Monday, June 27, 2011

How to Become a Writer (When You're Not Majoring in English)

I started college a few weeks ago and, as you can imagine, I spend a lot of time in the library. Everyone asks why I read so many books, and truthfully, I do read a lot of books. I have around twenty unfinished library books sitting on my desk. I tell them I'm a writer and they nod. Then there's the question: you're an English major, right? And when I tell them I'm majoring in Architecture, they stare for a while and ask why I don't just major in English.

I'm guilty of that assumption too. If you want to be a writer, you have to major in English. Otherwise, how are you going to learn? You need a professor to guide your hand and mold your mind. Eh, I don't think it's necessary.

Sure, you need a mentor, but I don't think an English degree guarantees that you're going to become a brilliant writer. You need drive, focus, and talent. A degree won't give you any of those.

Honestly, I didn't want to be a writer until three years ago. I wanted to be an astronaut, a manga artist, even a professional skateboarder. Then I joined That's when I realized I liked writing. I wrote a few crappy fanfictions, got told I wrote crappy fanfictions, and retreated with a hurt ego to write more crappy fanfictions. No, I won't show them to you.

After a while, I quit writing for a variety of reasons and moved on to writing crappy teenage emo poetry on deviantart. Then I moved to fictionpress and wrote even more crappy teenage emo poetry. I was fifteen. I didn't read much then. Sure, I read, but I didn't read YA. I thought I'd write screenplays. Only, I didn't know the proper formatting to write screenplays, so I gave up after I didn't get enough reviews on my work. Shallow, I know, but I lived for validation. I wanted praise. I was writing for attention.

For two years, I stopped posting my work online. I deleted my deviantart account, made a new one, and occasionally updated it. But I have a short attention span. I've always had trouble finishing things. I've finished two novels, which aren't really finished, and started more than fifty.

Then, after I saw a bunch of other teens getting agents, I realized that I wanted to become a teen writing sensation. I joined InkPop and participated for all of two days. It's not that I'm afraid of commitment, I just get bored easily.

I did the nanowrimo thing in 2009. I was under the impression that my book was hot. I'd get requests back and forth. No such luck. It was an idiotic move on my part to send that crap off to agents. I still hadn't read much YA. In fact, I hadn't even read Twilight. I thought I had the whole world figured out and everyone else needed to stand back and revel in my talent.

In the July of 2010, I discovered the beacon that's Nathan Bransford's blog. I had a shining epiphany. I would work my ass off, and he would be my dream agent. It didn't exactly work out the way I'd planned. But I finally started posting up my work, and getting feedback on my writing. I'd had my GoodReads account dormant since the March of 2010. I logged on in August and started to actually read. I read every single YA book I could get my hands on. And then I started reviewing them. Lo and behold, my writing started to improve. As I look back on my old stuff, I recoil in horror. Did I write that? Did I really think this was ready to get published?

And I continue to write. Every single day. There's no secret to becoming a better write. All you have to do is read and write. Sure, a mentor can point out your mistakes, but in the end, only you can do the work. 

So, what's the point of this post? I guess I'm trying to say that you don't really need to major in English to become a writer. My dad has a degree in English. He never writes. I know so many people who've majored in English that don't write, or they don't write well.

In this guest post, Phoebe North discusses the benefits of having an MFA. When she wrote that, I was seriously considering minoring in English, even if I didn't want to major in it.

I'm sure it helps. It gets you focused. I need focus. But all I really needed was a psuedo-writing group; people who could tell me when I did good, when I did bad, and most importantly, to never give up. And read. Read a lot. That helps.

Now, I spend way too much time online, but I write constantly. And I improve at a steady rate. I have a lot of hobbies. Way too many. From soccer to web design to electric guitar. But I've never been able to devote 100% to them. Writing is the only thing that helps me focus.

I'm not saying I'm a pro. I'm not the ultimate expert on what you should do. I can only tell you what works for me. And this isn't to say that you shouldn't go to college. Go to college. And if you like English, major in it. But if you want to be a writer, you don't need to major in it.

A few tips if you're just starting out (these aren't rules, just guidelines):

1. Delete that, very, suddenly, and just from your vocabulary.
2. Stick with said in your dialog tags.
3. Read.
4. Don't use gerunds.
5. Don't use excessive amounts of adverbs.
6. And most importantly, show your work to people who'll give you a critical eye. That means anyone but your mom. I'm sure she's nice, but she'll sugarcoat her critique. You don't want that.

Finally, don't be afraid to ask for feedback. If it's harsh, so what? It can only make you a better writer. 

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