Is Writing a Good Novel Something That Can Be Taught?

By Larry Brooks

Or are we simply dangling from puppet strings manipulated by cloud-dwelling muses who are toying with our dreams?

Or put more scientifically, is our fate determined by some naturally-imbued literary DNA that simply needs awakening?

You know, like Stephen King?

He was born that way, right?

A few weeks ago I rolled out a new line of training videos that seeks to impart some modicum of knowledge and a little principle-based perspective on how to turn that idea kicking around your skull into a viable novel that someone else would actually want to read.

And so, like so many that have partaken of the digital marketing kool-aid, I posted a few announcements and a trailer on Facebook, where I have about 4200 writer “friends” who, of course, are on pins and needles awaiting my next project.

Not one of whom, by the way, even clicked through to my new Vimeo VOD page.

Which only goes to confirm – in my mind, at least, though it’s something I’ve heard repeated a lot lately – that Facebook is an absolutely worthless venue for trying to get other writers to pay attention to what we’ve written.

Ask them if they’d spend a night in a creepy house for one million dollars… sure, that’s what Facebook is all about.

Anyhow… this happened:

Writer/”friend”: 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 it or delivered 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/”friend”: 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 a strong premise, and we actually understand (because someone has taught us) 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/”friend”: 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 where story execution is concerned. A writer who believes that they are one of them, it’s more likely naiveté and hubris than it is a truly natural talent. I’ve never met a “natural talent” in over 30 years of doing this, at least to the degree you claim is what fuels a successful author. Many people are naturally smart, but that’s a start, not a writing

Many people are naturally smart, but that’s a start, not a writing destination. Because there is so much to know. 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

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 successfully or at all, 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 be trained.

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.

Ironic. Maybe you have a natural gift for words. But in writing, that’s like an actor being good looking… and nothing more. If you’ve ever been to an audtion for a part in a Hollywood movie (I have), you know this gets you nothing other than a seat in the waiting room.

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 specifies, 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, it woudl follow, then 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.

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About Larry Brooks

Larry Brooks writes about story craft, with three bestselling titles from Writers Digest Books. His book "Story Engineering" was recently named by Signaturereads.com to their list of the "#27 Best Books on Writing," in the #3 position. He also has released six thrillers from Penguin-Putnam and Turner Publishing. He blogs at www.storyfix.com and teaches at conferences and workshops nationally and internationally.

20 thoughts on “Is Writing a Good Novel Something That Can Be Taught?

  1. Your writer friend trains all of the time and she doesn’t even realize it. Every time she reads an article on how to do some specific thing, every time she searches for the answer to a question dealing with writing, or she clicks the synonym/thesaurus button, and every time she watches a YouTube video about how to make the best use of Word or Scrivener or Dragon Dictate and on and on, she is training. We all train as writers every single time we put pen to paper or sit down at the keyboard.

  2. Preaching to my choir, Larry. Like you, I’ve seen it happen, the growth to publishable writer. Heck, I’ve seen it happen to myself. That’s why I teach.

    i do think there is a baseline of competency that comes, as you suggest, from being a reader and someone able to form meaningful sentences in a coherent fashion, with a bit of storytelling sense sprinkled in. Over the course of my teaching I’ve had very few who were not at that baseline. But those who are, and are dedicated to learning, and produce words in a consistent fashion, have some hope. It’s not going to be easy by any means. I’m talking years, at best, just to get to that level. It can be done with grit and hard work. Read a bio of Jack London sometime.

    And yes, Facebook and indeed all social media are not good for selling stuff. So be, gasp, social, and engender trust and goodwill, and on occasion you might move a few books!

    • Its ying and yang, for sure. I also agree with you… most folks come to it with some sense that they “have a knack,” or at least are attracted to it, which may be the effect (rather than cause) of that knack. I like the trending of these comments, which seem to form a quorum on this issue.

  3. I love this post! I like to say that writing is like learning to play the piano. It seems easy at first because you make a tune that appeals to your ear and you play around and you have fun. But you’re not going to make it to Carnegie hall on ‘natural talent.’ You’re going to make it by going to classes, learning about the styles and periods and composers that influence your genre, getting advice from masters, and practicing 7-8 hours a day.

    Chuck Wendig wrote some interesting posts on the perception of talent some years ago, namely that talent is a way of keeping other people out without necessarily having a valid reason for doing so. It’s a nice ego boost for us to think that we have some rare, secret ability that our friends will never be able to match. If it’s just a matter of hard work, then any old riffraff could write a book that’s just as special as mine.

