We all use the English language, but . . . .

This has been brewing in my head since Scalzi posted his “advice to young writers” thing a while back, wherein the first two points were 1) your writing is crap and 2) that’s okay, we all started out as crap and got better. (Insert, of course, a brouhaha from people who never read past the “your writing is crap” line to see what he meant by that, and how it wasn’t half so offensive as they assumed.)

I had an apostrophe (I think you mean an epiphany, Swan) epiphany after reading through Scalzi’s advice and the responses to it.

If I hand you a paintbrush and tell you to paint the tree outside my office window, odds are you will suddenly feel awkward and clueless and utterly inadequate to the task. Even the physical experience of using a paintbrush isn’t that familiar to most of you, and it would take a lot of practice to get to the point where you could do anything good with it.

If I sit you down at the piano and tell you to play me a piece of music, all of a sudden you realize you have ten fingers, and now you’re asking them to behave independently and simultaneously in a way that is not at all like typing on a keyboard. And again, you would need practice before you could play much more than “Chopsticks.”

If I put you in front of a computer and tell you to write me a story, suddenly everybody thinks they can do it.

I think it’s easy for aspiring writers to assume they can do this because, after all, isn’t it stuff you do every day anyway? We all know how to hold a pen or a pencil and use it to form letters. Most of us, these days, know how to type. And we all use the English language. Isn’t that what writing is?

Yes, but.

There’s an undiscovered world inside that “but.” My epiphany was that I think a great many people fail to perceive the degree of craft that goes into telling a story. They see words on the page, but they don’t see the skills that are required to decide which word will be more effective, how to structure a sentence so it’s grammatical but doesn’t sound like every other sentence you’ve put down, how to get a paragraph to flow so the impact arrives at the right moment, how to build suspense and then resolution into a plot, how to reveal character through telling details instead of just telling, how to create images in the readers’ minds that will stay with them long after the book is closed.

Not everybody, of course. Some people look at a book and say, “I could never do that.” Some people start trying and immediately realize the difference between what they’re doing and what Admired Writer X did. But I’ve seen a lot of writers who, at least when they start out, seem to think there isn’t a learning curve with writing, just like there is with anything else.

Or maybe they just think their learning curve all happened in elementary school.

A common truism among writers goes something like this: you’ve got a million words of crap in you, and what you’ve got to do is write them. Only then can you get to the good words. What this translates to in non-literal terms is, writing takes practice, just like everything else does. One might as well say you’ve got a million notes of crap in you, and once you’ve played them all you can start being a good pianist. Etc. The point is, few if any of us get to skip the practice stage, and if it looks like someone has, they probably just did their practice out of sight. Me? I wrote my million words of crap when I was a teenager, because I already knew I wanted to be a writer. Someone who makes that decision at the age of forty just has a later start, is all.

But it has to be mindful practice. It has to be critical. Banging out dozens of short stories, each one replicating the mistakes of its predecessors, won’t do you any good, any more than banging out notes on the piano without concern for what they sound like will make you a better pianist.

The practice is necessary because, until you reach the point where you have the basics down, you’re going to have a hard time getting to the finer aspects. To continue with the piano analogy — because it’s one I have personal experience with — so long as you’re having to think consciously that a note printed on that line is a D, and you need to stretch your hand X far to form a sixth, and this is where middle C is, issues like interpretation and expression are Right Out. Likewise, you need enough unconscious familiarity with word choice and the formation of sentences and the punctuation of dialogue that your brain can devote itself to higher thoughts. It doesn’t mean you’ll never pause to think about those more basic issues, but they won’t be eating all your attention anymore.

You know how to use the English language, yes. But do you know how to use it well? Do you know what to do with it?

What we do isn’t half so easy as it looks.

0 Responses to “We all use the English language, but . . . .”

  1. mrissa

    I think one of the things that people underestimate about storytelling in written fiction form is that it is for people who don’t share as many references with you as your friends and relations do. Perhaps Aunt So-and-so is the great family storyteller. Everyone is in stitches when So-and-so comes over for dinner. But part of that is that So-and-so is drawing on your memory of Cousin Such-and-such — “you know what he’s like” — and on familiar rhythms of speech and story structure, and so on. So-and-so is not telling the whole story — she’s relying upon you to already know half of it. The sentence that encapsulates this problem is, “I guess you had to be there.” Fiction writers are not generally able to rely on someone having been there for nearly as much as conversational storytellers are.

    • Marie Brennan

      I think you’re onto something there — and also that it isn’t just shared frames of reference; it’s the difference between oral storytelling and printed fiction. You may be great at telling stories to your little cousins, or the life of the anecdote-telling party at the bar, but a lot of that depends on vocal tone, phrasing, timing, etc. How do you get the same effect out of words on the page?

      • mrissa

        And there are some just horrible examples of times where people have tried to transfer what they did in oral storytelling to the page, mostly in children’s books. “And what do you think they saw?” is a phrase that I would love to wipe from every children’s book on the planet. When you are reading to children, you can stop and ask them, “What do you think they saw?” and discuss the answer with them. It’s like asking my 15-month-old niecelet to find the dinosaur in the picture book, but more advanced. But you don’t write it on the page! Yarg!

        • Marie Brennan

          I could excuse “What do you think they saw?” if the assumption was that you will be reading this book out loud to a child. But in cases where it isn’t intended as a stage direction to the parent . . . yeah, it needs to go away.

