Alexander Chee, a novelist and professor of creative writing, visited my capstone CW class today. It was a great experience! Essentially, we got in a circle and discussed concerns with our own writing: struggles with exposition, characterization, finding significance in point of view, things like that. We covered a lot of different topics, so my notes feel disorganized, but that's because Chee took the time to address each of our worries individually. I thought I'd share what I wrote down here.
On overcoming writer's block or brainstorming themes/topics to write about:
– Pay attention to the things that catch your attention when you're not "actively" thinking about anything. We started the conversation with an exercise: he asked us to write down five news headlines that either intrigued/aggravated us recently, five short stories or novels that we enjoyed recently, and five examples of celebrity news/intrigue/scandals that have caught our attention and stayed on our minds in recent years. Then, he asked us if there was a common theme among these lists. Betrayal? Themes of parenthood? Political/social issues? Then he asked us: are you already writing about any of these common themes?
– On this note, one thing Chee suggested was to go through our own social media. An easy way to learn about the things we like and pay more attention to, he said, was to look at things we literally "like."
– Another piece of advice he gave was to incorporate themes, ideas, emotions, and experiences that we don't see enough of. For example, he told us that he hadn't seen enough writing about the rage felt by survivors of sexual assault, so he wrote a novel incorporating this emotion.
On using tropes:
– Chee talked a little about the use of tropes: including something in the story that will be immediately familiar to the reader and pass unchallenged. Tropes are well-known, recognizable, and thus comfortable for writers to use. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, but we should ask ourselves why we're using them. Why not include something about a character, theme, plot point, etc. that the reader would question or challenge? What is there to hide?
On changing point-of-view in a story or novel:
– Chee noted that his students often switch point-of-view in their stories or novels without really knowing why. To figure it out, he gave us some questions we should ask ourselves: What is the most interesting angle to view a story from? Who has it?
– The point-of-view should only switch from that angle when one character knows the story in a way another character doesn't. Each character should contribute a different piece of the story, and ultimately, only the reader knows the whole story.
On balancing exposition and scene:
– Finding this balance is essentially controlling your reader's relationship to time. Exposition can help the reader feel as though time has passed, whereas inserting a scene will take a single moment and stretch it out.
– On that note, we should only combine exposition and scene in a way that's realistic. Exposition through dialogue should feel natural–in other words, avoid having characters tell each other things that are obvious in their minds just to make it explicit to the reader.
On writing more natural/realistic dialogue:
– Chee said that one dialogue exercise he gives to his students, although a bit creepy, can be very helpful to those who struggle to write natural dialogue: go to a public place, take something you can write on, and write down any conversations you hear. Unless it's something like an extremely formal/practiced conversation, dialogue is typically not super clean-cut.
Hopefully some of you find this helpful. Happy writing!
Source: reddit post