Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Guest Author Maryrose Wood: But Seriously: How do You Learn to Write?

By Maryrose Wood

Today, let's welcome my fellow HarperCollins author, Maryrose Wood, to the blog. I write everyday about how to improve your writing, but I don't think I've ever sat down and thought about how you learn to write in the first place. No worries, there, because that's what Maryrose is here to tell us all about.

Maryrose’s latest book The Poison Diaries: Nightshade, release today so go check it out (the cover is gorgeous) It's the second book in the Poison Diaries trilogy for young adults. She is also the author of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place series for middle-grade readers. Both series are from the Balzer + Bray imprint at HarperCollins. To learn more, go to www.maryrosewood.com. You can follow her on Twitter at @Maryrose_Wood. 

Take it away Maryrose...

Confession: I’ve never taken a fiction writing class.

I enrolled in one, once, when I was an undergrad at NYU, but I dropped it. At the time I was in my early thirties, married, soon to start a family. I already had a decade-long career in the theatre under my belt. I had been an actor, director, and improviser, but now I wanted to write: plays and musicals, screenplays too, and television if they paid me.

I did not think of myself as a person who could write fiction, or would even want to. I knew the theatre well, but I knew nothing about publishing as an industry, or that that a person might actually have a career writing novels. As they say in submarines, it was not on my radar.

Still, I enrolled in this fiction writing class on a whim, since it was a writing class and suited my schedule, but after a session or two it felt so foreign to me that I recused myself and went back to writing plays and screenplays and musicals. Nobody ever offered to pay me to write television, but I lived in hope.

Ten years later, I got my first book deal with a major publisher to write two young adult novels. The deal was sold on proposal; by now I had written a roomful of scripts, but I still had never written a book. Yet there I was, a divorced single mom, rapidly burning through my advance for not one but two as yet unwritten novels, with only the vaguest idea of how one might undertake to write narrative prose. As they say on safari, you always run faster when the lions are chasing you, and run I did.

My debut novel came out in 2006. Since then I’ve since published eight more books, with another fistful in the pipeline. It wasn’t until last year when, for the first time, I found myself in a college classroom as teacher, not student—and teaching fiction writing, no less!—that I began to feel a wee bit self-conscious about the fact that, as a novelist, as in so many other things, I am pretty much self-taught.

Or am I? Is there such a thing as self-taught? I wonder. As I write this the world is still mourning the death of Steve Jobs, who famously dropped out of college and went on to become a visionary of technological innovation. He was not just a game-changer; Jobs was a world-changer. How did he do it? “You can only connect the dots looking backward,” he said, in a commencement address delivered at Stanford University.

I agree. Looking back I can see how, in learning to inhabit a character deeply as an actor (not just intellectually, but emotionally and physically), grappling with issues of storytelling, focus, pace and composition as a director, learning to trust my creativity as an improv performer, I was learning to write novels all along. As a playwright I watched from the back of the house as my work sank or swam in front of a live audience who let it be known if they were bored or amused, outraged or moved, and had no qualms about walking out during intermission if my work had failed to captivate them. From those audiences I learned the hard way that, if it didn’t work, it was my job to fix it or cut it. There’s no crying in baseball. Just do it.

So: I never took a class in fiction writing, perhaps, but I had many, many teachers, including the high school play directors who taught me how to make an entrance (do your characters make good entrances in your novels, hmm?). Scenes, even in novels, must be beautifully lit: that is to say, the audience (reader) must know where to look. On stage we can aim a spotlight at the star to achieve this; in prose fiction we are meticulous in our use of point of view, so the reader always knows which character’s experience is the one to follow.

On stage, we design wigs and costumes to meticulously delineate character; there are hours of research and discussion and many sketches to find just the right “look.” We design sets, not merely to inform the audience where the story takes place, but with meaning and artistry, to convey the tone and deeper themes of the piece. As novelists, we use concrete, significant detail and vivid description to do the same.

