How to Learn the Craft
Learning to write is like learning anything else, and can be broken down into three general parts.
First, there are entire books written on this subject, and it’s important to realize that any information provided here will be in greatly abbreviated form. With that in mind, the first step would be to read a variety of books on the craft of writing. On Writing by Stephen King, The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White, Creating Fiction edited by Julie Checkoway, and A Dangerous Profession by Frederick Busch, are but a few that I would recommend. I also like Screenplay by Sid Field, which isn’t about novel writing, but has a lot of useful information. These titles are enough to get you started and there are countless other books on the topic that will help as well, for everything from creating characters to coming up with plots.
Second, you must read, and read a lot. Did I say A LOT? I read over a hundred books a year and have done so since I was fifteen years old, and every book I’ve read has taught me something. I’ve learned that some authors are incredible at building suspense (see The Firm by John Grisham), I’ve read others that scare the jeepers out of me (see The Shining by Stephen King). Some authors can weave an incredible number of story lines into a single, coherent novel, with all parts coming together at the end that makes it impossible to stop turning the pages (see The Sum of all Fears by Tom Clancy), while other authors make me laugh out loud (seeBloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore). I’ve also learned that many, many authors fail when attempting to do these things. By reading a lot of novels in a variety of genres, and asking questions, it’s possible to learn how things are done—the mechanics of writing, so to speak—and which genres and authors excel in various areas. Next, focus in on the genre you want to write, and read books in that genre. A LOT of books by a variety of authors. And read with questions in your mind. In a thriller, for instance, you might ask: how many characters were there? Too many or too few? How long was the novel? How many chapters were there? Was that too few, too many or just right? How did the author build suspense? Did the author come out of nowhere with a surprise? Or did the author drop hints earlier? If so, how many hints? Where in the novel did he put them? Was the suspenseful scene primarily narrative or dialogue? Or a combination of both? Did that work? Would it have been better another way? Where did the bad guys come in? In the beginning? The middle? When did they first meet the good guy? What happened? Did the reader know they were bad? Did they do something bad right off, or was it something that seemed good at the time? Then, read another thriller and ask yourself those questions again. Then read another and another and another and ask those same questions. And keep reading your entire life and asking questions. Little by little, you’ll learn the process.
The final step is to write. You can’t be a writer if you don’t write, it’s just that simple. I wrote two complete novels and another book before I even attempted to write The Notebook. Those two novels are unpublished, but they taught me that I not only liked to write, but that I had it in me to finish a novel once I’d started it. Those lessons were important when I sat down to write The Notebook. I write five or six days a week, usually a minimum of 2000 words, sometimes more. This section of the website, for instance, which took about four days to write, is about 20,000 words. When it’s finished, I’ll start writing something else. All people who regard writing as a profession write consistently. Those who regard it as a hobby usually don’t. 2000 words can take anywhere from three to eight hours. (I love those three-hour days, by the way, but my average is probably closer to five hours.) The actual time spent writing depends on a number of factors, including what I’m writing, whether the scene is difficult or easy, etc. No matter what, I try to maintain consistency in my work habits. And I’m always trying to improve, to try new things, to write a new story that is better than anything else I’ve written.