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Don’t Fake It—Learn the Craft

June 7, 2013 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified June 16, 2013

I’ve mentioned in other articles that you don’t have to know everything about writing and fiction and novels in order to begin your first novel. And that’s true whether you’re writing or editing. But you do need to know something. A lot of somethings.

While every writer and editor has to start somewhere, where you start and the tools and skills you bring with you have a major impact on where you’ll end up and the product you’ll produce.

You have to know the basics before you begin, but you also need to know much more than just the basics. The basics alone won’t get you where you want to go. The basics won’t get you anywhere readers will be interested in visiting. The basics are necessary but not sufficient.

If you’re a writer or editor—or want to become one—the basics of writing should intrigue you, compel you, draw you deep into the fullness, the depth and breadth, of writing. They should make you crave more—want to know more and try more.

The basics are an introduction, but there’s a full world beyond that introduction. Writing basics are only the doorway.

Think of writing and fiction basics as the foyer and front hallway of a mansion, the space you have to walk through to get to all that lies beyond. (Yes, a foundation would work as an analogy too, but that’s been done.) There are plenty of rooms leading off from that foyer, rooms with different purposes and setups. And rooms are built above, supported by the hallway beneath and the rooms attached to it.

If you visited a mansion, got to take a tour, wouldn’t you be disappointed if you never moved beyond the front hall? Sure, there’s some great stuff there—the suit of armor and a few family portraits—but the entryway is such a small, small part of the whole. And descriptions of it don’t do the full mansion justice.

The same is true of stories written by writers who know too little about the craft. Their readers don’t get to see enough, experience enough, feel enough. The story structure will be lacking necessities, like a house missing a bathroom or kitchen or closets.

Maybe there’s no cohesion in the plot. Maybe characters come and go without reason. Maybe there’s no conflict, or dialogue is without nuance or subtext. Maybe dialogue is simply laughable because the writer has no idea how to fashion believable conversations between characters.

Maybe characters act without motivation, fail to react to story events, have no logical relation to one another.

Maybe setting details are missing or maybe they overwhelm the action.

Maybe the story reads like a diary or a report of a character’s days, with no scenes unfolding in real time.

Maybe time is jumbled, with no logic in terms of when events take place.

Maybe the story is filled with every common fiction error because the writer had no knowledge of how to avoid even the most basic errors.

There are many ways to mess up stories, so many pitfalls for the writer who is ignorant of craft and lacks both skills and experience. But no writer needs to remain ignorant, not today. Not when so many resources are available.

My intent is not to frighten or discourage those who haven’t formally studied writing or fiction—you don’t need an advanced degree to make a living at writing. Nor is my intent to discourage editors who have only a little experience.

What I do want to do is encourage writers and editors of every level to learn more, to enhance their skills. To not try to pass themselves off as knowledgeable and skilled if they are neither. To recognize that writing a novel—and editing a novel—requires more than the ability to string words into sentences. That basic skill will get you started, but it won’t get you far.

If you’ve only read a few novels in your lifetime,  you have no idea what goes into writing them. If you haven’t studied the elements of fiction, even on your own, you certainly can’t know what they are or how to use them or their importance to story. Trying to write a novel blindly, without knowing what’s required, is foolish in a day when so much information is available.

Take advantage of that availability and learn.

You can only remain ignorant for so long concerning your field if you plan to continue in it for a lifetime. Or even if you simply want to test yourself, see if you can do it.

So go to school to study writing or literature if that’s your desire. Learn about literary analysis and composition, Shakespeare and medieval literature, contemporary fiction and poetry and literary theory. Get all the knowledge you can.

Or give yourself an education. Read books on fiction writing, join a writing group, take Internet classes. Read novels of every genre from every age and analyze them to see what makes them work.

Or do both, go to school and study on your own. I guarantee you’ll be exposed to different emphases and subject matter with each option. But you’ll be able to use much of what you learn by either method to create compelling stories.

In addition to educating yourself, read more. Read novels and short stories and poetry and magazines. Read newspapers if you can find them. Read opinion pieces and essays and the dictionary. Read your favorite genres and read in genres you know nothing about.

Gain knowledge about fiction’s needs as well as about writing in general and then put what you learn into practice. Be a student the rest of your life, but don’t be only a student. Write.

Write your characters into problems and then figure out how to write them out of those problems. Figure out five ways to write them out. Figure out a dozen.

Learn how to think inside out and upside down and crossways and backwards.