  2. gollumgollum

    There’s an interview with Paul McCartney where he’s talking about the earlier days of the Beatles, and at one point he says “you know, i always felt bad for George, because John and i wrote so many songs that we got the bad ones out of the way and started writing good ones. George wasn’t writing nearly as many songs, and so he was putting out just as many bad songs to good songs as we were, it’s just that he didn’t have that many to throw out as bad like we did. And once he got his bad songs out of the way he wrote some really amazing stuff, but his early songs…”

  3. gryphart

    Actually, artists pretty much get the same deal – you would be surprised how many people have the idea that painting takes neither time nor skill. (Truthfully, all of Scalzi’s stuff applies to us, too. God knows, my work was plenty hideous as a teenager, and I certainly hope I’m a better painter at 30 than I am now.)

    • Marie Brennan

      I think you get at least some idiots of that sort in every field; maybe it’s just the position from which I’m perceiving this, but it seems like there’s a higher density of them in writing. It feels like more people in art are capable of recognizing (or maybe just willing to recognize) that the pencil messes in their sketchbooks don’t look the same as the stuff professional artists produce.

      The difference might also stem in part from the educational processes in the two fields: I know more aspiring professional artists who have taken art classes than I do aspiring professional writes who have taken writing courses. In fact, a lot of writing courses aren’t that useful. So it adds to the illusion that one doesn’t need to learn this stuff.

  4. anghara

    I thought this post was so wonderful I just linked to it on my own blog. People ought to know about it [grin]

    Anyway, what you said. Word.

  5. sivvyswraith

    These are fabulous words of wisdom!

  6. sartorias

    Practiced words, yes. The million words of crap can be ten million words if the effect isn’t getting better.

    The bottom line for me is, writers have to learn to see the effect at the other end. All the claiming “I did my million words!” or “I suffered so when I wrote this!” or even “I sold something therefore I am a pro!” is to the open air, because the reader (outside of friends and relatives, and yes, as Mrissa says, those who have an inside on some of what fuels a story, and so have added resonance) the reader only has the words. Not every story works for all readers–but if most readers react with indifference or confusion or disgust at one’s heartfelt piece of brilliant art…

  7. ninja_turbo

    I might more directly compare writing fiction to singing in the music world, because 1) I have experience with both and 2) because everyone starts out with a singing voice. People sing casually, and that’s fine. But a trained vocalist is a whole other ballgame.

    But any metaphor will sing in some ways and clunk in others. The writer’s craft is a sneaky one, beneath the surface. For many masters, their skill is in the fact that the artistry behind the craft is invisible, the brush-strokes unidentifiable. All that remains is the effect and the affect it evokes.

    Now back to practicing my craft instead of talking about the craft. Go go Space Opera Tango!

    • Marie Brennan

      I think you’re right that singing is more like writing, but I was deliberately aiming for contrast; nobody (in my experience) expects to be able to play Rachmaninoff within a few weeks of sitting down at a piano. They do, however, seem to think they can be good at writing (and singing) without practice.

  8. houseboatonstyx

    Grabbing your paint brush and galloping off orthogonally on it….

    Aside from Oriental calligraphy etc (performance art with ink), most of us know that a representational oil painting isn’t begun using a paint brush, it’s begun with a pencil sketch and developed in stages. And we’ve all seen plenty of pencil sketches, and some of the developing stages (lots of ruler lines for perspective etc). For stories — most of us haven’t seen that many rough synopses and outlines and such.

    And then there are the people who cry, “Don’t plan, just let it FLOW out…!”

    • Marie Brennan

      True, we only ever tend to see the finished product. And even “how-to” books, which in the case of art would probably show concept sketches, etc, don’t tend to show early drafts of stories.

  9. kitsunealyc

    I was talking to the fox about this very subject today, although the comparision I used was dancing. I (as you know) had a solid upbringing in dance. As an adult, I started doing some new forms on a hobbyist level. I was really “good” at first… that is, I learned the bare bones quickly and had a lot of fun dancing in small shows. Then I started taking intensive classes and competing, and suddenly I could barely dance at all. I was immersed in the technical aspects and when I would try to just dance (like I had before) It would all fall apart. After a year or two of this, I was finally able to start integrating the two, and dance with both exuberance and technical proficiency, and it was really at that point that I started to do really well in competition, and to compete at higher levels.

    I’m hitting a point in fiction writing where I’ve worked through my exuberance, and am starting to see places where I feel like my technique is thin and needs some development. I’d love to take some time during our next lunch-y thing to talk about suggestions you might have for working on this.

    • dichroic

      What you said brings up a point I don’t see above: some skills transfer. Your early dance skills transferred so that you had a head start on the later forms. I’ve seen a similar thing when I’ve coached rowing: people with a background in something like dance or martial arts or fencing, where they’ve had to control their body precisely are much faster at learning the basics. On the other hand, once they get past those to an intermediate level, just like anyone else they have to work like hell to build strength, endurance and skill if they want to be really competitive.

      Where this relates to writing is *reading*: a dedicated reader already has a head start on seeing how words and patterns build and relate to form a story, certainly over someone who is just starting without having spent years drowning in words at every opportunity. Maybe that cuts out the first 250,000 words of crap. Or maybe the skilled writers commenting above, who are themselves dedicated readers, have already factored that in and it would be many more than a million words of crap for a wannabe writer who is not already enmeshed in other people’s words.

      • Marie Brennan

        If you add or subtract numbers from a metaphor, you still have a metaphor. My intent was less to discuss how much practice is required, and more to tease out why some people seem to think it doesn’t require practice in the first place. Certainly there are factors that can help or hinder an individual along the way.

  10. calico_reaction

    Excellent analogy. Very useful indeed. 🙂

    I still feel like I’m pounding out my million words of crap, but at least I’m pounding. 🙂

    • Marie Brennan

      The other, more depressing metric I’ve seen used is that it takes ten years to become good at any of these things. Personally, I prefer the “million words of crap” rule of thumb. 🙂

      • calico_reaction

        I do too. 🙂 But the good thing about the “ten year” metric is that the longer we do what we do, the better we get.

        In theory. 😉

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