Can You Learn to Write?

Virginia Kantra

On writers' lists and loops and over coffee, the words pop up again and again: Hook. Turning point. Scene and sequel. POV. And writers encountering them for the fist time wonder, Are such concepts and distinctions necessary? Are they even useful?

There are writers - excellent writers - who declare that each story is a voyage of discovery, uncontrived and uncontrolled. Scenes come to them in visions. Characters speak to them in the grocery store. On my best days, my story people talk to me, too. Can't I accept the gifts of the muse and leave it at that?

Well. . .No. Inspiration and enthusiasm are wonderful things, but they can only take the storyteller so far. Next time a nine-year-old tries to explain the plot of his favorite movie to you, ask yourself if his re-telling would be improved if he could apply basic concepts like "synopsis" and "climax." You betcha it would. A wonderful idea and a love of language may get you through the entire first draft of your first novel. They won't get you through your fourth. The terms tossed around on-line and at writers' conferences are helpful in three ways:

1. To deepen the writer's understanding and mastery of storytelling
2. To develop a shared vocabulary with other writers, and
3. To build a structure to lean on when inspiration fails.
I can't say my undergraduate studies taught me to write clean, compelling, commercial fiction. Maybe my professors were genre snobs. Maybe they were struggling with a freshman class that still hadn't mastered topic sentences. Maybe I was taking the wrong courses. For whatever reasons, I left school determined to write unfettered by the outdated rules of stodgy academics. Instead I planned to read the books I loved and learn from them.

In a lot of ways, this approach to writing was like trying to reinvent the wheel. In the dark. I fumbled my way to some solutions, but I wasted years. I didn't have the tools or the perspective to articulate why one story left me sighing and smiling and another left me cold. By the time I attended my first writers' conference in Atlanta, I knew enough to know I needed help. When Debra Dixon spoke on "Goal, Motivation, and Conflict," enough flash bulbs went off in my brain to rival the red carpet at an awards show. She talked about my story in a way that made my own aims and characters clearer to me. By naming my instinctive urges, she transformed them into deliberate strategies.

There is power in names. From Genesis to latter-day practitioners of magic, names are used to create, to call, and to control. In my writing process, such labels are most helpful when things aren't working. If you know what a "black moment" is, for example, you can probably figure out if your story doesn't have one. But if a book sucks you right in ("It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife" - Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice; "If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth." - J. D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye), does it matter what you call the magic?

Yes and no. Writers love language and love to talk. Most writers would rather talk than write, especially when the writing is not going well. A share vocabulary about writing not only alleviates the essential loneliness of the job, but enables writers to learn from one another.

But in developing this vocabulary to identify what works and why, writers are simply classifying something which often takes places spontaneously, pinning labels on unnamed, elusive, chaotic impulss. Historian Henry B. Adams wrote, "Chaos often breeds life, when order breeds habit. Writing requires both chaos and order - chaos first. Fiction is not formula. Even the most devoted notebook-keeper needs to leave herself open to the creative spark, the wild mind, the unexpected turns of character or plot which give life to a story.

Once a story is born, however, the writer is responsible for bringing it along and turning it into something that can be introduced to company. This is where order comes in. There are very few absolutes. Don't pick your nose in public for children, for example, and, Don't kill off the hero in the last chapter for writers of genre romance. Just as parents develop routines to coax their reluctant toddlers to bed, working writers develop guidelines to deal with their recalcitrant muse. This worked last time. Let's try it again.

Specific guidelines can be good. One story and one drink of water before lights out, or No more than one point of view per scene. But routines can impose their own tyranny. A writer who restricts herself to one arbitrary way of doing things risks limiting herself as much as a child who will only listen to one particular bedtime tale or dink from one particular cup.

Learning to write a book is like learning to raise a child. You go with your heart and your gut and the best of intentions, and occasionally you seek advice from experts. Most stories benefit if they are supported by knowledge as well as love. A grasp of basic concepts can help identify successes and pinpoint errors, a common vocabulary can sharpen the writer's understanding and make learning life-long; and the discipline of guidelines and reassurance of habit can give the writer courage to dream big things in the night.

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