This is an attempt to relate how I learned to write fiction, which may not be of any help to novice writers since I suspect that each person learns in a fairly unique way. A few people seem to have a knack (natural ability?) for writing fiction and don't need help from anyone. Of course I hate them after the hell I endured, but that's another story.
I started reading serious literature around age 15. I'm sure that helped me appreciate good fiction writing in general, but I'm not sure how much it specifically helped me become a decent fiction writer myself. Maybe more than I realize, maybe not much. At least I enjoyed reading the novels, short stories and plays. (My interest in poetry was very limited.)
I was a newspaper reporter for several years, beginning at age 19. Journalism taught me the basics of writing clearly and concisely, but I don't think it was the best training for fiction writing. Journalism is NOT literature in a hurry, as some writers have claimed. The best journalism piece I ever wrote or read was not really literature at all.
In my late teens and early 20s I wrote many short stories. They were all incredibly bad and not one was ever published (thank God, in hindsight.) The truth is, as much as I liked reading good fiction, I didn't have a clue how to write it. I didn't know how to create plausible characters or write interesting dialogue. I knew even less about narration and description.
I was missing a quality that is absolutely necessary -- what I now call the fiction writer's perspective. It's a special state of mind that's rather difficult to define, but I'll try two analogies:
*The writer's perspective is holographic. In a hologram each part of the image contains the whole image. The writer's ability to see the whole of his story in each part while he is writing is vital. Otherwise, he goes off on tangents and loses the thread or meaning of the story he has envisioned.
*The Taoist/Zen concept of the uncarved block. The sculptor begins with a shapeless lump of wood, stone or other material. He carefully removes small pieces or whole sections to make his sculpture take form. The artistic creation is what's left. Fiction writing is similar. What you leave out of the story is just as important as what you put into it.
I returned to fiction writing in my 40s, but I had the same problems I encountered when I was youngter. I couldn't figure out exactly how to proceed from a story beginning to its middle and end. I got lost along the way because I still lacked the writer's perspective. But I kept writing anyway, stumbling along in the dark, experimenting, deleting what I wrote and starting over again. I learned patience and persistence if nothing else, but those are extremely important in the process of learning to write fiction.
In retrospect I think my real problem was trying to write like the American authors I admired most at the time -- Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, etc. Although I had read their biographies, I failed to grasp the lesson that none of them tried to write like the authors they admired. They found their own unique voices as writers based on personal experiences that were very different than the previous generation of authors.
The turning point for me was expanding my reading to authors I formerly thought were beneath my aspirations as a writer. Elmore Leonard in particular was a real inspiration. He broke most of the rules of fiction writing, yet his books were oddly fascinating. The tortured similes of Raymond Chandler delighted me and I thought the dialogue in Dashielle Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon" was the snappiest I had ever read. I also read other classic "noir" authors -- Cain, Burnett, etc. and eventually Bukowski.
At one point I remember saying to myself: "Hell, I can do that." It was like a revelation after years of going in the wrong direction.
My first several stories in this new vein weren't all that good, but each one was a little better than the last. I relied on my own personal experiences and I began to develop the writer's perspective. When I started a story, I could see exactly where it was headed in every line I wrote. I didn't outline stories in advance because I didn't need to. I was able to keep it all in my mind while I wrote and between writing sessions.
Suddenly, the drought was over magically. I didn't write like Elmore Leonard or any other writer I enjoyed reading. I simply found my own voice as a writer. Between 1999 and now, I wrote 78 short stories, 3 novels, 3 screenplays and a stage play (also a non-fiction travel book.) Two of the novels and a collection of short stories were published as paperbacks. A total of 28 of my short stories have been published by magazines or in book anthologies. (My latest story publication will soon appear in this online magazine: http://bluemag.com/
Is my fiction any good? I'm no threat to ever get nominated (much less win) the Nobel Prize in Literature, the Pulitizer Prize or anything as prestigious, but I think 6 of my short stories are as good or better than any tale I ever read. And more than one of my readers has expressed the same opinion. I'm proud of my latest novel, "Terpsichore's Children," but there's undoubtedly some unwarranted conceit involved in that since the story is so autobiographical. The novel is somewhat experimental in format, which is not every reader's cup of tea.
Have I made a living from my fiction writing? No, but neither does the vast majority of published fiction writers (also another story). Despite the disappointing remuneration, I take comfort in the fact that I realized a lifelong dream of becoming a published author with books on the shelves of at least a few public libraries.
At the peak of my frenetic writing pace a few years ago I wrote two short stories per month. I was in a sort of rhythm and good story ideas seemed to flow out of my mind every week. I don't know where they came from one after the other. I suppose I just hit my stride as a writer for awhile.
I don't write nearly as much fiction now. The Muse only makes her appearance once every several months. That's fine with me because I'm not a beginner any longer. I can afford to place my fiction writing on cruise control. I've had a good run so far and I'm willing to wait until I feel inspired to write again. I still have a few more interesting tales left in me and they'll come out eventually.