Wherein we address the Craft-to-Art Gap
(Apologies for my absence. I should have filled the gap with guest posts from my wonderful Storyfix partners, but I fumbled that as I focused on a new non-fiction project, which I am excited to share with you in a couple of weeks.
As for today’s post… I return with a bit of a rant. Forgive the blood coming out of my forehead on this one.)
I am quietly observant of several online forums composed of novelists-in-waiting, a few of them on LinkedIn, which publishes a list of “20 Essential Groups for New writers.” One of which is the focus of today’s post.
I could pick any of them to make my point today, because they are all basically the same.
This is where you get new writers telling other new writers what they should know.
What they should and should not do. Often with an authoritative context. Too often.
Like the guy who proudly announced, “I don’t plan my stories. That doesn’t work. It robs the entire process of creativity.”
Okay folks, now we know.
A few days ago a new writer posted a generalized plea for help – a very common context on these sites – that went something like this: “I’m writing my first novel, and I need to know how to start and what to write, and how to get it published.”
I know… right?
There were well over two dozen responses, from fellow new writers who seemed to know these answers. Here’s one of them:
Just start writing until you finish. Don’t stop to correct anything. Then go back and fix what needs fixing.
Over half of the comments echoed this.
Because this is what new writers believe. And say to each other.
Ah, the secret of the writing process, at last.
To which I quietly ask… how will this guy know what needs fixing, other than those typos?
Truth is, there is a time in the process for this crash-and-burn drafting, but it is definitely not the way to begin.
Here’s another perfectly normal question:
I have a captivating story and concept in my mind and have started working on writing chapters for the same, however, since I am a first time fiction author, could any of the experienced authors here share your thoughts on the things to consider while writing a fiction novel and also some enlightenment on approaching publishers at the end of this?
He’s writing a fiction novel.
This is all you need to know about the level of discourse on these forums.
As for my response – which I didn’t post; I never post on these things, I would spend half my day addressing 101-level issues — I would start with this: never, ever, as long as you breathing, refer to your book as a “fiction novel.” That’s like saying pasta spaghetti. Or winged airplane. Or singing vocalist. Yeah, there is something informally referred to as a non-fiction novel, but that’s the only time you need to lead with a qualifier.
Don’t sound like a rookie that is on Day 1 of the journey. Even if you are one.
The longest response among the 29 offered from the membership was about 75 words.
I have written 200,000 words on the subject over three #1 (Amazon niche) bestselling craft books, and over 1000 blog posts, many of which boil down addressing this and similar questions. What’s-the-meaning-of-life type questions. Because that’s what it takes to cover the scope of that arena.
My friends Art Holcomb and James Scott Bell and Randy Ingermanson and C.S. Lakin and K.M. Weiland and Jennifer Blanchard and many others have done the same.
And yet, to some extent this question remains unanswerable.
Many of those 29 responses were on point, including the one that suggested it was way too soon to be worrying about how you plan to publish. Which is counter to what someone else said in recommending the the self-publishing route.
Because of course, you can throw anything you want out there on that basis, the purest of utter crap if you desire, and good things will surely happen.
To which I say… the bar for success is no lower in self-published venues that it is at Random House. The very few monster self-published home runs that emerge – like The Martian – are every bit as good as what the Big 5 publishers put out, so that becomes the comparative standard.
I stay off the forums because I usually end up in a pissing match. Some new writers don’t want to hear anything that smacks of mentoring. Because this is high art, damn it, and suffering isn’t optional and there are no rules.
Watch the comments section here. They’ll show up, I promise.
The Craft-to-Art Gap
I’ve noticed something connected to this conversation among the reviews of my three writing books. Aside from the people that simply don’t like my writing – and there is a grouchy network of them, they attack me as if I’ve insulted their daughter on prom night – there are writers who claim I leave out the how.
I wrote an entire book on the how – Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant. It is cover-to-cover about the how… and yet, some readers missed it.
Because it’s complicated.
Because you have to be able to wrap your head around it.
