The Best Mix of Spontaneity and Structure: Writing Advice from Carolyn Wheat

Carolyn Wheat is an award-winning fiction writer, a former defense attorney, and a highly respected writing teacher. Her How to Write Killer Fiction: the Funhouse of Mystery and the Roller Coaster of Suspense starts off by clarifying the differences between mystery novels and suspense novels.

“Like a dream,” says Wheat in Killer Fiction, “fiction can send us on a roller-coaster ride of sensation, or it can produce images as distorted as any to be seen in the funhouse mirror at the carnival.”

Even if you aren’t writing a mystery or a thriller, there is much to be learned in Killer Fiction.  I’ve used the slim volume in both literature and writing courses.  In each instance, I found Wheat’s discussions of structure and the writer-reader relationship to be invaluable, especially for writers who were having trouble making the jump from short form to long form.  (See Jeff’s citation on page 194 of BookLife.)

“Unlike a dream, fiction is a manufactured experience,” Wheat says.  “And it is you the writer who creates the dream for your intended reader.  It is vital, therefore, that you the writer understand fully the experience you intend your reader to have.”

Below, Wheat shares some writing advice.


What is the best piece of general writing advice you’ve ever received?


Wheat:  “Think about the book you’d most like to be reading, then sit down and shamelessly write it.”

I’m quoting from memory, so the wording may not be exact, but the advice has stayed with me for 45+ years. It comes from the late Seymour Glass, himself a fictional character, who delivered that advice to his writer brother Buddy in one of J.D. Salinger’s Glass stories.

It’s the “shamelessly” that stands out. Not ashamed of writing what you love, even if what you love strikes other people as stupid, shallow, or morbid.

I use that advice in every writing class I teach. I hope I used it with every book or short story I ever put on paper.


What is the worst piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?


Wheat:  Hmmm. There is a fair amount of bad advice out there, unfortunately. I think the thing that bugs me the most as a writing teacher is other teachers and writer-lecturers who tell students that they either must or must not outline their work. I think there are writers who absolutely need to outline or pre-plan their writing, and others who feel stifled and hemmed in by too much structure early on. I think there are projects that demand an outline and other projects that work far better if the writer just plunges in and lets the story take her where it wants to go. I think each writer must find the best mix of spontaneity and structure for his own personality and the work at hand.

Anyone who uses a lot of must or must not in their teaching is someone you might want to discount. In all probability, all that teacher will do is make you feel bad about your own process for no discernable results.


Jeremy L. C. Jones is a freelance writer, editor, and part-time professor.  Jones is a frequent contributor to Clarkesworld Magainze.  He is also the director of Shared Worlds, a creative writing and world-building camp that he and Jeff VanderMeer designed in 2006.