What do people want? “A good story.” How do we know? People can barely say anything else. When editors describe the sort of material they’re looking to acquire, they want “a good story.” Readers are always on the hunt for “a good story.” Good stories are also useful for shutting down a variety of discussions. Are there not enough women being published, or people of color? Who cares who the author is, so long as he or she writes a good story? Can writers do different things with their stories—create new points of view, structure words on the page differently, work to achieve certain effects not easily accessible with more common presentations? Why bother—a good story is the only important thing.
Now, when some people talk about a good story they mean a good reading experience. A good reading experience doesn’t necessarily involve a story at all. But many people, when they say a good story, mean a good plot, and want all the other elements of fiction subsumed to the plot. And not just any old plot, but the plot as detailed in the famous triangle of that old anti-Semite Gustav Freytag. (The anti-Semitism is why he’s pretty much known for his geometry rather than his creative writing, these days.) Rising action caused by a sequence of attempts and failures, while concurrently a set of revelations slowly illuminate the original cause of the dramatic action. Then there’s a climax, and a brief unwinding of the emotional tension caused by the conflict’s resolution.
Writing is often described as a craft, and usually in counterposition to art. In the Romantic Era, art was seen as the precinct of special, sensitive people, who were inspired by a Muse. Craft, on the other hand, involved practice, tradition, and the perfection of skills. Today, professional writers are almost a single mind—writing is a craft, not an art.
There are a few good reasons to ally with craft. Writing is hard work, and revision thankless. Yet, plenty of non-writers just imagine writers “being creative” and generating stories. Then the money flows on in. Writing skills can be learned, though mostly just by reading widely, and so it has a lot in common with other crafts. Practice makes…improvement. (Not perfect.) Then there’s the publishing aspect. Writers take assignments, write to certain themes or lengths, and many pride themselves on their ability to write anything.
Behaving in a professional manner, for writers, is really quite easy. Professional behavior basically means writing publishable work, meeting deadlines, not plagiarizing, and not libeling anyone with one’s work. The problem with discussions of professional behavior is that this brief list really is pretty much it, and if one is not yet writing publishable work then none of the rest matters. Well, that’s no way to become a publishing guru, or to sell aspiring writers all sorts of goods and services! And so was born “professionalism” which is running especially rampant in the field of science fiction and fantasy.
Professionalism is a complex of supposedly mandatory and proscribed behaviors that makes a writer “professional” regardless of their ability to write interesting material. Recently, at a science fiction convention I met a former student of mine, and he was very concerned about…his blog. Which he does not have. He was told, however, that today professional writers must all blog, but that these blogs must not offer up controversial political opinions, or negative reviews of popular books, or “ruffle feathers.” Everything must be “politically correct” he believed—to use that famously meaningless term I try so hard to get my students to stop using. I’d told the class Ronald Sukenick’s famous dictum, Use your imagination, or someone else will use it for you over and over. Maybe one day it’ll stick. So, what to blog about? he wondered. What does a professional blog look like, and how does it lead to publishing deals? I recommended that he concentrate on finishing his book first, and making sure it was as good as it could be.