Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Learning to write: the music is in the words

My corner of the universe is quiet and flat-calm today. There isn't even a ripple in the pond to blog about, so I'll TRY to find a simple answer to a question that was asked of me about two weeks ago. It's an easy enough question, but the answer could turn into something of the size and weight of Quo Vadis.

An extremely nice gent in Vancouver asked, "Do you have to go to college and qualify as a writer, to be a writer?"

The flipside to the question was along the lines of "I'm 40, with 15 years to go on my mortgage and three kids to educate, an ex-wife to pay, and my current partner says he'll help as much as he can if I have to change to part-time work and do college."

That's not a question, that's the plot of a novel.

Let me get my teeth into it -- and before I say another word, here's the caveat: the following are my own opinions! Talk to twenty people, you'll get twenty different stories, and every one is as good, as right, as the other nineteen.

Do you have to LEARN to be a writer? Yes. Do you have to do the learning in college? No. Can you go to college to learn to write ... yes and no. You can go to college and stick around long enough to get an MFA, but here's the cold, hard truth: nobody can teach you how to conceive of a story. You can be taught spelling, punctuation, grammar, syntax, parsing, plot "timing," story editing, copy editing, line editing, proofreading, typing, manuscript formatting, PC skills, word processing, desktop publishing, and the etiquette of approaching agents, publishers and producers...

But at the end of the course all these are mechanical skills that are (in the harsh blue light of day) no more difficult to learn than Japanese cooking, poker, watercolor painting, needlepoint, playing the piano, speaking French, using an SLR camera.

In other words, each of these skills is clearly defined. There's a rule book. A cookbook. You learn the rules and stick to them.

Now, a writing course you've paid a lot of money for will give you the cookbook approach to writing. (There's little else they can do, since they have 45 students in this class, all with different abilities, and all are going to trundle through the same meat-grinder process.) There's even a cookbook approach to plot development, character design and voice.

You'll certainly be producing fiction at the end of it all. But the inspiration, the new ideas, the sparkle, the individuality and brilliance, must come from YOU. All anyone can teach you is the mechanical skills. What makes a cook into a chef? What quality differentiates the dauber from the great artist? What sets the flautist in the high school orchestra apart from, say, James Galway?

The answer is skill, individuality, originality, inspiration, brilliance. And these things, no one can impart.

In fact, you can learn the mechanical aspects of writing yourself. Get books; study; teach yourself. And while you're thrashing out correct grammar, spelling, punctuation and so forth ... write. And then write some more. And when you're done (you guessed) get stuck in and write again! It might take a million words for your style to mature, so don't delay -- get started!

Writing is less like playing music than like "being" music. Imaging you're Beethoven or Chopin or Mark Knopfler. That music didn't write itself. It came to life in the minds of these people and escaped through their fingertips, into the air as sound waves, or onto paper as musical notation.

Same thing with writing. The whole thing is a creative process that begins ... somewhere.

I would say it's an absolute fact that if you take a cookie-cutter writing course, you will wind up writing cookie-cutter stories and novels. And I'll give you short odds that agents, publishers and editors can spot them from a mile away.

It's like the template for this bog. It's just an ordinary, common-or-garden Blogger template. They're out there by the millions. It's not important, because the content of this blog is what you're here for. (What's Keegan rattling on about today?)

But if you take the analogy a step further and have a template for a novel ... you hit the quagmire at once. The template would be something like this:

One: gotta capture the reader's attention and make him/her want to go on. There are five tried and true ways to do this; choose from the following list...
Two: must define and design the central character(s) right now, make them easy to grasp, so the readers will know who they are. There are five tried and true ways to do this...
Three: gotta set up the conflict between the Hero and his Opposition, before the reader gets bored and stops reading. Pick from the following list of 20 sure-fire problems (aka plot-drivers).

And so on. This is formula fiction. Throughout the entire 20th century, hack writers churned it out by the billions of words. An SF novel of the 1950s and 1960s would be 35-45,000 words, and they were written this way in about one week flat.

Inexperienced and young readers, can't tell when the writing is poor -- and the fact is, when the IDEA behind even a hack a novel is good enough, it will still shine even though the mechanical skills are less than sparkling.

As an example, let me tell you about a little novel called The Edge of Time. I'd read and loved it when I was 10, and then read it again about a year ago. (Yeah, yeah, 40 years later; so? You got a problem with that?) In the first five pages I found a dozen items that should have been edited, by anyone's standards, and the writing didn't get any better as the book progressed. The STORY was as great as ever. What I'd loved long ago, I still loved. But in my mind, I was constantly editing and rewriting, to make the book over into what it should have been.

I know the author could have done much better. How do I know that? Because "David Grinnell" is a pen name of Donald A. Wollheim. As in, DAW.

I can only guess that The Edge of Time was hammered out in about a week, circa 1957, and there was no time to go back and edit, polish. This is the downside to writing for an industry that's going to pay you about $50 for the finished book: you work so fast, mistakes get made, and you're flying without an editorial safety net.

And yet the actual story of The Edge of Night is as spellbinding as ever. The idea was great, and this is what roots the little novel in my mind as fine, even though it's actually full of errors --

And this is the quality that no one, nowhere, no how, can teach you. Inspiration, originality. The rest of it? The spelling and syntax and proof reading? You can teach yourself ... or you pay pay a fortune and take class.

How you learned what you know is of far less importance to an editor or agent than the fact you do indeed know your virgules from your ampersands! In fact, it will be taken as read that you know this stuff. Editors and agents do NOT expect to read your pages and have spelling or grammatical errors jumping off the paper at them. (They actually expect to be bored out of their respective gourds by labored prose, uninteresting characters, stereotypes, and ... yep, cookie-cutter plot development. Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to surprise the pants off them by not boring them to death!)

My opinion on the subject? Stay the hell away from colleges. Learn the mechanical aspects of your art and craft as if you were studying music, painting, knitting, cooking. And while the basics are being hard-wired into your brain, unleash your creativity. Find your "voice" and let inspiration flow. Follow your instincts, because this is where individuality and originality are conceived and born. And these are the things that can't be taught.

Originality and inspiration are like being able to sing in tune, or see with the vision of da Vinci. Not everyone can do it. If you can, go for it, full-throttle. If you can't? Not everyone has it in them to be a writer, artist or composer ... but it can be a lot of fun trying.

There's a good article I can link you to; but I haven't read the author's book, so honestly can't recommend it or not. From the article, and his credentials, I'm guessing it's very good, but you must judge for yourself:


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