So to get the product you may have listed last time — the precise effect that you want to create upon readers of your fiction — it should come as no surprise to learn that you have to be educated to achieve it.
Having said that, many of you will be surprised.
No other artist — not painters, not musicians, not actors, not dancers, not sculptors, nor any other kind of artist — expects to be able to simply manufacture their art from scratch without any prior practice or training. Only writers, apparently, think that it is feasible to just sit in a chair and churn out a masterpiece at first go.
There are painting schools, music colleges, acting classes, dancing schools, places where people go to learn how to sculpt — in fact, there are institutions set up all over the world designed to help people to learn about the craft and expertise necessary to produce various forms of art. There are even writing schools — but for some reason, many writers believe that they can write top-notch material without any kind of education or practice whatsoever. Perhaps this is to do with some kind of belief that the relationship between a writer and his or her imagination is so intimate, so private, that it is neither advisable or even possible to develop it in some way so as to make it function better. There is probably even the further belief that to tamper with this innermost function is potentially dangerous and shouldn’t be attempted — that there cannot even be such a thing as ‘better’ with regard to writing fiction.
The result? Millions and millions of books out there in the marketplace presenting themselves as finished articles, reader-ready, only needing to be ordered or downloaded to be enjoyed — an arena saturated with words, all frantically seeking attention. But the vast bulk of the material is unreadable and unattractive.
The analogy might be a vast amphitheatre in which all the unpractised musicians of the world come to pick up an instrument for the first time, or a huge space where millions of painters gather to play with oils and canvases for the first time, or open fields full of people trying to act or dance who have never done it before. It would be hardly plausible for any of these people to expect a passing audience to linger for long, still less for any of that audience to busy themselves by singling out a particular act or individual for special attention. More likely, audiences would simply move on, consciously or unconsciously telling themselves that what they have just witnessed is a spectacle ‘not yet ready for public consumption’ — wait a while, and adept individuals might emerge from this morass with particular, practised skills worth listening to or watching.
And so it is with writing and writers.
Education in the basics of the craft, learning particular sets of skills, and then practising and practising and practising, form the foundation of success in any field, including fiction writing.
Where does one start to become educated as a fiction writer?
Well, one is surrounded by masters — fiction written by great authors is now more readily available than ever before. And I hope it will come as no surprise if I recommend my own book, How Stories Really Work, as it contains the distilled wisdom of many of the master authors, and was composed after a 40-year study into literature. It outlines the basic tools vital to any writer of fiction -- more basic than you are probably imagining. But there are other craft books too.
And then there’s practice. As indicated, it would be highly unusual for any practitioner of any art to be able to produce worthwhile pieces without extensive practice beforehand, and the same is very much true of fiction writing. Practice, practice, practice — thousands of words must be written, many drafts compiled and revised, hundreds or rejections endured, thousands of edits and re-edits undertaken, before the skill level can be expected to approach the competence and appeal needed to draw in readers at a viable level. Yes, there’s such a thing as natural talent and for some the process is quicker than for others, but there is a process nevertheless.
My advice? Learn about vacuums, character and plot structures, and what the master authors have done, then write story after story after story before attempting a larger opus. But whatever you do and however you approach it, put the time in and churn out the words.
Next time we’ll look at just how many words you’ll need to generate to establish a career.