In any number of careers you would need to take training courses or maintain qualifications. As writers, have you done anything more formal, after university, to hone your talent or is there something you plan/want to do in the future? Anything you found really helpful? Aside from just putting in the hours and hours actually writing.
I didn’t go to college for writing. I went there to be a scientist and I dropped out after 2 years. Gordon went to college to get a history degree with a minor in political science. Neither of us recommends formal education for creative writing if your aim is to write commercial fiction. Most MFA programs are taught by people who have not achieved commercial success. In some cases, it can be detrimental rather than helpful.
Gordon actually started as an English major aiming at journalism. His English Literature professor assigned the class an essay on Green Knight after lecturing at length about it. Gordon analyzed the Green Knight and received a failing grade. Apparently, there was a misunderstanding. He was under impression that the professor wanted his thoughts on Green Knight. Instead she wanted her opinion regurgitated back at her in his words. Gordon switched his major that day and never looked back.
A bad teacher will kill your creative drive.
Things that one can do to improve their writing
Hours and hours writing and hours and hours reading.
Although I am mostly reading manhwa and manhua, Korean and Chinese comics. People ask for recommendations for those, but I typically don’t reccomend them because a lot of them they have themes that Western audiences would not tolerate well. Which is why I read them. You must read widely. Lots and lots of stimulus from reading, looking at art, watching TV, observing people in real life. Your mind will take all of it, chew on it for a while, process, and produce fiction. You can’t make fiction out of nothing.
Read widely. Read new. Read old.
For hours the hard-pressed beast had fled across the Martian desert with its dark rider. Now it was spent. It faltered and broke stride, and when the rider cursed and dug his heels into the scaly sides, the brute only turned its head and hissed at him. It stumbled on a few more paces into the lee of a sandhill, and there it stopped, crouching down in the dust.
The man dismounted. The creature’s eyes burned like green lamps in the light of the little moons, and he knew that it was no use trying to urge it on. He looked back the way he had come.
In the distance there were four black shadows grouped together in the barren emptiness. They were running fast. In a few minutes they would be upon him.
Brackett, Leigh. Eric John Stark: Outlaw of Mars (p. 9). Phoenix Pick. Kindle Edition.
IN THE MYRIADIC YEAR OF OUR LORD—the ten thousandth year of the King Undying, the kindly Prince of Death!—Gideon Nav packed her sword, her shoes, and her dirty magazines, and she escaped from the House of the Ninth.
She didn’t run. Gideon never ran unless she had to. In the absolute darkness before dawn she brushed her teeth without concern and splashed her face with water, and even went so far as to sweep the dust off the floor of her cell. She shook out her big black church robe and hung it from the hook. Having done this every day for over a decade, she no longer needed light to do it by. This late in the equinox no light would make it here for months, in any case; you could tell the season by how hard the heating vents were creaking. She dressed herself from head to toe in polymer and synthetic weave. She combed her hair. Then Gideon whistled through her teeth as she unlocked her security cuff, and arranged it and its stolen key considerately on her pillow, like a chocolate in a fancy hotel.
Muir, Tamsyn. Gideon the Ninth (The Locked Tomb Trilogy) (p. 15). Tom Doherty Associates. Kindle Edition.
Peer critique is useful if you can stand it. Some people can get vindictive and mean, because everyone is a special snowflake when it comes to their own writing. Also, you have to be aware that because everyone is working on their own fiction, they will concentrate very heavily on one aspect at a time. The adage of “if you have a hammer, everything looks like a nail” holds true in this case.
For example, let’s say that I’ve become convinced that I use the word said too often. If I am critiquing other people’s work, I’m going to point out all of the saids with a vengeance, because I can’t unsee them. In reality, the word said is one of the most invisible words in English language. Go ahead and use it, because I guarantee that “he declared” will stand out a lot more.
Your best feedback comes from reader reactions. One well placed, “I am bored” can tell you more about your book’s issues than five pages of analysis from another writer.
For example, suppose you have a scene where your character has a verbal fight with his brother. The reader says, “This is boring.” The writer friend says, “This scene lags. I’d cut it.” But the problem isn’t actually in this scene. The problem is two chapters ago where you failed to set up the emotional conflict between the two brothers. If you have one brother kick the other brother’s dog in that chapter, I guarantee you nobody will be bored during their fight. Most of the times only you can figure out where the problem is because only you know what you want to say.
My go-to recommendation is Techniques of the Selling Writer by Dwight V. Swain. It’s getting long in the tooth, but it’s still useful because it explains some of the fundamental techniques like how to fold time or how structure a chase scene.
I’ve read a few books on writing written by working authors, Like David Eddings, Steven King, Dean Koontz, etc. They were not helpful in terms of making me a better writer. They did demonstrate to me that writers like to talk about themselves and their creative process and that all of us feel sorry for ourselves. 🙂
If I ever wrote a book on writing, it would basically be an update of Swain, but we already have Swain, so I am going to send you to it. Just ignore some of the outdated social commentary. It was first written in early 70’s, I think, and the revised edition dates to 1981.
I’ve tried Patterson’s master class because I wanted to know about his process. I quit after 4th or 5th lesson because there simply wasn’t enough substance for me to sink my teeth in.
I haven’t tried anything else. In theory, the idea of continuing education for writers seems useful, but your best continuing education is to pick up something new and fresh, something odd, and read it.
Mentorship is having someone, preferably a successful writer, steer you through a draft of your first book. There is a lot of potential benefits here, but also some danger. Successful writers tend to be forceful in their approach to fiction, For example, I have to be very vigilant to not bulldoze over someone when I critique. I have done it a number of times and then went back, looked at it, and thought, “Why did I do this?” That’s why I do my best to not critique anymore.
It’s true. I wanted to be Gregory McDonald’s Fletch. An ex-military guy who’s no longer in the killing business and is now in the reporter business. I figure I got pretty close.
I’m picturing Bogart’s swagger and Ip man reflexes with His Girl Friday flair. Something old, something new.
Lovely insightful write up, per usual. Thank you both.
Love the image!
Crap teacher, there are so many of those, but the road you took gives me books so I’m happy 😉
You do still have that military vibe about you. I felt like I should call you Senior Chief Gordon or something.
Susie Q. says
+1. My dad was in WWII, still had some time to serve when the war ended, and they reactivated him for the Korean War. He started in the Navy and transferred somehow to the Marines after his ship was blown up. He was a sergeant major by the time WWII was over. They wanted him to stay in for Officer training. He was a drill instructor in San Diego for the Korean War. They gave him the guys the other DIs couldn’t handle.
Gordon sometimes reminds me of him. Also Gibbs on CSI, in appearance and manners, similar build. Same blue eyes. Quiet spoken, even when he lost his temper. He worked as a carpenter after he got out so he was strong. In his 40s, he manhandled a guy in his 20s who thought he was tough and expressed it by hurting a young woman when my Dad was nearby. Very bad idea.
Melisa M. says
I was an English major and had to do an essay on the Green Knight as well. Luckily, I loved that particular teacher and she never expected regurgitated ideas.
But I second that really bad teachers can set you off things- I don’t know that I can ever appreciate Henry James or modern poetry thanks to a couple of horrendous teachers. Maybe they were never going to be my cup of tea but when I try to read them I swear I hear these teachers’ voices droning on…
Melissa, I agree with you and Ilona! As an English major many (many, many)years ago, Romantic Lit was a required course. The instructor was a civil engineer who changed his major in grad school. He shouldn’t have. He was, hands down, the worst, most boring, teacher I ever had. How can you make Romantic Lit sound like an accountant’s profit/loss statement? We were allowed to smoke in class back then. It was one of the only two years of my life that I smoked. What I mostly remember about that class was that when I finished a cigarette, 9 minutes of the class was over. Next cigarette!
