Defeating Amateurism: (Guest Muse, Robert Penn Warren)

Story Analysts, such as myself, often use the work “amateur” when writing about or discussing scripts. “This reads like an amateur script…” Or, “Such-and-such is clearly an amateur writer.” So, do we mean this in the pejorative sense? Generally, yes. Is that fair? Probably not. While “amateur” can mean someone who isn’t getting paid to write, or hasn’t landed representation, “amateur” is often used as a shorthand to denote work that doesn’t look or read like a professional script. There’s something about it . . . that doesn’t pass muster.

Liza Olson  at



Surely the first creatures to crawl from swamp to land did so with less frustration than we writers who struggle to overcome the amateurism in our writing.

I’m not talking amateur mistakes, those hundred or so writerly sins we can find by Googling *amateur writing mistakes* and which present us with a simple binary choice. Yes or No. Shall I keep this adverb or delete it? Shall I vary my sentence structure? Shall I try to eliminate a few more thats and its? Replace bound modifiers with free modifiers? Give this paragraph sharper focus?

No. I am talking about emerging from a set of mind, a hard-wired fixation perhaps on what we think fiction is and should be and to which we write accordingly and, despite our finest efforts, produce writing that does not measure up to professional standards.

Many of us feel as though we’re writing just beneath the professional surface. The writing we would like to achieve is not far from our reach, yet it seems as if it is light years away and, without a warp-speed goose from a magical muse, we will never break through and whoosh up into the sunny sphere of the good novelist.

If we’ve done fairly well with learning the craft and do write and rewrite and find our story still only approximates professional fiction, if something about it still isn’t passing muster, it may be time to turn to the professionals and pay meticulous attention to how they do it.

For instance, I was gobsmacked the other night by these, Robert Penn Warren’s first two sentences for All the King’s Men which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1947. The book I held in my hand was from its 21st printing.

To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it.

I would not have thought to write this. More than one reason comes to mind, and all but one are rationalizations. The real reason is the creative scope of my writing has not yet expanded into the reaches of Robert Penn Warren’s.

I would not have thought to open a complicated novel with something as seemingly simple as a drive up a highway.

But, had I mustered sufficient cleverness to begin All the King’s Men with the journey, my mind would have coursed its amateur runnels and produced something like “We left for Mason city on Highway 58.” And I would have thought it pretty good. I’d have figured the highway detail, “going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new,” would not interest the reader and would slow the story (my writing group would have been proud).

I’d never have used the second person “you” in that first sentence. Far too disposed to maintain my conservative paradigm to even think of it. (PhD dissertations have been written on Robert Penn Warren’s use of “you” in All the King’s Men.)

And, I’d never have thought to employ the lead phrase, “To get there . . .”

Had I been writing this and used the common past tense “left,” as in “We left for Mason City on Highway 58,” instead of R.P. Warren’s present tense, “To get there, you follow . . .”, I’d have allowed myself no opportunity for his deft second sentence, “Or was new, that day we went up it.”

That sentence is brilliant. It not only moves the narrative from present to past tense where it will remain, but also foretells change and change indicates conflict. In these first thirty words, Robert Penn Warren has given us a goal—to get there; moved the story forward; indicated change and conflict; raised reader questions; established voice and style; and put the reader into the story with his use of “you” and specific detail: We are there on Highway 58, going northeast out of the city on a new and good road. We hear, through the cadence of his sentences, the tires beneath us churning round and round on new asphalt. We know from his “Or was new, that day we went up it,” that we’re in for a dramatic ride.

Had Robert Penn Warren borrowed my writer’s brain and written “We left for Mason City on Highway 58,” he would not have created this reading magic.

Reading Magic is the stuff that differentiates amateur work from professional work. From just these two sentences by Robert Penn Warren we learn that

  • Reading Magic is unexpected. Write for the reader something he will not be expecting. This quite possibly means we will write something that surprises us as well.
  • Reading Magic contains specific detail. When we wave our wands, the reader does not want to see smoke, she wants to see and experience in glowing, living detail whatever it is we have summoned.
  • Reading Magic speaks with a uniqueness of voice and style. Tomes are written on voice and style, but for practical purpose I think of voice and style as conveying an attitude specific to a particular story.

Writing with these in mind will send some of our amateurism skedaddling. Magic, however, dissipates when broken down and analyzed. To truly expand our writing consciousness, we need to absorb passages of reading magic whole. Or, to paraphrase Ray Bradbury by substituting Robert Penn Warren for Dylan Thomas:

“You say you don’t understand Robert Penn Warren? Yes, but your ganglion does, and your secret wits, and all your unborn children.” – How to Keep and Feed a Muse

Here, in its entirety, is the first paragraph of All the King’s Men:

To get there you follow Highway 58, going northeast out of the city, and it is a good highway and new. Or was new, that day we went up it. You look up at the highway and it is straight for miles, coming at you, with the black line down the center coming at and at you, black and slick and tarry-shining against the white of the slab, and the heat dazzles up from the white slab so that only the black line is clear, coming at you with the whine of the tires, and if you don’t quit staring at that line and don’t take a few deep breaths and slap yourself hard on the back of the neck you’ll hypnotize yourself and you’ll try to jerk into the black dirt shoulder off the slab, and you’ll try to jerk her back on but you can’t because the slab is high like a curb, and maybe you’ll try to reach to turn off the ignition just as she starts the dive. But you won’t make it, of course. Then a nigger chopping cotton a mile away, he’ll look up and see the little column of black smoke standing up above the vitriolic, arsenic green of the cotton rows, and up against the violent, metallic, throbbing blue of the sky, and he’ll say, “Lawd God, hit’s a-nudder one done done hit!” And the next nigger down the next row, he’ll say, “Lawd God,” and the first nigger will giggle, and the hoe will lift again and the blade will flash in the sun like a heliograph. Then a few days later the boys from the Highway Department will mark the spot with a little metal square on a metal rod stuck in the black dirt off the shoulder, the metal square painted white and one it in black a skull and crossbones. Later on love vine will climb up on it, out of the weeds.

The point of this article is not to encourage us to imitate Robert Penn Warren, but to learn from him, to get a feel for writing above amateurism ala Robert Penn Warren. If we do this, we—whether writers of romance, thrillers, horror, sci-fi, history, fantasy, etc.—will be changed and one step closer to writing up to muster .

Remember,  Reading Magic is Different, Detailed and walks in with an Attitude.