Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
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.
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.