To celebrate the release of her newest novel, Last Night, Karen Ellis reflects on what makes great fiction writing and how to discover and unleash the voice within.
It’s an old question and generally the answer is “No.” And yet I’ve been teaching creative writing for twenty-five years—teaching, or leading, workshops in basic fiction writing, suspense, short story, voice. I’ve been proud to see a handful of my students go on to careers as published novelists. But it has nothing to do with what I’ve taught them and everything to do with what they’ve discovered in themselves as I guided them into the world of fiction making.
The word educate derives from the Latin educere, “to draw out” (Merriam-Webster). Which means that, particularly when it comes to a creative endeavor, the best a teacher can do is offer clues to what lies within. This was driven home for me in graduate school when I was earning my master’s in literature and writing. I learned more about how to write through all the reading and analysis in the literature classes. In the writing workshops, where too often celebrity teachers passively allowed an atmosphere of style bullying to develop, I learned how not to teach.
Since then, what I’ve learned in the seventy-ish creative writing workshops I’ve led over the years is that, while good writing can’t exactly be taught, it can be coaxed. Yes, I can teach young aspiring writers elements of craft through reading and exercises that supply them with basic ingredients like showing vs. telling, building character, mastering point of view, writing lean dialogue, etc. But those are just the utensils to carry the food to the mouth. Just as the food itself needs to be delicious or the meal won’t be memorable, good writing is all in the flavor.
Flavor, feeling, the magic of being drawn into a story—that is what readers crave. Or I should say, that’s what I crave as a reader. When I pick up a work of fiction and settle into my favorite chair, I want a story that pulls me in and a richness of language that sweeps me up. “I want it all,” I tell my students. “Even if you’re writing a commercial thriller, you can’t just toss the ingredients into a pan and walk away.” Each ingredient needs tending, and the flame needs to be set just right. Similarly, this is how a writer binds the basic elements of craft with the magic of voice and language and tone and imagery that creates sparks of emotional connection.
But how do you teach that? Back to the beginning: You can’t.
“You’ll do all the work,” I announce at the beginning of each semester. “Also, I won’t talk first. I’ll jump into the conversation eventually.”
Generally, they’re young and a flash in their eyes tells me that they like this somewhat renegade approach. I’m going throw a lot of information their way but let them do the thinking and tell me, no, show me, how they’ve figured out how to put it all together. I won’t hover and I won’t nag—I’m not their mother; I’m a real live published author they get to spend time with for fifteen weeks. I’ll let them pick my brain. I’ll offer my feedback in granular detail. I’ll reassure them. I’ll laugh with them. I’ll expect them to show up on schedule with their stories and novel excerpts and if they don’t, their grade will reflect that.
I urge them to revise their work several times before they bring it in to share with the group. “Time away from a work brings a gift of clarity,” I explain. And I insist that, when critiquing each other’s work, they respond according to the writer’s intentions and not how you, the reader, could do it differently. If it’s a horror story, did it frighten you? If it’s a police procedural, do the parts click together? If it’s psychological suspense, does the tension build? If it’s literary fiction, did the story stand up to language? Most importantly, in any genre, I urge my students to analyze how and when and why a story is or isn’t working, but always on its own terms. We take the pages apart, line by line, and help the writers understand how their work has succeeded and how it’s missed the mark. I, and we, guide each other through a maze of discovery that bit by bit can lead to a sense of mastery of craft and (I hope) enough trust in themselves to unleash their voices.
Even to this day, at the end of the semester, a few students will come up to thank me, tell me that I’m a good teacher, that I’ve taught them so much. This always gives me pause. I hold my tongue but what I want to say is, “What? I didn’t teach you anything.”
When Dorothy finally found the Wizard of Oz, he was just a man behind a curtain pulling levers. All he did was tell her where her power lay and that she had it all along, and show her how to use it.
Karen Ellis, a pseudonym of international bestselling author Katia Lief, is the author of Last Night, the second in her crime series The Searchers. The first in the series, A Map of the Dark, was published in 2018 and was called “a riveting series launch” by Publishers Weekly and “elegant, haunting” by LitHub. Katia teaches fiction writing at The New School in Manhattan and lives in Brooklyn. Learn more at karenellisbooks.com.