YOUNG WRITERS: SIX PIECES OF ADVICE THAT WILL GET YOU TAKEN SERIOUSLY by Gillian Murray Kendall
I didn’t get a lot of advice on creative writing when I was young—not as a teenager, not as a younger writer. When I wrote a flop, my parents were kind. When I wrote something that had a certain amount of substance to it—a plot, a theme, a shape—my parents were also kind. So were my teachers. So was the world at large. It comes to me now that I was treated nicely, benignly. Sometimes I even impressed people: they thought I might someday become a writer.
I thought so too.
The people around me didn’t realize—I didn’t realize—that I already was one. Writers write.
But being taken seriously as writers is one of the biggest challenges anybody (of any age) can face.
So here’s some serious advice for writers, but in particular for young writers, who are serious about their craft.
When I read Stephen King’s On Writing, I was impressed by the care with which he prepared his writing space: the place was a sanctuary. But we don’t all have sanctuaries (except internal ones). It doesn’t really matter where I write, for example, but it matters that I do. It doesn’t really matter what I use to write with—a ball point pen, a quill, a MAC—or what color of ink I use (I don’t use blood. It’s a biohazard, and it’s creepy). I just write. There are no excuses. I wrote a short story that won an award while sitting in 7th grade math as we went over a homework problem. I wrote it in the margins of my notebook.
See? Math is important.
2. WHAT I LEARNED ABOUT STRUCTURE IN JUNIOR HIGH SCHOOL WAS REALLY HELPFUL
When I write, I still check for those elements of story-telling that I was taught in Junior High School (and now I teach that same vocabulary of fiction narratives to my Smith College students). Why should one learn such structural terms? Because a story that’s a really great read tends to have strong structures. On the other hand, if I’m writing, and my story is going all wrong, it may well be because I have a problem with some of the following elements:
To begin with, a story needs Exposition (which is, well, where one begins). It’s in the Exposition that I muster my characters and put them somewhere: Massachusetts, New Mexico, the moon. I give them names or a smidgeon of description. Perhaps I add a pinch of theme. I’m going to use examples—it’s easier. In the beginning of this sample story we learn that:
My heroine, Sally of the golden hair, has lived in Northampton all her life, and she doesn’t even remember when she first met her best friend, James.
That sentence packs it in: protagonist, description, setting, theme (friendship). It is, of course, a mere skeleton—a few notes, really—waiting to be fleshed out with deep description and dialogue so that it has texture. Exposition can be fun, but soon, after a relatively short visit with my characters and setting, it’s time to move along.
Something must happen to get things going. And that something is called Complication. In this case, the Complication is going to occur while Sally and James (as well as Sally’s brother) are at a co-ed summer camp, far from their parents. Here’s the problem: seemingly far away from them, in, say, Texas, a virus breaks out and turns people into brain dead cannibals—yes, zombies!
Now what? Now it’s time for the Rising Action. The consequences of that Complication cause a growing sense of tension. The pace increases as the reader turns the pages, and the zombies munch their way across the United States—munching, in the course of their travels, characters ever more close to our protagonists. First acquaintances, then friends become partially eaten and zombified. Finally, having gobbled up the parents of Sally (and her brother)—and James’ parents too—the zombies near the camp where my characters reside. Sally (and her brother) and James are in imminent danger—they don’t know what to do. But they do know that the last radio broadcast they heard mentioned an isolated place somehow safe from the cannibalistic flesh-eating pustular monsters (I’ll let my current reader figure out how and why it’s safe). Let’s call that place Haven. The space between the eruption of the virus (Complication) and the big moment we are about to get to, the final crucial fight with the zombies that James and Sally (and Sally’s brother) engage in, is the Rising Action. And most of that rising action, be it short story or novel, is going to be the story of their journey to Haven. The theme, mentioned first in the Exposition, is the metamorphosis of their friendship.
After an increasingly dramatic set of adventures, and just when our characters think they’re going to make it to Haven, Sally (and her brother) and James are attacked by a huge number of zombies. Our intrepid trio begins to fight them off. The fighting is fierce, but our protagonists appear to win. This time, however, just as our threesome is starting to relax, they all realize that Sally’s brother, the big guy that made a lot of jokes and was always optimistic, a character we really liked, has been bitten in the hand.
The three of them watch, horrified, waiting for Sally’s brother to become a zombie. Then Sally (who’s always been very practical) draws her machete and lops off most of her brother’s arm.
This is the end of the chapter.
And this is also the CLIMAX (Shazam!) of the whole story. Our undaunted heroine, Sally, has saved her brother in a lurid, gross and completely riveting way. With one swing of the machete, she has brought us to that CLIMAX: things will never be so bad or so good again (Brad Pitt, by the way, in World War Z, also chopped off a character’s arm to save her from becoming a zombie. But that’s another story). Our friends now realize that they are very close to Haven, and it’s time to move on.
