First a quick note: I’m going to relegate fiction sharing to every-other Friday, possibly every third. Partially because of Stanford’s advice at Pushing Social, and also partially because I’ve got a ton of helpful blog posts brewing, that are of use to you, and sharing Fiction every Friday feels narcissistic to me. Onward.
What is Influence?
One of the things I find to be most infuriating about artistic hacks is their insistence that they “shouldn’t” or “can’t” be influenced.
First of all, the assertion that real artists are above influence is both naive and arrogant.
Invariably, the person who makes this claim believes herself to be an artist, and regardless of her ability, believes that she is doing something original. To make sure you’re with me: The claim is arrogant, and it highlights the speaker’s ignorance.
If an artist is actively avoiding influence, it gives her an excuse not to absorb other artists’ work. Which is wrong and lazy. Artists of all sorts need to know, understand, and appreciate the artists that came before them. I think classical musicians understand this best, because music must be a discipline before it can be an art.
So too with writing–though it seems that the notion that writing is a discipline before it can be an art has been largely lost to the masses, both educated and not.
So we’ll stick with the musicians for a moment: In order to play as well as Beethoven, one must play Beethoven’s complete work at least a thousand times, then interpret it with one’s own musical personality.
You still with me?
Fact is, folks, to quote my favorite dubious authority: “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun.” Ecclesiastes 1:9
Despite all the other absurdity that gets justified on the basis of that body of religious fiction, the notion of a collective unconscious is nothing new.
Here’s the secular authority, Jung himself in a document about his theory of the Collective Unconscious. Jung’s thoughts on the topic are decidedly denser than those in Ecclesiastes.
My point: nobody is doing something original. What we can and should strive for is authenticity, and a unique–or at least lesser-considered–way of filtering things.
And in order to do that, we must know what has come before, we can’t escape influence–nay, we must invite influence–and we must study our craft.
What is Craft in Writing?
My friend Jamie’s blog today talks about slang and some popular slang terms she’s personally tired to death of. That’s what got me thinking about craft, and what it is, and why so much commercial fiction is so poorly crafted.
*Haters, remember the rules about trolls. No personal insults just because you disagree. I welcome your cogent, considered disagreement. Comment away!
A lot of people who read genre fiction would agree, without really knowing what they’re agreeing about. For example, I spoke to a woman the other evening who, after sheepishly admitting that she reads romance novels, said, “But I do it to escape.”
Awesome! I want you to read to escape. I’m a writer, after all!
Romance Novels and other Commercial Fiction are the literary equivalent of your favorite, mindless TV show.
But reading is healthier than watching TV, and being escape for the reader is no excuse to ignore craft, and intentionally not learn things that will make you a better writer!
Now here are some things that genre writers do super-duper well: plot, chase scenes, flashbacks, internal dialogue, tropes.
Here are some things they like to make excuses about not doing well: grammar, character depth; using sentence fragments, italics, em dashes, ellipses, and semicolons judiciously; spelling, tense, varied language, point of view.
I spent five of my best years sitting in workshops and loving the hell out of getting critiqued, a process that I have internalized to such an extent that I am incapable of evaluating my own work because regardless of its quality, I am keenly aware of what makes writing good, and what is missing from mine.
Craft is a writer’s tool belt. It is the larger concerns of story telling like narrative arcs and characters and settings, but it is also spelling and grammar and understanding how to use point of view and tense.
I am trained in the whole enchilada.
And knowing the difference between the following tenses: present, past, past perfect, present subjunctive, and past subjunctive does not “influence” or “interfere with” your art, it makes it better!
Restricting your use of punctuation & style short hand may be more challenging than actually writing the damn book, but it will make the book better.
Just like quality paints are easier to use and yield truer hues than their budget bin counterparts, quality writing–even when it is genre writing–is worth more to more people, and will be more clearly understood.
Novelist Wannabes? If you are in a different career now, but “have always dreamed of being a writer,” great. But take some classes first. I offer them. And private lessons. But if you don’t live near me, there are probably courses that you could take at the nearest college or university.
Watch for my “Quick Guide to Tense: Reference Pages” sometime next month.
Being acquainted with the workshop environment will make you happier to take editorial advice when you get to publish your first book, and it will also make you a better writer and reader yourself.