Monday, June 14, 2010

Five Basic Questions

By Austin Camacho

I received a note from a student recently that led to some pretty serious thinking about what I do and I thought I'd share my response. Here's her email:

My name is Dominique and I'm a student at Northern Virginia Community College. I have an assignment I'm working on and I have to ask a writer a couple of questions. What is the most interesting part of your work? The least interesting? If I wanted to pursue this area, what advice would you give? What skills should I be working on in school? How can I get more information?

Well, before I even began to respond to these questions I had to let her know that I am a genre fiction novelist. A short story writer, a literary writer, an essayist, a poet, a journalist or a nonfiction author might answer very differently. We all come to our calling for different reasons and approach it from different angles. That having been said…

What is the most interesting part of your work?

I write mystery novels so the great fun for me is in crafting the puzzle, building the mystery people will try to solve along with my detective. More than anything else this requires an understanding of human motivations – why people do the things they do – and that is certainly the most interesting aspect of my craft.

The least interesting?

Well, that would be the necessary mechanics. You can’t be a good writer of any kind unless you can communicate clearly, and that means mastering grammar and punctuation. Knowing the difference between being eager and being anxious. Learning where a paragraph should end. And knowing what constitutes a sentence, so you won’t fill your work with fragments like the 3 I just wrote.

If I wanted to pursue this area, what advice would you give?

My most important advice is to read. Read the kind of work you’d like to write, but also read a variety so you can borrow techniques from different places and have more colors on our writing pallet. Whenever you have an emotional reaction to something someone wrote, go back and look at the word choices and the technique used. Figure out how they got that reaction out of you so you can learn to do it to others.

The second most important advice is to write. Write every day. Don’t wait for inspiration or your muse to speak to you. Get in the habit of creating. The writing muscle is like any other, you need to exercise it to make it stronger. We get better at just about anything through practice.

What skills should I be working on in school?

In good literature courses you can learn the basic plots and why they are so often repeated. You should always seek out the theme of a story, not just the plot.

Study history and dig into the biographies of the movers and shakers of our past. These can be the foundation of your own great characters. Learn about other cultures. Expand your vocabulary. Perhaps most important, ask your professors to be hard on you, critiquing every paper sternly, raising the bar for your written communications.

How can I get more information?

There are hundreds of good books on writing, but I don’t think anything takes the place of the fellowship of other writers. So I recommend you join writer organizations. In my neck of the woods there’s the Virginia Writers Club, the Maryland Writers Association and the American Independent Writers. Plus, there are organizations for every genre of author. I belong to the Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime and International Thriller Writers Inc. Surround yourself with writers and you will be able to learn things you didn’t know you needed to know.

All of that having been said, I would LOVE to hear how other writers would answer these five basic questions? What do you say, fellas & gals?


Marilyn Meredith a.k.a. F. M. Meredith said...

You gave great advice--I would just echo that.


Mike Dennis said...

As a footnote to reply #5, I would add, join a critique group. They are surprisingly effective in making one a better writer.

Tony Burton said...

Austin, as someone who has taught at the secondary and post-secondary levels, and who teaches creative writing now, I really respect what you said to this young lady. You were right on target with your response, and I hope she pays close attention to what you told her.

Great job, man.

Earl Staggs said...

Austin, you covered it as well as it can be done and I would only add Mike Dennis's suggestion to join a critique group.