Do what I do, not what I say

Somehow or other I’e2’80’99ve managed to get myself involved in two conferences in the next few weeks, added to an already full schedule of rewrite and tour. For some writers this wouldn’e2’80’99t be a problem, because they could just pull a folder containing a syllabus out of their files and work off of that, but I don’e2’80’99t teach enough to have any number of files. In fact, I don’e2’80’99t teach much at all. And having never taken a class in writing, I don’e2’80’99t even know the basic theory and language of the desk side of the classroom.

All I can do is talk about my own experience, the areas that have challenged me (challenge as in a large uniformed man with a dog, both of them snarling and bellowing in my face) and how I’e2’80’99ve managed to work my way out of tough places.

The two conferences, if you’e2’80’99re interested, are for the Poisoned Pen bookstore in Phoenix (Nice thing about it, it’e2’80’99s a dry heat.) and, in July, for the annual mystery conference held by Book Passage in Corte Madera (just north of the Golden Gate Bridge.)

For both of them, I’e2’80’99ll be talking mostly about character, since what I write is driven far more by an exploration of character than it is by the plot. (Which may explain why I backed out of teaching about plot. In a cold sweat of terror.) Plot is what I do to keep my people grounded, not my area of intense fascination.

But how do you teach how to write effectively about character? Just because I do something, doesn’e2’80’99t mean I know how it gets done. I try to console myself with the idea that the reverse is true as well, that those who know the theory of how to do something don’e2’80’99t generally manage actually to do it’e2’80’94hence all those books about Writing the Bestselling Thriller! by a person who can’e2’80’99t get on the bestseller list of their local home town, population 4700. But the consolation doesn’e2’80’99t work much when it comes to putting together a class for people who have paid good money to hear me dither.

So I guess what they’e2’80’99ll get is my mistakes. Since I do most of my real work in the rewrites, what seems to be most effective for the purpose of pedagogy (although these are grown adults, not children) is to show then-and-now. I’e2’80’99ll give a handout with a couple of scenes as I wrote them raw, the first time around, and then the same scenes as they appeared in the book itself. Or maybe I’e2’80’99ll use the book I’e2’80’99m working on now, the still-unnamed Martinelli, although that will still be a work very much in progress and if anyone says something rude about it I may not be able to pick it up again.

When I’e2’80’99ve done this before, using material from THE GAME, the before versions were very short, the after much longer. I have to be careful to point out that my first drafts are more or less outline, and that not everyone should automatically double or triple a section in their rewrite’e2’80’94I don’e2’80’99t want to be responsible for a dozen unsaleable 1200 page first novels floating around out there.

What works for you? If you’e2’80’99ve taken a class on writing, from a writer, what did you find most helpful?

And a couple of notes about your comments. No, I am not in New York, I am home working. I think the BEA excitement just got me thinking about the city, and thus MOMA. And for those of you, then or in the future, who pointed out errors in the revisions of the site, a thanks. I’d caught some of them before, but it never hurts to say it twice.

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  1. Cornelia on June 4, 2005 at 4:21 pm

    Well, I have never taken a class in creative writing (they are not very common here in Germany), but I guess the participants of your conference workshops will be bright enough not to expect the one-and-only formula how to write the perfect novel. They will know that such a perfect recipe simply does not exist. Your very own imperfections, strategic and chaotic techniques and experiences will be the subject matter most likely to captivate and absorb them. All you can do is offer them your personal version of The Writer’s Tool Kit. It’s up to them to decide if they can find something useful in your thoughts or not (and even that “not” will be helpful, believe me!). You cannot tell them what works best for them – only what works best (or has not worked so well …) for you.

    I bet you’ll be great.

