What’s the Best Way to Learn How to Write?

Simple answer: By writing. A lot. But really, if you want to sell stories. If you want to hone your craft, you have to start getting used to hearing the word “No” a lot.

You’ll hear it more than you ever heard it as a Freshman asking someone out on a date. You’ll hear it more than you’ve heard it asking a boss for a promotion. You’ll hear it more than you have heard it asking a highway patrolman if you could just get off with a warning this time. You’ll hear it and like those events, in the beginning, you’ll hear it with laughter.

If you got published on your first try, congratulations. I hate you. But if you were like the rest of us who live in the real world, it stung. You probably thought your concept and delivery was better than the latest Nebula or Hugo winner. Certainly better than that movie you watched on Netflix the other night.

It probably wasn’t. Or maybe it was and it just wasn’t for that publisher?

Put some organizational skills to work. Make a list of magazines/editors/publishers/agents you want to send your work to. Make sure they can or can’t take simultaneous or multiple submissions. Also use the spreadsheet to figure out what their return times are like. There are a number of websites that can help you with this.

Oddly enough an agent or publisher, for you aspiring novelists out there, will get back to you probably within a month to just a few weeks. They will be curt. Blunt. They will expect a finished copy to read if they like what you send. If they don’t, they will just say no. Magazine publishers will sit on that rejection notice for upwards of a year. Most sales I have made were sold within three months.

The problem with agents/publishers is the slushpile is run by interns, and they get traded to other agencies that spring up worse than a freeagency. When they leave, they usually leave a big slushpile for the next sucker…er, intern to go through. More often than not, they just purge the whole pile. That’s why you didn’t hear back. It’s nothing personal.

Now, as far as learning the process on how to write, take my college creative writing class. Out of the 30 or so students in there, everything we wrote was amazing. Our professor gave us the same kind of praise that parents and grandparents given when they stick a crappy drawing a kid has given them onto the fridge. Only the kid actually might go somewhere.

A class like that isn’t doing you any favors. You aren’t hearing “No” you are just wallowing in reports of your own genius. Well, genius, how do you explain how you have an A in the class, but nobody will buy your story? What does that say? Is it something about your story or the way it was graded? Maybe both. Maybe neither. EIther way, it’s frustrating to hear about how great your story and writing is, only to have a recent MFA graduate send you an email saying “Thank you for your submission to our publication. Unfortunately were are going to have to pass on this. It just didn’t hold my attention. We look forward to seeing more work from you in the future. Best of luck in your writing endeavors!”

It took me about ten seconds to type that up. I have the cadence and the structure memorized because I’ve seen it so many times. Yet the words still sting when you read them about your own stuff. They should. They mean very little, but what they should mean is this: I lived through the experience and I’m not going to let it stop me.

Because rejection letters can be a death of a thousand cuts. Don’t take them to heart. They didn’t mean much when they were written. They shouldn’t mean much when you read them. Be like a duck and let them roll off your back. But keep submitting your work. Reread it. Rewrite it. Leave it in a file for a month, go back to it and make adjustments. Write something else. Because everytime you finish something, your writing will improve.

You can’t learn how to write in a classroom. You can get practice doing it because of that grade. Then you can get used to doing it even when someone isn’t looking.

Reading is important, sure. Just be sure you aren’t just emulating your favorite author and you are actually developing your own voice. The word out there is you won’t even accomplish this until after your first million words. Better get started!

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