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9: Do I have to learn craft and structure to write a good story?

This week, J Thorn and Crys Cain discuss whether structured learning is necessary to learning to write good stories, and the strengths and weaknesses of different ways of learning.

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Transcript

Crys: Welcome to the TASM podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost, J Thorn. How’s it going? 

J: It’s going great, Crys. What are you up to? 

Crys: I am back on the actual not-vacation wagon, the real work week.  I’m terrible at not working. I understand this. But I’m really good at not working… nah, I’m just… I have a structure and it works for me. Whatever. 

I did take Tuesday as a planning day and to figure out the rest of my month after having a week that did feel very restful and just kind of getting my brain on track to get done in this month, the things that I need to get done. And I have a problem pairing long-term goals with actionable daily steps. I mean, not books. Books, I know how to get done in actual daily steps, but everything else is really confusing to me. 

So I was really proud of myself that I was able to at least do it for one month. I don’t know if I can do it for a longer span of time yet, but we’ve got one month down. 

J: Excellent. 

Crys: Yeah. Anything exciting in your world? 

J: I am coming up on the end of an eight week subcontract job that I did for a company lending some business expertise in entrepreneurship and it’s been great and the guys have been really fun.

But it’s reminded me that I’m becoming unemployable because I’m realizing I’m not sure I could go back and work for somebody else or working in an environment where someone else controls my time and it’s only been four years, but it’s amazing how quickly I’ve adjusted. 

Crys: Oh, same. Yeah. I get  anxious just thinking about being  confined to somebody else’s time schedule on that wide of  a scheme. They can have my time for an hour or so or a weekend. That’s fine. Beyond that… 

We do have some comments from two weeks ago’s episode. Episode seven: how do I beat shiny object syndrome? And Catherine Hernandez has a really interesting strategy.

Anything related to her story is typed. Any fun ideas that demand her attention are written in cursive and any notes or quick thoughts are handwritten and print. And  if it’s in pencil, she knows it’s not important, it can be forgotten and tossed out. And so that’s how she keeps track of what she should be writing and still lets herself play around with things.

J: I love that. That’s a great little system. 

Crys: Yeah. I really liked that as well. Lon has a different system. He also has a system. He says, he’s not disciplined enough for persistent. But he allows himself oh shiny playtime. And there’s no particular like plan on when he gets it. 

But when he does wrap up a project, for instance, he just wrapped up a major revision and he’s waiting for it to come back from the copy editor. And so he had a week and in that time he got a 12,000 word fantasy zero draft done, and now he’s. It’s not going to touch it again until he has another spot of time available for the oh shiny. 

J: Yeah, and I saw Billy’s response. That seems pretty disciplined to me. Lon’s selling himself short there.

Crys: You’ve gotta have those external bumpers if you feel like you’re not a disciplined person.

Well, I have an interesting question for you, especially as we are both learners, but we work with a lot of people who are not. And that is, do we have to learn craft and structure to write a good story? 

J: This is such a difficult question. Do you have initial thoughts on it? 

Crys: Oh, my initial thoughts are so wishy-washy… “it depends.”

I have my co-writer. I don’t know if she’s ever read a craft book in her life. I know she has not read one in the last four years. She has learned some from conferences, but she is so far on the spectrum from me on how we learn, that I know it’s possible. Her readers adore her. She hits the emotional buttons that they want her to hit.

So I know it’s possible, but I don’t understand it at at all. 

J: Yeah, that’s sort of my initial thought, is that I’m sure there are examples of writers who have never taken a course, read a book, gotten a class, nothing and do extremely well. If someone asked me how to become a good writer, that’s not what I would say.

I would be like don’t learn anything. You know, Like that’s not what I would recommend. This is really complex. And I do agree, like I think it depends. So here’s my response to it depends. Are we talking about a commercially published book or a story? Because those are not necessarily the same thing.