  2. Anonymous on June 5, 2005 at 8:30 am

    Dear Ms. King;

    I am taking advantage of the free downloads I am entitled to due to my purchase of an iSkin for the iPod given to me by my wife as an aniversary present by my wife (one of the most surprising and astonishing gifts I’ve been given, making my own gift (even though my youngest daughter had helped me choose it) seem terribly inadequate:


    …because of this iPod…

    …which led to this iSkin…

    …which lead to these free downloads of literature…

    … as I write this reply to your blog posting, I am currently listening to Harlan Ellison reading A Wizard of Earthsea (Unabridged), by Ursula K. LeGuin …

    … another tough-minded, and incidentally, feminist author. She is one of many authors I grew up on, but one of my two primary influences (the other being Ray Bradbury).

    And the reason I speak all of this piffle is because I would recommend that, before you give your lectures, you might (or might not) wish to read (or re-read) Ms. LeGuin’s collection of essays The Language of the Night.

    My own copy is well-thumbed, and when I was young my favorite entries:

    Why are Americans Afraid of Dragons
    – “For fantasy is true, of course. It isn’t factual, but it is true. Children know that. Adults know it too, and that is precisely why many of them are afraid of fantasy”.

    Dreams must Explain Themselves
    – A Jungian explanation of where stories come from. “Sure, it’s simple, writing for kids. Just as simple as bringing them up”.

    The Child and the Shadow
    – In case you thought that Hans Christian Anderson was a merry happy soul — again, Jungian, but more importantly, why one must write what one must write, and not worry about what others would wish you to write.
    Shiva, Lucifer, Darkness, Light. Art.
    The theme of “Right vs. Wrong” is actually not well executed in “realistic fiction. In other words, “problem books” are not real, as the characters are cut-outs, stereotypes — and cast no shadows. One must learn to be able to face one’s shadow. (Clearly, both Mary Russell and Kate Martinelli have done this several times over.
    I was fortunate enough to see P.D. James give a reading, and see her respond to a critic, who felt that writing about murder promoted murder. Her response: murder mysteries are a very moral form of fiction.

    From Elfland to Paughkeepsie
    – An essay about dialogue, and how it reveals character. People of character speak in a way that can not be mistaken for those who do not possess that same character. While there are very theatrical examples: Brother Erasamus is the most verbal example, and Vaun Adams is the most visual example — it is worth noting the hobbit-like workmanship of Martinelli, Hawkin, and Lee (a Sam-wise character it there ever was one_)

    The Staring Eye
    – what astonished me about this essay was the admiration for Tolkien’s work, and the influence it could have had, and yet it was tempered by hard-minded and serious critique of the work. “It is no matter of wonder that so many people are bored by, or detest, The Lord of the Rings”. And this is after two and a half pages of explaining the powerful influence it had upon her… I was thrown off track, and distressed. Fortunately, she followed up with another page of explanation of why the novel was actually not as simplistic as most critics would think. As if the Holmes stories are merely about finding out who is the Bad Guy…

    As I began to write this for this entry in your blog, I thought the pertinent essay was:

    Talking about Writing
    – A talk she was asked to give about writing. A few of my favorite passages:
    “I think probably the last person who ought to be asked to talk about writing is a writer. Everybody else knows so much more about it than a writer does. … If you want to know all about the sea, you go and ask a sailor, or an oceanographer, or a marine biologist, and they can tell you a lot about the sea. But if you go and ask the sea itself , what does it say? Grumble grumble swish swish. It is too busy being itself to know anything about itself. …
    “People come up to you if you’re a writer, and they; say, I want to be a writer. How do I become a writer?
    ” I have a two stage answer to that. Very often the first stage doesn’t’ t get off the ground, and we end up standing around the ruins of the launching pad, arguing.
    “The first-stage answer to the question, how do I become a writer, is this: You learn to type”

    Ms. LeGuin goes on to point out that the ALL the rules of writing are established in Fowler’s Handbook of English Usage and a good dictionary — she recommends the Shorter Oxford, as Webster’s “is too wishy-washy”.

