The one valuable part of the Northwestern Summer Writers Conference I went to last year was a class on creative writing structure. The instructor brought to us forms and techniques from screenwriting, well-known building blocks of stories like Three-Act Structure, and The Hero’s Journey, which underlie great tales from Homer’s Odyssey to Pulp Fiction. Learning these structures was like the day someone finally tells you how sex works: you’ve seen all the parts before, and you’ve seen the results, but oh, so that’s how it works.
Since then, I’ve read my way through Joseph Campbell and Christopher Vogler and the essays of literary critics from Mythological / Jungian schools and Reader-Response schools and if you want to write stories, you should too.
A few months ago, I re-read Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, and again I was fascinated by how the way the story is written sucks you in and keeps you reading. Ender’s Game is a great book but it’s not a Great Book, and I don’t mean that in the snooty or academic sense: Slaughterhouse Five and Fahrenheit 451 are Great Books, and they have time travel and aliens and robot dogs, in different degrees. Continue reading →
Don’t use onomatopoeia. You know, when you’re reading a book, and you come across a part where a gunshot suddenly rings out, so you see written in the book: “BOOM! KABAM!” Or something loud falls, and you see it described by the word, “KA-POW!” Or the character can hear a calming stream: “swisssssh, swissssssh.” Perhaps as a writer, you’ve worked some onomatopoeia in to give readers a sense of the sound you want to convey.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post attacking the practical value of Creative Writing programs in colleges. Since then, I’ve been thinking about how to fulfill the desire many people look to those programs for: we all want a next step, a course of development, towards being a real writer. What is the development, if you don’t get it in a classroom?
Though not very glamorous, author is a “glamour profession” in that it does not depend on education, experience, and job hunting but on ineffable talent combined with pure-ass luck. This disorients most people, since other people’s dreams like “doctor” or “unscrupulous investment banker” do depend on education, experience, and job hunting and they follow a delineated path of milestones towards those dreams.
Furthermore, no one in a position of of advice-giving like teacher or career counselor or college counselor understands how authors become authors, so no one around you really seems to know how any of it works, and it takes about 30 years to figure it out on your own. Here’s some of it.
All college Creative Writing programs are terrible. The concept and systemic reality of college Creative Writing programs is terrible. In principle and practice: terrible. I got a degree in Creative Writing (an undergrad double-major, with English) and man it was a bad joke. No offense to myself and Jeff and other wonderful people involved, but I mean… damn. Everyone is terrible. I was terrible. I might have been the terriblest: I was unmotivated and childish, and but so are most college students. How good can a 17-21 year old be? If you’re in undergrad right now, I’m pretty sure you’reterrible too.
But how could you teach writing as a college class anyway, like it was Calc II or something, and grade it? Basically, it’s a bunch of college students sitting around being forced to talk about each other’s misspelled, ridiculously-plotted, gut-clenchingly embarrassing trash – like, phoned-in 10th grade trash. While the sweaty professor maintains an air of respectful suspended-disbelief, the way the Queen would if someone with a developmental disability threw a used condom on her face, and holds forth about “craft.”