Thursday, April 17, 2008

So how do you write a book? Part One

by Janet Jensen

April 3-5 I attended the Erma Bombeck Humor Writers Workshop in Dayton, Ohio. It was inspiring, friendly, jam-packed with great information, and, well, funny. Writing is a solitary profession and we truly need each other to keep going.

The evening after I arrived home I presented to a local book club. The members were articulate and well-read, and the discussion was lively. Several of them confided to me afterward that all their life they've wanted to write a book. "How do you write a book?" one of them asked. "I mean, how do you just sit down and write a book?"

It's an overwhelming prospect. I'm hardly an authority, either; I co-authored a literary cookbook and recently published my first novel, Don't You Marry the Mormon Boys. I'm working on the sequel. But I gave my usual advice: "Join a writers group. Hang out with other writers. You'd be surprised how many are out there. Attend workshops. Read books on writing. And start small. Begin with essays, small chunks that you may later work into a book. It's so important to have the support of other writers."

"And where do you find these writers and workshops?"

"Look up the League of Utah Writers on the Internet and find the chapter that's closest to you. Attend some meetings and you'll meet other writers. You'll hear about workshops, and you'll learn from each other."

That's what I did, and it was terrifying to attend my first meetings, not knowing a soul, having written very little outside of my profession. I was a competent writer at my job, but I wanted to be creative. And that's truly how I started becoming a creative writer, about ten years ago. Over time I began to produce small pieces of work and found competent and patient mentors in the group, who kindly pointed out some of the very basic skills I needed to learn. When you join a group you'll feel very inadequate at first in the presence of "real writers" because you don't realize you are one, too. That will pass.

Until then, though I am an avid reader and have a master's degree in my field, I really didn't know what I didn't know about creative writing. You've got to be willing to take a little humiliation now and then. When you start to submit your work - - well, those are additional experiences in humility and humiliation, and you'll never escape those two demons, so you might as well make friends with them now.

As to the process of writing a book, it's all about line upon line (literally), precept on precept. But forget the book for now. Learn the craft and discover your own talents. Give yourself encouragement. Sit down at the computer or at your legal pad and write small anecdotes, short essays, or jot down ideas for future essays. Write a letter describing something you've done. It's a start.

More thoughts in a future post.


Christine Thackeray said...

I agree that writing random scenes is a great idea. Some may fit together, but others will never see the light of day. It's the practice that is great. Also whenever you are passionate, angry, excited, nervous- practice capturing those feelings through prose.

Emily Cushing said...

Janet, thank you for your good advice. I look forward to your future posts on this topic.