In the previous chapter we warned against taking too much advice from fellow amateurs, and noted that one day you may get lucky enough to have an editor fall in love with your work and give you sound guidance. There is also another possible source of good, face-to-face advice on your own work, and that's study with a published author who also knows how to teach his craft.
If you can find a professional who knows how to teach the craft of fiction, you should, therefore, go out of your way to work with her. And if that teaching pro gives you advice, you should not ignore it; you should at least consider it most seriously, and even try it, even if only for a short, experimental period.
Having said this, I hasten to add a number of provisos.
First, it is possible to learn how to write by writing, studying models, and reading books and articles about the craft. At least as far back as the early part of this century, seasoned professional writers were producing books containing technical advice that are just as solid today as when they were written. Only a few weeks before writing these words, I read a magazine article that repeated some of that old material and saw that it was still sound. And in the same issue of the same magazine I came upon a brief piece that said something about the introduction of characters that I had never before seen stated so clearly or meaningfully.
So it's possible.
There are, however, some problems with trying to learn only from books, with no professional coaching.
One obvious problem is that no book can give you a specific drill or test to make absolutely certain you understand a point; it can't read your copy, discuss it with you, hammer away at the same point until it is sure you understand and are applying a given technique. Books and articles, to say it another way, can't give you the individual feedback and coaching of a real teacher.
Another problem is that books on the techniques of writing usually cover many aspects of the craft, just as this one does. If you are struggling to learn, it may be that you don't know what you most need to work on. You might read right past a passage or section that might make all the difference for you if it were stressed for you and emphasized by someone who could see the flaw in your copy. In other words, the single vital point for your work might get lost in the panoply of suggestions you read through.
(That, incidentally, is one reason why this book is set up in a series of short "don't" episodes; the hope is that you have some idea of where your problems may lie, and will, after reading through everything, return to specific sections that you consider problem areas for you, giving them additional consideration and study. )
In addition, books and articles can't set deadlines for you. Now, I know you are highly motivated, or you wouldn't be reading this book. But all of us tend to procrastinate. And no matter how much I might try in these pages, I simply can't put the kind of work pressure on you that I could if you were one of my class students, scheduled to bring in pages each week ... or face both my wrath and a failing grade.
Finally, no book or article can encourage you when you feel low, beat up on you when you're being lazy, pick out a good passage and praise it, or point out the error in another page of your copy. A good writing coach is not just a teacher; he is advisor, handholder, slave driver, critic, friend, psychologist, editor, even inspirational guru.
So by all means study books on writing. Sift the advice, compare what different authors may say, and work to find your own way. But in addition, if you can, find a professional writing teacher, listen to what she says, and then try to do it.
Having said this with such certainty, however, I must add that there are all sorts of perils inherent in this seemingly harmless advice. We should consider a few of them.
First, a great number of fine fiction writers have no idea - or say they have no idea-of how they get the job done. Personally I believe that some may actually work by unconscious imitation, trial and error, and a genius-imagination, and truly not have any clear idea of how they are writing good stories. Unfortunately-again personal opinion -I think a far greater number of professional writers who profess to be mystified by the creative process are putting on an act for the public. "It makes me look more mysterious and wonderful if I act like it's all inspiration", they seem to be thinking. Or, "If people realized that I'm practicing a craft, they would think less of me. "
(Such attitudes don't come only from writers who want to be mysterious and mystical to the general public; such attitudes are, unfortunately, endemic in college English departments, where instructors of literature seldom understand anything about the way writers really work, and so stress the mystery angle in order to allow the existence of little journals and magazines where abstruse theories of the most outrageous kind can be published... and shown to other faculty members who vote on matters of tenure and promotion. For this reason, English literature teachers seldom make good writing coaches, for the same reason that football fans seldom make good players or coaches; you can't learn the game from the bleachers, and you can't learn what writing is really all about from the theoretical ivory tower, either. )
But back to real writers who say they don't know what they're doing when they do it-or can't talk about their craft in a way that's meaningful for others: a few, neither ignorant of their craft nor wanting to look mysterious, are simply too lazy to think their way logically through the patterns of their own work. Or maybe they're scared that if they think about it, it will go away.
