Got Class?

Susan Shay here.

I don’t know if other writers remember when they first wanted to write, but I don’t. For me, it was one of those things that grew on me. Kind of like mildew. šŸ™‚ It probably came from being a reader.

So I started writing. I worked hard at it, getting up early before anyone else in the house. I’d write, but when I reread it, I saw what I meant to say instead of what was there. I knew there was somethingĀ wrong, but I didn’t know what. (I sent a story to a women’s magazine, and it came back rejected so fast I nearly tripped over it when I got home from the post office.)

I sent a few pages to one of my sibs–theĀ English major–for help.Ā She helped. “When you read a book, pay attention to how they do it.”

I tried. I really did. But I’m one of those readers who gets caught up in the story. I can’t watch all the commas and periods. And what about those pesky semi-colons? Oy!Ā 

Then oneĀ day I saw an announcement about an adult writing class in the town where we lived. I got so excited, I squealed out loud. I told my husband I was going, ran out,Ā plunked down my money and signed on the dotted line.

I’m probably the only woman in the world over the age of twelve who does this, but I get extremely excited when I’m really looking forward to something. If I have to wait several days, it’s ridiculous.

I try to imagine what it’s going to be like andĀ build up scenarios in my head. My imagination gets bigger andĀ bigger.

I convinced myself that all day class was going to be wonderful.

By the time the big day got here, I was so excited I was like an over-inflated beach ball. I drove to the building where the class was being held and all but bounced into the room.

There were seven or eight other wannabes gathered around a long table. I didn’t know anyone there, but I didn’t care. I was going to learn something about writing.Ā After a few moments, the man teaching the class stood up and started talking about . . .

Poetry. šŸ˜¦

My beach ball got its first pin prick. Thinking back, I remembered seeing poetry listed in the announcement next to fiction writing, but I thought they were kidding. Did anyone really want to take an entireĀ class about how to write poetry?

Yes. And we spent the whole morning on it. I learned two things–

  1. Poetry isn’t supposed to rhyme. (Who knew?)
  2. I did NOT want to write poetry.

I spent the longest morning of my life hearing about poetry. Well, the mornings I spent in labor before my boys were born might have lasted longer, but they weren’t much more painful. šŸ˜‰

Finally, after lunch, we started the fiction class. All right! Just what I’d been waiting for. I straightened in my chair, clicked my pen and waited for him to drop some wisdom on me.

The guy who taught both classes was a professor at one of the state colleges, fairly young and just a tad condescending. He talked about several topics, and to be honest, I don’t remember a lot of what he said. ButĀ one thing heĀ said was that writers should be readers.

For me reading is as basic as breathing, so the man achieved immediate genius status. It didn’t last long.

“Why should you read in genres besides the one in which you want to write?” He waited a few moments. No one answered, so he got us started. “For one thing, reading outside your genre will give your writing depth. Can you think of other reasons?”

When no one else answered, I got brave. “If the genre you’re writing in stops selling for some reason, you’ll be able to switch to another genre more easily.”

The professor gave me a look like he hadn’t noticed anyone sitting in my chair, then barked a short laugh. “If you think you’re going to make a living at writing, you’re going to be very disappointed.”

Okay, that one punch a big hole, all but deflating my ball. Not what I wanted to hear. It might have been true, but I wanted to smack the guy for discouraging any of his students–especially me!

With that remark, he pretty much made sure none of the other students were going to talk it up, so he gave us an assignment. In the next few minutes, we were to write the beginning of a story.

I hadn’t turned in my poem that morning (I didn’t want to fracture the guy’s funny bone) but IĀ scribbled the start of a romance and turned it in. It was about a widower who had been set up on a blind date.

My hero thought about the other blind dates he’d had since his wife had died as he walked through the snow toĀ his friend’s door. Most of his datesĀ had been blue hairs with backsides two ax handles wide, so he was pleasantly surprised when he was let in the front door and saw a pretty, slenderĀ woman drinking a glass of wine next to the fireplace in the next room.

