I watch the snorkelling swans
breathing through their bums
I watch the snorkelling swans
breathing through their bums
Though the talks had stalled both sides of the table were eager to get a resolution. It was a tense situation but with use of common man to man language albeit in foreign tongues, the impasse was broken and there was seen to be leeway on both sides. Thus the deal was reached limiting the production of weapons of mass destruction.
Over polished tables
old enemies scowl and stare
settled with one smile
Many people have come to visit me in my aptly named home. Each one putting their misplaced faith in my cool, clear waters. To some I grant a pastiche of what they desire. Their folly feeds my desire in the end as their souls will belong to me. 244c
It all started in 1992. I’d won a couple of crime fiction awards, and the local college came calling. Did I want to come on faculty and teach in the writing program? Hell, yes! (Pass the scotch.)
Over the years, I continued to teach fiction writing, but also picked up English Lit, Marketing (my degree) and a few odd ones, like Animation and Theatre. Such is the life of an itinerant college prof. (Pass the scotch.)
Twenty-four years later, I’m a full-time author. Except for Wednesday nights, when I put on my mask, don a cape, and turn into SUPER TEACH! (Okay, ‘Crazy Author Prof.’ Too much time alone at a keyboard can be scary. (Pass the scotch.)
Recently, a jovial colleague asked me if I was a good teacher or an evil one. I’m definitely on the kind side of the equation. The last thing I want is to be a Dream Killer. But even the kindest, most dedicated writing teachers can get frustrated. So when Anne suggested I rant on these pages, I gracefully accepted. (With the sort of grace that might be associated with a herd of stampeding mastodons.)
So here are my top ten peeves as a creative writing teacher:
In addition to basic and advanced writing skills, I teach the genres in my course. Meaning, we deconstruct each of the main genres of fiction (mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, horror, western, literary…etc.) to see what publishers expect. This is particularly important when it comes to endings. Mickey Spillane said those famous words: “Your first page sells this book. Your last page sells the next one.”
Most publishers categorize the books they accept into genres. Most readers stick to a few genres they like best for their reading pleasure. So it stands to reason that if you can slot your work into an already active genre, you have a better chance of getting published and read.
Many students refuse to classify their work. They feel it is ‘selling out’ to do so. (Yes, I’ve heard this frequently.) They don’t want to ‘conform’ or be associated with a genre that has a ‘formula.’ (One day I hope to discover that formula. I’ll be rich.)
So I often start out with half a class that claims to be writing literary fiction, even though not a single student can name a contemporary literary book they’ve actually read. (Pass the scotch.)
These students have no interest in writing fiction. They really only want to write one book ever, and that is their life story. But they know that memoirs of unknown people don’t sell well, so they’re going to write it is a novel. Because then it will be a bestseller.
Here’s what I tell them: What happens to you in real life – no matter how dramatic and emotional it is for you – usually doesn’t make a good novel. Novels are stories. Stories have endings, and readers expect satisfactory endings. Real life rarely gives you those endings, and so you will have to make something up.
If you want to write your life story, go for it. Take a memoir writing class.
(Or if you want to turn real life into readable fiction, here’s a great post from Ruth Harris on the subject.–Anne)
Students who think that grammar and punctuation are not important drive me batty.
Hey, someone else will fix that. They even expect me – the teacher – to copy-edit their work. Or at least to ignore all seventeen errors on the first page when I am marking. (*hits head against desk*)
I should really put this under the ‘baffling’ category. If you are an artist or craftsman, you need to learn the tools of your trade. Writers deal in words, and our main tools are grammar, punctuation and diction. How could you expect to become a writer without mastering the tools of our trade?
I can’t tell you how many times students in my classes have come determined to rewrite The Hunger Games with different character names on a different planet. Yes, I’m picking on Hunger Games, because it seems to be an endemic obsession with my younger students.
