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Why Writing Lessons and Workshops Aren’t Enough

Writing Equipment and Bike Shops Aren’t Enough

Kyle DeWaal gave a speech during the 2013 Summer Workshop, challenging the members of the extended OYAN (The One Year Adventure Novel) community to put their gifts and training to use. It was so provoking we asked him for a written version we could post here for those of you who didn’t get to hear it (and everyone who needs reminding again!).

So, without further ado, Kyle:

A Story
Once upon a time, in a land populated with writers and critiquers (read: the OYAN forum) everyone was gearing up for the OYAN contest deadline. The year before our story takes place I had won 2nd prize, so it didn’t come as a huge surprise when people started asking me for advice. What did shock me was a question I got one night:

What was the balance of plot, character and emotion in your novel?

How do you wrangle with a question like that? It made writing into chemistry. “Well, mix two parts character with one part plot and distill until emotion appears on the surface”? Was that really going to be helpful to anyone? So I just sort of stared at my screen.

“That’s a bit of a long answer,” I typed.

They said they had time.

“Just read the book.”

I was trying to be witty, snarky. But was that all? Because a desire to be funny wasn’t the reason I answered like that, which is probably why I remember this story. Because while it was easier to be dismissive and rude than to write at length, the real reason I answered like that was that the question scared me. It made me think someone had uncovered my deepest, darkest secret. Which is…

I Don’t Know How to Write a Novel

Let me illustrate: One night after I finished the rough draft of my first book I pounded questions into Google.

“How to edit novel.”

“How to revise novel.”

“How to turn meaningless piles of words into novel.” (Side note: there isn’t a ton of useful information in that search.)

What made me go on that hunt is, if my guess is accurate, also what prompted my fellow OYANer to ask that question about novel chemistry. We went in search of answers because, at the time, neither of us knew:

No one else can make you a better writer.

Confused? Maybe a metaphor can help:

I love biking. It’s one of those things I look forward to every summer. And I’m pretty good too. But the thing is, if you stopped me at the top of a hill and asked, “How do you do that?” the only response you would get is “Urrrr.”

But imagine I detailed how to use every single muscle, warned you about every root and tree, described the consistency of the dirt and mud and clay. Even after gaining all that info, would you suddenly possess my skill?

It’s not about facts and figures. It’s about memorizing knowledge in every muscle and tendon. It has to be instinct. If you only know how to ride a bike conceptually, you can’t ride.

Make sense?

The same can be said of writing. You can read a dozen books about how to develop sympathetic, complex characters and your characters might still feel flat. The gripping plot you detail in your outline according to every trick in the books, might turn out a touch on the dull side.

But there is a point to being a student.

For instance, I’ve been in and out of bike shops. I’ve seen all sorts of wear and tear. Chains snap, brakes need to be replaced—you get the picture. I haul my bike into a shop and they pick apart what’s broken, fix it and throw it back together. When I walk out, I am better equipped to bike. But I’m not, magically, a better biker.

It’s the same with writing. The really awesome community OYAN offers is perfectly set up to check your brakes, align your gears, and supply you a new helmet so you can hit the hills all over again. But you can take a perfectly tuned bike back home and let it gather dust, and it does no good for you. For your time on the forum and in workshops to have value, you have to practice. You have to get out there and ride.

It’s like Mister Rogers said. “It’s not so much what we have in life that matters, it is what we do with what we have.”

Every book is a combination of 26 letters. Every movie is three colors plus a bunch of sound. But look what writers and artists do with that!

And look at the OYAN equipment!

Not to brag, but we have better “equipment” than writers have had in any other time in history. We have access to thousands of kids on a writing forum who talk about their craft. We can write without worrying about wasting ink or paper. None of us have needed to go searching for a patron.

I honestly believe that each and every one of us sees something in this world that we want to change. We all have an ache for something inside us. And we want to use our gifts to bring transformation.

So what’s stopping us?

I mean, seriously, we have magic on our side. I put squiggles of ink on a page and pixels on a screen and someone across the world sees a picture in their head. How is that not magic?

We don’t just create thoughts, we create feelings. We’re not limited to creating sensation, we transmit emotion. Our powers aren’t limited to changing how people think! We can change how they feel. We change minds and hearts. With this ability, we have the power to change the world.

We’re not here to be a lantern under a basket or a community behind a fence. Even if you don’t write, if that just isn’t your thing, we still have the ability to use this community for something. But it takes work. It takes practice. Because no one will notice our efforts unless we’re really good at what we do.

So what’s stopping you?

About Kyle

Kyle de Waal is a long-time OYANer and veteran contest submitter. When his college and work schedules allow, he contrives mysteries and tries to pin them down and transform them into novels. If new ideas aren’t vying for his attention, his lengthy superhero novel is always waiting to soak up his time like a sponge. Kyle is working towards a major in English, but he dreams of adding a minor in Greek and Roman Studies, his second academic passion.

Those of you who are on the OYAN student forum, can find his contest-winning novel, Project Theta, in the 2011 contest showcase.

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