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Instructors Tell All: The Writing Rules You Need

by Ryan Hoenig

Most experts would agree: The key to being a writer is just to write. But what else? There’s more to it than that, right?

In search of more concrete rules for writing, I turned to Lighthouse’s instructors for help. Here, six of our faculty members share their favorite tips, rules, and advice for writers of all levels and genres.

krouseErika Krouse

Don’t let yourself off the hook. Once you start, it’s hard to stop. If a character needs to bleed, shoot her. If you need to write something emotionally difficult, no excuses. Quit whining and do it.

Brad West

In fiction, apply the Magic Formula: Empathy + Conflict + Suspense = Strong Narrative Writing.

Empathy. Will the reader empathize with my character(s)? If not, what can I do to help my reader “feel” for my character? Sometimes this means making your character more likable. It always means making your character somebody your reader can relate to: quirks, flaws, core wounding can help do this.

Conflict. Make sure your scene’s action is driven by conflict. What is conflict? I sometimes think of conflict as a character’s main “craving.” What does the character really want or need?

Suspense (a.k.a. Tension). How do you create suspense? First, keep the stakes high. Make sure the protagonist’s whole world is in jeopardy. Additionally, withhold information. Give the reader exposition on a need-to-know basis.

In nonfiction, suspense is over-rated. Suspense is useless if your reader doesn’t know what you’re talking about for pages at a time. Withholding key information so the reader has one grand epiphany (i.e., when EVERYTHING suddenly makes sense) can backfire, especially if your reader doesn’t bother to keep reading your story. Tell us (early on) what you’re talking about. Obviously, you’ll want to avoid saying things like, “Today I’m going to talk to you about meerkats.” But you do need to “seed” your writing with hints about the big picture.

(Brad West will be teaching Reading as a Writer: Memoir as Awakening and Advanced Memoir and Narrative Nonfiction this spring.)


kurtzDoug Kurtz

Write from the neck down. You’re not going to finish a novel without your brain, but your intellect doesn’t always know what’s best. When it comes to making decisions, getting unstuck, deepening story, killing your darlings, etc., your heart and gut and parts farther south are much better thinkers. Tune into them. Listen to what they tell you. Then use your head to get the work done.

Fuel your prose. No amount of gorgeous, articulate prose can mask the fact that your self-help book has no substance or your novel has no story. Words on the page are a byproduct of the forces beneath them: conflict, concept, premise, experience, knowledge, fact, idea. If those forces are weak or under-developed, the words will betray that weakness to the reader. Know what’s burning beneath your prose—every sentence, paragraph, chapter—and stoke it as high and hot as it will go.

Swing your sledgehammer. How frustrating is it when readers miss your point or lose the plot? Connecting the reader’s brain to the writer’s message is one of the central challenges we face. Writers often have the misconception that withholding vital details, being subtle, or obscuring meaning entices readers and makes them turn pages. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Your job is to reveal, divulge, deliver, make your point. But when is enough enough? If you’re not sure, write with a sledgehammer. Smash the thing over the head. In revision, it’s easier to cut what’s too much than fortify what’s not enough. When your eyes are fresh, you’ll see where you swung too hard and be able to edit accordingly.

(Doug Kurtz will be teaching Intermediate/Advanced Novel Workshop this spring.)

Christopher Merkner

Spend more time listening—to people, to the news, to the sound of the public bus, to animals eating or mating. And if you are—as I am—white and male and identifying as heterosexual, you should probably spend way less time telling your stories and way more time making space for the stories of other people to be told. At the very least, listening to and learning from different stories will serve as a springboard for making more informed, considered art. At the very most, your silence will allow for a much richer, more complex, and dynamic world to be revealed in this world.

(Christopher Merkner is teaching Online Short Story and Online Reading as a Writer: The Short Stories of Joy Williams and Deborah Eisenberg next.)

Emily Sinclair

Finish the damn draft…so that you can revise.

Look at the shapeliness of every scene. Each scene should create questions in the mind of the reader. Something needs to change from beginning to end. Did you move the needle? Did you create narrative momentum?

Go outside the story. Shake up the ordinary world your characters inhabit. Let loose a romping alligator in the neighborhood. Go ahead, try it. Your characters (and readers) won’t know what hit them.

(Emily Sinclair will be teaching Advanced Workshop: Narrative and Voice this spring.)

LumansAlexander Lumans

Write toward the unknown. H.P. Lovecraft once wrote, “The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” I write every day toward an unknown, a shrouded mystery, a void that will stare back at me once I first summon the courage to stare into it. And in writing toward this unknown, if I can scare myself, I’ll know I’ll have written something stark, sublime, and undeniable.

(Alexander Lumans will be teaching Experimental/Hybrid Forms and Reading as a Writer: H.P. Lovecraft and Claire Vaye Watkins this spring.)


Ryan is a senior studying English literature and Spanish at the University of Colorado Boulder.  This summer, he will be finishing his undergraduate degree abroad in Barcelona, Spain.  Until then, you will find him interning at Lighthouse and working as an event coordinator for the Literary Buffs.

One comment on “Instructors Tell All: The Writing Rules You Need

  1. Ron D. White
    February 18, 2016

    Thanks for a very interesting posting. As always there is some good fishing around the Lighthouse but its purpose is to help us all navigate to a safe haven.

    Writing is like a fishing trip with Erika. She knows Hemingway. Keep a tight line and if it is a shark you want to bring aboard, shoot it.

    Brad’s trouts put tension on the line then force themselves into the air hoping to show confinement can be temporary.

    Doug does not set a timer on his trips and uses line as strong as it takes and as large a net as he can find.

    Christopher surveys the water, sees the most nourishing hatches, listens for ripples showing trout have moved from beside the large rock and hit the surface; then he wisely places a fly.

    Emily fishes flat, quiet water that holds so far unseen fish which are always situated to benefit from whatever shows itself, but themselves are at risk.

    Alexander fishes the streams not yet dammed up or carefully mapped out in the guide books; at first they are scary and remain challenging.

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This entry was posted on February 18, 2016 by in Uncategorized.

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