The Fundamentals

I’m a New York Mets fan.  Yes, I know.  Thank you.  Your expressions of sympathy are much appreciated.  But beyond seeking your pity, I bring this up for a reason.  Anyone who has watched the Mets play will tell you that they are terrible at the fundamentals.  When they’re hitting they swing at bad pitches, they’re reckless on the bases, and they often fail to advance runners.  In the field, they throw to the wrong base and never, ever hit the cutoff man.  And more often than not their pitchers work from behind in the count.  In short, they’re a baseball fan’s nightmare, because they suck at the most elemental facets of the game.

Last week I was speaking to a couple of students at the university where my wife teaches.  They had just learned that I was a professional writer and they were peppering me with questions about the craft, about the business, about what they should be doing if they want to get themselves published someday.  I answered their questions for a while, but soon realized that they were overthinking the process.  One of the students seemed to recognize this at about the same time I did.  He asked, “Okay, what is the one thing I should be doing now if I want to be a writer someday?”

Smart kid.  He was asking me about the fundamentals.

Here’s what I told him:

Basically, if you want to write professionally, there are two things you should be doing as much possible.  First, you should write.  You’re going to be busy — you’re going to have a job, a social life; eventually you’ll have a family.  It’s hard to find the time.  I know that.  I’m not saying that you should write eight hours a day.  But you should write every day.  You should make a habit of it.  Write in a journal.  Write a little bit of a story.  Write about your work or your girlfriend or the dinner you had last night.  Write.  Even if it’s just 500 words.  Even if it’s just for a half hour.  Writers write.  That’s what we do.  And just as you wouldn’t think about running a triathlon without first training for it by exercising every day, you shouldn’t sit down to write your first book without first training yourself and learning the craft. Write.

And read.  Every day.  You don’t have to spend hours at it.  As with writing, it’s less about how much you do it than it is about making a habit of it.  Writing hones our craft; reading hones the ear and the eye.  It helps us understand what works in a story and what doesn’t.  It helps us define our writing voice by exposing us to different styles, different tones.  It shows us the differences between various genres and subgenres.  If you want to write fiction, read fiction.  If you want to write biographies, read biographies. When we prepare for any other career, we not only practice the skills we’ll need to succeed, we also study the work of those who have already mastered the field.  That’s what we’re doing when we read.  Some of what you read will inspire you.  Some of it might be so good that it discourages you.  Or some of it might be so bad that it teaches you what NOT to do as a writer.  There’s great value in that as well.  Reading can teach more about writing than any seminar or workshop.  And besides, it’s fun.  So read.

This is a short post, but that’s really all I have to say.  I’m in between books right now, taking a little time away from writing to recharge my batteries, as my father would have said.  I’m updating my website, going to conventions, catching up on other things that I’ve neglected while writing my last few novels.  And, of course, I’m reading.

The fundamentals.  Hmmmm….  I wonder if there’s a book that would help my Mets….

Filed under For Novelists, learning to write, reading, writing life, writing process. You can also use to trackback.

There are 4 comments. Get the RSS feed for comments on this entry.

  1. 1. Mindy Klasky

    I agree whole-heartedly with your advice (and I love the notion of distilling writing advice down to two basics!)

    But what does it say that I read the second sentence of your second paragraph and thought, “Oh, good use of extended analogy, with that ‘pepper’ reference!”

    Mindy, a Nats fan by location and a Red Sox fan by marriage (and the Nats are having a better year than the Sox…)

  2. 2. David B. Coe

    You caught that! Fully intentional. Thanks, Mindy. Glad you liked the post. Heading over to MW now to read yours….

  3. 3. Wolf Lahti

    “If you want to write fiction, read fiction. If you want to write biographies, read biographies.”

    I would amend that to, if you want to write fiction, read everything. If you want to write biographies, read everything. Exposure to a wide variety of styles and intents helps impart depth to one’s craft. Genre writers who have read only genre in their education tend to write flat.

  4. 4. David B. Coe

    That’s a great point, Wolf. I was being a little too glib. What I should have said was, read everything, but also make an effort to learn the styles, tropes, traditions, etc. of that which you intend to write.

    Many thanks for the comment and the valuable correction!

Author Information

David B. Coe

David B. Coe (http://www.DavidBCoe.com) is the Crawford award-winning author of the LonTobyn Chronicle, the Winds of the Forelands quintet, the Blood of the Southlands trilogy, and a number of short stories. Writing as D.B. Jackson (http://www.dbjackson-author.com), he is the author of the Thieftaker Chronicles, a blend of urban fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. David is also part of the Magical Words group blog (http://magicalwords.net), and co-author of How To Write Magical Words: A Writer’s Companion. In 2010 he wrote the novelization of director Ridley Scott’s movie, Robin Hood. His books have been translated into more than a dozen languages. Visit site.

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