A guest post to motivate, encourage, and inspire
Lessons From Fiction Class
Mr. Brennan was my first fiction writing teacher in college. He was funny and smart (and young and hot, the way English profs are supposed to be). And he taught me five rules of writing I still use each day. Maybe you could use them too.
1. Show, Don’t Tell.
You may have heard it a million times, but if you’re like me, you still have to bang your head against your keyboard to keep this rule up and running. Proof positive, here’s a recent sentence I wrote: “She turned toward the pond to see the moon, now full above the tree line. Its shimmering reflection on the water was dazzling.”
Dazzling? Really? Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” I’ve been writing fiction for over two decades, and I still come out with crap like this. Sorry, Mr. Brennan, Mr. Chekhov. I’ll try harder next time.
2. Don’t Interrupt the Fictional Dream.
Make sure your point of view, your descriptions, your facts are correct. If your story takes place in 1982 and one of your characters hums a song from 1983, it’s no biggie, right? Wrong. Readers are savvy and plenty might think, Hey, wasn’t that 1983? And was that by the Police? No, it was a solo hit by Sting, right?
And now you’re out of luck. Because they’ve stopped reading. You’ve interrupted the dream, and you’ve lost your readers.
3. Watch Those Descriptive Images.
The first story I wrote for Mr. Brennan was about two young women whose friendship is threatened when one of them gets engaged. At the end, they make up and share a bottle of champagne. I wrote how the sunlight “bounced off the glass like a diamond.” Mr. Brennan called it brilliant, pointing out how I’d used the word “diamond” to subtly foretell that the wedding was still on. People in the class congratulated me.
I sat in stunned silence, because I had written the diamond part by accident. I could easily have said the light “bounced off the glass like a firefly.” And then what? Instead of a wedding, I would have ended on the image of …a bug.
4. Kill Your Darlings.
Cut the characters, the scenes, the descriptions that aren’t working, even if you love them. Mr. Brennan used to have us tear off the first three pages of any story and start from there. And even though it made me mad, I’ll be darned if it didn’t always make for better fiction.
Just do the work. One guy in class was a mediocre writer, but he wrote CONSTANTLY. Mr. Brennan once said to me, “You can write circles around him. But he’s going to make it, because he puts in the time.” That guy has published stacks of poetry and short stories, and now has a novel coming out. Right again, Mr. Brennan. Right again.
To help us, and others, put in the time, a friend and I recently launched a new writing challenge: Write Despite. We’ve pledged to write at least 20 minutes a day, every day, for one year. We started January 1, and so far, although I rarely go much beyond that tiny 20 minutes—squeezing it in after my kids are asleep, while sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, even idling in my car outside karate class—I’m now close to 50 pages in on my new book. That’s 14,000 words in one month. And what’s more, over 100 others are following our blog, and many have joined the Write Despite challenge themselves, writing as much as they can on their own timeline. How cool is that?
We created this challenge to test that old mantra of our favorite mentors and authors: “Write every day!” But will writing every day really help? Will it center us and get us into a consistent habit that will last long after the challenge is over? Will we do Mr. Brennan proud?
So far, so good, my friends. Stay tuned. And join us if you dare.
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