I've taught writing a lot in the last few years — UCLA Extension courses, Writers University online courses, week-long seminars abroad, conference workshops, speaking engagements, etc. One of the many reasons I enjoy doing it is that talking about craft invigorates my own writing and helps me take a fresh look at what I am doing. That point was underscored for me this week.
I have been reading & critiquing manuscripts and screenplays for the South Carolina Writers Conference, which I am attending this weekend. Many of the manuscripts have serious structural problems, point-of-view issues, and are bogged down in insanely dull (and unnecessary) exposition & backstory. The stories never actually get started.
At the same time, I have been wrestling with the first 40 or so pages of a "standalone" crime novel that I'm writing. I am working with a much sketchier outline than I usually do…I thought it might be exciting for me since this isn't a "whodunit" and I pretty much know where I'm going. Maybe that's a mistake, because the writing hasn't been going well. I find myself continually rewriting my work and not getting anywhere.
I was in the midst critiquing one of the student manuscripts, and writing down my advice, when it hit me — I was making the same mistakes in my work that he was in his. I was smothering the drama and conflict in exposition, I wasn't giving the reader a chance to get invested in the characters or the story. I wasn't following that old screenwriting adage — show, don't tell. I needed to get the story started, then carefully dole out the necessary exposition in bits and pieces in ways that reveal character and generate some conflict.
Yesterday I went back and rewrote my first 40 pages yet again…dramatizing key moments that I'd buried in exposition…and suddenly it all began to work. I felt a rhythm to the writing that was missing before. The story had a pulse, a forward momentum now…and it has carried me through my writing today.
That's not to say I won't have trouble again. I'm sure I will. I have been in this situation before on other books and scripts. But what can be great about teaching, at least for me, is that it can give you the distance and perspective you need on your own work.