Yes, You Can Learn To Write Better Fiction

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

I love having Brother John Gilstrap back on TKZ. He doesn’t pull punches. He’s the Conor McGregor of writing bloggers. Witness his post last week, Tell the Damn Story. It’s a straight right to the chops.

John and I have gone around on this topic in the past, and I’m inspired by John’s post to do it again today. But rather than get all Floyd Mayweather about it, I’d like to start by looking at where we agree.

There is a lot of good packed into the simple admonition to tell the damn story. To me the gist of this advice is: You are a storyteller, and that is your first and greatest function. So don’t get tied up in “rules” and analysis when you are writing. I even wrote a post on that subject called Avoiding Writing Paralysis Due to Over-Analysis.

John and I agree that when you’re sitting at your typer, with the story in your heart and head yearning to get out, let it out! Get it on the page!

Where John and I part ways is on what to do to make the story better, both before and after the typing.

John says he holds this truth “dear”— “that no one can teach a person to write.” I could pounce on that, but I believe the disagreement may come down to what John means by “to write.” A few lines later John says:

I do believe that instruction and workshopping can hone and develop talent, but it cannot create talent where there is none. Some people are not wired for storytelling.

Ah! Then “to write” for John is tied up in that thing called “talent.” There’s where we could spend more time, talking about what talent really is and how it might be coaxed … or coached.

Further, what John calls “honing and developing” I would simply call “teaching.” So if we parse our terms precisely, I believe John and I would agree that in some measure you can teach a writer things that will make their fiction better.

I also agree that there are some people who are not, as John puts it, “wired” for storytelling. But you know what? In my twenty years of teaching and reading countless manuscripts, I have run across very few who fit this description. The overwhelming majority of writers I’ve taught do have story sense, because how can you avoid it? We grow up reading and watching story after story. We press our reality through the gauze of beginning, middle and end. And most people who come to a workshop do know how to string coherent sentences together. Part of my job as a teacher is to help them stack those sentences in the most effective way.

Which is what the craft is all about.

John further stated in a comment:

A gifted musician is first and foremost gifted. Studying with a master maestro will help him to greatness. For most of us, though, our piano lessons will only help us become really good amateurs. Ditto athletic prowess. Beyond that innate talent, though, there needs to be the drive and desire to work one’s butt off. That work for us writer’s includes not classroom time, but lots and lots of alone time with our imaginary friends.

I liked this up to and excluding the last sentence. We do agree on this basic point: someone with talent can be made better at what they do through lessons. The boy George Gershwin had monster talent, but he needed lesson after lesson for that talent to shine through.

Still, you only get a Gershwin once in a lifetime. But there are countless superb piano players who make good money in bars and restaurants and hotels. They please a lot of people with their music.

It’s the same with writers. There are not many Hemingways or Chandlers, but there are (now) thousands of fiction writers making bank writing entertaining, well-structured, satisfying novels and stories.

Many of them have been my students.

John and I also agree that “working one’s butt off” is a non-negotiable for anyone to make it as a writer. But I am puzzled by his disdain for the classroom. What’s wrong with listening to an experienced writer sharing techniques that make fiction better, stronger, more compelling, and deeper? Why isn’t that something an ambitious writer ought to be anxious to seek out?

At the very least it might save that writer years of frustration and rejection.

Working with a good editor is another way fiction writing is taught. Now, really good fiction editors are rare and always have been. I had the good fortune to work with one of them, Dave Lambert at Zondervan. He was the reason I chose Zondervan over three other publishers back in the day. Dave was famous for his “Dave letters” — multi-page, single-spaced documents of pure insight and instruction. I was a pretty good writer before Dave. He kicked me up several notches. Without his instruction, and my working hard to incorporate that into my pages, I don’t believe I’d be where I am today.

So to me the big disagreement with John comes down to his statement: “The breakthroughs—the true light bulb moments—can only come via self-discovery while pasting butt to chair.”

That’s like saying to a hacker killing gophers on the golf course to just keep hacking, you’ll find your way eventually. Meanwhile, year after year, he continues to stink and give gray hairs to the groundskeepers.

I react this way because my experience is the opposite of John’s axiom. I did write and write, to no avail and no “breakthroughs.” Indeed, I was told several times that “writing can’t be taught.” So I gave it up. For ten long years.

When I finally felt I had to try again, I decided not to listen to the naysayers and started studying the fiction column in Writer’s Digest every month (penned by Lawrence Block, followed by Nancy Kress). I bought writing books and joined the Writer’s Digest Book Club. One of the featured titles, Jack Bickham’s Writing Novels That Sell, gave me the biggest epiphany I’ve ever had in my writing life. It was a huge breakthrough, and led directly to my stuff starting to gain interest, and eventually to sell.

