I find writing courses interesting. I somehow doubt that anything other than long practice will turn my own feeble efforts into saleable fiction. However, a writer giving a course will inevitably tell you a lot about how she approaches her craft. As Kij Johnson is one of the most successful writers of short fiction around these days, I wanted to learn more about how she worked.
I should note at the start that here is no one correct way in which to write. During the class, Kij stated that she does not read “how to write” manuals, though she does read “how to” books by people in other creative industries. (She recommended one by a choreographer, I’m very keen to read David Byrne’s How Music Works.) If you want further confirmation, listen to the latest Coode Street Podcast in which Nancy Kress explains that she and Connie Willis disagree utterly when it comes to how to write a novel.
Having said that, there are many techniques and guidelines that beginning writers may find useful. We therefore spent a lot of time talking about things like three-act structures, Freytag pyramids, try-fail loops, and so on.
The problem with such things, as with all forms of art, is that, having once discovered “the rules”, so many people fail to move beyond them. Ambitious artists always learn the rules only so that they can then discover new and innovative ways to break them. But I can also imagine commercial genre fiction editors (or Hollywood studio managers) yelling, “No, no, you must stick to the rules, it is what the customers expect!”.
I’m beginning to see the problem affect reviews as well. Once a reviewer knows that there is a supposed set structure to a book, anything that deviates from it, even if it breaks the rules creatively and brilliantly, is liable to be marked down for doing so.
You can tell a book that is written to a structure. I described it to Kij as a Gerry Anderson novel, because the scenery looks like it was made on Blue Peter by Valerie Singleton, using empty washing up liquid bottles and sticky-backed plastic, while the characters can be seen being pulled round on strings controlled by the author (foreign readers, and younger Brits, may not get the cultural references, but hopefully the idea is clear). That’s a bit unfair to Gerry as he did very well with the budget he had available, but authors have no such excuse.
What I wanted to know from Kij was how you avoid that syndrome. How do you make your book sound like it is about real people, in real situations, even if it is set in some bizarre fantasy world. Her answer was that it is all a matter of detail. Obviously not excessive detail — that will just bore your readers. What you need is relevant snippets of detail. The sort of thing that will make it seem like you are describing a real scene, not just puppets in front of a painted backdrop.
There are other important aspects to successful writing as well. Clunky prose, for example, will ruin the best planned novel. I was also very interested by Kij’s comments about word origins, and how choosing words that are derived from Anglo-Saxon can create a very different effect to choosing words derived from Latin. But the sort of thing I describe above is quite common with debut writers, and I keep finding myself wishing that they’d listen to Nancy Kress as well as to Connie Willis.