Concision—saying more with less—is an undervalued but critical writing skill, especially when writing a screenplay. Part of the reason that concision is so undervalued is that it seems easy but is actually quite difficult and takes skill, intellectual effort and ruthlessness (as a well-known bit of writing advice goes, you must “kill all your darlings”).
If you can eliminate a sentence, a phrase, or even a few words, you probably should. This is especially true in a screenplay, which is a space-bound genre; screenplays typically run approximately 90-120 pages because 1 screenplay page is roughly equal to 1 minute of screen time and most movies run between 90 minutes and two hours. You don’t want to waste your precious space because you’re being needlessly long-winded!
Concision in screenplay writing is especially critical in “the black stuff,” the descriptive, non-dialogue portions of a screenplay. Many screenplay advice books and how-to guides caution the writer to minimize the black stuff because, according to common wisdom, many executives only read the dialogue and resort to the black stuff only when they can’t understand the dialogue without it; furthermore, screenplay writers are often told that scripts with too much of it are rejected as being “verbose and ponderous” (Grove 85). Despite this common view, however, the black stuff is absolutely necessary for a screenplay that works.
The black stuff has many names: action, description, descriptive action, narrative action, visual exposition, direction, scene direction. It is just about everything that isn’t dialogue or sluglines (those formatted, all caps lines that begin scenes, for instance INT. MARVIN’S ROOM - DAY). The black stuff can be description of an important person, place, or thing. It can describe what a character is doing. It can help create an atmosphere or mood. It can tell the reader about what’s going on and how it’s happening. It has many jobs, all of which are important.
As a genre, the screenplay focuses on the visual and aural aspects of a story, and the style of the black stuff should reflect this focus. The black stuff should focus on what will be seen and heard on the screen rather than what the character is thinking or his or her state of mind. As it describes how the action unfolds on the screen, the black stuff is written in present tense.
In terms of style, the black stuff is a bit like poetry. The attention to the visuals is imagistic and should not only provide physical details but also connotations and emotions. The black stuff does not have to be written in full sentences nor does it have to follow standard grammar. The black stuff should use specific and powerful words, particularly verbs. It is evocative without being exhaustive; you don’t have to describe characters, their clothes, the setting, etc. in full detail; there are actors, set designers, and other professional personnel who will create those things for the film.
An example of some black stuff in desperate need of concision and power might look like this:
SHANE, a 20 something babe with ice blue eyes and a nonchalant manner, walks into the bar, which is a cross between a TGIFridays and a dive. He enters the room slowly, taking it all in. He pauses before approaching the bar, where he orders a cheap domestic beer. The bartender, almost as sad as the bar itself, fills the scratched plastic mug and hands it over. Shane’s stance is casual, but his eyes are alert. He looks around; assessing. His eyes stop on a young woman.
This would be better if Shane’s character was revealed through action rather than straight description. The sentence about his stance just describes him standing there; a better choice would be to describe him doing something specific. Also, unless his ice blue eyes figure into the plot, it would probably be better to describe his attitude or bearing rather than a specific physical feature that may or may not be part of the actor actually cast for the part. The verbs used here are bland and general: “walks,” “enters,” “pauses,” “approaching.” How different this would be if Shane stomped into the bar, accosted the bartender, and demanded a beer; the tone of the scene would be much clearer.
Finally, this descriptive passage is quite wordy. In fact, several of these sentences could be shortened, combined, or turned into fragments. For example, “He enters the room slowly, taking it all in” could be shortened to “He slowly enters. Observes carefully.” Likewise, the final sentences, “Shane’s stance is casual, but his eyes are alert. He looks around; assessing. His eyes stop on a young woman” could be combined into “Shane’s casual stance belies his roving, assessing eyes, which stop on a young woman.”
Choosing telling details can be another way to condense black stuff. For instance, the scratched plastic mug Shane’s beer comes in implies a lot about the bar’s age and typical clientele. Shane’s blue eyes, on the other hand, don’t really imply much about who he is as a person. If Shane had instead been described as wearing “hipster horn-rimmed glasses,” the reader would know something important about Shane’s identity and appearance.