When I wrote, I wrote. But I also valued my study time. And as I tested things on the page, I began to formulate my own theories and techniques and then teach them to others, many of whom have written to thank me for helping them along the fiction journey.

Where would I be if my desire to write had stalled again at the man-made wall with the graffito Writing can’t be taught? In the introduction to Plot & Structure, which keeps selling, I went so far as to call that “The Big Lie.” Because it is.

And now let’s get this deal about “rules” straight. Artists hate that word, because they want to be free! So fine! Don’t use that word!

But do think in terms of fundamentals and guidelines, the tools and techniques that work, that have stood the test of time, and will work for any writer. They are there not only to help you as you try to figure out what to write next, but to help you understand why something you’ve written doesn’t work, and how to fix it.

Perhaps this will ease the conscience of my blog brother: The most important thing a writer can do is produce the words, to write his own stuff, every day if possible. To a quota. That’s always the first and most important thing a writer does. It’s the first advice I always give anyone who asks me what they need to do to become a successful writer.

But I also say this: the writers who have the best chance to make it, to have a career or a good part-time income, will also study their craft with diligence and desire, and without a chip on the shoulder. I’ve seen it happen time after time after time.

Here is my Exhibit A, the highly successful novelist Sarah Pekkanen:

I needed advice before I tried to write a novel. The usual axiom — write what you know — wasn’t helpful. I spend my days driving my older children to school and changing my younger one’s diaper — not exactly best-seller material.

So I turned to experts. Three books gave me invaluable writing advice. One, by a best-selling writer; one, by a top New York agent; and one, by a guy who struggled for years to learn how to write a book and wanted to make it easier for the rest of us.

The books Sarah mentions are Stephen King’s On Writing, Donald Maass’s Writing the Breakout Novel, and my own Plot & Structure. And she explains exactly what she learned from each.

That was back in 2009, just before her debut novel came out. You can check out Sarah’s career trajectory here.

So leave us not speak in extremes. Don’t give us a blanket “writing can’t be taught,” because that is demonstrably false.

On the other side, don’t speak about iron-clad rules. There are critique-group commandos who will take a tip or suggestion and turn it into a law. Like the now infamous Don’t start with the weather. The real guideline should be Don’t start with the weather unless you know how to use it to hook the reader! (For further elucidation on these , see my post on Baloney Advice Writers Should Ignore.)

That’s my case. Fiction writing can be taught .. and learned … and practiced .. and made profitable. I know because I’ve got a huge email file of testimonials to prove it … and I’ve lived it myself.

The boxing ring is now open. Discuss!

***

I would be remiss if I did not mention that the best of my workshops has been put into a complete video course on the craft. It’s called Writing a Novel They Can’t Put Down.

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38 thoughts on “Yes, You Can Learn To Write Better Fiction

  1. I love Jack Bickham. My ancient copy of Writing Novels That Sell is highlighted, underlined, and notated to the point I’m surprised it hasn’t disintegrated.

    I used to write, most often as a guest columnist for whatever paper was in the area (military – moved a lot). I sold a few things, got some nice letters from agents who asked me to keep them in mind. Then life hit – full time jobs, theatre and music work (my other loves), taking care of ill family members.

    After not writing anything (but journal entries) for a very long time I stuck my toe in the water again with my blog. Now I’m starting to write again. I still have my full time job. I’m on summer break from music. I’m taking a hiatus from theatre because I’ve finally learned there really are only so many hours in a day and if I’m going to write I have to make room for it. The only time in my schedule that wasn’t booked was 4-6 a.m. Game on.

    Thank you, James. You give me hope.

    Thank you, John for Tell the Damn Story. I overthink everything. Even this.

    • Cynthia, I so love that Bickham book. It’s OP now, but a revised version was published by WD with a slightly different title. But there’s something about the original I love–maybe because it’s the one which brought that epiphany.

      The only time in my schedule that wasn’t booked was 4-6 a.m. Game on.

      Spoken like a true writer. Carpe Typem! Seize the Keyboard!

    • When, back in the day–and my children insist that day was back in the days of dinosaurs–I moved us from my hometown of Phoenix, AZ, to enroll as a special student at the University of Oklahoma.

      To enroll in certain of the fiction classes, one had to have an interview. But it was summer. Professors, including the professor whose classes I had hoped to enroll in, was on vacation. Unhappily, I discovered this on the day I walked into the school of journalism building where fiction writing was taught in those days.

      Happily, though, one professor would see me. His name was Jack Bickham. My meeting with him was less an interview than it was a three-hour one-on-one session with Professor Bickham himself. He talked character, he talked plot. He looked at my portfolio and made comments–helpful comments, not snide or disparaging. “Look what you did here?” he would asked. “That’s very good.”

