Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Novice and master

I've been writing fiction, serious, publishable (if not actually published) fiction, for over twenty years. I've taught composition and academic writing in the classroom. This semester, I also taught creative writing for the first time. It was a thoroughly enjoyable experience, not only to address my own passion as a teacher but to see creativity and inspiration develop in the classroom.

I believe that there is no endpoint to writing, only the continuous review and reflection of craft through practice. Writing is holistic and integrated, and so there is no one element of a work that can stand without the others, or be adjusted without affecting the others. We may attain mastery only as long as we think as novices.

But I have noticed that with novice writers I've read over the years there are one or two aspects of craft or 'tells' that show us a beginner's style or voice. This is not a list of pointers on 'how to write' — just a list of writing habits that mark the student.

Show and Tell

I don't wholly follow the workshop cliche 'show, don't tell'. Sometimes, we have to tell, and mostly we choose to show because it is better to let the reader see than force the point. But novice writers often show and tell in the same passage, as if reluctant to trust the details to speak for themselves:
Her hands shook minutely when she took up the scalpel, as her nerves took over her thoughts.

Let speech be speech

Often, dialogue can't be left as dialog. She said, he said, seems too pedestrian. So he commanded. She challenged. He argued. But then the verb drifts away from speech. He chuckled (but that's laughing, not speaking). She keened.
Sometimes it's important to know who is speaking and how, but mostly dialogue should be strong enough to carry its own sense. But then (see show and tell) the novice writer can't let that stand, so:
'Please leave my children, I beg you,' he pleaded.

The stock phrase

Not just the cliche but the familiar phrase, something out of our vast collection of idioms and metaphors that still carry meaning but lack the capacity to surprise, or the precision to make something feel authentic and present. Even when the cliches are deleted, the sense that this has been said the same way before remains.
The same goes for turns of plot and character motivations.

On the other hand, there's also the word, the turn of phrase, that is intended to be poetical and becomes awkward or murky when rendered.

The Auto-correct malapropism

This is a technical point. We all know about Autocorrect, which along with spelling checkers is a fair tool but a terrible master. But the word that Autocorrect introduces unseen is often close but not quite, or unintentionally funny. 
The room was closed up, dusty and dinghy.
I don't trust spelling and grammar correction in any word processor. Machine logic can't produce or apprehend meaning, and so these tools can only apply regular rules to irregular cases.

I won't say anything here about faults in narrative structure or characterisation, although in the end all these things become connected. But all of these tells command attention because, no matter how experienced I become, I will see them or do them again. Seeing them, knowing them, working through them: that's the craft of writing, the path from novice, to master, to novice again.

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