Six impossible things

Walk first

A while back, I was talking with a would-be writer who started off with all sorts of sensible questions about writing characters and plotting and so on. Then I looked at some samples of her writing, and realized that the particular writer was trying to get ahead of herself.

The questions I was getting were about things like differentiating the dialog between two very similar characters, writing culturally subversive subplots, and deliberately using subtext to undercut a too-obvious moral. The trouble was, the writing samples I saw had enough really basic problems that it was clear the writer wasn’t able to handle the kinds of subtleties she was asking about.

When the king’s son, born and raised in the palace, and the peasant girl fresh off the farm sound, act, and think so similarly that I have to keep checking to see which viewpoint I’m supposed to be in, the writer has a bigger problem to deal with than giving the king’s chancellor a different voice from the king’s chamberlain. When the main plotline has holes you could drive a truck through and the subplots appear either to be completely irrelevant or else rerun the main plot in slightly different guise, the writer has a lot of basic work to do before there’s any point in working on subtext and subverting the reader’s expectations.

The writer, unsurprisingly, did not want to hear any of this. She wanted to learn how to do “the hard stuff,” presumably on the theory that if she could distinguish the chamberlain’s speaking voice from the chancellor’s, getting the prince and the peasant girl to sound different from each other would be easy.

She wasn’t entirely wrong about this; most writers who can manage to convey subtle distinctions on the page can also do large ones. The trouble is that unless the subtle distinctions come naturally and are therefore where the writer starts, vanishingly few people can learn to do them first. It’s kind of like starting with red, yellow, and blue fingerpaints and expecting to be able to produce a detailed, pseudo-photographic painting of a landscape at sunset.

I see more and more writers like this: people who want to run before they can walk. They’ve read tons of good and great fiction, and they want to write like that…right now. They’ve read tons of how-to-write books and blogs and crit group comments, and they feel that they understand the basics quite well already, thanks, so they want to move on to the more advanced stuff immediately. Then they get frustrated when their writing doesn’t read like the books they love, and conclude that there must be still more advanced secrets that they have to learn.

What they don’t realize (and often don’t want to) is that there is a difference between understanding something and applying that understanding. There’s no question that knowing the theory is useful to many people, but all the theory in the world is useless if one can’t put it into practice, which takes…practice. Too many would-be writers pay lip service to the proverbial “first you write a million words of crap,” but secretly they seem to expect to be exceptions to the rule – to make small but clear character distinctions or to do tricky plot razzle-dazzle before they’ve learned how to write dialog that actually sounds as if someone would say it or a simple, straightforward plot that hangs together.

I occasionally worry that this blog contributes to the problem. I’ve been writing it for nearly five years now, and I don’t make any effort to stick strictly to basics – and anyway, there are only so many ways one can describe the fundamentals of characterization, setting, dialog, and plot, without getting boring and repetitious. Also, I highly approve of writers being ambitious and stretching their skills. On the other hand, I don’t want to give folks the mistaken impression that they can and should be able to do everything, including the tricky advanced stuff, before they can write anything.

You have to start where you are, and go on from there.

For some, that means going all the way back to grammar and punctuation and syntax; for others, it means working on specific skills like dialog or description or plotting. But the first step has to be to figure out where you are and what you need to work on, and to do that, you have to be ruthlessly honest with yourself.

Layering on cool subtext and dazzling subplots is not going to plug the truck-sized holes in your basic plot; it won’t even disguise the holes. Giving the chamberlain and the chancellor obvious, non-identical verbal tics is not going to make them more real, individual characters, or even improve your ability to write basic dialog if that’s where your real problems lie.

  1. Sometimes I think of learning writing as very similar to the process I went through when drawing. I knew what I wanted to draw – from my own head – and I put it down, and my imagination happily filled in the rest. It was only as I got better that I could see the flaws in my earlier work. And let me tell you – there were A LOT of flaws. And that’s visual, and I still didn’t notice. I had to try and do this sort of thing for someone who was looking for a beta reader the other day, just pointing out that her information was all backwards, what we needed to know to understand the event, came after the event. And I had to say, this isn’t written like a novel yet, it’s just you working things out. Getting something like that pointed out is the worst, but it can be necessary.

