The King Is Dead: Long Live the King!

This is the first column in Bruce Holland Rogers’s new writing series, Technically Speaking. If you’d like to read his Short-Short Sighted columns, which are dedicated to writing very short fiction specifically, visit his author page.

Over two years ago, I set out to write a column about various forms, traditions, and techniques of flash fiction. At the time, I had about twenty topics in mind, topics that I have by now largely used up. That doesn’t mean that I’ve said everything I might want to say about flash fiction, but it does mean that I have finished with what I consider to be the most important topics. It’s time for me to move on.

Fortunately, moving on doesn’t mean going away. The editor of this site, Jake Freivald, has generously invited me to broaden the scope of my column and to write about anything that will likely be of use to fiction writers. So I’m doing exactly that. The Short-Short Sighted column has finished its run, and you are reading the first column of a new series called Technically Speaking.

The main topic of Technically Speaking will be, naturally, technique in fiction, and most columns will focus in detail on the use of some aspect of craft. However, I want to declare up front that sometimes my topics will drift over the borders of craft so that I can address the kinds of issues raised in my book Word Work (about the psychology of being a writer) or professional concerns. One reason to write a column, after all, is to have a forum for addressing current issues and events.

Mostly, though, Technically Speaking will be about techniques large and small, everything from diction and sentence structure to orchestrating characters and plotting a novel. Some columns will apply specifically to flash fiction, and I’ll always keep in mind that these columns are appearing on a site devoted to flash. But since many of the same techniques apply to fiction regardless of length, I won’t restrict my topics or my examples to short-shorts.

I hope the result will be a series of columns that writers will read, perhaps argue with, and then… largely forget.

That may seem like an odd ambition, writing columns that are forgettable. (“Yes,” I can almost hear Jake saying, “why would I want to pay Bruce to write forgettable columns?”)

Years ago, I avidly devoured the fiction columns in Writer’s Digest, written for years by Lawrence Block, and later by Nancy Kress. Most of these columns were little lessons in technique, and I would come away from them thinking things such as, “No wonder my last story didn’t sell. My character lacked attitude.” I’d make notes about what attitude was in fiction and how it worked. The topic in the next month might be titles. Again, I’d make notes, vowing to incorporate what I learned. In addition to the columns, I was reading how-to books. More notes. More determination to do everything these experts were showing me how to do.

Then I would sit down to write, and anxiety would hit. I’d write a first line, and then I’d start thinking about technique. Was that first line adhering to what I had learned in the column about beginnings? What was my character’s attitude? What was I going to title this story, anyway? Did I have too many characters? Could I combine some of them? What should I name my characters? Hadn’t I read a column about character names? Where did I put those notes? I could talk myself out of writing a second sentence because there were too many technical questions to which I did not have an answer.

All the questions and choices of technique can overwhelm a writer. The only way that most of us get any writing done is not by thinking of technique, but by actively daydreaming the lives and actions of our characters and writing down what happens.

All this brings me to the ideal and blessed state for writers when it comes to technique. Ideally, we learn everything we need to learn about technique from reading fiction. We have absorbed the possibilities of fiction by reading fiction, and when we write, we just write. We don’t think about technique any more than a native speaker thinks about the grammar of her language. The ideal writer has absorbed the grammar of fiction without knowing an instance of prolepsis from a flat character.

This ideal state is reality for a few writers. They write the draft without thinking about the choices they are making in point of view or plot. The story just comes out right. You might say that these writers are “instinctive,” but there is no writing instinct. They have learned purely by example. They can judge the next sentence they are about to write according to whether or not it feels the way the next sentence would feel in a book. The result is a story that lives and breathes.

If this is you, great! May you continue to write successfully by the seat of your pants. You don’t need this column, and thinking too much about technique might even make you lose your way by bringing your unconscious decisions to the surface where they can annoy and confuse you, where you can doubt yourself. If you’re a natural, keep right on being one!

Most of us, however, are not naturals. We have to write a first draft as if we were naturals. We have to write by feel. As in my own early experiences, if we thought about technique while inventing the story, we’ve be overwhelmed. But after we have written by feel, the result is a broken story. It walks with a limp. It smells bad. Its eyes look filmy and sick.

This is the stage when most of us should be turning to technique. All that we have learned about how fiction works is like a diagnostic manual. We can treat the story as a patient. Does your main character have an attitude? No? If your main character had an attitude, would that make you begin more interestingly? Ah, yes! A bit of attitude makes the limp go away!

So I think there are three essential steps to working with artistic technique: Learn it. Forget it. Remember it. Even the “instinctive” writer follows these steps, learning how stories operate by reading stories, forgetting those other stories while writing just this one story, and then evaluating the result according to whether it seems to be like those other stories. For the rest of it, each of these steps is liable to be a bit more overt.

Learn it. Read the fiction of other writers. Ideally, you read once as a reader, to absorb both the story and the techniques unconsciously, but then you go back and read as a writer hunting techniques. How does the writer use chapters to keep the story interesting and to make the book hard to put down? What point of view is this story written in? Why? How would the story be different, perhaps less satisfying, in a different point of view?

Learn it. Read about technique. Learn the names and uses of various techniques, along with analyses of why you might favor this technique over that one in a given story. Read about how the techniques of fiction operate in the mind of the reader.

Forget it. Just write.

Remember it. Evaluate your fiction against the standard of published fiction. Ask others to read your writing and to tell you if they got bored or found it silly at some point. Think of techniques that might spice up the boring part or make the story more convincing. Apply techniques to your revision.

Lather, rinse, repeat.

Finally, for a few weird writers (here I raise my hand), technique can become a central issue in our writing. Rather than forgetting technique when it’s time to write a first draft, we pick a technique and try to build a story around it. We choose say writing a story in the shape of a spiral, and we try to think of characters and situations that would lend themselves to the technique. But this approach is for real oddballs, and even for us, the main sequence remains the same, with with an extra step:

Learn it. Make it central. Forget it. Remember it.

So, to modify what I said earlier, I hope the contents of these columns will be useful, interesting, memorable… and possible to forget when you sit down to create.