Wednesday, December 29, 2010

My Take on How To Be a Writer -- or Not

The essay in this link discusses "how to be a fiction writer" by a successful sci-fi writer (Jerry Pournelle, a nice guy whom I had the privilege to share a beer with last summer, coincidentally).  It is interesting, if inadequate -- it points you in the general direction of north, but won't get you to the Pole.  But at the end he links to an even more interesting discussion of "how to be a writer" by sci-fi author Robert Heinlein in this transcript.

Heinlein offers more substance in his guidance to budding writers (in this case the '73 class of midshipmen at the Naval Academy), though I have serious disagreements with a few things he says.  (Quite aside from his opinions on a proper morality, which are horrible -- based on a Kantian hierarchy that puts the individual on the bottom and makes self-sacrifice for the group the supreme imperative, but yet, in a twisted way, he still upholds the absolute sanctity of individual selfishness. Go figure.)

There's a common theme among many successful writers who say you "can't teach writing"-- they say you just have to write to "know" how to write. I mean, yes, you can't learn brain surgery from a book, either; you've got to operate on a lot of cadavers and patients. But I do think there is more to teach than "work at it a lot".  

That cliche grates on me, I confess. Having investigated this in more grueling detail than I care to bore you with, I think there are many reasons why writing (or more specifically, fiction writing) hasn't been taught well, so with that in mind, let this fiction-writing novice (well, screen-writing novice) take a stab at just a few things that I think are relevant here:

1. The existing approaches to teaching fiction writing suck, big time.  All of them.  Get any of the books on the subject.  You'll come away with an invincible sense of "AHA!  Now I know what to do!"  And then you'll go and try to apply that wonderful theory and flounder hopelessly in developing a really good story.  Exhibit A:  Hollywood.   Hollywood is wonderful at knowing a good story when they see it, but creating a good story is largely hit-or-miss with them.  (Exhibit B:  every sequel ever made.)  

ALL of these books suffer from hopelessly misplaced methods of analyzing other writer's works, and randomly misplaced tips for how to outline and develop your own work according to "successful" books, movies or plays. ("The three act structure is generally recognized as superior..." blah, blah-blah, delivered in a very stiff New England tone of upper-crust condescension, etc, ad infinitum, ad nauseum.)  

In other words, they largely advocate the art of imitation, achieved by stringing together cliches with a cultivated look of faux originality. 

Yes, on that basis, no one will learn writing.  In the absence of proper theories of nuclear engineering you couldn't teach the design of nuclear power plants, either.  I mean, if you were doing it based on a theory of alchemy and woodworking, you wouldn't get very far, would you?  You'd just have to rely on those who possess the noble art of nuclear "divination", who innately "know", somehow, the nuances of the proper metal alloys and cooling systems and radioisotopes required.  That's sort of where writing is today, with regard to schooling, and why it "can't" be taught. The proper theory hasn't been properly expounded into people's heads.

2. Writing good fiction requires a very broad base of knowledge, much more so than other fields, and it has to be almost fully automatized before you can write anything of real quality -- especially, compelling dialogue.   (Very few writers today write good dialogue in my opinion.  Mainly they're very good at avoiding writing dialogue -- at all costs.)  Ayn Rand discusses this somewhat in her fiction course, but barely touches on what should be emphasized with a jack-hammer to the brain:  you've got to train your subconscious, and then rely on it while writing -- give it the reins.  In writing, deep analysis of the quality of what you've written comes after trained "intuition" (ie, programmed cognitive reaction to a particular set of concretes defined according to a creative purpose) puts words on paper.  Anything else breeds "analysis paralysis" and crappy writing.

3. Writing requires the ability and interest in doing lots of research--say, 16th century history if you want to do a novel on Magellan's voyage. Heinlein touches on some of the things you need to know, but I think he goes way overboard in demanding encyclopaedic knowledge before you even get started.  You could spend a lifetime acquiring seven PhD's, by his standard, before you ever wrote a single word (though he was very knowledgable himself).

4. Much more important is the writer's ability to gain insights into the nature of human psychology as such, and how it's expressed in human interactions, culture, trade, wars, business, romance, etc.  This is how you get to universal conflicts that anyone can relate to. 

