Elements of Good Creative Writing Help (page 3)
Introduction to the Elements of Good Creative Writing
The novelist Andre Dubus III said in an online interview with Random House:
I think what I love most [about writing] is that feeling that you really nailed something. I rarely feel it with a whole piece, but sometimes with a line you feel that it really captured what it is that you had inside you and you got it out for a stranger to read, someone who may never love you or meet you, but he or she is going to get that experience from that line.
Although as Andre Dubus III admits, every line you write won't achieve perfection, there are simple things you must do in your writing "to get something out" in a way that a stranger reading it will have the experience you are writing about and engage in reading it, whether it be a happy or a sad experience.
Show, Show, Show
When you offer readers information they can take in through their senses, you offer them a world they can enter and experience. That is true whether you are writing from your imagination, your memory, or what is in front of you right now. Replace language that tells readers how to feel or how to judge something—words like beautiful, ugly, wonderful, and frustrating—with sensory images that offer them the experience to feel for themselves. Describe a couch as the color of mud pies, for instance, or a morning you awake happy as one with song birds on every branch of the tree outside your window.
Avoid Using Clichés
Most of the time, avoiding clichés improves writing because clichés are overused phrases that form a kind of shorthand communication that once again tells readers what they should be experiencing without allowing them to do the actual experiencing. Clichéd phrases are the words in our vernacular so overused that readers no longer picture the content in them (it's raining cats and dogs, for instance) but instead quickly jump to supplying an editorializing word or phrase (the weather's lousy) that sums things up instead of evoking feeling (what it is like to be in heavy rain).
In 1946, George Orwell wrote about "dying metaphors" in his essay "Politics and the English Language." "A newly invented metaphor," he wrote:
…assists thought by evoking a visual image, while on the other hand a metaphor which is technically "dead" (e.g. iron resolution) has in effect reverted to being an ordinary word and can generally be used without loss of vividness. But in between these two classes there is a huge dump of worn-out metaphors which have lost all evocative power and are merely used because they save people the trouble of inventing phrases for themselves. Examples are: Ring the changes on, take up the cudgel for, toe the line, ride roughshod over, stand shoulder to shoulder with, play into the hands of, no axe to grind, grist to the mill, fishing in troubled waters, on the order of the day, Achilles' heel, swan song, hotbed.
The phrases Orwell notes and others writers today use without thinking, such as "gotta have it" and "that's another story," replace particulars that provide vividness. When you come across this kind of cliché in your writing, consider it a placeholder, language that comes easily but sits on top of something much more interesting. Your job as writer is to lift this kind of cliché off of your writing, like a layer of frost over ice cream, and reveal the full flavor beneath it.
In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell also wrote about "verbal false limbs." These, he said:
…save the trouble of picking out appropriate verbs and nouns, and at the same time pad each sentence with extra syllables which give it an appearance of symmetry. Characteristic phrases are render inoperative, militate against, make contact with, be subjected to, give rise to, give grounds for, have the effect of, play a leading part (role) in, make itself felt, take effect, exhibit a tendency to, serve the purpose of, etc., etc. The keynote is the elimination of simple verbs. Instead of being a single word, such as break, stop, spoil, mend, kill, a verb becomes a phrase, made up of a noun or adjective tacked on to some general-purpose verb such as prove, serve, form, play, render. In addition, the passive voice is wherever possible used in preference to the active, and noun Constructions are used instead of gerunds (by examination of instead of by examining). The range of verbs is further cut down by means of the -ize and de- formations, and the banal statements are given an appearance of profundity by means of the not un- formation. Simple conjunctions and prepositions are replaced by such phrases as with respect to, having regard to, the fact that, by dint of, in view of, in the interests of, on the hypothesis that; and the ends of sentences are saved by anticlimax by such resounding commonplaces as greatly to be desired, cannot be left out of account, a development to be expected in the near future, deserving of serious consideration, brought to a satisfactory conclusion, and so on and so forth.
Write clean. Don't use more words than you have to but make sure the words you use are lively and do the work you want them to do. "To" is usually better than "in order to." "Unique" does not require "very" in front of it.
Figure Out What Has Urged the Speaker to Speech
Every "made" piece of writing comes into being because someone, either the writer or a character, has something to say NOW. And that something is not because the writer has a writing assignment or feels like writing. That something must reside in the moment of the poem, the essay, or the story. A poet may come to the page knowing only that she was struck seeing the outline of her husband's wet bathing suit through the jeans he wore for driving. The poet is urged to speech by her emotional reaction to seeing the wet outline of the swim trunks through heavy jeans. In her writing, she uses the literal occasion of looking at that outline until the emotional occasion of seeing the sadness and anger her husband is covering up begin to come through.
While teaching at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, I assigned my students a description essay about a place for which they had strong feelings. One chose Dodger Stadium as his topic because he loved baseball. He associated many images with the topic, including the voice of Vin Scully, the game announcer he had listened to for years on TV when he watched games at home with his father. "But where do I start?" he said, "I have so many memories and thoughts about baseball."
You might sometimes get the feeling that your own writing is something like morning glory vines spread everywhere instead of having a shape and filling a succinct space. Herein lies the magic of occasion! As we talked, my student told me that he had recently gone to Dodger Stadium for the first time after years of listening to the games at home. At the ballpark, he searched for a glimpse of Vin Scully and could almost make out where he was sitting. He suddenly realized, though, that he wouldn't be able to hear Scully like his father would at home because Scully's voice was being broadcast over radio and TV, not over the playing field. He experienced a moment of shock when he realized that this game, the first live one he had ever attended, would not be narrated for him by Scully's familiar voice.
