This is a recurring column I’m calling “7 Things I’ve Learned So Far,” where writers (this installment written by Laura Krughoff, author of MY BROTHER’S NAME) at any stage of their career can talk about writing advice and instruction as well as how they possibly got their book agent — by sharing seven things they’ve learned along their writing journey that they wish they knew at the beginning.
Laura Krughoff is an author, teacher, and scholar. She is the recipient of the
Pushcart Prize, the Washington Square Prize, and a runner up for the Nelson
Algren Award. Her debut novel, MY BROTHER’S NAME, launched in spring
2013 from Scarletta Press. Booklist said of the title, “Inevitably, romantic
entanglement and pain result in Krughoff’s fast-paced read that’s as daring
and provocative as it is entertaining.” Find Laura on Twitter.
The 7 most important lessons I teach my creative writing students (and then implement myself!):
1. Trouble isn’t interesting. Only conflict is.
There is an old writer’s adage that “only trouble is interesting.” Over many years of teaching fiction writing, however, I’ve come to think of this adage as misleading. You can have trouble galore in your fiction, but if your characters are passive victims beset by one calamity after another, your story isn’t going to be interesting. Conflict occurs when your characters want something and pursue it. Conflict often causes trouble for characters, but it’s the character’s pursuit of his or her desire, not just the trouble that ensues, that will keep your reader turning the page.
2. It is difficult to write interesting stories about characters you are judging.
I have heard actors say that even when playing a villain, they never judge the character they’re playing. I think the same is true in fiction writing. I have seen stories where mean girls in high school are revealed to be heartless and superficial, where bad boyfriends are revealed to be liars and cheats, where the affluent are revealed to be snobbish and condescending. These stories are designed to send a message rather than to illuminate the richness and complexity of the human experience, and, as a mentor of mine used to say, “If you’ve got a message to send, use Western Union.”
3. Fix the end by fixing the middle.
I routinely tell my students that if they’re struggling with the ending of a story, it is probably because they haven’t quite worked out the conflict. I spent a long time struggling with how to end my novel, and I rewrote the final chapter many times before it occurred to me to take my own advice. A difficult but essential scene was missing, and once I had that in place, I finally understood how to bring the novel to a satisfying conclusion. I could have rewritten that ending until the cows came home, but it was only by addressing a problem much earlier in the novel that I was able to get the ending right.
4. No one outside a daytime soap opera has ever said, “As you know, you are my mother.”
Dialogue is hard to write. One good rule of thumb, however, is that people almost never say things to each other that everyone in the conversation already knows. If you’ve got information you need to communicate to the reader, but every character involved in the scene already knows that information, there’s no way to work it into dialogue that won’t sound stilted and soap opera-y. Find some other way to do it.
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5. Watch out for thinking and drinking stories.
Thinking and drinking stories—or chapters—are exactly what they sound like. A character spends a great deal of time alone, perhaps snowed in at a cabin, or wiling away an evening in the bathtub, thinking and drinking. For some reason, they are fun to write. I realized I’d accidentally written a thinking and drinking chapter in my new novel just last week! But they’re not very often any fun to read.
6. Rules give you something to work with and something to work against.
“A writer can do anything he can get away with, but no writer has ever gotten away with much.” I’ve heard this quote attributed to Flannery O’Connor, although I’ve heard it attributed to other writers, too. I like to teach my students that rules are there for a reason, but that every rule has been broken to astonishingly great effect. The trick is knowing what the rule is and why you’re breaking it.
7. The writer is the one who writes.
Often, after a semester is over, a student will drop by my office to ask if I think he or she has what it takes to “be a writer.” My answer is always, “The writer is the one who writes.” If you love writing, I tell those students, if you get great joy from telling stories and creating characters and bringing whole worlds to life, then yes, you can be a writer. Will you sell what you write? Will you make a career of it? I have no idea. But those are different questions than whether or not you can be a writer. You certainly can. All you need to do is write.
Other writing/publishing articles & links for you:
- New Literary Agent Seeking Clients: Gemma Cooper of The Bent Agency.
- Interview With Agent Helen Zimmerman, Who Seeks Fiction and Nonfiction.
- Sell More Books by Building Your Writer Platform.
- Exactly What Your Pitch Should NOT Look Like.
- Follow Chuck Sambuchino on Twitter or find him on Facebook. Learn all about his writing guides on how to get published, how to find a literary agent, and how to write a query letter.
Want to build your visibility and sell more books?
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