I am a vocal advocate of the ONE TRUTH when it comes to writing and publishing – that the only thing which comes close to a guarantee of success in this field is to Get Good At Writing. At which point someone inevitably shouts DAN BROWN at me and I say, yesbut even Dan Brown is actually pretty good at writing techno-thrillers. The one thing successful writers really do have in common is the ability to write, and pretty damn well in most cases.
I think anyone with the desire can learn to write fiction in 3 to 5 years from a standing start. (That learning process never ends but it can plateau sufficiently to start publishing). But like those podgy celebrities who disappear for six months and then come back as muscular love gods, it’s also possible to do things MUCH more quickly IF you have the motivation. If someone were to turn up on my doorstep with a Significant Sum of Money and demand to learn the secrets of fiction writing in 6 months, I would take the cash and set them the following curriculum.
You already have an imagination, right? Maybe. But if you’re a typical citizen of the 21st century it’s well hidden underneath your target acquisition system attenuated for urban and media rich environments. Wu-huh what Damo?
Let me simplify what is a rather more complex issue. Say that your mind has two different ways of thinking. Let’s call the first way your Small Mind. Your Small Mind does most of the stuff you generally think of when you think about your mind at all. It’s your Small Mind that navigates its way around a supermarket looking for beef steaks and peanut butter. If you get paid for a job of work, it’s likely a Small Mind activity that you’re being paid for. Manipulating spreadsheets is a proto-typical Small Mind job. As is most of the mundane stuff we do day to day.
When Big Mind speaks, learn to shut up and listen.
Some things your Small Mind has little to do with – breathing, regulating your body’s intricate nervous system, and writing. Imagine trying to *consciously* manage the bazillion different things your body is doing at even given moment, from digesting food to manufacturing blood cells. Your brain is doing all this stuff, but the last thing it needs is your Small Mind asking silly questions and worrying about stuff. So it does all the essential work in the background and then alerts your Small Mind on the rare occasions it’s presence is required. This total capacity of your brain to do all the important shit without telling you is your Big Mind.
Have you ever wondered why ideas for stories seem to come out of nowhere? That’s Big Mind doing all the really hard work in the background – weaving the threads of plot, character and theme to make a cool story – then tapping you on the shoulder and saying “here ya go…all done!” And what do we do? Mostly we ignore Big Mind and because Small Mind thinks it knows how to do it all. And so the great stories of your imagination die, and instead you fight to consciously construct something that should properly be born in dreams. When Big Mind speaks, learn to shut up and listen.
Words, Sentences, Paragraphs
Buy a good book on English language grammar and usage and read it cover to cover. Twice. List your twelve all time favourite novels and re-read them with a stack of coloured highlighters to hand. Study how the writers you love use language. Because it’s right down in the words, sentences and paragraphs that writing happens. Bad writing is like a Hollywood movie made with ugly actors on drab locations using Hi8 camcorders. Prose fiction only exists as words, sentences and pragraphs on a page, if they suck, so does the fiction. Our educational system leaves many people intimidated by the English language. Don’t be. This is the easiest of problems to solve. But it has to *be* solved before you can do most anything else. Think of it as your basic fitness. You can’t build rippling pectorals until you can run a few kilometres without wheezing, and you won’t write a magnificent story until you can fluently lay down language on the page.
Commercial Prose Style
This is where shit gets controversial. Being creative means being original, right? Well, Yes&No. Even the most original art is only about 3% original (I have literally plucked that figure from THIN AIR but will now fight to defend it) while the other 97% is re-combinatorial, IE parts stolen from other things then stitched together in to a Frankenstein’s Monster of a creation (there, you now also know what Frankenstein is really about). This, incidentally, is why knowing the history of your creative form is useful / essential, because that history shows you how all the different parts were reinvented and recycled by each new generation.
Style is the most obviously unoriginal part of most fiction. There are hundreds of ways to tell a story. But in practice the vast majority of stories are written in four styles, that constitute the four key styles of commercial fiction. If you want to shortcut a vast amount of hard work, then learn parrot fashion how to write one or two of these styles. You will be limited as a writer, but you won’t be alone. Must first time published authors can only write one style effective, usually but not always the one their published book is written in. Some, for reasons I do not fully comprehend, some can’t even write one style effectively, instead veering from style to style sometimes within a single paragraph. Sigh.
This is where you take all ideas of originality and toss them away. If you play music you’ll know that all popular songs have a verse, chorus and bridge, in various combination. Similarly, all stories have a beginning, middle and end, commonly rephrased as Act Onem Act Two and Act Three. Three act structure ladies and gentlemen, love it or hate it, you will never escape it. (There are alternatives but not on our 6 month body beautiful crash course) You can reshape it to 5 acts if you wish, it remains fundamentally the same thing. In there somewhere you’ll need an Inciting Incident, some Rising Action, a Mid-Point Twist, coherent Beats, Scenes and Sequences, and a well fashioned Crisis, Climax, Resolution to end things. BUT YOU’RE MAKING US WRITE A FORMULA. No, I’m making you write a structure. Like the verse, chorus, bridge of a pop song you can turn that structure in to the Rolling Stones or Eminem, but you can’t escape the structure itself. Three act structure is the structure of pretty much every story you have ever encountered in any medium. That’s how important it is.
These are of course basics. But they are probably enough to get you over the line and writing something, if not perfect, then at least interesting. And as any artist knows, interesting is ten times better than perfect, by any measure.