Melisa M. says
Thank you. My daughter wants to write a book. She has started many, then gets board with what she is writing and moves to something new. She is sill young, but she seems to think that she should be able to put out the next great novel. I think you advise about reading things that are odd is great advice for her. One of the reasons I love your books so much is that your worlds are so unique. Maybe reading something different from what all her friends are reading will help her come up with something that holds her interest. Thank you for answering questions. I always find your point of view helpful and thought provoking.
I have a daughter with the same problem … the snippets I get to see are great, but then she already has the next thing on her mind. Oh well. Still young.
I keep recommending your books to her, but they have too much romance for her.
I love your storys and the worlds you are creating.
And thank you for those insights in your daily life – always entertaining offen educating, especially when looking from Europe, so many tidbits of the American way of life.
My fifteen year old daughter has been writing fanfic this past year. She is really enjoying it. The best part is that she gets almost immediate feedback and frequent encouragement. I’m glad that she has a hobby that fulfills her need to be creative and is constructive. She has had at least one person who gave her a hard time but I am extremely proud of how she handled that person’s negativity. Learning to deal with negative people and situations will help her when she someday goes out into the world on her own. I also really love that she shares all of this with me and asks me for advice. It gives us another opportunity to spend time together.
If your daughter is sharing her writing with you, especially at the development stages you are probably doing a great job as a parent.
Developing your voice as a writer is a soul baring exercise. Writing presents so much of your inner thought process to the world, especially early as you hone your ability to present a characters viewpoint different than the authors.
So she likely trusts your support implicitly. That has to feel amazing as a parent.
This reminds me of my own writing issues. I love to write, but I never seem able to finish anything. My plots meander, often because I don’t want to hurt my characters. But I have no less than six worlds I’ve created, played in and shelve in favor of new ideas. I don’t get bored exactly, inspiration for something new is much easier than seeing your first project through to the end.
I love all of the insights and advice from House Andrews.
Ugh I feel that crappy teacher comment. There are so many amazing teachers who help and inspire but that one will kill your soul.
My daughter loves talking, writing and reading. She is my outside the box thinker and very creative. Freshman this year in HS and her Honors English class is labeled as H$LL. Its been a long year for her. The class went from 15 first half to 7 second half, because the teacher told them all if they had below a 85 they didn’t belong there. Lots of them believed her and dropped the class. I told her I am happy and proud she’s made it and will pass with C or B. One more week of school to go.
Patterson’s class sounds like Patterson’s books. Not a lot of substance there. I’ve never been able to get through more than a couple of chapters.
Tasha A says
Totally agree with you on the manhua and manhwa. I love them but they don’t suit a lot of western readers. I really wish i could read Korean or Chinese cuz occasionally i feel like stuff gets lost in translation!
Very helpful! :^D
Patricia Schlorke says
I get the crappy teacher comment. I had a lot of those in high school and in college. To me it feels as though the teacher is in the classroom for the pay and not for the students, or to teach the select few who can get what the teacher is saying in one go.
One example, for me, was math. Yes, I had issues with math when I was in high school and during the first time with college. I look back at that now, shake my head, and laugh. It is very ironic that I had trouble in math, but now have a biostatistics degree. 😀
Thanks for the insights of writing. I wrote because I had to not because I want to. 🙂
Gordon, I love Gregory McDonald’s Fletch series. Fletch and Flynn are smart, savvy, reverent and irreverent.
A bit like that handsome devil Hugh…;)
We need more men like them in our lives!
I took a couple of graduate level classes in Romance Writing at McDaniel College for fun.
Jean Morgan says
I am in awe of you and Gordon’s intelligence, it comes so clearly through when you speak about different aspects of your life and writing. Not that I am stupid, but you are able to put things not only into perspective, but to explain concisely. I love reading your blog, I wish I were as well spoken. Thank you, your blog always makes my day when I see it pop up.
Please don’t use ejaculated instead of said. Someone pointed it out in the sixth Harry Potter book & now every time I read it my mind subs in other words that have nothing to do with talking, lol.
Oh, well, now I have to go looking for that. How did I miss that?
I very recently noticed cause it popped up on my FB as a meme. I think it’s somewhere in Slughorn’s Christmas party.
I finally figured out how to add the pic.
The first time I saw the use of “ejaculated” as to denote speech it was in The Little Princess and I was about 7 years old. I looked the word up in a dictionary because I didn’t know what it meant and received quite a surprise.
That is too funny! (And it sounds like something that I would have done as a child.) ????
Amy Ann says
Me, too. As a kid, I used to read the dictionary like a novel. So many words, and they could have different meanings! Unusual behavior for a kid, but I was OK with it.
Moderator R says
I always assumed that was a tongue in cheek reference to Arthur Conan Doyle, which would be a very British author inside joke to make.
In the Sherlock stories, they ejaculate about 23 times (with Dr Watson ejaculating twice as much as Sherlock. Make of that as ye will 😀 )
See here for Stephen Fry, coincidentally the narrator of HP audiobooks, quipping himself: “There are 23 ejaculations in the canon” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j5QVo6Rio-Q . Ah, British humour.
Rowling has outright trolled Stephen Fry over a particular phrase he stumbles over when narrating, so I wouldn’t put it past her including it just to force him to narrate it.
Moderator R says
The famous “he pocketed it” hehe :D.
“He was under impression that the professor wanted his thoughts on Green Knight. Instead she wanted her opinion regurgitated back at her in his words. Gordon switched his major that day and never looked back.”
While i wont challenge that this worked for you, i am going to state that this is gross misunderstanding of the formal education process.
1- To achieve a qualification you need to demonstrate skills the way the qualifying institution requires it, no the way you want to do it, it is the student who has to demonstrate he can follow instructions, not the institution.
2- The reasons for an exercise is not intermediately obvious to the student, who lacks the experience and knowledge.
3- Discipline succeeds, always, sometimes the point of an exercise is to simply have the student develop de discipline to “achieve what is requested”.
May be the point of the exercise was to train students on how to retain core concepts of a lecture, do follow up investigation and produced a properly redacted document on it.
NOT developing creative writing. This was 1 exercise on 1 class of an entire carrier curriculum.
Same applies to engineering. The first classes are about basic math and absolute 0 about engineering. There is a reason for it. The first year classes are about setting a standard in particular for math knowledge.
If i completed the first year of engineering and dropped it because i learned absolutely 0 about say software engineering, i would have made the wrong choice.
I do agree however, that it is exceedingly important to have the student understand why the curriculum is set up the way it is. This is not the military, this are not orders, everything is subject to debate.
And i do agree that most institutions fail MISERABLY at this.
“While i wont challenge that this worked for you, i am going to state that this is gross misunderstanding of the formal education process.”
Apolo, do you have the relevant set of data from which to draw a conclusion in this case? Do you know what the theme of the work in question was, what parameters the teacher set for the essay, and was the nature of her critique?
You have no data, because I didn’t give you any.
Your comment shows a glaring misunderstanding of the nature of literary discourse. You do not understand the difference between an English class and an English Literature class.
The fundamentals you are speaking of are taught in middle school, where most people learn how to write a 5 paragraph essay and an opinion essay. This is the time when you are given the tools which allow you to express your opinion of the literary work in a logical, easily understood format. This is taught in an English class, where you also acquire grammar and punctuation.
