James Patterson vs. Zadie Smith: How do you teach craft?

I’ve been listening to a lot of “how to”s lately—from authors as disparate as James Patterson and Zadie Smith.  One of Patterson’s commandments is to never start without an outline. The outline, Patterson believes, is critical because it allows you to evaluate the story as a story. It saves you from investing good writing in a story that doesn’t work and that you have to then go back and unpick—or worse, that you are unwilling to unpick because too much has been invested. Once established, the outline gives you a skeleton on which to hang your drafts. Drafts, plural: the first a sketch to get the story told; each subsequent draft a layering of sinew and muscle.

Smith has never used an outline in her life. In her article, That Crafty Feeling, she admits that she starts without having any idea where the story is going. But what the story will become, she believes, is in the tone, in the atmosphere, in the metaphysics of that first line. She will try out first lines until she finds one that has enough soul to birth a story. She labors over every sentence as that story unfolds, until a particular sentence tells her that she’s come to the end, and—that’s it. She lies down with a bottle of sancerre. She is a one-draft writer.

Such opposite views on something as straightforward (you’d think) as whether or not to outline poses a dilemma. How do you teach or learn how to write when nobody can agree on how it should be done?

Being someone who both writes and paints, I always find it helpful to think of writing as painting. “How one should paint” is not very valuable. What made many great painters great is that they painted in ways that they should not have. The impressionists and what they did with light and paint surface, we all know. And then came Lautrec, cropping in on his subjects, leaving us with just an elbow or an ear. Or Van Gogh, squeezing the yellow onto his canvas directly from the tube. Think of the fauvists with their unnatural colors that somehow make sense—so much sense that I can no longer see how once they did not and were thought offensive.  Think of every great painter afterwards. We never went back to Ingres, although I love him too.

What is useful to learn when painting is how to choose a brush…how to choose your medium…what different substrates will do for you. Techniques are useful too. If you know what can be achieved by layering, you can decide whether or not to use it. If you learn what is wonderful about painting wet-on-wet…well, you might well fall in love. And there are rules you should know if only to break them: how perspective works; how to evaluate balance; how to vary tone so that the whole thing doesn’t turn into dense mud.

This summer, I’m giving a course of five workshops, each focused on a different craft. Writers’ exercises are invaluable, I think, and something we rarely allow ourselves unless we’re in a group. When was the last time you sat down and wrote to a prompt by yourself? The thinking is, if I’m all alone and I have time to write, I should be working on the real stuff. But think how much comes out of every writing exercise. I’ve been teaching for four years now, and it amazes me every time.

In painting terms, we’ll be creating five different canvases, one a week, each one exploring a few new techniques: Ideation/Breaking the Block; Creating Complex and Compelling Characters; A World of Your Own; The Many Ways of Showing; Great Abs for Your Novel. They’ll be sketches—quick and fun—but I’m sure they’ll result in new brush strokes and color combinations that can be applied to any master piece.

In the mean time, here is the best how-to-write I’ve come across:

I dream of painting and then I paint my dream.
— Vincent Van Gogh

Happy writing!