5. Writing fiction also requires a certain kind of psychology in the writer himself -- the kind of psychology that relishes the experience of human conflict and seeks it out in developing a story line, while understanding it at a deep emotional level. Most people want to avoid conflict at all costs.  They run like hell from it.  No.  If this is what you want, become an accountant, not a fiction writer.  A writer wants to make the lives of his characters a living hell -- and drag out the suspense of it as long as possible -- before resolving anything.  If you can't stand the pressure, get out of the cooker.

6. Writing also requires a psychology that genuinely enjoys observing and understanding people and their interactions, and finds them fascinating. If you don't have that psychology to start with, it's going to be an incredibly uphill battle to acquire it, though it can be done.  Introverts and overly cautious people need not apply -- unless they're willing to become a whole lot more extroverted and willing to take risks in their own lives. 

7. And it requires a certain devil-may-care self-confidence and separation of your self-worth from what you write.  You can spend a lot of time outlining a story to reach a clear plot, theme and climax, and then find you have to chuck it more or less as you start writing in detail--
because the moment you start putting words in characters' mouths they're going to become vastly more real to you, and this will suggest much better how they are going to get you to the climax -- what they need to be, who is important, who isn't, along with new conflicts, the need for new characters, etc.  The old cliche of a writer having to be willing to "murder his darlings"  (the precious baubles of your words on paper) is relevant here, but more accurately, in chucking a detailed plot on the spur of the moment for an even better arc, a writer has to be willing to murder the psychological support system of his self-image.  That takes confidence and a belief in your ability to do it all over again from scratch, faster, easier, and better.

8. For that reason you've got to have a certain artist's psychology when you do outline a story (IMHO), one which doesn't obsess too much on controlling every word and deed of each character like the roles in a Victorian drama.  Your outline will simply change too much when you do the detailed writing.  Broad strokes are the ticket -- what's my climax?  Who are my characters and what do they need to be to get me there? What are the key sub-conflicts?  Etc. This is sort of what the chapter titles in a novel accomplish for a writer.  Writing is very much Aristotelian causation in action -- define your entities (your characters and their purposes), define your goal (the climax), set up the situation (what kind of world are the characters in), and the action will drive naturally toward the climax if you understand all that and aren't just jumping from cliche to cliche. 

9. You also need a very active mind in relation to making your own observations about life in general.  You need something original to say.  Some unique observations or perspective you can put in the mouths or choices of your characters.  If all you're doing is stringing cliches together, you're wasting your time.  The story will be boring and predictable by definition.  (Note that you might make a good living at it if your audience wouldn't know a cliche from meat cleaver.  Hence, the miracle of Titanic.)

10. You need to be brutally honest with yourself and about what you're writing.  If it's crap, it's crap (ever see "Educating Rita"?), and you've got to be willing to confront that even if it hurts (it will).  In the beginning you won't know what's crap, but your "crap-detector" will always creep ahead of your writing ability and keep you on your toes. If you're honest with yourself, your crap-detector will scare the crap out of you and pull you forward to greater heights of competence and skill. 

11. And you need to be highly selfish to write.  I don't mean this as a cliche.  Writing is a very personal and possessive thing, and you have to do it for those reasons -- the thrill of putting your words on paper, the excitement of reaching your climax with your characters and your meaning attached to it.  (Remember Joan Wilder in Romancing the Stone?  Typing the last words of her latest novel and weeping with joy?  So true.)  And the desire to be alone for hours on end, day after day after day, for up to 6 hours each day, shut up in a room, no TV, no radio, inside your own thoughts, for the rest of your writing career...

All this is hopelessly inadequate as a summary -- I've probably left out at least fifty other key points, including many I don't even know -- but it does provide the broad strokes of some things *I* think are essential to being a fiction writer, speaking as someone who's spent a lot of time trying to learn the craft, but who hasn't made it yet (ie, a paying gig).  

If I was to summarize all this I'd put it this way:  if you want to be a writer, you have to want to make yourself the kind of person who can write.  It isn't about learning to write so much -- that's almost easy if you've got the right psychology to begin with.  It's about learning to be re-make yourself as the kind of person possessing the psychology of one who can write. 

