James Thayer reads from The Boxer and the Poet
James Thayer ‘71 reads the first chapter of his romantic comedy, The Boxer and the Poet.
Tips and Techniques
Thayer started teaching the craft of the novel about ten years ago as a creative writing instructor at the University of Washington. He’s also a regular contributor to Author magazine.
Thayer, a natural storyteller, absorbed his craft through his lifelong voracious reading habit. When he first got the teaching job, he realized he didn’t have enough to say to fill a 90-hour, year-long course. So, as is his wont, he read a bunch of books. “I purchased 25 books on writing,” he says. “Some of the things I knew, but some I didn’t. Every year I teach that class, I become a better writer.”
Thayer’s written a book on the craft of the novel called The Essential Guide to Writing a Novel: A Complete and Concise Manual for Fiction Writers, 2nd Edition.
Thayer says that just as a professional musician is doing things that are “invisible” to the non-musician listener, so too a novelist is doing things that are invisible to the reader. A good writer can list 50 techniques off the top of her head, he says, that are invisible to the reader but that are important for writing a story that we’ll read and enjoy.
Show, Don’t Tell
One essential technique is knowing the difference between showing and telling. “Showing reveals evidence to the reader. Telling is a small lecture. Showing is invariably more interesting, and the difference is this.”
Character and Contrast
In listening to Thayer read the first chapter from his novel, The Boxer and the Poet, we get an immediate sense that these two characters are as different as night and day. Thayer describes the poet as being from old New Orleans, Garden District money while the boxer is a mutt who has never had much going for him.
Thayer points out that contrast is an essential feature of popular fiction. The proper guy seems even more buttoned up and proper when his sidekick is a loon or a crook. Listen to Thayer describing this element of the craft of the novel.
Red Herrings and Foreshadowing
There is a balance between deliberately misdirecting the reader and foreshadowing, Thayer says.
If someone is stranded on the side of the road and whips out their tools to do an engine repair, the reader needs to know of that ability before it comes into play. That information needs to be foreshadowed. The writer can drop that bit of information any number of ways–maybe the driver has a conversation with her son, maybe she thinks back on a repair done in a shop and grumbles to herself, I could have done it better myself. But we need to know that ability is there.
This is essentially Chekhov’s Rule: if there is a gun fired in Act 3, we need to have seen that gun in Act 1. Anton Chekhov, of course, was a famous Russian playwright of the 19th century.
A red herring, Thayer says, is the opposite of foreshadowing: a piece of information laid down to misdirect the reader. Called a relevance fallacy in logic, red herrings serve to misdirect the reader, often in order to set up a surprise revelation, especially at the end of a novel. For example, in Dan Brown’s best seller, The Da Vinci Code, a character called Bishop Aringarosa (whose name means “pink herring”) is portrayed as if he is at the center of the conspiracy but is later revealed to be the dupe of the true antagonist.
“I try to create a character readers will want to spend 300 pages with,” Thayer says. “There are techniques involved. There are things novel writers should and shouldn’t do”:
A Parade of Wonders
“Every element of fiction should entertain,” Thayer says. Whether it’s your character description, your setting, your situation–keep it interesting. If you’re going to have a dog, make him an ugly dog! Make him have three legs! Do something with that dog that gives the reader an image, and something to think about.
We want to read great dialogue, Thayer says–but don’t stage that crackling conversation in, say, a diner. Have that dialogue take place somewhere interesting: in the surgery as the vet operates on a Doberman.
Thayer says most people don’t write their novels because, hey, it’s a lot of work! But now that you’ve got a few of his tips under your belt, here’s his ideas on how to get that book written.
He suggests writing an outline, and then writing a page a day. In a year, you’ll have a book.
Many people learn the techniques of fiction by reading copious quantities of fiction. But most of us who love to read are reading to be entertained–we aren’t studying what we’re reading for technique and structure. In that case, Thayer suggests taking a class such as his, or picking up a how-to book. One of Thayer’s favorites is Scene and Structure by Jack Bickham. Learning to write is a lifelong project. Thayer wrote his first novel when he was 25–and, more than a dozen books later, is still learning.
Don’t make the rookie, prospect-killing mistake of writing all the set-up and walk-away scenes. Thayer says this is the profound error so many beginners make–and that any how-to book worth the paper it’s printed on will tell you, Don’t do that! If you’ve got a character who wants to buy a gun illegally, and a seller who wants to sell that gun, don’t have the buyer start at home, drive to the Starbucks, meet the seller… That’s wrong. Start like this, Thayer says: “Did you bring the gun?” Cut to the chase!
Learn more about James Thayer at his website, jamesthayer.com.