Stories are for readers. Stories are not for writers.
Readers read with their eyes and brains, but they experience story with their hearts.
The brain recognizes and interprets contrasts in sensory stimuli. The brain is an organ that has adapted to the task of recognizing patterns, recording experiences, and associating them with one another to increase chances for survival by creating meaning.
Right now, your brain is recognizing the contrast between the little black squiggles on this page and the white background. Moreover, your brain is grouping those squiggles into syllables and words. It is grouping the words into phrases, clauses, and sentences. In fact, it is also accumulating those sentences into a recognizable paragraph, which the brain will recognize as ending here because this line is followed by contrasting white space.
We all accept the above as true.
Recognizable patterns don’t end with the above. We can identify patterns of rhyme and meter in poetry. Alternatively, we can identify the absence of those patterns in poetry by comparing free verse to a sonnet. We can see rhetorical logic patterns in essays. Certainly, most of us had to try to see patterns in essays while taking composition classes. This all makes sense because all the forms discussed here are complex extensions of the original natural language—in the case of this manuscript in its original language, English.
Nobody argues that they should suddenly be recognized as brilliant in a new language just because they are trying to speak it for the first time.
People who are trying to learn a language they were not born to spend endless hours listening to audio presentations, repeating phrases, conjugating verbs, memorizing vocabulary, and generally isolating and practicing the structures of language. This practice is about internalizing the structures to develop facility in combining patterns in meaningful ways. This kind of hard work is the price we pay to do business or order drinks in another country.
As children, our brains are very good at the language learning trick. Until we are in our pre-teen years, our brains will adapt to (learn) another language just by hearing people speak it. The earlier we are exposed to a language, the faster we learn it.
However, the speed and nature of learning changes as we age. Adults must spend more time in formal study and practice if they want to achieve fluency.
Every adult who learns a new language embraces the hard work needed to achieve fluency in that language. Fluency in reading means instantly recognizing whatever groupings of little black squiggles the native users of the language have accepted as normal. Additionally, reading fluency means deriving meaning from the grouped patterns of squiggles.
Fluency in writing in a chosen language means quickly encoding thought into the little black squiggles and placing them on a contrasting background in a way that will be useful to the reader. Fluency also means doing this without having to carefully consider each and every squiggle.
Fluency is direct expression through the filters of the structure of the language without intermediate conscious consideration of that structure.
I am fluent in my native language, English. I don’t consciously think about subjects, verbs, and objects while I’m writing. I just write. Later, I may choose to apply conscious focus to the reorganization of my words, but that is not the norm during first composition.
Fiction Fluency Seminars are about writing fiction—about telling stories. Fiction Fluency Seminars help writers internalize dramatic patterns and practice techniques that will help them become fluent in the creation of story for the pleasure of their readers.
The seminars are based on three fundamental concepts:
  • You didn’t get a new brain because you are writing a story. Learning is your brain adapting to the performance of a task. Your brain works the same way when you learn to write stories as it does when you learn a new language. For that matter, learning to write stories is like any other kind of learning: learning a language, learning to ride a bike, learning to play an instrument, or learning to juggle.
  • Story on the page is a complex extension of natural language. Story has recognizable patterns that can be isolated and practiced until they are part of the writer in a way that allows the writer to express themselves through those patterns with little conscious effort.
  • Revision is for the benefit of the reader’s experience. Understanding patterns the reader uses to create their story experience allows revision techniques to be applied more efficiently and in ways that support the native imagination of the reader.
The first dismissal I hear from aspiring writers when I present the idea of story patterns along with these concepts is, “I want to write good fiction. I don’t want to write formulaic fiction.”
Does a sentence having a subject and verb in it limit your ability to create new sentences?
Of course not.
Does a painter who knows how to combine pigments feel limited by the fact that red and yellow are identifiable reflectors of specific wavelengths of light?
Of course not.
Does a pianist who practices three types of scales suddenly feel unable to compose original work because the notes of the scales appear in their compositions?
