Before I decided to seek my MFA in Creative Writing, I hadn’t really thought much about the craft of writing. I would simply take an idea or character, or a situation and start writing, not thinking much about why I put this sentence here or that one there. Of course, I thought about word choices, but I usually just knew that I needed a different word, not thinking about why the one I had wasn’t right, or why this one was better. I never thought about why one story seemed to read smoothly, while another just didn’t seem to flow right at all. I didn’t think about things like pacing, focus, or what archetypes I was using. I didn’t question why a character did what they did. I just wrote what felt natural to me. Even though I knew how to manipulate these elements in my writing, I wasn’t able to articulate them. I didn’t think about the how and why of what I did. Most of the time I just sat back and watched as my story unfolded. In a graduate program, however, that is what you do. You dissect writing, pick it apart and examine the various elements to discover how and why they work, or don’t work.
When I started classes last summer, I was asked if my stories were character driven or plot driven. The honest answer would have been that I didn’t know, because I hadn’t really thought about it. But everyone else seemed to know what drove their writing, so rather than clue them in to the fact that I was a self-taught writer, I said that my writing was plot driven.
Looking back over stories that I have written in the past, understanding now how to look at my work critically, I found that it depends on the story. I have a YA mystery that isn’t a mystery yet, (but it will be), which began with the characters of two young girls; a sci-fi piece that started with the idea of a situation from a Writer’s Digest prompt, and developed from there; a short story that began with the idea of a naked woman walking into a waterfall; and the western I’m working on started with my female protagonist seeing something that looked like a body in the scrub brush. The ideas for my children’s series started with the birds and forest creatures that visited my yard and became my characters and they are definitely character driven. What I’ve learned from my courses is that my stories can be either plot or character driven, or both.
In class, we’re looking at what good dialog is; how pacing affects the story; character development; plot lines and sub-plot lines; how to move the story forward; the differences in POV; past and present tense; and how to use visual, auditory and kinetic details to enhance a story. What I found fascinating is that much of this stuff was already going on with my writing. I just didn’t realize it, because I never looked at it that way before. Now that I am conscious of the elements in a story and I’m learning how to better manipulate them to achieve a desired effect, my writing is stronger and more focused. Writing consciously means being aware of what you are doing with your story. I’ve always known what I wanted to do with my stories, but now I know how to do it. Now the elements don’t just fall into place wherever they want. Now they go where I put them and stay there, unless I move them. Now I am aware if my pace is too slow, I can see where my character is inconsistent, I understand when more detail is needed and I know what and where to put it. Okay, not always, but I am getting better at these things. I’m looking at my writing differently. I see my story in terms of craft now and I think that is a good thing, because I want my writing to be good. I want people to want to read it, and most people want to read a well-crafted story.