You’ll often see in conventional writing advice the maxim that in order to learn how to be a better writer you have to write.
It makes sense, right? By writing more and more, you are practising techniques, skills, approaches, finding out what works and what doesn’t work for you. It’s perfectly valid advice and I am not about to shoot it down in flames. You need to write and write and write, as much as you can, at every available opportunity. It’s just that my reason why this is important may be a little different than what you usually hear.
You need to write as much as you can because you’re learning to speak.
What do I mean by that?
Well, we have sort of established a basic principle about fiction in this series of articles, and that is that, if you want to get past the editors who stand at the gateway to traditional publishers, or if you want to appeal to readers in any lasting way, your work needs to be more than two-dimensional. Probably over 95% of stories that are written are of the ‘Then this happened…then this happened…’ variety — linear tales of one incident after another, which, by their nature, tend to be ‘flat’. Their power with readers depends very much on that linear ‘pull’ generated by the question ‘What will happen next?’ You see this a great deal in the stories with which you are surrounded.
But the stories that last — the ones that get snapped up by major publishers and which survive the test of time with readers — are the ones which pose a few other questions too, such as ‘What’s really going on here?’, ‘What’s the right thing to do in these circumstances?’ and ‘What is this really all about?’ These questions add a third dimension to the linear tale, rounding it out so that, in a landscape composed of flat stories, it literally stands out in the editor’s or reader’s mind.
When you write and write and write — especially if you do so with the above in mind — it is more likely that you will progress from being someone who makes scratch marks on a clay tablet to someone who begins to form that clay into a sculpture: you’ll gradually become an author who is aware of, and works consciously with, the ‘quality of form’ required to have one’s work qualify as a piece of ‘literary’ fiction.
Not that all work has to become purely literary to survive or be noticed — but literary qualities, thematic elements, are what makes one story more noticeable and appealing over another.
Even the greatest of authors — and even those who work in what we have come to know as ‘genre fiction’ — go through this process of turning two-dimensional linear tales into three-dimensional sculptures. Tolkien’s early drafts of what was to become The Lord of the Rings, for example, show a dreadfully ‘flat’ and ‘Then this happened…’ aspect: his hobbits (led by a character called ‘Bingo’ in early drafts) still fled from the Shire, their home, pursued by evil forces, but along the way they met another hobbit called Pippin whose feet had been hacked off by orcs and replaced with wooden ones. Yes, it's true -- you can read it for yourself in Christopher Tolkien's A History of Middle-earth series, which painstakingly reconstructs his father's early notes.
As Tolkien worked over and reworked this tale over many years, the character of Pippin became one of the companions of Frodo, feet intact — and the mysterious stranger became Strider, a man. Tolkien confessed later that, when the hobbits meet Strider in an inn at Bree, he, the author, had no idea who the character was — the story was being written very much on a ‘Then this happened…’ linear dynamic. Only when Tolkien later sculpted the story into three dimensions, adding thematic qualities, did Strider become Aragorn, last heir of the Two Kingdoms of Arnor and Gondor, not only a major player in the later events of the story but a thematic archetype whose resonance within the tale goes a long way to making The Lord of the Rings truly memorable. That’s a far removed result from a wooden-footed hobbit called Pippin.
So please do follow the advice to write and write and write. Think of it as learning to sculpt flat stories into stories ‘in the round’, if it helps. But think of it also as practising with a new, and less consciously known vocabulary. You’re not only learning to develop three dimensions from two, but to speak using methods of communication which we don’t really have words to describe.
What do I mean exactly?