There will come a time in your life when the voices in your head can no longer be ignored. When their constant coaxing and cajoling has finally convinced you that perhaps they are right. Perhaps your dreams can come true and you could become a great writer, if only you could find the time.
After all it’s not as if you don’t have any talent. Remember that Christmas form letter you wrote two years ago, the one everybody thought was so touching? How they all said it sounded so nice and Christmassy, even if they didn’t understand a lot of the fancy words.
And what about all those clever sayings you put into birthday cards? How you manage to come up with such neat phrases, year after year, is anybody’s guess. It can only be due to natural writing ability.
So the voices must be right; it’s time you took the plunge. Time to heed your true calling in life. Time to become a famous writer.
Your first step on your journey into literary history is to take a writing course. Yes, this will eat up some of your precious time which would otherwise be spent writing something important. And sure, you don’t want to be unduly influenced by the ideas or writing styles of mediocre writer wanna-be’s. But a writing course is a good introductory step into the world of creative writing. And since I have been down that road myself, I thought you might benefit from some simple observations on how to take a writing course.
First off, you must find a suitable class. Try to find one where you will feel comfortable and at ease with the instructor and your fellow writers. And one which will provide you with the greatest amount of experience and inspiration without really asking for too much in return. After all, your valuable time would no doubt be better spent writing publishable material rather than weekly assignments.
Since a writing course will stand or fall on the calibre of the instructor, it is imperative to choose them carefully. Remember that they are not just a mere teacher; they are the motivation, the inspiration, the driving force behind the student’s efforts to put words on paper.
Of course, this is more important for novice writers. For someone with your abundant talent the instructor’s role is to simply provide regular affirmations about the high quality of your work.
Still, you should strive to get the best instructor possible. The really good ones hang out at universities, most often in the faculties of Extension, where they hope their efforts at teaching will result in the offer of a real academic job.
Big cities will offer an abundance of writing courses and thus, a large selection of good writing instructors. As a rule, smaller towns do not draw top flight writers and you must make do with whomever shows up to teach the course.
If possible avoid those classes taught by middle-aged men wearing tweed coats with leather elbow patches, older gentlemen who mumble endlessly about the famous writers they used to drink with, or wild-eyed young men with misspelled tattoos. Intense young women who specialize in punitive and erotic literature are also suspect.
The instructor who will best suit your needs is well-read, well-travelled and someone who has published widely and recently. But make certain they are not well known or well financed. If they have yet to make the big-time themselves, they are less likely to sneer at your own work.
Lastly, look for a course where it is hard to tell who is more eccentric, the instructor or the students. Not only will the class be more entertaining, but these people will provide you with all the characters you need for any number of short stories.
Once registered in the course it is time for some basic preparations. In the first class you will be asked to introduce yourself to your new colleagues and to say a few words about why you write and what you hope to accomplish. This will be the best time to intimidate your classmates and establish yourself in their minds as the serious writer in the class. There are a few ways to do that.
When you state your name, make sure to include all middle names and initials. Real writers are never content with the average two-part name. Then talk briefly about the writers who most influenced your life and why you admire them. Make sure to choose obscure authors with hard to pronounce, foreign names. In this way no one can dispute your choice of important writers. It will also give them the impression you are well read and thus, someone to be listened to.
Keep your comments brief and concise. This will convey the perception that your knowledge of literature is like an iceberg; most of it is hidden away but is still massive in scope. Brevity will also lessen your chances of mentioning a writer the instructor may have actually read. He too has to be impressed and a little subdued by your apparent erudition. He would not have expected any of his students to actually know something about literature. For the instructor, a student with actual knowledge can be a worrisome thing.
Starting in the second week, each class will fall into a fairly standard routine. Be aware of how people fit into this routine and you can use this to your advantage.
Upon arrival in the classroom, be sure to check the side tables for home-baked goodies. Every class has its share of retired women who use their classmates as surrogate children and are happy to provide all kinds of elaborate refreshments. Of course, this is also a form of self-protection. After all, who could possibly criticize the writing of someone who arrives each week with a really good pound cake.
You will notice that, at first, nobody will touch the food. Everyone is waiting until the instructor has worked his way across the room and grabbed the first bite. Do not be intimidated by this obvious display of a social pecking order. Just dive right in. Show them you don’t play by anyone else’s social rules. After all, your presence in the class is a right, not just a privilege like it is for the others.