What I’m really talking about here is the sheer number of people who want to be writers but really can’t come up with a new way to say things. Yes, you can write a new spin on an old plot. But it has to be something we haven’t seen before.
There are just some plots we are absolutely sick of seeing. For me, it’s the ‘harvesting organs’ plot. Almost every class I’ve taught has someone in it who is writing a story about killing people to sell their organs. It’s been done, I tell them. I can’t think of a new angle that hasn’t already been done, and done well. Enough, already. Write something else. Please. Leave the poor organs where they are!
And that’s all they want to do. Akin to the memoir-novelists, these students come to class with a cause, often an environmental one. They want to write a novel that teaches the rest of us the importance of reuse and recycling. Or the evils of eating meat.
Recently, I had a woman join my fiction class for the express purpose of teaching people how to manage their finances better. She thought if she wrote novels about people going down the tubes financially, and then being bailed out by lessons from a friendly banker (like herself ) it would get her message across.
All noble. But the problem is: people read fiction to be entertained. They don’t want to be lectured. If your entire goal is to teach people a lesson, probably you should take a nonfiction course. Or here’s a novel 🙂 idea: become a teacher.
“A typical publisher guideline for novels is 70,000-80,000 words? Well, mine is 150,000, and I don’t need to worry about that because they will love it. Too bad if it doesn’t fit their print run and genre guidelines. They’ll make an exception for me.”
I don’t want to make this a generational thing. Okay, hell yes – maybe I should come clean. I came from a generation that was booted out of the house at 18 and told to make a living. ‘Special’ wasn’t a concept back when we used slide rules instead of calculators.
Thing is, these students don’t believe me. They simply don’t believe they can’t write exactly what they want and not get published. And I’m breaking their hearts when I tell them this: Publishers buy what readers want to read. Not what writers want to write.
There are many ways to tell a story. We creative writing teachers have some rules on viewpoint, and we discuss what they are, the reasons for them, and why you don’t want to break them.
Then we discuss why you might WANT to break them. Apparently, this isn’t enough. (*sobs into sleeve*)
I have some students who set out to break every rule they can think of because they want to be different. “To hell with the readers. I’ll head-hop if I want. And if Gone Girl has two first person viewpoints, my book is going to have seventeen! No one will have seen anything like it before. They’ll think I’m brilliant.”
Never mind that the prose is unreadable. Or that we don’t have a clear protagonist, and thus don’t know whom to root for.
e.e.cummings did it. Why can’t they?
They love the class. Never miss a week. But struggle to complete one chapter by the end of term. Not only that, this isn’t the first fiction writing class they’ve taken. They specialize in writers’ workshops and retreats.
It seems baffling, but some people like to hobby as aspiring writers. They learn all about writing but never actually write. Of course, we veterans can get that part. Writing is work – hard work. Writing is done alone in a room. In contrast, learning about writing can be fun. That’s done in a social environment with other people.
Not kidding. I actually had an adult student come clean about this. By class seven, he hadn’t done any of the assignments, and admitted he was taking the class to collect material to use for the high school creative writing class he taught. I’m still not sure how I feel about that.
This is the one that gets me the most. Last term I did a survey. I asked each student to write the number of books they had read last year on a small piece of paper and hand it in. I begged them to be honest. They didn’t have to write their names on the paper, so I would never know who had written what total. Here’s the tally of number of books read;
Yup, I’m still shaking my head over that low. He couldn’t remember whether he’d actually read a book. (How can you not KNOW?)
And these people want to be writers. *Collective groan* Why – will someone please tell me why anyone would want to be a writer if they don’t read books?
To be clear here: I read 101 novels last year. I read for one hour every night before I go to bed, and have done so for years. That’s seven hours a week, assuming I don’t sneak other time to read. Two books a week. And that doesn’t include the hours I spend reading students manuscripts over three terms.
If reading isn’t your hobby, how can you possibly think you can write? Why would you want to?