Put your knowledge to work so that as you gain knowledge, you also develop skills. Head knowledge won’t be enough, not when it’s four in the morning and you’ve been banging your head against your desk for hours trying to solve a plot problem. If the head thing’s not working—the thinking or the banging—skills and experience should be able to solve the problem. Skills that you’ve practiced, skills that showed you how to problem-solve in novel ways.

________________________________

Maybe your intent is to get rich quick, real quick, as you imagine the newest self-published Internet darlings have, and you think you can do it as they did, overnight and without any skills or experience. Maybe you’ve read a few of the successful self-published books and think you can do better.

Maybe you can. But quite possibly you can’t. If you don’t know what goes into a good story, how could you possibly think you could create one? If you’ve never written dialogue or plotted out overlapping story lines, what makes you think you can do it and do it well enough for others to pay for the honor of reading what you write?

And what makes you think each successful author didn’t pay his or her dues, didn’t learn the craft and didn’t spend hours writing and rewriting and fighting with story issues and the mechanics of writing? No matter how bad you personally think a book is, if it’s successful, the author did something right. Probably more than one something. And it’s a safe bet to assume he’s got experience with more than just the basics.

What looks like instant success is no doubt the result of hours of writing, years of study, formal or informal, and love for fiction and the written word.

Sure, some novels are better than others, better when scored on a range of measures, but many are simply solid and enjoyable, worth the reader’s attention and time even if they aren’t perfect. For your stories to reach that level, your skills and experience need to be at a higher level than that of an eager beginner.

The Takeaway
I’m not trying to single you out if you know nothing about the craft or tell you not to dream of a successful writing future. I am telling you to put some flesh to your dreams. And add in some sweat, some long hours of effort, practice and study, and a whole lot of brain exercise.

Writers with training, writers with experience, writers with knowledge are all ahead of the new writer who only has an idea, some vague, indistinct, or even awesome idea. An idea isn’t a story. An idea isn’t character development and motivation and tightly woven plot threads. It isn’t dialogue filled with tension that shoots conflict through the roof. It isn’t layered back story or theme or setting details and the just perfect level of description. An idea isn’t the hundreds of choices that ultimately pull characters and readers deep and sink them inside emotion and anticipation and consequences. An idea isn’t enough to see the inexperienced or unknowing writer through hours and weeks and months of writing, even when the writing is going seemingly well.

Idea must be backed up by craft, nurtured by possibility. And possibility must have a basis in reality. When the writer knows he can put a 90,000-word suspense novel together—because he’s done it before or because he understands what needs to be included—then possibility and reality come together. Then story has a chance. Then idea has blossomed into its full promise.

An idea isn’t anything like the thousands of decisions—thousands of possibilities accepted or rejected—that go into writing a novel.

An idea is a kernel, a seed, but it isn’t the thing itself.

And if all you have is an idea—no skills, no plan, no experience, no knowledge of fiction, no sense of pitfalls and no awareness of problems that other writers have already faced and solved—you have almost nothing.

I’m not saying that an idea isn’t vital—without a good one, you’ll have no story at all. But without the rest of the elements, you also have no story. Don’t assume that an idea is the be all and end all of novel-writing success.

Any human can have a great idea; only writers can craft that idea into a novel.

If you intend to write, you have to push well beyond the idea stage. You have to learn the elements of fiction and know how to manipulate them to move your idea from thought to reality, from a ten-word sentence to a 90,000-word novel. From vague, cool what-if speculation to specific and defined three-dimensional people living in and making real a touchable, tastable, inhabitable fictional world.

Please don’t fool yourself into thinking that you, if you have no experience and no skills and no knowledge, will be the next Internet publishing sensation. You’ve got to have some skills. And if that’s a surprise to you or you don’t believe me, then you aren’t prepared to jump in and write. Willing ignorance won’t see your novels written and accepted.

A novel is more than words strung together. Plotting is more than he did this, then this, then this. Characters are more complex than having a single desire, such as wanting to stop the bad guy or get the girl.

Perhaps you’re well beyond this point. You might already have gifts and skills. So enhance them. Write. Study. Write some more. Learn what works. Learn what doesn’t. Learn about all the big topics and all the cool little insights. Learn the difficult stuff. Learn the fine points of both writing and fiction.

Recognize that there’s a big picture to consider and that lots of fine details made at a micro level—including word choice and word order—form that big picture.

Don’t be offended when I say that you need to learn the craft. No one can do any task with skill and panache unless he’s learned the ins and outs and tried doing it. Writers are the same. It’s not possible to be good at something unless you’ve learned how to do it. Unless you’ve learned how not to do it.

