Learning the Chords

I once had a college professor for a creative writing course who told us that great writers were born that way. The rest of us mere mortals could only hope to strive for mediocrity with enough practice and effort. Up until recently, I believed this pile of rubbish and have even taken it to heart. I’ve been convinced that if I can’t naturally produce great novels just by sitting down and writing, then I must be one of those writers doomed to hope for mediocrity. Writers are already prone to perfectionism and self-loathing, so adding additional self-deprecating baggage onto the burden we bear does no one any good.

I was thinking about this and suddenly came to the conclusion that my college professor was an idiot. First of all, this same professor “taught” us that using said as a default attribution is a bad idea and taught us a whole bunch of other things that an editor recently told me were all wrong. I am now in the process of unlearning all the garbage I was taught by this particular professor.

When I was a kid I remember taking one of those aptitude tests, the ones designed to tell you, based on your scores, what sort of future career you to which you might be suited. This test told me that I should pursue a career in “sanitation”. That’s right, the aptitude test told me that I should be a garbage truck driver. The moral of the story: I’m done letting other people tell me what I can and cannot do.

I firmly believe that if you have that raw spark (neurosis?) within that makes you a writer, then you can hone your craft, learn your tools, and produce great fiction. I think it is foolish and the greatest form of hubris to think that one can be a writer and never once pick up a book on how to write.

Imagine a musical genius whose instrument of choice is the guitar. The man can hear songs in his head that are absolute gems, pure musical perfection. Now, ask that musical genius, who has never lifted a guitar, to go and play the songs in his head. With the exception of a few savant types, this musical genius is going to struggle to play “Happy Birthday” on the guitar, let alone the complex songs in his head. He needs to know how to use the tool, he needs to learn the chords.

Knowing that, in the heavy metal genre, an A chord with the distortion cranked up will make your audience want to punch stuff (a good thing) is essential if you plan to compose heavy metal songs. You wouldn’t know that, regardless of your level of creativity, if you didn’t know all of the chords, how they sound, and the emotions they produce.

The same is true for a writer. We can’t create a page turner without knowledge of plot and structure. We can’t make readers cry without knowledge of characters and character bonding. We can’t make readers so immersed by our fictional world that they ignore the pot of boiling water and the pets with full bladders begging to be let out unless we have a mastery of plot, structure, characters, description, setting, dialogue, and every other tool in the box.

So I picked up a bunch of books on how to write. I’ve already read a few, including those by Stephen King and David Morrell,  but these books were down and dirty technical manuals for how to convert raw inspiration into truly readable fiction. I must admit that I ate quite a bit of humble pie in reading those books. Rather than being upset about it, I ordered about 10 more books. Every speck, every tiny granule of knowledge that I pick up teaches me to better hone my stories. The end result is a work of fiction that is not only more fun to read, but much more likely to be published.

So, to summarize: You can’t create music on the guitar without knowing the chords. You can’t create good fiction without knowing the techniques available to writers. Learn your Chords and your readers will thank you for it.

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