Once the snacking has begun in earnest it’s time for the first order of business: the tour around the table. At this time each student is expected to talk about their writing efforts during the previous week. This is a tricky part of the class and one where good mental preparations are paramount.
You see, there is a paradox at work in all writing courses. Ninety-nine percent of the students like the idea of writing but cringe at the thought of actually producing a written piece. So this part of the class becomes less a discussion of work in progress than a parade of excuses for work not progressing.
Most of the class will whine about their kids or their spouses, the lack of time, the car that won’t work, the overbearing job, the boyfriend who has suddenly lost interest. On and on. The instructor, hearing the familiar refrain, will smile through it all, exhibiting a level of patience and tolerance worthy of a catholic martyr. This is where he really earns his pay.
The more creative students will come up with the big excuses which they hope will protect them from the inevitable guilt. Everything from `I got food poisoning’ to `My computer crashed and I can’t reconfigure the command file’ to `My wife had a baby last week’. These, and all the possible combinations therein, are trotted out and meekly laid at the feet of the instructor.
You might as well save any sympathy you have for these people because the instructor will certainly not waste any of his.
When the inquisitor has turned his glare in your direction you should abstain from using any of these cheap excuses. Instead, you must serve up a tasty platter of excuses so good that the instructor will swallow them whole. The trick here is to use excuses favoured by professional writers. I have summarized a list of these excuses for you here.
You begin with the statement that you had several splendid ideas for a piece, all of which needed to be considered at length. Once having chosen the best idea of the lot, the mental gymnastics could begin. You molded the idea, massaged it, bounced it off several points of view, and then wrestled it into a format compatible with your style of writing.
At this point, you should pull out your note book, the one full of doodles and illegible scribbling, and start turning the pages. By providing a focal point for the class you will distract their attention away from what it is you are saying. Or rather, what it is you are trying not to say. As well, a notebook full of busy pages gives the appearance, however ambiguous, of much work and accomplishment.
Continue the review by referring to such things as plot development, character sketches and determining accurate historic time lines. At this point, give the instructor a quick glance. If he is nodding his head and smiling, end your talk quickly. There is no sense in working the fish once it is hooked and in the boat. Then sit back with a smug, self-satisfied look. One that dares anybody in the class to challenge what you have just said.
If, however, it appears that neither the instructor nor the other students are buying it, you need to play the trump card. Finish your review by sighing deeply, and then declare that most of your time was spent doing research. This will convince even the most cruel-hearted of critics that you did indeed have a tough week and should be left alone.
From here on the rest of the class should flow smoothly, with little chance of your being further harassed by either the students or the instructor. You will be able to relax and enjoy yourself, with nothing more to do than listen patiently to some miserable prose and throw out the occasional snippets of criticism.
There are, however, a few situations which will rouse you from your daydreams and require some effort to defray.
For example, despite your best efforts to discourage them, the odd question will eventually come your way. Answer it with a ponderous and dull monologue. Speak slowly and deliberately, as if you are putting a great deal of thought into each word. And don’t forget to dredge up your favourite obscure, foreign author who just happens to be an authority on the subject at hand. It will be some time before you are asked another question.
If the instructor persists in picking on you, simply turn the question around and relate it to a common subject on which most people consider themselves to be an expert. The debate will quickly heat up and you will be completely ignored as the battle of egos rages on around you.
At this point, I should pass on a few tips regarding the presentation of your work to the class. But if you have followed the simple principles outlined here, you will never arrive at that point. Your writing will never have to see the light of day. However, if your own ego triumphs over good common sense, and you really do want to present an example of your work, just remember: literary criticism is like tracer bullets, they work both ways. And it has the same painful effect.
The class usually ends with another tour of the table, this time to plan how much each person is going to write during the coming week. Your best strategy is to imply much but guarantee nothing. This will keep the instructor happy and your colleagues eagerly anticipating your work.
I hope these guidelines have proven to be of use and have put you on the road to literary stardom. I would be at that point myself but I just have not had the time to sit down and write for an entire month now. First the kids got sick and then my wife’s car blew an engine gasket. Soon though I will find the time and write something truly unique. Until then, best of luck to you. The next time we meet will no doubt be on the best seller’s list.