Thursday, October 7, 2010

Student writing problems

Nothing to do with this post, but I just wanted to share this photo of my team, the S.F. Giants winning the NL West Division Title. This is Buster Posey rounding the bases after his home run. You know--the Buster Posey who deserves to be named Rookie of the Year... Go Giants!

Hi folks,
Thought I’d address some writing issues today. A student of mine has been undergoing a tough time trying to nail her novel opening and contacted me about her problems. I think what she’s going through is fairly common among beginning writers, so I thought perhaps seeing our exchange might be beneficial to others who face the same problems. I’ll call her “Suzy” below.

Suzy: I’m taking a week off from class in an effort to re-group and find a way to attack this thing (inciting incident) from a different angle.
Les: Sometimes, that’s a good idea. To just step back, take a deep breath, and recharge your batteries for a new perspective.
Suzy: Quite frankly, I seriously considered just dropping the class… too bad I’m not a quitter.
Les: I’m glad you’re not a quitter, too, Suzy. And, you aren’t. Quitting is the single biggest reason people never become writers. It’s a tough craft and there’s no place in it for wimps. Good on you! There’s an axiom in writing—if anyone can convince a writer he or she can’t write, then that person was never going to be a writer anyway. It’s extremely difficult to write well, which is why so few, comparatively, ever get published. Why self-publishing is becoming so big—there’s not much talent or hard work involved. What most of these folks are doing isn’t writing—it’s typing. We find ourselves in an instant gratification society where people don’t expect to have to work very hard to find success—the feeling is that they’re “entitled” to success.
A well-known agent recently posed a question on his blog as to whether or not his readers would consider self-publishing. Some of the comments were instructive. One guy said that he wouldn’t consider anything but self-publishing. That publishers never appreciated his excellent writing, etc. Only problem was his post was full of misspellings and syntax errors. Perhaps his “excellent” writing didn’t include spelling, punctuation and grammar as necessary elements… Another even claimed there was a racial bias in publishing and it was because he was a black guy that no one would publish his work. Give me a break!
Suzy: I have a feeling you think your instruction is falling on deaf ears with me but that is not the case.
Les: I don’t think that at all. Although, when format errors keep cropping up, like the two spaces between sentences, I have to say that—yeah, that feels like it’s falling on deaf ears. The thing about proper format is that a person doesn’t have to have writing talent to follow professional format—it’s a simple mechanical thing—and when it’s not followed, it shows a lack of respect for the craft. It also shows a lack of respect for the work, the writer, and the professional submitted to. So, I won’t give a pass on that. Especially after six weeks! Fair enough? (Note: I insist on proper format for all submissions and this student had a history of sending in material improperly formatted, with the same mistakes over and over. I won’t tolerate that at all.)
Suzy: I have honestly tried to incorporate your feedback in my work—with lackluster results.
Les: Much of the problem with your story is that you’re leaving out vital information for the reader. It’s not your writing at all. Your writing ability is superlative, in fact. But, writing well is more than just creating scenes—it’s storytelling and has to be logical in many ways.
Suzy: I'll admit that I have very strong ideas about where I want this novel to go and I am finding it difficult to let go of them but I am trying.
Les: Can’t comment on that as I don’t know what you’re “letting go.” But, it’s vital that your story begin properly and that means it has to begin with trouble (i.e., the inciting incident that creates and/or reveals her story problem to her) so that the reader sees clearly that she’s got a compelling problem. The reader won’t “take the narrator’s word” that there’s a problem. The reader won’t buy she has a problem simply by seeing her react emotionally to something we don’t see. We have to clearly see the problem the same as she does. Where you’re going wrong is that you know the story (as author) and you’re showing the character reacting to something you know, but that the reader doesn’t as it’s not on the page for them to witness. All we see is her reaction to something we don’t see or have knowledge of. Anything and everything your narrator/protagonist knows that’s important has to be made clear to the reader. For instance, the problem last time is that we see Nancy all in a lather over this jogger, but we’re never given the reason for her emotional reaction. It looks like she recognizes him, but we are never told who he is, what threat he represents, or any of that. This is being cryptic, by withholding necessary information from the reader that the narrator knows but isn’t sharing. To the intelligent reader, this shows clearly that they are being manipulated by the writer.
Suzy: I have never intentionally been cryptic in my writing—I just can't seem to find the balance between "trusting the reader's intelligence" and "dumbing down my prose."
Les: It’s not dumbing down the prose to let us know why and what this jogger represents. We absolutely have to know what she knows to understand why this is a story problem. You’re trying to show by a reaction to something not revealed that it’s a problem for her and no reader will accept that without knowing why the appearance of this person affects her, nor should they.
Suzy: The problem might be that I have never written for an audience before—it has always been for myself and since I already know the whole story, I don’t fully explain what’s going on.