By high school, students take both English and Literature. The first continues to improve the fundamentals. The second encourages critical thinking. If a high school student simply regurgitates the lecture in a Literature class, he should get a failing grade, because the entire point of the exercise is to encourage independent thinking and critical analysis. A student who disagrees with the teacher and can back up their opinion has achieved the goal of the class.
By college, independent thinking in a Literature class is no longer optional. A college student majoring in Humanities is required to think for themselves. If they fail to do so, they have no business being in college or they should, perhaps, change their major to something that requires less thought and more memorization. So when someone asks you for literary critique, the default assumption is always that they want you to express your own thoughts.
The point of the higher education in general is not to regurgitate. It is to identify information you require to complete a task, know where to find that information, and be able to absorb it and apply it to achieve your goals.
To summarize, you are pontificating at length on the subject unfamiliar to you and drawing conclusions based on data you do not have, superimposing your view of what you think happened because you misunderstood the nature of the post.
A brief addendum to that thought:
My English 100 (required for ALL freshmen at Rice University) was subtitled “An Introduction to Critical Reading, Writing, and Thinking”.
My professor (50 plus years ago) was Larry McMurtry. (“Lonesome Dove”, “Terms of Endearment”, etc.) The reading list stretched from “Grendel” to “Gravity’s Rainbow”…
You are absolutely correct, Ilona. I have a PhD and have taught Literature at the high school and university level. My mantra to my students post 9th grade was you have to learn the rules to break them. So the middle school and 0th grade essay is the 5 paragraph essay. By 11th grade, the students are encouraged to let their analysis drive the structure of the essay. Yes, the elements of the 5 paragraph essay are still in there, but the analysis drives the form. Always, always the emphasis is on their analysis. It takes a solid understanding of your subject and the humility to realize that you are not the only thinking person in that classroom to encourage students to think. She who allows only regurgitation is insecure if she is a new teacher or has succumbed to the god complex if she is older. You have to want your students to flourish and not be there to stroke your own ego.
There is one more point to consider, however. Unfortuantely, too many public schools have curriculum directors at the administrative level. And they force uninformity upon how teachers teach and grade believing that this creates equality. It does not. This only creates out frustrated, burned out good teachers and encourages all teachers to not think for themselves but to follow an imposed formula. And the teachers, in turn, impose this on their students. Parents, if you want good teachers, encourage your school districts to supervise but to allow good teachers to teach. And demand independent thinking and analysis for your high school and university age students. These are the tools by which we create good American citizens and thoughtful human beings. And isn’t that the point of education?
Oops, that shoud be 9th grade essay.
Bill from nj says
Thank you! Your description of school curricula is often dead spot on. Here in NJ school districts and the teachers unions have this kind of unholy alliance, where they have this incredible lockstep thinking,based on rigid lesson plans and yes, herding everything into the middle. Kids are expected to follow the pattern and if they don’t, it’s the kid’s fault.
Put it this way,I knew a number of teachers who taught in private school, even though they made a lot less money, because they said they could actually teach. My son is very bright, has a mind on him, and instead of trying to get him to confirm, they challenged him,while keeping him involved in the class, in public school he would have been buried.
” And they force uninformity upon how teachers teach and grade believing that this creates equality. It does not. This only creates out frustrated, burned out good teachers and encourages all teachers to not think for themselves but to follow an imposed formula. And the teachers, in turn, impose this on their students. ”
What the NJ system and many other public schools sounds like is training and not teaching.
You train soldiers on how to use weapons – stay in the box. You teach people on how to analyze and transmit ideas – go outside the box.
Unfortunately, given the curriculum of public school education, I don’t believe our government has any interest at all in producing adults with analytical abilities and good judgement who can think for themselves. But I was lucky enough to go to private school.
Public school educational curriculum varies from one state to the next, and even somewhat from one county to the next. My parents sent us to the top (from an academic standpoint) private schools in our area. We now live in a county neighboring the one in which I attended school. Our kids got as good an education, in our county’s public school system, as we did in academically excellent private schools over a quarter century earlier.
Bill from nj says
Siobhan, as one famous politician said, why should I want them to teach kids to think, they won’t vote for me then.
Is that true in the advanced classes in public schools? We didn’t have AP, Honors, or all of those other options when I went to school. We had some classes that were informally concerned advanced, but not the level I think these classes are. I’m pretty sure you couldn’t get over a 4.0 when I went to school.
So do these advanced placement classes in public schools not teach critical thinking either?
Those classes generally teach it, unless you have a really cr@p teacher. However, not all counties or high schools offer a full range of AP or IB level classes, and some may not offer any.
It doesn’t just apply to English Literature. I dropped a PoliSci class for the same reason. Spectacular lecturer. Take home exam that was “spout back what I said.” C’mon, it was Intro to Western Political thought, and there weren’t even any “compare and/or contrast these two writers” questions. Just “I summarized them, you read them, repeat my summary.” How incredibly disappointing.
As a much older adult, with friends who are college professors, I’m assuming that because this class was a required entry course for several majors, and had anywhere from 100-150 students, the professor just didn’t want the frustration of reading idiots. Which, according to my friends, is most of what they get, no matter how elite the school. He wanted to check through the exams quickly and make sure we understood the basics of Plato and Locke and move on. It was still incredibly disappointing. After the wonderful lectures, I couldn’t WAIT for the exam.
Agreed. As an AP and IB Literature teacher, it is always about the student’s support of the thesis. If they just tell me what I have told them, it is never an A, much less top scores on the AP and IB tests.
Bill from nj says
You are correct Ilona, at a college level you are supposed to be thinking for yourself, it is about putting thoughts together. Unfortunately there are a lot of bad teachers who do exactly what happened to Gordon, they want you to regurgitate their ‘right’ interpretation. I had this in history courses, where they want you to regurgitate their interpretations in history.
Sure you have to learn fundamentals, and some of that requires rote learning, but interpreting a piece of literature or analyzing a piece of history is not one of those. In engineering you learn calc and physics and chemistry ( depending on which field), because they are tools. But if you are solving an engineering problem the tools are not the solution and there also may not be 1 solution with rigid steps, it is how innovation happens. From having foreign TAs you can see that they are taught there is one solution, and they often insisted that you ace the problem by listing out every step, in the order they want,which was ludicrous. Sorry but in a class in statics you don’t need to show basic algebra like solving 2 equations in 2 unknowns. In a basic algebra class you show that, not in advanced physics. I had good teachers, they gave problems that has multiple ways to solve it and also where you couldn’t just plug in formulas.
I suspect Apolo may not be from the US or Canada, what they write is the common way they teach in those countries, you are expected to do that across the board.
Obviously it is an issue all over, gifted kids run into that, they create their own way to solve problems that are valid, but many teachers are caught up in the regimented, do it by the numbers way of thinking
And all I can add is I bet Gordon’s analysis was probably a lot better to read and that English Prof, if they ever published anything, had like 5 ppl read it.
Perfect response, Ilona, as usual. Without knowing anything about it, it’s impossible to say what the class was supposed to teach as opposed to what was really taught, which seems to me to be that the teacher was the only one who had the right ideas about the book.