Whether the black stuff is introducing a character, describing a setting or an object, or detailing an action, it must be evocative, clear, and concise. For instance, Diablo Cody’s script for Juno, which won the 2007 Oscar for Best Original Screenplay, describes the main character, Juno, as an “artfully bedraggled burnout kid.” Such a description, though only four words long, gives us evocative visual details that imply a lot about Juno’s look and her character. Likewise, David Seidler’s 2010 Oscar-winning script for The King’s Speech describes a 1920’s BBC microphone as “a formidable piece of machinery suspended on springs,” which is both a concise and evocative visual description as well as a foreshadowing of the main character’s difficulty with public speaking.
Tightening and punching up black stuff is a crucial step in screenplay writing. It can be a good idea, especially in your first few screenplays, to do several passes through the drafts of your screenplay only looking at condensing and strengthening the black stuff; it’s that important.
Grove, Elliot. Raindance Writers’ Lab: Write + Sell the Hot Screenplay. Burlington, MA: Focal
Press, 2009. Print.
To state the obvious: everything happens somewhere, sometime. If you don’t make sure that your reader can imagine the where and the when of your story, that poor reader won’t stay with you, no matter how scintillating your plot is. It seems easy to say, “So just provide the details of the place and time,” but it’s a little more complicated than that. Here are a few tips:
When and where are you?
Really, the question is, “When and where are your characters? And what does that have to do with the story you want to tell?”
- The overarching trick to establishing the place(s) where your characters are having their experiences and acting out their desires is to provide precise, concrete nouns (“cottage” or “bungalow” or “chateau” instead of merely “house”) and sensory detail—images that lead your reader to visualize, “hear,” imagine smelling and touching and tasting. But the key lies in knowing which details to provide. And the bottom-line rule might be as follows: only provide the details that illuminate the plot. See #3 below.
- There are degrees of place and time. Know the big picture (country/epoch) and move to minute particulars (position in room/minute of the day).
Your reader needs to know fairly early in your story what country your characters are in, and what general time period. The United States in the twenty-first century is easy; however, California in the mid-1950s is different from Georgia in 1862. More distant nations and times need their own markers. The subway in 1954 Tokyo looks and feels different from the 1919 Metro in Madrid. Know these differences and use them to create images for your reader. Remember that your reader doesn’t need to know everything about these places and times—one well-chosen detail can do a great deal of work to establish the general place and time of an event in your story.
After country and general time period, your reader will be pleased to be oriented to more specific information: town or village, city or country? Does your story take place in a real city with a name that your reader is likely to recognize, or are you making up a brand new one? In either case, provide precise nouns and concrete details that will allow your reader to imagine it easily.
Similarly, what time of year is it? Late spring, blossoms on the trees? Horrible high summer in the middle of the Nevada desert, hot and thirsty? Soft winter in Seattle, lots of water, not as cold as Minneapolis might be?
The most intimate degree of time and place is building/room and day/time. Lots of stories gloss over names of cities and countries because being in contemporary America, they’re easily identified, but if your reader can’t visualize or imagine where your characters are in those cities, at what time of day—early evening in a seedy hotel with dust balls in the corners of the narrow stairs; high noon at the farmer’s market, with its pungent flowers and soap vendors among the booths hawking in-season figs and summer squash; a lonely unlit side street in the dead of night—she or he will likely be confused about the importance of the events taking place. A woman sobbing in the hotel lobby will be different from a woman weeping in the farmer’s market, and a female screaming in the unlit street will be chillingly different from both. All this suggests that details of time and place create mood—the mood that your story requires.
