The Learning Process.

Pen vs SwordSaturday’s WCDR Breakfast hosted Historical fiction author, actress, and teacher, Barbara Kyle. While Historical fiction isn’t a genre that grabs my reading attention, it doesn’t mean I think less of it or that, as a horror/gothic/dark fantasy/sci-fi writer, I won’t learn anything from it. Quite the opposite in fact. I came to the realization, through the course of Barbara’s presentation, that I do, in fact, write historical fiction as well.

Let me quantify that. I use elements of historical fiction in that I have written stories set in a time before I was born. Hence, historical. The Good King is set in 920. Echoes bounces from modern day to the 60’s and dips it’s toe in the 1400’s. So, when we think of a particular genre, we should be open to the fact that not every book is the same. Live and learn.

Barbara presented the gathered writers with a top ten list of, for lack of a better term, ‘Rules of Thumb’ that have helped her along the way. “Rules” that have morphed from book to book and as her writing required. Never once did she say that these “rules” would work for everybody or that we should follow them to the T. In fact, the idea was to inspire us, to let us know that she was once in our shoes, our the early stages of writing blues shoes.

If you are a writer, I recommend you, at the very least, visit her site. But, I also recommend her courses and workshops. I’ve had the pleasure of hearing her speak several times now and have never been bored. There is always something new I take away from her talks. If you are a reader, a history lover, then check out her books.

Notice a theme here? Learning.

Learning anything is often more trial and error than it is guidance. Not that I’m saying the guidance or teachings aren’t important, they are, it’s just what you do with the teachings that is important.

Look at any good teacher and the first thing they’ll tell you is that your particular learning curve/process is different from everyone else in the room. Just as their process is different from yours. This is why I used the term guidance. That is a more appropriate handle for teachers. They are your guides. They are there to guide you through the process. At least the good ones are.

Lucky for me, I have never been one that holds a lot of stock in “the one and only way”. It is that mentality that drives me to be better. As I gain more experience and improve in my technique, I am incorporating little bits of advice and along the way. Essentially finding my own path but with help.

I have been blessed to have had some great teachers in my writing development. I have also been blessed to be surrounded by a bevy of talented writers more than willing to share their “bags o’ tricks” with me.

Along that bumpy path towards the flickering light of writerhood, I’ve discovered a few nuggets of my own that I’d like to share with other writers sharing the path.

Again, as with Barbara’s list, these are merely guides and if they don’t fit your style, feel free to ignore.

#1) There are no hard and fast rules to writing that cannot be bent or broken. After-all, aren’t the arts (writing, music, painting, singing etc) all about freedom of expression and individuality? That is what makes the work standout.

#2) Genres were created by the people trying to fit your book into a category and thus make it easier to quantify and sell. And ultimately to be easy to find in the library. 😉

#3) Writing is more than just words. Those words are a distillation of emotions, images, music, smells etc. Keep it loose and be open to all forms of stimulus for your muse. Pay attention. This will also improve your appreciation for life as you take notice of your surroundings and how it all moves together like the glorious ballet that it is.

#4) Beware of movement. As per #3, goods books have good choreography. While you don’t have to describe your character’s every move nor their surrounding’s every move (No, really you don’t. We are no longer in the age where writers were paid by the word or letter, thankfully.) You do, however, have to be aware of their every move. So, yes, Choreography is a valid term to be used when writing. (Thank-you Kate and Connie).

#5) Anyone who tells you “never start your book…” or “never do this….” is someone you should walk away from. A strong story trumps all the “never” rules, so if you really feel the story is stronger with the prologue, prologue away. Personally, I don’t mind them.

#6) Not every chapter has to end in a momentous cliff hanger. Subtle cliff hangers or questions or even implied questions work just as well if not better. Don’t hit the reader over the head with your literary hammer. Forward momentum, however you achieve it, is what I look for.

#7) Always, always, push yourself to write better. And to achieve that always listen to other writers and, as importantly, readers. Whether you like what they are telling you or agree with it, as soon as you put yourself above that input, you’ve put yourself out of reach of any audience that isn’t you or a clone of you.

#8) When being asked for critiquing or to be a judge for a writing contest, or etc., never be afraid to admit you aren’t qualified. If you write in one genre only and the contest is in that genre or the critique is is for that genre, you are qualified. If, however, you write only one genre and are asked to critique a genre you don’t write in, politely decline. You won’t be doing them any favours by trying to mold their work into something it is not.

#9) On the flip side of that coin, make sure to find the appropriate audience to ask for a critique. And again, always be gracious of the input whether you agree or not. You asked for it. If you only wanted them to tell you how brilliant you are, be clear that that is what you want. If you are like me, I actually seek out feedback even from people that neither read, nor write in my “genre”. I want to hear where I failed because that is how I can improve. It is my belief that great writing transcends genre.

#10) and one last word on genre. While I preach not conforming to any hard and fast rules, if you chose to write in a specific genre, be aware of the rules for that genre. Sometimes following rules will benefit your readership. Sci-fi and some forms of romance have rules that need to be followed. But worry about that after the story is written. Get it out, get it down and then worry about molding it.

So says the guy still trying to find his place in the literary scene.

As always, I say the best way to find your way is to experiment. Don’t be afraid. Always be open minded. Ultimately, make mistakes, get messy. Forked Tongue vs EarRemember, as powerful as words, or the mighty pen may be, the most important tools in any writer’s toolbox are their ears.

I’ll leave you with this quote which applies to so much more than just writing;

“Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.”
― John Greenleaf Whittier



About Dale Long

Writing ambushed me from the shadows. At first I pushed it aside as nonsense, but luckily my wife and two girls saw the potential. Since then I have had an article published by Metroland, placed as runner-up and in the top ten in humour writing contests and various other contests. The icing on the cake was placing as runner-up in the WCDR's Wicked Words contest (130 entries) and having my entry published in the contests anthology of the same name. My entry was an exerpt from my upcoming novel, Echoes.
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