    Although the above essay might seem the most applicable, (after all, the title is “Talking about writing”), I think the following essay is probably more pertinent to your entry:

    Science Fiction and Mrs. Brown

    – Virginia Woolf and Speculative Fiction (aka, Science Fiction and Mysteries):
    “I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character — not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel so clumsy, verbose and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved .. The great novelists have brought us to see whatever they wish us to see through some character.”

    As I write this last paragraph, I am now listening to Stephen King recite his story “LT’s Theory of Pets”. This entry might be rather meandering, but I hope it indicates the importance of character, and how ineffable and indescribable character is: I would seriously doubt anyone who claimed to be able to create a memorable character on demand.

    Characters are discovered — not invented: Holmes, Russell, Martinelli. Hawkins. Wimsey, Vane, Browne. Pan, Wendy, Ged, Samwise, Frodo, Gollum, Smeagol, Jeeves, Wooster, Panza, Quixote, Oliver, Fagin, and characters that I am embarrassed to forget at the moment.

    Keep that in mind — art is invented in the moment, not created on demand. I have a feeling, that on some level, Conan Doyle might have realized that.

    Or perhaps not.

    After all, the man did believe in Faries, and accuse Houdini of being psychic (despite Harry’s deepest desires and strongest doubts).

    warmest regards from a sincere fan of your writing, in all media,

    Lars Eric Holm

  3. Pen on June 5, 2005 at 8:51 am

    Oh, no! Please don’t use your new Martinelli work in progress as an example if it might stop you continuing with it – we’ve all waited so long for another glimpse of Kate Martinelli’s life. I couldn’t bear it.

  4. Susan on June 5, 2005 at 4:59 pm

    No matter what I do, parts of my characters always ended up resembling someone I know, somehow. My friends (my only readers so far) likes it that way because they think my experience makes the characters more vivid. I don’t think it’s just me, either.

    Yep, am aspiring writer and will, in defiance of grammar, continue to write half of my blog entries with no proper capitalization until next Thursday.

    I read about Mary Russel fairly recently and do not think a formula should be applied to her.

    On a completely unrelated note, a friend and I are attempting to write a story together and the name’s abbreviation is “BEA.”


  5. Sara K. on June 5, 2005 at 6:07 pm

    How long is your class? And how comfortable are you thinking/writing on the spur of the moment?

    The best advice I’ve had in writing carries over to my teaching experience, too: show, don’t tell.

    I’m a librarian at a university and it’s my job to teach and coordinate our undergraduate library instruction. (Yes, I can see that everyone is already yawning.) The best learning in my classes happens when I shift the focus from what I can see and do to what the students see and do.

    Typical library instruction involves a group of students staring at a screen in a dimly lit room while a librarian drives a computer and rapidly points out fifty gazillion features of a database. It’s rather like a day tour New York City from a bus that never stops with a tour guide bent on whizzing past every landmark of note. Even if you dreamt of visiting NYC from the time you first drew breath, you would be insanely bored and frustrated by the end of the tour.

    I try to teach so that the students are the tour guides. I take them to a database and ask, What do you see? What would you do? I haul “volunteers” up to the front and make them drive the computer, with plenty of backseat driving from their classmates. They become involved and learn more because they are asked to process and evaluate, not just listen and stare, which any dummy (a la Charlie McCarthy) can do.

    Long way around to my suggestion: Bring a few examples of rough drafts and work through them with the class. Let them see and feel what it’s like when it works and what makes you decide to cut an entire section.

    Sometimes the best learning takes place when the instructor willingly shows how hard something can be.

  6. Anonymous on June 5, 2005 at 9:23 pm

    the still-unnamed Martinelli, although that will still be a work very much in progress and if anyone says something rude about it I may not be able to pick it up again

    Mein Gott… friends and I are so anxiously awaiting Kate again in 2006…please,please, do not let ANYTHING deter you from proceeding.

