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.