Great fiction is rooted in craft

You’re alive with the story unfolding inside your head. The blank page is so clear, the screen so empty and bright, your paper so fresh and white. And then you go and ruin it by writing on it. You have developed the self-discipline to sit down and write. You focus. You lay down the words. You write an opening scene and it flows. Hours you spend doing this, but now, you discover, you have a problem. You have no idea where to go from here. Oh you have an idea where the story will take you but you can’t seem to make it go there right now, and worse, when you return to it, say the following day, it is terrible, terrible, terrible. You can’t believe you’ve written such trash. This is where you want to punch a hole in the wall or put your head down on the table and cry. The scene embarrasses you. You’re worthless. You have no idea how to write. You have a MFA. You have a PhD. You have a MD. You have no degrees. You cannot write.

This is where fiction is all about hope. This is creation, and you drag yourself up from the table and rewrite what you’ve written. And this you may have to do many, many times. But you do it. One of Monterey’s homeless, a tall, thin man with long matted dreads, used to have two dogs, a black and a yellow lab. I passed him one day while he was pushing his shopping cart with possessions and one dog near the Coast Guard Station. “Where’s your black dog?” I asked. “He died.” He was a good dog, I told him. No, said my friend. “He was a great dog!” His eyes blazed. His smile was afire. Shortly thereafter I saw him around town with two dogs. Make as much art as you can before you die. Keep writing, writing, and do it again.

Now I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, such a cliché to suggest you need to learn craft. Of course, you are right, but all clichés are grounded in reality and contain an element of truth, and if you want to write great fiction, with universal appeal, you need to study how it’s done. Cliché is easy, writing is not. Is literary fiction art or craft? It’s both. To make art you need to learn craft. Whether you’re the person who learns by doing something over and over and throwing it out, and repeating the same thing, or by writing close to your best on first draft, the craft of fiction is how you put it together.

To learn the craft of writing, read, particularly read those authors whose books you like, and eventually you will begin to look at those books with an insider’s gaze, as a fellow craftsman. Study the craft, think about it, revisit it, write.

Learn the craft of fiction

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