Sunday, February 15, 2015

Refreshingly Contrarian Views

David Corbett ( is the author of four novels, including the NY Times Notable Book, DONE FOR A DIME and has a new one coming out in April. He was a San Francisco private investigator for fifteen years and worked on some very high-profile criminal and civil cases during that time – great fodder for his fiction, I imagine, as he now writes acclaimed crime novels. He is teaching several classes here at the San Miguel conference and I was particularly interested in a few of his somewhat contrarian views.

He doesn’t hold with the theory that conflict is the center of a story. “Desire is. And conflict and desire are not the same thing.” In every
story, he believes, the character wants something. He has an objective.
An obstacle stands in his way. He must take an action to overcome it. This, Corbett says, is the essence of story.

“Character drives plot,” he believes, “Not the other way around.”

He waves away the oft-taught theory that, before beginning, a writer should create a biography for each character – age, appearance, education, profession, religion and the like. No, Corbett says. Instead, you need to create scenes in your character’s life. What were his greatest moments of fear? Of shame? Of sorrow or joy? Of pride? Who were his tribe? His teachers, his friends, his family? What are his secrets? For what does he yearn? What is his vulnerability? You need to create these scenes, he says, even if none of them actually appear in the final work.

He also eschews the advice offered by some teachers: to write the theme of your novel in two or three sentences before you begin and to then direct what you write to that theme. “Sometimes,” he says, “You write your best stuff when you don’t know where you’re going!”

Corbett says he never revises while in the process of writing. “That puts the cart before the horse. I allow myself to write badly. You have to write the whole story before you begin revisions.” When it’s all there, he says, you can see what has to be revised, what has to be ruthlessly cut, what has to be added. He quoted a fellow writer as saying, “If you’re worried about language and still writing, it’s like rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”


  1. I love his comments, and agree. Conflict is a natural clash of the desires of the characters. We all live it daily.

  2. Would have loved to hear David Cobbitt speak. Refreshing views on writing construction. Thanks for posting. I'm loving your adventure!