It wasn’t brilliant, but it wasn’t too bad for a one page beginner. The best part? It stopped the professor in his tracks. (With his mouth hanging open, he looked a little like a dying fish.)

He liked the opening. Like the characters. And thought my phrase “two ax handles wide” was terribly original.

That’s an oldĀ family saying, but I didn’t tell him. I was still itchy fromĀ when he laughed at me. šŸ™‚ The class ended with, “Good luck with your career. Have a nice life.”

My class. I’d been so excited about it, and it ended with pffffft. (The lastĀ of the air escaping out of my beach ball.)Ā Ā I was so let down, I nearly cried. Ā 

But I didn’t give up. I found a romanceĀ writing class to take a year orĀ so later. I had to drive into T-Town to be part of it, but the teacher did more encouraging than dis-ing. (Even though she scared theĀ tidy whities right off me.) Much better than that first fiasco.

To be honest, I’ve learned tons more from my critique partners than in any class I’ve had in my life. Critiquing and being critiqued is a wonderful way to learn. It’s a lot like taking a class with regular assignments. The difference is, the grade you earn if you’re serious and take suggestions made by well-meaning partners can be a sale.

How about you? Do you take classes (online or in person) to learn more about the craft you love?

Why don’t you share a few of your baby steps?Ā 

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14 thoughts on “Got Class?

  1. The first workshop I took was at National after I’d sold my first two books. I think it was Elizabeth Lowell, who said that talent isn’t necessary to make the New York Times list, and I was dumbfounded. I was still at the stars-in-eyes point of my career that I believed talent was ALL you needed. šŸ™‚

  2. I didn’t grow up a writer. A reader, yes, but not a writer. When I decided I wanted to learn how to write I looked around for all the free resources I could find. (We had very little money and that had to go for necessities like rent, food, electricity. Amazing how much kids eat.) A local university was holding some kind of writing thing so I went. When I mentioned I was writing romance you could’ve heard a pin drop…right before the snickers began. Much different atmosphere when I attended my first RWA conference in ’87. Received such a warm welcome. That’s still my fave of all the conferences I’ve attended.

    • Where was the conference, Penny? I wasn’t there in ’87, but I know we’d have had a great time together. And if I’d been in that free class with you, we’d have smacked them together. šŸ™‚

      • The conference was in Dallas. I was 6 weeks away from having my son. Lots of firsts: first conference, first time to travel alone, first time to fly, first time in a fancy hotel. I had so much fun. What makes me sad is that the conference fee for the last conference is just about how much I spent on everything for that conference ’87. It’s been a few years since I’ve been able to go.

      • Is this the Penny I met at a booksigning a few years back?? Waving wildly!

        Dallas ’87 was my first conference, too. What an experience. If you ever make it to Tulsa on the second weekend, stop in and visit with us.

        • Hi Marilyn! Yup, this is the Penny who dumped pop down your back. I was so tickled to have you at the booksigning. My apologies for being such a clutz. If I’m in Tulsa the 2nd weekend of the month, I’d be delighted to visit. Thanks for remembering me! šŸ˜€

      • LOL, I did remember you, but not the pop-dumping accident until you mentioned it. You can feel free to pretend it never happened. šŸ™‚

        We’d love to have you visit. We are a WONDERFUL bunch of people.

  3. I started out in a novel writing workshop at the Jr College. Basically it was a critique group. You turned in 25 pages (about twice in the semester), the teacher made copies and passed out to everyone else. The next week they went over your pages – all marked up – and told you what they liked and, more importantly, what you did wrong. I was so smug. I thought they’d tell me how wonderful the pages were. {snort} Boy, was I in for a rude awakening! If it could be done wrong, I did it. The good thing is, they weren’t mean and they helped point me in the right direction. One of my classmates even told me about a romance writers group, which led me to RWI. Best thing that ever happened to me!

  4. I decided to give it a try, then researched the business. Before I ever tried to write a chapter, I knew how hard it was to get published, how few authors made a living wage, and what an uphill climb it would be. I found a local chapter of RWA, joined up and started attending all the workshops and talks I could find. There were three chapters in Houston, and with a little driving, I could learn lots for free every month! spw

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