Erotica Readers & Writers Association Blog

Thursday, March 21, 2013


By Lisabet Sarai

I have a confession to make. I've never read any writing how-to book from beginning to end. Years ago, I started Susie Bright's How to Write a Dirty Story, but abandoned it about half way through, partly because I found the author's tone patronizing and partly because the smell of ink from that very early POD volume was giving me a terrible headache. The other classic writing texts that are supposed to be on every author's bookshelf – Stephen King and the rest – I've never even opened. I don't own a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style or Strunk and White, either, though my paperback Roget's Thesaurus is definitely the worse for wear.

After reading Garce's post this month, I began to feel rather creepy about my basic disinterest in studying the nuts and bolts of the writing craft. I recognized the validity of the concepts he explains so succinctly – the narrative arc and the character arc, the “Coming to Death” moment. The questions he articulates, the inquiries as to what the character wants, where a story is going and how it should flower, are the sort of things I think about when I'm critiquing someone else's work. When I'm writing my own stuff, though, nothing could be further from my mind. Intellectual analysis has little to do with the process. I write from instinct.

At this point you're probably snorting with disgust at my presumption. “She thinks she's got so much talent she doesn't need to study the masters,” you might be thinking. Or, “Right, she was born knowing about characterization and conflict, suspense and catharsis. A regular Mozart of the written word.”

Honestly, I don't think that at all. I do believe I'm moderately skilled at the craft aspects of writing, but that's not due to some fabulous genetic endowment. Rather, it's the product of more than half a century's experience, reading and writing – plus a certain amount of early education.

My life was filled with words from its very first months. Before I could talk (hard to believe such a time ever existed!), my parents read to me, both fiction and poetry. All through my childhood, my father told us fantastic tales of ghosts and monsters and wrote delightful doggerel that he set to music. He and my mom taught me to read at four years old, and almost immediately I began creating my own stories. I was writing poems by the time I was seven. Nobody ever showed me how. I guess I must have been emulating what I'd read and heard. It just seemed a natural thing to do.

Reading was my absolute favorite occupation throughout my childhood. My mom had to force me to put my book aside and go out to play. I continued to write all through elementary school, high school, college and graduate school. And of course, I continued to read.

I adored the literature classes I took. There, we undertook the sort of analyses that Garce writes about, dissecting tales ancient and modern to see what made them tick. Although I majored in science, I tried to balance my schedule with at least one humanities course each term. I still recall the intellectual thrill I derived from the Shakespeare seminar in which I participated as a freshmen, the high I got from Russian literature in translation course in my junior year.

I still love to discuss great books. A few months ago I spent more than an hour Skyping with my brother (who lives half a world away) about Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus. We specifically set up the call for that purpose, and I enjoyed every minute.
So even though I've never deliberately studied the art of narrative, at least as applied to my own writing, I seem to have acquired a significant amount of knowledge by osmosis.

When I sit down to write, I don't consciously identify the “MacGuffin” that drives my story, even though it must be there somewhere. I may or may not know at the outset when and where my characters will experience that moment of total despair, when all seems impossible. If I don't know, I simply trust that I'll recognize the crisis when I get there. The story unrolls in my mind, a journey along a road where some parts may be foggier than others, but with a structure that seems to shape itself around the premise, the setting and the characters, without much deliberate effort on my part.

I do spend a significant amount of mental and emotional effort on the prose itself, attempting to capture the elusive nuances of experience in mere words. I'm also focused on the big ideas that underlie the action, struggling to birth the sort of startling, original tale that transfixes me with admiration when I am playing the role of reader.

That's what I find most difficult about writing. All the craft in the world won't make up for a ho-hum concept. All too frequently, I have the uncomfortable sense that the story I'm working on has been written a hundred times before – sometimes even by me. I listen to Garce complain about his so-called lack of talent even as he produces tales so wild, terrible and beautiful that they bring tears to my eyes, and I try not to be envious.

That's something no craft book can teach.

Still, discouraged as I sometimes am, I don't stop writing. Through a combination of nature and nurture, it appears that I've absorbed the so-called rules of story structure. They're part of me now. I probably couldn't prevent myself from following them, any more than the Canada geese could abort their annual flight south.


  1. This is an important counterpoint. Maybe there's an analogy to speaking a language. It's important to study grammar, but it's also important to just talk to people and have fluent dialogue by doing it. The method of getting better by doing a lot of reading and writing (rather than by studying story structure, or in conjunction with it) might be like hanging out with native speakers, so you get a sense of what sounds and feels right. I have very poor knowledge of English grammar terms, but a very good sense of what is right and wrong. That's thanks to the many, many hours I've spent reading.

    Also, I have to agree that every time Garce says he doesn't have talent, my eyebrows hit the ceiling. :) So, Garce, if you're reading this, it might not be so bad to 'fess up that you've got a bit of the sacred fire on top of everything else.

  2. Lisabet - I'm in your camp on this, although I have read the how-to books and have the Chicago Manual and Strunk & White on the bookshelves nearest my computer. I took classes that deconstructed stories, but what I took away from them is that while writing can be described, techniques named, and structure labeled, absolutely none of that helps anyone write a story. It's like describing a body when you're trying to talk about the soul within.

  3. I have to admit to never having read a book on narrative structure in my life until I had to teach it.

    I've never read any of the 'how to' books, not even the ones on erotic fiction.

