There are plenty of successful authors of gripping, bestselling novels whose writing, if you look at it in technical terms, is crappy. But having an excellent grasp of grammar does not guarantee a good story, either.
So, does that mean learning the ins and outs of show versus tell and passive versus active writing is a monumental waste of time?
In many cases yes, it is.
By far the biggest problem with the work of aspiring writers isn’t an issue with good writing skills, it’s that the story isn’t very interesting. At heart, there has to be something about the story that captures the reader’s attention, and too often all they have is a pale imitation of something you’ve seen a million times before.
No amount of learning about the correct use of semi-colons is going to help with that.
That’s not to say you can’t have a fresh spin on an old idea, but if there’s no indication of what’s so different about your version until chapter sixteen, you may find nobody is going to wait that long to make a judgement.
Here’s where craft becomes useful.
We tend to focus on the minutiae of the writing process, but there is also whole set of principles concerning the overall story. Theme, premise, genre, intention — these things tend to be left vague and unchallenged. Especially in early drafts, where perhaps you don’t expect a complete story.
Forcing yourself to consider these things early on can save a lot of time in the long run.
So, while learning the nuts and bolts of craft does have its place and is a useful tool in making a story as effective as possible, it is not the first thing to sort out.
First you need to make sure there’s a story worth telling about characters worth spending times with.
One of the easiest ways to work that out is to write a book blurb, of the type you find on the back of a book jacket, but only for the start of your story. Forget what happens later, how can you sum up those early chapters in a way that sounds attention grabbing?
Your story doesn’t have to open in the middle of some hugely dramatic moment, but the first act needs to have a point. It has to be going somewhere and the readers has to have a sense of that, even if they don’t know where that is.
Even if you pants the first draft, you can write the blurb based on what you have once you complete that initial draft.
The more vague, generic and bland that blurb is, the more it hints at great things without specifically stating what’s those great things are, the less likely the story is going to hold anyone’s attention.
A girl starts at a new school where things aren’t as they appear...
This is too vague.
A girl starts at a new school where students keep disappearing...
This is better but still too vague.
A girl starts at a new school where students keep disappearing and everyone acts like they never exited...
At this point you have enough information to decide if there’s something worth pursuing here. Just because you have a solid idea of what the story’s about doesn’t mean it’ll be any good.
Often the reason it’s hard to pin down what the story is about is because the writer doesn’t want to have to make the difficult call that it isn’t good enough.
But rejecting ideas for not being good enough is just as important as coming up with ideas that are, and making those tough calls is something every writer has to face, even if it means going back to square one.
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