August 20th 2010
The Skill List Project
I recently re-read Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. It’s one of a set of books I read every now and then to raise my sights and make me more ambitious in my work; although Tharp is a choreographer, the book is a great source of inspiration for writers and for anyone else who wants to keep the creative juices flowing.
One of Tharp’s many pieces of advice is to analyze your own skill set. What are your strengths and weaknesses? What do you rely on too heavily? Where are you lagging and how do you elevate your game?
This got me thinking: what are the skills involved in writing and selling fiction (particularly science fiction and fantasy)? Is it possible to make a list? And whether or not it’s possible, am I impulsive enough to try?
Well, heck, why not?
A Definitive List of Writing Skills?
So here’s the project I’m going to embark on in this blog over the coming months. Starting with my own ideas, and drawing on the expertise of SFNovelists members and readers, I’ll take a crack at listing the skills that an sf writer should develop.
Let me lay down some ground rules:
- I want to be fairly specific. For example, I don’t just want to say, Must be able to write good dialogue. What specific skills are involved in writing dialogue? I’m thinking of everything from punctuating correctly (which seems to go over a lot of newbies’ heads) to actually listening to how people speak, from tailoring speech for individual characters to writing good “frames” around the dialogue (e.g. avoiding said-bookisms). Let’s spell things out as best we can.
- I want to suggest (or solicit) practical ways to improve these skills. Sometimes this will be easy. (There are lots of good books on punctuation; buy one and do what it says.) Sometimes this will be hard: tailoring speech to individual characters isn’t just a matter of developing a good ear; it’s bound up with all the artistic mysteries of characterization. Still, let’s see if we can come up with useful help for those of us who want to keep getting better.
- I’ll always use the word “skill” rather than “talent” or “trait.” This reflects my belief that writing abilities are learnable, not innate gifts that you have or you haven’t. Cognitive psychology has been studying expert performance for decades, and has found little evidence for inborn talent. Instead, the people who do best in any field—from chess to sports, science, or music—are those who work hardest and smartest at getting good. We don’t need “gifts” to succeed; we can always improve with the right kind of practice.
- I recognize that certain skills are valued by some writers and not by others. For example, I love first-person viewpoint, especially when the narrator has a quirky tone of voice; I will definitely put that on my list of desirable skills. However, I’ve heard some writers call first-person “outdated” and “immature,” and I’ve heard readers say they want prose to be “as clear as glass,” with no “personality” intruding into “plain” descriptions. Fair enough… but since I’m aiming for the most complete list possible, I’d like to include skills that are valued by a significant percentage of writers/readers, even if those skills aren’t universally admired. (Hey, sf is a big genre—some people love when a book goes on for pages about a particular subject, while other people hate it. Whichever way our preferences lie, we may still be able to learn something valuable by looking at the skills involved.)
- I’d like us to chew on one area at a time. For example, in response to this particular blog entry, I don’t think it will be useful if commenters immediately try to make their own comprehensive lists of skills. Let’s keep our focus narrow, at least for the time being; let’s try for a little depth rather than broad shallow splats.
The Most Important Skill
So to kick off the discussion, here’s a question for commenters: What skill would you put at the top of the list? What’s the most important skill for a writer to have or develop?
Several answers leap to mind: discipline… curiosity… ambition… honesty… and of course, the ability to read voraciously. These are all crucial, but for the sake of discussion, let me offer something a little more unexpected. An sf writer must develop the capacity to respect and believe in imaginary things.
Look… we’re writing fiction. The people we’re writing about don’t exist. Our settings may also be fictitious. The events we describe may even be physically impossible. Yet we have to buy into them completely, or our stories will be dead on the page. If we don’t have belief and respect for what we’re doing, no other skill can compensate.
It’s a trick of doublethink: we know our characters aren’t real, and yet we have to feel they are. We must do our best to be true to them and portray them honestly. The same principle applies to the settings and events we deal with.
So how do we develop the ability to believe deeply in what’s not real? I suspect most of us have that skill already—if you’re reading a blog on sfnovelists.com, you’re probably drawn to sf and therefore to “unreal” things. Like Mulder, you want to believe.
But there are still ways to improve your connection with fictitious people, places, and things. How? This trick of doublethink is something actors do all the time: they have to invest themselves emotionally in the realness of their characters, while simultaneously reciting prepackaged speeches on an obviously artificial theater or movie set.
How do actors do this? To learn their techniques, why not read some books on acting, or even better, try some acting yourself? For reading, a good starting point might be A Practical Handbook for the Actor. However, there are plenty of acting-advice books out there; go to your library and see what you find.
To Infinity and Beyond
I now turn the floor over to you in the comments section: what do you think is the single most important skill for an sf writer? Let’s talk about that for a while, and next time we’ll move on to the lowest-level basics—vocabulary, grammar, and punctuation. (Ooo, I’m excited already!)
James Alan Gardner
James Alan Gardner got his M.Math from the University of Waterloo with a thesis on black holes...and then he immediately started writing science fiction instead. He's been a finalist for the Hugo and Nebula awards, and has won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award as well as the Aurora award (twice). He's published seven novels (beginning with "Expendable"), plus a short story collection and (for street cred) a Lara Croft book. He cares deeply about words and sentences, and is working his way up to paragraphs. Visit site.
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