- Your reader doesn’t need to know everything about place and time. Provide only the details that give your reader the information he or she needs to imagine the story’s events and atmosphere unfolding most cleanly. Just as there’s no need to provide a precise date at the beginning of every scene, it’s usually self-defeating to describe the location and size of every brick in the façade of the house where your character lives. It may be enough to say the house is brick. Maybe red or gray brick. But if there’s something about the brick that’s relevant to the story—if, say, the bricks are irregular and crumbling, and your character is going to find a lost treasure in a rubble-infested corner of those bricks—then go ahead and create that image for your reader. Otherwise, leave it at “red brick bungalow.”
- Think of setting as scaffolding for your story—infrastructure, if you will, that requires the story to take place in a very particular way. Setting shouldn’t distract your reader but should enable her or him to see—and feel—the story unfold. In other words, setting serves your story. Story comes first.
- Now, having said “story comes first,” let us acknowledge that setting is inextricable from story. Most stories can’t take place anytime or anyplace other than where and when they do. Think of O. Henry’s famous “Gift of the Magi” (see it at http://www.ibiblio.org/ebooks/Henry/Gift_Magi.pdf): if those lovelorn newlyweds had lived today, they’d never have gone out to get each other’s Christmas presents in the first place—they’d have ordered them online with credit and saved themselves the tragedy of giving away their treasures in exchange for gifts of love.
But do you see what’s happened here? We think of them as having “lived” just because O. Henry gave us three or four sufficient details to imagine them in their dark little apartment in some early-twentieth-century American city: “A furnished flat at $8 per week . . . In the vestibule below was a letter-box into which no letter would go, and an electric button from which no mortal finger could coax a ring.”(3) He doesn’t need to tell what time period or what country they’re in. His vocabulary, the cost of rent, the hardly-working old-fashioned accoutrements of the “flat” give us all we need to know. We believe in the characters because we have a few absolutely spot-on details of their place, their time.
And this is the purpose of setting: to create a believable small world that your reader takes for granted because it’s internally consistent and supports the unfolding of the story itself.
Finally, but perhaps most importantly: setting is deployed in either scene or summary.
Summary might be the easiest to explain, but it’s the hardest to use wisely. Writers of really great short fiction summarize the habitual movements of their characters as background to the scenes when something important happens in close-up.
Beginning writers often summarize everything! A beginning writer might summarize the next two paragraphs in “The Gift of the Magi” as follows:
They were very poor, and now Della was deeply sad that she couldn’t buy her beloved husband a present.
This is a not inaccurate representation of the situation. But can you see any details of setting? Sure, summary is vital. You can’t slo-mo everything (as you do in a scene) or your reader will get bored. Summary creates a bridge during times when nothing happens, lays out the way things usually are usually for a character (remember that plot happens when something breaks up the status quo, “the way things usually are usually”), or creates for the reader an accurate sense of time moving on.
But when your reader needs to see action in detail, slow down. Use dialogue. Let props keep your characters busy while they talk. (Yes, think stage management! Who’s doing what “business” during the dialogue?) Just as they do in real life, when important things are happening in your story, minute details of place, time, and personal appearance must impress themselves deeply upon your reader’s senses. Only then will the story live.
Here is how O. Henry handles the despair implied in the “beginning writer” example above:
…appertaining thereunto [on the letter-box] was a card bearing the name “Mr. James Dillingham Young.” The “Dillingham” had been flung to the breeze during a former period of prosperity when its possessor was being paid $30 per week. Now, when the income was shrunk to $20, the letters of “Dillingham” looked blurred, as though they were thinking seriously of contracting to a modest and unassuming D. But whenever Mr. James Dillingham Young came home and reached his flat above he was called “Jim” and greatly hugged by Mrs. James Dillingham Young, already introduced to you as Della. Which is all very good. (3)
This paragraph summarizes by showing us the status quo. This is what life is like for Della.
