I’ve been away working on a superhero novel over the last month, with a working title of Superhero Diaries. It’s intended as part of a series. It’s got aliens giving away superhero suits, much like Greatest American Hero, except none of that 1980s “My world was destroyed. We’re benevolent aliens helping you prevent yours from being destroyed the same way.”
No, these aliens have their own agenda and it benefits them more than the humans. Of course, they’re not telling anyone that.
But it’s forced me to dig a lot deeper into craft skills that have been hard to find.
I grew up as a writer reading craft books in the late 1980s and 1990s, when I could buy them. Before then, I was limited by what my library had (not much).
Now we can go online and get craft tips anywhere. But it’s very superficial. A lot of it treats fiction writing like a checklist:
- Eliminate adverbs. Check.
- Don’t use flashbacks. Check.
- No dream sequences. Check.
One time I asked how to do a dream sequence well on a message board. I’d read several best selling books with dreams in them and it looked like I might have one in what I was working.
The reaction of the writers? Stern lecturing not to do it. Fear, too, especially once I said I was going to do it. They started backing away like “I don’t know this crazy person.” They weren’t even willing to see how they might do it well.
I did do the dream sequence. It’s in Rogue God.
I have a flashback. It’s in the Superhero Diaries.
How did we veer away from experimenting with craft?
I think technology was at fault.
Before the 1990s, writing novels was done on a typewriter. It’s a lot of work just typing. If you make a lot of typos like me, it’s even more work. Pulp writers of the 1940s and 1950s learned how to do one draft because there wasn’t any profit in retyping to revise.
Computers made fiction writing accessible to anyone who could afford the technology. You could write without all the work of a typewriter and revise it as much as you wanted. It even had the marvelous invention of a spell checker.
Heck, yes, I jumped on board and got a computer.
But now all these craft books had to cater to the audience starting their first novel.
Agents were flooded with submissions, most of them bad.
In marched the lists. They were everywhere. All the writing magazines had them, in every issue for a while. They were lists of what the agent didn’t want to see:
- No flashbacks.
- No dream sequences.
- No adverbs.
No this, no that. The internet came and they were all over the place for a while. I tried to find one of those lists online now and they’re gone…but some form of them is the foundation for most craft books today.
The lists consistent of craft techniques that beginners were doing wrong. The agents didn’t have time to coach the writers (no should they), so they put it in list format.
Everyone started repeating the list as a rule that said “Do Not” rather than a craft skill to be learned.
And most of those items on the list have disappeared as skills from books.
Can you find a book that has a chapter on how to do flashbacks?
Disappearing Skills as a Self-Fulfilling Prophecy
When I was on the writing message boards, I always felt like I had to hold myself back. If there was a writer who saw a craft technique in novel and wanted to try it, they were told “big name writer can get away with with it. You can’t. Don’t even try.”
More of that fear.
And personal preferences showed up preferences showed up as a reason to eliminate their skills.
Description is one of those skills that takes a hit here.
Ever hear, “Description is boring! Do as little as possible!”?
Some people don’t like a lot of description, possibly because they ran into a writer or a type of book that didn’t suit their taste. Their answer is that the description is the problem, not the individual reader’s taste.
I’ve seen writers say that the best way to do description is things like:
- Don’t describe your character. Leave it up to the reader’s imagination.
- Do description in dribs and drabs, like “She tossed her brown hair,” or “The bar was dim.”
- Do as little description as possible. Audiences don’t want to read it.
Yet, by doing all these, this cuts the knees out of characterization. These “tips” make writing superficial. And I’ve been guilty of doing this myself.
These skills also hard to learn to do well, another reason they’ve been eliminated from the craft lexicon.
Time Traveling for Writing Craft
These skills have not entirely disappeared though. I’ve been finding them in books written in the typewriter age. They were not for holding someone’s hand through a first novel. They were for someone who wants to write and improve:
- Writing and Selling Your Novel by Jack Bickman – his first chapter is on treating writing like profession. Have you heard of the hidden story? I hadn’t, and it’s in this book.
- Creating Characters: How to Build Story People by Dwight V. Swain. He hits tags and traits for characters, a concept I was having trouble grasping.
- Guide to Fiction Writing by Phyllis A Whitney. She discusses time, a topic I was struggling to find anything on. She also has an extensive section on building a story bible.
- Spider, Spin Me a Web: Handbook for Fiction writers by Lawrence Block. He covers flashbacks.
Buy used. It’s a lot less expensive.
Learning should make you work a bit and be a little uncomfortable.
Lots to learn. I tend to skimp on description, though I describe characters so I don’t forget what they look like in the notebook I have for each novel. And my sister tells me I need more description…
Description is characterization, and also plot. Lawrence Block mentions that in one of the books. You describe a character who has three fingers in Chapter 2 and suddenly it becomes an important plot point later in the story.
But we’re all taught description is boring and not to do much of it. Sigh….
I’ve read this a couple of times, because it’s given me a lot to think about. A couple of those thoughts:
Ninety-plus percent of all the “advice” out there is geared toward beginners. (Clarification: we’re always beginners at SOMETHING in this process, but for this moment, I mean early-stage beginners, those who may not have written much.)
Because the “advice” is for early-stage beginners, those giving it are trying to keep it simple, so the beginners can understand it. Simple does NOT equal dumb, necessarily, but simple statements can be twisted and misinterpreted and thus lose (or at least distort) the fundamental truth at the heart of the matter.
The truth is this: you shouldn’t bore your reader. How do you not bore them? By keeping the writing itself interesting (micro-tension, characters, etc.).
But how do you keep the writing interesting? That’s the question we’re all beginners at trying to answer, because we have to answer it again and again with each and every story, and each and every story is different and brings new challenges.
…just try explaining that to a chat room full of early-stage beginners. (On second thought, don’t; I tried it once, and that particular group didn’t want to hear it and/or couldn’t wrap their minds around it.)
So if learning the craft is being dumbed down, at least part of the reason rests with early-stage beginners who are looking for tricks or tips or a formula or some other magic bullet. (And please don’t take this as insulting to those beginners; most of us were in their shoes at one point or another, and sometimes, when a particular piece is being more challenging that usual, I *still* want a magic bullet….)
–“But how do you keep the writing interesting?”–
That would be in the skills above beginner level that don’t get mentioned in the craft books. There’s a lot that gets left out. I get it that the beginners are looking for easy, and even that some only aspire to hold a book in their hand or want validation. But what happens once you get past beginner level? Then what?
Unfortunately, I think there comes a point where we’re on our own. (Which is exactly how people did things before there were classes and such….)
Partly, this is a function of not really having the words to explain what we’re doing instinctively (those things we’re good at). I’m not sure what else it’s a function of, though. (sigh)
The best way to learn beyond the beginning stage, as far as I can tell, is to read copiously and carefully those authors who do what you want to do.
I think that highlights the problem with the glut of beginner level material. Everyone wants to make things easier, so the harder skills get shuffled to the side. There are resources though…you have to either know to look for them or stumble across them. But Dean Wesley Smith’s Depth workshop is a great place to start. Plus the books I mentioned above.
Oh, thanks for this list; I haven’t heard of any of these books! (So refreshing to not get Strunk and White recommended over and over…)
Dwight V. Swain has a fantastic book called “Techniques of the Selling Writer”; I learned tons from it, if you haven’t seen it yet, you may be interested.
Swain’s book is on my list to get. So many books, not enough time,..
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