    I learned about story and character arcs, themes and conflict, setting and dialogue from reading an obscene number of great books, and, slowly but surely, a pattern of what made a story great emerged.

    I will say one thing about the benefits of the formal learning of narrative craft. Now, when something I've written isn't working, I tend to be able to find ways to fix it faster.

  4. Great piece. After my mother's death I found some old papers. Self at 2 1/2 years old and spelling tests my mother had saved. Here are these simple words, cat, fat, hat and I looked at that and thought, hmmm. Too effing soon maybe for all that. The same creativity your parents gave you surrounded me as well. I have some of the how to books? But I never read them all the way either, Lisabet.

    It's like, I'd rather read the writer (writing) than read tomes about the writer via literary criticism and academics?

    I read a ton of poetry very early. I remember that most, and my mother sitting with me and writing poems all the time. She wanted to be a writer I think. She had many affairs with writers. They were always around the house.

    There was poetry, always. As a surround.

    Found some from age 8. How silly.

    Maybe we are all just bookish?

    Maybe so.

  5. Hi, Annabeth,

    Sometimes I feel guilty for not being more deliberate about my writing. Everyone seems to suggest that if you don't suffer and sweat, you're not *really* an author.

    But deep down - I don't believe that.

  6. Hi, Kathleen,

    Hmm. I would have guessed, from your posts, that you're very analytical about your writing.

    Perhaps the structural or formal knowledge is more useful when one is trying to understand why a story isn't working, as RG suggests.

  7. Hi, Maddy,

    Nothing like being forced to teach something, to make you work! I've been writing software for more than twenty years, but only when I had to teach data structures and algorithms did I delve into the formalities.

  8. Valentine, you *were* precocious!

    I don't have nearly as much of my childhood stuff as some people, but I believe I do have some poetry notebooks from elementary school. Unfortunately they're at the bottom of a heavy box, so I'm not going to look them up now!

  9. This is what I find so bizarre and ass-backwards about the way English is taught to basic teen learners. Instead of reading TO them aloud, constantly commenting on and engaging them in conversations about the literature, they are forced to endure endless lessons on constructing sentence trees, or identifying which concepts the author was using in a paragraph.

    It's as if you are attempting to teach someone a foreign language when they don't even know their own. Instead, they should be the ones who are constantly reading literature, listening to it, and being forced to expand their minds by writing daily.

    As a sub, whenever I'm in one of those classes and the plan tells me to have them read something, I always give them the option of me reading it to them. Then I stop frequently, defining words, expanding on references, and usually most of the kids are quickly engaged. Maybe they like it because it's a new experience for them, but I think it's because instead of talking down to them, assuming they can't understand the material, I'm talking to them, trying to encourage them to use their own frame of reference to begin to make connections on their own.

    This is difficult to teach, but constant reading and writing will do the trick...if allowed to.

  10. The difficulty I have with most how-to writing books is that I think they tend to make us put the cart before the horse. Most of the structure theories start out as descriptive - the author of the theory read numerous books/poems/stories/etc. and then derived a theory about their structure. Some of them work pretty well. Others are, well, creative.

    We read those theories, and then try to use them in a prescriptive fashion, as a roadmap to create a new work, and for me, at least, that map gets in the way of telling a good story. It leaves no room for those spontaneous organic connections that make a story more than just a logical sequence of actions and descriptions.

    I do sometimes find the models and theories useful once I get to the editing and polishing phase.

  11. Greetings, Fiona!

    I don't know if you can *teach* someone to love reading, but without exposure, it's definitely a lost cause.

    When I was in junior high we had a literature teacher who used to read to us. He had a wonderful, mellow voice - really knew how to hold us spellbound.

  12. Hello, Kathryn,

    I agree with your observation. In fact, even the rules of grammar are after-the-fact, attempts to describe or rationalize the rather chaotic structure of English. I teach students whose native language is not English. Often when they ask my why a sentence is structured in a particular way, I have to throw up my hands and simply admit that this is the way the language works.

    Even someone who knew the so-called rules of grammar backwards and forwards would not necessarily speak English correctly. I think the same is true of writing. There's a serious disconnect between theory and practice.

  13. Lisabet!

    If the universe were ruled by a god of love we would have met each other when we were kids and ate each other up alive. I mean that. It would have been a passionate train crash of nerds and loins in love that would have resulted in obscene playground legends.

    I should probably annotate my stuff, including the entry for next month with the cautionary that one should never ever think of these things during the first draft which should always be done in an instinctive lurch of brutish grunting passion without a plan at all. That is a sacred moment of pure fun that should not be messed with by the intellect. When you go back and try to make sense of the sticky mess you just left running down the laptop screen then you;d start thinking narrative arc and character arc and so on. Although Ray Bradbury would agree with that, and I believe that, Edgar Allen Poe most certainly would not. He once wrote a long detailed essay of how he wrote "The Raven". The obsessive mathematical calculation that went into every detail - before he wrote a single line! - would have numbed the enthusiasm of any other writer, like a lover going through Anne Hooper's Kama Sutra book "First we'll perform page 27, after which you will make a half turn on your knees and lift your leg and we will progress to page 15 after which you will stand on your head and I will make a reverse entry from the above positon for a duration of one minute and fifteen seconds and then . . ."




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