What’s the Difference Between a Beginner and an Expert?

This semester, for the first time ever, I won’t be teaching a 101-level class of creative writing. I’ll have moved up to teach the big boys, teaching fiction at the 200-level (and the college’s system means this is pretty high up in the skill levels). I’ve yet to start teaching the class, but I’m already wondering what will be different. And these differences, I realized, are all about the differences in skill we all hope to see in ourselves as our writing progresses.

Things work.
There are a surprising number of mistakes that beginners have to make in order to learn about themselves. Some of these things are about the simple effects of language. For example, beginners will mix metaphors. They will forget to describe what a character looks like, his gender, or what time period we’re in. Beginners have to learn all the necessary steps of orientation that we require when we enter a story for the first time.

So on a basic level at least, the writing of advanced writers will “just work.” We’ll know where and when we are; we’ll know a little about a character; we’ll see some effective description of the world around us that doesn’t fail to capture what we’re looking at.

Things will be bold.
When I teach beginning creative writers, I’m struck by how many stories I get that are basically “What I Did on My Summer Vacation.” The writing will be competent but benign, describing something utterly banal or uninteresting. There will be no story there. There might be a nice description of a hot dog stand or shells on the beach, but it will be empty of newness, of risk, or of tension. It’s enough to make me groan when I discover these sorts of pieces on the grading pile — but it seems like it’s a necessary part of the learning process, because I get them again and again.

The writing of advanced writers will necessarily be informed more by conflict than by passive observation. It will have to have some degree of movement, or at the very least, a problem needing a solution.

Characters won’t be victims or action heroes.
Another trend I see in the writing of beginners is a tendency to cast their characters in stale roles. From many female beginners I see characters portrayed as victims; from many male beginners I see characters as action heroes. That’s not to say that the genders are inherently tilted one way or another, but I do think girls and boys are encouraged to think of their world in these respective ways. So for example, I get stories from girls about sexual assault or being cheated on or victimized in similar ways. Horrible as it is, a story of rape is not itself a story; it’s not good enough to cast a character as a blank vessel of suffering, to have things happen to her. It may win our sympathy (and sometimes it just leaves us feeling annoyed that the story is manipulating us), but it won’t make us feel like a fully-fleshed out story is happening.

On the action hero side of things, I sometimes get stories about dramatic shootouts or whatnot that are utterly devoid in emotional realism. Again, just acting dumbly without motivation is as lacking in story as a victim piece.

Hopefully, the slightly more advanced writers in this class will have encountered a few of these pitfalls already, and will be on their way to climbing out of the traps. Once we’ve made these mistakes a few times, we’re more able to recognize them and avoid them — but it’s possible to just go on making them unless someone calls us out. I intend to be strict this semester — for these writers’ own good.

One comment

  1. BLH, good post. One of the things I notice most as I continue to write is when things work, it’s not simply an accident. I am much more conscious of why I’m doing something and how I’m doing it. I can apply this to other people’s writing as well.

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