The next paragraph switches to scene, to action. Notice the details of setting (the window, the gray cat, the gray fence, the gray backyard) that declare a movement into plot—into conflict and unfulfilled desire: Della finished her cry and attended to her cheeks with the powder rag. She stood by the window and looked out dully at a gray cat walking a gray fence in a gray backyard. Tomorrow would be Christmas Day, and she had only $1.87 with which to buy Jim a present. (4)
Ah! Tiny nerve receptors in our brain and body are responding to the visual cues describing the status quo and the actions implying a need to change that status quo. Specific, concrete words, coupled with the powers of observation and feeling, are O. Henry’s tools. Now we are not merely hearing about Della’s world—now we are in it.
- An exercise commonly assigned in introductory creative writing classes to practice the principles of creating setting is to imagine fully, and then write, a scene where two people are enclosed together in a place that one of them hates and the other loves. One of them wants desperately to get away; the other is quite content. But it’s the same place. Your job is to imagine such a place (a dorm room? An elevator? A certain city?). Include enough specific nouns and concrete sensory detail that readers can imagine it—but then let the interaction between the characters show that it can be both desirable and repulsive. Who’s right? What do you want your reader to think?
- John Gardner famously taught a similar exercise (see https://lowenhoward.wordpress.com/2012/02/24/the-john-gardner-challenge/ ): imagine the view of a city as seen from a hill on the edge of that city by a man who has just received word that his son has been killed in a faraway war. Do not mention the son, the war, or death. This is a great exercise for recognizing that the words you choose to provide details of place and time are not merely concrete and specific, but also full of affect. A fireplace can invite or intimidate, a flame can flicker warmly or sear flesh. As always, in this exercise you get to play with words to create the feeling of the setting, the mood, not just objective details of place and time.
- Recast the story you wrote for the “Writing Stories” unit in a different place. Or a different time. Or both. Note how the story has to change. What elements of setting require that the story itself change? Also note that you might need to do some research to make the time shift work, or to be accurate in your depiction of place. Research is part of the fun of writing. Try it!
Write about a fever. Write about a headache. Write about snorting and snuffling your way through the common cold.
You may see these as boring writing prompts. Who cares, you might ask, about someone who's taking his temperature every other minute? What's so exciting about popping a couple of Tylenol? Do I really want to write about snot?
The purpose of this article is to convince you that illness--even in its most mundane manifestation--is a storyworthy topic, particularly when you are working within the mode of realistic fiction. Your characters are made of flesh and bone and blood. They love, they hate. They also blow their nose and do what my mother calls "numero uno and numero due" in the bathroom. Why, then, do so many beginning writers shy away from such readily-available story material?
You might think illness--especially the common kind--doesn't make for a scintillating plot. Isn't it more exciting, you might argue, to develop a story around a more dramatic conflict--such as a car crash or burglary or rape, or maybe even something really "out there" like a nuclear holocaust or alien invasion?
Ordinarily I counsel students who are focused on infusing their fiction with such high drama to turn off the television (or Hulu or Netflix). But let's keep the TV on for just a second to prove my point. Why have medical dramas always been popular on television? From Dr. Kildare and Marcus Welby, M.D. to ER and House and Grey's Anatomy, viewers always have been drawn to the exploration of how our bodies go awry. Fiction writers can easily tap into this interest. They must, however, approach illness in a much less melodramatic way.
If you watch an episode of one of these aforementioned shows, you'll note that the illness or disease explored is often something ridiculously rare that evades simple diagnosis. There's plenty of big-time drama rolling--and neatly getting solved--within sixty minutes: Bring on the flesh-eating bacteria! The Siamese twins who share a heart! The patients who code! The doctors and the nurses who screw each other senseless in the medical-supply closets!
I hardly advocate trying to replicate such drama on the page. First of all, most writers are not medical professionals. We don't have the knowledge base--or the vocabulary--to explore life (and death) in the hospital. We cannot possibly expect to write a satisfying and credible tale about those Siamese twins within the brief span of fifteen to twenty pages.
What we can do is ease into writing about more dramatic illnesses--such as cancer or AIDS--by first learning how to write about common complaints.