So those of you who are serious about your writing, I hope you forgive my bluntness. You probably already know that there’s more to writing than stringing 250 words together on every page.

But there are others who don’t have that same understanding. Who don’t know that writing a novel isn’t as easy as it looks. That there’s learning—both book knowledge and experience–involved and necessary for writing not only outstanding fiction but for simply adequate fiction as well. And these are the ones I want to encourage today.

If you don’t have the skills or the knowledge but you want to write, go after those skills and write, write, write. You can learn what you don’t know. You can craft good fiction. But you can’t fake it. Not for long. And there’s no valid reason to even try.

Give us the good stuff.

Add your stories to our world.

Write us some mesmerizing fiction.

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Tags: ,     Posted in: A Writer's Life, Beginning Writers

16 Responses to “Don’t Fake It—Learn the Craft”

  1. Blunt, but important to hear. It reminded me of a writers’ conference I attended a few years ago. A literary agent was talking about what agents are looking for and recounted a frequent problem she faces at conferences. Would-be clients approach her by saying that they have a really good idea for a novel. She soon learns that they haven’t put pen to paper and are expecting help with that. She must tell them that the profession isn’t looking for really good ideas that haven’t been painstakingly worked on and molded into an actual novel that incorporates the author’s best efforts. None of us is ever beyond the point of needing to study and learn. When I read a novel that I really like, I can’t help asking myself how the author made it work so well. I like thinking about the ways in which information was presented and withheld, how seemingly unrelated plot threads were intertwined and how hints were given along the way. It was a passionate and motivating post. Thanks.

  2. Donna, this one was a hard one to post. I don’t want to be too tough on anyone pursuing the craft, but would-be writers need to know that there’s more to writing than simply having the desire to write and a great idea.

    I’ve spoken to more than a few writers who, once they actually tried to write a novel, said that it was much more difficult than they ever imagined. Which is a testament to the writers they’ve read—the good ones make it look effortless. But on the other hand, great novels give no indication of just how much is involved in their creation—the foundations are well hidden.

    I’ve seen quite a few manuscripts this past year that tell me that lots of people are trying to write—which is wonderful. But they also tell me that many who are writing simply have no idea about the elements of fiction and how to work with them. Yet that information is available from so many sources, it’s a shame if writers don’t know that it’s there. Here’s hoping more new writers find the resources they need to get them on track.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I was worried about being blunt.

  3. “Trying to write a novel blindly, without knowing what’s required, is foolish in a day when so much information is available.” Spot on “Advice to live (write) by.” Thanks! One can always learn more, as learning itself becomes a passion while honing one’s craft.
    As a clinical psychologist who has segued into helping writers maneuver their characters through arcs and plot lines, I am constantly amazed at the way people can blithely plunk in the psychopath with the hidden heart of gold or, worse, mistake psychopath for psychotic. Kudos for your constructive criticism. Learn, learn, learn (and, I’m sure that you, being the expert editor, could help me improve even this post…tomorrow is another day and I’m willing!)

  4. Julia, what a fascinating job, to help writers with their characters in a way that will make them real and compelling.

    Learning is a joy—I can’t see why anyone wouldn’t want to improve, whatever field they’re in. I think the biggest step is getting writers to know that they don’t have to go it alone, that there is help available. Once they see the resources, the writing world grows in dozens of ways and possibilities become limitless.

    As for editing comments, I say let them be free and natural. If we only commented when we knew our words would be perfect, with error-free form and grammar, conversations would suffer. What you said was great. Thanks for contributing to the conversation.

  5. T M Delaney says:

    Beth, I loved this post. I think bluntness is necessary in any sort of feedback so you shouldn’t worry about that. If advice is given but is wishy-washy in its delivery, then the recipient won’t necessarily read between the lines and may go down a blind alley that would then delay their progress.
    I am a new writer and am now on my third novel. Going back to my first one, I can see so many errors, so many unanswered questions and writing that needs considerable sharpening. I can see improvement in my writing ability the more I write so I also wholeheartedly agree with the ‘write, write, write’ comment for without practice, we will lounge far from perfection!

  6. Thanks, T M. I’m glad the article hit a sweet spot for you.

    I agree that bluntness and honesty are necessary. I worry, however, how advice comes across through an article. Readers of the blog come from so many different backgrounds and are at so many different levels of skill that appealing to all or being understood by all by means of one article is tough. I don’t want to discourage any writer, but I also certainly don’t want anyone to blithely think that writing a novel is simple.

