What This Old Dog LearnedFrom Teaching New Writers

By P.J. Parrish

You can, it seems, teach an old dog new tricks. I don’t mean the one above. That’s my dog Bailey. She’s as smart as a whip, but at fourteen, she’s not about to let me balance a Wishbone on her nose. I am talking about myself here. Let me first stipulate that I am an “old dog” (way past AARP induction age and been published now since 1985). Yet I am definitely still learning new tricks.

This point was driven home to me last week when my sister Kelly and I were up in Michigan teaching a two-day fiction writing workshop at Saturn Booksellers. It was pretty intense and we worked our charges hard, giving them Powerpoints on the twin pillars of plot and character, and on the finer points of transitions, pacing, theme and voice, rewriting, and what “show vs tell” really means.

But we also forced them to actually write, giving them quick exercises on a host of topics. We would show them a photograph and give them the opening line. Then they had five minutes to write to the assignment.  I was surprised at the quality of the short pieces they produced. I think they were, too.

Almost all of them, they admitted, felt bogged down and somewhat defeated by their works in progress — all for different reasons. But there was something liberating about doing those short-burst exercises that recharged their confidence and got their mental muscles moving again. (For some reason, this photo below, for the dialogue exercise, really inspired some great offbeat writing. Go figure!)

We also offered to critique the first ten pages of their manuscripts. There was some good stuff in their submissions and the mistakes tended to be the usual ones of craft that we here at The Kill Zone talk about all the time. But it was the big-picture issues that I found myself thinking about afterwards. Because even after ten years of teaching, after publishing twenty novels, a novella and a bunch of short stories, this old dog is still learning — from my students.

Here are my top big picture points from our Michigan workshop.

Chose your entry point carefully

Where do you begin your story? This is, to my mind, maybe the most important choice we make as writers and one I struggled with mightily on my WIP. I changed my opening five times before I finally hit upon the right moment to begin my tale. It’s like those astronauts in “Apollo 13”: You come in too late you burn up. If you come in too shallow you skim off the atmosphere and fly off into space. Many folks pick a point too early and the reader gets bored waiting for something to happen. This is why prologues usually fail; it’s just the writer clearing his throat or doing a backstory dump. Here’s what agent Dan Lazar hates to see: “Characters that are moving around doing little things, but essentially nothing. Washing dishes and thinking, staring out the window and thinking, tying shoes, thinking.”  But if you come in too late, you create confusion for the reader aka “coming out of a coma syndrome.” (ie where am I? Who is that? What the heck is going on?”)

Things to consider when picking your entry point: Early on, tell us who the protag is and make us care about her. Create a conflict for the protag in the opening pages. Establish the stakes. And make the opening scene compelling enough that we must read on. But don’t get too clever. Here’s Dan Lazar again: “A cheesy hook drives me nuts. They say ‘Open with a hook!’ to grab the reader. That’s true, but there’s a fine line between an intriguing hook and one that’s just silly. An example of a silly hook would be opening with a line of overtly sexual dialogue.”

Don’t try too hard

Nothing’s more cringe-inducing than a writer who’s swinging for the fences and whiffing. Whether it’s lame humor, groddy sex scenes, overly didactic themes, ten-dollar vocabulary, or cutesy attempts to be different (“Look, Ma! No punctuation!”), writing that calls attention to itself is just…bad writing. Yes, we all admire inventive writing, but there’s only one George Saunders. You are not him. Neither am I, alas. Remember what Nathaniel Hawthorne said: “Easy reading is damn hard writing.” Just tell a compelling story about characters we care about. Get out of the way of your story. This is something, my friends, that I need to have tattooed on my forehead.

Read. Read. Read some more

Our students, who ranged from a 17-year-old writing vampire YA to a great-grandfather writing a WWII novel, were all pretty good on this account. But we stressed to them that they have to read with an analytical eye, dissecting how other writers spin their magic. I have gotten lazy on this account lately, telling myself that I just don’t have time to read. But up in the Michigan woods, I read two terrific books — Odd Thomas by Dean Koontz and The Blue Hour by T. Jefferson Parker. From Koontz I re-learned  the importance of rich characterization and how to handle an unreliable narrator. (Which I am grappling with). From Parker, I got a great lesson in how to handle dual protagonists. If you want to be a writer, you must first be a reader.

