Since the e-learning system says “program complete” and my final grade is posted, I can safely say I’ve finished my Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing degree. Two years in a very foreign discipline, and in the middle of it, I published my first novel. Now I’ve got one on the shelf waiting for revision, a novella next to it in the same boat, my thesis novel out for Beta reads so I can polish/query it, a flash fiction piece accepted for publication, another flash piece ready for submission, and a new storyline in production.
Now when asked what I do, I feel comfortable “I’m an author.” I know the sheer fact that I was published gave me that right, but there’s something about an academic degree that truly legitimizes my scribbling. And now, I can answer the question that inevitably comes up when folks can’t quite comprehend why a person my age would go to school: what have you learned?
I’ve learned that a “deeper point of view” is a lot more than the inner thoughts of the main character. It’s a concept that uses the sub-text of dialogue to hint at feelings and desires, that applies metaphor to understand the characters’ frames of reference, that marries setting to mood, and that lets sentence structure dictate tension. While getting snippets of inner thoughts is nice, there are more tools an author can use.
I’ve learned that it’s okay to “tell” instead of “show.” Yes, showing how a setting looks, how the character’s reacting, lets the reader into the story. But part of the reading enjoyment is putting your own interpretation into the story. An author doesn’t need to describe every detail…only those that have meaning to the plot, mood, or theme. You must trust the reader sometimes and let them fill in some of the holes. And every once in a while, give them a breather from the description and <<gasp>> tell them what’s happening. It allows their minds to reset for the next journey they’re about to go on in the story.
I’ve learned that simple tenses work best. When I overuse the more complex tenses, I tend to get lost in the sentence. It rambles. And if I get lost, the reader will, too. Which means they’ll put the story aside for something easier to understand and enjoy. There’s a bit of truth in the phrase: keep it simple, stupid.
I’ve learned that passive voice is okay. Everything has a purpose. Passive voice can accentuate a point, can insert a break in the flow at a strategic moment, can be useful. While active voice should prevail, don’t automatically edit out passive. Look deeper into its use to see its true purpose.
I’ve learned that I can’t write unless I’ve plotted…and that’s okay. Every author has their own creative methodology. Many times folks consider the free-flow of thoughts onto paper as the ultimate writing practice—consider that as “organic” and anything else as too mechanical, too predictable, too non-creative. That’s crap. All of us have a method to write a story, but all of us must also revise it to make it readable. In that process, an author must approach the work with some sense of structure, organization, and focus. If not, the work meanders and rambles, wholly unconnected to a theme. While a few—very few—well-known authors get away with stories like that, they are, well, few. So, my plotting works best for me in the production of the first draft, just like someone’s meandering works best for them in the production of theirs. When it comes to revision, we’re all in the same boat, and out of it comes a story with a central theme, a plotline absent holes, well-developed characters, and dialogue with sub-text. I just have a hand-up on the theme, plotline, and subtext because I worked off an outline and could shore those areas up as I typed the first draft. <<wink>>
I’ve learned that writing truly starts in the revision phase. As I alluded above, getting the story out of my head into a document is the easy part. The revision phase makes an author question why they even try to write. It’s an exploration of your weaknesses. A confession of your bad habits. A daily feeling in the pit of your stomach that you’ve created the biggest word-turd ever written. It’s at first an overall look at the merit of the story which devolves into a sentence-by-sentence judgement of what stays and what dies. And yes, I used the word “dies” because each delete is like a little stab in your heart…the phrase you were so proud of, the minor detail that you thought had so much meaning, the banter that was so fun to create. All of them gone because they didn’t move the plot forward or contribute to the deeper point of view. Then comes the adds to fill the holes in character, plot, setting, and emotion. Then more deletes, and the process continues until Beta readers give you a thumbs-up. And that’s all before it gets into the hands of an agent or publisher. Yes, writing is revision—storytelling is the first draft. You have to embrace both to make it.
Most of all, I’ve learned that this is truly my second career. And that I need patience to see success. After all, 23-year old me didn’t know a damn thing in my first profession. It took a decade before I was considered an expert, and over two before my hard work paid off in the success of a senior-level promotion. I just need to keep tapping away at the keyboard, keep learning my craft, keep my focus on the bigger picture, and one day, I’ll see my name (or pen name) on a bestseller list.