Les: As writers, we do write for an audience—unless we mean to keep our stories locked in a drawer. And, that’s not the purview of a class like this. The problem is, no reader is going to follow a character who only shows reactions to stuff we’re not privy to. We have to see and understand clearly what she sees and knows about this guy.
Suzy: Whatever the problem may be, I accept that it is mine and that if I want to succeed as a writer, I will have to figure it out and solve it. There is no ego here--just a desire to make this work. I understand that it's necessary to tell me what's not working and while I appreciate the feedback, I'd really like to know what (if anything) IS working--it would help to have a point of reference between what I'm doing right and what I'm doing wrong. I'd like to thank you for your hard work and dedication to us all. It's obvious that you care a great deal about all of our success.
Les: I really do, Suzy. Believe me, I want desperately to tell everyone that they’re doing fine, but that would be a compromise… actually, an out-and-out lie if they’re not—and I refuse to compromise. Out entire society has become a compromising society and I’m just not buying in. Writing well is hard work and the competition’s too tough to settle for less. As for what you’re doing right—well, lots of things. You really are a good writer, but you need to work on creating a story that an audience will be attracted to. In other words, story structure is what you need to work on and you are. Part of the problem is the way writing is generally taught in high school and in college. Lots of exercises. One on dialog, one on description, one on characterization, etc., etc. But, very little, if any time, is spent on story structure. What makes a story a story. The reason story isn’t taught much or well is twofold: 1. Many teachers are lazy. Period. Please note that I said “many” and not “all.” There are some truly excellent teachers out there. But, for many, it’s infinitely easier to give the class an assignment on say description and have the little buggers write three-four paragraphs on description. (Usually passive description which has long vanished from contemporary stories.) The class is kept busy and at the end, they turn in all of these poetic descriptions. How they fit into story is rarely discussed. They’ve learned a “piece” of writing and it’s not a difficult teaching chore at all. All he or she has to do is say, “Here’s some examples of great descriptions, here’s a thesaurus, and go, you cool kids! Yay, siss-boom, rah!” Same with dialog or anything else. The student becomes good at writing pieces of writing… but is never shown how they fit the overall mosaic of writing and of story. They’re working on… pieces of writing. 2. The second reason is that many teachers don’t understand story themselves—they’re the result of the same teaching methods themselves and that’s all they know. And, it’s just easy to keep parroting the same stuff you’ve learned yourself.
Look at how novels are discussed in class as a rule. Usually parts of the book are discussed. They talk about “themes” for crying out loud! Themes! Something a writer should never pay attention to except perhaps during rewrites. Metaphors and similes. Yuch… Almost never as a whole, as an entire story and how all of the pieces are put together to make a whole. So, students again are learning pieces and parts. We learn all about sirloin steaks but never about the steer. It’s kind of like practicing the scales and expecting to get to Carnegie Hall. Playing the scales perfectly or any number of little exercises performed however exquisitively just won’t get a musician to Carnegie Hall, I’m afraid… unless they buy a ticket. To get to Carnegie Hall requires the musician write a symphony… not part of a symphony. Same with a novel. No publisher is buying parts of writing. Slices of life, for instance, don’t enjoy any market at all.
This is the circumstance of quite a few young writers, I believe. And, while it may be true, it doesn’t do anybody much good to sit around and bemoan it and feel sorry for ourselves because we were cheated out of a proper education of writing. Nothing can be done about what happened yesterday. We’ve got today and (hopefully) tomorrow and all we can do is address the holes in our craft knowledge base and that’s what we’re doing here. The good news is that once we address and fill in those holes, we’re going to become that most wondrous thing in the universe—a writer.
Just keep in mind—anything easily won or achieved usually isn’t worth much. Something that takes blood, sweat and tears has value.
The lessons I’m trying to get across here aren’t just for the beginning of your novel. They apply to the entire novel. Once a writer learns how to create a good opening, the rest of the novel becomes infinitely easier and infinitely better written. Not only that—the time spent in achieving a good beginning will result in the rest of it being written much faster (and with a much higher quality) than would have been achieved prior to learning those lessons. Resulting in a novel that has a realistic chance of getting published.
Suzy, to make your opening work, you only need to make it clear what seeing Jim represents to your protagonist. What does it mean about “being found.” We simply need to know what she knows and know exactly why seeing him jogging creates a story problem for her. That’s what’s missing. You can’t just show her being emotionally distraught without showing us why. Once we see what she sees and knows, then we’ll be involved emotionally in the scene and it works.
Hope this helps, Suzy!
Blue skies,
This is a fairly typical response to student questions and issues raised. Suzy (not her real name—it’s not my intent to put anyone on Front Street) is an excellent student and excellent writer. She’s just having trouble with her beginning, which, as a beginner, doesn’t realize is quite common. Even seasoned pros have trouble writing great beginnings at times. What’s reassuring about her as a writer is that she won’t give up and that’s why I know she’ll succeed eventually.