  4. Hi Larry,
    Your post struck a chord with me.

    Pick any skill, be it athletics, politics, woodworking, canoeing, sailing, rollerskating, or writing and the process of achieving mastery is virtually the same. They all require, imagination, “talent”, craft, mastery of the underlying principles of the skill, etc. All of these can be cultivated through persistent practice and a dedication to training the mind and body to be sensitive to the principles of the craft. To say that any skill is the product of simple “talent” is to so simplify causation as to make the concept of talent meaningless. It is also, frankly, insulting to the those who have paid the price of mastery. Brady wasn’t born a great quarterback. He became a great quarterback.

    That is not to say that a short, stocky guy like me could ever be the next Michael Phelps no matter how much I practice and study swimming. I’m not built to be a fast swimmer. A person who lacks curiosity about the world around them, lacks empathy for other human beings, who is unteachable and/or lazy, who lacks drive, discipline and persistence will never succeed at writing or probably any other demanding task.

    But so long as a person has, or is willing to pay the price to acquire, the necessary skill set, to train their minds sensitivity to story and the craft of writing, I believe they can turn out good, solid, enjoyable stories. If I didn’t believe that, I would have given up years ago.

    Both my academic and my fiction writing are so much better now than they were a decade ago. My goal is not to become the next J.K Rowling. My goal is to consistently get better and better at everything I do. As I continue to study the craft of story telling, my “talent” to spot the golden ideas and to execute the story will only improve. Then I put my writing out to the world and wait upon the vagaries of the market to see if it strikes a chord.

  5. I agree that a person can learn to write a story. Coaching a writer on how to write a story is like showing them how the different components of a clock work. That just means they will learn how to build a clock/story.

    Talent comes from the artistic, those who can see the usefulness of a good clock, even appreciate the decorative properties carved by its creator. However, the true artist isn’t looking to build another clock with a different shell. The artist is looking to tell time in a way that hasn’t been done before.

    So I think there’s a big difference when you say that a person can be taught to write a story as opposed to a person having the talent to create something without the structures bound by teachings. I think the successful writer is birthed by consumer demand and not necessarily talent and hard work. Fifty Shades of Grey wasn’t exactly free from grammatical errors and story faux pas, but tell that to the consumer who scarfed it up like a fat kid eats cake.

    • Nor was my post today… I thought I’d proofed it better that it ending up reading. A bit embarrassed by that.

      That said… thanks much for your thoughts and contribution. It seems this rallied a few folks to acknowledge their own journey, which as Anne pointed out earlier, engulfs us whether we choose in or not.

  6. Sad conversation with Writer Friend. I never understood why some writers feel because they have a “way with words” they can sit down and write, and the book will soar to the top of the NY Times List. When I first started, I knew I had no idea what I was doing. Maybe that was a blessing, because it forced me to seek training. Some days, I still feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface, but that’s okay. I’ll keep reading and learning and growing. It’s what we do if we want to succeed. We remain lifelong students of craft.

  7. I’ve often seen articles about the art of writing, how to learn this art and so forth. I have been told about ‘Show & Tell’, ‘POV’ , dramatic arc etc. I accept that it is possible to teach someone how to write a novel, but a “Good” novel? That takes talent. I had my first novel published in 1979 by Macmillan of London. In those days it was extremely difficult to find a publisher. I hadn’t a clue about all the elements that were supposed to ‘de riguer’ in the art of writing; I simply wrote my book. It was well received in the National Press, and I was described as a “gifted narrator” in the Financial Times. My career never took off; Macmillan dropped me. I don’t know why, but what I do know is that I didn’t have a clue about promotion or marketing, so my career withered on the vine. I now have eleven novels published, nine of them traditionally, so I can call myself an established writer. Am I any good? I think so, but I was never taught; I just wrote. Writing a good novel is a gift, whereas writing a novel can be taught.

  8. I think the problem is that the beginning writer is the one who most needs the training, but he’s also the one who can least afford to buy it. Yes, there are a lot of posts and articles online that are free, but those are also fairly general and are sometimes used as leaders to paid training. It’s usually true that you get what you pay for. But writers who haven’t yet seen great profits from their writing simply won’t have the funds to purchase training packages, regardless of their value.

    Regarding whether writing a novel can be taught? Absolutely. When I used to teach college writing courses, I found that the mechanics could be taught and reinforced. The problem was with creativity. I think people either are creative or aren’t. I was always able to help my students improve their writing, but I never found a way to teach them where to find/cultivate/develop innovative ideas.

