Writing — There Are No Shortcuts
THERE ARE NO SHORTCUTS IN WRITING
For many of us, the first impulse to write a novel comes with an idea that we have only to get our wonderful story down on paper, polish it up a bit, and we’ll have a finished book, one that wins instant acclaim and makes us very, very rich. Others realize it’s not as simple as that. Instead, they believe there are secret techniques and arcane formulas, which, if they can convince someone to divulge them, will unlock all the mysteries of characterization, plot structure, and everything else they need to know, so that they can sit down and write their novel with a minimum of effort, win instant acclaim, and become very, very rich.
Unfortunately, there are no such secret formulas or shortcuts. Once you have learned the basics of grammar, spelling, and punctuation, the only way to learn how to write is … write, and do a lot of it, as well as read, and do a lot of that, too.
So much of the process of learning to write is based on experimenting with different ways to tell your story, through one draft after another, through trial and error. This may seem like a terribly disorganized way to go about it. And it is — but it’s also remarkably effective. There is no one right way to construct a plot. There is no one right way to create believable characters. There is no one right way to put them both together to write a compelling story. What there is, instead, is instinct: instinct for what works in your particular story, instinct for what will work in the next one you write. That instinct will not always be infallible, but for the most part it will be your most reliable guide — and you’re most likely to get yourself into trouble ignoring what that instinct is trying to tell you, because your mind is set on doing something else instead. This is what you can learn only by writing draft after draft, by trial and error: how to develop a writer’s instinct, and learn to trust it.
This phase of learning to write may well take years. Forget what you’ve heard about successful novelists who wrote their first novel in a matter of months without ever writing a single word before. Either the writer has a genius for recognizing what the public wants right now, or the story of their success is liberally seasoned with hype, or both. If you want to learn how to write well, write convincingly, write something that will win readers without relying on serendipitous timing and incredible luck, then you are going to have to work at it for a long time. If that sounds like too much effort, with no guaranteed rewards, then you should consider finding something else to do, something you feel so passionate about that simply doing it is its own reward.
However, there may come a time, after much work, when you are ready to profit from the advice of others. That is the time to buy books on writing, sign up for a workshop, post some work online for critique, join a writers group (a course I highly recommend), hire a developmental editor, or any combination of these.
But why, you are probably asking, should you wait?
I remember a day, after I had sold my first book but before it was published, attending a seminar taught by a well-known fantasy writer. I sat there nodding my head through the entire class, because every word he said made perfect sense. It was not that he taught me things that I didn’t already know, but what he did do was put into words the knowledge I had painstakingly acquired, organizing it in such a way that it was no longer necessary for me to dig around in my mind and piece it together each time I wanted it. From the reactions of the other students, I doubt that many of them got as much out of that class as I did (although the teacher was sufficiently brilliant and entertaining a speaker that just listening to him for six hours was a treat in itself), and firmly believe the reason for this was because that class came at just the right time in my personal development as a writer, but too soon for some of the rest. (Which isn’t to say that other students might not have come to recognize his words of wisdom later when they were ready, but it’s likely that much was lost. We remember best those things we understand.)
Which brings us to this: One of the important things that happens during the period of trial and error is that you are learning how to learn about writing. It is most valuable knowledge, and knowledge you can only earn. No one can pass it on to you. Once you have it, you are ready to learn from other people. Here again, practice helps. When receiving critiques, you often have to decipher what those who give the critiques are trying to say, because this is not always as lucid as it could be. You may hear criticism from two people who appear to be contradicting each other, when in fact they are reacting to the same weakness, but in opposite ways. Your job, then, is to translate what they are telling you, pinpoint the weakness they’ve both identified — and perhaps come up with your own solution that mysteriously satisfies everyone. It takes experience to gain the confidence not to collapse in a welter of confusion because everyone is telling you completely different things — and, at the same time, acquire the humility to realize that if two people have opposite reactions to something you have written that doesn’t automatically mean that you have done it just right.
After a constructive critique you may find you have even more work to do than you thought you had. Criticism should only point the way, it should only offer suggestions, it should not be too collaborative. Ideally, a writers group will include a few people of greater experience, who not only identify weaknesses in your work but explain why you might wish to write a scene or a chapter another way, writers who can recognize what you are trying to achieve and offer suggestions for better ways you might accomplish that, rather than try to write your story for you. And while they may help you avoid going off in entirely the wrong direction so that you would have to backtrack, none of these people can offer you any magical shortcuts. It is your story; you must do the work. (Unless, of course, you have taken on a collaborator. In which case, it is up to the two of you.) Books are not written by a committee. Or at least they shouldn’t be.
Writing is hard. Writing is frustrating. Yet when it is going well, it is a marvelous feeling. Better than chocolate. More exciting than circuses. Maybe even better than sex. (Opinions on this last vary.) Like so many other forms of bliss, it doesn’t come cheaply. But then, who would value it if it did?
TERESA EDGERTON is a freelance developmental editor, providing critiques and evaluations of unpublished manuscripts, and helping new writers to expand and develop their writing skills. If you would like to learn more about the services she provides, you may send her an email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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