A few months ago, I was speaking with an award-winning writer, one I hold in the highest regard. He asked if I was still teaching, and I said, “Yes.” He responded, “You know, I love teaching, but sometimes I feel that the art is so … mystical that I wonder if it can really be taught.”
I’ve wondered that, too. In fact, I have met many authors who don’t believe that it can be taught. I think that as an instructor, you can teach, but there are times I find that a student isn’t quite able to learn. Their brains just don’t work quite the way that I’d expect.
But those people are unusual, probably fewer than one in ten. So if you’re wondering if there is hope for you, yeah, there is.
Let me put it this way. If you’re of higher-than-average intelligence and you know how to put a sentence together, then teaching you to write is as easy as teaching a fish how to swim.
I’ve helped a lot of writers, and many of them have been very successful. A couple of years ago, I was looking down a list and realized that I knew of nearly a hundred who had become bestselling authors, and several of them had gone on to become #1 New York Times bestsellers. One is reportedly a billionaire. Another made hundreds of millions, and so on.
I often wonder why it is that so many writing teachers do it so poorly.
Teaching isn’t hard. A lot of people who come to my workshops have said things like, “I learned more in this one course than I did getting my Master’s degree in Creative Writing.” I’m not sure that that’s entirely accurate, but I do struggle to teach writers the things that they can’t get in college.
Years ago, when I first taught creative writing at Brigham Young University, I had my class going for a week when the Dean of the College of Humanities dropped in unannounced and sat in on a couple of lessons. Afterward, he said, “Your curriculum is amazing, but I’ve been thinking: This is the kind of thing that ought to be restricted to Ph.D. candidates. Could we turn this into a 600-level writing course?”
I told him, “No, I teach the things that you need to understand in order to become a bestselling author.”
Maybe that’s part of the secret. I didn’t want to restrict information and divide it between upper-classmen and lower-classmen.
I just asked myself a simple question: If a student wants to learn how to become an international bestseller, what can I do to help?
The answer seemed obvious: there are four things that a writer needs to master in order to make it in this field. Unfortunately, most college professors only teach one of those four.
You see, when I was studying creative writing in college,
I realized that new authors need to study four major topics to becoming a bestseller:
1. The Fine Art of Storytelling
2. Writing with Style
3. Staying Inspired
4. The Business of Writing
1. The Fine Art of Storytelling
I might call this “the biology of reading.” How do stories work on the brain to transport readers, inspire them, and help them learn? What makes a character intriguing or likeable? How do you build a world for your story that feels convincing and transports your reader into it? How do you layer conflicts so that you give your character gripping problems? What makes a reader want to cry at the end of a story—or grab a friend and demand that they read your book?
The truth is that most university professors don’t touch this topic. Since the 1880s it has been considered kind of taboo. Storytelling isn’t considered an art, it’s a subject studied only by “hacks.” Plots are “formulaic,” and writers shouldn’t rely on formulas, and so writing instructors instead teach something else, style.
Many scholars studiously ignore the fact that great storytellers often aren’t great stylists, yet a book like Fifty Shades will rake in a hundred million dollars while far better literary works languish on the store shelves.
Yes, some hacks learn to tell stories in a crude fashion, but what if you elevated it to an art form? What if you learned the basics and then became deft at honing your tales? I think that you’d discover that there is much more going on than meets the eye.
2. Writing with Style
Hemingway said that the secret is simple. I’ll paraphrase: “All great writing, every great novel, is poetry.”
At one level, that’s absolute rubbish. Great stories are often poorly told.
But at another level, it’s a profound truth. When you as a storyteller connect to your story at the deepest level and treat it with dignity, and write it beautifully so that you merge your story with the right poetic elements so that it gains potency, you really are writing poetry.
But poetry alone won’t cut it.
Writing teachers tend to focus exclusively on style as if this were the most important thing in the world. So developing a great style is typically something that you can learn very well in college.
