I am occasionally dismayed by the weight of instructional material to teach new writers around these days. There seems a plethora out there particularly now on the internet, on blogs and even on Twitter.
It’s as though for writers to ‘succeed’ (however you define that…] the new writer just need to apply – for example - ‘five things’ to their short story, or their paragraph, or the beginning of their novel, or the ending their novel, or publishing their book, or designing their cover, or marketing their book or building their brand and hey presto! They have a book that thousands of people that people will put on their reading pile. Or not.
This all begs the question that true writers those creative, instinctive, loose-cannon type individuals can be ‘instructed’ and led to success by obeying instructions.
It also begs the question about the expertise of some instructors. Does their expertise lie in Lit Crit credentials acquired in places where their own instructors have endorsed arcane bullet-point lists simplified and extracted from the work of great writers in the chimera that is writing of distinction?
Or does it come from the journalistic facility emerging from reviewing books in the national or local press? Or to a lesser degree, even from reviewing books on the internet through their blogs or Twitter? Or does it come from owning a PhD in Creative Writing. acquired through literary study, sanctioned peer bullying, and imitative practice pieces rather than a body of work, showing that they really are experts in this esoteric process of writing, which remains harder than gossamer to pin down?
For myself I look to great and successful writers who have earned their credentials by writing long and short fiction themselves which opens doors in the minds of readers, making them think, hate, love, laugh, cry, identify, salivate, relish and learn, without even noticing the time passing by.
Of course, with the exception of generous individuals like Walter Mosely*, most committed writers are too involved cooking up, concocting, dreaming, empathising, scribbling, pounding the keyboard and channelling all the realms of their experience into their stories, to give new writers the comfort of instructive lists about the path to success.
That’s not to say we cannot learn from them. But the method is much more challenging than making lists. To learn how to write a short story I would advise a new writer to read six stories by substantial and accomplished writers such as William Trevor or Guy de Maupassant, or Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf or by Raymond Carver. (Or choose five successful writers in your chosen field or genre.)
It’s important to read 5 or 6 stories by any single
writer. Each writer is different. I
would advise a new writer to read them and raise him or
herself out of the passive role of reader into the attentive role writer and note - either on the book itself, or in a dedicated
notebook – just what these acknowledged masters are doing – each in his or her own unique way.
writer. Each writer is different. I
The new writer will notice then that these writers don’t dissolve into a common list of qualities or methods. What is shared between these works is the way the stories illuminate some particular qualities of mind, motivations and events that rings true to the reader, like a perfect bell, even if all these aspects are world away from this new writer’s own experience.
The same approach is entirely appropriate if the novel is the writer’s desired form. I would say read intensely the work of several great novelists - read as a writer, note what you recognise - about the way each writer gets to his own truth, using language as a tool – sometimes fine, sometimes blunt - and developing a particular form and structure as the best vehicle for this truth.
I say to new writers, ‘If you do this you will notice and internalise many significant things. And when you sit down buzzing with original ideas for your own story you will have furnished your subconscious with insights and instincts that will guide you through your own unique process without addressing your task in any imitative way.’
This might look like a long process but if the new writer is seriously keen on being a good writer as well as a successful writer, this intense study phase is very enjoyable and life enhancing. It takes years to become a potter, a cabinet maker or a doctor – all equally significant professions alongside that of a writer.
Becoming a writer through this process means that every day you add to your insights into the writing process. In the end you will be a better person and a better writer than you could ever have dreamed. And you will have produced a good story, or a great novel.
And not a list in sight,
This is a good article about quality in short stories :https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2014/oct/17/the-10-best-short-story-collections
*Walter Mosely Click!/ A writer whose work trancends category and qualifies as serious literature.