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Can Writing Be Taught?

Along with 90 other people, I sat in on a marvelous writing workshop this weekend. Even after 10 published novels, I was able glean a few key things that caused me to re-align the last quarter of my current novel in progress. Did the workshop leader teach me how to write better?

I don’t think so. Writing can’t be taught. That’s my position this afternoon, and I’m sticking to it for at least a couple days. I was born with an ear for words and sentences, and if that’s what you mean by “writing,” I think you’re on your own. OK, you can get better at cutting out adverbs and using muscular prose, but you don’t get much better. And a good teacher can guide you a bit.

It’s the Story Stupid

What writing workshops and fine teachers can help you (and me) with is storytelling. Stories are what happens between the covers of a book, to whom, and why. There are a thousand details to work out such as:

  1. Who is the protagonist and how are they connected to this story problem?

  2. What is the story problem?

  3. What is my intriguing concept that will compel people to read this story?

  4. How does plot shake hands with character to drive the quest?

  5. What unanswered questions will keep the reader turning pages to discover the answers?

  6. Who are my characters really, when the pressure is on?

  7. and a bunch of other stuff . . .

Storytelling is where the novelist, aspiring or experienced, can get badly screwed up. There is just so much. How do you put it together for good effect?

How to Write A Novel and Sell It: Answer #1

You do something so original and jaw-droppingly wonderful that it doesn’t exactly matter whether the story delivers on all cylinders.

How to Write a Novel and Sell It: Answer #2

  1. Learn the elements of story.

  2. Learn story structure.

  3. Practice.

  4. Write.

  5. Type.

  6. Find an agent.

Did you feel uncomfortable when I suggested that stories have “elements” and “structure”? To some, it seems too formulaic to buy in to the idea of story structure. These are writers who like to flail in creative excitement and fix it on the rewrite. If you are one of these, you may actually find planning aversive, and therefore you prefer something that is termed “organic” writing. (You know, make a beginning and discover the story as you go.)

If you are not resistant to planning, then you are a writer like me and are open to learning basic storytelling tropes. That’s good news, because my thesis is that it can be taught. In fact, I think it must be taught. There’s just no way you’re going to stumble upon a great structure.

Which Elements, Which Structure?

OK, here’s where I’m going to get dodgy. There are schools of thought. There’s Robert McKee and Hero’s Journey and Three Acts and more. Surprisingly, they all have a lot in common. I find that reassuring. Some find it confusing, as though variations in structural theory prove that none of it is true.

Not so. I’m going to go out on a limb and recommend Larry Brooks to you. I am quite intrigued by his take on story structure. His viewpoint is embedded in an overall approach to the novel called the Six Core Competencies.

My personal note on this is that I had completed a 25 page synopsis for a novel that my agent thinks is fantastic. But after Larry’s class, I went back and did a quick scan of the big scenes in my story. They were a bit off. Not fatally, but confusedly. Why emphasize that scene when it doesn’t drive the narrative? Why did I think I needed a “big scene” at that point, when all I needed was a meaningful one–meaningful in terms of what my protagonist is all about? What if I recast the climax to drive home my theme instead of just resolving the stakes?

Far from feeling sheepish about using a formula, I felt empowered to use my highest skills. I still get to decide all the important stuff. It’s still incredibly hard to write a compelling story. But I’m really glad that there remain illuminating things to learn about storytelling.

About the writing . . . man, I’m just going to have to sweat it out.


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