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On the Presumption of Writer Blogs

Hi. I’m a novelist. You’ve never heard of me. Read my blog.

Snake oil salesman
Credit: Carol M. Highsmith / Public domain

Because that’s the game here, isn’t it. Writers set up blogs because we are told we need a platform. We need followers We need to be someone. It’s the same Catch-22 as looking for your first job. You need experience to get a job. You need a job to get experience. A writer needs readers to get published, and they need to be published to get readers.

So we set up blogs about writing. Like this one.

It is, on the face of it, highly presumptuous. Why should you listen to anything I or the estimated 7.3% of humanity that also published a writer blog (estimate by me, just now) has to say on the subject? How can any of us possibly have anything useful to say if we are not yet published? You wouldn’t take advice from a bankrupt financial planner or a gardener with a weedy garden, so why listen to us?

Fair question. But here’s the thing. Most of the advice on writing published today does not come from established writers. It comes from editors and agents and story doctors and literary critics and people with MFA degrees who teach fiction in college despite never actually having published a successful novel themselves. It comes from anthropologists and psychologists and business gurus (story is big with the marketing crowd these days).

After all, if you become a good enough writer to make your living writing novels (few do), why would you waste your time blogging or teaching writing classes at the community center? You would spend it travelling and writing so that you can write off your travel expenses as research. No, the people writing about writing and teaching writing are, with some notable exceptions, not the people who are successfully writing. Could any of them really have the faintest idea what they are talking about?

Actually, yes.

Here’s the thing about writing: It is all surface. When you look at the words on the page of a novel, you are seeing absolutely everything there is to see. There are no hidden structures, no secret techniques. It is all there in plain sight for anyone to analyse and describe.

Other arts are not like this. Most of them require physical skills that are hard to acquire and the use of materials whose properties must be understood and mastered. Musicians have to train their mouths and their fingers to play their instruments. Painters have to learn how to mix colors and prepare canvasses, and how to hold and work brushes. Sculptors have to learn the properties of the medium and how to wield chisels and blow torches. You can’t learn that stuff just from listening to a concert, looking at a painting, or knocking over a sculpture. The only physical skills you need to write a novel you learned in grade school. You can learn everything there is to know about the art and craft of the novel just from reading novels. Everything is there to see and to analyse. It is logically possible, therefore, to analyse and describe the art of fiction without ever successfully practicing it.

Actually practicing it is, of course, another matter. You could learn all there is to learn about story structure and technique based on the greatest analysis of story from the finest minds in the business and still not be able to do it. I’m not sure we entirely understand why. Perhaps, besides analysis and understanding of structure and technique, it also requires the divine spark. Perhaps in addition to understanding structure and technique you actually need to have something to say about the human condition. Perhaps it is simply that the art is sufficiently complex that it cannot actually be practiced by rule. The work itself must come not from conscious conformance to principles but by the tacit mastery of story.

It certainly seems that way when you are in the flow of composition. You are not juggling dozens of rules about structure and story arc and creating emotion, and the correct use of the subjective when you are in full flow. You are present in the story and it is unfolding from your fingertips. Or you are typing drivel. But as your confidence and experience grows it is less drivel and more story. At least, I hope so. Because I think you need a certain story to drivel ratio before what you write is even salvageable. But to be in the state where story is unfolding from your fingertips all those rules you are not thinking about have to be tacitly guiding you somewhere in the deep recesses of the brain.

Getting to a tacit mastery of story does not necessarily involve learning any of the propositions and maxims about the structures and techniques of story that all we analytical folk have sucked out of the existing canon. That is the nature of tacit knowledge. It is more about what you brain just knows to do, like walking or catching a ball, whether it can translate it into words or not. Some people seem to absorb the tacit knowledge of stories simply from reading lots of stories. And it certainly seems to be the case that even those who do do the analysis and absorb all the theory they can, still need to read a lot and write a lot before they can put those theories into practice.

It would seem, therefore, that the ability to create fiction and the ability to analyse and explain the craft of fiction exist more side by side than in any causal relationship with one another. One can learn to write novels entirely tacitly, without learning a lick of explicit theory. One can observe and define the structure and technique of novels entirely from observation, without any practice at all. One can be good at one and not the other. Hopefully you can also be good at both. I’m certainly trying.

And that is my justification for starting a blog about writing when I haven’t yet proven myself as a writer of fiction (though I have been at least a little successful at several other forms of writing). Of course, I haven’t yet proven myself as an analyst of fiction and its craft either. Maybe this blog will change that.

But after I am a rich and famous novelist, will someone please remind me to update this post to say that you should listen to me because I know what I am talking about here because of all my best-selling novels. Because that is going to be my story, once I am. Thanks!

 

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