In high school, we had to read and discuss a book from F. Scott Fitzgerald, the name of which escapes me at this moment. In it, there is a dock with a green light at the end of it. The teacher asked us what the significance was in the light being green. I said it’s visible through darkness, rain, and fog. She said no, it was because it signified jealousy somehow. Truth is that green light IS visible through a lot of atmospheric conditions you find on water, so I thought it was a natural choice to use to find a dock at night. That was the point at which I realized that nobody’s point of view but hers mattered in that class, and I stopped participating and just coasted to a B in it by spitting out what she said to every question asked of me.
My sister is retired now, but she taught all the advanced literature classes in her school for many years and she just loved reading the opinions of her students because they made her look at things differently and were at least original, showing that they were thinking about it all. She knows she is intelligent, so she let them be intelligent, too. It matters.
Hmm. I’m sure there is overlap in the way engineering and English are taught and retained. Brains are brains to a certain extent. But honestly, all the best English teachers and professors I had were the kind that marked me poorly for regurgitating their ideas and analysis.
It’s more about the investigation of the literature, rather than the definitive, unquestionable meaning of it. Because there usually isn’t one. Look how long we’ve been arguing about the Bible.
Not to mention that my professors could spend two weeks drilling us about one theory of a story’s meaning to then assign us a paper on “proving” an entirely different approach to the story’s themes.
To paraphrase my favorite English teacher, as long as you can back up your analysis, no matter how far out in left-field it is, you’ve done the work. The work of an advanced English class goes beyond just reading comprehension into interpretation. To me it sounds like Gordon had a dud of a teacher. Those suck the joy out of an English class.
I guess things were different when I got my BS in chemical engineering. First year engineering majors all took an intro to engineering course, as well as Calculus, physics and chemistry. Math basics are taught in grade school.
Gideon the Ninth is so ridiculously good. The perfect mix of shallow and deep. If anybody is trying to kill time before Ruby Fever, give it a shot.
Melisa M. says
As always thank you so much! You guys give the best and most honest advice!
I’d like to recommend the Webtoon app for people! I love manhwa and manga but for first time readers it can be overwhelming with their numerous volumes. WEBTOON app has a ton of genre, easy to navigate and some great stuff in short chapters!
Some of them are also not Japanese/ korean. They’re WEBTOON originals and not translated since they’re originally written in English.
Some of my favs off the top of my head.
Omniscient reader for action
The remarried princess for fantasy/ romance
The strongest florist for comedy/ action
Midnight Poppy land for romance
Unholy blood for supernatural
+ Like the Wind on a Dry Branch- a manhwa you know is headed for romance, but “odd” and “unusual” fits
Love this one too! A bit intense.
I tend to stay with romance and also recommend See you in my 19th life, Men of the Harem, and My first night with the duke are also great romance with some comedy.
Eleceed is my favorite♡
It has comedy, action, and cats!
Gordon’s experience reminds me of experiences I had in High school it happened 3 times to me once I was lucky and my teacher gave credit for hating the book (Rebecca) because in writing why I hated it she could tell I understood it. The second time was Camus’ The Plague considered a great work of existential literature and I argued that it was a an allegory for Vichy France. Luckily Iveas able to produce a letter from Camus to a friend where he said that is what he was writing. It was in a book I happened to be reading for history on the French resistance. The last one was for the Chemistry teacher and I could not get out of the D no matter how I tried. He wanted a paper called Carbon and Me. Instead of a technical paper he wanted a children’s story. Where the person listed what they did and whether the item had carbon in it For example. My toast burned. The burnt areas had carbon. I went into science but have nothing to do with chemistry
My Organics teacher in college gave me toluene as my unknown to analyze. Every test for an unknown explained in the text books started with toluene. There was nothing I could write about my “journey of understanding of the method” that wasn’t already pictured and explained in the texts.
I got a D-. I asked for a different unknown and was refused. The unknown was 70 of the final grade so there is a great big “D” on my transcript!
I never could figure out what the professor wanted.
Manhwa – I’m still enjoying Solo Leveling. The plot is finally getting to a major point.
Solo Leveling is the best comic of all time.
My husband purchase to paperback copies. He really loves it
Alright you convinced me…. I’ve been putting off reading this but too many people have recommended this and I never expected this recommendation from even my favorite author xD
HA! I just started reading Solo Leveling this morning. I was in a slump after reading Second Life Ranker and my coworker recommended Solo.
I minored in Creative Writing at university. When the professor declared that fiction wasn’t “real writing” and that anyone who submitted a sci-fi or fantasy piece would receive an automatic fail, I knew I wouldn’t learn anything in that class except how to be an elitist snob.
Thank you for this! I’m definitely going to give that Swain book a look see. ????
Judy Schultheis says
I was very fortunate in most of my teachers. Fortunately, the schools I went to were small enough that the really smart kids were viewed as interesting challenges rather than problems. I was in college before I had even one bad teacher.
10,000% love that you quoted Gideon the Ninth in this post.
I love manga, manhwa and manhua. I’m currently loving Omniscient Reader, Solo Leveling, Star Martial God Technique, and, Tales of Demons and God. I wish we had better English translators for the light novels. That would be awesome.
Oh my goodnesss….my favorite author likes to read manhua and manhwa as well…squeee! Although finding good manhua is as difficult as the proverbial needle in a haystack.
With that said, have you read Chang Ge Xing by Xia Da? (English: Song of the Long March/Japanese:Choukakou)… it’s a masterpiece. Unfortunately has been stuck in hiatus due to author’s copyright battles, reminiscent of Kyoko Mizuki’s Candy Candy. Nevertheless there are 61 beautiful rich chapters and a prequel as well.
Ooh and Basara by Yumi Tamura. A trailblazer at the time (1990-1998) that many have imitated since.
I was lucky and had a writing teacher In college who let everyone write in their own style with few boundaries. You could tell he really enjoyed writing and teaching the subject. That was one of the best college classes I ever took. Unfortunately, I don’t have the drive or talent to be a writer so I will stick to being an adoring reader.
The Locked Tomb quote looks interesting, I’ll have to pick it up.
Kathy Abke says
I started as a journalism major in college. A professor was cruel in her critique, and I was young and vulnerable, so I dropped out of writing entirely. Thirty years later, people regularly encourage me to publish my stories, which are humorous, touching and honest. I gave that professor way too much power. Words matter.
You are right Kathy, they do. They echo for decades. And that’s sad. But, maybe you weren’t meant for journalism. Maybe you were meant for a different kind of writing, creatively. And maybe you should listen to those friends who are encouraging you, and find out where you can go from here.
Thank you so much for this insight! I love when you share information about the writing craft. It feels like you’re giving us a peek behind the curtain. ????
Also, thank you for the book recommendation and the quotes from the other books. They look interesting. ????
Kat M says
Oh, man, I’m so happy to see the opening to Gideon the Ninth up there. One of my favorite first sentences, ever.
Thank you as always for your candor 😀
My college required freshman 101 English class. The kindest thing I can say about this requirement is that I read authors I had not read before. ALL of my high school English teachers taught at a much higher level than this college course.
It made me realize I was glad I chose the major, minor, and concentrations that I chose.
I am grateful for the skills of all writers (fiction and nonfiction), because they give us readers such a bounty to read, savor and enjoy.
New book ideas. Yay
“In reality, the word said is one of the most invisible words in English language.”
Anyone who doubts this should read Robert Parker, who uses “said” almost entirely. “But what about questions?” he said. I was told this in advance, and was STILL halfway through the first book of his I read before I noticed (I didn’t start with the Spencer series, in case I liked it. I started with the Jesse whatsisface series, because I was less afraid of nine books than of forty. I did eventually read all the Spencer books as well).
