A creative writing teacher has to deal with a lot.
By Melodie Campbell
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:
“I Don’t Need no Stinkin’ Genre.”
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.)
The Memoir Disguised as Fiction.
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)
“My Editor Will Fix This.”
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?
The Hunger Games Clone.
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!
The Preachers: students who write to teach other people a lesson.
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.
Literary Snowflakes: students who ignore publisher guidelines.
“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.
Students Who Set out to Break the Rules.
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?
Students Who Don’t Write.
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.
THE ‘I COULDN’T MAKE THIS UP’
Creative Writing Teachers Who Steal our Material for their Own Classes (*removes gun from stocking*)
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.
Students Who Don’t Read.
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;
- Highest number by one person: 26
- Lowest number by one person: 0-1
- Average: 7
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:
Hey Teach! Why do you do it?
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:
It’s Not the Money.
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.
It’s Not all Those Book Sales.
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…
It’s Vegetables for Authors: It’s Good for Me.
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.
It’s the People.
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.
It’s Good for my Soul
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