Thursday, June 28, 2012

Tips from David L. Robbins

Hemingway said of writing, “We are all apprentices in a craft where no one ever becomes a master.”   A writer who understands the craft and understands the process will tell you that there will always be more to learn, I just didn’t realize HOW much there was to learn!  I’ve been writing for many a moon and though I wouldn’t call myself a seasoned writer, I thought myself fluent in the basics.  Wrong!  I learned so much about my own writing in one of the Backspace seminars I attended.  It was given by writer David L. Robbins.  You may know him as the author behind the book the movie Enemy at the Gates was based on.
I wanted to share some of my notes for those Literati who are writers or are pondering the idea.
According to Robbins, there are four very important parts of a story: Setting, Research, Point of View, and Tension.  I won’t be able to go over everything in one blog post; my notes total at least twenty pages!  So I’ll list some of the stronger points from the presentation. 
  • Do not write what you know; write what you learn.  Robbins gave this as an example: You’re in a classroom where a presentation is interrupted by sirens outside.  The teacher tells a student to go see what has happened.  The guy is going to come back, out of breath, and tell you something like, “Oh my gosh!  There are four cars piled on top of each other, there’s smoke and fire, debris litters the streets, the firemen are pulling people out of crushed cars with the Jaws of Life, and there are people arguing in the streets!” You’ve got the emotion and the detail in his voice.  But if you ask him a year later, “Hey, what did you see that day of the accident?”  He’d probably reply, “There was an accident with four cars and it was pretty bad.”  You lose the excitement and the detail.   So write what you LEARN, retain that excitement and detail in your writing.
  • Don’t use tricks to excite readers – “accidental” surprises and convenient revelations are transparent and are used when there is a weak story or weak writing.
  • Readers want to connect to the protagonist, but writers tend to “foil the link” with weak writing.  Don’t write what your character can’t see, don’t hesitate, don’t muddle your sentences with unnecessary words.  Example: “He shrugged his shoulders.” No – “He shrugged.”  “He looked up to the sky.”  No – “He looked to the sky.”
  • Have distinct characters.  We are storytellers; do not write about normal people.  Don’t make your protagonist a victim.  Strong characters drive the story and can’t be taken out.  Characters are not the WHAT in your story, the plot is the what.  Characters are the WHY.
  • See the world through the character’s eyes.  Imagine a castle being looked upon by two brothers on a far off hill.  One brother has just returned from fighting in a war, he is to be king, and he loves his home.  The other brother is jealous, he has bottled anger, and he hates his home.  Both brothers will be looking to this castle with different feelings, different thoughts; tell your story through your protagonist’s POV.
  • Stakes.  Establish the stakes on page one.  Don’t sacrifice stakes.  Have an imbalance and make it clear to the reader that there will be this imbalance, this struggle.  What is at risk?  Manipulate who knows what.  Engage the reader.  Your character is about to open a door the reader knows is the closet the killer is hiding in.  You want your reader to be saying, “No!  No!  Don’t open the door!!”  You have to make the reader care.
  • Precision is concision.  Never let two words do the job of one.  Watch out for those weed words (see previous blog post, Weed Words?  I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Weed Words!).  Don’t waste a page in a kitchen (unless it’s an integral part of the story).
  • Integrate place into your story.  Embrace opportunities to describe the setting. 
  • Strong writing.  Don’t use expressions or clichés.  Stay away from mundane expressions.  Be careful with prepositions, the obvious, extra words, and redundancies.  Examine each sentence.  Each sentence has to move the story forward.
  • No info dumps.  Never have anything on the page that the character isn’t thinking.  Do not engage backstory until the character is thinking about it.  No flashbacks. 
  • Show, don’t tell.  Create scenes and describe what is happening to your character, do not tell the reader how the character feels.  (Again, see the previous post, Weed Words?  I Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Weed Words!).
And most of all, know that rejection does not mean stop.  Happy Writing!


  1. I'm not a writer but these are good tips in general. The whole bit about not using more words than you have to. Absolutely! I wish coworkers would speak that way. It'd make them a lot less annoying. Thanks for sharing what you learned!

    1. Oh, I've a long list of coworker wishes...starting with not addressing emails as you would an informal text message! :)

  2. His session was awesome, huh?! Thanks for the reminder and all these great tips. Between him and Maass, I feel like I learned so much.

    1. I know! I learned so much too! I had to leave Maass' seminar early to catch my flight, but I purchased The Fire in Fiction and read it on the plane. It was fantastic!


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