How to Learn

If you learn to love studious
then time will not pass tedious.
Your lore will grow compendious
and instinct from the dubious
will avoid work invidious
and make your voice melodious.
But don’t stop from laborious
effort or friends hilarious
nor events so injurious
as to rain down tears bounteous
for such is life salubrious.
Forge on, on through extraneous
and your reward is glorious.
Bouts of Beauty harmonious!

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Power of a Dunce

That dunderhead reels,
makes all the mistakes to make.
Learns and advances.

How long does it take to become a good writer?

I likely have a different point of view from one many teachers would advise these days.

Before I get into it I should explain my background. Halfway through Grade 13 (required then to go to University) I had all my required credits and so I headed to University early. I did a semester at the University of Guelph trying to figure out what I wanted to do: my courses included an English, Philosophy, Biology, History and Psychology course. I found the English, in particular, extremely disappointing: all analysis and Professor Homer Hogan seemed to rip the heart out of what I liked about the subject. After that I decided to concentrate on Science and Ecology and so I changed to the University of Waterloo (Environmental Science and Biology Joint Honours) and did that. Then I went on to do a Master of Science (Ecology) degree at Dalhousie University. I joined the faculty there as an Instructor for two years until getting an administrative job at Acadia University where I worked until 1995.

But. And this is a very, very big but! But if I had to do it again I’d change most of it in a second. My big mistake was being too silly and immature to understand what it was that I wanted to do. I should have taken a couple years off to work. And not just to save some money: I had many jobs all the way through high school. No. What I should have done is to try working at several different jobs. Things that I wanted to do as a career. It would have been ideal to try jobs involving writing, computers, and ecology. Of course hindsight, as they say, is 20-20.

I wish I had taken Computer Science at Waterloo with a minor in Environmental Science or Creative Writing. The CS would have been given me an enjoyable job in the end and, during my leisure, I could have concentrated on my love of nature or writing. It’s only in the last 5 years that I have been able to find my way to this. It took 10 years before that to make the adjustment to switch careers into computers. I could have found my ‘happy place’ a lot sooner if I’d done the above.

But anyway. English is a tough subject at University for a creative writer. I can see, now, the benefit of all that wretched analysis and grammar and other like-minded crap. It is really useful and I should have been willing to pay closer attention to it. But it doesn’t make you a good creative writer. It only gives you the tools to help you become a good writer. The only thing that makes you a good creative writer, just as with anything worthwhile, is practice.

Malcolm Gladwell (the famous writer and thinker who is, incidentally, from a town just up the road: Elmira) says it takes at least 10,000 hours to become a world class expert on anything and I believe it. And that’s what a good writer is: a world class expert on some topic that they have crafted into a legible set of words. Well, 10,000 hours is not as bad as it sounds. If you could write constantly, it’s only 1.14 years. More realistically, religiously writing for 8 hours a day for a year is 2,922 hours (so 10,000 hours can be achieved in 3.4 years). I took me a little over 5 years to write my first book part-time so there’s some backhanded proof: I could very rarely put in more than 4 hours a day. I was 45 before I was able to manage that.

So if you want to be a good writer an English degree will help, yes, as long as it doesn’t suck all the life and creativity out of your writing (which I think it might have done for me).

As you can imagine, I’ve sought out what successful authors suggest for new writers and this is what it boils down to:

  • write lots
  • read lots
  • get as many honest readers you can to give you criticism

There’s a lot out there on technique and finding a space to write and how to flesh out your characters, etcetera, etcetera but all that will come naturally if you put in the time.

That’s rather long-winded, I know, but it’s how I feel about things. Your story, of course, is your own to come up.

Physics 001

I came across this excellent article through the Tor mailing list. It’s about an intensive week for science fiction writers and editors funded by NASA (I wish I could attend that!) In the article the author, who attended the week, described what he had learned including a description of Jim Verley showing the short film A Private Universe. If you click on that link you can sign up for free and watch a truly stunning film about Physics education. It revealed that most Harvard graduates, in the year surveyed, had the wrong idea about elementary physics like why the Earth has seasons and how the phases of the moon are caused. Wow! It’s less than half an hour and worth watching.
There’s a lot more in the article worth reading if you’re into hard SF. The comments at the end are interesting too.