A recognizable pattern is only a constraint to an artist if they fail to understand it well enough to see its potential relationships to other recognizable patterns. In fact, pattern recognition is critical to the perception of and understanding of all art. Story is no different than music or painting in that regard.
The brain is a pattern matching system that makes associations. That means that the recognized patterns interact. The greater the artist’s sophistication in understanding and managing the patterns and the interacting effects they create, the greater the success of the piece in its impact on the reader.
The second objection I get has more variants. It goes something like this, “Writer X is a New York Times best-selling author. Writer X never studied these things. I read their book, and they say ‘just write.'”
Good for Writer X, but before we toss out this fluency idea, let’s look at a couple assumptions and writer X’s background.
The assumption is that popularity is the same as good craft. In fact, the statement above assumes that the New York Times list is an indicator of excellence. In fact, the Times list is an indication of orders placed by a very small set of booksellers, who, by the way, participate in the large publishing return system. That means they can order books and return them without risk. Hitting the list is certainly an achievement. Staying on it is a much more impressive achievement because staying on it means the books weren’t returned. However, assuming the Times list is an ultimate identifier of excellence leaves many, many amazing books out of the running and includes as excellent many, many books that fail on identifiable craft levels.
Now, let’s examine a second assumption. Is what you believe about Writer X true or marketing hype? How do you know?
Some of what we think we know about famous writers is apocryphal or even intentionally invented. Let’s make sure we have our facts straight before we base our lives on hearsay.
Keep in mind that what you believe about Writer X may have been designed to make you feel good about buying a book about writing.
Many writing books are marketed because they sound to beginning writers like the contents should be true and useful. Consider that the how-to write market of beginning, naïve writers is much larger than the market of developed, accomplished writers. If you want to make money, which group do you target for a how-to book sale?
One editor for a publisher of many, many how-to write books once asked me to write for them. They said, and I saved that email so I could prove it if I ever had to, “We need the book to be written in a way that lets people read it five-minute chunks while in the bathroom.” My response was not as positive as they had hoped. I believe people who really want to learn to write also want something a bit more useful than a distraction while sitting on the toilet. I also believe dedicated writers have longer attention spans.
Now, let’s look at the just write concept. If Writer X really does “just write,” aren’t you saying that they are fluent in story? If they do advocate “just writing” in order to be authentic and produce powerful stories, and some writers do advocate that and engage in that practice successfully, then take a close look at their lives. Often, you’ll discover one, and often more than one, of three things.
  1. They started telling or writing stories when they were very young.
  2. They spent many thousands of hours writing stories in order to become fluent.
  3. They spent a lot more time reading or listening to stories than most people ever do.
In other words, they acquired their fluency in the complex structures of language we call story early in life or through practice.
Sometimes, writers who “just write” have forgotten that they didn’t always have fluency. They want the best for aspiring writers, so they try to save students time by teaching the thing they have come to believe works for them. They are honest. They are trying to save the aspiring writer time and pain. Unfortunately, the teaching writer may have forgotten that their fluency required a long process of practice, trial, and error. They had to take intermediate steps to become fluent. When they teach, the intermediate steps of their own learning get lost, and the aspiring writer becomes frustrated by the inability to make the leap from where they are to where the teacher is telling them to be.
The fastest path for adults is to recognize that we have the same brain we had before we started writing fiction and to take advantage of that fact instead of trying to circumvent it.
In order to internalize patterns so we can fluently combine them into the stories we want to tell, we must first recognize those patterns. Then, we must practice them and practice combining them with one another in ways that create specific effects in the minds and hearts of our readers.
In my fiction writing, I have one rule. It is my only rule. To serve my single rule, I constantly seek, learn, and practice new patterns that can be recognized in the complex extension of language we call story.
My only rule, Rule #1, is:
Affect the emotions of the reader.
I have many techniques for serving Rule #1. Technique is learned. Well-learned technique becomes a filter through which we express thought and emotion. When our technique becomes second nature, we no longer need to think about it to express ourselves. We are fluent.
It is my greatest hope that the Fiction Fluency Seminars will help you become fluent expressing written story so your stories can touch the hearts of your readers.
— Eric Witchey