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One Semester In: What I Learned About Creative Writing

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

I’ve been a storyteller my whole life, though I consider myself to have first taken writing seriously in eighth grade. 2021 marks five years of writing subpar stories, writing much better stories, revisions, and soaking in loads of writing advice. I started studying creative writing this past September, and I’ve learned more about the craft in these past few months than I have in a five year span.

I’m a very big believer in sharing what I know and helping other writers polish their work. That said, here’s a quick summary of what I learned this semester in my intro to fiction course.

The building blocks of fiction

What constitutes a work of fiction? Characters, plot, setting? While these all come into play, the true answer is much simpler and more aligned with the act of writing itself.

Fiction stories are composed of scenes and summaries. The scene is composed of setting, and will always include aspects of setting, character, and time. Scenes come together and construct the story and are considered the building blocks for much of fiction. A summary is when the writer tells the reader something without the use of a scene. Both elements should be considered and balanced when writing a work of fiction unless for artistic effect. More on that later.

The most effective details in fiction are definite, concrete, and significant. A detail is definite and concrete when it appeals to the senses. Detail is significant when it conveys an idea, judgment, or both. These sensory details appeal to the reader and make your writing feel vivid. In the case of significant details, they push your story forward and make your prose flow.

Speaking of prose, there’s a distinct definition that you should know. The prose is simply anything written without line breaks.

(This is

an example of writing

with line breaks.)

The rest of this article is composed of prose solely because it lacks line breaks. A particularly poetic section of fiction is referred to as “lyrical.” The entire piece is composed of prose.

choose your pov and setting

POV (point of view) and setting are often the unsung heroes of fiction. They’re often overlooked but make worlds of difference when it comes to the final product.

The setting is, simply put, the backdrop to your story. Setting includes location, time, historical time, social environments, and other factors. According to Tom Bailey in his craft essay, “The Lesser Angel of Fiction,” setting can be used to provide context for a character’s actions and behavior, create atmosphere, and spark believability. The setting should match up with the context of the story and make sense of what you’re trying to write.

Another important element is POV, which changes the ways in which the story is told. POV can determine tones, themes, and how your readers will respond and absorb your writing. According to Valerie Vogrin in her essay, “POV: The Complete Menu,” POV deals with matters of narration, who is seeing the events unfold, whose thoughts the reader can observe, and the distance that the events of the story are being observed from. Examples of POVs to work with are the simple first-person, third-person singular vision, third-person multiple vision, second-person, and my favorite POVs, third-person omniscient and third-person objective.

But don’t take it from me; I highly advise reading the craft articles I mentioned in this section. Bailey and Vogrin go into depth about these elements of craft and have more page room to describe it than I do.

a tangible strangeness

This was my big writing struggle, so naturally, I bring this up whenever I dish out writing advice. This deals with abstractions, which is a term that describes concepts that cannot be explored through the senses. War, love, hatred, fear, and independence are all examples of abstract concepts that could be explored in writing. So how do you describe something that exists as a mere concept? This goes back to the use of specific, concrete, significant details.

Here’s an exercise. Take the first chapter of The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien and two highlighters. Highlight every time O’Brien uses abstractions in one color. Mark every time a character carries their love through the trenches or describes holding sheer destructive power. Now go back with another color and highlight every solid, sensory detail. Notice a pattern? No proper abstractions exist without a concrete description somewhere very close to them. Abstraction without details to anchor it down is just obscure, cryptic writing.

Let’s go back to The Things They Carried. On page 14, for example, the soldiers are described as carrying the burden of memory, the sky, and the land of Vietnam itself. These abstractions are sandwiched between specific descriptions of the things they actually carried—chess sets, dictionaries, and a thirty-pound PRC-77 radio (with batteries).

Just like I recommended the craft essays, I highly recommend every aspiring fiction writer and fabulist read at least the first chapter of The Things They Carried. There’s a reason why you’re taught it in English classes.

artistic effect and Rule-breaking

A wise person once said that rules are like glowsticks. Meant to be broken. That final sentence was a fragment, and yet it made sense. This is because I knew I was breaking a rule by including a sentence fragment and chose to write it anyways for effect.