When it comes to peer critique, the hardest and most important thing for me is to assume that there is zero emotion attached to a comment. I reword the comments if I have to, so that if hypothetically someone said, “Your writing sucks, I hate your characters” I translate that into “I did not find your writing engaging and I did not connect with the characters.” It’s extremely difficult when someone comments negatively on something you created, not to take it personally and respond accordingly.
I have not shared any creative written work with anyone I know personally since I was in high school (speaking of bad teachers, my last “creative writing” assignment in high school was to follow the traditional “epic journey.” I was busy that week so I badly pasted together a handful of unedited scenes from a much longer story I was writing for fun. The teacher read it out loud to the class because it was “so good.” In retrospect, I’m pretty sure this was code for “story was actually turned in, student used complete sentences and coherent grammar, and story is not thinly veiled smut.”). Someday I would like to write something that is worth sharing with people including those I know, but so far I haven’t had the discipline to get that far; I get bored with writing and go off to focus on sewing or knitting or painting or just a different story or whatever else, and when I return to the world I’m determined to finish a book in, instead of picking up where I left off and actually finishing a storyline before editing to make it good, I end up dissatisfied and re-writing so I never quite get the whole thing down. *sigh* Someday.
” I reword the comments if I have to, so that if hypothetically someone said, “Your writing sucks, I hate your characters” I translate that into “I did not find your writing engaging and I did not connect with the characters.” It’s extremely difficult when someone comments negatively on something you created, not to take it personally and respond accordingly.”
Oh boy. Okay, if someone give you that kind of critique, their feedback is not helpful. It can cause one hell of a writing block.
“I get bored with writing and go off to focus on sewing or knitting or painting or just a different story or whatever else, and when I return to the world I’m determined to finish a book in, instead of picking up where I left off and actually finishing a storyline before editing to make it good, I end up dissatisfied and re-writing so I never quite get the whole thing down.”
One day you will find a story that you have to tell. 🙂 When that happens, you will have to dump it on the page just to free yourself from it.
My son is currently working on exactly that story that won’t allow him to stop writing it. I applaud him and encourage him at every turn. His first online writing class was awful. He asked too many questions of the person teaching it and that person literally forced him out and returned his payment to him because he didn’t belong in a class where he asked so much of the teacher. Discouraged, he didn’t even want to try a different class, but I told him that one bad and lazy teacher did not make them all bad.
He found classes where the teachers are very good at making things clear, and he has gone through two levels of them, which has taught him that his story that won’t leave him alone is actually going to be novel length, so his next class is in novel writing. He has finally, after many months of writing at this will-be-a-novel, gotten the entire story told, but he needs to polish it to make himself happy, and we bounce ideas back and forth about what he can and can’t say or add or delete to make it better. As you said about the fight between brothers, he has had to go back to put the basis for many things in long before those things happen, and he can see it now, where he could not see it in that story’s urgent need to come out. His characters have driven him to write things he never thought about. He told me that he frankly had no idea that his female lead liked cats until the subject came up and she said she wanted one. The characters have fleshed themselves out as they have been written, and that intrigues me. He has re-written much of it based on what came out after things got written, and that’s as it should be. I have had ideas I wanted to write, but I realize that I don’t have a book to write. He does. I know that I can write a lot of words on most subjects, but none it comes out to be anything, and yet, his idea has merit and worth and I can’t wait to see it in finished form. He has sent me snippets he used in his classes and what the instructors told him about them, and sometimes, I agreed with the instructors, sometimes I didn’t, but my son is strong and took all criticism to heart as instructors being helpful, not hurtful, and he changed a lot for the better at their urging. When he has wanted to say something and could not figure out how, I have given him ideas that he took and altered, but it got him a new way to look at things to see how to say what had to be said. Critique is not criticism, but many people don’t realize that when they attempt to assist. You can’t just say, “This sucks!” without saying why. And frankly, you shouldn’t ever say, “This sucks!” because that’s not helpful. “I’m confused here,” works better and says the same thing, really.
The difference between thinking you can write a book and actually writing a book is what pushes you to write said book. When you have to get it out of you, you’ll write a book. For good or ill, some things just need to be written out.
I am a voracious reader. I’m sure I’ve read 10s of thousands of books. One of my sons encourages me to write, but how do you read, read, read and then not write what you’ve read? One of the things I so admire about your fiction is the fabulous creativity. I think I’ll stick to sculpture. 🙂
You do write what you’ve read. You just write your own, better version of it. 🙂
This is interesting. The one time I tried writing fiction on my own, I quit when I realized I was basically translating a favorite historical author’s dialogue into modern speech.
That was over thirty years ago, and I don’t think I’m going back to it at this point. In the past decade or two, I’ve seen multiple speculative fiction authors use the same writer as a template (including acknowledgements; it’s not my fevered imagination). So there’s a road not taken, but I really enjoy reading their takes.
Courtney M says
As someone who does a lot of writing, but not creative fiction (well, I’m an attorney, so I’m sure someone will argue that point…) I’d argue that that’s part of why reading WIDELY is important. I have my own personal “toolbox” for my writing, which includes not only my legal education and all the legal documents I’ve read, but also reading news articles, both nonfiction AND fiction, and even advertising and listening to Pod Save America on political messaging. Borrowing elements from outside makes me a better writer.
So if you’re writing creatively and your own writing toolbox only has, say, Lord of the Rings in it, sure maybe you’ll write something very derivative. But if you read LotR and also, IDK, a book on climate change, a romance manhwa, and a space opera, and then set out to write a book about someone from humble beginnings setting out on a journey to destroy something that could end in mass destruction, that book is going to look a lot different and a lot less derivative.
I don’t know about Anne, but can assure you that my reading is and was all over the map: nonfiction and fiction of most genres (not*makes cross sign to avert* literary) and journalism and mythology of various cultures and, if nothing else was handy, packaging materials.
That is one of the best pieces I’ve read on the art and craft of writing!
And for fledgling writers, may I also add to the list: PLEASE, GET A GOOD COPY EDITOR!
Ilona and Gordon are well versed in English grammar, and they clearly have a good copy editor; however, many self-published writers don’t – and beta readers probably shouldn’t be asked to do that job.
My suggestion? If you can’t afford to hire a professional, then get on the internet and learn it for yourself. It’s not rocket science.
I love the English language, and I can’t describe how much it troubles me that such easy things as homophones (sound the same, but different meanings and spelling) are mangled regularly in self-published books.
And punctuation? I can’t even go there (shudder). It’s as if some writers, realizing that commas are necessary to comprehension, sprinkle them like salt around their text, willy-nilly.
Ilona Andrews, I love your books, love your style, love not having to automatically edit every paragraph of your books in my head, and devour every book you publish. End of story.
Donna A says
I won’t lie and say I’m alright with poor grammar, punctuation, spelling or transliteration but if I completely avoided them I would be the poorer.
I’ve read some good stories that have not seen good editing and translating. That said I’ve also had to stop reading if they are too terrible or hit against a particular quirk of mine, but it’s worth persevering for the gold dust in the mud.
I’m pretty ADHD/OCD and those mistakes pull me right out of the story. I can get by if they’re few and far between, but the more frequent they get, the more likely I DNF. These days, especially though not exclusively with self-pub, sometimes I’m out by the second page.
Donna A says
Despite my OCD I can push through some writing errors when reading. However my food cannot touch ever (except pasta and rice but only the way I do it). And don’t touch my shelves. Do I definitely have my keys and everything I need? Let me just pat my pockets and look in my rucksack AGAIN (this annoys my fellows the most!) ????
