The Growth of Craft

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I, like everyone else, am many things. I have a bunch of different hats, titles I bear, and they change depending on where I am standing and who is looking at me at any given time.

My kid calls me Dad. My Dad, despite the fact I’ve been bigger than him since I was 16, still calls me Squirt. The people who work for me call me Corporal, while my boss calls me a “Massive Pain in the Ass.” My friends call me “Ty”, or “I can’t believe you just did that,” and my wife, occasionally calls me Jackass, depending on what I’ve done.

No matter what title is given me by the various people in my life, there is one thing I know I am:

A Storyteller.

With equal clarity I know there is one thing I most certainly am not:

An Educated Man.

Despite the fact that I have a book published by a legitimate publishing house, and have actually won short story contests and been paid for my work, I have literally zero university level education concerning composition or creative writing. Before I joined “the Force” I was roughly half way to an English Literature degree with a small university, which provides only with the ability to analyse someone else’s work (in my case, incorrectly) and not to create any of your own.

All of my formal writing training has come from one source: the Surrey International Writer’s Conference (

I had been hammering away at a story – a truly horrid High Fantasy tale which has not, and never will see the light of day – for over a year when I first walked through the doors of the Guildford Sheraton hotel in Surrey, British Columbia, for the first time in 2007. Like every beginning writer I thought everything I’d produced was pure gold, and I gripped my 120,000 some odd words of ridiculousness like a proud parent and showed it to everyone who would sit still long enough. Through the haze of my own perceived awesomness I could not see that the smiles I got were forced and the stupidity written upon the pages I had in my hand was making people uncomfortable.

Included in the cost of registration at the conference is something called ‘The Blue Pencil Cafe.’ During this appointment you get 15 minutes with an established writer of your choice; one of the presenters at the conference. You present this writer with 3 pages of your work, they read it, and then help you improve your craft. I had managed to get in with Jack Whyte, who I had been reading since high school and held in very high regard.

I sat down in front of Jack, a gigantic grin on my face, and handed him the first three pages of my story, expecting him to read it, jump up and down, and proclaim my brilliance to anyone who could hear his shouting.

This, as you might imagine, did not happen.

Jack read the first few paragraphs of my story, looked up at me, looked back at the page, and then sighed heavily. Without finishing the three pages he put them down and folded his hands on top of them. “Tell me about your story,” he said, instead of reading the rest of my three pages.

I, of course, launched into an enthusiastic explanation of my story idea, making wild hand gestures and fighting the urge to get out of my chair and act out some of the more interesting scenes. When I was done, Jack nodded. “You’ve got a good idea for a story,” he told me. “But you’ve got no idea how to tell it. If you want to be a storyteller, you’ve got to learn the language.”

I was crestfallen, my delusions of grandeur having been ripped apart and tossed about by a scottish man in a wool sweater. My misery was diminished, however, when Jack pushed my three pages aside, and tapped the notebook I’d brought with me with one finger, then handed me a pen. For the next eleven minutes I jotted down point form notes as Jack told me what I needed to do to become a storyteller.

He set me a number of tasks: writing exercises, books I was to read, lessons I was to learn. “Once you learn the craft of writing,” he told me, “you’ll be able to tell your story.”

His words in my ears I went through the rest of the conference that year, sponging up every piece of information and advice that was presented to me. I realized, also, during those workshops another very important thing: I was not alone.

All around me was a legion of beginning (and veteran) storytellers who had all come to this conference in efforts to improve their craft. These people were all rowing in the same boat I was in (although some, admittedly, were rowing in wrong direction and crashing themselves upon a set of very pointy rocks). There was absolutely no adversarial feeling in any of those rooms; everyone there wanted everyone else to succeed, and to tell a better story.

With new advice, and new friendships, I went away that year and started working my furry ass off. I wrote, and edited, and read, and wrote, and read some more. I kept in touch with the friends I’d made and shared ideas, constructive criticism, and support. I wrote a lot, and I felt like a writer, and it was good.

The next year, at the conference, I completed and submitted a short story to the Storyteller’s Contest. The year after, I submitted a story and it got short listed. The year after that, I submitted a story, and it won first runner up. I was able to stand up in front of the conference, with Jack Whyte, and receive a cheque, the first time I’d ever been paid for writing, and also recieve the good will and congratulations of a group of people who shared several of my dreams and goals, and wished me nothing but the best.

Every year I’ve gone back to that conference I have learned something new and left the hotel a better storyteller. Every year I’ve made new friends, developed new contacts, and expanded my network of likeminded writers.

I am a firm believer that good writers are made, not born, and you don’t have to go to university for four years, wear a tweet jacket with elbow patches, and say ‘Speculative Fiction’ as though it were a dirty word to do it.

If you’re willing to work at it, you can learn the craft of writing and become a better storyteller, and there are plenty of people who will, very enthusiastically, help you do it.

The Surrey International Writers Conference might not be a possibility for you, but I’m willing to bet there are conferences and festivals held locally, where ever you are, that will help you along your way. I whole-heartedly encourage you to seek these things out, pay attention, and learn the craft of writing.

You just have to be willing to set your delusions aside and get busy.

It worked for me, and it’ll work for you.