In order to effectively break rules, you must be certain that your reader will follow your writing and understand why you chose to break these rules. The effect that the broken rule has on your writing must be positive—no one wants to read a story full of misplaced commas and inappropriate spelling.

Since I’m still learning the rules of writing myself, I don’t want to come across as an authority on this matter. I have already said all that I know in this regard. However, my fiction professor said that in order to break rules you must know them. I have her quoted as saying, “Know [the rules], love them, then break them, sparingly for artistic effect.” Professor Catherine Dent is much wiser than I am, and I recommend listening to anything she has to say.

READING LIKE A WRITER

One of the most common pieces of writing advice you’ll receive to read. While this is extremely important, it’s also vague. How should you read, what should you read, and what should you be looking for?

Read a wide variety of stories, especially in genres (or aesthetic traditions, as it is called in my class) that you want to write in. I read a lot of contemporary and literary works so that I can master writing techniques, voice, and ideas that mesh well with the genre. These are the genres that I prefer to write in anyway, but when I’m reading for fun, I tend to gravitate towards more obscure, absurdist plots. I recommend beginning writers do the same: contemporary lit for learning how to write, their preferred genre for studying what to write.

When you’re reading, look out for craft elements. These include pacing, characterization, showing vs. telling, comedic elements, and dialogue. Look for elements of craft, plot, and voice that you’d like to steal for your own works. Obviously, you can’t plagiarize, but you should always look for elements of writing to take and repurpose as your own.

My preferred way of studying writing is annotating books. Writing in your books can be an extremely effective tool when studying writing, as it provides you with an opportunity to highlight exactly what makes a piece work. When annotating, you can draw attention to craft elements, technique, and focus your attention on mechanics. Then when you go back and reread, the technical aspects of the piece will be essentially laid out for you to study. I prefer writing in physical books with a pencil and a handful of rainbow highlighters, but if you’re a purist, marking up a PDF works just as well.

ACCEPTING AND GIVING CRITIQUE

This is probably one of the hardest things for a new writer to manage. I have been given plenty of constructive, thoughtful advice that has really made my work improve. I’ve also received critiques that were overly harsh and littered with sarcasm. I’ve been criticized once for being too kind in my critiques. I have thick skin and name-calling doesn’t hurt me, but the same cannot be said of everyone. The key to critique is tact and professionalism.

When you’re critiquing a piece of fiction, be kind, respectful, and professional. Pretend you’re an actual editor while you work, perhaps. If you kiss your writer’s ass the whole time, nothing will be accomplished. If you act rude and insulting, your writer will find someone else to work with. If you wouldn’t give this critique to a client at a job, don’t do it in a workshop.

Kindness is the building block that makes up a workshop. Emphasize what works well, give praise where it’s due, and be constructive when suggesting improvements. As I said, don’t kiss your writer’s ass, but don’t be afraid to give praise. There’s a reason why workshops almost always start with the positives in a piece. And to the boy who said I was too nice: kindness is the force that guides my pen. Kindness is the writer’s greatest tool, the red ink that makes up a proper critique. I will never stop, not for you and not for anyone else.

But what if you’re on the receiving end? Critiques are always scary at first, and it gets easier the more someone writes. Assuming that your critiques are constructive, take each one to heart. Consider areas that your readers were confused by, and use each one to your advantage. Remember that your readers and editors are here to help you. Proper critiques are not personal attacks, and a successful writer will eventually develop the courage to fail. And if you’re receiving critiques that are rude, uncomfortable, or problematic in some way, go to your professor or workshop leader. They can help you navigate the situation; you always deserve to feel respected in a workshop setting.

This was a lot. I have a lot to say about writing, and the amount will only increase the more I learn. I am still very much a beginner; some of this information may change or adapt as I learn more. But as it is written, this is the advice that helped me improve as a writer and editor throughout my first semester. It is my hope that it can help someone else.

And to Catherine and the rest of my fiction workshop: thank you. You’ve taught me more than anything else.

"No woman was ever ruined by a book." – Jimmy Walker
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