LOL, I have my little rules, but I make sure to categorize them by what is genuinely functional, like making sure the door is locked, and what is OCD embellishment, like what color clothes I wear on Fridays. If it’s functional, it stays, but if it’s embellishment, I give myself full permission to do it differently as time and energy require.
I read somewhere that OCD is sort of self-protection for ADHD, so you don’t forget important things. That’s definitely true for me. I lay out tomorrow’s breakfast and clothes the night before, because my brain may not have enough calories in it to manage choices first thing in the morning. Keys, wallet and glasses have their assigned homes, and if I deviate from that, I can’t find them at all. It is what it is.
Have to agree with you on this Susannah. And when the same mistakes are repeated over and over again, I find that I’m not paying attention to the story, I’m waiting for the next repeat! Very sad. One of my teachers would just write 2 words on poorly edited papers, whether for grammar or punctuation. She wrote *Get Strunked!* (I know it’s a little out of date but still useful). Strunk & White was finally put on the required book list for that class.
I have very strange peeve. If you are going to use archaic or just plain old fashioned words – slay, tread, weave, and so on – please learn to use the proper past and past participle. For example:
slay, slew, slain
tread, trod, trodden
weave, wove, woven
If you can’t be bothered, just say “killed”, “walked”, and “made”. At least I won’t be asking myself “Is that a word?” when I read your book.
I will pontificate later about learning to spell the actual word you want – as in the difference between “snugly” and “snuggly”…
Liz C says
Not so strange since I am the same. Sometimes though it’s hard to tell if it’s a difference between American and British English (to me the past tense of ‘dive’ is ‘dived’, ‘dove’ is a kind of pigeon) or just sloppy writing.
Oh gosh yes. And journalists are the worst. Don’t get me started.
Liz C says
I couldn’t agree more. It sends out a message that the writer couldn’t be bothered to finish the job properly. Sometimes I will persevere with a writer if the idea is good but the writing not so much. If it’s a new writer it can be nice to see the writing develop. If they haven’t bothered to correct glaring errors though I wont bother.
Yeah. What Susannah said. The language you write in should be native to you and understood, because you use brakes to stop a car, not breaks, and you rein in both horses and impulses, you don’t reign them in. Every letter of every word matters.
Moderator R says
There is a myriad of amazing authors who do not write in their native language, I have to disagree with you on the first point ????. The world would be much poorer without their works.
Strongly disagree, if this was so I would never have had the opportunity to read Stieg Larson’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo,” or Yoon Ha Lee’s “ Ninefox Gambit” just to name two.
I’ve found nonnative English writers to often be more rewarding because so much of how we view the world is cultural. And that perspective is so often SO subliminal that, without aid, we could never see beyond it on own.
Right. So I guess I should pack up my shop and go since English is not my native language.
In an English class in college, teacher took the time to tear apart a romance novel for the authors perceived lack of skills. Meanwhile that romance author was selling a TON of books. I’ve always wondered how many books that teacher had rejected and if he ever got it…
My son is very good at Math’s. He once told me that math’s is very easy to understand. He stated anyone could learn math’s they had problem because of the teachers teaching math’s where not very good at explaining or teaching it. In his final exam he got about 98% but 60% for English Lit. I beg to differ with him. Not my best subject. Not everyone can write. Good writers are gifted. They catch the imagination and transport us to a different place and world.
Maria Schneider says
Quote: They were not helpful in terms of making me a better writer. They did demonstrate to me that writers like to talk about themselves and their creative process and that all of us feel sorry for ourselves. End Quote
Hahahaha. Oh, that is perfect.
Hmm, although I always enjoy your blog posts, I know I’ll never have the discipline or skill to write fiction. So, what I took from this was a one-click on Gideon the Ninth. 🙂
I would love to see a list of manwha / manga / manhua that you enjoy! I found and now absolutely love so many of the Chinese dramas wuxia / xianxia / danmei through your suggestions, it was very much appreciated. Story of Minglan & Nirvana in Fire, swoon.
I do agree that there are tropes/themes that are not well received by western audiences (IMHO sometimes consent is somewhere along the era of Beatrice Small/ Judith McNaughton hahahah I am dating myself). But I absolutely love the works by Mo Xiang Tong Xiu, she’s incredible.
My first “smut” book was by Beatrice Small. ????
Sorry, just want to point out, her name is Bertrice Small. And I know that because she was one of my favorites too!
I read an article many years ago about nonconsent in old romance novels. It had always bothered me but apparently, and I’m dumbing it down considerably, it was the only way to “allow” the good girl heroine to begin a sexual relationship with the hero without making her into a bad girl. And I think there was some component of that old idea that women want sexual pleasure but society taught us that we shouldn’t want it, or at least admit to wanting it, so we need some measure of force to allow us (or the heroine) to overcome that obstacle. It was really interesting to think about the complexity of dealing with societal norms and deeper issues in a genre that is thought of as pulp.
This is probably shocking to younger readers but I’m old enough to have watched huge changes occur in how this subject is dealt with. I find it very interesting. We went from you can only have sex if forced to Ilona being badgered to put some sex in their Kate books already! (Magic Bleeds Book 4)
Donna A says
Are there any successful authors who do have a formal creative writing background?
I don’t mean just English Lit. but an actual intention from the beginning to gain a degree with the purpose of becoming an author of fiction. It would be interesting to know.
For some reason I feel like having such an intention would somehow conflict with being a good storyteller and I can’t pinpoint why I think that. Probably some deep prejudice I need to recognise and overcome.
Yes, there are. But they are stubborn people, and that stubbornness allows them to graduate mostly unscathed. I’m not going to name names because they might not appreciate it, though I consider it admirable, and they are some of my must-read authors.
I think Jim Butcher does. He said he was inspired by Margaret Weiss to go to college to learn to be a writer. The first book of the Dresden files was written originally as a class writing project. He said the character of Bob the Skull came to be as a joke on his teacher (Deborah Chester). She had said to never let a character just explain things, because they devolve into a talking head. Thus-Bob.
Donna A says
Well I like Jim Butcher’s writing a good bit so I’ll let that slam any prejudice away ????
Cherie Priest has an MFA, I believe.
NANCY L HASBACH says
When I was a senior in high school my English was Donna Fargo (not her name in class) the county singer. Her first single was coming out and the driver’s ed teachers insisted that we listen to the county stations during our lessons. This was before county was cool. She was a great teacher and a lot of fun.
Thank you for all the insight! Always appreciate it!
Thank you for this! It is terrific advice.
I’d also add that a mismatch between a mentor and mentee in style/genre/writing philosophies can also sap confidence/will to write even grocery lists.
(Also if you want a brutally honest review ask anyone from high school down [if age appropriate] they will not mince words or ignore plot holes!)
“ A bad teacher will kill your creative drive”
I went to college with a plan to major in scientific illustration. I submitted a portfolio, which was accepted, and interviewed. I was taken into the major and started the art class portion. We made it to the section on stippling and shading. I had never received formal art education outside of high school art classes- I was self
Taught through practice and repetition. I didn’t have the technique of everyone else. I got it done, but I did it my way.
I got an F. And was told that I didn’t have the technical know how and they wouldn’t teach it to me. (Remember they saw and accepted my portfolio?). So I quit.
I have taken one or two art classes since, but never pursued it to the level I originally had dreamed of. I just lost the drive. This statement from you really resonated with me.
