15 April 2014

Writing For Fun And Profit


by David Dean

In a very few weeks I will have the privilege of making a presentation on short story writing at the Pennwriters Group (as in Pennsylvania) convention. A kind friend of mine, a writer of several fine thrillers, recommended me for the job, and not knowing any better, the staff approved. For months now I have been sweating this assignment. After all, I will be addressing writers who (regardless of where they are on their career paths) probably know as much I do. In fact, upon sober reflection (obviously that was not the case when I agreed to this), I find that I do not actually know much about writing anyway. I just do it.

So at this stage of my planning process, I'm picturing myself appearing before these dear people and saying something along the lines of, "I like short stories. I've read a bunch. There are some real good ones out there. Read a lot of those real good ones (at this stage I hand out smudged, mimeographed lists of real good stories). Then write a lot, okay? Practice makes perfect. Oh, I almost forgot...don't imitate those writers of real good stories. Write original-like. Ummm...any questions?"

Then I wake up screaming, "It's not my fault! It's all been said before!"

Which it has really.

Or … maybe, I lay down at the bottom of the stairs on the big day, just as Robin gets home, and start moaning incoherently, "Owww...my head! What happened? Who are you, beautiful lady? Do I know you?" This has worked in the past.

Here's my problem— I'm not an academic. I'm a high school drop-out that got a GED in the army and a junior college degree later. Not much in the way of credentials. I have played instructor on occasion, but the circumstances were very different. In the military, I gave classes on Soviet equipment identification, and sometime led P.T. (physical training). While a police officer, I taught search and seizure, and patrol techniques, at the academy. In both instances I had what amounted to a captive audience. They needed me more than I needed them. Also, if I noticed anyone's attention wavering, I could drop them for push-ups, or make humorous remarks about their family lineage and chances of graduating. Rank had its privileges. Not so much now.

So, do I dredge up the history of the short story, perhaps discuss its definition(s)? Or do I assume that they know that much already? Do I offer brief examples by the form's greatest practitioners, or figure they are probably better read than I am? Maybe, I'll just concentrate on the writing aspect. Or is that too subjective? Perhaps, I'll just ask them what the hell they want from me?

What say you, fellow SleuthSayers (especially you, John Floyd, as I know you give classes on this very thing), and dear readers? Any suggestions of what you'd want to hear or have discussed at such a gathering? What has worked for you? I'm all ears.

15 comments:

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

David, one of the secrets of teaching is to let the students do as much of the work as possible. You might start by asking them what's the best writing tip they ever got. You can then go on either to telling them any they left out--like "Kill your darlings" and Stephen King's "Read read read, write write write--and lose the adverbs"--or work them even harder by asking them to give a for instance of the ones they've given. You could also ask how many are outliners and how many are "pantsers" or (a term I much prefer) into-the-mist writers. That should be good for ten or fifteen minutes of discussion (especially for novelists, maybe less so for short story writers). And speaking of discussion: if the group is small, put the chairs in a circle. People are much more forthcoming when you do.

janice Law said...

One, don't worry about lack of formal writing instruction- I never took a single course in writing.
Two, people are interested in how you do it- where you get your ideas, how you develop them and
three, the hidden agenda for a lot of attendees, how you got published - and how they can too!
With your professional police experience in addition, you can't miss!
good luck.

Fran Rizer said...

David, I think Liz covered a lot of ideas for "engagement," which is the current buzz word for making students become involved. Like Janice, I never took a single course in writing and haven't read any of the instruction books. Janice is also right in that what most of the writers' groups I've spoken to have one repeated question: "How do I get published?"
As a last resort, if you're afraid you won't hold their total attention, just wear your police chief uniform. I'll bet that will keep them interested!

John Floyd said...

David, you'll do a great job. LIz, Janice, and Fran have already given you good pointers. The main thing is to get THEM talking, as Liz said. And I think the fact that most of us haven't had a lot of formal training in writing is a plus with most audiences--it shows the students/attendees that you don't have to be a literary academic in order to write and get published.

I predict you'll have as much fun as they do.

Anonymous said...

You've gotten a lot of advice from your peers who are published authors, but in case you want to hear from an unpublished wannabe in the trenches... :-)

What I want to ask every writer I meet, but am afraid to, is how you reconcile the poetry within you that wants to come out with the pragmatic demands of getting work in print.

What makes me write is the irresistible power of words moving in places that seem to be deeper than my own self could possibly be. Those words have their own voice, their own intent, and their own life. But when I let them come flooding out and then take them to someone who's published, to ask "NOW what do I do with them?", they always prune them into neat little box hedges. I watch the beautiful, lush wildness fall in bits to the ground one by one until all that's left is the same tidy and sterile "stuff" I see in the news reports at CNN or in the latest cookie-dutter best-seller. This makes me crawl back to my day job, despirited. That's not what my soul wants to say. But I am told that it's what can get published and paid for. And I'm not interested in that.

