Sunday, October 26, 2008

Don't Do This: writing advice from a college professor

Many, many long years ago, in the dark ages when I was an undergraduate English major, I took a creative writing course. I would have taken more than one, but my small school only offered one creative writing course. Anyway, back then I was steeped mostly in badly written fantasy novels and the effects of reading English literature (and a lot of it) hadn't yet seeped into my writing. I wasn't exactly a bad writer, but I was young and clumsy. I wouldn't go back to those years for anything, not even if I could change some stupid decisions I made back then. (Stupid decision #1: ignoring the really adorable music major guy who I realize now had a crush on me. Stupid stupid stupid!)

So I took the creative writing course, and I got one piece of advice that I have kept and used to good effect. It's such an important rule that I've never seen it written down--writers are supposed to know this innately. On the other hand, obviously we don't, because I see the rule broken all the time. The rule? Don't self-reference writing.

See, I'd written a story for the class--something silly about a woman who ends up running off to Australia with a rich man who owns an ostrich farm. At the end of the story, when she announced her intention of leaving, she said, "How ironic!" because her sister and romantic rival always wore ostrich plumes on her hats, or something equally goofy.

My professor called me on the remark. "Don't tell us it's ironic. You're self-referencing yourself as a writer," she said, or words to that effect.

An example of what not to do? I read The Hero Strikes Back by Moira J. Moore yesterday* and on page 46 here's this exchange:

"How do you know until you try?"
"Because I'm not some all-powerful protagonist in a ridiculous drama who acquires some new unheard of ability with each new improbable situation," he snapped.

Self-referencing! Bad! Do not want! Threw me out of the story instantly and made me sneer, "Oh, yes you are, you just don't know it." Also, too many adjectives.

Don't do this, authors. You should know better.

*Not only is it a terrible cover, the title is appalling too. The book is okay. I liked the main characters marginally better this time, but the plot was thin.


Cate Gardner said...

I attended a couple of sessions of a creative writing course, but decided to drop out when the lecturer announced that the following week he was brining in a bag of Liquorice Allsorts and we were to be blindfolded and would all be given one to eat and describe.

K.C. Shaw said...

Ew, I hate licorice! I think I would have dropped out too!

C.R. Evers said...

LOL! I'm with ya! I wouldn't go back to those days either! Bad decisions. BAd friends, bad hair, bad writing. The list goes on and on.

I think my writing is my therapy for working out the trauma of those days trapped in my demented lil head.

I guess maybe in retrospect those days were good for something.



K.C. Shaw said...

Hehe, maybe that's why we had to suffer through them. :) I sometimes still have to remind myself that to a writer, even the bad times are good experiences.

Carrie Harris said...

It's so hard to do though. My critique partners are constantly calling me on this, because after I tell a joke, I almost always follow it up with a sentence that essentially says, "Oooh! Funny!" just in case people didn't get it. So now I have to edit just for those gosh darned sentences.

Sad, huh?

K.C. Shaw said...

You could make it into a running gag, though. Although after the first book, it might start getting old.

Or it might just get more and more hysterically funny. :)