Writers Talk About Writing
Learning to Write
This much every writer knows is true: You don't get better by working in vacuum. You need feedback, criticism, a good ripping apart of your page every now and again. So where to find this kind of writerly tough love? (Gentle, too!) Author Julie Smith offers an innovative answer -- over the phone. A New Orleans resident and veteran writer, Julie began her career as a newspaper reporter and has won the prestigious Edgar Allan Poe Award for her mystery novels. She now teaches "distance learning" writing courses called WritersTrack, where students across the globe get on a conference call and get writing! We spoke to Julie about how to get the most out of writing instruction.
VT: What do you think is missing from most writing classes?
Julie: I think that most writing teachers are extremely opinionated. In many writing books, the first chapter's often on how you really can't teach writing. The authors will say, I really don't know anything about writing, it's just kind of something I do and it comes out of nowhere.
That's what they tell you in the first chapter. In the second chapter they turn into drill sergeants. They tell you that you have to get up at a certain time in the morning, you have to start with character, you have to outline -- or you should never outline -- or you must start with situation or... and on and on. They're very, very opinionated.
VT: What's a better way to do it?
Julie: Some people really believe you have to do your work in a particular order. But that isn't true at all. I've found through my own writing and through talking with so many writers that, actually, everyone writes in a different way. You can't know how an author does it. In fact, I kind of do it differently in every book I write! What matters in the end is, is it a good book? One of my main goals is to encourage people to find their own way, their own method of writing.
VT: What's the value of taking a writing class?
Julie: It's a foundation. Writing is an art but it's also a craft. You wouldn't believe how many manuscripts people give me to critique that have bad grammar, or the writers don't know anything about plot or point of view -- point of view is one of the biggest stumbling blocks for new writers.
New writers sometimes think that just because they can speak English then they must be able to write a novel. Maybe some can, but not most. I have to say I have seen some first manuscripts that were just amazing, but I don't actually know that those writers didn't take writing courses. What I try to do is give writers a vocabulary.
VT: A vocabulary about writing?
Julie: Yes. Everybody knows what "plot" and "character" are, but there are more subtle points about writing, that aren't even all that subtle, but nonetheless most people don't know them. For example, if you're not familiar with the term "point of view", you can't know what you're doing wrong. You can't even talk about it. Same goes with "pacing" and the basic nuts and bolts of creating a character.
VT: What about writers groups? Are they helpful?
Julie: Oh, absolutely. I think writers' groups are great. I was in one for a long, long time when I first started writing. If you have really serious people in the group who are writing every week and who are thinking about what they read, they can tell you a lot.
I think the ideal writing group, which mine was, needs at least one professional writer in it. Mine happened to have come out of a class, taught by a professional writer named Collin Wilcox, who's since died, I'm afraid. He was a mystery writer and he formed a group with several of his students. I joined later. We always had a guru there in Collin. But he would read his own work, too, and get feedback from us. That never stops, you know -- you always need feedback no matter how accomplished you are.
(To read Julie's blog please click here)