    Though I really do subscribe to the million words of crap theory. I wrote two novels in college, which were on the whole, terrible, a bunch of short stories, which varied, and then I went home and I wrote probably at least a million words of fanfiction. Which is wonderful, because you practice with immediate results and mostly positive reinforcement, and the more you do, the easier it gets. And then I wrote three more novels. Now, finally, I think I can do what I couldn’t do at all in college, which is shape a scene. But no one could tell me how to do it. I just had to do it a million times, until it felt right and I could see the differences between my early efforts and my later ones. (And that doesn’t mean I don’t still end up with a huge clunker half the time anyway.)

  2. At least they’re trying to learn?

    there is a difference between understanding something and applying that understanding

    Y’know, that was my problem with query letters — which makes sense, given that I’d done, maybe, two of them at that point. (And it didn’t help that I was trying to start with the subtle-layered-subtext equivalent of a query, instead of the straightforward-plot equivalent.)

    I occasionally worry that this blog contributes to the problem.

    I for one am delighted that you don’t stick to basics. There’s a ton of resources out there for beginning writers; if they’re not taking advantage of them, it’s not for lack of opportunity. There is relatively little for the intermediate-level folks, a state of affairs lamented in more than one conversation I’ve had. I always try to point those people here.

    • Patricia: “I occasionally worry that this blog contributes to the problem.”

      LizV: “I for one am delighted that you don’t stick to basics. There’s a ton of resources out there for beginning writers; if they’re not taking advantage of them, it’s not for lack of opportunity. There is relatively little for the intermediate-level folks, a state of affairs lamented in more than one conversation I’ve had. I always try to point those people here.”

      I have seen the same effect in computer programming material. It can be very easy to beginning material or advanced material, but there is a terrible paucity of intermediate material.

  3. The Dunning–Kruger effect, full blast.

  4. It’s true. You really do need to practice. After I wrote my first novel, I thought it was amazing. Then I wrote my second one, and when I looked back at the first I realized it was crap. Then I wrote my third and realized my second wasn’t nearly as awesome as I thought. I’m now writing my fifth book, and I finally feel like maybe this one stands a chance – and I *think* I’m saying that objectively, lol. I see more of the flaws also, but at least now I know how to fix them.

  5. I know a writer whose prose is so well-fashioned that he can structure page-long sentences that are effortlessly understandable. He can deftly weave a scene that engages all the senses, and the worlds, cultures, and characters he creates feel at least as real as reality itself. His pacing is good, and he can imbue atmosphere that can make you laugh with joy or shiver in dread.

    What he can’t do is tell a story. His longer works are simply a string of “events” that utterly fail to progress dramatically. Applying plot formulas (such as The Hero’s Journey) doesn’t help.

    It is the epitome of flying before learning to crawl, and I don’t know how to help him.

  6. That was me – in 1995.

    With the difference: I wrote the story down, and then compared my words with the picture in my head – to find that I had no clue how to translate the picture into words that would reconstruct the picture. I knew how bad it was – because I was used to reading good stories, well written by my favorite authors. I knew I didn’t measure up.

    It has taken many year to become basically competent at creating the word picture so someone else can go with me to the story place – and I’m learning all the time.

    You just keep trying – and comparing to your own standards. It’s good to have those standards, because you see that it CAN be done.

  7. For some people learning comes in the form of ‘understanding underlying patterns’ and until they do, all the practice in the world is just going to bring marginal improvements. It seems obvious to me that an understanding of ‘the tools one can employ to make this character different from that one’ would come before putting it into practice.

    Also, *is* there a progression by which one learns to write well? It seems to me as if every writer finds their own, and some – like Wolf’s friend above – are spectacularly brilliant in one field and not-great in another. We’re also back to the triangle of ‘knowing what you want the result to be’ ‘recognising where your writing differs’ and ‘being able to write how you want to write’ through which everybody moves in a different manner.

    There’s a good chance that you’re right, and you’re observing someone who thinks they’re a much better writer than they actually are. But there’s also a chance that _this is how they learn_ and they need to grok ‘differentiating characters’ first before they can make _these two_ sound different, and that piling one item after the other ‘sentence length. Word choice. Mannerisms.’ will at best provide them with band-aids and at worst muddle the waters and distract them from the real problem.

  8. I just ran across this related comic:

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