Maximum Capacity for the Writer

As I prepare to teach my first, full-length college-level fiction writing class, I think back on the writing advice that resonated with me over the years. I remember Mary Oliver’s advice: “Writing is like a date. Nothing happens if you don’t show up.” I remember the Willamette Writers Conference session where I grasped the subtleties of limited third person narration.

I have a lot of good material, but I also remember how I learned to write. It wasn’t in a ten week course with all the good material frontloaded. I picked up instruction in little bits and pieces, here and there, when I was ready to learn.

Today that advice comes from the book I’m assigning: How to Write a Damn Good Novel, by James Frey. Frey states that characters must function at their “maximum capacity.” Frey writes, “characters at their maximum capacity will use any and all means available within their particular capacity to achieve their ends.”

That is the rule I’m following this term. As I draft my fifth novel, a legal romance called For Good, I’m letting Frey’s words guide my writing.

I had my law student protagonist take an internship she hated. It didn’t work. She is ambitious. She would quit. She would find a better job.

I had her narrowly avoid a rapist and then stay in the hotel room where he knew she was residing. That was tantamount to the example Frey gives in his book: the heroine who hears clanking chains in the attic, lights a candle, and goes up alone. My protagonist wasn’t acting at her maximum capacity, and as long as she wasn’t acting at her maximum capacity, my writing failed.

In both cases, I changed the scene so the character could act at her maximum capacity, and suddenly the story flowed as though I were merely transcribing it. I didn’t need to chew on my pen and consider what came next. “Next” happened because “next” was clearly what these characters would do.

I will bring this lesson to the first day of my class, a class in which I ask the impossible and offer it too. Students are required (in the style of NaNoWriMo) to write 50,000 words over the course of a quarter. That’s 250 pages for students who still fear the 15-page term paper. But there’s more; I’m going to grade on completion, not quality. If their first novels are hideous Fifty Shades of Gray knock-offs, so be it. If they best me a hundred times with the beauty of their prose, equally good.

Frey writes, “the principle of maximum capacity does not require that a character always be at an absolute maximum, but at the maximum within that character’s capability.” This is what I hope for my students, not that they meet my absolute standard, but that every day they achieve their own unique and ever-expanding capacity for greatness.

Getting ready for the first day of class.



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