A friend who is a successful writer/editor/creative writing professor has been reading my blogs sent me these wise words about what would-be Peace Corps writers should do and think about while writing their novels.

  • Peace Corps writers should take writing courses from reputable instructors to learn the basics and to have the opportunity to workshop their writing among peers.
  • They should also read lots of good How-To books on the craft. There are a gazillion of them out there.
  • They should avoid at all costs: exclamation points, stereotyping, clichés, and all other proofs of lazy writing.
  • They should plan on revising each chapter or piece at least ten times. Quality writing is all about revision.
  • They should NOT confuse explicit, titillating, borderline-pornographic sex scenes with “intimacy” with the reader.  A writer of worthwhile prose must work harder and dig deeper to achieve emotional intimacy with his/her reader.

I would add that a good novel, Peace Corps or otherwise, is a journey. It has a beginning, middle and end, and the reader moves along with the narrator on this journey. The reader should care about the narrator and what happens to her or him in the course of the book.

What keeps anyone reading? Well, plot for one, and a good plot can keep someone reading even if the prose lacks grace and style, voice and tone, and the hundred other elements that makes a woman a beauty or a novel interesting. Also language, like make up, can make up for a hundred imperfections.

Let’s take one short paragraph to show you what I mean:

My schoolroom is on the Great Rift, and in this schoolroom there is a line of children, heads shaved liked prisoners, muscles showing through their rags. These children appear in the morning out of the slowly drifting hoops of fog-wisp. It is chilly, almost cold. There is no visibility at six in the morning; only a fierce white-out where earth is the patch of dirt under their bare feet, a platform, and the sky is everything else.”

What the writer does is set the scene. Within a few words we know the scene, a schoolroom in Africa, then like a panoramic shot, he moves away, pulls the camera of his description away from the individual student, a “line of children” and the read sees and feels the cold dawn of Africa, then the immenseness of the landscape: “the earth is a platform, the sky is everything else.”

theroux-pThe writer of that short paragraph is Paul Theroux (Malawi 1963-65) and he would go from that schoolroom on the Great Rift Valley to write over 40 books of fiction and non-fiction, and he is still writing. Not bad for a Peace Corps writer.