Crys: I would say commercially published books. Because there are just amazing natural oral storytellers who have simply learned through practice and repetition. Though honestly, I think that the people who do not read commercial, like using my co-writers example, she learns the same way that the oral storyteller learns .

But what was your thought running off of that? 

J: In what way do you mean just through practice and repetition and feedback? 

Crys: Feedback. Yeah. Like practice, repetition a lot. She writes very fast. So the feedback is very fast. She’s written far more books than I have, and I’ve been writing in our little mini genre for about, I don’t know, three or four months more than she has.

And she’s probably written doubled the amount of books I have, including all co-writes. So she’s beast, and she gets feedback really fast. She has a lot of readers who love her, so she gets a lot of feedback. That has its downsides and does sway her in what she writes. But that works for her most of the time.

J: So these are very different circumstances, but I think of immediately, I think of a standup comic. Like a standup comic is getting constant feedback from the audience in real time, face to face. So that if you were a standup comic, she wouldn’t necessarily have to read a ton about joke telling like she could stand up and do a routine and every night. Okay, how did the crowd respond?

When did they laugh? When did they not laugh? You could have an entire career as a stand-up comic having never studied the art form, but yet still be an incredible storyteller because you’ve honed this through  this method of constant feedback. 

Commercially published books a little bit different because even the feedback is not immediate. It’s almost like you have to put something out there to get feedback on it. And then you have to respond to it. But that process can almost be damaging in a way, if you’re not careful. 

If you, and I’m not saying your co-writer does this, but if she puts something out that was not well-written or half-baked those reviews, if the feedback came in the form of reviews on Amazon, that could hurt her brand and down the road.

I think it depends on the medium. I think it depends on the kind of story you’re telling. That again, I like to think about in more sort of general terms, like what’s a best practice for the most number of people? And I would say for most people, you are better off doing a combination of learning about the craft while practicing it. 

Some type of cycle.

So maybe you read a book, you write a story, you get feedback, you change it, you read another book. You keep the cycle going. I think that’s optimal. It doesn’t mean you have to do it that way. But I think that’s the optimal way to learn is a really good mix of learning and practice.

Crys: Yeah. That’s definitely what works best for me. But I… I am a hoarder of craft books. I know that I have so many that I have not read. And I think I bought three more today, this morning. I’m definitely on the side of why wouldn’t you want to learn all the things? 

J: That’s a great way of turning that question, right?

Why would you not want to? What would be the downside of, and I’m not saying hardcore, like not getting an MFA, but what’s the downside of reading a craft book once or twice a year? Can you think of one? 

Crys: Not at all. Oh, well… I take that back. 

When you are a beginning writer you can kill you your momentum, if you are trying to read too many books and trying to teach yourself too many things that are above the level at which you’re at. And books might not actually be the best mode for you. Classes are really amazing for that, so that you get that immediate feedback that we were talking about.

I think that the most growth I’ve seen has been like in our platinum group, when newer writers come in who are really serious about their craft. We have these, not this year. We don’t have a weekly writing, but in past sessions we’ve had a weekly story prompt, and everybody was writing to these prompts and then getting immediate feedback on that story and their strengths, their weaknesses. And I think that there is the fastest I’ve seen authors grow. 

J: Mm. Yeah. So another example popped in my head because I know Kim in our community is a big into aikido. And I think martial arts is another example of where you really do need some command of the basics. Otherwise you’re trained the wrong way.

In martial arts, especially, and aikido, part of the idea with aikido is that there aren’t verbal instructions in a lot of dojo’s. What they do is they have you do the move and then the sensei or the more experienced partner will move your arm in a certain way, place your leg where it’s supposed to be, and you do it again.

And they don’t tell you you’re doing it right or wrong, but every time you do it, they give a slight correction. So that over time it becomes muscle memory. So if you don’t have that, then you’re learning muscle memory that could. Not only be wrong stylistically, but could be harmful, and not necessarily in writing, but  if you’re doing a certain strike in aikido and you’re using the wrong form and you teach yourself that, you could physically be harmed.

