Learning to write well is like playing a really hard videogame. You die a lot, and sometimes when you have to fight the same boss fifty times in a row it makes you want to tear your hair out and eat it. In the end, though, it’s all worth it for that sweet, sweet Level Up, when the bell sounds and you see a little golden ‘plus one’ in the corner of the screen.
It’s not a perfect metaphor, but the idea of levels along the learning curve has always appealed to me, and when I look over the stacks of unseen manuscripts that track my own slow journey, I swear I can see these moments – as though at some point something just clicked and from that point on I did everything differently. Level Ups.
In my experience, most of the big levels lie behind doors that you can only open if you’ve already conquered previous ones – like finding keys or unlocking doors in games. And as in games, these doors only lead to further rooms and levels which are in turn steadily more and more difficult to progress through. There’s no point working on your paragraphing, for example, if you haven’t yet nailed sentence structure or basic grammar.
I’ve been writing seriously for about seven years, and in that time I’ve discovered (though not necessarily mastered) at least fourteen skill levels, which I suspect comprise the merest fraction of the game as a whole. Here they are, in the order of progression that I encountered them:
- Spelling and Grammar
When I was eight, my brother was the only one who could decipher my language and report the events of my extremely violent dinosaur novels to the rest of my family. Thankfully I’ve gotten better since then.
- Sentence structure and length
I wrote some books with endless, comma strewn, sentences. Others with short ones. You must find a balance that corresponds with how you think, and that can take quite a while, especially if you happen to be reading Hemingway and Tolkien side by side.
This one was a revelation to me. I wrote five full size novels in five paragraphs – each one a horrendous wall of text the size of the hoover dam – before I learned the art of paragraphs. It seemed so strange that an empty line could make such a difference, and the way it transformed word soup into individual, complete thoughts.
You only learn this bad boy through years of… well, describing stuff. How do you know how long to harp on about the designs in a carved table or the architecture of a castle? Do you describe what clothes people are wearing? How much do you describe, and what details do you focus on? What words do you avoid? Trial and error, my friend – hundreds of thousands of words of trial and error.
You can’t learn this without having a good grasp of the previous levels. It’s a tough one, too. I tend to rely more on intuition than anything else. Like breathing, you do it best when you’re not thinking about it.
I’m not saying that everyone has to learn to strip their writing down to the bare bones. When I say minimalism I mean it in terms of efficiency: every word must have a purpose. By all means write a three page description of your protagonist’s childhood home; just be damn sure that every one of those words contributes to the story in some way. Rule 17 of The Elements of Style: Omit Needless Words.
This is a big one. This is one of those levels with a hundred secret areas and dead ends that you can never completely explore. I hate those things.
A weird skill, this one. Some people find it impossibly hard, and to others it comes naturally. There are lots of tricks to doing it right. People in books can’t talk exactly like they do in real life, but they also can’t talk as if they’re people in books. Go figure.
This is really just figuring out what the hell you want to write about, which isn’t as obvious as it might seem. You might enjoy reading lots of genres, but that doesn’t mean you’d enjoy writing all of them. The only way to know what really gets your gears going is to write every different kind of story that interests you. You’ll start to notice patterns. Just like how I noticed I like people without faces and blood seeping out of walls and monsters that eat children. It’s different for everyone.
It took me about a million words of writing before I started to get a sense of what my voice is – and even then it’s evolved since. Before that, I was a mash of other cheap imitations – Stephen King for half a novel, then Clive Barker for a few short stories, then Raymond Chandler, ad infinitum. It’s as much a case of reading your way through as writing it.
Some guys are insanely good at this. A few well crafted lines and the reader has an immediate recognition of a person, like getting an instant window into their mind and the life they’ve lived. Magic, when it’s done well. On the other hand you can (as I’ve done in the past) write hundreds of pages following the same characters and never get beyond two dimensions. Mastering this level can make a huge difference to the quality of a book. The best authors I’ve encountered in this area to date are probably Joe Abercrombie and Elmore Leonard, the latter of which also happens to be a champion of dialogue.
I touched on this in my ‘Craft’ post titled Truth. The idea is, whatever you write has to be about something. Not that you have to have an agenda, but you gotta have something. I resisted this, associating it with people who had messages to send me, who wanted to push their dirty morals down my throat. That’s the wrong way to do it, but it doesn’t mean you should abandon the whole concept. Often, if you’re a hundred pages into a book and you realise you don’t give a single damn what happens to anyone or anything in the story, it’s because the author has neglected theme.
Resonance is the feeling of awe you get when you finish a really good book, and it’s what makes you continue to dwell on it long after you’ve turned the last page. I suspect the reason it’s so difficult is because you have to be at least highly competent with all the other levels before you can engineer a lingering resonance. A lot of authors actually make a good living without bothering with it at all. In a weird way, I guess you could say it’s like a secret bonus level.
- Story Structure
Joseph Campbell (The Hero with a Thousand Faces) and Shawn Coyne (The Story Grid and others) are must-read authors when it comes to story. I’ve only recently come across the idea of Story being a level on its own recently. Before, I just thought story was ‘stuff happening’, and as long as you made sure the stuff was cool and it kept happening you were good to go. No no, my friends – story is the heart of a book, and the reason people buy books in the first place, or watch movies and TV shows (both of which, by the way, are excellent ways of learning storytelling. Television especially must cater to short attention spans, and many screenwriters have become pros when it comes to compressing maximum story value into minimum timeslots.)
My current favourite role model for great storytelling is Dan Harmon (of Community and Rick and Morty fame), and he has some awesome posts on his wiki in which he explains and distils Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey.
If you want to improve your writing, learn story first. Learn it even before you learn how to spell – it’s more important.
I am, of course, only touching on the main aspects of each level. I could write many posts on each one, and I would still be skimming the surface. If the game of writing were an ocean, we’d all just be surfers and fishermen.
No, this is one game that never really ends. Even if there are only so many levels (and I have my doubts about that), there are yet levels within levels, and different ways to complete them all, and hidden doors. There is no final boss, no end credits; there is no ‘winning’ – you just keep levelling up.
But I’m not complaining – quite the opposite. After all, what could be more boring than mastering a skill? What would you do then? Nothing – it would be Game Over, no Restart. Forget Dungeons and Dragons, forget World of Warcraft or Minecraft or Starcraft – this is the only craft for me, my friends (see what I did there?) Writing is the most brilliant sandbox game ever invented, with a bare minimum of controls and infinite possibilities…
So go play.