Doug Whippo was my first creative writing instructor–that is to say, he taught the first class I paid money specifically to learn how to write fiction. Every Wednesday for three months I would borrow one of my uncle’s cars, drive half an hour in the dark, park said car in a train station pay lot, ride the Metra into Chicago, walk eleven blocks from Union Station to Michigan Avenue (and then three over to the building in question) and up 12 floors to an 8:30 a.m. class. And I haven’t gotten the “uphill both ways in the snow” lecture since.
That was not a good semester for me…that was not a good school for me, but Doug Whippo taught one of the best creative writing classes I have ever taken.
I don’t think I could pin down exactly why. He gave a lot of homework, had good reading examples, and gave out interesting assignments. But that really wasn’t what stuck with me.
What stuck with me was the three things he was always saying.
He never really codified them, or tried to drill them into our heads, but he repeated them enough that I memorized them anyway.
And now I repeat them for you:
The first part of the mantra dealt with when ideas were percolating in your brain, and perhaps as you were writing it down for the first time. See It. Show me all the things you see as you imagine your hero meeting the princess for the first time–the flowers of the castle garden, the bird song in the distance, the occasional guard, more statue than man. Show me the devastation in the villain’s wake, the fire the smoke, the reek of dead flesh and burning houses. See the grand vista of a gas giant from the surface of one of its moons, the alien gases turning the sky bright pink as the sun sets. See the quiet cabin room, dark and warm despite the snowstorm outside, listen to the fire crackle as your lady friend and you huddle in the same blanket and think with hope and dread of where this night might go. See it. See everything. Write it down.
Listen to Your Voice
The second step of the mantra was for when you had written what you had seen down and now have to decide if its worth keeping or not. Listen to your voice. Read the piece aloud. Read it like the storyteller you are. Don’t go haywire with accents or anything, but read the words on the page as they are written. Note where you stumble or have to take a breath. Think about changing those sections in the next draft. Is a section speeding along too quickly? Find things to slow it down. Is it too boring? Look for things you could cut. Is the local farmer speaking with your college-level vocabulary? Maybe find some simpler words for him to use…or don’t. Maybe it’s a plot point that this farmer is more knowledgeable than he ought to be. Won’t your readers feel clever when they catch onto the incongruity? Listen to your voice. Remember what it is saying.
What Happens Next?
The final step of the mantra brought things full circle. You have conceived a scene, polished it to its best self and presented it to the class, but what happens next? Surely that measly five pages isn’t all to your story. There has to be more…you’ve got us hooked. So what happens next? You will have to start looking for it again, and when you see it…the process starts anew.
And that’s it. Nearly all the rules and worries of writing boiled into three simple lines. This mantra changed the way I wrote. Before, I was a staunch world-builder, and perfectionist…barely writing at all for fear of it not being exactly correct the first time. Now? Well all of that is still true…but I’ve written a whole lot more. The Mantra helps put things into perspective. So what if the history of the dark mages makes no sense? That has nothing to do with the scene of one beating our hero into the floor. So what if the love interest currently has no motivation outside of being the love interest? That has no bearing on this scene with her meeting the hero for the first time–we can fix that problem later. That orc your wizard is fighting doesn’t care about your intricately constructed magic system beyond “Augh! I am suddenly and inexplicably on fire!” Maybe it’s not perfect, but it is writing. Because I can see it, I can tell you about it. Because I listen to my voice you can hear it too. And because I know what happens next, you just might ask me about it some day.