One guy assaulted me for using “big words.” Yeah, like premise and resolution and set-up and first plot point. Monster, M.I.T kind of words.
They miss it, because it isn’t math. It is story sense. Story sense is the sum of all the craft you can eat at the workshop buffet, digested on your terms.
Nelson Demille can tell you why his books are bestsellers. So can I: Because he taps into a patriotic context, and delivers a hero that is both witty, clever and courageous with high-stakes drama.
Michael Connelly can tell you why he’s the absolute king of the police procedural. Because we don’t just like Harry Bosch, we admire him, we want to be him. Connelly puts him into highly dangerous, empathetic situations, often connected to big real life issues, with emotionally-resonant stakes.
Another big word there: emotionally-resonant.
Oh, that’s it. So how do I DO that?
But how do you make it witty?
What does clever mean and how do I DO it?
What do you mean by context? You use that word over and over, I had to put the book down. You suck.
I tell people, here and in my books, to strive for a conceptually-driven premise. Along with that comes a clear differentiation between concept and premise.
More big words and crazy confusing ideas. Concept and premise are different? How can that be?
People ask me how to find a conceptually-driven-premise. Rather than studying the criteria for that, and the examples of that — which is precisely how you get there — they want the gold ring UPS’d to them.
You get to decide what is conceptual. You are stuck with… you. If you skip over the criteria and examples, that’s on you, too.
Or this 1-star review pearl: Larry is very confident that his system works where others fail, except that he really doesn’t know how to use the word physics. Hint: It’s not the plural of physic.
Maybe, after looking up the word physics (because it’s in the title of the book), he would understand that, despite the fact that I never once, not even with a typo, used the word “physic,” and that it is applied as a metaphoric reference to story forces.
A massive leap, that. Real Mensa stuff.
The bottom line is right there, in that sentence: understand.
Our entire journey through craft and the assault toward the summit along the learning curve, is simply to do that. To understand.
Because when you do understand, when you get that story sense is something that exceeds the sum of the craft parts that will lead you to it… only then will you be able to summon the inexplicable, unteachable and totally unique story sensibility that those famous authors command, and yet, cannot convey or explain any better than us lowly writing teachers who struggle to bring the word to the writing community…
… including the guy that doesn’t understand the word physics as he rails against me using it…
… including the guy who tells other writers to just sit down and write…
… including the guy who said in his review that I promise definitions but never deliver them… to which I responded that the definitions appear in little black boxes in the book, with the bolded word “Definition of…” in the subheader, and then I give the specific page numbers of those eleven key definitions… all of which was deleted by Amazon, which doesn’t want authors challenging clueless reviewers even when the response is merely the correction of faulty information.
Because the writer couldn’t wrap his head around it. Because this is supposed to be easy, to be fun. It’s just beginning, middle and end, right? What’s up with all those big words and principles and models?
James N. Frey said it best, right here on Storyfix a few years ago (click HERE to read that stellar post):
Writing is easy. Just sit down and bleed from the forehead until you get something that works.
Thing is, too many writers don’t understand what bleed means in that context. Because it is an analogy, and analogies require a leap of logic and interpretation that is above many.
Or what works means, because other than the criteria for what works – which is precisely what the Story Fix book is all about – nobody can tell you how to get there.
Story sense isn’t a gift, it is a muscle.
Analogy alert… put on your sound-retardant headphones and think.
Sure, some are born with stronger muscles than others, but anyone can increase their muscular size and strength to some degree. Through hard work. Though the application of proven principles.
But even then, you need to know what the work is, what those principles are, and what it all means.
And in writing, that ends up being a minority subculture within the masses who are online talking about it.
I can point you toward the craft.
Many writing teachers can do that. Pick your teacher, pick your approach, pick your story modeling.
But you absolutely cannot cherry pick the principles and criteria that apply. They are universal. They are complex yet learnable.
Once learned, you and your resultant story sense are on your own. And thus we have explained why those who write critically and commercially successful fiction are defined as a low single-digit percentage of the “just write” crowd.
But like that donkey that you can lead to water but you can’t make drink… nobody can make you get it.