McKee on Story, and the nature vs nurture argument about writing courses

Robert McKee Story seminarI attended Robert McKee’s seminar on thriller writing recently. It was a revealing event: an entire cinema packed with writers chasing insight into how to write a thriller. It was a microcosm of just how booming the writing industry is, fuelled in part by the opening of the self-publishing market due to affordable and relatively easy ebook and POD technologies. I don’t really think of the other bodies in the room as competitors, just contemporaries: I’m a big believer in the phenomenon in the writing industry perhaps best epitomised by the Amazon button that says if you liked this book, you might also like …

But there I was, me and my contemporaries, for a very long day, receiving a summary of the various styles of thriller, the identifying qualities of same, and then the nitty gritty: component parts, structure, conflict and, perhaps most usefully, the idea of switching positive-negative valencies within each scene, sequence and act.

McKee is famed for his book Story and the seminar industry he’s spun out of it, and I got a lot out of the day (Ellen Gregory provides a handy summary in a series of blog posts). The physical seminar was easier to digest than the written work, I found; McKee’s focus is on screenwriting, but the basics apply equally as well to literature. I was mentally checking off, and occasionally wincing, as McKee unfolded his theories (Se7en was his case study). Anything that makes you look at your process, at the components of your craft, that helps you hone your skills, is valuable: up to a point. You still have to write the damn story. And you still have to have a story worth writing. Ah, now there’s the rub.

Cameron Rogers gives the McKee school of writing class a serve, while finding useful insight in the simple three-act scenario of Lennon and Garant: put a likeable person up a tree; throw rocks at them; get them down from the tree. I like that.

(I’ve only recently discovered Cam’s blog: it’s a time-killer, both erudite and fun with far too many interesting YouTube clips. And, god, Music of Razors is still on the Shelf of Woe, waiting for that heady day when I get to that to-read pile.)

Which suggests, courses for horses. But can ‘writing’ be taught?

As Dmetri Kakmi wrote in a recent defence of writing as vocation, there’s a school of thought that says everyone has a novel in them — which is probably true in terms of content. But perhaps not everyone, even with a McKee seminar and a couple of handy books (I favour Stephen King’s On Writing as an inspirational text) on the desk, is capable of delivering that story in an effective and engaging way.

While I’ve learnt a lot from writing courses — I wish I’d done my Year of the Novel with Kim Wilkins a decade earlier, when I first seriously turned my hand to getting a novel written and having it published (and being paid for it, damn it!) — I like to think, in line with Dmetri’s ‘rant’, that there is a talent as well as a skill. I think the skill can be honed; I think the talent comes from prolific reading, exercising of imagination and curiosity about the human condition. If talent is a pool of creative lava, then a writing course — the right writing course — might help channel that lava into a fruitful channel. No burnt fingers, no gelatinous puddle. There are plenty of good ideas out there, but good ideas well crafted, well, that’s another story.

I’ve read a bunch of yarns that have plenty of spirit, but are let down by deficient craft. I’ve read even more than have a modicum of craft, but little spirit. It’s where craft and spirit combine that we get that story that sticks: the one we have to tell all our friends about.

Dmetri says if you have to ask if you’ve got what it takes, you don’t; I think we prove it to ourselves every time we choose the keyboard over the sunshine, or at least, we test ourselves along those lines. Writers are, by nature, by and large, insecure creatures: as with any artist, their passion is placed in the public arena and invites both the brickbats and bouquets. Do I have what it takes — to get to the end? To sell this story? To make a reader give a damn?

At the end of the day, we’re writing to our own standard. Some folks will be happy to just sell a story to any market, paying or otherwise. The byline is enough. Others want cash up front as recompense for all the days of sunshine they’ve missed out on. Some churn out plastic, others are artists; sometimes, both might make a living out of it. Some have quantitative goals: units sold, cash earned. Others, a qualitative goal: to write as well as their hero, or to write an award-winning work.

We set our own benchmarks and I’m in no position to rank them, but I do set a base level of competence for someone calling themselves a writer: respect for the words, respect for the language. You don’t have to be an uber stylist but at least know where to put the full points. At least know what the words mean. And readers should be discerning on this. A 99c price tag, not even a free download, should excuse abuse of language. Incompetence and willful ignorance should never be excused.

King talks about his ideal reader, and I think that’s part of the benchmark. Who do we want to impress with this story? Who will we hold our breath for, while we wait for the shake or the nod?

I’m glad I did the McKee seminar; I enjoyed the lens his observations brought to my appreciation of my work. But I still have to apply the lessons learnt. And I still have to answer the question: do I have what it takes? No amount of courses is going to solve that riddle; that one is answered only in the doing.