Saturday, March 22, 2014

Class, conference, group or graduate - what's the best education for writers?

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?


  1. I’m not at all certain, but I have a suspicion that the answer might be different for each person. I enjoy classes and seminars and learn a great deal from them, but they are, of necessity, somewhat generalized. Having someone actually look at your work and provide constructive feedback, as Hank described, seems like a wonderful sort of guidance to help you get to where you’d like your story to go . . . .

  2. I have writing friends with whom I trade copy and critiques, but there is nothing like one dozen strangers giving you feedback. I try to go away once a year for some kind of writing workshop, and Seascape has been on my fall schedule twice now. Wonderful people, and the feedback from Roberta and Hallie is always spot on. I finally wrote a book my agent liked and placed after listening to Jennie Cruisie one summer in 2005. She said most of us in the room were working on stuff that was too boring to be published. I remember her words: "Readers want interesting people doing fascinating things." Enough with the bedroom and kitchen chats. :)

  3. Thanks, Reds, for this important discussion. It gives me the chance to acknowledge my debt of gratitude to all of you who create this wonderful community of writers.
    And I'd like to thank two of you specifically for encouraging me in making the transition from avid mystery reader to mystery writer.
    Hallie, without your book, Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel, I'd still *wanting* to write a mystery but not having a clue of how to go about it. My copy is well-thumbed, marked with Post-Its, and highlighted with fluorescent yellow. I've read plenty of how-to books and articles over the years, and yours is, hands down, the best. It is comprehensive, yet succinct; it addressed all the questions I didn't even know enough to ask. Your book pulled me through the first-draft stage and is now guiding me through revision. I honestly could not have written my mystery without you--long-overdue thanks, Hallie!
    And I'm forever grateful to Deb for inspiration, both though her own excellent novels and various bits of advice in interviews. Every day, I read the quote taped to the front of my iMac: "Advice to readers? Read.Read.Read. Then, write the kind of book you absolutely love to read and pay no attention whatsoever to any advice about 'writing for the market.' THat's the man behind the curtain, not the real thing. And there is a place in the world for the real thing."
    Over the years, I've profited from attending conferences and taking classes. but you two Reds have taught me the most. Again, thank you.

  4. My experience of writing classes was mostly of having had the confidence in my fiction-writing ability drummed out of me by the only writing teacher at my college when I was there, an essayist who didn't believe in science fiction or anything that wasn't terribly cerebral and/or obscure. A dozen years after graduation, I finally allowed some fellow fans at a Star Trek convention read one of my stories, and watched a dozen people pass the pages to each other, and then each in succession burst into tears. There are no words to describe that sense of pride and power-- and encouragement.

    Here are three "learning moments" I experienced: I was, for a short while, part of a round robin amateur science fiction writers' group. If I hadn't understood POV before then, when I saw other writers totally mess it up, I realized how not to make their mistakes.

    And an editor once complained to me-- in the bar at another science fiction con-- that most people who sent him manuscripts had "never heard of a dramatic hook." Until then, neither had I, but I immediately got what he was talking about and made sure from then on that I was building those in.

    And when I first started writing regular features for a local paper, some of them looked much better when they saw print than when I'd submitted them. I studied the changes the editor had made, and learned to make them before turning in a piece. (I don't mind an edit that improves my work, but I love it when the editor doesn't see the need to make any changes whatsoever.)

    For me, by the way, it helps to review a printout before submitting. I miss typos and redundancies on the screen that I catch with ease on paper.

  5. Back when I started trying to write fiction, as opposed to scholarly articles (1976), it was almost impossible to connect with other writers. No Internet. Very few writers organizations. The Writer and Writer's Digest offered articles on writing and published how-to books and that was about it. I tried to follow Phyllis A. Whitney's advice but making a long, detailed outline first never worked for me. No surprise that it was nine years before my first novel was published, a mystery for middle-grade readers in 1985. Best advice is what folks here have already said: read, read, read and write, write, write.


  6. Thanks, Jack! Thanks, Katie!!

    And how interesting, not an MFA in among us. And can I just say my jaw dropped when I read Susan's experience. Literary assistant to John Irving? Assistant at Random House? Wow. (I was teaching third grade. Too timid (really) to have applied for a job in publishing.

    I took exactly one English course in college (Freshman English: required) and the professor suggested I take what was the remedial writing course. He was a jerk. Wish I'd known it...then.

