the unbearable lightness of the blank page

Sarah has an interesting post over at Smart Bitches. Let me tell you first about the quote she attributes to Nora Roberts: “I can fix a bad page but I can’t fix a blank one”.

I think I should have this tatooed on my forehead. Backwards, of course, so I can read it in the mirror. It’s a really excellent reminder for anybody who writes for a living.

Sarah’s post deals with a description of a college course she ran across that promises to teach interested persons how to write and publish a romance novel. You may want to read her thoughts on this, because she asks some questions I’m going to try to answer some of them here.

I do believe that some things about writing can be taught in a classroom. If you understand basic concepts about narrative structure, point of view, plot vs story, and so on, you’ll probably have an easier time as you pursue a writing career. Some people seem to have an intuitive understanding of these technical issues and don’t need instruction. Some people don’t understand basic concepts and write anyway — and get published. You can probably come up with a couple names on your own.

The point is: if you can tell a really good story, you may well get away with all manner of infelicities. The story is the thing, it’s what the readers want. Tell a great story, no matter how flawed in execution, and you may even make a fortune. It has happened.

You can also study very hard, take every class, work diligently, and be able to quote every theoretical work on fiction — and still not be able to tell a story in writing. That happens too. Some of those people can write a beautiful sentence (tree) but have no idea what a story is (forest).

So a class on how to write and sell a romance strikes me as dumb. As would a class on how to write and sell a thriller, or a scifi novel. If you want to write a romance, you have to read them. You have to read a LOT of them. Simple as that. And of course an understanding about structure and characterization would be a starting point. As you read through a hundred or two hundred romance novels, you’ll get a sense of how things work in the genre, and how they don’t.

Every one in a while I think about the possibility of running a week long workshop, somewhere near home. This would be a workshop for people who haven’t written a novel but would like to, but feel that they need an introduction to the basics. After teaching for a dozen years I could put a solid workshop together, certainly, but two things stop me:

It would take a lot of organization;
That age old question: what if I give a party and nobody comes?

Now that would be embarrassing, setting it all up and having to cancel for lack of participants. Authors who do successful writing workshops usually do so under the auspices of some kind of organization that takes on the onerous organization end of things. For example, the Maui Writers’ Conference. A terribly tough gig, but somebody’s got to do it. She said wistfully.

There are many really awful conferences and workshops out there, too.

And there are specialty workshops, particularly for doctors and lawyers who have got the fiction writing bug and money to spend.

So my advice would be: if you want to write a novel, read. Read a lot. If you like a structured approach to learning something new, take a course — but a general course, an introduction to writing fiction. Or you can enroll in a workshop, which are available pretty much everywhere from Maui to Tuscany to Mobile, Alabama. If you feel that you have the basics down and you want to learn about the specifics of a particular genre, you are sure to find conferences and workshops — for legal thrillers, sci-fi, romance, and any other genre you can think of.

But you still have to read, and you still have to do the work. A single college course is never going to get you published, and much less onto the NYT best seller list.