The Art of Fiction: Say What? Part II

October 31, 2007
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Dissonance
Dissonance, a Novel by Lisa Lenard-Cook
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The Art of Fiction: Say What? Part II

by Lisa Lenard-Cook

November 2007

  Part II of my discussion about the critique process looks at writing teachers. Unlike the writing workshop, which I discussed last month, the teacher-student critique will be as singular as its participants.
". . . every writing teacher will have
an approach as unique as his
or her own writing style."

—Lenard-Cook
Who?

 

 

Whether you enroll in a writing class or work with one-on-one mentor, finding a writing teacher may mean a few misses before you hit on a relationship that is right for you. Some writing teachers use a Natalie Goldberg-esque approach, encouraging writers to simply write. Others follow step-by-step outlines: first, a plot; next, characters; then fill in the blanks. In fact, every writing teacher will have an approach as unique as his or her own writing style.

". . . the best writing is a result of knowing how to rewrite and revise. "
—Lenard-Cook
In the end, however, the writing teachers who will ultimately help you the most are those who understand that the best writing is a result of knowing how to rewrite and revise. For this step, you’ll find teachers who are detailed line editors and make suggestions word-by-word, sentence-by-sentence, and paragraph-by-paragraph and others (this is where I fit in) who are far more holistic, and look at how what’s on the page approaches what you’re really trying to do (even if you yourself aren’t sure yet). Only you will know which approach works best for you.
"Fortunately for me, this seemingly contradictory advice was just what
I needed. . ."

—Lenard-Cook
What?

 

 

When I was in grad school, I worked one semester with a writing teacher who insisted I cut, cut, cut. This was most helpful in teaching me how to separate what mattered to my fiction from what didn’t. The next semester, though, I worked with a writer who insisted I dig more deeply in order to discover what was beneath and get it on the page. Fortunately for me, this seemingly contradictory advice was just what I needed after that semester of cutting. With all but what mattered gone from the page, I was able to look beyond the clutter to find the heart of the story.

But I’ve also worked with teachers who were less helpful. One (this was in high school, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) did her best to keep me between the lines, stifling any effort at creative thinking. Another kept pointing out my split infinitives (as a writer who “hears” her words on the page, I stand by my splits, though I of course know what a split infinitive is).

"Like all teachers, writing teachers
are going to focus on what
they know best. . ."

—Lenard-Cook
Like all teachers, writing teachers are going to focus on what they know best, so you’ll want to pick one who can best help you with your own particular bugaboos. Finally, always bear in mind that the advice you receive will apply specifically to the work at hand.

 

 

 

". . . the best time to begin with a writing teacher is after you’ve written something."
—Lenard-Cook

When?

With this advice in mind, it should be clear that the best time to begin with a writing teacher is after you’ve written something. Listen to National Book Award-winning writer John Casey, who, when asked if writing could be taught, responded, “I can’t teach you to write. What I can teach you to do is to rewrite.” Like all creative processes, writing begins in obsession, which can’t be taught. But if you’re interested in connecting with others via this obsession, you will care enough to want to learn how to hone and refine your work.

"It used to be you had to physically attend a writing class to work with
a writing teacher,
but those days are gone."

—Lenard-Cook

Where?

It used to be you had to physically attend a writing class to work with a writing teacher, but those days are gone. Virtual classes, such as those offered by Authorlink (I’ll be teaching one on revision in January 2008), can be a great boon, as can working via email with an individual teacher. For example, I currently have a number of students across the country who seem to work best with deadlines. These students are required to send me a scene or chapter each week. While I rarely comment in depth on what they send, taskmaster is a role it’s easy for me to assume, and I’m happy to provide.

Another possibility that may surprise you is that the writers you admire most often teach writing as well (fiction writing doesn’t pay all that well). A Google search for your favorite writer may bring up the news that you can work with your hero (or heroine). Just bear in mind that not all writers are good teachers, and ask for references or referrals before committing to a class or one-on-one relationship.

"A writing teacher is a must for learning the specific skills required
to revise and rewrite. . ."

—Lenard-Cook

Why?

A writing teacher is a must for learning the specific skills required to revise and rewrite your work. And just think: Once you’ve internalized your mentor’s voice, you’ll be far better equipped to deal with the many others a workshop will bring.

Lisa Lenard-Cook
About
Lisa Lenard-Cook
Lisa Lenard-Cook’s first novel Dissonance was short-listed for the PEN Southwest Book Award, and her second novel Coyote Morning short-listed for the New Mexico Press Women’s Zia Award. Lisa is on the faculty of the Santa Barbara Writers’ Conference and Vermont College’s Lifelong Learning Program. Her book about fiction writing, The Mind of Your Story, will be published in April 2008.

 

 

Learn more from Lisa Lenard Cook in her Authorlink online class, beginning Saturday, January 5, 2008. Enroll now!

 

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