Charles Johnson on the Craft of Fiction

This evening I was thinking how the Mayborn conference last summer left me with such deep effects. One of the speakers was Charles Johnson, author of Middle Passage, (which won a National Book Award) and Dreamer.  He emphasized rewriting and taking time for the manuscript to pose and answer its own questions, a mystical process in which he claimed your own mind, put to the task, would hone your story into a gem.

What else did he say? I look over my notes … here is what I wrote during his talk.  I didn’t use a tape recorder, but I believe these are pretty reliable quotes:

“If you’re not surprised, the reader will not be surprised.

“In the end, if you’ve done your job, the story plays itself out with the rigor of a mathematical proof. Afterwards, it requires only one good idea to wrap it up.

“When writers get stuck, it is because they have failed to understand the situation at the beginning. Or they failed to set up the conflict correctly. Or they got tired and forced a solution.  If they write with this in mind, they will succeed with obtaining the talked about story … by the great great grandchildren’s generation.

“In creating characters, you have to go back to J-school:  you will find you need to know who, what, why, how, when, where.  The Big Six questions.  You need to answer these.

Bone Structure: By Lajos Egri. (Graphic organizer: Do this on your character.)

“We live in a mysterious universe.  There’s Dark Matter and Dark Energy.  Only 5% of what is, is observable. There’s still a lot to be observed, but there’s also a lot of wonder.  I want to break through to something that hasn’t been understood before.

“The first writing of Middle Passage was too fast.  I didn’t have a good idea of what had to happen.  So I had to go back. Writers try to publish a book every two years. That’s too fast. Middle Passage took 6 years and I threw away 3000 pages.

“Refuse to typecast people.  Refuse to define yourself in ways that are limiting.

“Faith is a good thing, according to Plato.

“To write, you need to be animated with a deep spiritual question.

“Ninety percent of great writing is re-writing.

“Keep a writer’s workbook.  I’ve got journals going back to 1992.




Author: Susan Taylor Brand

Elementary teacher and blogger

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