Monday, August 18, 2008

Boot Camp For Writers

I recently received a question asking how one could learn to write at a professional level given limited time but intense focus and dedication. I don't know that it's possible to come up with some sort of prescriptive route for that that's even likely to be 20 percent successful, or someone would already have done it, but it gave me an excuse to think about how I would construct a boot camp for writers and that seemed a worthwhile challenge. As part of the question the interested party wanted to know how I'd learned the craft (inasmuch as I've learned it) and I'll throw that in at the bottom of the boot camp post. This is entirely speculation as it's not really how I got to where I am, but I think it might be useful speculation and I'd love to hear other people's thoughts on the model.

I personally think there's no better way to really learn the craft than to write. Lyda would probably argue with me about exactly what to write since she and I differ on the topic of short stories, but* I think that short stories can really do an enormous amount of work in teaching a writer who is willing to apply themselves--work that would take much longer with novels.

Boot Camp For Writers:

Day 1, brainstorm 10 story ideas. Write a 5 sentence description of each idea.

Day 2, write a 200 word description of 10 of those ideas (or even just 5-depends on how fast you write). Really think about the plot for each. Don't worry about character or setting or making enormous amounts of sense, just focus on creating a solid plotline. What's the situation? What's the problem? How does the protagonist attempt to solve the problem? It's a short story so they can either succeed or fail. How are they transformed in the course of the story? What are the stakes?

Day 3, take the description that most appeals. Write the story. Again, just focus on plot. Do all the other things, but don't worry about them. You're trying to nail down plot here. Take another day to finish the story if you have to, but no more than that.

Day 4, repeat days 1 and 2.

Day 5, repeat day 3.

Day 6, brainstorm 10 ideas (you can steal from the 18 ideas you've already come up with but not written). Write a 200 word description of each idea focusing on character (you can steal from the previous 18 for events but that's not what's important here). What's important is who are these people. Why are they doing what they're doing? How are they transformed? Remember that every single character is the hero of their own story. Really drill down on motivation and personality.

Day 7, write the story that most appeals to you from the character oriented descriptions. Don't worry about anything but making the characters breathe and do things that make internal sense.

Day 8, repeat day 6.

Day 9, repeat day 7.

Day 10, brainstorm ten story ideas (again, you can steal from the leftovers). Write a 200 word description of each story focussing on setting and world. Make it as much a real place as possible. Really think through the consequences of the central magical or technological situations.

Day 11, write the most appealing story of that set. Focus on the world, on getting the details in that make it a habitable logical place. Try to show the reader the sweat on the characters' faces. Make sure you really describe things and take the reader to the world. Do all the other stuff, but don't let it worry you if someone does something inconsistent or some plot twist makes no real sense.

Day 12, brainstorm ten story ideas. Write a five sentence description of each. Take the five that most appeal to you and write a 300 word summary of each one. Make sure that you have a real plot with a problem and cost. Make sure you have real characters with transformations and logical motives. Make sure that the place the story is set is logical and three dimensional.

Day 13, take the second best idea. Write a story.

Day 14, take the best idea. Write a story.

Day 15, go back through and read everything you've written over the previous two weeks.

Days 16-29 do whatever the heck you want, but make sure to think about writing and the stories at least a bit each day. Now would be a good time to work on that novel you've been dreaming about.

Day 30, go back and reread it all again. Send the five stories off to a critical reader or readers.

Days 31-59, wait, do whatever you want, but spend a little time each day thinking about writing and the stories. Go back to the novel.

Day 60, read the critiques.

Days 61-65, revise the short stories. Give each one a day and make the changes that you think will help the story work.

Day 66, send them all out.

Day 67, get to work on the next project. Focus on the novel. Write five short stories in five weeks. Anything. Keep writing. Don't think about the submissions.

End Boot Camp

For comparison, how I learned (in brief): Read a lot of f&sf. Wrote one short story, started submitting it. Wrote three novels in quick succession (all fairly derivative). Ditto on submissions. Started a writers group by buttonholing fellow writers I knew socially. wrote about twenty short stories and ran them through critique. Sold WebMage the short. Started writing the novel. Sold some more shorts. Wrote four more novels. Ran them all through writers groups (there were several in here). Sold WebMage the novel and a sequel. Wrote more novels. Sold more novels. Spent a lot of time thinking about story as the process went along and talking about it with other writers.

*Or not, see comments.


paul lamb said...

It's funny, but the first thing I thought of was among the last things you mentioned. Over the course of your 60-day boot camp you didn't mention reading quality writing in the genre the writer is interested in. I think reading -- seeing how it's done by others, seeing what is going on in the marketplace -- is at least as important to a writer as writing is. Surely in those 60 days a dedicated writer could get through a half dozen or more good books along with enacting all of your other suggestions.

John Gardner has a couple of nonfiction books about becoming a writer that are pretty famous. On Becoming a Writer and The Art of Fiction are rigorous and insightful. He was considered a writer's writer, and he taught writing at various universities in his lifetime.

I especially like your admonition to keep writing. When one work is "finished" it's always time to start on the next one.

Kelly McCullough said...

Paul, very good call on that. I guess that I assume that people are reading and have read widely in the genre, but that's certainly not always the case. I'll add that in to the final version.

tate hallaway said...

How do we differ on short stories, Kelly? Other than you've written more than me?

Kelly McCullough said...

Hey Tate (Lyda),

It was my impression that you felt that short stories weren't the most effective way for someone who ultimately wants to be a novelist to learn to write, that they should just go ahead and write novels. Was I wrong about your position there? I'm certainly willing to stand corrected.

Kimberly Frost said...


I'm just back from Armadillocon & gave out a bunch of your cards. Hope it translates into a bunch of hits.


lydamorehouse said...

I think short story writing is a perfectly acceptable way to learn to write. I've never disagreed with you about that. In fact, I've always told my students that short stories being, well, *short* are actually much better for learning the craft of writing. You can learn more quickly, at any rate, given how long it takes to write a novel vs. a short story.

However, what I have said is that it's my opinion I no longer believe that writing short stories is the one true path to becoming a published novelist. Novelists, these day, seem perfectly able to break in in the publishing industry as novelists without having had to publish many (or any) short stories.

Kelly McCullough said...

Fair enough, Lyda. I must have conflated the learning and breaking-in things in my head. Mea culpa.

Kimber, many thanks! I hope you had a fabulous convention.