    It's all too easy to discourage a writer.

  7. Wow, ladies. Fascinating topic. When I first started getting serious about writing (ten years ago, eep!) I joined a critique group. While many of them remain dear friends, it was almost more helpful in showing me what I didn't want.
    Many of them were talented, easily ten times more talented than I was they didn't really want to published. They wrote when they felt like it and dropped things for months. They didn't finish things. They didn't submit what they did finish. It was very aggravating for less talented types like moi that had the fire in the belly but less natural talent. I had to learn to accept that some people really do just want to write for a hobby and don't want to get published, as hard as that it for grubby, ambitious me to understand ;-)

    Others wanted to be published so badly, they chased trend after trend, also never finishing anything.

    There was one woman that had both talent and the ambition to be published and she ran the group. Add in the fact that none of the writers were really very well versed in the subgenres I was interested in and that equals not very helpful long term. Wonderful cheerleaders, support group. Not great for manuscript guidance. One of my closest friends in the group was trying to steer me away from my genre b/c well, she didn't really like it. She kept trying to talk me into YA fantasy b/c it's what she liked and what she did well. I love reading some YA fantasy. You know what I hate and suck at? World building. Yeah, that's time I'll never get back. We're still friends, but we don't talk writing much anymore, except for in broad terms.

    I moved away from that critique group and got really serious about writing on my own. It was much easier to write just for me and not worry what my critique group would think. I read a lot of craft books. I participate in classes online and attend in person stuff when I can.

    I'd love to join a critique group or have a critique partner again some time, but I'd be very cautious. They work great for some people, but I think it has to be right.

  8. Oh! A Writing partner! (Or many.) Yes, I've just never done it formally, but I do have writing buddies —invaluable for growth and development (and support).

  9. Also, Hallie — I can sum up my early career as making photocopies and filing for lots of famous people... Of course, that came in handy when picturing Winston Churchill's office and his secretary....

  10. It's interesting to read the different types of education that have worked for different writers. I have taken classes and workshops, but ultimately, the one thing that has consistently worked for me is my writing group. I have been with the core of that group for more than a dozen years, and I trust them completely. They know my intentions, they know how to guide me back on the path (sometimes gently, sometimes not, but almost always for the best), and they, like me, are devoted to improving our writing.

    I recently read a blog by a literary writer who said that her MFA taught her how to craft a beautiful sentence, but afterward, she had to spend 10 more years learning how to tell a story. I feel that way too. My education in writing gave me much in so far as craft is concerned, but it was not until I joined the mystery writing community that I truly began to learn how a great story works.

    The most recent writing book I finished is Hallie Ephron's Writing and Selling Your Mystery Novel. Even if you're a published writer as I am, I still think this book has much to offer.

    I guess, for me, the education will continue in a thousand different ways until I'm too old and moldy to put a sentence together! But the education is all part of the fun.

  11. PS - Double ditto on Katie's comment to read, read, read!

  12. I am still reeling from Susan's experiences . . .


    just wow . . .

    And what Rhys said struck a very loud chord with me. ". . . 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 . . . Some critique groups can do more harm than good."

    I'm in the camp where I believe a writer can get better with practice, but a truly gifted writer is just that - truly gifted. Gifted with an ability to take ordinary words and put them together in such a way that they make our emotions soar when we read them. And that is so, so rare, I think.

    Occasionally, I will read a passage that will leave me breathless and I just have to put the book down and stare into space while it settles itself in my head and in my heart. Don't you love when that happens? And I wish like crazy that I might someday write just one sentence that might give someone that feeling.

  13. My husband has an English degree from Brown, and he's been writing non-fiction--articles for magazines, scripts for his films/videos--for decades. We edit one another's work, and I've learned as much from editing his stuff as I have from the edits he recommends for mine.

    I've also edited three or four men's adventure novels, a mystery, and a couple of oddball genre ones written by our friend and former neighbor, Rod Pennington. Those also taught me many valuable lessons about story construction, etc.

    But I think my best education comes from reading, especially tightly crafted and well written stories by authors like every one of the Reds.

  14. I have written some short stories, but I don't have the patience for a novel (despite the fact that my mom and I attended a writing seminary for me when I was just out of 8th grade).

    But yes, I do think good writing can be learned. Does it help to have natural talent? Absolutely. But that has to be trained. And you also need to know what the rules are so you can break them. There are ways to do it, but you have to know what you are doing for it to work.

