Monday, July 25, 2011

Teach Me How to Write.

I'm just getting back my life after the Book Passage Mystery Writing Conference that takes place every summer at my fabulous local bookstore Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA.

It's always an intensive three days of workshops, lectures and private consultations during which around 80 hopeful mystery writers want to find the magic bean that will turn them into published authors. The success rate for this conference is rather impressive: Sheldon Siegel, Cara Black , Cornelia Read,Tony Broadbent, Tim Maleeny are a few of the graduates who not only made it to print but have won awards for their writing.
But every year I come away with ambivolent thoughts. Can anybody really be taught to write?

Some of the attendees I see clearly have the spark and all they need is some suggestion on pacing or focus or plot development. For others no amount of writing classes will ever make them a published author. It's rather like me and painting. I love to paint. I can create a pretty good picture if I copy reality or somebody shows me what to do, but my painting instructor can look at a scene, give a few magic flourishes with her brush and suddenly there it is in living color with an whole new twist to it.

Every year I am asked what writing courses I took before I started out. The answer, none. I taught myself to be a writer by writing. As a small child I lived in a world of pretend. I played the part of princess, good fairy, girl lost in the woods, even queen of my own country. Later I wrote down stories with myself as heroine. I wrote movie scripts I wanted to star in. And during my professional writing career I have usually written a book that I want to read but is not already on the shelf.

What I see at conferences is that everybody probably has one book in them--everyone's life has one riveting moment that makes a good story. But not everybody has the ability to leap from their own life into someone else's world. And certainly not everybody has the ability to tell a story so that it comes alive, so that we ask, "And what happens next?"

So are writing classes a waste of time?  I think they can be beneficial, especially for the writer who needs feedback and positive reinforcement as they work. It's hard writing into a vacuum and the writer needs to know that he or she is heading in the right direction. It's also useful to hone skills, find flaws. But to say to someone else, "This is how you create a character" is something I find difficult. I've never created a character. I think of a story I'd like to tackle and a character appears saying "Hello, here I am."  It's all an extention of that pretending world I lived in when I was four.

So my one piece of advice that I've given several times this weekend--if you want to be a writer WRITE. Learn to use words as a potter learns to use clay. Practice putting words down on a page. Learn to develop a plot over 300 pages, to describe people and places so that we know them and we are there. And unfortunately the only clear mantra for success is to write the book that nobody has written before.

What are your experience of writing classes? Good? Bad? Do they help?


  1. Being a writer myself (but never published) I tend to believe that either you have it or you don't. BUT.... I also believe that you can improve on what they know. Some people just know how to put words on paper and can entertain others. I have always had a lot to say when writing stories, and I know from reading tips and advice I have improved.

  2. Being a rookie, I think that the FB comment Barb made hits the nail on the head..."You can't teach talent and creativity, but you can teach craft. Point of view, tight writing, building suspense, etc."
    I for one am still learning parts of the craft (such as POV)from workshops and find them very helpful. It has also given me the tools to learn when I am reading. I see things differently, and sometimes a lightbulb goes on: "Now I get it!"
    I think, or at least I hope, that my writing is improving as I go along :)

  3. What a great post! I agree that something already has to be in place, inside --a drive to write (as opposed, say, to the desire to be "a writer", meaning "published and famous" or some such.). I think it's the craft that can be taught and is worth teaching and taking classes for. And then, as you say, the best training is simply writing.

  4. I have a masters degree in writing which served a) to give me a lot of confidence that I [learned] know a lot about the realm of writing in many genres, and b) to teach me that nobody can make me write or improve my writing if I don't put my seat in the chair daily and work on it, and c) to convince me absolutely that no amount of teaching will make a non-writer into a talented writer or even a skilled writer, no matter how zealous or ambitious said non-writer may be.

    I think having the desire and impulse to write is very different from having an ego that wants the label of 'writer', and yet, someone who can lose the ego and work hard at the writing may make progress.

  5. No, it's not possible. Best writers are special and they have grown up with that talent to express thier emotions ideologies, and fellings inside themselves, nobody taught them how to write.