      I came away from my three hours with Professor Bickham, floating about the campus of the University of Oklahoma. I have never had a teacher give me as much of himself, his knowledge, his abilities, his insights, as he did. I’ll be grateful for those three hours always.

      I did not became a member of his circle, nor did I feel free to simply call ole Jack and see what he had to say. I have always been awestruck at Professor Bickham’s story telling.

      I, too, have a copy of that book. For me, it is a reminder of my hours on Treasure Island with him. It was in those hours, that I realized that I could write fiction. It’s taken a long time for me to have my first novel accepted. But he gave me the encouragement to press ahead.

      When Professor Bickham passed, I had the same feeling for several days that I did when Mickey Mantle, The Moose, and in these days, Joe Garagiola and Yogi Berra, passed. Be careful whom you encourage, Ms McClendon, Mr. Bell. You may become idols on someone’s shelf, and never realize it.

      • Jim, thanks for sharing that story about Jack Bickham. That’s precisely how I pictured him, and I’m glad you had an experience to corroborate it.

  2. As I age, I’ve found I’ve varied back and forth between whether writing (or anything else you don’t feel is in your ‘natural’ corner) can be taught or if it’s only for the talented. The older I get, the more I realize anyone can learn it, because a lot of times your interests change over the years. Likewise, you don’t know how the pressures of life will change your motivation. And motivation is key to all of it.

    I want to learn to play banjo. But I will always only be a terrible novice unless and until the level of my motivation ratchets up. Because I am interested in so many things, I will never have the time in the forseeable future to practice banjo every day. So I’ll just have to be content to listen to banjo players who DO have the motivation and have put in the practice.

    It’s the same with writing–again, I have so many interests–and there are some periods in life where my writing stagnates because I am not sufficiently motivated to work at it–but I know that I can, and I know I can be publish worthy.

    For me, no matter WHAT you pursue, motivation is the key to all.

    • For me, no matter WHAT you pursue, motivation is the key to all.

      Absolutely. And desire. The great Phyllis Whitney, who also wrote a classic on the craft of fiction, once said: “You must want it enough. Enough to take all the rejections, enough to pay the price of disappointment and discouragement while you are learning. Like any other artist you must learn your craft—then you can add all the genius you like. “

  3. I teach history at the university level, which means I have to teach students how to write essays. In all of my years I have only had one student, who after hours of coaching, I felt convinced could not be taught to write. I am still baffled at her complete inability to put three words together that made sense. But I have had hundreds of students, who, if they were willing to pay the price of sitting down and learning the craft of essay writing, could turn out serviceable essays and sometimes very good essays.

    I break things down to the macro and the micro level things they need to learn. Teachers always focus on the grammar and punctuation etc.–the micro level stuff–and never teach students the structure of an essay and how to put it together. Its the structures–macro level stuff–we use that distinguishes essay writing from story writing, journalism or technical writing. It is a craft that can be taught if the student is willing to pay the price in blood, sweat, and tears (and I have seen a lot of tears in my office over essay writing, though, thankfully, no blood).

    • History! Unlike many, that is my favorite subject. I just give people a blank look when they tell me they thought history class was boring. I don’t care how it’s presented–straight statistics, creative non-fiction, PowerPoint, lecture. Learning history is so valuable and so much fun!

      • I heard a teacher once say that history is “biography on a timeline.” When you see it that way, it’s immensely interesting! It’s about people, powerful people moving the needle of human existence. Viewed that way, history is like a grand soap opera, and who doesn’t get caught up in a good soaper?

        • [History] “It’s about people, powerful people moving the needle of human existence.” Now that is a line I’m going to print out and put above my desk. Thanks!

      • History is all about story–true stories if it is done right–but it is just story. The best quote I have seen for why history matters was written by the famous US historian Carl Becker “An accurate understanding of the human past can improve our wisdom and restrain our foolishness.” But the sad truth is that the only history that really matters is the one people carry around in their heads because that’s the one they use to make their decisions.

    • Bless you, James, for teaching the craft of the essay, which is essential also to the craft of learning how to think. There is innate intelligence, but without discipline it’s just a blob of glup (James Thurber term).

      And I resonate with your admonition about paying in blood, sweat, and tears (and thanks for the Oxford comma, too).

      • I tell my students that their education from kindergarten through graduate school is about, and has ever only been about, learning how to read, write, and think. Everything else is dressing. Algebra isn’t about the algebra. It’s about learning how to think. Unclear writing is always the product of unclear thinking and vice versa.

