The Journal: On Learning the Craft

In today’s Journal

* Quotes of the Day
* Topic: On Learning the Craft
* A Study in Suffering?
* Of Interest

Quotes of the Day

“If the English language made any sense, lackadaisical would have something to do with a shortage of flowers.” Doug Larson

“Making English grammar conform to Latin rules is like asking people to play baseball using the rules of football.” Bill Bryson

Topic: On Learning the Craft

My friend Matt emailed me this morning and asked this question:

“[D]o you think it’s possible one could learn about Craft solely by reading novels, short stories, screenplays and other fiction? Or do you think that, while these help a lot, reading nonfiction Craft books is essential as well?”

That word: essential. Ironically, the only thing that’s actually essential to learning the craft of writing is also the one thing writers do the least often: practice. The best way to learn how to tell a story is keep putting new words on the page.

But to the question —

Even the best craft books (to my mind, mostly those by Block and Dean Wesley Smith and a few of mine) are only shortcuts. And even as shortcuts I wouldn’t call them essential. Nice to have, maybe, but not essential.

By the way, craft books that are not the best — meaning those written by beginning writers and others who really don’t have a clue and/or are only regurgitating the myths — can actually be harmful. At a minimum, they can drastically slow the progression of learning.

That’s why I encourage writers to check a how-to author’s bona fides before buying his or her book. I recommend taking fiction-writing advice only from someone who has written a LOT of fiction and is in it for the long run.

Can you learn by reading (or viewing) fiction? Certainly you can absorb craft (structure, the use of metaphor and simile, etc.) solely by reading novels, etc. and watching films, plays, etc. We’ve been absorbing story our entire life.

But you can also actively learn specifics of craft from those same sources. Here’s one way:

As you read a novel, keep a little pad of sticky notes close by. Then just read for enjoyment. But as you encounter a passage that really blows you away, mark it with a sticky note. Then ignore it and continue reading for pleasure.

After you’ve finished the book, go back and re-read the places that blew you away. But this time don’t just read them as a reader. Read them consciously and critically, as a student of writing. Study them closely. What did the writer do to create that particular effect in you? Do you currently do that in your writing? If you don’t and if you want to, perhaps you can practice the technique in your next story. (Hence, back to the importance of practice.)

Learning in this way is good because although you’ll absorb craft freely, you’ll only consciously recognize and learn what you’re ready to learn at your current skill level. Upon re-reading today, I find techniques in King’s work that I didn’t notice and didn’t know existed a few years ago.

With today’s technology (DVRs, etc.) you can do something similar with film. I still recommend watching the first time strictly for pleasure, but I don’t know of a way to mark places you want to go back to (though a way to do that probably exists). But you can watch the film a second time, stopping, backing up, and reviewing a scene until you understand what the writer and actors did to achieve a particular effect.

Honestly, I no longer read dedicated craft books, though I do occasionally refer back for a refresher to a few that I’ve found useful. But I do read and then study the fiction of King, Block, Vonnegut and Jack Higgins and, to some degree, James Lee Burke. And yes, if any of them put out a new craft book I would buy and read it in a heartbeat.

A Study in Suffering?

In today’s KillZone blog, Debbie Burke addresses a first page critique. I urge you to read it. I had a few takeaways, but these are just me:

First, never EVER send ANY manuscript ANYwhere in that condition. You’ll see what I mean. We all have our little flaws, but letting the world see them instead of getting the necessary help before sending out the manuscript is inexcusable.

Second, note that the writer didn’t ground the reader. We don’t even know where the scene occurs, much less any details about the setting.

Third, well, just read the scene. Was it really a study in suffering? There was no evidence of suffering that I was able to discern. There was a reason for suffering, but no discernable effects.

To convey the range of emotions that come with mental and emotional suffering and grief takes time and finesse. Generally speaking, a good writer can accomplish the opening of most stories (short story, novel, whatever) with 300 to 800 words or so.

But as just one example, the 11th novel in my Wes Crowley saga, In the Cantina at Noon (not a buy link) opened with Wes presiding over a funeral. The opening for that novel took over 2500 words and stretched well into Chapter 2.

Later in the book, the suffering and its effects came back time and again. In other words, like suffering in the real world, it permeated Wes’ life.

So just some things to think about. When you’re writing a scene, especially one that’s supposed to be deeply emotional, take your time and let the characters fill in the minuscule details. Those are where the feelings reside.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “‘The Wordhord’ Review: Here Be Dragons” at

See “The real problem with dangling participles” at

Disclaimer: In this blog, I provide advice on writing fiction. I advocate a technique called Writing Into the Dark. To be crystal clear, WITD is not “the only way” to write, nor will I ever say it is. However, as I am the only writer who advocates WITD both publicly and regularly, I will continue to do so, among myriad other topics.