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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 &
by William Noble,
Writerís Digest Books ISBN 0898799074
Beginnings, Middles &
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