So it’s a tricky balance because like you said, you have to have a grasp of the fundamentals so that you. You can meet a certain baseline expectation, but you also don’t want to overload yourself with so much theory or so many methodologies that it becomes paralyzing.

Crys: Yeah. I actually do have a fairly equal comparison in writing. I don’t know if you’ve read The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger yet? 

J: Yeah, I have. I think I read that for Three Story Method

Crys: Excellent. And my example is, kind of a blind point that I’ve had is I’ve known about The Hero’s Journey for forever, and I’ve known it hasn’t quite fit for me, but I’ve tried to make my stories fit into it, and in reading The Heroine’s Journey by Gail Carriger, I realized that I have been, harming my stories harming my story process by trying to write Hero’s Journeys that are not all the kind of stories that I like to write. 

I love reading them. But because I’ve not known what the differences were. I didn’t have anyone, until now, tell me like, “Hey, here are some options.” 

I’ve been trying to kind of fit my stories into this kind of structure. And it wasn’t a structure that I fit in at all. And that has harmed my storytelling process. 

J: Same. I had the same realization when I was reading The Virgin’s Promise and doing the research for Three Story Method and what I figured out is the story archetype I like more than the hero’s journey is the Virgin’s Promise, because it’s an internal story arc, not an external one. And so it wasn’t that I was doing anything wrong, but I had this aha moment: yeah, that’s the kind of story I want to tell. Not necessarily the Hero’s Journey, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

Crys: Yes. I had a question on our list of questions that I think is really just getting wrapped up into this. And that question is: why is learning so hard sometimes? And I do think that one of the answers, there’s many answers, but one of the answers is if you’re just throwing yourself into a swimming pool without knowing a single stroke, or you only know one stroke.

That’s my analogy. 

J: I like it. I’d like to call on our resident brain expert, Christine: why is learning difficult? I think that because the very nature of learning is, physiologically, there’s a lot of stuff going on. Your brain is rewiring. And it’s hard. We live in a universe that likes to preserve things the way they are.

Humans. Weather. Inertia. Everything likes things to stay the way they are and learning, by definition, is changing where you are. And so there’s going to be a discomfort there. You can either fight it or lean into it. 

And I think it’s the lifelong learners who kind of lean into it and recognize that yeah, it’s hard. It’s hard. The same way working out is. It’s hard to lift barbells, but you know what the payoff is. Or it’s hard to run for 20 minutes at 6:00 AM when it’s dark and everyone else is in bed, but you’re going to feel better. So there’s an acceptance of the deal.

I think that learning should never be easy. Cause then it’s technically not learning. But yet if you are learning, then you understand that’s a pain that will eventually pay off. 

Crys: I think the working out analogy, we have lots of analogies this episode, the working out analogy is particularly apt. Because you can’t learn/do everything at once. If you try to learn how to lift all the things in all the ways, your muscles are not ready for it. If you try to learn all of the structures and all of the techniques, your brain is not ready for it. 

J: Exactly. And the other side of that is you can’t just walk into a gym and start grabbing heavy stuff and throwing it over your head.

Like,  you need a basic baseline understanding of, okay, what’s the simplest technique I’m going to do? I’m only going to start with squats. Okay. How do I do a squat without hurting myself? So, yeah. And then when you get to the next level, when you hit that plateau and you feel like it becomes easy, then that’s when you engage in more learning.

But again, it’s that cycle of learning and practice and reps and learning, and practice and reps. 

Crys: Jim Butcher has a great story of when he was in, I believe it was in college, but he was in a writing class and the teacher kept trying to make him write to formula. And he was like, formula’s stupid. It’s never going to work. So he was like, fine. I’ll show her, I’ll do this formula and show her it doesn’t work. 

That became the first of the Dresden novels. 

J: Yes. I love that story. As a teacher, I really liked that story.