By this time, not so incidentally, I imagine you must be wondering why I've gone to such lengths talking about writers and teachers who can't do it, when in fact the subject of this chapter is advice that you should find a pro and listen to her. It's precisely because of the existence out there of so many teachers who can't teach, for whatever reason. I've talked about the bad ones to emphasize to you that I'm saying you should get help from a pro, and do what's advised, only when you locate a good teacher-professional.
How can you tell if the local guru is for real? You launch a polite investigation.
Ask people about her. Get some idea of her reputation generally. Then write or telephone the teacher-pro and try to set up an appointment to discuss possible coaching. If the pro is agreeable, and preliminary talk about times and costs are acceptable, then you see the teacher in person, ask a few questions, and size her up one-to-one.
Watch out for statements like the following:
"Well, it's all very mysterious, actually "
"I believe in giving my student total freedom "
"Sometimes I feel I learn more from my students than they can possibly learn from me
"I will never tell you to do or try anything "
"As William Faulkner once said "
"As Henry James once wrote "
"In the words of the immortal Ezra Pound "
And all such stuff that says 1. The teacher isn't going to teach, and 2. What we're really going to be into here is a disguised literature appreciation course.
If the teacher seems to pass the preliminary test, your second step should be to ask her for a list of successful students. She should be able to provide the names of some former students who are now selling copy. You should also get the names of a few present or very recent students. You should call up some of these people and discuss the teacher with them, finding out what their opinion is, what they feel they are accomplishing.
Finally, if all is well so far, you should submit a piece of copy to the teacher and see what kind of a critique and advice you get. If it seems airy
Don't Ignore Professional Advice... 91
and highfalutin, I think you should run. If it seems basic, pragmatic and practical - even if you don't agree with all of it -then maybe you have found your pro.
But let's assume now that you've gotten lucky, and you are working with someone who produces professional copy herself, and seems to be giving you hard-nosed, practical advice. Now you must do what you're told
This is harder than it sounds for at least three reasons:
First, as we said before in this book, writing is tied painfully close to your ego; suggestions for basic changes in your approach to writing may be psychologically so uncomfortable that you make up all kinds of excuses not to listen.
Second, most new things are a little painful. Your most basic impulse, when told to try something new, will be not to like it-resist trying it.
Third, you may be so in love with your present way of writing-even though you aren't selling with it - that you just get angry and dig your heels in when told to do it some other way.
And most insidious of all - you actually may not be able to hear what the teacher is really saying. This is a tough one, and I don't know what you can do about it beyond remembering that it's a pretty common phenomenon. Even in a nutshell the problem is complex, but here it is,, as simply as I can state it:
If you don't know what you don't know, then there's no way for you to hear advice designed to remedy the problem.
When I was first starting out with a professional teacher-after more than seven years of trying to make it on my own - he promptly began telling me to do a certain thing in setting up the major scenes in my novels. Week after week, month after month, year after year, he told me exactly the same thing. I kept imagining I understood what he was saying. My copy remained directionless - flabby.
Finally, after a woefully long time, I realized on my own something like, "Hey, I need better scene-endings that will further trap the hero. "
Only then, having realized that I didn't know how to do this, was I able to walk into my teacher's office the very next week and finally hear him telling me what I now saw I needed to know-as he had been doing all along.
This is a point that's hard for people to understand if they have never experienced it. But it's very common for me to have a student walk up to me after a given session and say, in effect, "Why in the world didn't you ever tell me that before?" And almost always I can then take him back to lecture notes from previous courses, and even personal critiques written earlier to him about his copy, which said exactly what he was never ready to take in and apply before.
That's why I so emphasize that, if you find a competent teaching pro, you must really, really listen... strenuously struggle to hear what is actually being said... then work your hardest to do exactly as you're told.
It may be that you'll find in the long run that some given bit of advice
92 mmm The 38 Most Common Fiction Writing Mistakes just doesn't work for you. That's okay. But if you reject advice out of hand, and never try it, then you can never really know, can you?
There are things about the workings of the imagination and the creative process that are indeed mysterious. But most of the craft of writing can be taught, and it can be learned.
All it takes is someone who knows what he's doing, at one end of the dialogue, and someone who is truly willing to listen and try, at the other.
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