by | March 21, 2013 | General | 13 comments

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
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

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.

Lisabet Sarai

Sex and writing. I think I've always been fascinated by both. Freud was right. I definitely remember feelings that I now recognize as sexual, long before I reached puberty. I was horny before I knew what that meant. My teens and twenties I spent in a hormone-induced haze, perpetually "in love" with someone (sometimes more than one someone). I still recall the moment of enlightenment, in high school, when I realized that I could say "yes" to sexual exploration, even though society told me to say no. Despite being a shy egghead with world-class myopia who thought she was fat, I had managed to accumulate a pretty wide range of sexual experience by the time I got married. And I'm happy to report that, thanks to my husband's open mind and naughty imagination, my sexual adventures didn't end at that point! Meanwhile, I was born writing. Okay, that's a bit of an exaggeration, though according to family apocrypha, I was talking at six months. Certainly, I started writing as soon as I learned how to form the letters. I penned my first poem when I was seven. While I was in elementary school I wrote more poetry, stories, at least two plays (one about the Beatles and one about the Goldwater-Johnson presidential contest, believe it or not), and a survival manual for Martians (really). I continued to write my way through high school, college, and grad school, mostly angst-ridden poems about love and desire, although I also remember working on a ghost story/romance novel (wish I could find that now). I've written song lyrics, meeting minutes, marketing copy, software manuals, research reports, a cookbook, a self-help book, and a five hundred page dissertation. For years, I wrote erotic stories and kinky fantasies for myself and for lovers' entertainment. I never considered trying to publish my work until I picked up a copy of Portia da Costa's Black Lace classic Gemini Heat while sojourning in Istanbul. My first reaction was "Wow!". It was possibly the most arousing thing I'd ever read, intelligent, articulate, diverse and wonderfully transgressive. My second reaction was, "I'll bet I could write a book like that." I wrote the first three chapters of Raw Silk and submitted a proposal to Black Lace, almost on a lark. I was astonished when they accepted it. The book was published in April 1999, and all at once, I was an official erotic author. A lot has changed since my Black Lace days. But I still get a thrill from writing erotica. It's a never-ending challenge, trying to capture the emotional complexities of a sexual encounter. I'm far less interested in what happens to my characters' bodies than in what goes on in their heads.


  1. Annabeth Leong

    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. Kathleen Bradean

    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. Remittance Girl

    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. vbonnaire

    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. Lisabet Sarai

    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. Lisabet Sarai

    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. Lisabet Sarai

    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. Lisabet Sarai

    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. Fiona McGier

    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. Kathryn Scannell

    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. Lisabet Sarai

    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. Lisabet Sarai

    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. Garceus


    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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