Advice From My Writing Professor

I found a hand-out my writing professor in college gave out. This handout — called “Stuff I’ve Learned” — was kind of the opening salvo to one of his courses, the first thing that made its way into your hands. (At least, if I recall correctly. This was, after all, over 10 years ago.)

I like some of the advice. He was a great professor.

Some of it, I’m not so sure about, now. But most of it holds up to scrutiny.

Here’s his advice, with my thoughts attached.

Stuff I’ve Learned, by Dr. Michael Kobre

Language that exists to call attention to itself has got to go. “Kill your darlings.”

Yes. Agreed. I think it goes beyond language that calls attention to itself, though. Any element of your work can call unnecessary attention to itself. Could be a stylistic bug-a-boo, a crutch word, an overused or too-silly character trait, anything at all. Me, I tend to over-use the term “fuck-donkey.” Also, I like to put apostrophes in the center of words to make sound extra-cool. Example: “I went down to the refrig’erator to get myself a s’and’wich.” It’s like I’m writing in a fantasy world.

Set-up is harder than development. It’s harder to introduce your characters than it is to set them in motion.

I get his point, though I don’t know it’s the most elegant way to say it (on an initial read, I think set-up and development are too similar? I dunno), but the idea works. What I get out of this — and this may not be what he’s suggesting — is the best approach to character introduction is one where they’re already in motion. Stitch them into the fabric of the on-going story. If you set time and space aside purely for expository and introductory events, then it’s a snoozefest.

How do you handle exposition? Build the exposition into the landscape. Descriptive detail is better than straight exposition.

Righty-o. Same idea as above (again, what I got out of it), except here we’re also getting a taste of the show, don’t tell message. You don’t need to tell us “Don is a gay werewolf,” because it’s much more awesome showing us that Don is a gay werewolf through his actions, movements, physical characteristics, and dialogue. Has anybody ever written a gay werewolf before? Because now I want to. Don’t steal my idea! Copyright! Intellectual property! Don’t make me blow my rape whistle!

Always the difficulty of maintaining pacing, movement, mood. If it’s the same level of intensity all the time, it’s unbearable. If the mood changes erratically, it’s unreadable.

Word. Though, I’ll note that once in a while, you can rock a dramatic mood change for the purpose of a jarring effect. A scene of violence segues to a scene of tenderness or something. Don’t do this often, though, or you look like a crazy person. Me, I like to put in a bridging scene to kind of ease the transition. My default bridging scene is where the protagonist fights, but then makes love to, a mythological creature. It’s like changing gears on a bike, but with a lot more “pegasus sex.”

At a certain point in the composition of a longer work, there’s more you know about your characters and their world than you can fit in the work.

True. This happened to me on the completion of a recent novel, and it also happened with the screenplay. You have to know what elements are best to reveal, to keep in there. That being said, I’ll also note that this “certain point” can and perhaps should be before you even begin writing. I’m no longer about the writing process being one of “wide open discovery.” Plan stuff ahead. Outline. Detail the arcs. Discovery will still happen, but it’ll demand fewer rewrites in the end.

Not ever day of work can or should be a writing day. Some days you have to stop and think, walk around the house and talk to yourself.

Bzzt! Ooh, no, but thanks for playing. Professional writers should not heed this advice. Write all the damn time. (Though, for a counter viewpoint, go here. I don’t exactly agree with it, but it makes very good points.) Writing is a muscle. Don’t do it, and it atrophies. Writers also tend to be a bit all over the place, and earning the self-discipline to write every day is a very important and not easy practice. This advice also falls down because it seems to suggest that “writing” and “thinking” are mutually exclusive. “Tuesday’s are for writing, but Wednesdays are Daddy’s thinking days!” Believe it or not, I can sit down in the morning, write, and then also get up, walk around, and talk to myself. I can stop and think. I can watch Internet pornography. I can pretend like our boy dog is a horsey and ride him around the house. I can even think when I’m writing. I’m like a guy juggling chainsaws over here. Get me to Vegas!

In life, we avoid tension. In narrative, we seek it. Sources of tension propel a narrative, give it urgency, energy. (Transgressions — lies, boundary crossings, etc. — are great sources of tension.)

