writing a novel and not know everything about the story beforehand? Yup. At that very moment, I said to myself, "Well, hell ... I can do that!"

It has been said, "Write what you know about." I know genealogy, among a few other things. I thought, "How can I possibly make genealogy be interesting ... or even suspenseful?" I had a small idea and began writing. I wrote a lot, and the story just flowed from my brain through my fingers. Characters and subplots popped out of nowhere. The pages and chapters piled up.

But, I had made a mistake . Writing fiction is a definite skill which must be learned, like any other. It's more than pouring out sentences and dialog. It's more than writing alone in a vacuum. I found that out when I began attending a writer's critique group. My writing needed lots of polishing, and I'd broken many of the rules of good fiction writing. Thus began endless rounds of critique, rewrite, cutting, and editing. I took classes and attended workshops. I discovered what I'd done wrong, and began to learn what to not do wrong in the future. It has been a process of incremental improvment of my craft, which has enhanced the sheer, liberating, enjoyment of writing fiction.

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