Training Wheels

Not everyone is born to be a writer, but everyone has a story to tell.

I have to believe this in order to teach writing. Otherwise, it’s all commas and run-on sentences.

My students’ stories are often full of cliche, reflecting what they watch on television and see in movies. Their characters talk in one liners or meaningless banter. They wear the best designer clothes, drive expensive cars, have high IQ’s and well-paying jobs. Their problems are either romantic misunderstandings or ‘the big game/race.’ There are a lot of unexpected pregnancies, lottery tickets, and vampires.

When I was their age, most of my stories sounded like episodes of Star Trek. Even before I had heard the term “space opera,” I was writing my three-volume epic set in the twenty-third century. There were a lot of star-vessels shooting at one another, a lot of jaded war heroes and naive young commanders.

But I knew that a novel needs more than explosions and tactical maneuvers. A novel needs lots of description.

So there were also lips twisting into icy, malevolent smiles and characters radiating restless energy that made everyone think of a bomb about to go off. Characters gave one another tight smiles and spoke with forceful intensity, their voices often full of disdain. There were long pauses while words sank in for maximum effect. Scenery was chewed, passions were ignited.

Whew. I got a polite note from some under-editor whose job it was to read the first page. The manuscript box still sits on my shelf. It took me years to fully understand why it was rejected, but I learned the lessons well: no info-dump, no adverbs, no telling. Just get to the goddam explosions.

Cliches are like training wheels. I think it’s normal for beginning writers to imitate what they love — it’s how we learn. Gradually I realized how awful my stories were and turned to writing more original ideas.

Eventually my students will lose the training wheels and find a story that’s worth telling. I could mark everything wrong with their stories, but I have faith that if they want to write, in time they will learn these lessons. Right now, they have to understand the story that’s worth telling.

That story doesn’t involve beautifully dressed lawyers who date handsome doctors, or football players who make it to the pros and get the girl too, or young, pregnant girls who win the lottery.

It’s their story, their experience that will interest us one day; if they have the desire to tell it, they’ll learn how.


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Babs Griswold
    Apr 12, 2010 @ 13:38:20

    We all have to reinvent the wheel, I guess. I remember an instructor calling my prose “turgid.” It stung, but recently I read something I wrote in 1960 and realized he was right, although “turbid” might have been a better description. So far from my current style!


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