Thursday, February 14, 2013

Literary Boot Camp with L. William Gibbons

Please Welcome Guest Blogger L. William Gibbons . . . .  

Literary Boot Camp with L. William Gibbons

Upon my return to full-time college attendance at the age of sixty-three, after decades absent from a university environment, my first class was English 103, Freshman English. The professor was a feisty, authoritative, knowledgeable lady who explained, in no uncertain terms, what would be expected of all students.

The others, none of whom were over nineteen years old, seemed unsure of what they had stepped into. I was the old man – in fact, older than the professor – but I began to relax when I recognized the professor. Granted, her face was not the same, her build and stature were different, and she was not a man. Physical appearance aside, she was the embodiment of my drill instructor in boot camp when I joined the Air Force in 1965. I began calling her Sarge when talking to her without other students around.

I soon realized that the course would center around discipline – more to the point, self-discipline, one of the primary goals of military boot camp – when writing in an academic environment.

Positive responses to my writing from the professor and other students prompted me to tackle a work of fiction that had been teasing my mind for the previous ten years. During Thanksgiving break of that semester, I put pen to paper – uh, fingers to keyboard.

After writing that novel and several short stories, it became apparent that self-discipline is required not only in academic writing but in any writing intended for publication. Of course, proper grammar, punctuation, verb tense, and other fundamental aspects should be obvious, even to the untried novice. But self-discipline is also required to stay within the character's mind and mindset, to remain conscious of voice and style, to develop and maintain plot arc and, where appropriate, character arc.

During editing, self-discipline is even more critical. The writer must adopt the roll of reader, with an eye toward preventing lectio interruptus, interruption of reading. Frequently lethal to a writer's work, jarring the reader out of the story can be caused by factual inaccuracies, repetitive word usage, boring narrative, gratuitous scenes or dialogue, and other literary sins. As Stephen King noted in his highly-regarded book, On Writing, "Description begins in the writer's imagination, but should finish in the reader's."

Among other writers of note, King also suggests that writers "kill your darlings." In other words, passages that don't contribute to furthering the plot, enriching the scene or dialogue, or serving some other significant purpose, should be cut from the manuscript, regardless of the attachment that the writer might feel toward them. That can be painful – and requires self-discipline.

Being aware that self-discipline is required in writing is one thing; internalizing it and making it second nature is quite another. For my latest publication, Marrow Bone Road And Other Tales, I learned that the serious writer would do well to create an imaginary drill sergeant, named Sarge, who looks over the writer's shoulder at all times during the creative process.

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  1. Great advice Bill. Thanks for being on my blog!

  2. I just finished King's On Writing last month and it was awesome. I especially enjoyed his modesty when he wrote something along then line that he wasn't sure he wanted to write a book on how to write, because every book he ever read about writing was bullshit. lol

    King fan here! Great advice and congrats on your return to university. English was my favorite, but at the time it was not, only when I think back. :)

  3. The thought of returning to college at my age scares the crap out of me. No, it's not the fear of work or fear of the intellectual challenge, it's the fear of nineteen-year-olds.

    The trauma seems not to have affected you too much, Bill. Splendid article.

  4. That was my first thought too, teh yout, they are scary. Yikes! But calling the prof "Sarge" was probably a wise move. :) Internalizing Sarge is even wiser. Thank goodness we don't have to actually experience military boot camp in order to do that.

    Great post, I enjoyed it.

  5. Diane, thanks for your observations and comments. Like you, I appreciate Stephen King's honesty when writing about writing. Your note about English not being your favorite at the time, but later, shows that we never know where life can lead us when we keep our ears, eyes, and minds open. I was a double major - Philosophy and Physics -and then the writing bug bit. I had to curtail my university studies when I got a young lady pregnant. Fortunately, I was already married to her and so, became a father for the first time at the age of sixty-five.

    Haggis and Kyla, thanks for your comments. It has been interesting to watch the (much) younger college students as they negotiate the business - and busy-ness - of campus life, the discipline needed, the balancing of schedules, deadlines, exams, theses, etc. We "older" students have been doing that for almost a lifetime and it is to our advantage. Also, we hopefully possess more confidence in meeting the challenges set before us by the profs.