By this point, you are probably asking:
As this term draws to an end, I decided to ask myself that question: why be a creative writing teacher? Then give myself a completely honest answer. Here goes:
Hey buddy, can you spare a dime? Part time profs in Canada are poorly paid. I’m top rate, at $47 an hour. I’m only paid for my time in the classroom (3 hours a week). For every hour in the classroom, I spend at least two hours prepping and marking. We don’t get paid for that. At end of term, I spend several days evaluating manuscripts. We don’t get paid for that either. This means I am getting paid less than minimum wage. So I’m not doing it for the money.
When I first started teaching, an author gal more published than I was at the time said a peculiar thing to me: “Be sure you enjoy teaching because aspiring writers don’t buy books.” At first I was puzzled, but then I started to understand what she meant. Students are here to learn how to make their fiction better. That’s their focus. They really don’t care about what their teacher has written.
So why the heck do you do it, Mel? That’s time you could invest in writing your own books…
Let me explain: It takes me back to first principles.
I teach all three terms. Every four months, I am reminded about goal/motivation/conflict. Three act structure. Viewpoint rules. Creating compelling characters. Teaching “Crafting a Novel” forces me to constantly evaluate my own work, as I do my students. In other words, it’s ‘vegetables for authors’ – good for me.
By far, the most valuable thing about teaching a night course year after year is it allows me to mix with people who would not normally be part of my crowd. Adult students of all ages and backgrounds meet up in my classrooms, and many are delightful. I’ve treasured the varied people I’ve met through the years, and keep in touch with many of them.
Getting to know people other than your own crowd (in my case, other writers) is extremely valuable for an author. You’re not merely guessing how others different from you may think…you actually *know* people who are different. This helps you create diverse characters in your fiction who come alive.
As well, you meet people from different professions…doctors, lawyers, salespeople, bank officers, government workers, labourers, grad students, Starbucks baristas, roofers, police, firefighters, chefs, paramedics. I have my own list of people to call on, when I need to do research.
I’m paying it forward. Believe it or not, I didn’t become an author in a vacuum. I had two mentors along the way who believed in me. Michael Crawley and Lou Allin – I hope you are having a fab time in the afterlife. Hugs all around, when I get there.
Students take writing courses for all sorts of reasons. Some take it for college course credit. Some take it for interest, as they might take photography or cooking classes. Others need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide that escape, if only temporarily. But many actually do hope to become authors like I am. When I connect with one of them, and can help them on their way, it is magic. There is no greater high.
No question, my life is richer through teaching fiction writing, even if my bank account is not.
You can help Melodie’s bank account by buying her humorous books, like The B-Team. This will keep her from writing dreary novels that will depress us all. (Pass the scotch.)
by Melodie Campbell (@MelodieCampbell) February 11, 2018
What about you, scriveners? Have you ever taken a writing class? Did you drive your teacher nuts with any of these things? (I know I was guilty of several…Anne) Have you ever taught creative writing?
If you’re in the area of the Central Coast of California on Tuesday, February 13th, you can meet Anne in person. She’ll be talking to the SLO Nightwriters about “How a Blog Can Benefit Any Author’s Career.” The meeting will be in San Luis Obispo at 11245 Los Osos Valley Road at 6:30 PM. FREE!
Melodie Campbell has won the Derringer, the Arthur Ellis Award, and eight more awards for crime fiction.
In 2015, Melodie made the Top 50 Amazon Bestseller list, sandwiched between Tom Clancy and Nora Roberts.
She is the former Executive Director of Crime Writers of Canada. You can find her at www.melodiecampbell.com
You can help Melodie’s bank account by buying her humorous books, like The Bootlegger’s Goddaughter. This will keep her from writing dreary novels that will depress us all. (Pass the scotch.)
Brand New from Melodie Campbell!
The B-Team: The Case of the Angry Ex-Wife
They do wrong for all the right reasons…and sometimes it even works.
