Learning to write

Adelaide from Tasmania sent me an email asking me how I learned to write. She just finished WOOL and didn’t hate it. She didn’t hate it very much! And she wanted to know how I learned to write so not-horribly and get all the way to the end of a story. Because she loses interest after just a few pages. This was my response:

Hey Adelaide,

I think the best place to learn how to write is by doing what you already are: Read. Consume as many books as you can. Absorb all that prose. It will help your own writing.

And keep writing as well. I know it’s hard to finish a long story when you’re starting out, but think of it as running. No one goes out and just runs a marathon. They have to start jogging first. They go a mile. Two miles. They build up to it.

I recommend creating some characters that you enjoy. And then sit down and write ONE SCENE with those characters. Just a bar fight or a first date or a conversation during intermission at the circus. Anything you like. These scenes don’t have to go together or form a book; they are just exercise.

From here, move up to a short story, which is just a few scenes put together. A novel is just a handful of short stories. Don’t get overwhelmed with the whole thing; just enjoy the process.

Best of luck to you,

23 responses to “Learning to write”

  1. This advice is exactly right! I’ve been fighting to write my book for the past year and its been a combination of writing scenes and linking them with bullet points of narrative to get to the next scene. The fleshing out of those bullet points has taken a while. But I’ve earned a lot.

    I’m at least fortunate that I’m illustrating my book as well so I can take breaks from the word to sharpen up the art. In fact I just wrapped up another painting last night and now its back to editing for me. Check it out http://www.cindercast.com

  2. Excellent, practical advice!

  3. Nice response Hugh. Building houses, one brick at a time.

  4. As usual, great advice.

    My friends, family and co-workers who know I’m writing a book often ask me ‘how I’m doing it’. It all seems so big and insurmountable. My pithy reply is: ‘one blog post at a time’. I then elaborate and say that each writing session I treat like an entire blog post of approximately 600-1000 words. It does take training oneself not to get overwhelmed by the totality of it and focus on the bits when actively writing.

    I also talk about a few tools that can help with organisation, such as mind mapping and outlining, but the essence of it is exactly as you described, Hugh.

  5. […] Learning to write | Hugh Howey […]

  6. I have a few unfinished works on my hard drive, I’m willing to admit. I find that there is a breaking point. For me, it’s about 5 days. If I haven’t worked on something in about 5 days, I get too far detached and I can’t move forward. I can come back to it later, but it’s different then. It’s almost like starting over.

    My advice to Adelaide: Do SOMETHING every day. Write a scene, work on your organizational document (treatment/storyboard/plotline, whatever you call it), do a character profile, write a stream-of-conscious monologue from one characters point of view at a particular part of the story. Anything. The important thing is to stay engaged. I even started a blog where I could get all “meta” with it, and write about the story of writing the story. Anyway, my point is that persistence is key.

  7. Without even knowing it this is the ‘lesson plan’ I used to finally brave the written word.

    I read, voraciously, and it wasn’t until I realized that I could write individual scenes without committing to writing a whole novel that I actually started the process of learning to write. Those short scenes morphed into short stories, and from there I now have two novels done, one nearly ready for publishing and the other stuffed far in the back of my hard drive never to see the light of day before a rewrite.

    At nearly 110k words my novel could never have happened if that first scene hadn’t been scribbled down 4 years ago. A full novel is too daunting to tackle, breaking the process up into something smaller though… that was key.

  8. I think that everybody who has a story rolling around in their head thinks that immediately makes them a writer. I disagree. I think it makes you a dreamer. Transitioning from dreamer to writer is not easy and most will never make it. You can read all the tips and tricks you want, but in the end, if you can’t sit down and hammer it out, then you are just a dreamer. Nothing wrong with that. Accept it. Stop beating yourself up that your are a “failed” writer and enjoy your life. Writing is hard and unless you can’t live without doing it, you’re much better off being a dreamer.

  9. When people ask me what I do, and I answer, ‘I’m writing a novel,’ often the next comment is that they wish they could do that.

    I encourage everyone, make suggestions of places they might get started, books on writing that I have enjoyed and used.

    I’ve learned that this rarely leads anywhere – but it doesn’t matter. If they try, they’ll find out that yes, it IS work – and then they can decide if they want to do that work. If they don’t, it may may them more appreciative of of the writers who do make the stories.

