Writers, I don’t know if you have encountered the Big Lie, but I have. There seems to be this weird belief that great writers are born. We believe that if we made As all through high school and even college that we have this magical gift that just needs to be unleashed. We believe that we should be able to sit down and type out our tome, and that our biggest obstacle is merely finishing that novel. We just know that if we can finish this Great American Novel inside of us, it will all be magic.
We won’t be like those other poor slobs who had to write five bad novels before they could even get an agent to look at them. No…we are different. We have talent. We have what it takes to be a star…no, what’s that thing that’s bigger than a star? *snaps fingers* Oh, yeah. We can be a legend. And we will never stop querying. Even if we are rejected. We know that these agents are just part of the machine and won’t they be really super sorry that they ever turned us down.
Okay, stop drinking the publishing cool-aid. Just put it down. Over there is fine.
And yes, I know it is Kool, but that is trademarked and you guys are sharp enough to get it.
Last week I started a series to teach structure, and the feedback has been amazing. It has been one of my most popular series, and I think I know why.
Plot and structure is the ED of the writing world. Lots of us have the problem, but no one wants to raise their hand and admit it. It can be a simple problem to fix, but it hits us in our ego so we stay quiet and suffer in silence, all the while believing that we are the only ones in the world with this issue.
Sorry, I know that was crass comparison, but bear with me. There are countless writers who don’t get it. We do fine writing short stories, but then we try to write a novel and we end up like Hansel and Gretel off in the woods, following our stream of consciousness and hoping we can find our way out of the woods before the wolf eats us. Wait? Is that right?
We might even try to be proactive and solve the problem ourselves, so we buy books on structure and …zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz. Oh, where was I? We feel like all the other writers are just born understanding this stuff and that if we raise our hands and admit we cannot keep it straight, that we are a fraud. We really cannot write. We just were not born with the gift. We just aren’t real storytellers. We might even think that if we just write enough really bad novels that one day we’ll figure it out and work through it. Outlines make us dizzy and spreadsheets give us hives. We might even sit there with a nice grid and go, Okay, what goes there? I think I need a sandwich.
We look to the urban legends to guide us, the people who wrote one book before their waitress job longhand on a napkin. Oh but she got published on her 975th query and now she lives in a mansion. I am here to tell you guys that this is crap. So I am on a mission to debunk the publishing cool-aid.
1. Myth: Great writers are born. You cannot teach writing.
Reality: That’s a load of crap! Writers, most of the time, are not born. Writing, like all art forms must be studied.
Did Amadeus Mozart attend music school? No, he wrote his first symphony at 8 months old (okay maybe I am exaggerating for effect. He might have been 9 months old). Amadeus was an anomaly! What if every composer after him refused to learn to read music because Amadeus was famous by age 5?
We can naturally have talent. That part we might be born with, but the skills to make use of that natural talent? They are learned and earned. We might have a nice voice. This doesn’t mean we are ready to go audition for Broadway. And if year after year we keep showing up at auditions, refusing to believe we need to learn music or take singing lessons, they film us and put us on national television for American Idol so everyone can laugh at us.
If we want to write because it is relaxing or therapeutic, we don’t need to study. Want to get traditionally published? We must study the fundamentals of our craft. To study the basics doesn’t mean you don’t have talent. It means you have talent and you are very smart. People with a good voice who want to make it big go get voice coaching. They study music. They study other types of music. They might even take up an instrument. That is what makes the difference between a professional and a wanna-be amateur.
Are there singers who learn by ear and get to the top with raw natural talent? Sure. But there are people who get struck by lightning too. About the same odds.
But I hear all kinds of new writers say, “Oh, but my friends and family just loved my novel.” I bet they did. I can dance really well. In fact, at a club, I can be downright impressive. But, am I ready to go pro? Am I ready to go to L.A. and audition to tour with Brittany Spears?
Okay, you can stop laughing. It wasn’t THAT funny.
I know most of you want to be successfully published. The best way to get there? Read all my blogs…ha ha ha ha. Okay, kidding (but only partially). Study your craft. Read all the craft books you can. Go to conferences and take craft classes instead of just focusing on landing an agent.