Perhaps you’ve heard of The A-Team? Vietnam vets turned vigilantes? They had a television show a while back. We’re not them.
But if you’ve been the victim of a scam, give us a call. We deal in justice, not the law.
We’re the B-Team.
EVERYTHING CHANGE CLIMATE FICTION CONTEST NO ENTRY FEE. Submit one piece of fiction up to 5,000 words using the impact of climate change as an element of your story. The winning story will receive a $1000 prize, and nine finalists will receive $50 prizes. Also, there will be an anthology of selected winners. The contest sponsor is the Imagination and Climate Futures Initiative at Arizona State University. Deadline February 28.
The Nelligan Prize. $2000 first prize for a literary short story, any length. Plus publication in the Colorado Review. Must be previously unpublished. Fee $15. Deadline March 14th
Eludia Award for a Novel or Story Collection Contest from Women Writers Over 40! $1,000 and publication by Sowilo Press is given annually for a novel or story collection by a woman writer over the age of 40. Using the online submission system, submit a manuscript of any length with a $30 entry fee by March 15
Red Hen Press annual Nonfiction Contest. $1,000 prize and publication by the prestigious Red Hen Press. They’re looking for an essay collection, memoir, or book of narrative nonfiction. Florencia Ramirez will judge. Using the online submission system, submit a manuscript of at least 150 pages with a $25 entry fee. Deadline April 30
Wergle Flomp Humorous Poetry Contest NO FEE. The First prize is $1,000 and there’s a second prize of $250. Also 10 Honorable Mentions will receive $100 each. The top 12 entries get published online. Judge: Jendi Reiter, assisted by Lauren Singer. Length limit: 250 lines. And there are no restrictions on age or country. DEADLINE APRIL 1st
Write Romance? Harlequin Romance (HQN) takes unagented submissions (via Submittable) for Romantic Suspense, Historical, Medical, and many other subgenres. Check out Harlequin’s guidelines here.
When practising Zen
the only noise I could hear
was colliding clouds
spirit of the night
sunspended on the dark skies’
though remembered for wisdom
it cannot dim your beauty
(photo courtesy of Pixabay)
“I don’t care what you do with it, I just want it gone,” Richard implored, pointing to the dark brown mole on his chin.
“As I explained to you last week, if I cut it out it could leave you with a rather large, ugly scar, that might not help you in your career, now would it?” Doctor Ambrose replied, hoping that his false look of concern would hide his inner smile. He was the last person to have thought himself jealous of the young man’s good looks but he couldn’t help thinking of the way he had ill-treated his daughter those two years ago. “Perhaps bad deeds do come back to haunt you,” he thought.
“That cream you gave me has done nothing, and as the tests have proved negative I just want it gone, I’m fed up with rubbing cream on my face at the photo sessions, it’s not the real me they see,” Richard whined, feeling foolish for sounding so petulant.
“I thought the photos weren’t concentrating on your face so much,” came the sarcastic reply.
“Well, maybe not but please Doctor, I am really desperate for you to get rid of it, it might even make me look a bit like, you know Kirk Douglas or something.”
Doctor Ambrose leaned back in his chair, he hadn’t thought that he might be helping the young man in some way. that went against the grain somewhat, but he knew he had to act correctly. “Ok, I’ll do it but remember you will have to keep the dressing on for at least four days when it’s done. Come back to me afterwrds and you can thank me then for the cosmetic job.”
After the application of a freezing spray to his patient’s chin the small operation only took a couple of minutes and Richard was free to leave with a large dressing taped to his face. “Thank’s Doctor,” he said as he closed the door to the surgery.
Doctor Ambrose watched him go and laughed, “I wonder if he’ll be so happy when he takes that bandage off and has a look in the mirror. Vain bastard.”
