Tuesday 4 August 2009

Too much craft ... not enough story?

I was fascinated by blogging literary agent Rachelle Gardner's observation that lately, there have been some rather fine examples of writing craft on her slushpile. Sadly, story doesn't quite live up to technique.
In fact, just this week I read some sample chapters from a newbie writer, and I was impressed with the technical excellence. Nice dialogue, perfect POVs, showing not telling... But the story itself involved a hackneyed plot, a totally uninteresting protagonist, and major predictability. It felt like it was written by a computer program, and it made me sad. I want to teach writers to not only learn the craft, but to also write from their heart. Write with authenticity, write from the depths of personal experience. Read more
Interestingly, this is echoed by author Kathleen Duey (I just read her book Skin Hunger ... oola la, what a fabulous read!) in an interview on the CWIM blog --
Competent novels are harder and harder to sell, in large part because of SCBWI’s wonderful resources, more and more people can write pretty well. But I think too many of us learn the rules—which are far more “teachable”—and lose the spark—which is more “discoverable”. Read more
This past week I attended a residential writing course with authors Malorie Blackman and Melvin Burgess. M&M put us through three or four (THREE OR FOUR!) timed writing exercises everyday - at first giving us five minutes to write but eventually cutting back to just three minutes.
They wanted us to shoot from the hip - no time to think, no time to compose, no time to even contemplate failure. Just write with your guts.
I didn't think I could do it the first time they announced how it was going to be. But I was pleasantly surprised at how it seemed to shock the rust out of my writing gears. Boy, how we wrote! It really helped that Malorie could not resist calling out "one more minute!" just seconds into an exercise.
The exercises all had to do with character, plot, dialogue - approaching each item from every angle you can think of.
I can't share everything I wrote because the thing about not having time to think is you put down stuff that is personal at the very least and at its most dangerous, probably libellous. So rather than get sued by my close friends and relatives here arethree of my least offensive attempts:
Describe navy blue to someone who cannot see ...
You know navy blue, you know it. It sort of swishes underneath everything, dark and wet but warm. It makes other colours look better. Yellow, yellower. Red, redder. It’s not shy but it doesn’t try to step forward either. It’s like an old husband, there, in the background, outside the lamplight, and yet a perfect fit.
Describe rock music to someone who cannot hear ...
It gets behindyour eyeballs, rock music. Like one of those headaches that start at the base of your skull, throbbing behind your eyes. Except that it’s pleasurable. Most of the time anyway. It seizes you by the heart and squeezes, squeezes and it’s like your blood is pumping harder and harder and your brain is going to explode. It’s so hot and yet its so cool.
... And this next one probably set up a few of us for a life-time of therapy, when we were finished, we were all emotionally exhausted from exploring our regrets:
Write up an argument between yourself today and your younger self ...
(In which Now me blames Young me for wasting so much time)

Now me: Why didn’t you start earlier? Why didn’t you do the writing courses, read the books, actually WRITE for goodness sake? Why is it down to me to play catch up, to spend sleepless nights studying and reading and writing – being rejected, suffering the slings and arrows ---

Young me: You don’t remember do you? You don’t remember how hard it was?

Now me: You could have done some writing. There was time. It’s not as if you had to get that A in trigonometry. I can inform you now that I have never had to do cosines and sines and those equations of never letting go ... not once in my lifetime.

Young me: I didn’t have time. Remember M? She needed me ...

Now me: She didn’t. Look at how she’s turned out. She was always going to need you. She was never going to be satisfied all those if only you could do this for me, and if only you could do that for me. She never had any intention of making anything happen. Is she happy now?

Young me: Are you saying it didn’t matter? Looking after the boys, cooking and cleaning and spending al that time at home helping out . None of it mattered? I should have just let all that go and started writing?

Now me: Well, you could have given me a bit of a headstart.

Young me: I did. What are you writing about now? Are you writing about how you started writing earlier? No, all this stuff about belonging ... about loving ... about ... that’s all me. It’s not about YOU. It’s about ME.
Having said that, one of the most memorable lines from this exercise came from my colleague who was just 17 in which her Now Self chided her Young self: "You're just a child!" To which her Young Self replied: "So are you!"