I’m sorry this happened to you, and hope you get some joy out of your art on your own. It doesn’t do any good to teach the theoretical material if one can’t be bothered to teach the actual students.
Bill G says
An ancient Greek, or maybe Roman, said “If you want to write, write.”
I wish I had noted where I saw that.
Pfui on me.
Donna A says
I’m very fond of the Writing Excuses podcast, run by Brandon Sanderson, Howard Taylor, Dan Wells, and Mary Robinette Kowal.
Crappy teachers are rough. As a high school student I am well aware! In English 10 Honors, which I took last year as a freshman, my teacher was (while well-meaning) staggeringly incompetent when it came to teaching literature, obsessed with Vocabulary.com (which has absurd word definitions) and focused to the exclusion of all else on ensuring that the students at the bottom of the class passed the SOL and thus English 10, though that last was likely a good thing. The best English teacher I ever had was in middle school. He had what I think is the mark of a truly great teacher: the ability to get everyone excited about and engaged in what we were doing, even if they hated all things English- or writing- or rhetoric- or school-related. Even the unformed grub that was me in seventh grade had interesting thoughts in that class.
Robert I. Katz says
I have very mixed feelings regarding the argument above, regarding what should be expected of a college freshman’s ability to write an analytical essay. I attended an excellent public high school, was in Honors English classes all the way through, got 787 on the Verbal SAT and a 5 on the English Advanced Placement test. My score on the AP test allowed me to place out of the basic writing course that Columbia required of all Freshmen. Despite all this, I had very little idea how to structure an essay when I started college. I did eventually learn and I wound up an English major. However, when my daughter went to Columbia, 30 years later, they no longer allowed the freshmen to place out of the basic writing course, which I think was wise. I would have been better off taking it.
My 18th novel was published yesterday.
Congrats on #18! ????
Felicitations on your 18th! May it outsell all 17 before it!
“I have very mixed feelings regarding the argument above, regarding what should be expected of a college freshman’s ability to write an analytical essay.”
No worries. English 101 takes care of that. 🙂
I took more Gordon Rule classes in college than was necessary, mainly because of an interaction concerning a paper I wrote and the feedback I received from the instructor. (Gordon Rule classes were ones in which you would be doing a lot of writing for the class. English I and English II were each considered 6k and accounted for 1/2 of the necessary Gordon Rule classes you had to complete to get an AA. All other Gordon Rule classes were set at 2k.)
My freshman year, I took an Entry Level Drama class that was Gordon Rule. Each week we would study a play and then write a paper about the play. I had an idea on one that I wanted to write about and cleared it through the professor. He told me he disagreed with my theory, but was welcome to prove him wrong. I ended up getting an A++ on that paper, because he told me that I actually convinced him to change his mind. This led me to take many more classes that had a major writing component, simply because of the feedback I got early on. (One semester, I ended up taking 10k words across multiple classes.)
A good teacher, no matter the subject, should inspire a student, not dishearten them.
Thanks for sharing your thoughts. I recently started writing for fun (with maybe hopes of being a published author in the future). The thing is, I was spending so much time researching how to write in workshops, videos and books that I wasn’t actually doing any writing. Or when I did, I was constantly second guessing my writing to see if I was following this rule or that structure etc etc. I’m sure there’s is actually a lot I could learn on proper writing processes, but at this point in my journey I just need to put words on a page I think haha.
The one thing that has truly helped is what you mentioned– reading. I spent so much time reading during this whole pandemic era that I had way too many ideas to not try writing. Manhwas and manhuas are a favorite, their themes can be so out there, its hard not to come up with ideas while reading them all the time.
I’m not shy to give people a recommendation if you’re interested in trying manhwa, shameless plug for my absolute favorite korean webtoon called Kubera. It’s genre covers a wide range, fantasy/romance/comedy/tragedy with a strong focus on character introspection/growth and questions on morality. I absolutely love it 🙂
And if you need extra reasons to try Kubera than my poorly worded recommendation… 😉
Hi! This is just a general fan squee. I finally started reading your books (Innkeeper came first) and I’m devouring them all right now. Bless the CW Mars ebook library system. Thanks for your work!
—– Lots and lots of stimulus from … observing people in real life. Your mind will take all of it, chew on it for a while, process, and produce fiction. You can’t make fiction out of nothing.
I used to run around with a bunch of actors and I remember with crystal clarity the moment when we were out having a beer and I realized that you should NOT hang out with actors if you don’t want to see pieces of yourself on stage some day.
Bill from NJ says
I loved you used an excerpt from a Leigh bracket story, she was an amazing writer ( if it wasn’t for her the Empire Strikes Back may have looked like the Phantom Menace) and a pioneer.
In terms of authors writing about writing, my favorite was ‘ The Magic Sometimes Works’ by Terry Brooks. It had a lot of humor in it, he writes about the good,the bad and the ugly, but it is really more a book of encouragement than a how to.
anne-marie stager says
Did you ever read any of the Holly Lisle texts on writing? I loved her fantasy.
Lynn Thompson says
Thank you, Ilona Andrews, for the post.
When I was 7 my family moved to a rural farming area from an urban area near a major university. Dad limited our weekly TV hours to 10 hours so we had to learn how to negotiate etc. as the only ones of our race on school bus, I can tell you racism was very much alive. Fantastic teacher of situational awareness at all times. My point is my siblings and I were encouraged to make up stories and tell them to each other. We did. None of us are professional writers and are prolific readers. we had a rather eclectic education in addition to basic stuff. At the time, we thought was normal. Now I do continuing education classes at county community college to learn new stuff. Well it’s free and not long term. Sometimes interesting, sometimes boring.
Ilona and Gordon,
This was fantastic. Thank you for putting the time in to explain and educate.
Wishing you all the best, and Excellent health.
cheryl z says
I love love love Leigh Brackett and the John Eric Stark stories, the N’Chaka thing with his terrible claws.
Cheryl Z says
Opps, just pulled the book; it’s Eric John Stark, I always wanted a North Hound, but I have poodles.
This was such a good post. Although I’m not a writer, I really enjoyed it- thank you. (Also- new book recommendations, woohoo!)
Totally agree! Best ever. Gideon the Ninth is coming home with me tonight. This conversation thread was so interesting and informative.
This was very interesting to read. I also enjoyed all of the comments as well. As a college history instructor (community college) I would love to see some original ideas in a paper or hear them in a class discussion. The vast majority of my students do not read anywhere near grade level. They do not read the news or watch it either. Snapchat and Twitter are there information sources. Sigh!! Their writing reflects that. However, you only get better at writing with practice so I keep reading bad essays and making lots of comments. It is encouraging when I see some of my students improve with each paper they write. I am a firm believer that being able to write well is the one of the most important skills teenagers need to develop. That and empathy for others.
Thanks for the insight and recs! I’m going to give Swain’s book a read.
I do not know how Elementary and Secondary education is accomplished outside of the USA. Inside the USA we recognize the importance of teachers, but the how to reward them is the problem. First – Public Schools are probably the greatest tax users. Tax Payers complain about the cost and vote for the people who will keep the cost down. Second – What is the fairest way to reward good teachers who are working in a political system where tenure is the legally acceptable way to compensate public employees? Third – How can we measure in real time, the budget year, the effectiveness of a teacher?
Politicians say a standard test is the best way. Teachers must teach to satisfy that test. A computer grades the test.