  7. Erin on June 6, 2005 at 1:04 am

    I think speaking about characters would be wonderful. My roommate and I were discussing successful writing and characters were definitely major. I believe we were focussing on television at first, but it goes for books and movies too, obviously. The problem with television is that a good show will start off with wonderful characters and then forget about them halfway through. The first few seasons will be focused on delving into the lives of those characters and then somewhere around season four they try to “take a different direction” that almost always involves throwing in some outrages plot line that completely doesn’t work with the character. And that’s when the show gets cancelled because no one ever wants to watch shows that aren’t true to the characters.

    The point I’m trying to make, in a very round about way, is that character developement seems like a terribly important thing that no one really gets to learn about, so a discussion of this nature would be quite interesting.

    I’ve heard from friends who write that characters kind of take on a life of their own as time goes by, but how do you work with that? How do you recognize when you are pushing a character in a direction that isn’t right for the character? And then how do you recognize what would fit with the character?

    Good luck with your conferences!


  8. WDI on June 6, 2005 at 12:15 pm

    First, thanks so much for acknowledging that being able to *do* something doesn’t necessarily mean being able to *teach* the thing 🙂 That said, though, I don’t think you’re going to have any problems. Your blogs clearly demonstrate that you are both insightful (about many things!) and more than able to communicate those insights clearly and eloquently. Just as importantly, you’re not afraid to share all aspects of your process (the excitement, doubts, sweat, terror, fun, thrills, etc.). I have no doubt that your students will not only respond well, but learn a lot from what you share.

    On a more practical note, I second the motion that you develop at least one exercise in which the students themselves actively participate in the rewriting process. Time permitting, you might want to present them the “before” (explaining that your first drafts are really outlines), then have them work on rewrites themselves. Depending on the size of the group and the time involved, you might split them into pairs or groups of 3, and assign each group one particular aspect of the rewrite to focus on. Have each group share its work with the rest of the class and let the class discuss from there. You might then want to finish by showing your own rewrite and explaining why you took the route you did.

    Best of luck — and enjoy the dry heat (oh, how I miss it!!).

  9. Rebecca on June 6, 2005 at 3:41 pm

    Is there any chance you could post the then-and-now excerpts on here for those of us that can’t run off to Arizona or California to hear you? This might not be practical, of course, but if it is it would be awesome. I’m sure lots of your readers here (self included!) would love to get a glimpse of your writing process.

  10. Jess on June 8, 2005 at 3:25 am

    As a fan (who discovered Beekeeper’s Apprentice as a teenage girl who happened to wear glasses, keep my blonde hair in plaits and spend too much time with my nose in books – oh, how I adored Mary!) I’m thrilled to discover this blog. Just one question – do you have an RSS feed available for it?

  11. liz on June 8, 2005 at 9:42 pm

    Hi Laurie,
    Just a few comments. Don’t use your current work in progress as that is your baby. You could teach people in your class all the things that go to show a character, i.e. how they dress and why, how dialogue should show who’s speaking, without tags needing to be added, how important it is to know much much more of your character than you would ever need in a book, the characters hopes and dreams, their strengths and weaknesses, their dreams, visions, apsirations, and their fears. When I teach I take a tray of goodies and every person or every group selects an object and writes about it. This can be the objects history, or what happens next in it’s life. (Who said characters need to be human?) This is then shared with the rest of the class and everyone gets a chance to feel that they have contributed. Don’t forget to leave time for questions. I’m sure you”ll do well. Don’t forget, you know more about characterisation than anyone else who will be present.
    Cheers and good luck,

  12. Anonymous on June 22, 2005 at 7:46 pm

    Have gotten back from England, where we had a great time but were web- (and therefore LRK blog-) deprived. These comments on writing and teaching it are great stuff to read. surely it is a commonplace that the best fiction is character-driven? looking forward very much to the launch party tonight though I think the SF tour will have to wait. cheers! -Meredith T.

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