Five Things I Learned from Writing Courses

Writing courses can break your heart, but eventually they make you a better writer.

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Studying writing during my undergrad and grad programs has made me a much better writer. When I first started taking classes, I thought I knew so much about how to write a great story. I was wrong. After working my way through the five stages of grief, I finally accepted that I needed to stop fighting the process and just give in to it.

Part of my issue is that I like to write young adult, fantasy, and sci-fi, so I wanted to emulate some of the things I saw in genre fiction, which didn’t sit well in a writing program focused on literary writing. At first, my “literary” stories turned out a lot like the Friend’s episode where Monica tries to make her parents cry during her anniversary toast, only I didn’t actually include a photo of a dead dog.  

Eventually, I learned how to craft a good story, and I was able to bring those skills to my genre work, which is much better now. I thought it would be fun to explore some of what I learned on this blog, so I did a little brainstorming about what I really took from writing courses. While I learned a lot over the years, these five things really stick out as some of the core lessons, aside from don’t use adverbs.

Five Things I Learned from Writing Courses

#1 – Things don’t always happen the way they should.

One of the most interesting moments of a writing workshop occurred when the entire class agreed that the ending of my short story didn’t make sense because my character would never make the choice he made, which they all agreed was inconceivable. I was confused because the story was a piece of creative nonfiction about an event that actually occurred, and the events were all accurately portrayed as they had really happened.

At first I was annoyed because I couldn’t understand how my fellow writers and our professor could tell me that something I’d experienced could never have happened, but in the end it taught me a great lesson about story crafting. Sometimes the way events might have happened in real life doesn’t tell the best story.

It’s possible that because of my own perspective on the event that I’d drawn the characters differently than the real life people they were based upon, making their choices not add up. It’s also possible that something was just off about that day, allowing an unlikely scenario to unfold. Maybe it just wasn’t a good story to tell, and people wanted more to from it. Either way, the story didn’t work.

When I went back and rewrote the story to focus on the choices my characters should have made in the moment, the ending was much better received, and I ended up including that story in my thesis. Now when I put a story together I’m more selective about the parts I include, and I really focus on who my characters are in the story (and not how I imagine them to be) and what choices they would make. People are then able to relate to the characters and how the story turns out.

#2 – Focus on your character(s).

Even when your story is plot-driven, you need a well-drawn character that readers find relatable. If you just force a character into a plot that you’ve designed, then it likely won’t work well. Your character needs to be able to make choices and take actions that readers can understand based on who your character is. That means that sometimes what you want to happen in your story can’t with the character you have leading it. (Although, in my experience the story usually turns out better if you follow your character at the expense of your plot goals.)

There are a lot of great ways to get to know your character. It can be helpful to write out character sketches, both in descriptive form and short scenes showing who your character is through the situation, what how they’re dressed, how they speak, and what they do in the scene. It doesn’t even have to be a scene from your book – why not try inserting your character into your favorite book, movie, and TV show? Imagining how they would act in that world can help you get to know who your character is.

You can also try sketching your character, making a character sheet like one that might be used for gaming or a comic book, or talking to your character. When you talk to your character, write down some questions and then answer them as your character. Be their friend.

#3 – Keep your point-of-view (POV) and perspective clean, and use them for your benefit.

I went into my first writing seminar with a short story about two characters in which the POV shifted back and forth, and the perspective was clearly mine, the author’s. I had no idea at the time that I was shifting POV in the way that I described the characters and what they were doing. It took me a few tries to get used to seeing things from the lens of only one character at a time.

Your POV character can’t see everything that’s happening in the story, and they aren’t able to read minds. They can assume what another character is thinking or feeling, but they can’t actually know what’s in that character’s head. At first, sticking to a single POV can feel limiting and like it’s ruining the story; however, it actually makes the story more compelling because the reader is able to draw more conclusions about what’s happening rather than being told what everyone is thinking and doing, as well as how they look doing it. It’s also more real, so that makes it relatable.

There are certainly safe ways to shift POV, such as skipping lines, adding asterisks, and switching to a new chapter, so you can empower yourself as a writer to use it in a way that helps you tell a better story while still keeping it clear for the reader.

Perspective can be a game-changer. A story can change based on where a character is standing, what kind of prior knowledge they have, who they are as a person, and various other factors. In real life, this is why we argue with our siblings about events that happened when we were kids, and it’s why you suddenly realize as an adult that something you saw when you were six was actually kind of scandalous even though you didn’t know it at the time.

Choose a perspective from which to tell your tale, then let it help you tell the better story. Your character’s background and motivations will shape how they experience the events of your story, and your readers will be able to feel that. It will help you create tension and make the events mean more. Best of all, keeping your perspective clean will help you avoid getting preachy about your own ideas about the topic of your story, which will most definitely ruin it. (Guess how I know.)  

#4 – Endings should satisfy the reader, but there are no happy endings.

The first time a professor told me that we couldn’t have happy endings in any of our workshop stories, I felt like a part of me had died. I remember clutching my papers to my chest and mumbling to my classmate, “But I already know what happens in my story, and it has a happy ending. It’s earned.” (I’m a little dramatic.)

This declaration led to a series of terrible short stories with painful endings where none of the characters got what they wanted, and life just sucked. Here, I thought. I am creating the literary stories that I’m supposed to write.

I wasn’t.

No happy endings doesn’t mean pain, tragedy, and missed opportunities. It doesn’t mean that the lovers can’t both make it to the meeting spot, or that the expensive borrowed fur can’t make it back to it’s owner safely. No happy endings means that you don’t want to tie up your story and wrap it in a little metaphorical bow for your readers. You want your reader to walk away satisfied but not feeling as though the events were unnatural and manipulated for the story’s benefit.

#5 – First drafts usually suck – and that’s what’s supposed to happen.

Full disclosure, I still believe that great first drafts exist. Personally, I’m happy with a lot of the first draft work I’ve been creating lately, but at the same time it’s easier to write knowing that revisions are expected. I don’t have to worry about getting caught up in a description or a plot point that isn’t clear yet. I just jot down what comes to mind and keep writing. Phase one is always just getting it out on paper. Making it good can come later.

Bonus: Don’t use clichés to get in a character description. Don’t have your character stand in front of a mirror and describe him/herself, don’t have them stare at their reflection in a window and wistfully notice how their hair is black, short and spiky, complementing their cool green eyes. Real people don’t do that, so your character shouldn’t either.  

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