Building on PJ Parrish’s post from yesterday, it occurs to me that the casual discussion of writing poses many false dichotomies. Is your work character-driven or plot driven? Is it about action or about vivid storytelling? If your story meets its potential, the answer to all of the above is simply, “Yes.”
I also hear a lot about rules that don’t really exist. We all know that prologues are a mistake–unless they work. We know that we should never start with the weather or with backstory. Bull. Anything that works for the story will work for the reader. Countless works of successful fiction break the rules, thus proving that the rules were never truly rules in the first place. Take a hard look at the latter Harry Potter books. While I am an unapologetic devotee of Harry and his exploits, there is no objective evaluation of the prose itself that could rate it any higher than average-plus. JK Rowling never found an adverb that she didn’t like, and she’s quite the fan of passive sentence construction. A TKZ First Page Critique would not make her happy.
Yet her books work–really, really work. Why? Because the story and the characters are so compelling that we’re willing to overlook some of the basic mechanics.
When I teach writing seminars–as I will next month at the Midwest Writers Workshop at Ball State University, and again on August 5 at the Smithsonian in Washington, DC–I reveal two basic truths that I hold dear: 1) that no one can teach a person to write; and 2) that successful writers get out of their heads and out of their own way and just tell the damn story.
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. I say this from the point of view of a writer who is entirely self-taught and was driven by my unblinking desire to make my writing better by reading the works of others and dissecting them. And I whole-heartedly admit that what worked for me may not work for all.
Some of the most creatively constipated writers I’ve ever spoken with have spent gobs of money over the years attending writing classes, yet paradoxically have few stories–and often no books–to show for it. I think that has a lot to do with the fact that they believe in the rules and the dichotomies. They value perfect sentence construction over compelling characters. In short, they spend too much time stressing over getting it right when maybe they’d have been better off if they’d just gotten it written.
In my own case, my “first” book–the first to be published–was in fact the fourth book I’d written. Those other three were my own private master class in fiction. But the single biggest difference between Nathan’s Run and its unpublished predecessors is that that was my first effort to forget about WRITING A BOOK (read that with a rolled R) and instead tell the story the way I would tell it orally, using the same turns of phrase and the same rather cynical squint that pretty much defines my worldview. As I wrote each scene, and I found that I liked them, I began to realize that I’d discovered that elusive “voice” that people always talk about.
At that point–before agents or sales–there was no way for me to know if the book was any good, but I knew that it was exactly the book I wanted it to be, exactly the book I’d set out to write. And because I have always been a voracious reader, I had enough confidence (hubris?) to believe that it was as good or better than any book I’d read that year.
A good part of this writing biz is about attitude, I think. It’s about believing from your own experience that the book you’ve written is exactly the book you want it to be. If you know its close and you know what’s wrong–or at least you think you do–then by all means workshop the manuscript and attend classes and seek guidance. Similarly, if you want to be introduced to the basics of the craft–the literary equivalent of learning how miter joints in carpentry–then classes and workshops are a terrific resource.
But never lose sight of the fact that if you truly believe that a scene or a chapter or a whole story is exactly what you want it to be, yet others in your group disagree, only one name goes on the spine. Only in workshops do people sit down to read with an eye toward nit-picking and changing things. In the real world, when people sit down to read, they have every expectation of a good story well told.
Don’t let them down.