His eyes opened wide in disbelief. Holding the card in his hands he looked again at the brief message with it’s promise of exotic delights to come. In seventeen years of marriage this was the most explicit Valentine’s card she had sent to him. They had both, or so he thought treated the whole Valentine’s day idea as something of a bit of a joke. Something to be left to the younger couples. he waved the card in front of his nose, not even sure if he would recognise a perfume that his wife liked or used. A bit of doubt as to the identity of the sender began to creep into his mind. He would have felt flattered but instead began to feel nervous. After all they hadn’t sent each other cards every year by agreement but if she hadn’t and he placed it on the mantel she may be a bit upset. It would be even worse if she had sent him a card but not this one and he would have no choice but to put them both up, the strangers alongside hers.
No room for cowardice, just pop along for a pleasant evening with like-minded people enjoying what we all enjoy without a jaundiced attitude, worth a visit if you can
Announcing our 2nd Live-Lit Author Event in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire. No matter how you do it come and do it with us as we celebrate through spoken word the colour Yellow. Enjoy this anthology of local authors reading short stories, poems and possibly five-minute plays on Thursday 1st March in the cosy environment of The Stagey Fox Regent Street, Leam. It’s free and it’s fun and it kicks off at 7.15pm. No booking necessary – just rock up and enjoy!
“Hey, look at this, wow the sound will be great in here, just like St. Paul’s, you know the whispering gallery,” Jane the first violin exclaimed, the nervous excitement lending a sharpness to her voice that I had never heard before. We were all excited though, just beginning to make a name as an occasional string quartet and out of the blue an invitation from the bursar at St. Danae’s girls college. Although we had honed our collected skills on intimate evenings of chamber music in some of the swankiest little cocktail bars this was big league. By the way I’m second violin, Allan is viola and Suzanne is cello. Jane is our leader in more ways than one.
We weren’t due to perform for another eight hours but as soon as our hosts had shown us the venue we knew that we had to get in and start warming up. What an opportunity. Trouble was we had to lug our instruments from the van, through the tradesman’s entrance at the side of the stables and down through the gardens. At least it wasn’t an uphill pergola or whatever they’re called.
Passing between the columns we entered a round dark-brown oak wainscoted chamber. There were a handful of upholstered high-backed chairs on one side and four wooden chairs sitting separately to one side. We assumed these to be ours. With our mouths open in wonder we must have looked like a group of schoolchildren meeting J K Rowling or her creation Harry Potter.
“Let’s give it a go.” Jane enthused, breaking the spell. We laid our cases to one side and almost in a subdued manner extracted our instruments. With our music stands in front of the chairs it would have looked to anyone coming through the door as though we were playing to an empty hall.
We had decided on a mainly Bach evening so struck up for practise,”The art of fugue,” generally one of his most popular. We wanted to know the musical quality of the dome high above our heads. After a few bars I thought I could hear someone humming along but we were the only ones there and none of my companions would hum and play at the same time. “Stop, stop a minute,” I said holding my bow in the air, “What is that strange noise, can any of you hear it?” They all sheepishly nodded their heads, each admitting that they had thought it was one of us but not sure from which of us the sound was emanating. Before we could resume the humming started to get louder, increasing in volume and frequency. It sounded like the wind passing around the doorframe but it was copying the tune we had just been playing. “It doesn’t do that in St. Pauls,” Suzanne whispered. Allan agreed stating that he was going to have a look round.
“But, there’s nothing to look round,”I argued,”just bare wooden walls and a few plaster carvings on the ceiling.” I hadn’t taken any notice of the carvings when we entered but looking up we could see that the immaculately carved. figures were cherubs. All had instruments much as ours forming a quartet and they surrounded a figure of a woman. She was wearing a long evening dress and with her hands clasped in front of her breast in typical singing pose. In our heightened state of mind we all agreed that perhaps this was not the time to continue practising until we had spoken to the Bursar and see if there was anything he could tell us about the chamber, perhaps even if it had a reputation for eerie events or characters.
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