I recently received a question asking how one could learn to write at a professional level given limited time but intense focus and dedication. I don’t know that it’s possible to come up with some sort of prescriptive route for that would even be likely to be 20 percent successful. If it was, someone would already have done it, but it gave me an excuse to think about how I would construct a boot camp for writers and that seemed a worthwhile challenge. As part of the question, the interested party wanted to know how I’d learned the craft (inasmuch as I’ve learned it) and I’ll throw that in at the bottom of the boot camp post. This is entirely speculation, as it’s not really how I got to where I am, but I think it might be useful speculation.
I personally think there’s no better way to really learn the craft than to write. I think that short stories can really do an enormous amount of work in teaching the writer who is willing to apply themselves—work that would take much longer with novels.
Boot Camp For Writers:
Day 1, brainstorm 10 story ideas. Write a 5 sentence description of each idea.
Day 2, write a 200 word description of 10 of those ideas (or even just 5-depends on how fast you write). Really think about the plot for each. Don’t worry about character or setting or making enormous amounts of sense, just focus on creating a solid plotline. What’s the situation? What’s the problem? How does the protagonist attempt to solve the problem? It’s a short story, so they can either succeed or fail. How are they transformed in the course of the story? What are the stakes?
Day 3, take the description that most appeals. Write the story. Again, just focus on plot. Do all the other things, but don’t worry about them. You’re trying to nail down plot here. Take another day to finish the story if you have to, but no more than that.
Day 4, repeat days 1 and 2.
Day 5, repeat day 3.
Day 6, brainstorm 10 ideas (you can steal from the 18 ideas you’ve already come up with but not written). Write a 200 word description of each idea focusing on character (you can steal from the previous 18 for events but that’s not what’s important here). What’s important is who are these people. Why are they doing what they’re doing? How are they transformed? Remember that every single character is the hero of their own story. Really drill down on motivation and personality.
Day 7, write the story that most appeals to you from the character oriented descriptions. Don’t worry about anything but making the characters breathe and do things that make internal sense.
Day 8, repeat day 6.
Day 9, repeat day 7.
Day 10, brainstorm ten story ideas (again, you can steal from the leftovers). Write a 200 word description of each story focussing on setting and world. Make it as much a real place as possible. Really think through the consequences of the central magical or technological situations.
Day 11, write the most appealing story of that set. Focus on the world, on getting the details in that make it a habitable logical place. Try to show the reader the sweat on the characters’ faces. Make sure you really describe things and take the reader to the world. Do all the other stuff, but don’t let it worry you if someone does something inconsistent or some plot twist makes no real sense.
Day 12, brainstorm ten story ideas. Write a five sentence description of each. Take the five that most appeal to you and write a 300 word summary of each one. Make sure that you have a real plot with a problem and cost. Make sure you have real characters with transformations and logical motives. Make sure that the place the story is set is logical and three dimensional.
Day 13, take the second best idea. Write a story.
Day 14, take the best idea. Write a story.
Day 15, go back through and read everything you’ve written over the previous two weeks.
Days 16-29 do whatever the heck you want, but make sure to think about writing and the stories at least a bit each day. Now would be a good time to work on that novel you’ve been dreaming about. Or to simply go lay on the beach.
Day 30, go back and reread it all again. Send the five best stories off to a critical reader or readers.
Days 31-59, wait, do whatever you want, but spend a little time each day thinking about writing and the stories. Go back to the novel.
Day 60, read the critiques.
Days 61-65, revise the short stories. Give each one a day and make the changes that you think will help the story work.
Day 66, send them all out.
Day 67, get to work on the next project. Focus on the novel. Write five short stories in five weeks. Anything. Keep writing. Don’t think about the submissions.
End Boot Camp
For comparison, how I learned (in brief): Read a lot of f&sf. Wrote one short story, started submitting it. Wrote three novels in quick succession (all fairly derivative). Ditto on submissions. Started a writers group by buttonholing fellow writers I knew socially. wrote about twenty short stories and ran them through critique. Sold WebMage the short. Started writing the novel. Sold some more shorts. Wrote four more novels. Ran them all through various writers groups. Sold WebMage the novel and a sequel. Wrote more novels. Sold more novels. Spent a lot of time thinking about story as the process went along and talking about it with other writers.