    Yes, the challenge of making ourselves clear, communicating, can be difficult. But it’s what we do, isn’t it? Here’s hoping that all our words—fiction and non-fiction—hit the target audience just right and convey all necessary information, meaning, and nuance.

    Here’s to writing well.

  7. Hi Beth. Fine post. I believe good writing begins with lots of reading. Writing a novel is a massive amount of work, and unless the writer already has seen lots of writing that inspires them, it will suffer from all of the flaws you mention. Nonetheless, kicking off the process and trying to write that novel or series of short stories is a necessary early step.

    I discovered during the First Chapters writing contest how much I didn’t know, but writing the first novel gave me the foundation to take what I had done and make it better. I agree there are great resources out there which can help the writer tighten their work and ratchet up the tension. So the first novel becomes the best we can do at the time. Then it’s time for the next one, where we apply all of the lessons learned and digest information that’s available in craft books and workshops. And in a certain editor’s blog.

  8. James, I’m glad you joined the discussion.

    I think that all of us, unless we studied writing in college, discover there’s a tremendous amount we don’t know about putting novels together. I’m grateful for the resources and for friends and other writers who share their knowledge. There’s no reason to remain in the dark about any element necessary to strengthen our writing skills and shape our stories into great ones.

  9. I agree, James, excellent point; “I believe good writing begins with lots of reading.” All begins with finding one’s area of strength within the genres and can only be discovered by reading, reading, reading. We’re best when we’re inspired by others. It’s only when we finally find our niche that we begin to develop our own voice. This, I believe, is not only true of writing but of life’s other passions as well. When we’re open to diversity in what’s available to us, the richer the outcome, in this case our own writing.

  10. Nick LeVar says:

    Well put. Some people thought I was crazy for taking two years and studying the craft of writing before publishing. “Just write,” they would say. And I did, everyday. But as a full-timer with all day everyday to devote to my craft, I was able to pound on my craft until I knew what I was doing. Now, two years later, I’m ready (two years is plenty of time to master the craft when you have 16 hours a day to study and practice). Do yourself a favor and learn the craft, folks. Please!

  11. Nick, a two-year program sounds wonderful. Most craft occupations used to have apprenticeships—what you did was get yourself an apprenticeship, at least of a kind.

    The best of success to you. I hope your time investment pays off.

  12. Hi Beth,
    I am currently planning my first book. It is going well and I am thoroughly enjoying it! I feel that I understand my story and characters, however, I also feel that when I come to write my story, I will not be able to write it correctly and I will make lots of fatal errors. I know that I need to practise writing, but I am not sure what I should write to improve my skills and I how would I know whether I am improving? I would really appreciate any tips to help improve,
    Thank you for your time,
    Ethyn

    • Ethyn, congratulations on writing your first book. That’s always wonderful to celebrate.

      You will make many errors in your first story—there’s no way around it. Whether they’re fatal or not, that I can’t say.

      Go into your first novel manuscript with the expectation that you’ll never publish it. You wouldn’t sell your first painting (except maybe to your mother), so you shouldn’t expect that your first effort will be flawless or that it will contain all the necessary elements. Yet you do have to begin somewhere. So write and finish that first novel.

      So you can learn what you don’t know and learn what goes into a novel, take a writing program at a local college or join a writers group. There are local groups and online groups. Get some feedback from others going through the same process.

      Read. Read novels in your genre to see how they’re arranged and read in other genres to see how story elements can be approached in multiple ways. And read how-to books. There are dozens of great ones out there. If you can’t afford to buy them, get them from a library. Give yourself a course in fiction writing.

      And after you finish your first draft—and you’ve let it rest—go back and rewrite. And read those how-to books again, when you’re rewriting. Then all the rules and recommendations will start to make sense. And once you’ve rewritten the same manuscript a couple of times—realizing that it’s in rewriting that the story truly comes together—put the manuscript aside and begin a new story using all the insights that you learned with the first.

      And then work through the second story the same way, rewriting scenes and chapters and sections in ways that improve the story as a whole.

      Keep going to your writers group and see not only what the group members have to say about your work, but what they say about the work of other writers. Learn how to critique the work of others—your writing will improve tremendously when you know how to look for weaknesses in both plotting and in the mechanics of writing and learn how to get rid of or strengthen those weaknesses.

      You can also find writing exercises in books and at online writing sites. Try the exercises—multiple times—to improve in areas that you know little about or that seem to give you trouble.

      Good luck. I hope you’ll come back in the future and let us know how you’re coming along.

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