Let's go back to one of the first writing prompts: write about a fever. One of Raymond Carver's most-anthologized stories--aptly titled "Fever"--does just that. This is a very simple story about a man named Carlyle whose wife has left him alone with two young children. Carlyle's most immediate conflict is his need to find a reliable babysitter. But as the story progresses, he also must come to terms with his wife's decision to run off with another man and must face the responsibilities of life as a single father.
He does this by “doing” what the body often does in times of great stress. He gets ill. Spikes a fever. His delirium becomes a stand-in for his confusion. He "sweats through" his problems and comes out on the other side more accepting of his fate.
Like other contemporary writers, Carver uses a common illness as a metaphor for an emotional state. So next time you sit down to write, consider the metaphorical possibilities of the following:
- a headache
- an earache
- dry eye
- strep throat
What deeper conflicts might be related to these problems? Maybe your character develops a migraine thinking about an impending divorce or home foreclosure. Maybe he or she develops an ulcer from working a stressful retail job during holiday season.
Once we learn how to write about minor bodily problems in our short fiction, we are better equipped to tackle more serious ailments in longer work. A novel gives us plenty of time to pace the progression of a character's response to terminal or chronic illness. You might think that readers want to avoid steeping themselves in such depressing topics. But we need only glance at the best-seller list to see the popularity of fiction devoted to illness. Novels such as John Green's The Fault in Our Stars and Jodi Picoult's My Sister's Keeper draw us in precisely because they deal with huge life and death issues.
So beginning writers: get out your thermometer, your Tylenol, and your NyQuil Sinus, put them in the hands of your characters, and get to work.
- Written by Joe Moxley
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- Category: Creative Non-Fiction
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Who are you? How have your experiences shaped your sense of what is important or possible? Realize the benefits of using writing to reflect on your life. Read exemplary autobiographies and write about a significant, unusual, or dramatic event in your life.
Autobiographies are stories that people write about themselves. These stories can be factual accounts of significant, unusual, or dramatic events. They can be remembrances of famous or interesting people. And sometimes, when people slip from fact into fiction, they can be fictional stories, what some writers call "faction."
- Written by Tamara Girardi
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Stephanie Vanderslice's most recent book is Rethinking Creative Writing. With Dr. Kelly Ritter, she has also published Teaching Creative Writing to Undergraduates and Can It Really Be Taught: Rethinking Lore in Creative Writing Pedagogy. She publishes fiction, nonfiction and creative criticism and her work is represented by Pen and Ink Literary. Professor of Creative Writing and Director of the Arkansas Writer's MFA Workshop at the University of Central Arkansas, her column, The Geek's Guide to the Writing Life appears regularly in the Huffington Post. In 2012 Dr. Vanderslice was named Carnegie Foundation/Case Association for the Support of Education US Professor of the Year for the state of Arkansas.
- Written by Tamara Girardi
- Parent Category: Creative Writing
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Trent Hergenrader is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he teaches creative writing and literature. His research focuses on creative writing studies, digital writing, and game-based learning, which he brings together in courses where students collaboratively build vast fictional worlds using role-playing games as models for their writing. His short fiction has appeared in The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Realms of Fantasy, The Mammoth Book of Dieselpunk, Best Horror of the Year #1 and other fine places, and he is co-editor of Creative Writing in the Digital Age: Theory, Practice, and Pedagogy.
- Written by Tamara Girardi
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An Interview With Timons Esaias
Interview Conducted by Tamara Girardi
Timons Esaias is a satirist, poet, and writer of short fiction, living in Pittsburgh. His work, ranging from literary to genre, has appeared in fifteen languages. He won an Asimov's Readers' Award and was a finalist for the British Science Fiction Award. He has had over one hundred poems in print, including Spanish, Swedish and Chinese translations, in markets ranging from Asimov’s Science Fiction to 5AM and Elysian Fields Quarterly: The Literary Journal of Baseball. His poetry chapbook, The Influence of Pigeons on Architecture, sold out two editions. He is adjunct faculty at Seton Hill University in the Writing Popular Fiction M.F.A. Program. He also teaches undergrads in four programs: Creative Writing, Literature, History, and Western Cultures.