    I’ve met a lot of people who have good beginnings – they read a lot, have a story they want to tell, have a bit of it worked out. But I only know one other person who is actually making progress on her mystery novel. We encourage each other – it’s cold out there, and few people, statistically, really know what it’s like. (Unless you hang out on writing blogs.)

    And you never know when your word of encouragement will get someone to do something they’ve always wanted to do.

    I also look back and see that I’ve been at this – actually writing – since 1995. So it must mean that I really want it, and I’ve worked through my 10,000 hours and 1,000,000 million words of garbage. Slow and steady won’t win a race, but it will get you over the finish line.

  10. Kathy Czarnecki Avatar

    I remember in Grad School, the hardest thing was to formulate a topic and secondly, create an outline. I am not a writer though. When writing a thesis, half the time you are repeating things over and over and that would make for a maddening novel!

  11. […] Howey has a post up about advice he gave someone who asked him how to learn to […]

  12. Excellent advice, Hugh!

    I use a similar process with my books. I was SO resistant to outlining in the past, and once I figured I could break down a novel into several little stories, I was actually able to put it all together and publish. All from a rough outline of short stories tied together. Until I broke it down like that, I would aimlessly write myself into a corner, and then leave the story progress doomed out of boredom. I have a TON of doomed, half written stories like that, and now I know the secret to fix them up real good! ;)

  13. I had the same issue when I first started writing. It was so bad, in fact, that I actually gave up on the idea of being a writer at all for several years, believing that I couldn’t ever finish a book. In retrospect, I can say that it was that very belief that prevented me from finishing most of the stories I started. I didn’t believe in myself, just as it sounds Adelaide doesn’t believe in herself.

    Having now written two full length novels (one at 93,000 words and another at 145,000 words) I can say that the best thing I did, was reinforce the belief that I could finish them. I convinced myself, despite any evidence to the contrary that I could and would finish the stories I began. I never entertained doubt, and never second guessed that belief, even when I got a little bored or tired of writing.

    Also, I found that my previous attempts that failed were plagued with inconsistency. I would get really excited about a story and would write like crazy for a few days. Then I’d stop and almost never revisit it. I feel like you addressed this with your answer that she needed to write more often, even if it wasn’t on her novel. Writing has to become a habit, and habits are only formed by consistent thought and action, repeated again and again.

    1. I completely agree with the frequency of writing point. I had the same problems with my writing many years ago. I’d start and abandon projects. I thought I ‘just didn’t have it in me’.

      Then, when I was a technical writer about a decade ago, I discovered the ‘magic’ of good organisation and outlining. Writing technical manuals may not be exciting, but it does establish a disciplined routine.

      Today I write every day. Most days I actually work on my book and my short story collection. Some days I may not work on them explicitly, but I’m constantly thinking ahead on them, taking notes, revisiting passages, etc. It has become a lifestyle.

  14. […] while on his blog this morning, I read a post from him where he answers a fans email. She had asked him how he […]

  15. Good advice Hugh! I’ve been writing “scenes” for years; just can’t string them together to make stories. I’ll keep trying! You are an inspiration.

  16. You make it sound so easy :)

    One of my greatest wishes was that I had a talent for writing. I have a HUGE passion for reading, and I love imagining how different stories could go down different paths with different results as I’m reading along (I do the same thing watching TV shows or movies, drives my loved ones nuts– especially when I’m right). It’s coming up with a completely original idea that is interesting and innovative that I would struggle with.

    I really like your advice though — start small. Think of some characters that you care about. Start by writing just one scene. That, I’m pretty sure, I could do!

  17. […] Learning to Write Hugh Howey offers some frank and simple advice on what it takes to write. […]

  18. Hugh,

    I have question for you on this. What happens if you sit down to write a certain project and run out of what you deem good ideas for the next scene, or chapter?

    Do you move on to another project you have. Do you move on to a chapter that is meant to be written further down the line?

    Or perhaps do you just wrote whatever comes out so that at the end of the day words are still being written???


    1. If a new scene won’t come to me, it’s usually because a prior scene is broken. I go back and write the last scene that worked and tweak it. I also find that daydreaming scenarios and sleeping on the plot helps.

      1. One other question for ya. How do you gauge word count for chapters. I notice these days, shorter chapters (for the most part) are becoming more of the norm. I noticed a lot when I read the first Wool.

        So whats your process when it comes to that?

        Thanks so much for helping all of us on here.

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