I am sure there are a lot of successful novelists who just wrote enough crappy books that they finally figured out what they were doing, but that is a really inefficient way to succeed. Yes, we must keep writing novels, but we need to make sure we are studying craft at the same time or the odds are we will just have a drawer of novels unfit for a bird cage.
Dancers need to study at the barre with a professional. The same tired moves day after day. Plie. Grand plie. Arabesque. Plie. Grand plie. Arabesque. Over and over and over. They miss a lot of steps, but they keep going, growing stronger and stronger and stronger. They must have an instructor to make sure they have proper form. If the form remains uncorrected, a dancer can suffer debilitating injury or malformed muscles that will affect her performance.
Singers sing scales. Do Re Mi Fa So La Ti Do. Do Ti La So Fa Mi Re Do. They sing until they are blue. They miss a lot of keys in the meantime, but it strengthens their voice and shapes their skills. Singers, too, must make sure they are singing properly or they can damage their voice and even lose it permanently.
Writers? We must learn the unfun stuff. Structure, plotting, character, pacing, dialogue. We have to practice and write a lot of garbage. The more we write, the better we get. But like dancers and singers, we must do so with structure or there can be devastating consequences. It’s great to be part of a writing group, but be careful. How many are published fiction authors? Writing groups, in my experience, have limited ability to help, so don’t solely rely on their feedback. Make sure you also look to industry experts for guidance: blogs, books, classes, workshops and conferences.
Just like dancers and artists and singers, we can look to the successful and blend some of their techniques into our own. But relying on natural talent and blind luck is just a dumb plan.
2. Myth: Outlines, templates, and rules ruin creativity.
Reality: NO! Just because you study your craft doesn’t mean your writing will be formulaic.
Okay, well it will, but formulas can be good things. Why? They WORK. We talked about pizza. Pizza has rules. Deviate too far and people will scratch their head and go WTH? Pizza has almost infinite variations, but it still has rules.
Great musicians still learned how to read music. They learned everything about their style…and then broke the rules. Elvis Presley was a gospel singer, so was Axel Rose of Guns and Roses. Meatloaf studied opera. Part of what made them such great musicians was their ability to bend and break rules of their art form. But we have to know the rules to break the rules or we are just being ignorant.
3. Myth: If your first novel doesn’t get published, you are a failure.
Reality: NO! Your writing can suck now, but that doesn’t mean you don’t have talent.
Um, seriously? This would be like going up to the little kid singing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star and telling him, “Go get a real job, you hack!” Or heckling the one little girl in the tu-tu who doesn’t wander the wrong direction off the stage. “You call that a pirouette? My dog can dance better than you!”
Talent and skill are not the same thing. We might shine in high school English, but the stuff they teach in high school or even college isn’t preparation for a career as a commercial fiction author. Those teachers didn’t care if we used 50 metaphors in three pages. Why? Because their goal was to teach us how to use metaphors, not to prepare us for submission to Random House. When we decide to embark on that first novel, most of us are baby writers. We might have loads of talent, but we need time, instruction and practice to develop skill.
Why did I write this post? Because I see a lot of talented people drinking the publishing cool-aid and buying into a lot of misconceptions. This can lend itself to following a really inefficient career plan (one that makes most people give up or settle for self-publishing when they long to be traditionally published).
I want you guys to know that it is okay not to know everything. Writing a novel is horrendously difficult. We have to have a solid core story idea that is fresh and interesting. We need great characters and setting and dialogue and arc and voice and pacing and it is positively dizzying what we have to balance all at the same time for a knock-out result. That requires training. Are there some people who seem to do this naturally? Sure. But that isn’t the norm. Picasso studied art for years before he broke the rules and led the modern art movement.
I hope to see you guys on Monday for Part III of my Structure Series. Structure is tough, so I am breaking it down to make it easy and FUN.
What are some myths you guys have bought in to? Did you feel trapped? Did you feel like everyone else knew what they were doing but you? I know I did. I almost gave up and went back into sales after realizing my first book was DOA. Do you feel liberated after today? Share your thoughts. I want to hear from you.
Ah, the shameless self-promo. If you love this blog and just want MORE? My book, We Are Not Alone–The Writer’s Guide to Social Media is available in all formats. Buy one today and take charge of your writing career! My book is designed specifically for writers. I want to change your habits, not your personality. Harness that same creative energy used for writing and use it to build your platform.
Until next time…