I've had word that a number of creative writing students have been looking at my blog, so I thought I'd share four things that I wish I had known when I was starting out (way back in high school, even) and which have proved to be tips that I come back to again and again.
Conflict is story. This is one I wish I had known when I left school and wanted to write short stories but never knew what should happen in them. If someone had told me to think of a character and give them some conflict, whether from another character (antagonist! Revelation!), a situation or something inside themselves, I would have started writing seriously a lot earlier, and I wouldn't have had so many prettily written pieces of nothing.
Write what you don't know. I had always been told to write what I know. Which is actually sound advice when you're starting out. But when it comes to writing novels, writing what you don't know can elevate your work to another plane altogether. It's easy enough for me to write from the point of view of a thirty-something woman in 2008 with my background and experience (although not well probably), but it's more challenging and ultimately more interesting to write, say, from the point of view of a 27-year-old male lepidopterist in 1904 England. Or a 39-year-old retired army captain in 1904. If the character you want to write about does share some of your own traits and experience, give them a hobby that you know nothing about. The act of researching throws up wonderful ideas for story and conflict, and who knows, you might learn something new, then it will be writing what you know. Keeping yourself interested in what you are writing about will also keep your readers interested.
Describe the coffin not the grief. I don't know where I picked up this tidbit - when I google the expression all I find is myself. So either I've mangled it, or I read it in a book. It might have been John Gardner's Art of Fiction, but I don't have it front of me to check. This is the best writing advice in terms of writing style for me. I should really have it written in huge letters above my desk. When I am revising my work, it plays like a mantra in my head. In case you don't understand what it means, I'll explain how I see it.
It's very easy when describing big emotional moments to get bogged down in melodrama (heaven knows I am as guilty of it as the next person - I'm working on it). I'm always reading people describing how characters feel, the physical sensations they experience, the actions they take (wringing hands, wiping tears, clutching churning stomachs etc), or sometimes people don't bother describing and just say "she felt angry" or "she was sad". Describing the coffin and not the grief is about looking at a scene firmly in the point of view of the character, then filtering what they see through the way they are feeling. I have read a great example of this recently in The Story of Forgetting by Stefan Merrill Block, which I will post later.
I found a literal example in a book I reviewed a while back, The Center of Winter by Marya Hornbacher, where she describes a funeral: “There is something about a coffin. It is a big, long box … and inside the box is your broken husband, and the lilies are crawling down your throat, closing in as you go, gagging you with their sticky pollen, their fake spring, their cheap, dime-store perfume.” Not once has the narrator descibed her feelings, but you know just what they are, and despite the fact she has lost her husband, there is not a smidgeon of melodrama in sight.
Don't think about a character: What will happen to them next? Think: what will they do next? Because active characters, whose actions drive the narrative, are so much more interesting than those who sit back and only react to situations. It might end up being a flaw that a reader can't put their finger on, but I think it's a flaw nonetheless.
These things have made me a better writer. I'm sure there are other things that I have forgotten, and if I remember them, I will post again. Anybody else like to share their personal favourites? Please don't say "show don't tell" (although I have another post about that one day).