Writing Fiction By Example

Learn to write fiction by reading and analyzing excerpts from published novels.

Great Debate: Can You Learn To Write From a Book?

It's the great debate of writers around the Internet:

Can someone -- specifically a book -- teach you to write?

Stated another way:

Is it possible to learn to write from a book?

To answer that question, I think we need to examine the answer to another question:

What would a book about writing teach you?

Instead of getting all bogged down in details like grammar, characterization, plotting and the rest, I believe we should start out at the highest (most abstract level) and move from there.

In an effort to do that, I break all writing problems down into two categories:

  • Emotional
  • Technical

Each of these challenges is huge on its own. The problem is that many books meander all around both of them as they attempt to teach one or the other. If you've been writing very long and have watched yourself, you probably have learned the truth that one can cause the other. However, maybe you're not convinced that those are the correct categories to consider. Let me show you why they are.

As a writer, you most likely fall (mostly) into one of the following categories:

  1. You want to write, but you find that every time you do, you end up being (gladly) distracted from the work.
  2. You want to write, but you find that you have no ideas, because your mind wanders.
  3. You write a lot, but it has no cohesion. It's just a rambling thoughts.
  4. You write quite a bit, but you never finish anything.
  5. You write quite a bit, but you can't tell if it is good or not. Also, when you ask a friend or relative to read your writing, they don't get very excited about it.
Note The numbering doesn't indicate any level. It is simply provides me with a way to refer to them further along in the article.

If you do not fall into any of those categories, then you are a successful writer who is most likely published, or will be published when the right person reads your work.

The Rest of Us

If you fall into any one of the first four categories then you have an emotional writing problem. Oh boy. I just opened a can of worms. Please Note:I'm not saying you (necessarily) have an emotional problem. I'm saying you have a writing problem that is based in emotion.

First Three Categories, Very Similar

The first three categories indicate you are distracted by situations in your life which may be unresolved. When you go to sit downa and think (write) your mind races to these things and distracts you. As you ponder those things -- which may be painful challenges -- you mind wants to flee the situation. This is all very normal. In other cases maybe your mind wanders to those emotional things and distracts you from the subject of your writing. However it works, they are all actually the same problem and they are rooted in your emotions.

Category Four : Self-Confidence

Category four is a problem of self-confidence. I don't know much about Norman Mailer but I do know that in the following quote he summarizes this writing problem perfectly.

"Writer's block is only a failure of the ego."

If you do not believe that what you are writing matters because it is not written well, then you will question the work itself. You will question yourself. At that point, the Ego collapses and without meaning very few people can soldier on.

Bad News, Good News

The bad news is that no one except you can fix your emotional writing problems. No one can really convince you that your writing has meaning. You have to believe that for yourself.
This is truly the case of the Master of Peace, sitting on the hill who looks at you and says, "It is over, Grasshopper, when you determine it is over."
That really is the ultimate truth. However, I do have something more to offer you here.

The good (even great) news is the emotional writing problems can very often be overcome by focusing on getting better technical skills.

Category Five: The One With A Solution

Getting better technical skills helps in two major ways:

  1. Providing valuable distraction
  2. Building your self-confidence

I'll touch upon these lightly -- since this article is getting too long for a blog post -- then later I'll write another article which goes into more details related to these.

Whatever your emotional challenges are, they are important. However, you have to distract yourself from them so you can concentrate on your writing. A few ways to do that are:

  • Do an extreme analysis of your writing from a technical viewpoint
    Slow down. Write each sentence as you sound it out. Read it aloud. View each sentence as it builds upon the previous. This focus will distract you and suddenly you'll be cranking out draft.
  • Learn a new technique from a pure hard-technical standpoint (like writing clear description) and then implement that technique in your writing. Focus on nothing but one small piece and write it.
  • Write an extremely short piece while telling yourself only going to show yourself. It's just for fun. Focus on every sentence. Examine how beautiful language is and concentrate on specific details. The emotional challenges will melt away.

Confidence Booster

Obviously, if you learn some new techniques and practice them until you are happy with them, then you are going to feel more confident and again many emotional challenges will melt away.

There's much more to talk about, but I'll continue it in my next article. Hope you enjoy and grow from these ideas.

Keep on learning, keep on writing. 

~Roger Deutsch