by Kathi Kamen Goldmark and Sam BarryJanuary, 2010
An early start on a writing career
Dear Author Enablers,
I am a 15-year-old freshman and an aspiring writer beginning to work on my first book. I’ve written a short story and worked on my school’s yearbook last year. I even talked about being a teen writer! But I have no idea where to start! I want to get my short story published, and I would be elated if I ever got a literary agent! I know I am young but I want to be prepared. Where should I start?
San Jose, California
The best possible thing you can do to prepare for a career as a writer is to concentrate on developing your craft. Take every creative writing class you can fit into your schedule, but don’t neglect your other studies or passions—you’ll need those for material. It’s also helpful to spend some time working with others. Your yearbook experience, your school’s literary journal (start one if there isn’t one already) and other collective pursuits will help you learn how to work with editors and agents later on.
Remember that writing is a craft and a discipline. Make time to write every day—blogging and journal-writing count—but if you miss a day or two, don’t beat yourself up about it. Just get back onto a regular writing schedule as soon as you can.
Dear Author Enablers,
I have taken writing workshops and attended a few conferences and they always talk about “sense of place” being important in fiction writing, but no one ever says exactly what that is or how you get it. For example, I am writing a story set in a small town a few hours away from my home. How do I avoid mistakes that will make me seem ignorant to readers?
Congratulations on knowing exactly where your story is set; that’s the first step to a vivid sense of place in fiction writing. You don’t need to go overboard—we don’t think we’re the only ones who skip over six-page descriptions of sunsets, bus depots, intergalactic space stations or conveyor belts—but you do need to get your facts right. One writer who did this superbly was the late Dominick Dunne; you might want to pick up one of his novels to experience a master providing just enough information to make those who have been there smile and nod their heads, while giving other readers the lay of the land.
It’s very important to understand physical and geographical details. In other words, make sure you know if an important bridge is north or south of town, and where it leads, and don’t have your character murdered on a midnight train if the last locomotive really pulls out at 5 p.m. Maps and timetables are great, but driving around the area is better.
I [Kathi, shoving Sam away from the keyboard for a moment] have a top-secret trick I used when writing my first novel, set in a small town a few hours from my home. I planned writing retreats there as often as I could, renting a motel room in the middle of the two-block main drag. I’d hit town and immediately schedule an appointment for “the works” at the nearest beauty salon. A wash and set, mani-pedicure and facial aren’t expensive in most small towns, but they offer a ringside seat for hours, providing a chance to eavesdrop on all the local gossip. It’s more fun (and far more informative if you’re writing contemporary fiction) than online research; you’ll get a sense of what is immediate and important to folks as well as speech patterns, accent and dialogue; and you’ll end up looking swell as a bonus. Sam suggests that guys can do this too, at a barbershop, sports bar or coffee shop—which is where he is going now, to protest losing access to the computer.
If you can’t get there in person, we recommend subscribing to the local newspaper and/or cultivating a relationship with someone who lives in the town you’re writing about. Become friends or offer to trade a service, and send excerpts for fact-checking. (It doesn’t have to be the whole manuscript; you can copy/paste appropriate bits into emails.) While it’s crucial to get your facts straight, it doesn’t take pages of description to convince your readers you know whereof you speak—and getting there can be at least half the fun.
With more than 25 years of experience, Kathi Kamen Goldmark and Sam Barry have the inside scoop on writing and publishing; their new book on the subject is scheduled for release later this year. Aspiring authors can email questions (along with their name and hometown) or visit the Author Enablers blog.