They bind up the stump. This is part of the Falling Action, which ties up loose ends just as they tie up the arm. As James applies pressure to the wound, and Sally looks on, she realizes that her friendship for James has turned into love. James, we learn, has loved her all along. Meanwhile, Haven is visible on the horizon and Sally, James and Sally’s one-armed brother walk towards it.
They reach Haven. The story (or novel) concludes.
3. WRITE WHAT YOU KNOW: YOU KNOW A LOT
I was sure I knew an awful lot when I was a teenager.
And I was right.
I knew the names of obscure breeds of horses. I could, reliably, identify poison ivy. I was extraordinarily proficient at the game of Jacks.
I also knew that Mary Jane Morris had stole Carol Donnison’s boyfriend, just to show she could. I knew that Gary Hardwick cheated on math tests. I could see that Sarah Grogan was in love with the boys’ gym teacher (a few years later they ran away together). And when Terry Sutherland, addled with liquor, pushed through a plate glass sliding door and bled to death, well, I was shocked, and I was sad, and I cried some tears—but I was not surprised.
Because I knew stuff.
The best stuff, the kind of stuff that makes good stories and novels. Stuff about what people are like. And what people will do. It’s only one step from knowing people to knowing about them. One step more, and I found I was able to transform my knowledge into the creation of characters. And once I had characters, I had to provide them with interesting plots.
That was okay, too. Because I knew stuff. I knew that Greg Olverson and Leela King had to get married because she was pregnant, and that they both dropped out of high school. One day, as I was trying on shoes at our little store in Lawrence, Kansas, I was horrified to realize that it was Greg Olverson who was down on his knees measuring my foot.
Did I say I knew stuff? I felt stuff too. And what I felt then was embarrassment and shame and the feeling that a random bullet had missed me and hit someone else.
It doesn’t matter that my current manuscript is a fantasy set in a world different from ours. It’s still populated with Mary Jane’s and Carol’s and Gary’s and Greg’s and Leela’s. And the story I tell contains characters who feel the kind of pain and guilt I felt when Greg Olverson helped me try on new shoes. And some of them know what it is to watch someone self-destruct the way Terry Sutherland had when he walked through that glass door.
And sometimes my characters experience feelings that are close to home. In The Garden of Darkness (2014), characters lose parents. It’s only now, looking back at that book, that I realize that I worked through some of the feelings that were handed to me when I was seventeen and my father died.
One doesn’t have to be twenty to understand a great deal about the way the world works.
So—I knew a lot.
But what I didn’t know, I looked up.
When I was fourteen, I was a finalist in the National Scholastic Creative Writing contest (it was very exciting, and my picture was in the Lawrence Journal World, our local newspaper). In my story, two characters played chess. I was terrible at chess. Did Knights do a little sideways hop, or did Queens? Who knew? Not I. But I made it my business to find out.
There’s a reason Encyclopedias were invented. An Encyclopedia is like Wikipedia on paper. Years (and years) ago, Encyclopedia salesmen would go door to door selling these massive repositories of knowledge, volumes and volumes of them, from A-Z, Anteater to Zebra. One could pay on the lay-away plan, a bit at a time. And many, many families had Encyclopedias. Homework assignments were based on what was found in them. And in them I found the rules of chess.
My triumph in knowing I could find things out that I didn’t know may have been worth the price of the set.
When I wrote The Garden of Darkness, one of my two principle characters, Jem, is president of his high school’s chess club (why do I do this to myself?). With Google and Wikipedia now at my service, I was soon proficient on the topic of chess. I had a fleeting moment of regret when I discovered a chess move called (and it really is called this) the Fried Liver Attack. I could have used that detail in the story I wrote when I was fourteen, and my National Scholastic story would have had a comic vein. Who knows what might have happened?
I knew a lot.
And what I didn’t know, I looked up.
And so I wrote.
I still write what I know. It would sound false any other way. But that leaves me a lot of latitude, because it doesn’t matter where I put my characters— in the Horsehead Nebula or in Paris, Texas or in the cloud forests of a new world—I know them intimately. I know how a character living on the planet Zebulon would feel if she found that her revered cousin—once a great prophet—had been reduced to performing ritual toenail cleansings. Greg Olverson taught me that in 11th grade.
4. MY BELIEF IN “TRUE CONFESSIONS” MAGAZINE
When I was in High School, I found a stack of magazines called True Confessions in the basement. Even back then, the stories they contained (“How Often Did She Cheat?” or “I Couldn’t Forget My Brother-in-Law”) were, once one got past the titles, pretty tame stuff. I flipped through “She Grew Up In Prison” and a few others and noticed that each piece ended with a tidy middle class moral.
