Hi! As a longtime reader of this awesome blog, I’m really excited to be writing a guest post for Pub Crawl.
Most colleges and universities now have writing labs or writing components of tutoring centers. I’m one of the happy helpers waiting in those places to help you comb through your assignments, beef up your thesis statement, nitpick your grammar, and craft a better paper. Though I work with students grappling with lab reports and trudging through research papers for history and criminal justice courses, the majority of my work is with students taking Comp I (and its big sister, Comp II). As I encountered the same issues again and again in student papers, I began to realize…
…almost everything you need to know about writing, you learn in Comp I. Even writing novels.
Thesis Statement: Oh, the thesis. I’m guessing most of you have heard more about the thesis statement than you care to hear about anything, ever. But there’s a reason for that—the thesis is the main claim, the big idea, the “so what?” of the whole paper. Fail to include a thesis, or fail to make it clear and strong enough, and the paper falls apart. It lack clarity. It meanders. It doesn’t really *say* anything despite putting a lot of words on paper.
Your novel is the same. If it doesn’t have a main idea, a central conflict or character goal, it’s a series of scenes tripping along without a clear purpose. PubCrawl members have written a ton about this—what is your character’s motivation? What’s your story really *about*?—and I’m here to tell you, you already learned it in Comp I. You just called it a thesis instead.
Organization: There’s a lot of difference between a five-paragraph essay and a full-length novel. The basics of organization remain the same. You bring us into your paper or your story, you build the argument or the plot, piece by piece, and you draw a conclusion from your points or your plot arc. Still, organization is tricky. At least in a novel you have the basics of plotline to drive you, but the tricky bit isn’t just chronological organization—it’s building a story.
We commonly refer back to the “narrative arc” when we get into the nitty-gritty of organizing a plot, because it captures so well how a plot is more than a play-by-play. You don’t order scenes in a random order of “then other things happened” any more than you order a paper in a random order of “more things I read that prove my thesis.” In, for instance, a persuasive essay, you establish a thesis and then build an argument, layering one point on another, weaving in evidence right where it will pack the most punch. In a novel you establish central character motivations and goals early on, and then build a story that gradually increases tension and ups the stakes, using the same kind of layering and weaving techniques. The big reveal of Who the Villain Really Is falls flat too early; the whizbang statistic that proves your point gets lost if it’s not sandwiched into a paragraph effectively.
Finally, there’s the goal of organization—to end in a different place than you started. Following your plot, something about the world you create changes, and the way you organize your story shows this. In your Comp paper, you’ve shown the reader the results of research, effectively proven a point, or provided a keen analysis and the reader understands something at the end of the paper that they didn’t in the beginning. In fiction, your characters move through the story to reach new places—and even become new people.
Grammar Counts: Ugh, grammar! If there’s one self-identified weakness I hear from students more than any other, it’s “I’m really bad at grammar.” That’s ok. Grammar is not easy, and it’s not much fun for most people, either. The thing is, clear writing hinges on good grammar. Grammar is the structure we build the rest of writing on. It’s how we ensure clear communication and avoid confusion from errors (like the infamous “Let’s eat Grandma”). Moreover, good, enjoyable writing—the writing we demand out of the novels we read—is based on the making the most out of the fundamentals of proper grammar.
I hear the outcry already—“But you can break grammar rules in creative writing!” Absolutely, yes, you can. Fragments, run-ons, and all kinds of gross grammar insubordination that doesn’t fly in a term paper will work in creative fiction and non-fiction alike. Effectively breaking the rules, however, relies on following them most of the time, and in understanding *why* breaking them works. Ignore grammar, and unclear sentences and awkward wording are right on your tail.
Originality: In Comp I, we call a lack of academic originality—that is, lifting ideas from other sources—“plagiarism” if the sources are not credited. I’m not going to rail on the horrors of plagiarism, because I’m sure PubCrawlers already know it’s bad news. Instead, I’ll offer a reminder—there’s another, more subtle reason a lack of originality stinks in a term paper and why it’s vital to be original in your fiction writing.
Unoriginal writing is boring.
I can tell when a student is playing it safe, parroting ideas instead of presenting their own. I can even tell when students have their *own* ideas but are afraid to incorporate them into their papers. Their papers are boring. Fiction is much the same. If your ideas are derivative, if the stories have already been told, if the characters are stereotypes—it’s boring. It’s not adding anything new to the canon, and that’s the whole point of writing to begin with. So dare to be original.
So, if you took Comp I and thought those days were over—consider breaking out the basics again to apply to your writing now!
Writer, writing tutor, toddler’s mom, rebellious Sunday School teacher, Revolutionary War reenactor, seamstress, trespasser, and omnivorous reader. Say hi on Twitter @RowennaM or visit me at http://www.rowennamiller.com