1. Can you tell us about the writing projects you’re working on right now and where you are in your process for each one?
- Warfare for Writers (working title), which is a non-fiction book on military science for writers, especially those who've never really paid attention to military matters. I'm about halfway done with this.
- "Hollywood After 10" (working title) is a science fiction short story, time-travel, involving the McCarthy Era. I have about one day's worth of editing to go; which includes deciding what the title will be.
- Why Elephants No Longer Communicate in Greek is a literary poetry chapbook I'm putting together. I'm still struggling to improve the title poem (which is a problem for completing a collection!) and haven't made much progress deciding what will go in it. I hope to do a lot of that work later this month.
- I'm also working on a chapbook of science fiction poems, and part of the selection process for the other chapbook is deciding whether some poems go in this one or that one. I don't have a title for it yet, and I'll be doing both chapbooks in tandem.
- I'm sorry to admit that I have about a dozen short stories that are drafted, but which I've never quite finished, which means I'm still a little dissatisfied with them. It would be nice if I got them all in the mail in the next six months, but we'll see.
- Finally, I've got a completed satire, The Gospel of Elvis according to Timons, which I wrote a long time ago, and then pulled when I quit doing newspaper satire. I really ought to update the book proposal and send it to agents. If I could find the time.
2. How important is reading for a writer? How much or how often do you read, and what kinds of texts do you choose to read?
Reading is very important for a writer.
Unless I'm completely buried in student manuscripts, I read every day. To keep up with what's current in the field, I try to read all of the relevant "Best of" annual collections. That's the most efficient way to stay aware of a wide variety of writers and styles. In my case this means reading The Best American Short Stories, The Best American Essays, sometimes The Best American Nonrequired Reading and both the Dozois and Hartwell/Cramer Year's Best SF collections.
I also read novels, both literary and genre, and some single-author collections. I'm usually years behind the curve on those. And I read non-fiction for research and for teaching (and general interest). Too often, I'm afraid, those choices are dictated by the needs of my current projects, rather than what I'd most like to read next.
I read a good deal of poetry, since I'm a publishing poet. Not nearly as much as I probably should, but it ends up low on the list.
For relaxation I read mystery novels (usually set in a different time or culture), and literary novels. In total, I finish between 70-80 books a year. I also try to squeeze in the reading of several issues of McSweeney's.
3. Looking at your own writing, what challenges do you face when writing, and how do you overcome them?
My first challenge is keeping up a regular writing schedule. My wife's job has a different schedule almost every day, which makes it hard for me to keep a regular schedule myself. I also teach undergraduate college courses, with the usual some days on, some days off schedule. I've adapted by becoming flexible, and learning to write in coffee shops, libraries, lobbies, etc. But I've never beaten the regular-schedule part of the problem, and that has been a barrier.
Another challenge I face as a writing teacher is that I have to choose between working on my own writing and working on that of my students. All too often for the good of my own career, that decision falls on the side of the student work.
As to writing itself, I learned a trick long ago that keeps me from having too many "great challenges" in the composition part. If I feel that I've got a weakness, I write some pieces that focus on just that issue. (For instance, when my dialog was feeling flabby, I wrote an all-dialog short story as an exercise. No speech tags, no description, everything was between quotes. And that became a published story, now translated into several languages.) If I can't make a decision on how to write a piece or a scene, I write it both ways. In other words I work around any issue that comes up, and turn any problem into an exercise.
My other solution to problems is to take long walks. Give yourself one issue to mull over during the walk, and have your notebook and pen in a pocket.
4. What did you dislike about your experiences as a student in creative writing classrooms, and how have those experiences influenced the way you teach?
I dislike any class in which critique is emphasized over actual writing. Critique is important, but you can trap students in abusive critique relationships (which means you need to monitor the critiques, which takes up time you could be monitoring the actual writing), and too often small critique groups don't contain the person who understands what kind of writing the student is trying to do. So I'm afraid I minimize peer critique.
