When Readers Write

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Next week, I will begin the first of two sessions speaking to a small group of students at Wake Forest University on the subject of writing — in particular, writing openings and creating creatures.  The catch: these are biology students.

See, this all began a few years ago when a professor in the biology department that my wife worked under found out I wrote genre fiction.  Every two years she runs a seminar on science and science fiction and wondered if I would be willing to come in to speak with her students and answer questions.  In addition, I agreed to read/workshop the opening paragraphs of their stories.  This turned out to be a lot of fun and I was thrilled to be asked to do it again this year.

The main reason I bring this up for a Magical Words post is a matter of perspective.  Of all the students in the class, I’ll be lucky if one or two want to be writers.  I’ll be amazingly lucky if one of those writers-in-training has ever actually written anything.  Here at Magical Words, we are a community of writers at various levels trying to help each other improve and succeed.  Speaking to the students, however, is entirely different.  I’m in a situation where I’m discussing the craft of writing to outsiders looking in, and that creates a unique and somewhat unusual opportunity for me.

Not only do I have the chance to show that genre fiction is more than their assumptions lead them to believe, but I can let them experience just how hard it is to get those images in the mind onto paper.  Like any good teaching environment, the teacher should learn as well as the student.  When I did this class two years ago, it was an eye-opener to say the least.

Just by listening to the opening paragraphs of the students, I discovered what some readers hoped to find in the opening of a story.  After all, many of them wrote an opening the way they thought it should be (some of them tried to write what they thought I thought it should be, but that’s a different issue).  Of course, many of them were dreadful; however, I still could parse out the difference between bad writing and wishful thinking.

One such distinction amazed me.  Nearly all the stories did not begin with action or an attempt at action — and this time, I mean explosive, high action.  They began with a character.  The students, with no previous experience writing, intuitively understood the need for character — more so than action, more so than description, more so than plot.  They got it.  And remember, they are our readers.

I think perhaps we writers tend to over-think matters.  We become so consumed with the right plot point, the best sentence structure, and the perfect word choice, that we lose sight of the reason we began writing the story in the first place.  The students knew nothing of plot points, sentence structure, or word choice.  They only wanted to tell a story, and in order to do that, they understood the need for character.  Likewise, as readers, they don’t care about the mechanics of a book — they want a good story.  Some readers can appreciate and find extra joy in a well-turned phrase, but they still want a story that will grip them about a character that means something to them.  All the perfect words in the world are worthless if we don’t offer our readers a tale worthy of their time.

Next week, I will stand before a new group of students.  I will attempt to teach them the very basics of how we craft a story.  I will try to turn them on to authors and works that I have loved.  And in the end, I look most forward to learning something myself.

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15 comments to When Readers Write

  • Douwe

    I wish my university had these kind of lectures.

  • Intriguing post, Stuart. I’m keen to hear what comes out of the class and what kinds of stories the students want to tell. Your larger point–about our readers not necessarily being connected to the concerns that drive blogs like this–is a great one too. The primacy of story and character is something we should probably consider more. Great post.

  • Stuart, great post. I stopped several times and reread passages. And I totally agree. However, for commercial writers, the most important readers are the acquisitions editors, and they want something that is action and character both. Blending the two is the tricky part, I’m thinking.

    Do you address this different-reader situation with your students? I started the first Rogue Mage book with action, and the editor made me add 26 pages of world-building and character building to it. Which felt really weird coming from the mywter-thriller background.

    Also, have you ever found that amazingly talented writer who blows you away with his work? I remember sitting down with Misty that first time I read her work. I said something along the lines of, “Girl. Stop this short story stuff and write a novel.” (Which at the time was good advice. But now, short stories are taking off again, and I would give different advice. But that is a market topic.)

    My reaction to Kim Harrison’s early work was similar. “O.M.G. You are gonna be HUGE! And I know *just* which agent you should sign with.”

    Those experiences are two of the greatest joys of my life.

  • Douwe — Yeah, I agree. Back when I was in college, I never had anything like this offered.

    AJ — I don’t want give the wrong idea. I’m not suggesting we write purely for the audience. Plenty of bad writing has been done that way. Merely, I suggest that it can be helpful to consider how readers approach our work, what they notice, what they are concerned about, and factor that in to the overall equation.

    Faith — Yes, on the business/career side, editors are far more important to us (initially). As for the students, what I cover depends on the class make-up. If there are several students pursuing a writing career, I’ll talk a little more about publishing realities and such. If they’re mostly readers, I’ll try to get them to see that SF/F is more than their pre-conceived notions. That kind of thing. And, sadly, no, I’ve yet to have a moment where I “discover” a new talent, but who knows? Maybe next week. :)

  • Responding to Faith’s comment. True, we at the commercial level have to write for acquisitions editors, and that demands many things beyond simply a good character. But at the level these kids are writing, their first concern should be just where Stuart has it: on the fundamentals — character and storyline. The other finer points come later, but there is no story without character. If one of these students discovers a passion for writing and masters character, he/she will have a leg up on everyone else. I believe that there are still editors out there who can spot that gem of a writer, even if he/she has yet to be cut and polished. That’s what happened to me. I didn’t have it all figured out by any stretch. But I knew character, and that’s what my editor saw. He helped me work out the rest.

    By the way, I’m doing a community writing workshop at the end of the month for a group that will be older than yours, Stuart, but equally inexperienced. My topic for the workshop? Character.

    Great post.

  • Am I the only one who read that title the first time as “When Readers Attack”? Television addiction… *sigh*

    Even though my college is small, it actually offers a genre creative writing class. I have not yet taken it, and am not sure if I will, but it’s nice to know my college has that little bit of extra awesome.

