Where Newbies Go Wrong

Here’s the thing: anyone can write a book. The only limitation I can think of is a complete inability to communicate. Stephen Hawking, by the way, produced at least a half-dozen books after losing the ability to speak due to amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (“ALS” or Lou Gehrig’s disease).

Granted, Hawking was a certified genius, but communicating with a population of folks operating far below his IQ level was no easy task for him. He preferred to focus on physics, and if given the choice, his books would have been aimed solely at a science-oriented readership. His editor talked him into writing something everyone might learn from. That alone is a good reason for the existence of editors!

The point remains, if you can communicate, you can write a book. That assumes you have something to say, regardless of whether anyone else on the planet is interested. That’s not the biggest hurdle writers have, but it’s significant. One can still write a book, even if no one else ever reads it. (I post this cover image knowing full well, someone will want the book, even though it’s entirely bogus. <sigh>)

My point: writing a book is easy. Writing one people will want to read is damned difficult. I’ve worked with quite a few writers who’ve taken the leap and tried their hand at novel writing. For all but one or two of them, their time would have been much better spent writing short fiction. Why? Because it’s the best platform for learning the craft. All the mistakes one can make in a novel can be much more quickly achieved in a short story. If the writer is in a huge hurry to learn even faster, they can devote themselves to writing flash fiction.

Most beginning writers stumble over the same issues: lame or overdone plots, stereotyped characters, too much backstory, lousy dialog, and overblown narration. All of these commercial fiction sins can be committed in a short story, and any decent writers group will recognize and condemn them. As an active member of such a group, you’ll have the opportunity to witness others doing the same thing, and it’ll be your job to call them out. That’s the way to learn how to write!

Why build a terrible mansion, when you can learn how to do it right by constructing a few lousy playhouses instead? Think of the time and materials one can save!

Most of my students who fall into the “do the short stuff first” category typically ask why they should spend their time editing someone else’s work, when they originally came to me to edit their stuff. The answer’s simple: I’m trying to save them time and money. Unless you’ve decided to limit your writing career to a single story, or you’ve convinced yourself it’s okay to write stuff no one will ever read, you might as well take the time to learn the trade. And there’s no better way to do it than by reading and critiquing the work of others.

Once you’ve learned to spot the errors, you can fix them before anyone else sees them. Unless, of course, you become overconfident. Fortunately, there’s a fix for that, too, and it’s much easier to survive than a bruising, negative review posted on Amazon.

Most writers I know, even the most accomplished, have difficulty spotting errors in their own work. Simple things that stand out in someone else’s work often elude them in their own. It’s an unconscious thing; their minds simply fix the little things, making them look the way they’re supposed to look. Such fixes only occur in the writer’s head; they just ain’t real, Bubba.

There are a number of tricks good writers use to get around this problem. My favorite calls for reading the material out loud in as dramatic a fashion as possible. What this does is slow the brain down enough for the booboos to become visible. Once located, they can be dealt with.

That’s enough for today, kiddies. Now you may go back to your cubby holes and write like… I dunno. Writers!

–Josh

About joshlangston

Grateful and well-loved husband, happy grandparent, novelist, editor, and teacher. My life plate is full, and I couldn't be happier. Anything else I might add would be anticlimactic. Cheers!
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5 Responses to Where Newbies Go Wrong

  1. dorisreidy says:

    Good advice, Josh, as always. Short fiction is a great exercise because it requires tight, focused writing.

  2. Susanne says:

    The first on-line writing course I took in 2015 required critiquing others work and it was quite a shock and a huge learning curve. The course director gave us guidelines to use so we wouldn’t crush each other with negative feedback but even still it was hard work reading others’ stuff and then trying to articulate what I thought needed work. What was a complete surprise, however, was how much I learned about my own writing as a result. All this commentary is just another way of agreeing with your post, Josh. Especially reading your stuff out loud. Its amazing what you discover when you do this.

    • joshlangston says:

      Thanks, m’dear. This is the way I learned, and I’m grateful for all the flavors of feedback I got in the process, though some was much harder to digest than others. Doing for others, as you found out, is even more beneficial. By the by, I’m still looking forward to that novel of yours.

  3. An-l says:

    Thanks, Josh! I’ve been practicing writing and reading a lot of short fiction lately wishing I could write them better. I’m going to keep on trying to improve my writing skills and look forward to another Writer’s Workshop class with you Spring season at ELM. Along with your teaching and being in a small group listening to others read what they are writing aloud and having them discussed has been a great help. I appreciate all your encouragement — I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow.

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