Creative Writing Advice

08.30.11 Posted in Academia by

I’m teaching a Creative Writing class at the University of Phoenix right now, and I’m learning a few things about writing students: They seem to have no ideas. 

Yes, it’s a depressing thing, but really, all of them are simply rehashing events that have really happened to them and are turning them into “short stories.”

The problem with this is 1) This is not fiction; 2) They’re so slavish to the facts that they forget to tell a story, and 3) The stories read like a reported list of events than an actual story.

This tells me a few things. I’m seeing a trend in that students who have no ideas for stories also don’t read. It’s a sad fact, but when I go around the room and ask who’s reading what, the majority of the students will reply that they don’t read, and haven’t read a book in years. The only thing they’re reading is school texts. So why the hell are they taking a creative writing class? Would you play football without watching games? Would you perform a surgery without watching someone else perform one first? Would you cook dinner without reading a recipe or watching someone else make it first? Why on earth would you think that you could write without reading?

Because when you read, you see things like how authors dramatize events, and create scenes, instead of just telling about them after the fact. You see how character traits are developed. You see how dialogue looks when it’s written. You see how authors don’t write things like, “He was amazing! It was amazing! The house was amazing!” You see concrete descriptions that inform the story with depth, mood, personality.

The other thing that this lack of story story-telling tells me is that students not only don’t read, but they don’t have ideas, and this worries me. Maybe they don’t have faith in their ability to come up with something interesting. Maybe they haven’t fostered imagination, so consequently theirs have dried up. Maybe they simply ran out of time and so they went instead to their well of true-life stories, being convinced that their own lives’ events are as fascinating to other people as they are to themselves.

And not that real life can’t be interesting. But it’s only interesting to YOU right now. You have to work to make it interesting to me. Here are a few ways to make your writing more concrete, to make readers FEEL, to SHOW rather than to TELL:

1) Use dialogue. This is HUGELY important. Want me to be in a moment? Let me hear the people speak.

2) Paint a picture with your words. Let me smell the air, feel the humidity, see the expressions on people’s faces or how they dressed, hear their heavy sighs or the crackling of the cellophane on their food, taste the character’s dry mouth…let the camera roll on the scene.

3) Stop narrating, and start showing. Don’t say something was “amazing.” In my opinion, this is the most overused, meaningless word being used today. Instead, SHOW me it was amazing. Show me that the house bowled you over with it’s enormity and ornate decor. Show me that she donated 20% of her paycheck every month to charity. Show me that your weekend was chock full of events that thrilled you. I hear “amazing” and my eyes gloss over; it has the opposite effect on me.

4) Use an active, particular verb. Try writing as much as you can with using any forms of the verb “to be,” the laziest verb in our language. If nouns are the bones of your sentence — the frame around which sentences are built — the verbs are the muscles. By all means, make them powerful, and your sentences will be powerful. Don’t just make her say things. Make her squeak, whisper, mutter, burst out with, laugh, or force them out. Don’t just have him walk there; make him skip, race, stumble, sludge, float. See the difference? We’re more concrete already.

5) Use examples and stories. Want to tell me that someone’s lazy or irresponsible. Tell me a story about how he blew off an interview, overslept and missed a final, called in sick on his first day of work. Examples and stories paint a picture for me.

Want to tell a story about your life? Fine. But really make it a story.

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