Over at Wyrdsmiths, author Kelly McCullough picked up on the post from John Scalzi on why new authors are kinda old. That started me thinking not just about how long it takes to learn how to write (Scalzi and McCullogh note about twenty some years, each, which seems about right to me, since it took ten years of dabbling for me, and about another five or so to get serious and figure out what the hell I was doing). And I wonder if the real danger to the novel is not that folks will stop reading, but that potential writers may not have the patience to learn to tell a good story.
Note the phrase “tell a good story” — I’m wondering if that’s the key here?
Recently, it’s been contest entry time, so I’ve been judging. Give back when you can, that’s the idea, only I worry sometimes that I’m being so very tough. But then I think what if some kind souls hadn’t sat down with my early scribblings and written up comments (hard to take at the time, but oh so useful once you get past being ticked off at anyone not loving every word). Learning takes sweat, and patience. Learning writing technique is one thing, but I so many entries these days from good writers — really good ones, sometimes — but the story is not….(sorry to say)…not good.
So…good writing, bad storytelling. What–are these writers just not reading enough to absorb what storytelling takes? Or are they reading a lot of badly structured crap, and therefore producing the same? Or is it really that hard to get a creative writing class these days in which characterization and story and pacing are taught? Come to think of it, most of what I learned wasn’t from a class, but from taking apart the stories I liked. And from imitating.
My first story came out a Ray Bradbury wannabe. There was the inevitable Poe poetry–ghastly stuff on my side, but Poe will teach you a lot about the rhythm in words. And then the Georgette Heyer imitation, which seems mandatory for any writer who has aspirations to write a Regency romance. Oh, and a couple of mysteries that leaned heavily towards Dick Francis. Once I got all of that out of the way, I finally found my own stuff. Thank god. And, just in case you’re thinking it, copying does not mean taking their words. It means writing in the style of. I think I even slipped in a bit of Lovecraft there for a bit.
So…what does it take to learn storytelling? Maybe this just goes back to writing — a lot. And reading even more. And maybe it also goes to having a small circle of friends who can read those early stories before they have to go out into that big, tough world.