Persistence – conquering story craft

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Persistence is key to learning. Don’t let difficulty defeat you!  Stubbornness and hard work combined will bring success. (The Wall Street bull, March 2014.)

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.

…No pressure.

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 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, 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 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 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!


The DIY-MFA: how thrifty writers can still further the craft

Reading Time: 5 minutes
Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Rodney Park - upstanding like I might be if a do a DIY-MFA
Raise your writing game to a pedestal with a DIY-MFA. This chap was an Air Chief Marshall, a title I quite fancy myself.   (Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park commanded RAF squadrons that defended London Luftwaffe attacks in 1940.)

I’ve been reading about the ‘DIY-MFA’ this week, and wondering if such a thing is achievable or worth it. An MFA (Master of Fine Arts) roughly translates, for those of us in the UK, as a PhD for the arts:  a degree-level period of study, based on two or more years of research, resulting in a final thesis and considered to be the highest level of study for a profession, allowing its graduates to teach.

In the US, a programme like this might cost $20,000/£18,000. You can see why people might want to skip that fee. So several alternatives have sprung up, for those working in the creative arts but wanting to take their craft further and deeper. The DIY-MFA idea has a website, a book, and now, new from Ninja Writers, a 1000-day-MFA community based on Ray Bradbury’s list of activities for learning to write well.

So what would that involve? Shaunta Grimes at Ninja Writers unpacks it like this – read a poem, a short story and an essay every day, and write a short story every week. That’s the Ray Bradbury prescription for improving your writing, by the way. Shaunta believes that 1000 days of focused study alongside finishing a work every single week for around three years, will have a huge positive impact on the quality of work produced. I agree – but while choosing stories to read might come naturally to writers – reading widely within your genre, for example, or breaking into works by authors with styles totally different to your own – choosing a worthwhile poem, or particularly, an essay to read, sounds daunting to me.

The Ninja Writers DIY-MFA also prescribes, in addition, reading a novel a week for novelists, AND 12 craft books a year. Yikes! That is a lot of reading, and could seriously eat into my writing time.

Or.. could it? I’m tempted by this challenge. The nerdy swot in me loves school and anything like school. I am the only person I know who enjoys exams. And what an achievement it would be, to have read 1000 poems, 1000 short stories and 1000 essays, and written around 150 short stories by the end.

How much time would it take, and where could I find that time? I instantly know the answer to this: no more facebook whatsoever. I already ditched Pinterest and Tumblr to get more reading and writing done (and it totally worked, by the way – those are time eaters). Do I spend an hour a day on my last remaining attention-guzzler? Hmmn. Maybe I do. An hour of extra reading a day would get the reading part done, but what about the writing?

I already watch less than an hour of TV a day, more like 40 minutes. I don’t commute, so there’s no usable time there. I try to go for a 20-minute walk after the school run when I’m at home – which translates as 20 minutes’ story ‘dream time.’ But to get words onto the page I need writing time. My current writing time is used for:

  • my WIP fantasy novel
  • my personal diary
  • my intermittent additions to a long-term work
  • this blog

I also spend at least an hour a week critiquing in my writing group.

My time is pressed, to say the least, because I also have a day job which involves UK-wide travel and frequent twelve hours days. I do get extra free time in hotels because I don’t have to do the school run, make dinner, do bedtime etc. Top writing tip: get an on the road job! So much thinking time and so much time in hotels with poor WiFi. It’s unbeatable for productivity.

So shall I do it? Perhaps I should take only the Ray Bradbury option and aim for a story a week. It would need to be a short story, in the flash fiction line – under 1000 words. But also … I actually would like to read a poem every day. And flash fiction doesn’t take long to read… And I already read or listen to a TED talk most days – I could swap that for an article from a journal. Or I could just count the TED talk as my essay, since they cover every topic. Yes!

Another swap or cheat is that I use the Google Newsstand app to read articles from news sources all over the world – probably half an hour a day over meals etc. So I could swap that for something worthy, for writing when I am sitting down somewhere, or as before, just consider that part of my essay diet.

Keener people might suggest that I gain writing time by using a dictation app to write whilst making dinner or going for my walk. But (contrary to appearances) I hate the sound of my own voice.  So that’s a non-starter. Probably. Maybe I should just get over myself. it might be brilliant. -For factual writing, anyway. I need to see the words on the page for fiction.

So I probably do have enough time for this. Next question: what to read? well, I could work my way through the Penguin Book of English Verse that I bought ten years ago. Or I could go to a website like and let it select my daily reading for me.

12 craft books is a challenge, though. Here’s my proposed list for 2017, or what I am already thinking of the first 300 of the 1000 days:

The True Secret of Writing: Connecting Life with Language, Natalie Goldberg

Zen in the Art of Writing, Ray Bradbury

Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every WriterRoy Peter Clark

5 Secrets of Story Structure: How to Write a Novel That Stands Out (Helping Writers Become Authors Book 6), K.M. Weiland

You Are a Writer (So Start Acting Like One)Jeff Goins

The War of Art, Steven Pressfield

On Writing, Stephen King

Published: The Proven Path From Blank Page to Published AuthorChandler Bolt

Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, Anne Lamott

Creating Imaginary Worlds: The Twelve Rules, Charles Christian

Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande

Story Genius, Lisa Cron

Save the Cat!, Blake Snyder

You may have spotted that there are 13 books on this list. I’m an optimist. Books like Goldberg’s, or Goins’, might be dipped into or re-read several times during the year. The DIY-MFA isn’t about speed reading, it’s about learning and growing.

So am I going to do it, some kind of weird hybrid DIY-MFA / self-improvement fest? I think I might. At the very least I’ll do the reading. And since you can’t learn writing without writing, I guess I’ll do that too. It looks like I’m in – perhaps for 2017, perhaps until 2020.

I have doubts about motivation and pace, and about my ability to select books which will truly push me as if I had oversight by a professor. How rigorous could a self-taught ‘degree’ truly be? But Ray Bradbury, and others learned on the job. They took it seriously and made sure they knew everything they could possibly learn about their genre, their predecessors and compatriots, the writing styles and shortcuts available. Bradbury never got a university degree in creative writing. With dedication, then, it is certainly possible to advance. That has to be worth something. And if I don’t read a total of 1000 poems, 1000 books or write 150 stories, then I’ll still be further on than I am now.

What are you doing to advance your craft? Are you following a formal programme, paid or unpaid? Have you signed up for any of the DIY-MFA programmes? Or do you just grab opportunities to learn as they arise? Let me know in the comments.