Many years ago when I was a high school student, I innocently remarked to my art teacher that I would like to be an artist. I’ve always remembered his response: “Learn to be a painter then hope.”
No doubt today he would be pilloried for discouraging young creativity, but, of course, he was entirely correct. Art and that illusive thing, creativity, emerge out of craft and not out of thin air.
For this reason, and because I was largely self taught in both writing and painting, I’ve always been a bit suspicious of ‘creative’ writing courses. Twenty years plus teaching college students also convinced me that we go about teaching writing almost entirely backwards, emphasizing academic and research-oriented writing, which few people will ever do once they leave the ivy halls, and teaching the sort of professional writing most will do in business and journalism as an upper level speciality.
So what do my reservations about college writing courses have to do with mystery writing? Just this. If you are trying to write mysteries or their big cousins, thrillers, or their more distant relatives the romance or fantasy, first learn the basic functional professional writing style and then learn the formats of your chosen genre.
It’s no secret that many highly successful genre writers move over from journalism or other professional writing where they learned to write clearly, grammatically cleanly, and concisely. They also learned something else which I spent almost two decades teaching humanities majors desperate for some practical advice: how to discover a writing format, how to analyze it, and how to copy it.
I realize the ‘C’ word is out of favor, but whether you are learning to construct a press release – always my publishing class’s first exercise – or the cliff-hanging save the world type thriller, you’ve got to master the form. Ideas are great, style is wonderful, but both need a container, and that container is the format, the form that readers expect.
Of course, it is a lot easier to teach someone how to write a press release – who, where, what, why, when, in the first graph, a couple of the now obligatory quotes, a brief elaboration of facts, plus contact info– than it is to write a novel or even a short story. But as with learning languages, learn one and the second is easier. In the case of writing, easier because the beginner is already looking for structure and has taken the first steps by learning to analyze one form.
And how is this done? Read, read, read, but read actively. That is, begin to pay attention not just to the story, in this case, but to how it was done, what the various ingredients are – action, dialogue, exposition– and in what proportions.
If one does that consistently, soon one realizes that there are only so many patterns. In our genre, these include the chase, the woman in jeopardy, the step-by-step investigation, the revenge plot, the caper, the sure thing gone wrong, and my own favorite, the so called ‘biter bit,’ where a bad guy is ‘hoist on his own petard’ as Shakespeare, that master of many genres, so aptly put it.
Unlike a lot of writers, I started first on novels and came to short stories later, but the process was still the same. In my case, I destroyed cheap paperbacks of several favorite writers – Eric Ambler, Raymond Chandler, and Dorothy Sayers, to be exact – by underlining dialogue, exposition and action in various colors, giving me a visual representation of the structures and making me read the novels ultra carefully.
Was this self education successful? Modestly. I am not a gifted plotter and, yes, structure is still a difficulty for me. Someone with a greater talent for plot structure, even if a less skillful writer, would do as well or probably better. But one plays the hand one is dealt.
One cannot acquire more talent or better ideas. But one can become a skillful enough writer to convey the ideas one does have and good enough at developing the structure of stories and novels to put them in.