Get an "Afterlife" — writing advice from Ryan Boudinot

Ryan Boudinot

Confession: When I first started the MFA program at Goddard College, the guy in the picture intimidated me. Word on the playground was that he made his advisees read really thick books and had a due date that was a week earlier than the rest of the advisors. With a full time schedule at work, I thought adding that to my plate was going to kill me. (I was so naive when I started.)

But naivete (yes, I know there are accents in this word) aside, I still learned from Ryan Boudinot. Before he was the second reader to my thesis, a surprisingly limited role, his workshops were helpful. Uber helpful.

If you don’t know who he is, here’s his bio from Amazon:

Ryan Boudinot is the author of BLUEPRINTS OF THE AFTERLIFE (Grove Atlantic/Black Cat, 2012); MISCONCEPTION (Grove Atlantic/Black Cat, 2009), a finalist for the PEN USA Literary Award; and THE LITTLEST HITLER (Counterpoint, 2006), a Publishers Weekly and Amazon.com Best Book of 2006. His work has appeared in MCSWEENEY’S, THE BEST AMERICAN NONREQUIRED READING, NERVE, BLACK BOOK, and other anthologies and journals. He teaches creative writing at Goddard College’s MFA program in Port Townsend, Washington, and blogs about film at therumpus.net. He lives in Seattle.

And just like his workshops, his notes as a second reader got down to the nitty gritty of writing. Here are two of the many tips I found useful.

“Blueprints of the Afterlife” comes out Jan. 3.
 Click the picture to pre-order.

1) Overly physical language. I come from the world of telling. As a reporter, I tell everything — the color of the shirt, the temperature of the day, the wind, the sun, the rain. So switching from tell to show is easier said than done. This is one way to do it. How does this happen? Readers want to be inside the character, they want to be inside their skin. Something like “my heart beat faster” or “my eyes welled with tears” now takes the reader outside of the character’s skin. And by the way, those phrases tend to be cliche. We all know why we use cliches — they are easy to use, they tend to be true and well, we’re lazy sometimes.

Now, I won’t admit that I used overly physical language in my writing but…what do I do for a living?

2) Avoid instances of “could”when you can. “Could” is like the word “that”, most of the time you can do without it. I particularly love this piece of writing advice because it promotes clear writing.  So for example:

“I could talk as fast as a madwoman.”

Taking out “could” and going straight to the verb “talk” makes the sentence more direct.

“I talked as fast as a madwoman.”

Not bad, right? Now that “could” is out of the way, I’m sure the writers in the crowd can see how to further revise this sentence. I’ll leave you to think about the various draft of this sentence and if you want to share, hit the comment button.

There are other writing tidbits he’s shared but let’s just focus on these two for now. These two pieces of advice may seem small and to some a rehash of a lesson learned earlier but, just by using them, the prose pops. That nearly instant fix is enough to unstuck the stuck writer and/or to jump start a lengthy revision process.

As writing advice goes, this ranks up with there with White Collar creator Jeff Eastin and Diahann Carroll offerings.

Ryan’s latest comes out Jan. 3. Pre-order it here.

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