But, like scores of women across the country—some of whom had probably been reading True Confessions since the first issue came out in 1922—I became fascinated by the genre (“She Couldn’t Stop Her True Confessions”). I would zip down to the basement after school to get my dose of “Too Young to Know” or “Marked for Scandal.” Part of me questioned whether or not these stories—all of which seemed to adhere to similar style and plot guidelines—were actually written by guilt-ridden women anxious to confess their erring ways. And I like to think that I had a clue that these magazines existed to titillate readers and increase subscriptions.
Whatever. I read them. Avidly.
The magazines weren’t exactly To Kill a Mockingbird, but then, what is?
One day, some weeks after I had made my way through all the True Confessions that we had, I went down into the basement to do my mother’s bidding and bring up the clean laundry. I was, however, distracted from my task.
I should say here that I loved to read. I read everything—Pincher Martin (dull), all the volumes of The Forsyte Saga (engrossing), a copy of Fanny Hill that I found behind the bookcase (so wildly inappropriate and shocking that the editor of this website will probably ask me to make up a title here). Editor’s note: we did not. I read the ingredients of bottles of shampoo (unintelligible). And I loved to re-read. So perhaps it was not surprising that instead of getting the laundry, I sat down on the cool floor, opened a True Confessions, and began re-reading “Hooked by Love,” a puzzling tale of a girl who, essentially, stalked a man until he married her. I could think of no one I knew like the people in these stories, but they compelled me nonetheless.
Suddenly my mother clattered down the stairs and came to a stop in front of me.
“Here you are,” she said.
“I was just getting the laundry,” I said (how much time had passed?!).
“I see,” she said. She gestured at the magazine in my hand. “So what d’you think?”
I looked up at her. She seemed genuinely interested in my response. She had somehow lost track of the fact that I had forgotten about the laundry.
“I like them,” I said. Talk about true confessions.
“I see you’re reading ‘Hooked by Love.’”
I was puzzled. “How do you know?”
“The cover. I wrote that one.” She smiled.
“You—“ I stared at her.
“I wrote stories in most of the ones here. Penny a word. I’m ‘Lois Denby.’ And ‘Anonymous’ too. I’m glad you like my prose, but would you get the laundry now?”
She clattered back up the stairs, leaving me with my mouth open.
My mother was a writer, it was true, but I had no idea she had ever written material like this. She was the author of some fairly well-known children’s books, one of which had been a runner up for the Newbery Award. And I knew she had never been a stalkerish woman Hooked by Love.
But I didn’t doubt that she had written them. She had composed stories for other magazines that were more high-end—like “The Housekeeper’s Guide.” Still. I now had bigger problems than the knowledge that my mother had written formulaic trashy stories for a rock-bottom wage. I realized that at some point during my avid reading, I had crossed the line from skeptic to believer, and now, now I knew that what I had begun to think of as true confessions were crafted fictions. There was nothing true about the magazine at all. My proof was upstairs, pairing socks.
I should have known, of course, but I had been seduced by fiction, which had been my mother’s intent when she wrote those potboilers.
And my experience should make one thing very clear (my story has a moral)—readers want to believe fictions, even if only briefly, even if they’re reading fantasy or science fiction. If I provide a story that holds together, that passes the credibility test (and this is when I have to use all that I know in order to build a believable world), then readers will read. Readers will give up common sense and dismiss reason if it allows them to enter an interesting story. It’s my job, in my fiction, to create a space that allows for temporary belief.
I don’t need to tell my readers that what I write is, on some deep level, true. I let them come to that conclusion on their own.
5. DON’T JUST BARE YOUR SOUL, BARE EVERYONE’S
When I was in college, at the age of nineteen, I wrote about my father, who had died two years before. The first thing I wrote was a poem called “Dead Fathers.” It opens:
“She went to college trailing her dead father.”
I cringe a little when I read it now. The word “college” intrudes into the line like a used car salesman as a medieval jousting tournament, and the feminine ending to the line is unfortunate (feminine endings are often associated with comic poetry).
I also wrote a short story on the topic, entitled “Of Walt Disney, Paul Newman and Several Others.” One of the lines went something like this:
“The room smelled of Kentucky Fried Chicken and death. It smelled of Kentucky Fried Chicken because that’s what my mother and I choked down when we were at the hospital. It smelled like death because my father was dying.”
I certainly didn’t believe in understatement.
The poem and story went on to win, each in its category, the writing contest of “Sequoia,” the Stanford University literary magazine, where they were subsequently published. Since that puts them in the public domain, they are no longer private expressions of grief, but, rather, grief on display.