  4. Jim,

    I’m living proof that writing fiction can be taught. I wrote fiction for years without success, binge writing at times, not writing at all others, always with the goal of being a published author. Finally, nine years ago next month, my wife persuaded me to go to our local writer’s conference here in Portland for a single day (Saturday). I went, and that led to meeting a presenter and author who would be teaching an intensive eight-week private class (Be Your Own Story Doctor). That led to more classes and workshops, including Don Maass’s 21st century fiction and a two week novel outlining workshop at KU. Reading your own books on the craft of writing fiction from 2010 and on have been key, too.

    Now I have three novels and a novella out, with a readership who like how I tell a story and love my writing. All because, guided by great teachers like you, Don, Kij Johnson, Mary Rosenblum and others, I began to learn how to create a story that effects the reader emotionally. I’m still learning, and in fact will be taking Don’s Emotional Craft of Fiction in Seattle in September because for me the learning never stops.

    Thanks for teaching us something every week!

    • Thanks for those kind words, Dale. Your experience tracks with many similar accounts I’ve heard. You’ll be in good hands with Don … and you are so right. The learning never stops. I still love reading craft books and articles. My philosophy has always been if I pick up just one thing to make me better, it’s worth it.

      When I think back on all the craft books I’ve read, I recall only two that did nothing for me. FWIW, they are both OP.

  5. You couldn’t be more right. I never attempted fiction before until I went back to school in my thirties. I started taking classes and it made everything I put on the page better. It didn’t make me a better storyteller, that comes from within, but it definitely made me a better writer! And if you every want to publish, you’d better be a good writer. Structure is important. Style is important. Nothing is more important than the story and characters, but that doesn’t make the others less important. Plot and structure was the first book on writing we used in class and it hooked me! Keep teaching, there’s a world full of storytellers who need help on the whole writing part!

    • Heartfelt gratitude, Brandon. What I say about structure is that it is story’s best friend. It allows the story in you to get to the reader, which is really where you want to share the love.

  6. HA! I knew that post of John’s was going to cause some fireworks.

    I get where he was going. Sometimes we are being stifled by the “rules.” And the more we write “to the rules,” the less we stand out from the pack.

    I used to propose a drinking game based on JK Rowling’s dialogue tags. Then three of us nearly died from alcohol poisoning. The thing is, though, that hot mess she often made with dialogue really distracted from the story. A few rules might have helped. She was there in the right place at the right time with a story that turned the industry on its head.

    And . . . . and this is huge. She FINISHED it. Warts and all. I used to hang out in an online workshop with a guy who was writing a very similar story at the time Harry Potter dropped, think of a darker and slightly more traditional version of the universe. I saw a lot of it in the share-your-work forums. It was as good, if not better than JK’s. But he futzed around and wouldn’t finish it and now he is forever considered derivative.

    2017 is the year I’m taking Chuck Wendig’s advice to “finish your shit.” I’ve pulled out three WIPs that have some meat on the bone and will finish them, even if they never see daylight. As I’ve leaned more in this direction, I’m seeing some glimmers of something good. (#vaguepost)

    There is something to be said for some, not even talent, but predilection toward writing. You’ll never see me in a seminar on guitar playing because I am ham-handed with musical instruments and have no desire to improve. I’ll never be a supermodel either. People in writing seminars are there because they want you to take their raw desire and help them mold it.

    As with all things, reality is somewhere in the middle. As for me, I’ll be over here making popcorn and waiting for the next round. *ding*

    Terri

  7. Another keeper post, John.

    The most wonderful feature of writing fiction, I think, is that the writer has so many aspects of his or her essentialness (word?) available to offer readers: imagination, interpretation of autobiographical memories, traditional and/or experimental techniques, personal and world viewpoints, and communication abilities—and so much more to discover, sharpen, and share.

    Thank you for the wisdom and techniques you share with us.

  8. Jim,

    So agree with the need for education along with motivation. Which brings me to this request, can you please provide, Write Your Novel from the Middle, Conflict & Suspense, and Plot & Structure in Audible form?

    I listen to books on the craft as I walk each day. Great way to kill two birds with one stone.

    Thanks!

  9. I agree with you both. Kinda. For years I wrote in a vacuum. Didn’t have access to conferences and really didn’t know any other writers. I kept making the same mistakes over and over because I didn’t have anyone to tell me what I was doing right or wrong. But I knew I had a good story. I just needed someone to teach me how to craft. Thanks to your books and Susan May Warren’s Deep Thinker retreats, I learned how. I’m working on book ten now–nine of them written since the beginning of 2013 and I’m still learning. But readers seem to like my stories. 🙂

    • Sorry that my reply (no fixed) made it seem like was drunkenly thumbing random keys. I was doing responses on my phone on the fly. That’s what you get….

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