  9. Larry, Larry, Larry. I’m a natural born neuro-surgeon. I haven’t bothered with training (waste of time) or reading all those dumb journals. Last week after only 28 operations I actually had one of my patients survive. So, all you have to do is dedicate yourself and utilize your natural born talent and success will follow.
    I work out of my house because the stuffed-shirts who runs hospitals won’t let me practice there.

  10. Having teachers, etc., also speeds the process along. I started writing back in the pre-Internet days when it was impossible to find teachers who taught genre, not literary fiction, and most of the teachers, even then, didn’t know spit about writing. Local writing groups didn’t really exist, either.

    I read books on writing, and I wrote. I wasn’t remotely publishable for close to a dozen books and ten years, and I came from a background with several English degrees and college-level writing classes.

    I learned everything on my own with just a little help from friends along the way.

    Anyone, these days, who thinks they can do it alone is wasting valuable time and is an arrogant idiot.

  11. Hmmhh… Does a surgeon go into surgery without being taught? Didn’t they have to learn something? Spend four years as an undergrad, four years in med school, followed by residency, and an internship?

    Why do people think creative writing can’t be taught? I believe that first and foremost a person must have the desire to write, but no one becomes a writer just naturally. Very insightful post, Larry. I’m sorry your friend didn’t accept your generous offer.

  12. When I run into the inevitable hole in my story, I always go back to craft books like Larry’s (third time read) to dig myself out. This is where I find the mechanics of craft invaluable. Somewhere in one of my many craft books, I find the solution.

    Storytelling trumps every other skill in my opinion. Moderate craft and great story will get you published. I’m not sure storytelling can be taught. I write comedy, which I think is a personal outlook that also can’t be taught, but I still had to study craft to shape it. If I ever need proof that writing can be learned, all I need to do is look at my first attempts.

  13. I really can’t understand the hubris of a newbie thinking they know everything. It reminds me of teenagers–they know everything when they are 15 and they are amazed at how much they don’t know at 18 when they actually have to go out into the world and be on their own. We learn something new constantly, whether we realize it or not. I never realized how much I needed to learn until I began to study. I learn from blogs like this, and others. I read all types of books, all different perspectives. good or bad, I learn from them. I have a review blog for new indie authors with less than 3 published books. I have read some really bad stuff, frankly. I am able to tell instantly if they have even done any self-editing. I am a novice writer, but an avid, lifelong reader. I have also read some very good material. None of them just sat down and wrote it, typed the end, and hit publish. If it was really that easy, everyone would do it. Sometimes it seems as if they do! The readers are the worst critics, though. They do not like to be disappointed.

  14. Here’s my opinion:

    Writing a decent novel can be taught; however, many stories fail at the premise. Someone might begin writing the first story idea that comes into her head, without giving much thought to whether the story is worth telling.

    Truthfully, many published novels wouldn’t pass the sniff test of a good English teacher. I’m disturbed by the number of published novels that have errors on the first page. So how do these novels get published? They have an intriguing premise. There are many well-written stories that will never get published because of a weak premise.

    The ability to write correctly and coherently is important, but the mechanics of writing can be taught. Story structure can be taught. Techniques like brainstorming to generate ideas can be taught. But what about creativity and discernment?

    Unfortunately, there is no substitute for life experience. I suspect that most great writers are also avid readers. If someone has been exposed to hundreds of well-written books (and screenplays), she will begin to see patterns and will develop discernment for what good writing is (and isn’t). Life experience (travel, relationships, hardships, disappointments, triumphs, etc.) coupled with exposure to fine writing from a young age will help to foster creativity. Of course, it’s nice if a writer is blessed with the gift of a strong voice. However, most great writers are hardworking folks who have devoted years of their lives to developing their skills, even if they have a knack for writing. How many times have you heard that “butt in the chair” thing? I doubt there are many cases of brilliant novels that spring forth from lightning bolts of creativity and inspired typewriter thumping.

  15. I always get irked when someone points to Stephen King and says all it takes is natural talent. People forget that Stephen King has a Bachelor of Arts in English, a teaching certificate in English, and taught High School English before his writing took off. I guess you don’t have to read books on writing, take workshops, attend writers conferences, and participate in writers groups, you just have to earn a degree in English and teach High School. Hmmm, teach High School? Nope. I’ll read books on writing, attend workshops and conferences, and cultivate relationships with our writers so I can benefit from their experiences (and hopefully they from mine).

    Great post Larry!

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