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How Online Communities and How-to-Write Books Changed My Life

By Colin Nielsen
Copyright © 2007 by Colin Nielsen, All Rights Reserved

I caught the writing bug many, many years ago, while commuting five hours a day between Wollongong and Sydney.

Once upon a time (or should that be "On a dark and stormy night?"), as I sat, bored, on platform number two, waiting with a hundred and fifty other commuters, I heard an announcement that sounded like distorted garbage. I understood only the last part of the message:

City rail apologizes for any inconvenience.

The train is going to be late again. Great, I thought.

I trudged to a newsstand. "Might as well get a nice thick book to read while Iím here wasting time," I thought. I finished reading the novel in a few days, and I remember one thought that would not leave me alone: Why canít I do what he does?

But how? I didnít study creative writing at school. I didnít know anyone I could ask for help. So as a last resort, I found a publisherís website, thinking they could help me learn how to write like Raymond Feist.

I joined Voyage Online, which included an online writing group for novice storytellers, wrote my first fantasy piece, posted it online, and waited for the publishers to beat down my door and offer me $1 million for a ten book series; or better yet, a published author would see my brilliant story online and plead with me to co-write with them. Guess what?  Neither of these things happened.

What did happen? Well, I received a total of four critiques, although two of them consisted of, ĎGeez, U Ruleí and ĎNice Story.í

The most helpful of critiques contained a brief message: ďI really liked your story, especially the way you do the POV shifts. Very subtle.Ē

Whatís a POV? How did I make it shift? Who cares? They knew more than me about writing and said I wrote well.  I replied to the author of this helpful critique, asking for an explanation and maybe some guidance. They didnít answer.

It didnít take long before I realized my initial beliefs about publication were erroneous, and everyone in that particular group suffered from the same self-delusion of instant fame. I could learn nothing more from them. I left.

But I still wanted to write. I still wanted to do what Feist did. How?

I joined another writing group that held a few more seasoned writers. They may not have been the Big Names I hoped for, but they had written well and were willing to help, and some had even sold a story or two.

I wrote my second piece, submitted it to the site, and waited eagerly for the helpful feedback.

I received a few nice and fluffy critiques, and one from an experienced editor and published writer that was harsh. This critiquer only commented on and corrected the first page of a ten-page short story, told me it was painful to read, and finally gave three pieces of advice that forever changed the way I approached writing.

1) Get a grammar book and learn how to punctuate and spell. No one will go through your work and correct your errors (I mistakenly believed this was what editors did). You have to learn how to do it yourself.

2) Read everything you can get your hands on and learn by studying how other authors do it.

3) Find experts and listen to them, even if you donít agree. If they say cut a sentence, even if you think it is the best thing youíve ever written, then cut it.

I sulked for a couple of days, but thought about the advice. I had a choice: ignore the harsh review and live off the empty applause -- and remain unpublished for the rest of my life -- or listen, get myself a good grammar book, and learn how to do things properly, and have a chance at publication.

Learning the necessary grammar rules only took a couple of months. And learning the craft by reading -- well, Iím still reading and learning. And professionals? Iíve met a few, both online and at writers' conventions, but quickly discovered most either are too busy writing their own projects to help new writers, or sprint for the exits at a pace that would put Olympic athletes to shame whenever someone approaches them with a manuscript

Then one of my online friends recommended a writing book, written by a writer who had sold many novels. Finally, I had a way to learn from a professional, at my pace, and at a time that suited me. I could learn the theory of writing from How-to-Write books, and continue to practice with my online writing groups.

I purchased the recommended book: Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction and Getting Published by Brian Stableford.  Here was a man who taught creative writing and has published more than forty novels. Something told me this guy knew about creative writing.

I loved the book. Every part of it. I still reread it even now. I found it complex but understandable. Still, despite having only 154 pages and well-defined terms and techniques, reading it felt like drinking undiluted cordial. I needed something a little easier to swallow.

I then purchased Characters and Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card, and The Concise Oxford Dictionary. Card knows how to teach creative writing. I read the book probably three or four times and still refer to it whenever something troubles me about characters or viewpoint.

I ended up buying most of the Writer's Digest Elements of Fiction Writing Series and read all of them time and again. Now I know what makes a story work, how to write characters, how to plot, how to write setting, and how to write beginnings, middles, and ends.  I understand terms like POV, voice, and tense, and I can manipulate these things to create a desired effect.

Then I found a book that, for me at least, ties all the elements of writing good fiction up nicely. This is a book I can heartily recommend to anyone who wants to write well: The 38 Most common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them) by Jack M Bickham.

Bickman has published more than seventy-five novels, was formerly a professor at the University of Oklahoma, and now speaks at workshops and conferences across the United States.

Listen to the experts: the final piece of advice from my writer friend, whom I partially credit with making me the writer I am today.  I havenít sold any stories yet, but I am closer. I have received a personal response to one of my stories from a real, paying editor who basically said I wrote well, but the timing wasnít right for them.

I certainly wouldnít be this close had I ignored that good advice and continued on without changing the way I wrote fiction.

So get out there and learn from everyone.



Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction and Getting Published

 by Brian Stableford, Hodder & Stoughton ISBN 0340701722

Character & Viewpoint

 by Orson Scott Card, Writerís Digest Books ISBN 0898799279

Conflict, Action & Suspense

 by William Noble, Writerís Digest Books ISBN 0898799074

Beginnings, Middles & Ends

 by Nancy Kress, Writerís Digest Books ISBN 0898799058


 by Ansen Dibell, Writerís Digest Books ISBN 0898799465


by Jack M. Bickham,Writerís Digest Books ISBN 0898799481

The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes (and how to avoid them)

by Jack M Bickham,  Writerís Digest Books ISBN 0898798213