Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Write Club -- Prodigies

Hey y'all.  It turns out that my dad's cell phone acts as a hotspot, so I can do some writing on here even though home internet isn't set up yet.  Dad's cell phone, naturally being with him, isn't around all the time, but I can just write up blogs from my personal laptop (no internet there anyway -- too distracting for a writer) and then post them using the laptop.

So I was thinking about things lately, and I realized that there are no writer prodigies.  A prodigy is someone who is naturally gifted to be good at doing a certain activity.  For example, there are study prodigies who are good at learning, music prodigies, repair prodigies, and so on and so forth.  But there are never any writer prodigies.  Beethoven wrote a symphony when he was three, but no three year old of any sort can write a novel of any great significance.  Oh sure, they might get away with one of those odd little Beginning Readers books with ten words per page and a vast illustration (of course done by somebody else) but that is only on the whims of older people who happen to look at what the child is doing and thinks it's adorable.  Not big sellers or important novels.

Why are there no writer prodigies?  My first theory about this is that it only takes one mental skill to be a prodigy, whereas writing takes two.  Let me give an example.  Say there's a music prodigy that can play the piano very well.  There are only two skills involved here: the mental understanding of music, and the physical ability to know where to put one's fingers.

Actually, the prodigy's physical skill on the keyboard isn't even prodigical; it's just the human body's natural way of understanding movements.  For example, if you've lived in your house a long time, you can walk around in it with a nose in a book and your legs will automatically take you where you want to go.  For those of you who have learned to touch type on a computer keyboard, your fingers can type with only minimal input from your brain.  In fact, the more you think about the words you're typing, the slower you are at actually typing them.  Your physical body has already attached a letter to a specific movement of your finger, and doesn't need any special concentration on your part to put the words you want on the computer screen.  Heck, let's get even simpler: you can walk without thinking about it.  Sure, you had to learn at first, but you never have to learn it again.

It's much the same case with artists who draw, people who repair things, or sports players.  Studious prodigies don't even have to have a physical talent.  Writers, however, cannot be prodigies because their work involves three simultaneous mental skills, and if you happen to have learned to type, then so much the better.  Thing is, all of these skill sets have to be applied simultaneously during the writing process, which is probably the number one reason why a potential writer is so daunted by the task of sitting down and actually writing.  It's a lot of mental work, and I'm sure many of you know what kind of strain that is on your head if you aren't used to writing for long periods.

The first of these mental skills is the one that should be the most obvious, and yet isn't for some reason.  I call it the "plot-developing skill".  This, simply put, is a person's ability to come up with plot.  Their ability to come up with a story that plucks at people's emotions and says something that the person wants to say.  This is what happens when you're...I dunno, in the shower or washing the dishes or something and suddenly you're musing over an idea, character, or emotion that could potentially develop into a story.  It's basically the thinking process behind writing -- and let no writer underestimate the value of thinking your plot through.  Thinking is required take your good ideas and make them into a coherent story.

For most writers, this process is pretty easy.  In fact, I get so many potential writing ideas that I'm often afraid of missing out on a good story because I wasn't able to write it out fast enough.  I've only ever had writer's block once several years ago, and I attribute that to a story that didn't need finishing.  And being a noob, but more so the story was unnecessary and unworkable.  Part of one's plot-developing skill is knowing when an idea is not good enough.

But this skill alone, you see, is not the only part of becoming a good writer.  There are two skills, closely related, that must be included.  Otherwise all you've got is a bunch of good ideas and you futilely realize that nobody will ever understand.  The first is the knowledge of the language you're writing in.  This is probably the primary reason you're not going to see an award winning novel from someone under ten, and maybe some older ages too.  You have to understand the basic meaning of words and how to use them the grammar.  This, again, seems fairly obvious, but really, how are you supposed to write a book and not know the written language?  It's pretty impossible.

The third skill, which you may be tempted to classify under the first, is the ability to use the language appealingly.  The style skill, if you will.  I separate the two skills for several reasons.  One, the knowledge of language generally needs to only be learned once, especially if you stick to your native tongue.  Two, even if you know the meaning of several words, you have to know when it's a good time to use them.  You don't have to be on places like fanfiction.net for long when you run across two groups of bad writers: those who write everything out in the most bland, "skip-through-the-details-because-they're-boring-anyway" form, and those who use so many extremely fancy words that you're suspicious that they're not trying to write, but simply brag about how good their vocabulary is.

What the eloquent writer learns to realize is that (1) the details of a given story are what make your story better or worse than others, and (2) as much fun as fancy words are, they're only fun to you if you use them too often.  You have to understand styles and voice to make your narrative interesting to read -- your aim is to make sure that there are no boring parts for your reader to have to either suffer through or skip.  You can use a sarcastic tone of voice, or perhaps use interesting metaphors, put interesting things in your setting, or any number of other things to make yourself sound professional and artistic.

These are definitely three separate skills.  For example, not everyone knows how to come up with good plot.  I really should know better, but yet somehow it always shocks me when I realize that someone can't just come up with a plot right out of their head.  Every so often a non-plot-developer will surprise you with a good idea (say you're sharing your story with a friend and they point something out) but generally that person finds it extremely difficult to come up with plots of their own.  Also, just because a person can speak a language doesn't mean they can write it coherently (see: school reports).  Heck, even writer people sometimes use words outloud that they later realize they don't know how to spell.

And finally, just because someone knows how to use language very well doesn't mean they can come up with a fanciful narrative.  I call these people "Talkers".  They are so good at getting across ideas, but just as soon as someone forces them to write something -- and the Talker's nonverbal communication skills are taken away -- what they end up writing is plain atrocious.  I've seen it happen, and it still gets me every time.  It's like they expect that all the passion they put into their talking will just automatically be conveyed through whatever words they happen to choose.  Most of the time, though, these people are generally aware of their lack of writing ability and don't often try.  They have other skills, and don't need writing to validate themselves.

Note that, of course, the knowledge of one's language is the lesser of the three abilities, as you learn it once and there you go -- except that you have to constantly read and learn new words so that this skill doesn't stagnate.  Likewise, your use of style needs to change over time, or else when readers buy your books they'll think all your stories are the same (see: Dean Koontz, Stephen King, Tom Clancy, Mary Higgins Clark, and any other of the really popular writers who have written a crap ton of books).  I don't know if one's plot-producing ability ever dries up, but I'm not going to let myself find out.  Not worth it.

So in any case, what I'm basically saying is that you shouldn't be hard on yourself if -- when, rather -- your first novel is not accepted by publishers.  It's the first law of writing: the first thing you write will be crap.  True, some crap stinks more than others, but it's all crap.  Mine was, yours was, and so were all the first writings of all the other successful people out there -- unless they're an expert at a particular field and they write a nonfiction work, which doesn't involve the style skill nearly as much.  In fact, if nonfiction writers get too fancy, people will actually like them less, because they come across as pretentious, unclear, or in certain nonfiction genres, biased.

Fiction, however, is a game of patience and practice, and expecting your first manuscript to be any good is rather like expecting a child's first drawing to be a Picasso.  It's alright, though.  You have to go through the early stages to get to the expert, and there are plenty of places online to practice.  Try fanfiction.net or fictionpress.net.  If people online don't think much of your work, what's it to you?  They don't know you in real life and you're just practicing anyway.  Besides, negative comments are a nice, padded way of learning to get rejection letters.

So anyway, that's today's rant.  See y'all later.

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