Some years ago, I saw a short film about a comedian who taught terminally ill people to do stand-up comedy. She was able to teach comedic skills to people with no previous experience and get her students to the point where they were at least amusing. A few of them got quite good at joke-telling.
I believe this is relevant to writing genre fiction. We don’t spend enough time on our basic skills.
A lot of us who are interested in writing genre fiction have great stories in our heads, but we tell our stories so badly that they fall flat in much the same way that someone who lacks joke-telling skills can take a joke that could be pretty darned funny and make it as entertaining as a recipe for slow-cooked oatmeal.
Genre fiction is about fiction that contains some defining element. Murder mysteries have a murder and a puzzle to solve. Ghost stories require a ghost. Fans of a specific genre will tolerate a somewhat badly told story provided the element they want to read about is present.
Up to a point, that is.
As much as I like science fiction and fantasy, unless the story is built using (a) clear – not necessarily short – sentences and (b) dialogue that doesn’t sound as if it was written by Kurt Vonnegut’s failed-writer character Kilgore Trout, I am going to bail out after a few pages.
Over the years, when I’ve told people that I write fiction as a hobby, I’ve found that many of them think that all I do is slap the keys a few times and magical inspiration does the rest. No need to re-write and edit when you’re inspired. As silly as this is – even Hemingway re-wrote versions of his work dozens of times before it was ready to go – I swear that many self-published writers believe a good idea and enthusiasm are all you need.
Nope. All gardens need weeding. A lot of weeding.
This is not universally understood in our little community. I see self-published stuff where the author desperately needed someone to tell him or her, “I have no idea what the hell half of the sentences on this page mean. The ones I do understand are so overwritten that William Faulkner would think they were a bit much. And nobody, not even on the planet Zabor, is going to talk like that!”
Based on my experience, there are three kind of folks you don’t want checking your output: people who are too nice and won’t tell you it stinks even when, God knows, it does, people who enjoy sticking a knife in your back and twisting even when the writing is good, and people who don’t read much.
You need an honest friend who habitually reads well-written fiction and has decent language skills to tell you when you’ve entered the hack-fiction zone. If such a person isn’t available, books that might help include:
The Deluxe Transitive Vampire by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
The New Well-Tempered Sentence by Karen Elizabeth Gordon
Clear and Simple as the Truth by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner
and for the purposes of this discussion, I strongly recommend:
Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Renni Brown and Dave King
Also, fellow genre writers, if you haven’t read plenty of good stuff outside your chosen genre, stop reading this blog and do so. Now.
A lot of genre writing isn’t very good. If that’s all you read, your writing is probably going to stink.
Find someone with great story-telling skills – even if that writer worked in a different genre – and study how he or she did it. Don’t worry about beginning by imitating someone else. You will eventually develop your own style. You can’t help doing that if you keep writing.
The testosterone-laden Ernest Hemingway, who was certainly not interested in the romantic difficulties of young women who spent their days in girlish gossip and ankle-length frocks, read and admired and studied the writing skills of Jane Austen. Go ye and do likewise.
Oh, and my internet access is apparently going to be erratic for the next several days, so if you comment, I’m not ignoring you.