3. Staying Inspired
Years ago I told a young writer, Brandon Sanderson, that writing was “Simultaneously the easiest job to do in the world and the hardest job the world.”
A few years later he called me for some advice. He’d sold some books and was trying to figure out how to shelter his income from taxes, so I suggested ways that he could be investing in his own writing future.
Suddenly he blurted, “I understand! Writing is the hardest job in the world because when you’re starting out, it can be very hard to stay motivated for month after month, year after year. But once the money starts rolling in, it becomes the easiest job in the world.”
I smiled and said, “You’ve got it!”
I recently saw on a report from Amazon.com that Brandon is selling about ¾ of a million dollars in books each month just on their site. That doesn’t count his sales in bookstores around the country or his foreign sales in some 20 other countries. I suspect that he’s not having trouble staying motivated. He’s graduated to a new problem: staying focused.
Most college writing instructors aren’t novelists. They may be poets or writing short stories. They’ve never had to figure out how to stay motivated, get inspired, hold onto the fire in their belly, and struggle to write day by day. They’ve never learned how to savor writing a long work, taking joy in the work itself. They haven’t figured out how to train their subconscious how to work on literary problems while dealing with day-to-day issues. They haven’t learned to turn their inspiration to write into a writing habit.
But this is something that can be taught, and I’m going to start working harder to train you in this skill.
4. The Business of Writing
Every writer is a small businessperson, one that creates a product—a story—in a basement or attic or writing den and then markets it’s in dozens of countries around the globe and in various mediums. You might write your book and sell it in Nigeria, or have it turned into a television series or a videogame.
To be a successful writer, you need to learn how to run your business.
Unfortunately, most writing instructors have never had to work as writers. They’ve never written a book that sold millions. They don’t know how to read a contract or even how to submit a novel to a major publisher.
They don’t understand how or when to release a book.
They don’t know what a writing ring is for, or a book bomb.
They don’t understand the importance of encouraging presales in order to get on a bestseller list, or how publishers groom certain authors to become their “super leads,” much in the way that a stable owner grooms one horse to run his races.
Because of this, many new writers spend years learning how to compose but then when they’re ready to launch a career, they make major mistakes that cripple them right out the gate. Maybe they’ll submit to the wrong agent or publisher, or release a book during a presidential election or make some other beginner’s business mistake.
In short, if all you do is study how to write in college, your curriculum is probably wanting.
So, I’m going to combine all of these lessons—storytelling, writing with style, how to keep focused and inspired, and the business of writing—into my writing curriculum. My goal is to figure out how to teach this in a holistic way.
I’m telling you about it in part so that as a new writer, you’re now more aware of what you need to learn. Is there a workshop coming up that will teach you how to stay inspired? It might be just what you need. Are you getting ready to launch a book and don’t know how? Someone else probably has key information you lack.
But I want to go further than that. I’m going to combine my content into a new program.
Starting soon, you’ll be able to gain access to online classes, seminars, weekly lessons, writing books, and a new online forum dedicated to helping writers master the art and business of writing—all for a very low annual price. My goal is to help as many people as I can as inexpensively as I can.
Creating the Perfect Cast Workshop
In this class, you’ll learn specifically how to
- Build characters that intrigue your reader
- Devise characters that we either love or love to hate
- Recognize the various roles that certain types of characters play in your novel, and then figure out how to adapt these characters to suit your novel.
- Create tension by creating storylines that better exploit your character’s personality
- Make sure that your cast isn’t too lean or bloated
And much more.
This workshop will be held from Thursday, Feb 27 through Saturday, Feb 29, 2020, in Provo, Utah
Price per student: $449
We will start daily at 9:00 A.M. and go until 5:00 P.M.
Please bring a laptop and an idea for a novel to work on. We will be doing daily writing exercises, have daily lectures, and we will be critiquing your work and the work of other students.
There will be a maximum of 16 students in the class.
Find out more or register at http://mystorydoctor.com/live-workshops-2/