Can someone teach you to write?

This is likely to be a controversial blog and I hope I don’t offend anyone. It just seems to me that there’s a proliferation of courses and instruction books on how to write, writing magazines, endless soul-searching about style, how to create characters, grammar, creating a hook, you name it, from all kinds of eminently qualified people.

Frankly, I don’t think you can learn how to write by analysing your work, taking great writers’ efforts apart, reinforcing self doubt, and both congratulating and criticising other people in an attempt to find your own ‘voice’ . What on earth is a ‘voice’ anyway, what does it mean?

I was shortlisted by the Crime Writers Association Debut Dagger in 2004, and part of the prize was to receive critiques of the sample of the novel you send from a variety of agents and publishers. One person said my dialogue was good, another said it was bad, one person liked my characters, another didn’t. They all said conflicting things, the most insulting of which was ‘the plot wasn’t quite clever enough’. I concluded that their criticism was inconsistent, that if I took it to heart, I’d never write another word. Admittedly ‘Deadly Contact’ had plenty of faults, but I think I can now see what they are. The point is I saw it myself later, no one showed me.

And this is the nub of it. If you have your work dissected by half a dozen people in a group, some will like it, some won’t, and some will be bored because your chosen genre is not theirs. So you’re going to have aspects of your novel pulled to pieces, when, in fact, those may be the very parts you should leave alone, and the really bad parts stay there, wrecking your masterpiece.

I started writing fiction about 15 years ago. My first book ‘The Sugar Street Knifeman’, (ghastly title!) was absolutely terrible, I can see it now. My second ‘Moving Target’ and third (with another ghastly title) were suitable for landfill too. Part of the reason, I think, was that I was copying writers I liked, thinking I could use the same tricks they did, not realising I couldn’t. Another part of the reason was that I made all the usual early mistakes, repeating myself, overdoing things, making characters too black and white, too much graphic violence and sex.

Here’s an example: Everybody likes Ian Rankin’s books, but, I confess I don’t. So I realise I’m no judge. Don’t get me wrong, as a person, I think Ian Rankin is delightful, friendly, likeable, and endearingly humble for someone so successful. I simply don’t like his hero, but, luckily, lots of other people do. So anyone teaching a crime writing course who loves Ian Rankin’s hero would praise students who produced a similar character, and criticise other types of hero. It would be de rigeur for all the students to have a grumpy disagreeable hero.

The point is, all writing is subjective. I love Dick Francis and Robert Goddard books. I like first person narratives, despite the drawbacks of not being able to see things from other points of view (of course multi narrative viewpoints are another way round this too). Others, such as the wonderful Wilkie Collins, wrote multi viewpoint books, and, for other people, this works very well indeed. Most of my appalling early efforts were third person narratives, and they didn’t work. For me, first person is the best way, but for someone else third person, with the protagonist always in the frame, is best, while others use third person and multi narrative to great effect. You always find what works best for you.

Simon Brett treads that very subtle line between comedy and crime, combining both brilliantly. I’ve heard him speak many times, and he writes warm-hearted humorous novels with good satsfying crime plots. I think he’s so successful because he’s a warm-hearted man with an irrepressible sense of humour. His writing is part of him, and that’s why people like his books. Anyone trying to combine comedy and crime, who wasn’t naturally witty, would inevitably come unstuck.

What I think is, getting critiques from all and sundry is as likely to do as much harm as good. And, if you stick with your novels, you’re likely to see what works and what does not. For me, writing a book is like building an extension to a house (I’ve built a few). At the beginning of the job you can’t envisage it being finished, you just build, brick by brick. At the end, you can’t actually believe you did the whole thing. And it’s the same with a book. You stick with it, even though at times you’re fed up with it, and finally, almost to your surprise, you make it to the end, and hopefully the plot’s worked its way around, and you’ve given yourself (and your readers) some surprises.

I once read a ‘how to’ book on crime writing by an agent, who almost once accepted my work, then changed her mind. One of the authors stressed how you had to plan every chapter in advance before you even begin. I read half of one of his books, and it was so boring I gave up. Another writer gave a talk on how to write, with quite a few useful tips. But, again, I read one of his books and thought it was awful.

And what do all these fancy writers’ terms mean? Plotting? Pace? Narrative voice? Tone? I think it’s all bluff and flannel, a way of burbling on, trying to analyse something which can’t be analysed. Trying to say why you like someone’s writing style is like trying to describe the sensation of smelling new mown grass on a summer’s day, or passing on the mind-numbing terror of a scream in the dark.

To all those writing tutors out there, I apologise, I’m probably wrong, after all what do I know? My only books published conventionally are nonfiction, and I’ve self published my first fiction, so you can say I’m misguided and would benefit from writers’ courses and reading plenty of books on the theory or writing, and perhaps I would. You’re probably right and I am wrong.

I’ve been wrong in my life plenty of times before. . .

Rock’n’Roll Suicide and free now on Smashwords – use coupon: PC67N.

And thanks to my new twitter friends who are helping me so much: @JennieOrbell, @DarciaHelle, @johnson_mjj, @TerryTyler4, @mariasavva, Rachael Hale, Truda Thurai and others. Incidentally, I bought @davepperlmutter ’s book Wrong place wrong time, and it’s rivetting. And David doesn’t even claim to be an experienced writer, just a man relating a true story. What a story it is.

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11 thoughts on “Can someone teach you to write?

