You may know Seth Harwood as a podcaster and novelist, but you may not know he’s also a creative writing instructor and lecturer at Stanford University. Herewith, Seth answers some questions about craft.
Publetariat: What’s the most common problem or weakness you find in the work of your students?
SH: The first thing that comes to mind is a lack of using scenes.
With a lot of beginning writers, they’re more interested in getting into a character’s head and telling a wide open story than they are in creating specific images and the kind of scenes that a reader can really imagine. One of the things I see that can really help is getting the writer to slow down, to create images and characters on the page that seem three dimensional, that a reader can experience at the same time as he or she is reading. I’m a big fan of the idea that the reader and the writer are co-creators of the story. There has to be room to let the reader’s experiences and imagination in.
P: Many writers struggle with crafting realistic dialogue. Do you have any tips for dealing with this problem?
SH: Yes, again, it comes back to scene and making sure the dialogue exists within one. In my classes we do an exercise around using action and dialogue together. A lot of times dialogue can turn into just two (or more) talking heads: words on the page without bodies in a space saying them. It’s important to keep the characters’ bodies involved in the reading experience.
The other tip I suggest is always reading your dialogue out loud. This can really help catch a lot of "the wood."
P: In educational programs on writing there’s typically an emphasis on literary fiction. Yet your first novel, Jack Wakes Up, is in the crime/noir genre. Coming out of your MFA program, how did you make that transition?
SH: Well, that’s a great question. I was writing short stories for a long time and love that form. I still love short stories and as a student-writer, I learned so much by working with them. I really got a sense of beginning/middle/end and the composition of a piece that would’ve been very hard to learn if I were just working on novels.
But then as I tried to publish a book, everyone urged me to go out on the market with a novel. "Write your novel," was the advice I kept hearing. So I spent some time working on novels and I was dissatisfied with my first attempts. It wasn’t until I started to introduce more action, comedy and thrilling characters that I really started to feel the sparks and enjoy myself while I was writing. Ultimately, I had to face the fact that I had influences that weren’t just from books: I love movies, TV shows, video games, and I had to let some of that into my writing. When I did that, JACK PALMS CRIME was born!
P: Mainstream publication of short story collections has been on the decline for years but there seems to be a resurgence of the form in ebooks, and in fact you’ll be coming out with Kindle editions of your short story collections on December 27. Are the skills needed to write an effective short story different than those required to write an effective full-length novel? Can working in one form improve one’s work in the other form?
SH: Yes, absolutely. As I said above, I think short stories are a great learning tool, a form you can really cut your teeth on. There’s something so important about being able to start a story, finish a draft, then revise it… and revise it… and… you get the picture. Finally, you can finally call a story done and move on to a new one. There’s something about this process of starting and finishing that I think speeds up the learning process for writing. After all, writing is revising in large part. Because a story is so much smaller, it’s easier to learn revision on them.
And yes, it’s exciting that now I have a chance to do something with my short story collection using ebooks and Amazon’s Kindle platform! For a long time I thought the stories just needed to be shelved because no mainstream publisher would publish them–and this is with twelve of the fifteen stories having been published in literary journals! Now I’m able to bring out the stories myself on Kindle and see if I can get my online audience behind them. We’ll find out on Dec. 27th, when A Long Way from Disney hits Amazon’s Kindle store.
P: Thousands of writers have recently completed draft novels as part of National Novel Writing Month, and many of them are now thinking about next steps, such as workshopping and revision. Do you have any advice on how to approach this stage of the writing process?
SH: Yes! First of all, I’d let those NaNoWriMo novels sit for a while. At least a few months. They were written in such a frenzy that it’ll take a while for the dust to settle and the writer to be able to look at the pages for what’s really there–to separate what’s still in his or her head from what’s down on the page. In a few months, it’ll be time to start revising those novels. When that time comes, the best place to start is with a fast read-through of the whole book. Read it and make notes on what’s there as well as what needs to change to make the story the one you really want. It’s a big rush of creativity during NaNoWriMo. Writers have created A LOT of material to work with. Now it’s time to use the revision tools–cutting, rewriting, reshaping–to make that material into your book. Save the polishing for last. Don’t start editing/changing single lines until the last steps.
P: In your upcoming Stanford Online Writer’s Studio class, The Essential Art: Making Movies in Your Reader’s Mind, the focus is primarily on craft but you will also be devoting some time to the current publishing environment and author platform. This is unusual for most creative writing classes and programs. Do you feel these topics should be included in any university-level creative writing program? Why or why not?
SH: I think it’s important to include these topics because they lead to writers being enthusiastic. They lead to writer-excitement, which is in small supply these days. I find that when my students start to see ways they can share their work and start generating their own audience–through social networking and free serialized audiobook podcasts–they get very excited about creating new work; they get inspired. I’ve seen this make a great deal of difference in their attitude, approach to the page, and general feelings about writing. So yes, I think it’s important to include.
That said, the main focus of this class is craft: literally showing how to write in such a way that a reader co-creates the narrative in a mental movie as she reads–goes from words on the page to visual characters and scenes in her mind. That’s what we’ll really be building in this class: the tools to take words and turn them into moving images for readers.
Seth Harwood received an MFA in fiction from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has taught creative writing at the University of Iowa, UMass Boston, and the City College of San Francisco, and his fiction has appeared in more than a dozen literary and crime/noir journals. His first novel, Jack Wakes Up, which he first serialized as a free audiobook, was published by Three Rivers Press (Random House) and reached #1 in Crime/Mystery and #45 overall in books on Amazon.com on the first day of its print release.
Registration is now open for Seth’s upcoming Stanford Online Writer’s Studio class, The Essential Art: Making Movies in Your Reader’s Mind. The class runs for 10 weeks, from January 11 through March 19.