I’m posting this because I’ve found that one person’s problem is usually shared by many others, and my hope is that my responses here might be of some value to those folks. Hope so!


Shannon O'Donnell said...

I think this is a very valuable post, Les, and I'm thrilled you shared it with us. I plan to re-read it a time or two, so it can soak in a bit more.

Christine Danek said...

This is a great post, Les. I have been focusing a lot of my time on my beginning. I wanted to leave it a few times to finish my revisions, but I can't seem to leave it alone. I think I'm finally getting there. This post helps. Thanks.

Gary Baker said...

'Suzy' is lucky to have you

Sally Clements said...

Great post, Les. Its really true, the story structure needs to be the backbone of your story, and once you have that straight you can add on all the decorations like lyrical writing, great dialogue etc, but without it the story is just a collection of well written scenes, which isn't enough to compel a reader to keep reading.

Les Edgerton said...

Thanks, folks,
Appreciate the comments. A couple of minutes ago, this student and I had the following exchange.

"Suzy" wrote:
Les -

Thank you for taking time to get back to me--I know with your schedule it can't be easy. I agree with you--while the truth may be hard to hear, it is always preferable to being lied to.Your honesty may not be easy to hear but it is always appreciated. Thanks again. "Suzy"

To which I replied:

Hi "Suzy,"
I knew you'd take it like a pro. Thank you. You're one heckuva writer and you'll "get this stuff." What you're going through are just normal growing pains as a writer. We all have to go through them and will always be going through them as long as we write. Just enjoy the journey and remember... when you're ripe, you're rotten... and when you're green, you're growing. You're growing a lot, believe me!

Blue skies,

I love my students! I lose a lot of them at the beginning of each class, but the ones who stay the course tell me it was the best thing they ever went through as a writer. Gary said "Suzy" was lucky to have me as a teacher, but I'm far luckier to have folks like her. The ones who stick it out have a tangible thing called "character." They know you don't get something for nothing. It's kind of like the socialist--she really liked the free tampon... until she realized there was a string attached...

ssas said...

Can't recall who it is was, but some writer said recently they write their first draft, then go back and throw out the first chapter without reading it and write a new one that frames the book alongside the last chapter.

It helps me to think of first chapters as questions and last chapters as answers. This isn't to say I don't have a bear of time writing them!

Do you teach short story writing? Nothing has helped my writing like focusing for a time on short stories.

Les Edgerton said...

Betsy, you're right on about tossing the first chapter. Many agents have said that when they work with a writer, often they throw out the first three chapters. When I'm working with writers who've finished a book, often I recommend losing a lot of the first three chapters. Seems to be a common mistake made by many of us (including myself--more so at an earlier time than these days, but it still happens...). And, short stories are an entirely different animal than novels with very different rules, but yes, I do teach short story in that I'll look at a client's short story if she asks. Like many writers, writing short stories is how I really learned my craft and I still recommend newer writers to write them. They won't make any money, but it's a great way to learn how to write well!