A guest post by Eric Neyer
When I was in my late 20s I spent two years working toward an MFA in Creative Writing degree at a small university in the western U.S. From the standpoint of expanding my creative perspective and developing relationships with fellow writers, those were the most productive and incredibly satisfying years of my life. I would never trade the experience for a different one.
And yet now, fifteen years later, neither I nor any other writer in my graduating class has a novel or story collection in mass publication.
Why no commercial successes, one might wonder? I can only speak for myself, but I don’t believe it is a lack of talent inherent in my classmates, nor any shortcomings of the teachers. The instructors were, as a rule, thoughtful, generous and insightful, and nine out of ten students in the program could craft a more poetically beautiful sentence than most best-selling authors. The issue lay elsewhere.
My final thesis was a collection of short stories, but it was clear to all of us fiction writers that novels were the only commercially viable medium for an aspiring fiction writer.
Once I graduated I was faced with a choice: pursue the academic route as a teacher or seek work in a professional field. I had some ideas for writing a novel, but since I needed to repay student loans and cover the rent, I landed a job as a technical writer. In my free time I struggled with sustaining a regular fiction writing habit, but I never got past the brainstorming and first couple chapters with any of my novel ideas.
I couldn’t exactly pinpoint the source of my frustration. I thought that I didn’t have the proper work ethic, or that I didn’t have the “storytelling gene.” My stories had generally garnered more positive than negative criticism in workshops, but to me there was always something vital missing. Over the years I’d published a few pieces without pay in tiny journals and obscure online venues. I did submit stories to The New Yorker and several other prestigious outlets, knowing that the work was below their standards.
Then, last year, I resolved to try once again to appease my still-simmering desires by signing up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). I thought that a deadline and some emotional support from other participants might provide a semblance of the motivation that had driven me in graduate school. I did not meet the 50,000-word quota by the end of November, for various reasons, but something even better happened. I discovered Larry Brooks’ website, through his daily posting of NaNoWriMo tips, and ultimately his book, Story Engineering. Immediately I knew what had been absent from the entirety of my work as a fiction writer.
And lo, thy name be Structure.
As an ex-composition instructor, I was aware of the importance of organization to effective writing. But as an artistically inclined writer, I had a prejudice against too much conscious plotting–“plots are for semi-literate hacks,” would probably fairly summarize my feelings. As with many humans, when faced with a discrepancy between intellectual knowledge and emotions, I let my irrational impulses win out. And in the cozy womb of a graduate writing program, that attitude was amply rewarded. In the real world of attracting readers and selling books, though, I realized…not so much.
As I was reading Larry’s blog posts last November and then his book, I became convinced that my stereotype about plotting was ridiculous and self-limiting. If I had gone to my first MFA workshop and the teacher had told me, “You should put the first plot point at the 20-25% mark of your story,” I would’ve marched straight to the admissions office and demanded a refund. I didn’t think, and still don’t, that graduate-level teachers should strive for that kind of proscription. And yet, how many years of yearning might have been avoided had I been open to the simple exercises of developing a compelling concept and defining specific points of action in a story?
Perhaps this analogy will better illustrate my point. In my creative writing program I learned a great deal about the theories of writing, but I felt there was little focus on the mechanics of constructing a story. (Workshop critiquers comments on structure tended to be arbitrary and conflicting.) And just as you might not want a theoretical physicist to work on your car’s transmission, MFA graduates are often ill-equipped to write stories for a general readership.
I am still essentially an unpublished wannabe, so why put any stock in my opinion? Consider this example. What is Shakespeare best known for, outside of his plays? That’s right, his sonnets. What could be more limiting in structure than requiring 14 lines of 10 syllables each and a repetitive rhyming pattern?
Rather than limiting his creativity, however, it allowed the originality of his voice to flourish. And imposing a strict structure on your storytelling can do the same. Write a literary novel, use a surreal or stream-of-consciousness style, throw in the most lush and alluring language you can skillfully wield, but write using a proven structure and see whether your art improves.
All of this is not to presume that Larry’s suggested practices will put your writing process on auto-pilot. Writing well remains hard work. And perhaps my previous failings have more to do with analytical laziness and aesthetic arrogance than any systemic flaw in my education.
It doesn’t matter, though, because I truly feel that I’ve discovered the secret to my future success as a writer. Whether I am able to apply these lessons is up to me, but I will never again have the feeling that I don’t know what my work is missing, that I must set out willy-nilly and wait for inspiration to strike. Thanks to Larry, my writing career is fully in my own hands, and I couldn’t possibly be more thrilled.
Eric Neyer is a freelance technical and Web content writer in Denver, Colorado. He continues working toward a career as a full-time fiction writer and novelist. Read samples of his work at ericneyer.com.
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