Yes, yes, a billion times, yes. I’ve read too many stories by authors where the tension is a flat line, a deflating tire, a sleepy puppy. No. Boring. Bad puppy. Wake up!

Disperse descriptive details. When you stop the narrative for concentrated description, it better be important.

Dear H.P. Lovecraft, this applies to you. Christ, that guy would go on for pages about a fucking lamp. The best writing is always gradual, folding events and descriptions into the weave and weft. It builds up, but should not drop you off a cliff or collapse a wall atop you.

Writing is a constant tension between intuition and intention.

… yes? I think I get it. Writing has a “gut check” element to it. I intended to end my most recent novel a certain way, and when I was there, standing at the precipice, I realized it was the wrong move. My gut told me that, and so I went a different way, and it became infinitely more satisfying. Does this mean your intuition gets a veto? Maybe. But sometimes, a writer’s ego can cloud this up, and make him think his “intuition” is “gospel truth.”

The way the print eddies and flows on the page.

Yeah, that’s not actually a sentence. It’s a sentence fragment, writing professor. Give me a verb! Do I pay attention to it? Do I think about it? Do I lick it? Admire it? Hate it? I know what he’s saying, though, and he’s right. He’s saying that you do need to examine the way the text looks on the page — not how it reads, but literally, the shape of it. Some writer, like, a really professional writer (and godsdamnit, I forget who) said that the page that looks like sharp peaks and valleys is a better and more compelling page than one that is a “wall of text.” A page of dialogue and short description (open any Christopher Moore book and you’ll see what I’m talking about) is pleasing to the eye and flows. But, any wall of text (Lovecraft!) forces the eye and mind to do a lot of work — suddenly, the act of reading is a chore, a slow slog down a muddy river.

Your characters will always reveal themselves to you by dialogue, by a gesture. Pay attention. Listen to them.

Yes, but no. It is true that this happens. Don’t excuse yourself from exerting control over your work, though. Some part of the act of writing is always outside our hands, the same way that all of life possesses that margin of unpredictability. But it’s better to be the boat on the stream than the leaf, I think — at least a boat, you can steer. You should endeavor, I think, to reveal the characters as much as you can before you begin. They’re your reason for writing (or, they should be). If you don’t know them from word one, your writing is going to reveal a lack of confidence. You might as well end most of your early sentences with a question mark. “Mary Ann peers over the dumpster with… blue… eyes? She… gives a homeless guy… the fin…ger? Or maybe a handj… handjob? I think?”

Concentration is a finite resource.

Troof. Listen, I’m like one of those babbling idiots straight out of The Sims. I have a series of little bars indicating how much energy I have left in different categories. One of those bars could be called “Intellectual Energy.” I only have so much concentration and thought to devote to things. Believe it or not, it’s why I stopped playing collectible card games or MMOs or dedicating my time to other acts of concentration. I can get obsessive with that stuff, and it’ll fill my headspace. The meter goes down. I need that meter for my writing. Your mileage may vary, but I’ll note that if you sometimes feel like your mind is wandering, or you feel like your thoughtspace is already limited when you begin writing — examine the other things on your plate. Are you exerting intellectual energy for tasks other than writing? (Also, like a babbling Sim, I sometimes gesticulate madly and then pee on the floor. Then I feel intense shame and sob in the kitchen for hours. Days, even.)

Think in scenes.

Ayup. I always understood this abstractly, but I realized it best when I went to write a screenplay, because the script demands you signal those scene changes. The scenes are your building blocks, your storyboard elements, your setpieces.

It’s worth mentioning that Kobre is really one of the reasons why I stayed on the writer’s path. You sometimes have those people in your life — pivot people — and he’s one of them for me. Plus, he was cool as hell. He read comic books. He’d stop and engage you in a discussion about which superhero would win in a fight, and he would drop some hard logic on you, like this is the kind of shit he thinks about all the time. But he was intensely literary, too, introducing me to Joyce, DeLillo, O’Brien, etc. Hopefully he found a writing career beyond teaching, because he was too good at it to let that field lie fallow.

He has a book — non-fiction — if you’re interested in Walker Percy.