On stage, we avoid melodramatic overacting and clich├ęd gestures. In prose, we do too! When was the last time you wrote that a character sighed, trembled, rolled her eyes, bit her lip, or felt weak in the knees? Can’t you do better than that?

All that said, there are many subtleties of writing craft that are best learned from your fellow novelists. You do read a lot, right? Like, all the time? Please read the best books you can, and pay attention to how those authors (your true and always available teachers) do what they do. It’s not magic. It’s craft.

There are many superb books about fiction writing. Here are two I recommend over and over again to aspiring writers (I assume you have already read and memorized Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style).

First, John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers. His chapter on common errors that inexperienced writers make is a gem. If every writer made it a sacred duty to avoid these mistakes, the bookshelves of the world would be a happier place.

The second is by Francine Prose. It’s called Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them. If you don’t have the time or money to get an MFA, read this instead and do everything she says. Also, read all the books and short stories she mentions. Done.

Bonus books: to learn story structure, a cocktail mixed of equal parts Aristotle (The Poetics), Robert McKee (Story) and Christopher Vogler (The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers) should be enough to get anyone started. It will take you years to understand these books, by the way. All the more reason to start reading them now.

I want to put on my cranky pants for a minute: if you have not read and absorbed and put into practice the guidance in these books, and perhaps a few more like them, you have no business writing emails to authors and editors and agents asking for advice on how to get published. Do the work, please. That’s how you get published. It will take years, yes. All the more reason to start now.

Now, I can’t tell my students to knock around for twenty years in poverty and despair to become novelists. I mean, it worked for me, but it’s hardly a prescription I would write for someone I liked! The good news is there are teachers everywhere you look. Read the books. Take a class, yes. A good class will save you years of floundering, but that’s not the only way. In the end, only you can take responsibility for your growth as a writer. As they say in Buddhist proverb summer camp: when the student is ready, the teacher will appear. So get ready (do the work!), and keep your eyes open. Maybe there’s a teacher smiling at you right now!

About Nightshade

Sixteen-year-old Jessamine Luxton is heartbroken. Her true love, Weed, the strange but intriguing young man who came into her life so suddenly, has disappeared. How could he have left her with no farewell, and no word since?

Jessamine may not know why Weed vanished, but she does suspect that her own father, Thomas, may have had something to do with it. Thomas, who was so obsessed with Weed’s secret knowledge of dangerous plants that he would do anything to learn it. This suspicion—and her experiences with poisons—has changed her. She is no longer innocent, and now she has her own intimate knowledge of the power of the plants.

So when Jessamine learns that Weed is alive, she will do whatever it takes to be reunited with him.

She is, after all, her father’s daughter. . . .


  1. Oh, I love Maryrose Wood's books! She's kind of like my E.F. Hutton...when she talks, I listen. So I'll be adding those writing books to my list. (I've already got Nightshade on the way. Can NOT wait!)

    And thanks, Janice!

  2. I just have to say how much I love the Incorrigible Children. They're so funny and sweet, and I love the connection to nineteenth century literature.

  3. Interesting. I come from a theatre background too and it certainly does help you to know what grabs an audience and what doesn't. You're right about teachers being everywhere and so long as you want to learn and you want to keep improving your writing, I think you will, even without doing a writing course. I found reading books about writing really helpful.

    After 4 years writing almost fulltime, I now have the confidence to publish some shorter works while my agent is looking for a publisher for my novel. The first one has just come out, and it makes me realise how much I've learned.

  4. I certainly feel that I've gained a lot from reading books about writing. However there is something about actually having someone critique your work. I find people highlight the problem areas that I was already vaguely aware of, but having this second opinion helps give me the confidence to deal with the issues head on. I laugh now, when I see some of the stuff I wrote when I was younger.

  5. Thank you, Cathy and Chicory!

    Congrats to you, Tahlia. And Happenence, I think it is true of all of us that the work we thought was so spectacular in our early days tends to reveal itself as being mere baby pictures later on, when we have more experience. Learning to do a real critique of your own work is an invaluable skill.