    As a reader, I don’t find it necessary to burst into the action, but it’s not something I’m against.

    As a writer, I seem to start a project with less ACTION! than is often advised in ALLCAPS on writing blogs, but that usually changes with later drafts. Perhaps my reader and writer sides are having it out on page. 😉

  • David — And so the parallel universes of our lives meet again.

    Atsiko — More and more schools are adding in genre related classes (I know of several that have English courses studying Robert Heinlein or SF/F of a certain period. I’ve not seen as many writing courses in genre, so that’s really cool for you. Writing classes can be both good and bad as I imagine you’re aware (I’m sure we’ve talked about here at MW and the subject is blog fodder for any writing blog), but as long as you keep some perspective, you’ll probably pull out the good info.

  • Beatriz

    Great post, Stuart. As a reader, I want to love your characters– or hate them. The characters will keep me sticking around. For instance, I continued to read a series long after the plot had become junk solely because earlier in the seried the author created characters I cared about.

  • Beatriz — I’ve done the same thing. I get invested in the characters and just have to know what happens to them even if I don’t care about the overall story.

  • I agree about the writing classes being a mix of good and bad. I had a horrible experience in undergraduate writing because I got a teacher who hated anyone and anything having to do with technology, which was really a problem since most of the class were freshmen engineering students.

    Gerald, fortunately has had good experiences at several schools, including a recent one taking an online class at UNCG on mystery writing. I remember AJ being a little astonished when I told him at ConCarolinas that was Gerald’s class for last fall. Gerald’s teacher let him use an existing character in our universe who just had a bit part in the novel. He is a private detective, but he is in 24th century New Orleans so Gerald’s teacher got a SF mystery as his final story.

  • Angela — When I was in grad school, genre fiction was definitely out — however, my creative writing teacher allowed me to write the stuff even though it was frowned upon by others. Don’t know if she ever got in trouble for it, but I’m forever grateful to her. So, I suppose even though a school curriculum may be against it, an individual teacher can make the difference. At least, that’s how it worked out for me.

  • Faith said, I remember sitting down with Misty that first time I read her work. I said something along the lines of, “Girl. Stop this short story stuff and write a novel.”

    I remember this, too. I’d never been so terrified! *grin*

    Stuart said, …however, my creative writing teacher allowed me to write the stuff even though it was frowned upon by others.

    When I was in college, I wanted to take the creative writing courses that were offered, but the professor himself told me that I wouldn’t pass if I wrote fantasy. He considered it beneath the notice of any properly intellectual person. I imagine that even if I ran into him today and showed him that I managed to write well enough to sell something, he’d still look down his nose.

  • I know a lot of people who have had similar bad experiences trying to write genre in CW classes. There’s a fear out there among aspiring genre authors created by the incidents, and that’s one reason why the topic of creating writing classes is so popular on blogs and forums. There’s definitely been a shift now, though. I was lucky enough in highschool that I had an AP English teacher willing to let me write genre, even though most of my peers were not interested in the topic. It made critique sessions interesting, I can tell you. 😉 In fact, I took an independent study in novel writing with that teacher, and wrote a steampunk/science fantasy, and I had a friend who took an IS with that teacher and did spec fic/interstitial shorts stories. So the wave of genre in academia is breaking, and things can only go up from here.

  • heteromeles

    Gee, as a former biology student, I wonder why I feel left out of the SF community. It could be remarks like “the catch: these are biology students.”

    In SF, what I so seldom see is a biology viewpoint. You know, evolutionary history as the setting, not a plot device, people actually relating to their environment like it supports them, rather than as if it’s cardboard scenery. Heck, environment as a character that affects the others. Taking joy in diversity, instead of focusing on the rare monsters, diseases or negative plot devices.

    Too often, I read SF books that are written by people who are apparently scared of biology, and want black boxes to take care of their discomfort, so that they can focus on the “important things,” which are characters, which are (generally) humans or human stand-ins. What a sad and limited way to go through life.

    Yes, there are exceptions, but those are springs in an arid desert.

    One thing I’d suggest as a writing lesson is that, rather than telling them what they should be doing to, take them outside and ask them to write about what they see. Then compare what you see and what they see. If they see something that’s different than you see, those are different viewpoints, not something that they are doing wrong. You might even get an inkling of how we view the world, if you don’t get it already.

    Just to stick a burr under everyone’s saddle, I’d also suggest the dearth of positive views of the future in SF may be due to the fact that the life sciences have to play a central role in helping us create a sustainable civilization. If all of you can’t imagine a future where ecology matters, perhaps the only future you can write about is urban decay and zombies.

  • Atsiko — I agree. There’s definitely a change coming over and more acceptance of genre, but it’s not completely there yet.

    heteromeles — The remark (indeed, the entire post) was not intended to put down Biology students but rather to point out the value in our differences. I wanted to show how people whose focus is not purely writing approach the craft differently and thus, we could learn something from them. I agree with you that some SF needs to take more from bio. My wife was a biologist for some time, and when I wrote my first SF novel, she helped me “evolve” the creatures so that the planet made as much biological sense as we could put in. Finally, while a lack of life science as a central role may contribute to the pessimistic future view, it’s far more complicated than that. Many people have looked through the history of SF and found its pessimistic/optimistic moments correlate with overall worldviews — in other words, when were actively trying to land on the moon, the view of science was positive and so were the majority of SF stories (remember all those glistening, sleek space ships). Our view of science (all science) is not so positive right now, and that may have an impact on the pessimistic view. Of course, correlation does not mean causation, but does point out something worth further study.