Don’t be afraid

One of the hardest things for our students was exposing themselves and their writing. This is why we made them write in class and share. Fear is a common affliction among writers. I’m not immune; I’m afraid I don’t have the chops to pull off my WIP story. For the yet-unpublished, the fears are more basic. They are afraid of scrutiny, criticism, ridicule, rejection — you fill in the blank. I know folks who have slaved for years over their books (aka The Thing That Has Eaten Up Ten Years of my Life) who have never worked up the courage to show it to anyone. Yes, we get personal gratification from the process. But the purpose of writing is communication. You have to put it — and yourself — out there.

Make your story compel someone to say, “Wow, that’s exactly how I feel.” If you do that, well, then you can relax a little. Because you’ll know then that you really are a writer. Peace out. Woof.

12 thoughts on “What This Old Dog LearnedFrom Teaching New Writers

  1. You were in Michigan giving a workshop!? How did I miss that? Damn.

    Bailey does not look impressed at being dressed up. Amazing frisby player, though. I think her ears help her levitate.

    Great post. Fully plan on attending the next Michigan workshop.

    • Amanda, Actually, this whole post was just a cheap ploy to run pix of my dogs. J/K. Sorry you missed the Michigan workshop. We had a really good time and we had great students. They were a delight to work with.

  2. Excellent post, as always, Kris. I’ll be sharing it with my clients and on social media.

    The biggest takeaway for me is: “Just tell a compelling story about characters we care about. Get out of the way of your story.”

    Priceless advice. I get into specifics on ways to do that in my upcoming book, Captivate Your Readers.

    Thanks for sharing your expertise and wisdom with us. We’ll all benefit by having stronger, more compelling novels to read!

  3. I am always learning something from other writers as well as readers. All of your tips are priceless but I love the dog pictures even more.

    • Thanx Nancy! Bailey is very patient about posing. The one in the bookstore was taking at Shakespeare and Co. in Paris. And yes, she does, indeed, “live for humanity.”

  4. The workshop sounds great and I am always learning – especially from other writers. Often in my book group I discover some really important point of craft that I can then apply to my own writing. It’s a constant, humbling, learning experience.

  5. Good back-to-basics advice, Kris, that’s not basic at all. I’m halfway through my new Dead-end Job mystery and this blog is a good “stand back and re-examine your process” moment. Love the photos of Bailey. Can she get any cuter?

  6. How is it that I’m never the first to comment even though I live on e-mail? (Being the first to comment is a new goal.)

    Again, great advice, and it never hurts to hear it many times. Keeping the mantra, “The story is king,” in my mind helps me to eliminate many precious little darlings and me-showing-off-my-knowledge paragraphs from my work when I’m self-editing. It doesn’t hurt nearly as much now, but, just in case, I have a document called CUTS where I keep them for future reference. I have yet to use any of them, but you never know!

  7. Cute pupster. Does he have his own twitter?

    Great post, Kris. Good basic reminders everyone needs to hear at different times in their career. Thank you.

  8. Kris, I love your analogy with Apollo 13 and where to start a story. I’m definitely going to steal, I mean borrow that one to use in my writer’s workshops. I’ve heard agents say that the most common mistake new writers make is starting a story in the wrong place. Your advice was excellent.

  9. It looks like you travel on airplanes with Bailey in that great bag. My next dog will be a Boston Terrier. I can’t go anywhere with a 115 pound English Lab–except camping and hiking in the forest. No hotels for this big tub. Traveled with a huge Rottie for three years. Researched dog-friendly hotels. You should write about traveling with your dog. As you have already seen by the rave comments above, having a dog in your story (or life) or show is golden.

    Everybody should send a dog picture into TKZ Central. Writers and their dogs.

    Kris: Is there any chance of you doing a workshop somewhere in the great northwest? (Hint: The city and state both begin with M)

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