I believe this is a mistake. Writing is a craft, difficult and painstaking. It requires talent, of course, but also skill, dedication, and practice, to at least the same degree required of other artists—painters, sculptors, dancers, woodworkers. To think otherwise is folly. But there is hope. There are many excellent books and courses that can help you improve your writing. You can learn how to conjure evocative details, catch yourself when you’re telling, figure out how to show, and ultimately bring your fictive dream to life on the page.
I’d like to share an example of the progress one of my students made recently. The following passage was written by Stephanie McIntyre, who has graciously given permission to share her work with you.
In the first draft of Stephanie’s fantasy adventure novel, a character named Viktor arrives for a meeting at a pub called The Sleeping Dragon.The passage is on page 10 of the novel, and we do not know much about the fantastical story world. As Viktor enters the pub, he is confronted by a bouncer, and we read the following:
“You are welcome to drink, but take heed. There will be no violence in this establishment.”
Viktor nodded and walked to the back of the room, where an elf sat impatiently waiting.
“It’s about time. I got word two days ago.”
Although this meeting is crucial to the plot, the reader is unceremoniously thrust into it. We are new to the world, and we have no idea what it looks and feels like. We don’t really know where we are. I wrote in the margin of this early draft, “Do you perhaps want to give us more detail here, and some of the dialogue? His interaction with the barkeep and what he sees as he scans the pub while he waits for his drink are opportunities to tell us a lot about this world and the characters in it.” I also sent her an example of a bar scene. (It happened to be from my own novel, but any one good one would have done the trick.)
I pointed out that pubs are rich ground to till; they can tell us so much about a world or a society. Think about the Star Wars Cantina, Rick’s Café Americain, Cheers, Callahan’s Place, the Gold Room at the Overlook Hotel, the Korova Milk Bar. Restaurants, bars, and pubs are an intersection of all walks of life, and the interactions there can show us so much information, saving the author the labor of telling and reader the tedium of being told.
After our conversations, here is what the author returned:
“There won’t be any trouble in my pub. Understand me?” the bouncer continued. Viktor ignored the doorman as he scanned the patrons of the bar. The bouncer reached out to touch Viktor’s arm. “I said—”
“Don’t.” Viktor turned to look the bouncer in the eye. He watched the doorman pause, give him a weary look, and then slowly withdraw his hand. “I won’t be here long.”
Viktor walked to the bar. He ran his hand along the edge of he oak countertop. His fingers trailed along the dents and dings from years of abuse. The bartender stopped shining the surface and looked at him, then laid a coaster printed with a dragon in front of him. Viktor watched as the dragon on the coaster turned around in circles, lay down, and fell asleep.
“Until noon, get two Disgruntled Elves for a copper,” said the bartender. Pointing to the whiskey barrel marked in green gothic letters, he said, “We’re out of Hag. Everything else we’ve got.”
“I’ll take the Disgruntled Elf,” said Viktor. He tossed a copper in the direction of the bartender, who caught it and tucked it in the pack at his waist. With his two remaining hands he picked up two pint glasses and began to fill them from a wooden tap marked Old Marge— D. ELF. “Slow day?”
“Usual crowd.” The bartender tilted his head towards a table surrounded by an orc, gremlin, troll, halfling, and lizard. Each had a small pile of coins in front of them and cards in their hand. “They will be out of money or too drunk soon enough.”
Viktor watched the couple at the table behind the gamblers. He had trouble figuring out where one individual started from the next. The bartender followed his gaze. “They just had the passion punch.”
The wench walked over to the bar, turned towards the couple, and then leaned against the bar. She began to count. “Three . . . two . . . one.”
The couple got up, bumped into several tables, and finally ran out the door the bouncer had already swung open for them. She turned back to the bartender. “You owe me two coppers. Told you they wouldn’t make it ten minutes.”
The bartender reached in his bag and passed her the coins. “You have to admit she seemed frigid when they walked in. I was sure it would take ten.”
The bar wench laughed, then glanced to Viktor, frowned, and headed towards the gamblers. Viktor grabbed the two pints and made his way to the empty table in the back corner. As he passed the bar wench on the way, he told her not to bother servicing his table. He took the chair in the corner and sat with his back against the wall. With a view of the entire pub, he took a drink and waited, sizing up newcomers as they entered. His mug was half gone when the pub door opened and in strolled a tall, slender elf.
The difference between these two passages is astounding. By making the simple change of having Viktor arrive before the elf, we have a character in the bar, forced to interact with others, then to observe as he sits and waits. In that interaction and observation, the world of the novel springs to life. We are not simply being fed the facts of plot. Rather, we are invited into the author’s dream, where we become immersed and are able to lose ourselves as the story unfolds around us.