I’ve been teaching myself SQL – Structured Query Language, for databases – this week, because I have to give a training course on it next week. I’ve become fairly familiar with creating some queries with SQL (which I now pronounce ‘sequel’ like the guys in my technical team do) over the last couple of years. I can muddle through. But if I needed to join tables together, I turned to the SQL experts in my team, to take over. I had no motivation for persistence. SQL wasn’t part of my job, so I could reasonably ask others for help. But now it is part of my job. I need to be able to help other people use it. And the people I’ll be training are my peers, in the new team I’ve just transferred to. These people are experts, not perhaps in SQL, but they are consultants with years of experience in complex systems and high-stakes customer situations. I know from our previous training sessions that they will ask a lot of hard questions.
This SQL business is a little like my situation right now with story structure. I’ve been learning about it for about nine months. Prior to that, everything I knew was based on my instincts as a writer, and of course, as a lifelong reader of stories. So I set out to improve my understanding of structure, because I wanted to measure my own stories against some well-tested methods.
But it was hard. The terminology slid away from me on the page. Threshold. Pinch point. Door of no return. Second plot point. What? I couldn’t hold an entire structure in my head. It all just meant nothing to me.
This was annoying. Because… Well.
I like to think I’m not stupid. Back in the mists of time, I gained a first class honours degree, which I hoped might mean something about my ability to learn and apply new information. But this story structure stuff had simply not sunk in. I could appreciate it at an academic level. But I just didn’t care. I didn’t feel it, as the kids may, or may not, say. And I was doing OK without it. I had no motivation for persistence.
Back to SQL. Derived tables and hand-typed code are way outside my comfort zone. I’m an experienced report writer in my day job, using various software tools, but I never needed to do it this way, line by painstaking line. Every bit must be right or the query won’t run and you get a red warning message. ‘Syntax error near AND.’ What do you mean, ‘near’? How near? Where?
But having agreed to deliver this training, I have to do it. And because it is for my brilliant colleagues, I do not have the luxury of screwing it up. So I have knuckled down and read the books and typed out the code by hand and forced myself to learn SQL bit by tiny bit.
And gradually, over about three weeks, it has become easier. I have been writing a little more of the course every day. Yesterday I typed out an entire SQL statement to achieve a reporting goal, by hand, and it made sense to me and ran without errors and it brought back the data I was expecting.
I still have a lot to learn. I’ll probably never reach the point where I have twenty possible solutions in my head for SQL, the way I do for my usual day job software. But I’m confident in the basic functions. Persistence paid off.
The same must now apply to my knowledge of story structure. I need persistence. I need to knuckle down, study (again) the books I bought about it, buy some more books, and apply what I read. I can’t just wait for a structural edit to sort out the issues.
I have to figure it out for myself.
At uni I found story analysis hard. I had only ever read for pleasure, but suddenly I had to unpick the classics using all the weird ways my tutors showed me, and then apply that methodology to any story they named.
I hated it. I had a massive blindspot to identifying story elements. I knew what worked for me as a reader and what didn’t, and could point to it and describe it in my own terms. But to deconstruct a story in the ways my tutors wanted, was anathema to me.
Also, as far as I was concerned, an author does not necessarily mean something by including a yellow curtain in a scene instead of a blue one, or blinds. Nor did I think that a story’s plot must reflect the author’s stance on the global position of women, or reveal something about sexuality. But I persisted. I learned the wretched Structuralism and Postmodernism and I applied it to Jane Eyre and Miss Marple. I got the grades and I passed my degree. Woohoo.
It was six years after graduation before I read a book with any real pleasure.
Nonetheless, with persistence I conquered my blindspot, and my SQL ineptitude, and I will not allow story structure, which is only another academic exercise, to defeat me.
So I will return to my reading list, some of it from last year, some of it new, and work through it, making notes and applying the new ideas as I go, like I did with the SQL, like I did to get my degree. Because my writing is not worth less than that.
DIY-MFA update. (If you don’t know what I’m on about with this ‘DIY-MFA’, click here.) I started this self-imposed writing-improvement program three weeks ago. I am writing 500 words a day of fiction prose, poetry, blog, memoir or my various works in progress. I am reading a poem every day at poems.com and absolutely loving it. How have I left poetry out of my life for so long? I feel fifteen again. I’ve not done so well on the fiction front – I have read several short stories, but not one per day. I have been studying the writing craft, as detailed above.
I’ve read newspaper article and online articles as substitutes for the ‘essay’ part of the MFA requirements. And thanks to joining two new writing communities, fanstory.com and a Facebook group for flash fiction writers, I’m writing several very short stories every week. I’ve even written a few poems and entered one in a fanstory.com member contest, where it’s received some good reviews. I’ve submitted a story to a small zine and am looking for other outlets.
I’ve also joined two other Facebook groups and become a Patreon supporter for Ninja Writers, because its founder Shaunta inspired this DIY-MFA drive. Those three new groups have given me some great interactions already. There are a lot of us writers out there!
So after just a fortnight, I’m seeing the benefits of conscious self-improvement. I’m reading so much more and trying even harder than usual to squeeze in writing time. What I now need is to create a better record of my exact activities. I’ll work out a method and share that with you soon. Meanwhile, I recommend this endeavour to anyone – and if you want a more formal arrangement and some accountability, check out whatisaplot.com to sign up for Shaunta’s own DIY-MFA program.
What have you learned, or tried to learn, lately? How have you succeeded (or not)? Let me know in the comments!