Monday, April 28, 2014

Learning Your Craft

By Vicki Delany

Rick wrote two weeks ago about how he’d turned down an opportunity to provide a fledging writer with a manuscript evaluation, not only because he didn’t have time, but didn’t think he was in the position to tell anyone how to write.

I will respectfully take this opportunity to disagree.  I have done many manuscript evaluations, and I also teach an 8-week class in writing popular fiction every winter.

Why? I’m going to paraphrase Stephen King here. He said in On Writing, that there are bad writers, competent writers, good writers, and great writers.  You can’t turn a good writer into a great writer, and you can’t turn a bad writer into a competent writer, but you can turn a competent writer into a good writer, simply by teaching them the craft.

You can’t teach talent, and you certainly can’t teach the drive and passion that’s needed to write an entire book with no promise of any reward at the end.

But you can teach the craft.  The nuts and bolts of writing.

I’ve read plenty of manuscripts full of something like: He expostulated, she ejaculated, he declared, he pontificated (no kidding!).  Nope, all you write is he said.

If you don’t believe me, read a book.  And that, I think, is the important thing about classes and evaluations.  Sometimes the beginning writer just needs someone to point out to them what’s the accepted way of doing this (which may not be the intuitive way.).  And then, he’s ready for that ah ah! moment and sees that 95% if every line of speech uses the tag “:said”. 

If they don’t read, then I can’t help them and don’t want to.

When it comes to adjectives and adverbs Elmore Leonard might have said don’t use them, but the guideline really is don’t use too many. Avoid purple prose. Don’t use more than you need to get the point across.

The teacher or evaluator can point out the overuse of modifiers or the use of weasel words. Weasel words are those words that we all use, without even knowing we don’t, and because we don’t know, we don’t see them in our own writing. Words like actually, just, really. Words that weaken, rather than strengthen, a sentence. Beginning a line of dialogue with Well or with So is fine if it’s done once.  But every few lines? I’ve seen that more often than I can count.

Does the writer assume we the reader know things?  I once did a 30 page evaluation and never learned the name of the character. When I asked the author she said, “Oh, its Mary”. She knew it was Mary, but she didn’t even realize that she hadn’t told us.

Where to start your novel?  Why, at the last possible place, of course.  I give an entire workshop called Page One Chapter One: Starting your crime novel with impact. Because that’s not something most beginning writers understand. They usually want to fill us in on everything that has led up to the inciting incident (i.e. the incident from which the entire plot flows). Or begin every chapter when the protagonist gets out of bed in the morning. Or tell us far, far more than we need to know about their childhood.

All of that, and so much more, is the craft of writing. And the craft can be taught.  




A.M. Guynes/Annikka Woods said...

You offer good advice and it just confirms what I've been studying for the past couple weeks or so. Thanks for the helpful post.

Charlotte Hinger said...

Vicki, I think the importance of opening with impact is crucial. Screenwriters have an advantage because they can show the ordinary world with something going wrong and set the tone, time, place, in minutes--with pictures.

James Hayman said...

I disagree that screenwriters have an advantage. As fiction writers we have to know how to create pictures with words. In my books I try to set a scene very much as a camera might see it. First as establishing shot. Then a move in to the primary character or characters. Then either into dialogue (if there's more than one character on the scene) or (if there's only one) into that character's head to find out what's going on, which by the way is something screenwriters can't do unless they want their tales to hang on voiceover narration.

James Hayman