  15. I'm also in the group that doesn't have an MFA--BA and MA in English lit with an emphasis on creative writing.

    I've taught creative writing off and on at the university level and to adults in the community for years, and I'm always amazed at the number of people who seriously want to be writers but DO NOT READ!! No one, no matter how talented they think they are or actually are, can sustain a career as a writer if they don't read. Reading as a writer is one of the first things I teach my student. Stephen King said famously, "If you don't have time to read, you don't have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that."

  16. What a wonderful topic and how timely. I thought about joining a writing conference. There is a scholarship and I am trying to write a 1,500 page sample to submit for the scholarship. I learned how hard it is for me to write. Though I read, read, read and read, I am not sure if writing stories is my forte. I write different character descriptions but am having a hard time creating names for my characters. And I am trying to devise a good plot. Though I have read friends' rough drafts and they were published, it is different from trying to create a good story in my writing.

    Everyone, thank you for your input.


  17. I have been focused on writing for more than twenty years -- started doing writing as therapy, and then memoirs. The idea to enter the "mystery" community came when I took a class with Hallie at the Cape Cod Writers Conference.

    I was very intimidated by mysteries because of the careful development, placement of clues, and technical "stuff." And, I still am.

    But I love reading mysteries and have fallen in love with the community.

    I have attended Seascape twice -- wow! The writers you meet! A woman who was a ventriloquist!

    Hallie, Lucy/Roberta, and Hank are tireless teachers and critics. They are engaging, helpful, interesting, compassionate. I can't say enough.

    So, I plug along, and enjoy every minute of writing. I am in a new writing group (almost two years now) since I moved to Cape Cod, and they are the dearest and most supportive individuals.

    And I read JRR every day (almost every day) and learn something every day from the posts and the comments.

    Thank you all.

  18. I take a lot of courses and workshops. Due to schedule and financial conflicts, I've only been to Seascape once, but I'm so glad I went.

    Nine total strangers - well, they were at first, anyway - read my first twenty pages and then prepared comments, most of which were delivered face2face. Lucy and Hallie did the same.

    Thanks to Seascape, I had a moment of clarity about my book's beginning. During a break, I outlined a new beginning scene, where I think I managed to hit the trifecta of Action, Theme and Character (and not necessarily in that order). I ran it by both Lucy and Hallie in our scheduled private meetings.

    Anyway, I'm looking forward to Hallie's POV workshop at Crime Bake. (I'll have to register fast to get in. :) ) Her Master Class last year on what makes a bestseller was outstanding.

  19. Oops - I didn't mean to omit Hank. :( She came in and brainstormed pitch ideas with us. She kept the energy high and good ideas flying.

    Thanks, ladies. :)

  20. What do I do? I read Jack's comments. Today's was especially useful. I will now:
    1. Find a group of a dozen strangers to give me feedback.
    2. Dump the boring parts. I think I know which ones they are.
    3. Focus on interesting people doing fascinating things.
    I will raise Jack's three points with one from Debs:
    4. Glean. Give more credit to anything I might glean from any offering—seminar, class, or group.
    5. Continue to follow Jungle Reds. Cherished.

  21. Hallie, I just read your comment about freshman English. Glad to find someone so talented with a similar experience! I know that doesn't make me a good writer, but it does say a lot about learning and doing!

    I only took first-year English, too. I got a B. It was my only B. I was discouraged and too embarrassed to go on. I know. I know. But at that time my grades were all I had holding my head up.

  22. I'm writing from the Virginia Festival of the Book, where today I met Louis Bayard, Lisa Scottoline, Wendy Webb, and so many others. I love hearing authors talk about the writing, and I learn something from every panel of authors I hear. Of course, my favorite group to hear is still the Jungle Reds.

    Having worked with students, ranging in grades four through twelve, I do think that a lot about writing can be taught, except for one crucial element. Voice that makes a storyteller just that is still something I believe you either have or not. It doesn't mean one can't write a fairly good story, just that it isn't a mesmerizing tale.

    Susan, you have had quite the enviable experience in publishing. One of my favorite books is A Widow for One Year by Irving. And, Stephen King, too? Wow!

    Lucy, Hallie, and others who work with aspiring writers/authors, kudos to you for generously sharing your knowledge and success. I think authors are some of the most magnanimous people around. You even have me thinking about looking at some writing workshops.