I dislike being overloaded with theory, rather than practical advice. In our MFA program they have me give three-hour lectures (we're limited residency, so this only happens two weeks per year) that have to be loaded with theory, and you can sense the irony here. So, I try to intersperse quick exercises that make it clear how the theory applies to the page in front of you.
I especially dislike theory that's based on critical analysis (the kind that academics do in their dissertations) rather than on the methods a writer actually employs. I've seen too many students trip over all the critical analysis they've been showered with in the past. Students hate metaphor because they were taught it as some holy relic, or a dry-as-dust test subject. I try to teach students that metaphor is a powerful tool, one of our best, and that the reader doesn't need to know that you're using it.
In poetry classes, I despise, actually despise, instructors who try to make students into Elizabethan poets, or Romantic poets, by making them write form poems primarily. Contemporary poetry is not like that, and forcing students to imitate it is a disservice. Likewise ignoring the truth that popular music is the biggest venue for form poetry today, and not embracing it as a form of creative writing, is a sin. In teaching poetry, I do form at the end of the semester, after the students have been writing free verse most of the term, to introduce the technical material that might interest them. But I do it at the end, so they don't choke on scansion before they get the confidence to address a blank page.
5. “Field Recon” is a term I have heard you use often and an exercise you often assign to students. Can you talk a little about the concept, its purpose, and its influence on your student-writers’ work?
I'll attach my general instructions for a Field Recon, and a specific example as well.
Basically, I think of this method as the most important thing I can teach a creative writing student, because it teaches them how to teach themselves in the future. Writers often struggle with very specific issues that aren't usefully addressed in the how-to literature. Issues like: How do you introduce a character in a third-person narration, that's different from how you would do it in first person? When a character steps into a new room, what do you describe? How is the pacing of dialog in a thriller different from dialog in a mystery? How long should paragraphs be?
My suggestion is that you find the answer in books you admire (and recently published books are best), by posing a specific question. Then you take a variety of authors (who are relevant to the question) and look for exactly the places in a book where they do that same thing; then write down what you find.
In my experience, when a student undertakes a Field Recon, there is almost immediately an across-the-board improvement in their style. Something about the nuts-and-bolts issue of seeing how different writers do some simple thing seems to make students approach the whole craft with a more professional (and confident) attitude.
6. What do you wish student-writers did or knew before they enrolled in creative writing courses or programs?
- I wish they knew what "usage" is, and how to use Fowler's or Garner's, preferably the latter.
- I wish they knew that creative writing involves doing everything, including formatting and editing.
- I wish they knew the basics of grammar, and owned a simple grammar.
- I wish they knew that bigger words don't mean better writing.
- I really wish they had some concept of proper manuscript format, but it's not logical to expect that. (I spend enormous amounts of effort getting students to comply with this baseline requirement.)
7. What are the top five lessons you hope your student-writers learn from you?
- No page is wasted.
- You need to behave in a professional manner at all times. Treat fellow writers as colleagues; be courteous, generous, and thoughtful. The critique partner of today may be the anthology editor, or book editor, or agent of tomorrow. Follow the behavior of the friendliest, kindest people in the industry, not the most self-indulgent.
- One should never stop learning. Improvement of craft is an endless task. Try to make this month's pages better than last month's pages. Better is the way forward.
- In every piece you write, try to have a sentence or two--better yet, a paragraph or two--that will make a reader want to recite it to someone else.
- If there is no conflict on the page, the page has no reason to exist. (The solution is often to inject conflict rather than to delete the page.) This is true of non-fiction, as well, with the possible exception of cookbooks.
8. When is it important for student-writers to start thinking about publishing their work, and how do you advise them to go about doing so?