I am almost 74 years old and have no plans to write anything except for emails to my friends. Still, I found what you shared fascinating. I get what you are saying loud and clear. Maybe in my next life…
I completely agree with your sentiments on university writing. I took a class a few years ago where the professor required us to copy her first paragraph word for word and then add 1-2 sentences of our own thoughts on each weekly writeup. The problem I had with this is that the first paragraph did not really allow the last 1-2 sentences to provide any real thought or analysis about the subject. I lost points for not copying the paragraph on the first writeup and then later for adding additional sentences to complete a thought. It was the worst class, but her photography business was strongly marketed, so I guess that was a plus.
My college was the US Naval Academy, where everyone was required to take math, science & basic engineering classes in addition to his major. This led to 1 of my go-to quips: I love math because there’s always a right answer, but I majored in English because my answer was always right.
Dee Trottier says
I have to go Google the Green Knight now ????
Emily A R says
That was mean, I have now purchased Gideon the Ninth. I don’t need a new book to read. I just started both Cicely Tyson and a The Empirium Trilogy by Claire Legrand. I also have 10 new books to read. These are the kind of problems I enjoy. So much to read, so little time. LOL
“He was under impression that the professor wanted his thoughts on Green Knight. Instead she wanted her opinion regurgitated back at her in his words.”
LOL, that’s school in general to me. Nobody actually wants YOUR opinion on anything! When people repeatedly ask for mine, I don’t give it! Whatever you want, dear 😛
Oh that advice on instructors with MFAs is dead on accurate. Summer 2018, I signed my 14 year up for a teen creative writing summer camp offered by the local major university. It was advertised for those who were comfortable writing and a way to meet, share, and get writing tips. Turned out to be something much different.
Before the first session, the instructor asked for something turned in that the teen wrote. My very insecure daughter turned in a chapter of something she started working on a few months back.
The feedback was fairly immediate that her main character should be likeable, instead of so unpleasant…. and there shouldn’t be as much, if any, swearing. (My spouse is retired military and I’m a vet, so its not prudish in her household)
Throughout the camp, this teacher tried to get my teen to alter her writing style instead of focusing on helping her to improve technique. She’s still salty about the experience. When we discovered that she was an MFA, my spouse went on a tangent about the degree type and how snobbish they can be.
My teen writes because she must. Always has. When she gathers up her courage to hand me something to read, it surprises me how really good she is at it…. world building, character realization and plotlines. The last time she did was about 2 years ago. She doesn’t need any older adult with an MFA telling her how wrong she is at it, when it’s all subjective.
“A bad teacher will kill your creative drive.” So true!
Hear, hear, Ilona! I took the required English Lit. courses in college because I was a Fashion design Major and they had to fill in those and Pennsylvania history classes somehow, so they made them mandatory. I had an English Lit. instructor who, when I made a comparison between someone she mentioned and H.G.Wells.
asked, “Who is this H.G.Wells?”
I visited the dean of women after class and explained that these classes (at Drexel University) cost a lot of money and the least we should expect was a level commensurate with our high school teachers which were far above this woman.
Needless to say, she was gone at the end of the term.
Had I known then what I know now, I would have learned more and spent much less, if I had apprenticed for free to an established Philadelphia designer.
There are many things in the science and engineering world that college can provide, but you need to start at the end game and think backward to see what education you need to get there. Degrees do no equate to Knowledge and know-how.
People often ask me what I learned in college. What was the most important thing I learned there as I obtained my degree? My answer is always the same. “It’s not all in the books!” I learned to observe people and figure out what they wanted from me to get them to listen to my ideas. That’s not in the books, but it’s in life in general, and it did me good to learn it. Some things in the books were important to know, but the most important things I learned were not. Fortunately, I survived and am done working now.
Eh I keep it simple. If the real world doesn’t exist then it’s good writing.
As the end users we have it easy, if you enjoy it then it has to be ‘good’ at some level.
Your bulldog story reminded me of a James Herriott story where a dog coming out of anaesthetic howled for hours and paced around the house. Funny in the telling but probably horrendous in the experience.
Anne-Marie McRoberts says
So much to love in this post and the various replies. I agree that poor teaching can put the kibosh on anyone’s wish to learn anything. Unfortunately I think being taught badly is a universal experience.
The only way to learn to write is to write and to read, but I have found some of Holly Lisle’s courses helpful. However, I have just tried reading a murder story which purported to be a sort of synthesis of PG Wodehouse and Agatha Christie. It was written by someone who had picked up a smattering of the social manners of the period, but had no real understanding and hadn’t done any proper research. Doilies on a silver salver in a gentlemen’s club, forsooth! That alone jerked me right out of the world. I wrote a scathing review in which I compared it to trying to listen to Mozart, with an accompaniment of someone scraping their nails down a blackboard, and then deleted it. I had vented my spleen and saw no need to hurt the author’s feelings, or receive a dump truck of hatred from fans. The point of this is that just reading the literature won’t tell you everything you need to know about the world you are writing about, it’s fatally easy to get things horribly wrong and the devil is definitely in the detail.
If you write, you do need to make the effort to learn to write correctly and check what you use. My pet aversions, people who use wrack (seaweed) when they mean rack (a nasty mediaeval instrument of torture that ripped joints apart and crippled them, metaphorically used of guilt and brains). Another one that seems to be cropping up increasingly in sex scenes is divot, used to mean a dip. A divot is a chunk of turf churned up by horses’ hooves or a golf club, poorly applied. I leave the image that imprints on my brain when applied to skin, to your imaginations, but it is a mood killer. I am 850,000 words into a five volume swords and sorcery epic. I haven’t tried publication yet, as the day job limits my time for writing, and I would hate to publish volumes 1-3 and be prevented from finishing, so readers never found out what happens in the end…though I hear a deadline is a great stimulus for writers.
This has to be one of my favorite blog post/threads ever. 1000% agree that the way to become a writer is to write and read. I have read so many famous writers who have said the same thing. 1000% agree that bad grammar is the worm in the big bright shiny apple that is self publishing. I admire those dedicated readers who can stick with a story that has glaring mistakes for the sake of the story, I can’t. Shook my head over the commenter who thought nonnative speakers made more mistakes. Besides the strangeness of such a comment on your blog, I personally see far more mistakes from writers of all types who came up the line in our “native” educational systems. Admire the heck out of the dedicated teachers who chimed in, wish that they were given more effective tools and support. Ah, this is such a fun place to spend a little bit of my Sunday morning.
Thank you for all of the worlds you two have given us. I love them all and anxiously (yet patiently!!! ) await each new entry you gift us with.
Thank you for all of the happy thoughts.
Bigmama Battillo says
I wanted to be an author. I was sure I would be a great one because I read ALL THE TIME! I then became a good friend with Charlaine Harris and I was able to observe the process of a great fiction writer who loved her craft. I realized I would never be an author because I am not driven to write. Through Charlaine I came to know many excellent authors and they are all filled with words they HAVE to commit to paper (or the equivalent!). I realized I simply don’t have that driven need.
Holly Corin says
I’m an artist, not a writer, but I love reading your behind the scenes look at writing and storytelling. It helps me appreciate even more the books that I love to read. Yours are at the top of my list!
Once again late to the discussion. Jennifer Cruise taught in college and is a best selling author. She has through the years given many short writing guidelines, and if you have problems how to analyze what went wrong and how to fix. She writes and speaks with humor including of her college years. There is a wealth of information in her archived blogs including writing collaboratively.
Helen Holck says
The only time over use of ‘said’ is a problem is in the audio books. Otherwise you’re right, its invisible.
I think you could write a grocery list and I’d read it