On Writing School

Have you ever been tempted to enroll in one of those writing classes you’ve seen advertised? If you pick up one of the writing magazines, you’ll find countless ads for schools ready to help you turn your idea into a bestseller.

Beyond that outrageous claim, do you have any experiences that you’d like to share? (You don’t have to mention schools by name…just what you got out of it, or what you wished you had.)

I’ll start the ball rolling with my own experience. I signed up for a correspondence-style novel writing course. By the time all assignments were finished, I was supposed to have the first fifty or so pages of the novel, with a plot summary, character descriptions and a good direction of how I would start page 51. My instructor, I was assured, was to be a published novelist who is an expert in his field. He would give my manuscript and assignments plenty of personal attention.

It sounded pretty good to me.

Admittedly, the course did help a little. It did, at least, force me to draft short descriptions of the characters and prepare a two or three page summary of what the novel was going to be about. It did, therefore, help me focus at least some of the plot before I had a great deal written.

Along the way, though, I noticed something that raised red flags. I sent along one of the writing samples and when I got it back, my instructor marked up a section of it in red, complaining that within the same scene, I was giving the point of view of two different characters. Multiple POV is a no-no, he insisted. Sure, that makes sense. How silly of me!

This instructor was a published novelist, by the way, but he hadn’t published a novel of his own in quite a number of years. More recently, he had served as an editor of an anthology of short stories and had focused his attention on writing instruction. Nothing wrong with that, of course…he was still working in the field he loves. But as soon as the course began and I received the bio of the instructor, I started looking for his novel. As I recall, he’d only had one published, though I forget its name. The point is, after much searching, I was able to obtain a copy of this out-of-print novel, a psychological thriller. (That was good to hear, because that’s what I want to write.)

I read his novel on the side as I did my assignments. Then I came to the scene. The scene between the man and the woman he is supposedly holding captive. She is terrified: “What will he do to me? Will I ever see my family again?” He is terrified: “She thinks I’ve kidnapped her! How can I let her leave now?? She’ll tell everyone I’m a kidnapper and I was just trying to help her.” It was an interesting scene, because while neither spoke a word of dialog for a few moments, there was this radically different internal solliloquy going on within each of them.

Wait a second, I suddenly realized. One scene, two points of view! Something’s wrong here.

Needless to say, when I wrote the cover letter to my next assignment, I mentioned having found his book, and I even excepted two or three paragraphs from it in the letter to illustrate my point. I admitted that he was write to question my use of dual points of view in the same scene, and that having re-read the scene, I agreed that it didn’t work. But here in this scene, he broke the same rule yet the outcome was very different and added tension to the scene that he wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.

I assured him that I wasn’t simply asking, “If you did it, why can’t I?” I assured him that I liked the way he had used the effect, and I asked how a writer is supposed to know when it’s okay to break those “unbreakable” rules. I was hoping for insight.

When I got that assignment back, there was no mention of the question. He never read it. I was ticked…go figure. I contacted the head of the “school” and explained the situation. For the final assignment, they gave me a different instructor, who at least answered the questions I asked him in my cover letter and was more complementary than the first instructor had been. While his specialty wasn’t quite the same, he at least had published more than one novel of his own, and seemed to be more willing to spend time reading what I had to say.

I contacted the school again and asked if I could have this same instructor if I continued on to the next course. It was suggested that they would try their best, but that they couldn’t guarantee it. I have not taken a writing course since.

Like I said, there were some positive aspects of the experience, and given the chance to do a little more research on the instructor prior to the second assignment, I might take one again some day. But like all things, I suppose you must watch for “warning signs” that indicate that personalized attention isn’t exactly what you’re getting.

Anyone else have any writing instruction stories to tell, good or bad?

Patrick is a Christian with more than 29 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.