A lot of what Ayn Rand said about writing is very relevant but I would say hopelessly inadequate in itself if you don't start with the writing "gene".  She just outlines the broad principles ("writing 101") and barely touches on the necessary psychology you have to develop.  Meaning no criticism whatsoever because the subject is so complex, I class the entire corpus of her discussions on fiction writing as "Writing 101" because if you don't have the innate writer's psychology it's going to take several years (maybe many years, maybe a lifetime) of firm guidance to acquire it -- at least if you want to do good writing.  I think the training required to be a writer is not so much about learning how to model your stories on "successful" plot constructions and character conflicts (very little of that, really), but on how to cultivate the writing mentality itself.  

Though some people do have an "innate" ability--the Ayn Rand's, Victor Hugo's, Paddy Chayefsky's, and, to lesser degree, the J.J. Abrams' and Aaron Sorkin's all had big head starts, psychologically speaking.  

I shouldn't say "gene".  I really do think dramatic writing can be learned with the right committment and enough time and effort.  If Ayn Rand started out at the top of the evolutionary ladder of writing talent, most of us are still waddling with Cro-magnon cave dwellers and gnawing on the petrified bones of stale cliches from hairy pachyderms.  To mix this metaphor even more, most of us start out a lot further from the starting line of good writing.  Sometimes a few miles from the starting line (like me), which a fervent desire alone won't overcome unless there's some guidance for how to even enter the race.  

Others simply lack the committment.  But here the motto of Delphi in Ancient Greece applies:  Know Thyself.  If you can't muster the committment to develop the writing mentality, don't waste your time in deluding yourself you can be a fiction writer.  You never will.  Set yourself down, look yourself in the mirror and take stock:  are you willing to become a different person?

But if you can overcome the basic psychological hurdles, then I think a knowledge of the broad principles will let fiction writing come more or less naturally to you, with enough practice.  Then you just write a lot till you're good at it.  And in a word, speaking as a novice, that's my take on the subject. 


  1. Excellent observations. I agree with them. I'd like to know more about what you mean by the "writing gene". I wonder if there are a set of hereditary traits that could make one better predisposed to be a writer.

    Regarding Hollywood, most of the writing is atrocious. And what isn't atrocious is just bad. There's very little good writing out there. I think one of the reasons for this is altruism. Hollywood champions altruism and egalitarianism in some way shape or form in nearly every movie that has any hint of a philosophical theme. Altruism is literally murder for good writing. Its destroys the hero's vitality and usually sets up the villain as the more interesting character. Altruist ethics therefore limits what you can do with a story. It basically mandates bad psycho-epistemology.

    Lastly, here are two interesting blog posts by Objectivist Ron Pisaturo who like you is an amateur writer:

    He says similar things about drama conflict.



  2. Bob,
    There's always genetic, environmental and other factors, but in the absence of any serious mental deficiency (retardation, let's say) and overwhelming environmental damage (say, stress induced psychosis), physical ailments that affect the mind or even self-created problems (heroin addiction, etc), I don't think dramatic writing is beyond many people *in principle*, if they can get the right guidance. But if they lack the psychology to begin with and have no guidance, I think most people also don't have the ability to get there on their own, just as most people don't have the wherewithal to become nuclear power plant designers on their own. Auto-didacts are extremely rare.
    In the case of writing (ie, fiction writing) personal assumptions, neuroses and most of all *committment* to do whatever is necessary to write a really good, compelling story is absent in most people. Most people think it's easy and are enamored of the money, the freedom, the prestige and lack the passion to enjoy the writing itself as a profession. They don't even rise to the level of "dilletante". It's just a vague desire. Low standards play a role, too: you really have to be tough on yourself to improve enough to write good stories in a reasonable time. At the same time, you can't be too brutal and kill all desire to do it. This all gets into things I didn't touch on. It's a huge subject. But the essence of my answer is that human beings possess free will, and as long as they are of normal intelligence they should be able to become writers -- if the have a true desire. There's the rub. It's like going to a psychiatrist. If you don't want to get better, you won't.


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