As I listened to my student, I realized that one occasion he could write from would be going to Dodger Stadium for the first time and missing the voice of the adored and familiar sportscaster. Not being able to hear Scully made this game emotionally different from others for this young man. I asked him to describe the moment when he went to Dodger Stadium and looked for Scully and saw him. What did he think at that very moment? He said he wondered about his dad, listening at home, who had turned his son on to baseball, but had never gone to the stadium himself and now refused to go. And yet, unlike his father, the son wanted to see the game live. The realization that he would miss hearing Scully's voice led him to explore what it felt like going to Dodger Stadium without his father. This was sounding like an essay about having learned from one's dad, going beyond what he taught, and then not being able to share a new experience with him.
The journey to this emotional information ultimately occurred through descriptions of the event at Dodger Stadium, comparisons to watching games at home, and stories of what the student's dad had taught him about baseball and how he played baseball to impress his father. His father's refusal to attend a live game made the student aware not only of his father's support but also the need to grow beyond what his father could offer.
Make Sure Something Is At Stake
Making sure something is at stake is closely associated with identifying the writing's occasion. The writer in poetry and creative nonfiction, or the main character (the protagonist) or his or her opponent (the antagonist) in a story, must have a need to find an answer to a recognizable question. Readers read not only to find out what that answer is but also to enjoy knowing how the writer or character finds the answer. If the question isn't one that requires a journey or isn't clear or doesn't really exist because the writer or character already knows the answer, the reader will soon tire of reading since there will be no suspense, no caring about how things will all work out.
Listen to Your Writing to Make It Sound Good
Writing that sounds good sounds that way because the writer was able to identify what was working well in the first drafts and facilitate it. When we trust what we are writing, we are likely to put words down that convey feeling accurately. We can then "work" our sentences to improve the sound we are making, taking away or replacing those sounds that are distracting. Writing with good sound involves knowing some of the tricks of the trade, like the tools we call rhyme and alliteration, but most of all it involves trust in ourselves that we (or our characters) are choosing words that allow the writing to be emotionally true to the situations we are portraying. We need to know the terms of the craft enough to be comfortable with what they help us name, even if we rarely write by trying to meet craft labels.
Remember the Key Definition: Writers Are People Who Write (And Read)
Novelist Elizabeth Evans, whose books include the award-winning novel Carter Clay, contributes this reminder and a good suggestion for making sure you fulfill the definition:
Longing to write isn't writing. If you need to put a belt around your waist to keep you in your desk chair, then get out the belt. Write something most days, even if it's just for five minutes. The fitness experts tell us to aim for exercise six days a week, and that's probably a good goal for writing, too (it will keep you fit and in writing-form). Write regularly and then you can legitimately call yourself a writer. Do not say, "Oh, well, I'll tell myself that I am going to write for five minutes, but I bet that I'll end up writing for at least half an hour. Maybe I'll even write all day!" No. Be disciplined. And kind to yourself. Stop when you have written for five minutes. If you imagine that you'll certainly end up writing longer—that you won't be successful at getting back to your writing unless you write for much more than five minutes—it's likely you'll wind up intimidated. Up ahead, you may well see the dragon of that obligation to write something big and so the exercise will start scaring you off even before you begin. Do five minutes a day for two weeks, or three if you still feel ill or your heart hammers at the process of sitting down with pencil and paper (and I do think that pencil/pen and paper are best for this exercise; for me, they feel closer to the heart, more intimate). The next two or three weeks, edge up to eight minutes. Don't feel rushed. Usually, it takes people a while to get blocked—though I've known of it happening quite quickly to people who've had a major success with one book and now are afraid that the next book won't be as well-received. If you're serious about getting out of the dark hole of the block, be patient. Again: Don't try to trick yourself. Honor yourself. Try twelve or fifteen minutes for the next two weeks. In about a month in a half, you've made real progress! You're writing regularly. Add a little more until you get up to half an hour a day and stay there for a while. Don't rush it. It will come.
When I was in graduate school, I found that many of my classmates felt that it would be presumptuous to call themselves writers, even though they were turning out stories and poems. A lot of my classmates didn't keep on with their writing after we earned our degrees, and I suspect that had something to do with the fact that they didn't "presume" to call themselves writers. Don't be shy about calling yourself a writer, but make sure that you earn the title by writing! Honor your desire. And read a lot. You'll never stop learning new things from the great fiction writers. It is good to read work by your peers AND to read the works that have stood the test of time. By reading the very best work, we learn to recognize when our own work is whole and successful because we've already experienced the feeling of a successful whole in, say, Dickens or Chekhov. Be ambitious. You can be as sloppy and wild as you like in free writes—I use them all the time—but when you give your work to others to read, make sure you've taken it as far as you possibly can. Believe that you are writing for the ages.
Training Is Key
How do writers ensure that their writing includes the wanted elements and excludes the unwanted so it engagingly offers experience? By spending time working to 1) use the five senses; 2) trust details above generalizations; 3) employ metaphors, which refresh experience by likening things to other things not usually used in comparison; 4) notice clichés and use them only to strong effect; 5) create scenes where the outcome matters, so readers feel as if they are right there making choices and moving toward insight, surprising themselves with their feelings; and, 6) find the best sound they can in their sentences while keeping clarity.
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