  1. I plan very carefully before I start a novel, and do make a plan for each chapter, but that is because I am a stickler for continuity. I am afraid I didn’t read all of this article as I am quite busy at the moment – but I would like to answer your question about whether or not you can teach someone to write.

    My opinion is this: you can learn how to improve your writing, you can learn how not to do all those things that make it look amateur, like over-use of adverbs, etc. You can learn how to phrase things so that they are grammatically correct if they weren’t before. You can learn how to edit your book so that it is more succinct, how not to be self-indulgent, how to cut out superfluous detail. But no amount of articles on ‘how to build suspense’ or ‘how to make characters three dimensional’ or ‘how to make dialogue realistic’ will teach you how to do those things if you don’t already know how to. A good writer doesn’t think, hmm, how shall I write this paragraph to in order to build tension? How can I speed up the pace of this sub-plot? It just happens, as he/she is writing.

    Writing is a talent that some have and some don’t. If you don’t have it, you can work hard and study hard and produce something that is perfectly adequate and even pretty good. But as far as the basic talent goes, no, you can’t teach that. It’s either there or it’s not, and nothing can put it there if it isn’t. And that is my last word on the subject!! 🙂

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  2. I didn’t write for several years after my original experience with ‘Niedermayer & Hart’ and a large publishing house who had looked all set to do it! The managing director actually said to me, “Trust me, it’s going to happen”.

    It was a painful experience. Eventually I started writing again. When I’d completed ‘Roadrage’ it was almost impossible to get any publishing professsionals to read it. I came to the conclusion that at 57 rather than 25 with an MA in creative writing from UEA I didn’t stand a chance! I gave up trying and decided to self-publish. Jude my wife said, “I still think you ought to bring out N & H!” – so, N & H came out in April and Roadrage will follow early next year. I plan to do one a year.

    I agree with Terry about the stuff that can be learned – adverbs, repetition etc. I read a Jeffrey Archer once, I thought it can’t be quite as bad as his critics say – it really was! However, it was undoubtedly a page turner and I did finish it. I therefore deduce that his readers aren’t at all bothered by the quality of the writing – which is fine of course – but I am, which is why I’d never read another! People read all kinds of genres for all kinds of reasons and writing quality isn’t always top of their agenda I suspect. More and more I realise that target audience is everything. I’ve had rave responses from two 18 yr olds and one 82 yr old so far, so I think the book has fairly wide appeal. However, if your favourite writer is Julian Barnes or one of the other celebrated authors of the British chattering classes, you probably wouldn’t enjoy it, and personally in that case I’d rather you didn’t bother!

    Enjoyed the blog Geoff.

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  3. Geoffrey,

    Just as you’ve gotten conflicting views/feedback for something you’ve written, the same does and can be applied to your question. The truthful answer, in my opinion, is actually a combination of both YES/NO,

    You can, should, and MUST be taught the proper use of grammar and punctuation. The same applies to such elements as the use of tags, POV, amount of description you place in your narrative [show not tell]; but the actual is still ultimately left up you in your decision as to how much you want your reader to envision for themselves,

    The “rub” of all this is, no matter how prefect you become, or how well known you might become, your readers will always give conflicting reports on what they’ve read. They’ll always compare one of your writing endeavors to another one, and always add their own “biased” opinions. So in the end, there’s only one person you must really satisfy, it’s a person who can be very hard in regards to their opinion, and this person is YOUSELF.

    On the positive side the more you write, the easier it will become. You’ll be able to formulate your ideas quickly, albeit there will one you might become victim to the “infamous” condition known as WRITER’S BLOCK.

    In the end as you write more and more you write, the more you’ll be able develop your own style of writing as you become more adept in doing it. This is why each author seems to be different in the way they write, with all the proper elements being in place, the way they should be according to the “normal” guidelines of style; and not like the pieces of dough you get if everyone uses the same cookie cutter.

    I can probably predict your opinion of what I’ve just written. You’ll probably say something like: “It’s a well written, straight forward writing endeavor [American spelling of “endeavour”] which shows no bias in what it’s offering as a response to the question at hand.

    When I look at all the commentaries I’ve written in my day, haven’t written any in the past six-and-a-half years, I can see how vastly improved my phraseology has become. Once you’ve “mastered” your own style, you’ll never lose it as evident by what I’ve written above.

    Right now I’m about to wander into uncharted territory as my first writing endeavor/endeavour into the world of fictional writing is about to come into fruition with the release [in about ten days to two weeks] of “I Kissed a Ghost” [YA Paranormal/Time Travel/First Kiss romance novel.

    Robin Leigh Morgan
    http://www.twitter.com/mypennameonly

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  4. Geoffrey. Apart from the blindingly obvious stuff that one should do as a writer (such as spell properly, use correct syntax etc) you are 100% ‘on the money’. Writing can’t be learned in the academic sense, but for the large part can only grow through trial and error – like most things.

    Jonathan

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    1. Absolutely agree Jonathan. You know I expected angry writing tutors to be wanting me lynched, was quite worried, but, suprisingly, lots of people seem to agree. Will check out your website.

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  5. You learn about wood, you learn about tools and how best to use them, you learn enough about health and safety to keep you safe… but whether you become a carpenter or a sculptor depends on a gift, a passion and a personal vision. And you never stop learning…especially from your mistakes. I don’t think writing is any different from any other artform. You have to know and understand the basics, but no amount of teaching or study can make you any more than competent without that unteachable spark.

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