Do you wonder why novelists need training? The answer is simple.
Because more often than not, newer writers—and a few stubborn ones who have been stuck for years—don’t know what they don’t know.
Some writers don’t even understand the nuance and depth of what that actually means.
Storytelling, much like walking and running, seems natural and organic… but while that’s true, it doesn’t mean we can all be professional dancers or Olympic runners without learning a thing or two.
They are shocked when told that their novel—usually their first—doesn’t conform to the shape and flow and expectations of novels in their genre, followed shortly by outrage that there even are expectations that create a narrative shape and flow, the very craft that results in dramatic and emotional resonance.
They have misunderstood the axiom that says “there are no rules,” skipping over the part that says, “but there are principles involved.”
That, by the way—the shape and the flow and the expectations—are precisely why newer writers need to hang on to their student card, seeking to discover and learn those principles. Because like it or not, much like gravity and taxes and the outcome of certain elections, they just are.
They’re out there, waiting to make or break your writing dream.
From my perspective as someone who teaches the craft of fiction in addition to plying the trade, the real problem is that this blank page mentality seems to have been legitimized within certain segments of the collective writing conversation. As if there is nothing to know, beyond one’s innate, genetic gift of story sense. As if first drafts will always suck, even if you’ve been writing them for three decades.
As if suffering is not optional.
You may have heard this myth promulgated at a writing conference keynote, for example, by a bestselling author—any number of them, in fact, because this is symptomatic—who, other than the investment of years and gallons of tears and alcohol, cannot come close to explaining how or why their latest book sold four million copies.
New writers in the audience tend to hear that number… four million copies… without hearing the inherent disconnect within the message itself.
Just write, they tell us.
Sure enough. Write just like Stephen King. If you can. But it helps to know what Stephen King knows, even if he rarely puts that in a box to share with the rest of us.
Some writers believe that writing a good novel is not a teachable thing.
Last week I had the following Facebook exchange with a writer—one of my 4200 writer friends—in response to a notice I’d posted about a new video training series I’d just released.
Writer: Larry, do you know of one successful serious writer who recommends writing classes, courses or study groups? I can name several who advise that writing – creative writing – cannot be taught but is inherent – Twain, Clancy, Rowlings, The Bard….
Me: I know of hundreds, actually. Far more writers who succeed actually dive in to some sort of learning venue, than those who claim to have learned or done it naturally (not sure what that even means). I’ll GIVE you one of the videos, if you doubt its value. Message me if you are willing to see.
Writer: Grammar – yes, Structure -of course.
Me: I think the “natural instinct” part best describes a writer’s ability to come up with killer story ideas (Stephen King, for example, the “king” of self-taught, naturally-gifted writers), or not… versus some DNA-driven knack for understanding how it works best on the pages across a story arc, which really doesn’t happen to anyone. Even very highly trained authors still depend on that ability to land on a glow-in-the-dark story idea, and struggle over many drafts to get it right. When we can do both – great idea leading to strong premise, AND we understand how to craft dramatic and character arcs, with the perfect touch of prose… that’s the recipe. The latter — it absolutely can be taught. It’s like reading music… it doesn’t make you a great singer, but it helps if you are a composer. So… do you want to see a video? I’d like to make a believer out of you.
Writer: Every serious writer struggles, A word, sentence, paragraph, character, loose-end solution, ending, juggling multiple threads, and on. Some are brilliant, have an extraordinary story, a unique point of view, a fabulous editor and some have all of those within their grasp and they get it out, on paper. It’s called talent. You can’t teach the sky to be blue.
Me: Yeah, but you can teach them what a story arc is, the difference between dramatic arc and character arc, the optimal presentation of a scene. I don’t know how many in-progress, unpublished manuscripts and premises you have seen, but I have seen many hundreds (over 700 in the last three years), and I can assure you, the “natural talent” you describe is rare. And even then, not remotely enough to fuel a professional-level of craft. When a writer believes that they are one of those gifted few, it’s more likely naiveté and hubris than it is truly natural talent.
I’ve never met a “natural talent” in over 30 years of doing this, that didn’t then need some refinement to their craft. Many people are naturally smart, but that’s just a start, not a writing destiny. There is so much to know beyond instinct. In athletics, for example, fast and strong beginners don’t go anywhere until and unless they get some fundamentals and muscle-memory in their head. Sounds like you’ve been brainwashed on a lie. If you can truly go to a writing workshop, and walk away saying you didn’t learn anything, that it was of no value… then I’d say you are kidding yourself.
I made you an offer to help… you aren’t taking me up on it, which is symptomatic of the hubris that deludes the legion of writers who will never publish a word, because they’ll never be humble enough to admit they don’t know everything they need to know. Most writers, when they begin, don’t even know what they don’t know, and that’s the problem. They think they do, and it’s a lie. In the end, added to the list of things they don’t know, will be the truth about why their writing dream never came true.
Yeah, because that’s what The Bard says.
That ended the thread. She didn’t take me up on the free video, which was, by any possible interpretation, an opportunity to learn something.
A take-away: “self-taught” still has the word taught at the heart of its meaning.
Writers come to the intention of writing a novel armed with a massive breadth of backgrounds.
The most noted commonality is that anyone who wants to write a novel was first, and remains, a reader of novels—let us hope this is true—followed closely by the belief that they “have a way with words.”
Which, among the dozen or so core competencies that a novelist needs to demonstrate, comes at in #12. Because good clean prose, nothing too fancy, is the gold standard in commercial fiction; any attempt to sound like John Irving channeling John Updike will actually get you tossed.
When we read a good novel, it can look easy. This is true with many avocations, especially in the arts and athletics, where the learning doesn’t seem to be academic in nature. It is said that human beings are natural storytellers because it is in our social DNA, the lineage of our communities, the very history of it has been marked by stories passed on over generations.
But does that make us storytellers, or story consumers? If it does, than the inherited inclination to protect our children should make us the next Dr. Phil.
For all the hundreds of billions of human beings that have preceded us on the planet, swapping stories along the way, the names of the immortal storytellers can be fitted onto a plaque on a library door.
My Facebook writer friend could not be more wrong.