- I teach classes that are geared toward publication, so I may be inclined to preach publication earlier than many instructors. (Though, in my current undergrad Writing of Poetry class I'm only discussing it briefly, because many of the students don't intend to publish poetry. There are several who just want to improve their writing in general, for instance, and it would be counterproductive to bring up the scary issue of submission when they're not interested.)
- Frankly, if a student wants to be published, I tell them that anything they finish that they're not ashamed of should go in the mail. Submission is a learning process, and there's no convincing reason to put the learning off.
- I guide them to duotrope.com (though that is now problematical) and ralan.com and other sites that offer market listings and market advice. I have a number of mini-lecture documents that I give them, clarifying specific issues they might need to face. I teach an entire undergraduate class (Publication Workshop) on the elements of freelancing, so this is a topic I regularly address. The MFA program I teach in is all about getting published, so I give my mentees rather specific advice on this.
9. Other than enrolling in creative writing classes or programs, what should student-writers be doing to advance their craft and/or careers?
- Networking: going to writing conferences if they can afford it (Pennwriters, SFWA, genre conventions that have writing tracks) or joining online writing communities if they can't go in person.
- Actually writing pages. It's the next page that will teach you the most, but too many people think they have to endlessly prepare before they can write. Wrong. Write. No page is wasted, even though most pages don't see print.
- Do some things that give you some experiences to write about, and a sense of how the world actually works. As an example, I frequently have students trying to write fantasy or historical fiction set in the past, but the only thing they know about the past is what they've seen on TV and read in other novels. I tell them they should put the following on their To Do Soonish Lists:
- Learn to lay paper
- Ride a horse, including learning how to saddle the thing. Bonus points for driving a team. Double bonus for driving a team of oxen.
- Learn to blow glass
- Do some blacksmithing, or other work with heated iron and steel, like working a bloomery (which is darn rare in the world these days)
- Fire bricks and/or clay, with bonus for learning how to lay bricks
10. What is the most valuable question a writer can ask himself or herself? And can you answer that question here?
The most important question a writer can ask of themselves is: Why do I want to write; why should I spend thousands of hours of my life trying to master this craft?
In my case, writing is really an excuse to think about the world and then to share what I discover with others. I set up my writing projects to follow my interests, to chase down my own questions, to figure out what's going on here. In college I took philosophy, and rather than become an academic philosopher (or a lawyer) I turned to writing. Now I'm a covert philosophical operative.
Timons Esaias's Procedure for Field Reconnaissance
This is really the most important thing I can teach you, because it will allow you to teach yourself. There is no need to send a royalty payment each time you conduct a Recon Patrol.
1. Write down the specific craft item you need to address. Your question.
2. Go to your own bookshelves, or those of a library (don’t spend money), or wherever works of the type you write are to be found and take down ten recent novels (or picture books, or biographies, or whatever you’re writing). By “recent”, I mean first published in the last five years. This is where you'll look for some answers.
3. Open each one to the very first place that the thing you're looking for occurs. I'll use the example of someone wondering how to establish Point of View at the beginning of a chapter.
4. So take the, in this case, ten novels. Turn to the very first chapter of one of them. Read the first paragraph or two, and see what POV is used, and how it is established.
5. This is very important. Write down the devices that are used. Observe techniques; name them for yourself. If you see something you feel is a mistake, make note of that, too. If you write down what you find, you will end this exercise with a nice list of tricks you can use yourself. Which you will understand, because you discerned them yourself.
6. Now go to the next chapter, or scene break, and see what the author does there. New POV? Same POV? How is it established? Write down what you find.
7. Now flip to much later in the book, and repeat #6 one more time.
8. Now go take a look at your own work in the same way. You’ll probably have some new ideas to try.
9. Do this periodically for the rest of your life.
Trust me, if you do this with the ten books, reading just 30 paragraphs minimum, or 60 at max, you’ll learn more that you can actually use than any course will ever teach you. You'll have a tool chest drawer packed with named tools of your own discovery. You'll probably have all you need for a Teaching Module, too.
But, let me remind you, it's essential to write it down.