That’s, that’s the dream for teachers. Have the student try and prove you wrong and then hit this whole other level of success and you go told you so! 

Crys: As a teacher, what is your advice for somebody who is on the starting level? Like they know how to read and they really want to Write, but they’ve only dabbled and don’t know really what their process ought to be.

J: Yeah. That’s I think that question is… is very individualized. Like it… it’s our cop out, it depends. But if I were working with a client and they asked me that I would need to, first thing I would say is send me a short story or a chapter of your work. Let me see where you are, because there’s a number of different ways you can go.

Some people might be really natural storytellers, and it’s just hardwired and they don’t necessarily need to do a deep dive on Joseph Campbell stuff. They just know what that is, but they can’t communicate it. So for that writer, I might say you might want to pick up Zinsser, his book On Writing, or you might want to focus on word usage and style and author voice. That’s where you can really learn. 

Then you might have other people who can write really nice sentences with a lot of flow, but they don’t really understand how to tell a story. It meanders, or it doesn’t come to a point, or the pacing’s off. So in that person, I would say find a masterwork, find a book that’s the kind of book you want to write and study it chapter by chapter. 

What’s the main character doing? Where’s the conflict, what’s the force of antagonism doing? That’s a form of learning too. 

So I think it depends. And there’s not just two options. There’s clearly, a whole spectrum of types of writers who might be coming in, who are towards the beginning and trying to figure out what to do. And I think that this is where it really helps if you have a community or a coach or a mentor or someone who can say let me see. Let me give you some ideas. And that can even be someone who’s just more experienced than you.

Maybe you have a friend who’s published a book and you haven’t, ask the friend. There are a lot of options there, but I think it’s hard to do it all by yourself and we’re terrible at self-diagnosing. All of us. Myself included. Like we’re not very good at figuring out what’s bothering us or what’s wrong.

And that’s where other people come in. 

Crys: Yeah. And one of my suggestions to people who don’t have a writing group, I think the in-person writing groups now that we’re able to be in person a bit more, are honestly one of the best ways whether it’s on Zoom or in like real life rather than just some strangers doing critique circles on the internet.

And I found my first writing group when I was early twenties, just out of college. And I found them on Meetup.com the Nashville Writers Meetup group. And that group is… they sustained me. They got me back into writing. They got me energized just by the fact that we were sharing our writing and improving together day by day.

J: Yeah. Excellent. Yep. It’s hard to do it by yourself. It really is. And I think that’s a romantic notion that may not have ever been true. That lone rider archetype. It’s really hard. 

Crys: Ernest Hemingway still went to Gertrude Stein’s salons, people. 

J: The Inklings, people come on, even Tolkein and the rest of those guys. Like all those guys were getting together and talking about stuff. 

Crys: What shall we ask our listeners today? 

J: I would like to know where, again, with the understanding of self-diagnosis is hard, but where do they think they are? Where do they think their next level of learning is?

And I’ll go first. I know for me, it’s dialogue. Like, dialogue this past year has really been my focus. It’s where I was, I believe I was most efficient where I felt like I could really improve my writing. And that’s what I’ve been working on and trying to learn about for the past year.

Crys: Oh, mine, I so many flaws. But for me, it’s paralysis in choices. Because romance has… it’s very narrow and you have to stick to those. And that’s the challenge is sticking to the expectations. But as I move out of a narrow genre into science fiction, fantasy, it’s learning how to make the choices to tell the kind of story I want and figuring out what kind of story I actually want to tell. 

That is just overwhelming for me a lot of times. And for me right now, I know that the stage I’m in is, I’m in a doing stage. Of course I’m always in a learning stage. But  the doing is what needs to be done at this point. We are in that iteration, “The doing is what needs to be done!” 

J: I love it. 

Crys: Thanks for joining us this week. Comment below! If you would like to be part of the conversations in real time, you can join us at The Author Success Mastermind

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