  1. I saw that article and thought it a strange trend too. I wonder if it's anything to do with the rise of creative writing courses, particularly at postgraduate level?

    I did the MA at Sheffield Hallam a few years ago and I have to say, I felt the balance between improving craft and nurturing our stories was about right. But maybe that's not the case generally. Maybe, as more courses have sprung up and done well, the focus has shifted?

    Interesting though!

  2. Oh how fantastic - this is your best post yet. I can finally relax about being Me in my writing.

    Thanks for sharing your scary writing too!

  3. I wrote an entire novel (crap btw) before I realised that the magic ingredient missing was me. Still, it's painful to dig deep. There are some things buried there you don't want to experience again.

  4. Iaine - you might be right (there are a lot of people trying to write and a lot of resources, SCBWI, writing MAs). we had a 17 year old on the Arvon course I attended last week. Amazing writer - if she decided to go for it. But the best thing for someone like that will be to go out into the world and get a life ... journalism in a third world country, anyone?

    1. Not everyone is meant to be a journalist, Candy.

      Sorry, I had to say that, but as much as I get the points you're making, there's a reason why you don't hear tales about novelists moving to journalism, not all journalists are novelists, so why should we expect novelists in turn to embrace journalism in particular as the "Savior" of going from no sales to some sales?

      I'm not putting you down, but merely asking you to prove your point, show me some tangible examples.

      I'm half-joking here, and I know you didn't say or (I think) mean it that way, but as someone who was obsessed with journalism in my early teens, but saw one too many Dateline and 20/20 stories about domestic violence, rape and incest, I'd had enough of journalism.

      I respect what it does, but I don't want to live that every day, and that doesn't mean I have my head in the sand. But when I can't sleep because those stories are playing over and over like soap operas, but sadly REAL, I did what I had to for my personal sanity.

      Understand that not everyone is given the blessing of traveling around the world, and for some of us, just doing the ordinary mundane things like grocery shopping and making doctor appointments without being the "inconvenient mercy" of our car-driving relatives is will be a BLESSING all by itself.

      For me, what I can't experience I have to imagine, and the point of this post aside, for some people it's our ONLY choice and quitting just because I haven't done such and such in my life isn't an option. I choose to see that as a good thing.

    2. Your view of journalism is interesting. When I was a journalist in the Philippines under the dictatorship of Marcos, journalism was a huge responsibility because many people thought getting our story out there would save our country. More journalists died under Marcos than during the Vietnam war. So when I moved to the UK and discovered that journalism was regarded as a debased profession, I was very disappointed.

      Life is not just adventures and travelling though. It's people isn't it? So mundane life is just as valuable. I don't think I was dissing that. I was just saying I wished I started learning HOW to write fiction as soon as it began to rumble in my belly rather than waiting for the children to grow up.

    3. This comment has been removed by the author.

    4. Deleted and re-posted my reply due to missing and unclear parts-

      I know you weren't dissing the mundane of day to day life, and I didn't mean to imply I was anti-journalism, I'm not and I have in recent years (22-ish we'll say, I'm 25 now as I write this)I just personally had to get away from hard news when it affected my sleep (As I say above) I had to back away from hard news.

      But now try to once again engage myself in nonfiction in general, and journalism to some degree, but I still don't want to be a journalist because it requires a level of grit and detachment I don't have, and I say that not in a negative context.

      I just know myself that way. But it's HARD to get other writers I talk to to get that.

      Dangers aside, I think some of what I said regarding journalism out of my being jealous of people who are able to do it (or other types of nonfiction) well, and I know people work hard to be that good at it, but I do believe some people just have the drive or knack that justs makes it click, and I just don't have it.

      I find writing nonfiction harder to write than fiction because it requires fact-checking and researching to the strictest standards.

      Yes, I have to do research for fiction, but I'm not married to it the same way as in nonfiction, that's a valid point, right?

      Yes, life isn't solely about traveling, but as someone who's NEVER been a vacation period, books, television and video games were my only ways to escape the harsh bitter realities of life.

