8.19.2011

The Thing in Writing that Can't Be Taught

I used to harbor a certain illusion about writing. I used to think if you can read or speak, then certainly the ability to write isn't that far off. It's a rather romantic attitude to have, and I think it makes writing one of the most widely attempted art forms, the one that everybody thinks they can do or would do "if they didn't have such a busy life." Because apparently, writing a book or a story is "easy," and all it takes is a "really cool idea."

I can't tell you how insulting that is (and I hear it a lot). It's on par with someone who might say, "Oh, I'm sure I could compose a piano concerto, but I have better things to do than sit on a bench all day plunking keys. But hey, kudos to you!" Of course, no one would say that, because everyone knows that playing the piano is hard, and playing it to the level that one could compose something coherent and beautiful is only within the grasp of the truly talented pianists out there. I certainly know I couldn't do it, and I've dabbled in music.

I didn't realize that the same was true of aspiring writers until I started freelance editing. In the time I've been doing this, I've read dozens, perhaps by now even hundreds, of manuscripts. And now, I can honestly say that the number of people who have submitted work to me that is even remotely publishable, original, daring, or potentially awesome, can only be counted on one hand. This isn't about typos. This isn't about bad metaphors or even grammar. Those things are usually the product of poor teaching or just plain rusty mechanics that most adults have when they decide to take up the art many decades after their last English class. I'm not excluded at all from that group myself.

This track? Not so good...
No, there is something more that makes a piece of writing connect with a reader. It's almost intangible. It's that thing where you are following along without even trying. Where you don't have to question the logic or authority of the storyteller, because they're guiding you efficiently along a well-laid track, which allows you to experience all the events of the story without having to go, "Wait... I thought we were just here... and now we're here? What?" It's where you don't feel like you've just been taken on a tour of a strange city by a guide who is drunk and/or schizophrenic.

And I firmly believe that this is the one thing that separates even the "okay" writers from the rest of the pack. Even the supposed worst writers on the shelves right now, the ones I harangue mercilessly, the Pattersons and the Meyers and the Dan Browns. Even they, on their worst day with their laziest metaphors and driest prose, can do that "thing" I'm trying desperately to describe. They can guide you the reader from Point A all the way to Point Z without once making you feel like the stable and known universe has taken a nosedive. You know from the minute you open the cover of one of their books that you're going to get a full and complete story that makes sense, at least on a fundamental level. It might not be the prettiest or most creative story, and you might find you even hate the characters or think they're poorly developed or have terrible dialogue, but you can STILL identify it as a complete and coherent work. You are able to properly evaluate the story for all its good and bad attributes because the storyteller ultimately delivered.

Many of you probably still don't know what I'm talking about. You'll undoubtedly tell me how many books you threw aside in disgust when you lost interest or whatever. And I get that. There are some pretty crappy books and stories out there, endorsed by some of the biggest publishers in the world. But unless you're someone who reads rough writing for a living, who gets to glimpse the hopeful efforts of someone who just decided one day they wanted to write a novel because it would "be easy," you probably won't get it. But agents, editors, and freelancers like me? They get it. And in my own way, I understand why they're so jaded.

I think they get that when it comes to writing, no matter how pretty you make your prose, no matter how eloquent some of your metaphors, no matter how precise your punctuation and grammar, if you don't have that intangible "thing" that allows you to draw someone in and follow along and give a damn (even the littlest bit), you're not doing the work of a writer. I thought The Walking by Bentley Little was one of the worst books I've ever read in my life. And yet... I finished it. That has to say something. I knew what his main character was, what he was motivated by, and the story followed a logical path to a logical conclusion (even if that conclusion was lame). I've since read manuscripts that made The Walking look like James Joyce.

And that's about 99% of the manuscripts I receive.

I wish I could teach this. I wish I could open people's heads and dump this ability in there. It would sure make our jobs easier. But I don't think this is something that can be taught. I think this is purely innate. You can teach someone to better develop aspects of their art, but I think that generally ends at prose-related stuff. I think the logic that drives an overall story, that magic that compels someone to turn the page, is really the talent that every true writer possesses, and few people have it.

So what's the point in telling you all this? Two things:

Only in my dreams...
1. Writers: Don't take your art for granted. If you've got that gift, treasure it and use it with pride. If you're confident you can draw a reader along the track, but just need help further fleshing out the world around that track, don't despair. You can improve that with practice. Be assured you already have the most important part down.

2. Everybody: Don't think that "anybody" can be a writer. It's insulting to writers. It's no different than any other job. Not everybody can be a doctor. Not everybody can be an engineer. Not everybody can dance a good and sexy samba. Spend a few hours reading manuscripts people have to read for a living, and you'll soon realize how very rare it is to find even a competent writer.

And to those who do it and aren't sure if they have that "thing,' don't think I'm trying to shatter your hopes here. I suppose if there is any message I have for all the dreamers out there, it's this. Don't for once ever think that what you're doing is easy. If it feels that way, you're probably doing something wrong. As Stephen King said it once, don't come lightly to the page.

Throwing words onto a page is easy. But writing, the real kind, is hard. It's damn hard.

1 comment:

  1. This is the first time anyone has ever explained to me, in a way that makes sense, the appeal of Stephanie Meyer and Dan Brown. I get it now, I truly do. Thank you!

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