WHAT I CAN’T TEACH YOU

As an editor I’ve always seen my role as mostly what can be described as “teacher.” That mindset also helped me move into that role more overtly in print, here, and in live and online courses, tutorials, and seminars—a world I need to get back to after a couple versions of a “forced hiatus” in the past couple years. This is something I love about what I do—maybe the thing I love most about it. I love helping authors grow in their craft, even while I tend to admit defeat, up front, in terms of helping them grow in their art.

I’ve suffered over this distinction here before, but it’s worth repeating that as authors of any genre of fiction we need to learn the craft of writing, for sure, but ultimately fiction is an art form you’ll have to feel your way through, and I can’t teach you—no one can teach you—how to feel. This, I maintain, is just as true for Fantasy Author’s Handbook as it is for the most exclusive and expensive Ivy league creative writing MFA program. And I’m not alone in that opinion. Susan Sontag once said, “I’ve seen academic life destroy the best writers of my generation.” I think they do this by grinding out the feeling.

So, yeah, let’s talk about how to string words and punctuation marks together so your readers know when a character is speaking, and which character says what, and talk a lot about POV and so on, but as Mary Gaitskill wrote in “The deracination of literature”:

…great writing comes from a stranger place; an interface between the intensely intimate perception of an individual and the social and natural worlds. It is related to the rational mind but in a way that dreams are related to thought—poetically and irrationally. It is through poetic and irrational means that the unseen world of your story gets radically illuminated, like a burst of music can illuminate a scene in a movie or TV show.

We might all be on the same page (for the record, we aren’t, but for the sake of argument…) on rules like one scene, one POV, or the absolute necessity of the Oxford comma, but those things make writing readable, accessible, but not automatically “great”—whatever that means, and wherever we might believe or hope it comes from.

“This voice of fable has in it somewhat divine,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. “It came from thought above the will of the writer. That is the best part of each writer, which has nothing private in it; that which he does not know; that which flowed out of his constitution, and not from his too active invention; that which in the study of a single artist you might not easily find, but in the study of many, you would abstract as the spirit of them all.”

Once we start writing fiction—in any genre—we enter a mysterious world we might struggle to understand, but will we ever really? We can identify rules of grammar and usage, sure. We can identify clichés sometimes, too. We can exchange ideas about story structure. But ultimately we have to write, write some more, then write even more, and more, until we can say, like John Cheever did, “I suppose that anyone who has written for as long as I have . . . It’s probably what you’d call instinct. When a line falls wrong, it simply isn’t right.”

Does that last sentence you wrote feel wrong, even if by all accounts it’s a complete sentence and all the words are spelled correctly? Then change it. Does it feel right, even if it’s not a complete sentence and that character would say “gonna” instead of “going to”? Then leave it the hell alone.

Learn your craft so the little detail bits become second nature, then, when you aren’t suffering so much about where the comma goes, live in the mystery. If Joan Didion thought, “On the whole, I don’t want to think too much about why I write what I write. If I know what I’m doing I don’t do it, I can’t do it.” Well, who are we to think we know any better what we’re doing? At least… exactly.

—Philip Athans

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About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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