Can you think a good book?

That’s a serious question.

I’m pondering it because of the explosion of writerly advice that crops up all over the intertubes these days.

Like this piece, which has a lot to offer, don’t get me wrong.

And goodness knows craft is important.

But I wonder sometimes.

For the first couple hundred years after the birth of “the novel,” writers didn’t worry about things like “structure.” Yet they managed to turn out very nice books.


Okay, devil’s advocate. Maybe only *some* of them turned out very nice books. Maybe I don’t realize how many terrible novels were written by contemporaries of Fielding and Tolstoy and Dostoevski and James and Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Maybe there were hundreds or thousands of self-pubbed novels along the way that were such crap it was good riddance to them the second they were forgotten.

But that still doesn’t explain how someone working with pen and paper or typewriter could turn out an Anna Karenina or Great Gatsby without first having consumed a library’s worth of books on the craft of writing.

How could that happen?

Well. Maybe it has to do with oral story-telling.

Maybe great writers — in the classical sense — are (were?) actually great listeners. And I mean listening in the sense of paying attention to how how language — and more specifically story-telling — affects other people.

Can you tell, when you’re relating something that happened to you while you were at the grocery store last week, when your audience has begun to lose interest?

(Ooh, I hope so!)

It doesn’t have to be when you tell a story in the formal sense. We all constantly narrate our lives to other people. We’re constantly telling stories. When someone asks you how you’re doing, and you say, “I think I’m coming down with a cold,” you’re telling a story. A very dull story incidentally. Please spice it up next time. Give your story some structure!

I was about to walk out the door when my neighbor — you know, the one who can’t afford a car so she rides that ridiculous power scooter everywhere — asked me to look after her kid (again? are you kidding me???)  — five minutes she said, right, it was more like an hour, and the kid has this horrific cold, she soaked a box and a half of Kleenex easily before mom toodled back up on her scooter again, and of course three days later I wake up all stuffy, fever of a hundred and two, omg, please bring soup!

But that’s not all. If at any point during your tale about your self-centered neighbor and her snot-nosed urchin you notice your audience’s attention is starting to wane — you edit. Immediately. On the spot.

I was about to walk out the door when my neighbor — you know, the one who can’t afford a car so she rides that ridiculous power scooter everywhere — asked me to look after her kid (again? are you kidding me???) — well long story short, the kid had a cold, gave it to me, I’m miserable, please bring soup!

We’d get a lot closer to spinning good stories on paper if we paid attention to how our stories hold people’s attention when we spin stories orally.

So yeah. I think there was a time when writers honed the aspect of the craft we now label with words like “structure” by telling stories — or more specifically, by paying attention to the way people react as they listen to stories.

Tell you something else. When writers began to play with the novel as if it were a painting — moving words around as if they were objects, rather than written versions of oral language — and in that way devised what in its most extreme form we’d call experimental fiction, they began to separate the novel from the connection it once had with with oral story telling.

It amounted to a distortion, of course. So maybe one reason some people need to study “craft,” now, is because the “the novel” became so distorted that post mid 20th century writers are . . . not ignorant, exactly, but maybe the connection of the novel to oral story telling isn’t as obvious to writers today as it once was, and as it needs to be.

I’m not sure, however, that this is something that can be taught from the head. Which gets back, finally, to the title of this post. The ability to pick up on the non-verbal signals people give off, when they’re listening to a story, is not something you do with your intellect.

It’s something you do with your whole self — your body, your heart.

Imposing rules on a novel via your head might result in a novel that is well-thought-out.

But is that the same as “good”?

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