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.