I read biographies of great authors and I see they had the same struggle, with a few notable exceptions who largely wrote in serial installments for Victorian-era newspapers. (I am thinking specifically of Dickens and Dumas here.) I see that the challenge of balancing Art with Economic Survival has impacted not just writers but painters. And none of it tells ME how to find this point of balance for myself.

But I know that it's the key to being able to WRITE instead of just create the same boxes of unpublished manuscripts that line the attics of aged spinster aunts and eccentric dottery uncles all over the world.

And if you find a way to tell the people in the workshop about this, please put it here in your blog so I can learn from it, too.

Dale Andrews said...

When I taught legal writing I used to tell the class of law students that to write well you had to figure out what NOT to do. No one can really tell you what to do. I used to say that there are 1000 ways to write it wrong and 1000 ways to write it right. You can get help to determine how to avoid ending up in the first 1000, but after that figuring out where you are in the second 1000 is completely your own responsibility.

Eve Fisher said...

I taught a couple of creative writing classes, and I always started off the class the same way: "I'm going to say a series of words, and when I say each word, I want you to write down the first image that comes into your head." And then I'd say things like apple, car, love, tree, fear, etc. And then I'd have each one say their image and write it up on either the chalkboard or a sheet of paper - the point of it was that you'd end up with almost as many images as people. So I'd say, the key to writing is this: you have your image in your head with every word you use - how can you communicate this image to everyone else? And then we'd start writing stuff.

Eve Fisher said...

I taught a couple of creative writing classes, and I always started off the class the same way: "I'm going to say a series of words, and when I say each word, I want you to write down the first image that comes into your head." And then I'd say things like apple, car, love, tree, fear, etc. And then I'd have each one say their image and write it up on either the chalkboard or a sheet of paper - the point of it was that you'd end up with almost as many images as people. So I'd say, the key to writing is this: you have your image in your head with every word you use - how can you communicate this image to everyone else? And then we'd start writing stuff.

David Dean said...

What a great body of knowledge and advice lies herein! Thanks everyone, you've truly given me a lot to think about and work with here.

Anon, I hear ye and know the feeling deeply. You've given me a tall order here and I'll give it some thought. If I ever come up with some satisfactory answers I will most certainly share them.

Herschel Cozine said...

Reading the comments, I am struck by one thought that runs through them. Most of us had little or no formal training. It tells me that writing, in the final analysis, is not taught. One either has a feel for it or he doesn't. Writing courses may be helpful but if the starting material is not there, forget it.

And Dean, don't sell your Jr. College degree short. I received my AA from a Jr. College before getting a BA from a 4 year college. I learned a lot more at JC. College professors are not there to teach. Research. Publish or perish!

Anonymous said...

How good to see you back!

R.T. Lawton said...

David, you and I could sit over drinks and discuss this subject for an hour.

To shorten that up, I'll say there seems to be two basic general theories in the current presentation of writing. One is motivational and the other is market discouragement to weed out the weaker-willed writers. Both theories seemed to have worked with me. With the former, I go home pumped up to create that next story for publication and with the latter, I go home determined to prove that speaker wrong. (NOTE: I'm still working on proving my college creative writing professor wrong.)

Most writers, whether beginner or pro, seem to like hearing "how you, yourself managed to create your story and then get it published." Members of the audience may not be able to do it the same way you did, but they can then compare your way to another author's way and to another until they find their own path. With all the knowledge and experience you have in your background, you'll do well.

Rick B said...

David, I'm a lurker hereabouts, but as someone who has written short stories (and even gotten a couple of them published!), I'm amazed that anyone is willing to have a program on short stories.

Having said that, one topic you might touch on are the differences and similarities between short story structure and novel structure. I will tell you (from having spent WAAAAY too much time searching on the Internet) that there is a paucity of material on that subject.

If you come up with something, I'd love to see it too!!

David Dean said...

Well said, Herschel, and I am proud of my AA--it was hard come by.

R.T., I wish we could have a few drinks together, it would be both fun and informative. We seem to have a lot in common, and thanks for the input.

Rick B., congrats on getting published! This is no mean feat! I feel Homeric each time I manage to pull it off. You've also hit on the very nub of what I was thinking. There are some very distinct differences between the two writing disciplines that are worth exploring, I think. Maybe I'll write an SS blog on the subject when I'm done...no matter how it turns out.

Leigh Lundin said...

David, obviously the best approach is to brag about your SleuthSayers readers and colleagues here (I say modestly with a subtle blush). Ah, the joys of public speaking!

(I love the collapse at the bottom of the stairs scenario.)