Saturday, July 11, 2015

Advice: That’ll Be 5 Cents, Please

Opinions: just like certain anatomical parts, we all have ’em. I was recently invited by the good folks at Bloom to dispense a few. Specifically, I was asked to share the best writing advice I ever received. I don’t know if this is the best advice I’ve ever packed in my toolkit (which is full of hammers, screwdrivers and pliers from Flannery O’Connor, Raymond Carver, Stephen King, Dani Shapiro and others), but it’s certainly something which has stuck with me over the years:
       I attended grad school in Fairbanks, Alaska—a cold, winterdark place to hone one’s craft. Because I worked during the day as an active-duty soldier stationed at Fort Wainwright, most of my classes were at night. Though it’s been 25 years, I can still remember stumbling out of the bitter, below-zero air into those classrooms where other workshop students waited to tear apart my stories (which, in hindsight, deserved to be shredded to pieces). Once my fingers thawed and uncurled from tiny wooden claws and I was able to hold a pen upright, I started taking notes with the earnest sincerity of a young writer who knows he’s an empty vessel. Our instructor was Frank Soos (author of Unified Field Theory), a tall, thin Virginian whose soft, gentle voice could take the sting off the very worst criticisms. Frank chose his words carefully, so when he did dispense advice it came like slow drips of honey. I bent over my notebook and took down as much as I could with my half-numb writing hand. I remember one night in particular when Frank was on a roll, he gave us three things to think about that have stuck with me over the past two decades:

       1. Don’t let characters off the hook in uncomfortable situations. Stay with the scene until the resolution. Keep the characters in the situation.

       2. What does each character want? To what degree will he or she go to get it?

       3. Each sentence should reward the reader. If nothing is happening in the sentence, if it’s just spinning its wheels, then it needs to be cut.

I was joined at Bloom by four other talented writers (including Marian Palaia, author of The Given World). I think my favorite of all the nuggets of wisdom comes from Robert Gipe (Trampoline: An Illustrated Novel) who offers this writing tip (a variation on something movie director Billy Wilder once said):

Come up with a character people care about.  Put that character up a tree.  Set the tree on fire.

Anyone got a match?

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