Friday, October 17, 2014

The Best Writing Class I Ever Took

Writers are always looking for the “golden key” to the door leading to their future as a best-selling author or award-winning novelist. They take classes and buy books on how to create memorable characters, how to write realistic dialogue, how to create compelling settings, and how to develop an intriguing and original plots (let's stop here for a minute: if anyone offers you a way to come up with an “original” plot for a certain number of dollars, I can find you a better deal on beachfront property next to a ski slope in Alamogordo, New Mexico. Guaranteed.)


And, of course, there is the ever-popular “How to get published” books and classes, guaranteed to make an aspiring writer part with their money. The advice ranges from getting an agent (how easy is that??) to a list of websites offering “free” self-publishing deals. And yet, despite all the preparation and promise, many writers fail to find the key that opens the door. Because a writer may get published; they may have a book in hand; they may be able to list it on


But all that doesn't make it them a good writer. And it doesn't mean they wrote a good book.


The best writing classes I ever took were way back in the late '70s and '80s. I'll do the math for you... I was in junior high and high school. I had two English teachers, Mrs. Quinn and Mrs. Hollis, that taught that writing was a process that involved, first and foremost, good spelling, followed closely by good grammar.


Yes, I had teachers that gave us spelling tests every week that not only demanded correct spelling but also wanted the definition of several words on the tests (fifty words a week, twenty definitions... do I have to mention this was Catholic school?) They also expected their students to know how to diagram sentences—and if I have to explain what that is, that tells you all you need to know about how tough these teachers were. Diagramming involved knowing the parts of speech and how they function in a sentence. I'm not sure I can still diagram the preceding sentence, but I can guarantee it is grammatically correct.


And what does that all have to do with writing? It has to do with not having an editor or reviewer cringe when they come across glaring misspellings (not typos, misspellings) and misused words in an otherwise interesting story (my personal favorite: I reviewed a book where the character, who happened to be a fisherman, waited for some news “with baited breath”. I had to take a ten-minute timeout from reading to recover enough to go on!) A writer can't count on the patience and good humor of an editor to excuse every spelling error they encounter. I can say from personal experience that nothing is more tiring and irritating than to try to read a story (or facebook posting) that is rife with spelling erros.


Good grammar is another skill that seems to have fallen into disuse. In some instances, when writing creatively, it's perfectly acceptable to dispense with some grammar rules. This is especially true when writing dialogue and the character speaking isn't particularly well-educated or is affecting a “street” toughness. There has also been an inexplicable overabundance of unnecessary apostrophes appearing everywhere (even on professionally printed signs and ads), where almost every word ending with the letter “s” must have an apostrophe in it.


Ever since my first two mystery novels in my Black Horse Campground series have been published, I've been asked by many aspiring writers about how to get published. I always answer that these days, just “getting published” is a piece of cake; what's harder to do is to become a good writer. And in order to do that, I always recommend at least auditing a course on basic English grammar at their local community college. I always get rewarded with puzzled looks or suspicion that I'm not being totally honest, that I'm keeping the secret to myself.


No, the key is there for whoever wants to use it. It just requires hard work and a real desire to learn what good writing really is. It's no guarantee of a publishing contract, but it's a definite guarantee of much improved writing skills. And that is what a writer—any writer—should desire more than anything.


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