I bared my soul. Then I showed it to everyone.
I still applaud the structure of my story. The Rising Action is the impending death of my father in the impossibly sterile hospital room. The Climax is his death, and the Falling Action is my reaction—and my mother’s too, of course. The End comes when my mother and I find ourselves unable to turn to each other. So one could say that “Of Walt Disney, Paul Newman and Several Others” is structurally sound. And it has a theme too—the story tackles the issue of mortality with an almost grisly sort of gusto.
But the question is this—by baring my soul, was I baring anyone else’s? Or was I being terminally unique?
I believe I was being the latter. In my self-indulgent and, at times, bathetic little story, I somehow miss the raw beating heart of mortal humanity. The story squarely faces the fact of my father’s death, but it never opens a space for everyone else’s mortality. It bares no one else’s soul.
When Herman Melville, author of Moby Dick, writes, in a short story, about the death of one Scrivener (a clerk who copies documents by hand) named Bartleby, he ends the piece with the words “Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!” I read those words for the first time, and Melville’s whole story came into focus. The story wasn’t about Bartleby’s death. It was about mine. About everyone’s.
In my story, I didn’t go there.
I was selfish. I hugged my sorrow to myself and said “mine! mine! mine!” like a child with a toy.
So why did it win a prestigious contest?
I don’t know.
But I don’t bleed profusely onto the page anymore. If there’s bleeding to be done, I let my characters do it, and I remain at a careful distance. When I let my characters take over, when I trust them, when I’m at one remove from pain and not addled by grief—that’s when I can reach out and carefully squeeze my reader’s heart. That’s when I’m in control. That’s when I have a chance of baring everyone’s soul.
When I gave a reading, after winning the contest at Stanford University, a friend of mine noticed a man taking notes. She leaned over his shoulder, of course. There was my name, and under it the man had written “She’s dressed in black, in mourning for her dead father.” Maybe I was in mourning. But I had forgotten how to mourn for everyone’s mortality.
“Ah, Bartleby! Ah, humanity!”
Writing comes from reading. And writing links us all to those authors who came before.
I’ve been addicted to reading from an early age. When I was in grade school, we all had little desks that we could put our notebooks and pens in. I would lift the lid of mine slightly and read a carefully placed book while the teacher told us about civics or communications or math. I was once caught by the civics teacher, but I had the great good luck to be reading Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities, which was Educational, and he let it slide.
I didn’t know that when I read, I was learning how to write. But the more books I read that hit the right buttons in my brain, the more, without even knowing it, I was sponging up ideas about structure and form and theme and metaphor. Similarly, it’s interesting to note when a book one is reading goes astray—the pace (Rising Action) begins to limp along; I get bored; the Climax seems to be unrelated to the rest of the book; the sentences don’t sound right—they’re too long or too short or not varied enough. I can learn from that.
I could go on.
But I won’t. Because I want to write about another important aspect of reading when one is a writer.
Whenever any one of us writes fiction, we become part of the grand and very ancient art of storytelling. Creative writing has a lineage, and it doesn’t really matter what genre I choose to write in, I am a part of it. When I read, I see it all the time—authors conscious of the weight of the past, and who contribute their own writing to the continuation of our literary heritage.
And within a book, allusion to other stories is a wonderful tool. When my characters or narrator gesture towards the work of other writers, it enriches my text and adds layers of meaning to it.
In my novel, The Garden of Darkness (Ravenstone, 2014), literary allusion works as a signal that makes it clear who the villain is and who is the heroine. One of the signs of Clare’s essential goodness is that she loves literature: “She missed the before time. Reading King Lear in the middle of the night. Or reading The Hunger Games as her parakeet pecked at the margins. Or Jane Eyre for the millionth time.”
The villain’s essential badness is made equally clear—he misquotes Shakespeare, as Clare points out. First the villain speaks, then Clare:
“I’m killing Clare first, and then I’m killing you,” he said. “For purely practical reasons. But as Shakespeare says: ‘journeys finish when lovers meet.’”
“Shakespeare didn’t say that,” said Clare. “He wrote that ‘Journeys end in lovers meeting.’ Twelfth Night. You got it wrong. Asshole.”
Clare doesn’t normally use coarse language, but the mis-quotation of Shakespeare calls for it.
I didn’t have to allude to Shakespeare, of course—although surely he’s an excellent measure of good and evil. But I know Shakespeare—I teach Shakespeare. He casts a long shadow for me.
Everyone is in the shadow of literary precursors. Knowing that fact is the beginning of textured excellent writing.
Now go on. Write. Cast some shade for the next generation.