A Couple of Questions with Joshua Mohr
On February 20th, critically acclaimed author Joshua Mohr leads a 4 week beginner-friendly class, Plotlines: Crafting Powerful Story Progressions That Stay True To Character. To get to know the man behind the desk a little better, Mark Vanderpool, our Director of Education here at LitReactor, fired off a few questions to Joshua.
Mark Vanderpool: Josh, your upcoming LitReactor class is called "Plotlines" and I know you've got strong ideas about how to find and explore the vital connections of cause and effect to arouse and maintain reader curiosity and drive a narrative forward. I'm curious if you could briefly describe just one strategy you've used to clear the obstacles or to strengthen a storyline while staying true to your characters?
Joshua Mohr: The first thing I try to do is listen to my characters. They're the ones who are in charge. I know it sounds sort of schizo, but the best writers I know are willing to act like secretaries, simply scribbling down what our characters tell us to.
MV: Do you tend to think in terms of numerous general principles that pertain to all good writing--a case for returning to fundamentals again and again, especially when something isn't working--or do you tend to see unique problems in every project demanding radically custom solutions?
JM: I've never stumbled upon any "one size fits all" fix for a narrative problem. Every book I've written threw new problems my way. The trick is for writers to stay limber, willing to push past what they think they know into the territory of the unknown. Again, it has to come from the characters, and if we try to steer too much, the book will feel forced.
MV: I know you teach quite a bit, and you've got experience in teaching both online and in a more traditional MFA program... What's one of the most common flaws you see in early drafts or beginners' manuscripts, somethng that persistently holds people back from excellent work?
JM: Apprentice writers are usually too hard on themselves. They want their books to be good right away. Building a novel takes a long time. No need to beat yourself up before the ideas have even had a chance to steep.
MV: Does that problem have a ready fix or a range of go-to options that you encourage people to try?
JM: I always recommend trying to "liberate yourself from quality" in the early drafts, just get it all out, even if it reads like total shit. Once you give yourself permission to write sloppily, it takes the pressure off and you can relax and write.
MV: How do you feel about outlining and how do you like to approach it with your students?
JM: I've published 3 novels and have never outlined anything. I'm very fly-by-the-seat of my pants, and really enjoy those reckless discoveries on the page. That being said, I know many great writers who do plan out before they get words down on the page, so I do my best to let each author make writing style demarcations on their own.
MV: I'm wondering how you suspend the critical voices within when you're freely drafting and how do you decide when to switch into a self-editing mode?
JM: It's certainly a give and take. I had a teacher in grad school who used to say that writers should be like improvising musicians during the rough drafting process: free to explore the inspiration, riff, meander, etc. Then in subsequent revisions, we employ more fastidious, organized, scrutinizing vantage points, similar to a CPA. It will work a little bit differently for everyone, but that first part is the most important, giving yourself the latitude to make mistakes. It's while making those mistakes that we learn the most about our books.
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