      As much as I love books and flexing my imagination, I WANT A REAL ADVENTURE, that actually happened to ME, not some character in a book or video game, and despite the particulars of why (Lack of money, living in a state where my interests are hard to come by if not nonexistent) aside, that not ever having a REAL adventure of my own that was NOT from a book I read (Or Wrote, my being an unpublished novelist)is the closest I get to my inner child.

  5. Brilliant post, Candy. D and I were having a debate about technical excellence vs storytelling just last week. Him bemoaning the technicality I kept muttering about, and saying, "but what about the story?!" It is, after all, about storytelling, isn't it, not storywriting. Balance, as ever, in all things - only latterly it seems we've all be sidetracked by technique at the cost of story.

    1. Well, when technical things (BEYOND typos and misuse of commas) keep people from seeing the "Story" that's IS a legit complaint.

      I had some brutal critiques early in my journey, and trust me, when enough people tell you things like "If you don't fix your 'insert technical error here' you won't " there DOES come a point where that HAS to matter.

      We have to come off to agents or editors with the LEAST amount of barriers to entry, and sometimes "The Technical Stuff" in our craft blinds people from
      the STORY, as the main point of your reply implies.

      Regardless of how much time you put your manuscript through its paces, weak technical skills in our writing does cause ANY reader to only see the mistakes, not the STORY in spite of them. I'm not saying your point's not sound it, it is, but the technical aspects of our craft can't blind even the most competent agent or editor, we can't get published until craft better matches whatever storytelling ability we have innately and what we've WORKED at.

      I'm sure there are loads of fine storytellers who aren't technically strong writers.

      It's like how I view cooking. I may not have the skill or mindset to cook at the professional level, but that doesn't my home cooking's limited to microwave meals and simple fare.

      I bake a lot from scratch. But baking brioche at home for myself is not the same as doing it on the scale of a commercial bakery. That's how I see the storytelling vs. technical aspects to storytelling.

      I didn't query my last book for 8 YEARS because of that fact, and while three years of querying saw no interest, and while my struggles with query letters probably aided in this, it's just not as clear cut as you state it, Nicky, while I do get what you're saying and see truth in that.

  6. Wonderful, Candy! I've been thinking about this a lot recently, partly because I'm chairing an event about it at the Edinburgh Book festival - we're calling it monkeys and type-writers, and trying to get under the skin of what can be taught and what can't. But also because there's an aspiring writer I came across the other day, whose writing I've seen and who really doesn't have the "spark", and who was telling me how her tutor says she's getting so much better because she's really mastering punctuation now. My heart sank. If she had the writing spark, it wouldn't matter so much about the puncuation (though it still would, since punctuation also controls meaning and flow etc).

    Anyway, sorry to ramble - really good post. (And I'd read Rachelle G's post too. She's a very sensible person and should be required reading for all new/aspiring authors.)

  7. Thanks for this post. Technique is no place to hide if you don't have a good story.

  8. I think it's the fault of creative writing courses which encourage people to believe that if you learn the technique of writing you can get published. There has to be more. In any class of twenty there are maybe only one or two (at the most) who have the extra magic ingredient that makes a writer, as opposed to someone who puts words on a page.

    As a writer who tutors creative writing I'm always conscious of the paradox of encouraging huge numbers of would-be writers to compete with me in an already overcrowded market. Yet most of us have to teach creative writing in order to survive and buy time for our own work!

  9. I've found this post very late, Candy - not sure how I missed it last year. Great stuff. I do think a lot of it is down to writing courses and books, though. In my RLF hat, when I work with any piece of creative writing other than a picture book for someone, I usually have to concentrate on a part of it (because of the time available) so any bigger issues of structure and plot slip through the net and technique gets all the attention. It's much easier to revise for style, too - and less work to than restructuring or rethinking the plot.

    It is true, too, that generally a lot of life experience has to go into the mix to make a good writer. That's probably why so many of the successful children's writers are middle-aged: it takes a while to get the experience to write a publishable book, then it takes some more years to build up a backlist!


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