JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: A whole bunch of great Maine crime fiction authors, myself included, are going to be teaching a one-day workshop in Portland this April. Before that, I'm going to a three-day themed conference on writing and faith, and after it, I've got to reconnect with the UMaine MFA student I've been mentoring. All this different teaching activity has gotten me to thinking: what forms of instruction or writing support are really useful for aspiring authors?
Let's take the example of Winifred Writer. She's been writing on and off for years, and this year, she's going to start and finish her mystery. (I'm sticking with that genre, since that's the one we all know.) She thinks she's pretty good, but the only feedback she gets is from her sister and mom, and of course, they love what she writes. What's the best way for her to strengthen her prose, tighten her plotting, and keep producing her pages? She could join a group online or at the local library. She could take a day-long workshop, a course at the local uni, or a three-day conference. She could hire a freelance editor or attend a writing retreat for several weeks. She could enroll as a candidate for a MFA in fiction.
For myself, I started with a supportive group of would-be writers online. After my first book had sold to St. Martin's Press and I had a second under contract, I was worried that I wasn't doing it right, and signed up for the two week Stonecoast writing conference in Freeport, ME. I mostly came away with the assurance that not only was I doing it right, I was doing it better than quite a few of the other attendees. (With the notable exception of one other woman in my group - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.) I did read, read, read, books in the genre I was writing in and books about writing. Since then , of course, I've taught quite a bit.
How about you, Reds? What was your education in letters? What would you advise Winifred? Is writing fiction the ultimate "See one, do one, teach one" profession?
RHYS BOWEN: I used to teach creative writing at the college level and I realized that I could help hone a skill but I couldn't teach anyone to write. My students either had the spark or they didn't. I think the best advice is to read, read, read and to write, write, write. You only get better with practice. A good, supportive writing group is helpful but they all have to be at the same level and on the same page. Some critique groups can do more harm than good.
HALLIE EPHRON: I used to think you either "have it" or you don't, but I've changed my mind. I teach at lots of writing conferences each year, and the greatest pleasure is meeting people I've met before, back for another year, and whose writing has markedly improved. True the Chimamandas (LOVE her work) of this world are born writers, but the truth is, but they are rare creatures and you don't have to be THAT good to be well published. You just have to spin a really good yarn.
I went to a writing conference while I was writing what would be my first published book and I got the most out of the meanest criticism from a fellow student who kept scrawling (in angry capital letters) POV POV POV all over the first chapter of my novel. Yes, my point of view was sliding all over the place and no, I did not have a clue what she was talking about.
At the 2014 New England Crime Bake I'm teaching a two-and-a-half hour class on POV and deepening viewpoint. It IS something you can learn.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I'd been writing news stories and investigations for 30 years when I started writing fiction--so I kind of thought I knew how to tell a story. I think having that confidence allowed me to begin my book--which if I knew then what I know now, how difficult is is, I might not have! I got a critique from the astonishing Jennifer Cruisie, early on, and she was--well, really really tough.("Your eyes are bleeding from this, right?" She wrote.) And I will never forget it--it helped me immensely. NOTHING IS HAPPENING she wrote, in huge letters. And she taught me the meaning of "info dump" and "dreaded backstory." Both lessons I took to heart.
I think many people--well, no-- I think EVERYONE can be taught to be better. A lot better. (I have seen manuscripts you would not believe--absolutely cluelessly awful..and I have seen those change and evolve in to--well, hey, pretty good!) There's are geniuses, though, that get better than most of us will ever be.
DEBORAH CROMBIE: I started with the continuing ed Saturday afternoon seminars on "How to Write a Novel" and "How to Write a Mystery." Obviously, you can't teach someone to write a novel in four hours, but every little tidbit gleaned helped. That led me to more books on writing, to joining organizations that gave me support, and to an eighteen-week class taught by my late mentor, Warren Norwood. The first chapter I turned in to Warren came back with bid red "Ughs" scrawled all over my deathless prose. Boy, were my feelings hurt. But you know what? I paid attention and I got better.
I think there is a natural talent for language, but that does not necessarily a good story teller make. I think story-telling can be taught--there is so much about craft and structure that is logical. And the improvement in language comes from reading reading reading and writing writing writing.
LUCY BURDETTE: I started out in the late 90's with no experience in fiction writing. I'd read a lot of fiction and written plenty of papers and gotten feedback that I was a "good writer"--that must have given me the confidence to try. Then I had my husband read every word and paragraph of the new novel when he came home from work. (Poor guy!) He was helpful in the beginning, but then I took every class I could find--one on children's books, one on memoir, a full-day class on writing the mystery. And I found a writers' group. And I made writing friends who swapped manuscripts. And I read tons of books and articles on writing.
I KNOW I improved. And I still work hard at it. Some people may be more naturally gifted than others, but I do think most people can get better. Hallie and I have seen the transformation in our Seascape weekend workshops. Writers who showed little understanding truly blossomed by the end. And some have come back a second year and made--wow--amazing transformations!
SUSAN ELIA MACNEAL: I never took a formal writing seminar — but I did work in publishing, on the other side of the desk, which was what I think of as my M.F.A. program.
My first job was as literary assistant to the novelist John Irving (The World According to Garp, et al.) in southern Vermont. He didn’t like computers, so he would type on his mechanical typewriter, hand over the pages to me, and I would retype them into the computer. Then I would print out the pages, hand them back to him, and watch as the editing process began. Then I would enter the blue-penciled in edits and rewrites. I learned so much from that job — how writing was a profession just like any other (John worked every day from about 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.). There was never any drinking, never any calls on the Muse — never anything other than hard work and dedication. And endless rewrites. It was fascinating to see what he'd keep, what he'd cut, and what he'd rewrite.
My next job was in New York — Random House, where I was lucky enough to work for “Little Random” under then-publisher Harold Evans. Again, even just photocopying and filing and answering the telephone, I was able to learn so much, from legendary editors such as Ann Godoff (my mentor), Jason Epstein, and Kate Medina.
As an assistant editor at Viking Penguin, I worked for editor Pamela Dorman, who now has her own imprint of “women’s upmarket fiction” at Penguin. As her assistant, I worked closely with many amazing authors, such as Judith Merkle Riley, Lois Battle, and Stephen King. Just being able to help authors with their work and allay their concerns was an amazing job, as was when I finally got to edit a manuscript myself (Jane Langton’s Divine Inspiration).
Working professionally with authors really helped me see that they weren’t “other” as much as people who worked hard and took the idea of writing professionally seriously. Seeing what they did, made it much more tangible to me. And gave met lessons on structure and point of view and pacing and character I’ll never forget.
JULIA: How about you, dear readers? Are you part of a writing group? Have you attended classes or conferences? What have you found useful? What would you like to see in a writing program?