More rules, you say. Yes, and they are probably also wrong. What is true is that editors like to find excuses to reject, and it's better not to give them any. On the other hand, they aren't always right.
At this point the responses don't always end up in the right place. This is in response to Linton's line about teaching people to draw and write:
You can teach people to draw lifeless drawings and play lifeless music and write lifeless stories. You can get them all to a competent level. Hey, you'll say, that looks just like some fruit in a bowl on the table with the sunlight coming in, that's, "Mannish Boy," nice, and, hey, that's a detective story with a flawed hero, two red herrings and a solution that makes sense even though I didn't see it coming.
People taught me how to do two out of those three things.
John, you addressed your reply to Debbie Mack but I thought I'd chime in since we are effectively saying the same thing. I am not opposed to guides that enable people experiencing difficulty writing, to do so. I am writing a book on dialog myself and I have every incentive to promote books intended to teach struggling writers.
What I am not crazy about is the notion that you can teach someone the style in which he or she can write, or the kind of stories that can be written. No one really knows what will go over well or what will self-destruct in the marketplace.
And I suppose we should ask a question: how do you measure the efficacy of these books or workshops? How do we know they deliver on their promises? What do they promise? If they promise specific goals that can be verified, I have no reservations about them. Otherwise It's just somebody expressing his or her opinion.
Of course there's technique in writing; all skills involve some technique. The word "technique" is derived from the French word meaning "formal practical details in artistic expression." A writer's technique is whatever skills form the foundation of his work, just as the knowledge of scales and arpeggios allow a musician to concentrate on making music, and not just concentrate on the notes. If a writer had to think about the most elementary things every time he sat down to write, he'd never get past elementary writing. That's where his tecnique comes in, providing the things he can do without thinking, allowing him to elevate the end product.
I agree. Proof of this is that someone first taught me to write abstract exposition for research papers (and there were at least two different trechniques involved), and I then later had to reteach myself to write fiction, an altogether different ballgame with different objectives. Furthermore, techniques differ for different types of fiction. Thrillers obey some rules that mysteries don't have follow, and historical novels operate again on other wave lengths.
But how good a book is in any of those categories has little to do with whether or not the technique has been followed correctly.
Okay, we're going to have to agree to disagree. I can only go by my own experience. I learned to write, I spent years learning to get the voice I wanted on the page. Teachers helped me along the way. I'm no natural, I had no "knack" twenty-five years ago when I started.
I had to study other writers to find out what they were doing with their words to get the emotional reaction out of me when I read. I wrote stories in their styles the way I played old Rolling Stones songs on my guitar (badly in both cases). But just like I started to figure out what Keith was doing with all those minor scales, I started to figure out what Hemingway was doing with those declarative sentences.
This is something that comes up all the time when people talk about writing. I used to think I was just thick. How come it comes so naturally to other people on day one but I struggled with it for years?
Then I started to find out it didn't really come that easily, that was just the marketing machine talking. Rod Stewart actually spent years and years of his life singing before anyone ever recorded him. That story about being "discovered" at the train station is no more true than the woman who got "discovered" in the drug store in Hollywood. Malcolm Gladwell's latest book, Outliers, talks about how The Beatles had performed over 10,000 hours together before they recorded a single song (not all of them with Ringo, but of course, drummers do start on day one ;).
Elmore Leonard has said it takes writing a million words to find your voice. Sure, it starts on day one, but if it stays the way it is on day one chances are slim anyone else will be interested in it. (he also said you can start selling before the million words. Thank goodness, I think I'm about 750,000 words written and he's right, I'm starting to find my voice).
You experience may be different. I wish my experiences had been different, I wish it hadn't taken me so long, but I'm really glad I had some great teachers along the way to help so it didn't take me even longer.
What really happened was people taught me how to read. That took a lot of feedback, that took me having to explain to someone what I understood a piece of writing to be saying and doing.
There are a lot of crooks and hacks in the guru world. People need to be careful what they pay for. There's a guy who teaches weekend seminars on how to write screenplays. When I'm retied I'm going to go heckle him. I used to love movies when they were stories, before writing a screenplay became panning for gold, looking to get rich quick.
And you know the only people who make money in a gold rush are the guys selling shovels.
But there's a world of difference between the get-rich-quick scam artists and real teachers involved in real study. We can't lumo them all together. That feedback I received from professors was very different than what you get from how-to books.
For every pop star who didn't study, there are dozens more like the guys in Pink Floyd who met at art school studying music. For every writer who did it all on there own, there's a Raymond Carver who spent years in Iowa studying.
Usually I'm on the other side of this discussion saying that what's wrong with literature today is that it's too insulated, all written by people who studied the same books in undergraduate creative writing classes and are all now working as professors.
But then I spend some time in other "other" world where people don't actually study writing and try to wing it.
What John said above. Scales and arpeggios and chords and other techniques are the grammar of music. Mahler and Dizzy Gillespie and Pete Townshend all use different chord structures, just as Hemingway, Faulkner, and Dickens used different sentence structures.
It doesn't matter how good the story, or how impassioned the writing, if the author can't string together a sequence of coherent, cohesive sentences. It has to make sense to someone else. Technique is what allows the writer to get past that part, knowing this is how sentences go together so he can write them without thinking much about it, allowing him to get to the art.
I think Stephen King sumed up the balance between what can, and cannot, be learned when he broke writers into four very broad categories. (This could work for just about any skill.) There are the Incompetent, and Competent, the Good, and the Great. A Competent writer can become good, and an Incompetent writer might be able to be Competent, but a good writer can never become a Great writer. That's where the spark that can't be learned comes in. Everything else is hard work and learning.
It should also be noted that Great writers can become Good, or even Competent writers if they piss away or otherwise decline to develop their gifts.
Well said, Dana. I like the music analogy, but it's a tricky one. Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and other bebop musicians based many of their tunes on the chord changes of standards from what's now called "The Great American Songbook." For example, "Ornithology" is based on "How High the Moon," and "Hot House" is based on "What Is This Thing Called Love." For the most part, they kept to fairly standard structures, until free jazz came along.
Much more freedom is possible in writing novels, I believe, but both require an "ear", whether for notes or language. Techniques can be taught, but some folks are hopelessly tone deaf.