Category Archives: teachers

3

Writing lessons via Shakespeare

I thought it was so cool when I heard that my longtime client, A.J. Hartley, was doing a panel at this year’s ThrillerFest on Shakespeare and what lessons we can learn from the old master’s ways. In his day job when he’s not writing smart commercial fiction, he is a world-renowned Shakespeare scholar and Shakespeare professor at UNC Charlotte.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one intrigued because the response to the panel was very enthusiastic. Writer’s Digest recently offered its readers some highlights which I wanted to share here. Much of the advice is practical, real-world and accessible, a strength of A.J.’s in his writing as well as his teaching.

A few examples of the gems you’ll find in A.J.’s advice:

*Good writers borrow…Great writers steal. Most of Shakespeare’s stories originated in other source material

*All scenes must have both internal and external conflict. “It’s not enough for the door to be locked. The character has to have a reason to not want to open it.”

*The dialogue says it all. Hartley pointed out that we tend to think of Shakespeare as a great philosopher, spouting off wisdoms—but that’s not the case. “Every word in Shakespeare is dialogue. It comes from character. … We do not know what Shakespeare thought about anything, and that’s what makes him good.”

It looks like there are a lot of things writers can take away from one of the oldest and greatest out there. And there’s so much more great stuff in this piece. Check it out and book your ticket to next year’s ThrillerFest where I’m guessing A.J. will be presenting another panel on this topic.

Hope you find someone useful that will translate to your own writing. Let us know.

5

Teaching English

Last Friday, I met one of my newest clients for the first time. Amy Hanson, besides being the author of the glorious novel THE THIRD ACT (coming soon to editors’ desks around town!) is an English teacher. And lucky for her, she has say over what books she will teach. We chatted a bit about the fact that she teaches Jennifer Egan’s A VISIT FROM THE GOON SQUAD to her high school students. As someone who would marry that book if I could, I was jealous of the teenagers who got the chance to read such a vibrant, thrilling, daring novel in class. I also started thinking a lot about what I read in high school and how valuable teaching current fiction can be.

 

Let me first say that I believe deeply in teaching the classics. I actually believe every student should have to read LORD OF THE FLIES and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD. I’m much less certain that I feel CATCHER IN THE RYE and THE GREAT GATSBY are as important as they’re made out to be. And sure, everyone should read some Shakespeare, but how about some August Wilson? Amy teaches Ibsen! That thrilled me to no end.

 

That aside, I remember the day my English teacher delivered copies of Richard Russo’s THE RISK POOL to our desks, and my mind blew open. Here was a novel that had been published in my lifetime. And there were things in it to learn? Mesmerizing.

 

As most people reading this can probably also claim, I had already found books I loved by this point. SONG OF SOLOMON and SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE remain two of my favorite novels precisely because of when I first encountered them and how defining the first reading of each was to me. But it was that notion of great literature as a living, evolving thing that most struck me. Maybe I just wasn’t terribly bright, but until then it had never occurred to me to think of new books as potential future classics, or to approach them with the open mindedness that they might very well be brilliant.

 

So then the question becomes: which contemporary books should be taught? A few of the first novels I thought of would likely be terribly dull for teenagers or just be those kinds of books you don’t enjoy until you’ve experienced certain things: THE CORRECTIONS, BEL CANTO, THEN WE CAME TO THE END, GILEAD… Right now I’m leaning towards Bonnie Jo Campbell’s brilliant collection AMERICAN SALVAGE and Junot Diaz’s peerless THE BRIEF AND WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO.

 

What about you all? What contemporary work of fiction would you add to a high school curriculum? And if you are a teacher, what do you wish you could add?

 

Also! Don’t forget that Lauren and I are hosting an online book club. We’re reading ELEANOR & PARK by Rainbow Rowell, and the first Twitter chat will be April 30 on the first half of the book. Follow along with @JimMcCarthy528 and @laureneabramo. And check back here for updates on our progress!

19

Buying Better Writing

So I got roped into teaching a webinar next week on “the ten elements of a saleable novel today” over at Writer’s Digest. http://www.writersdigestshop.com/10-elements-of-a-salable-novel-today?lid=wdcsblog

 

WD had the topic all ready to go, but they needed to replace the teacher, so I’m filling in at the last minute. This will be my first ever webinar, so I’m excited and a little nervous. Creating a PowerPoint presentation for it might not, um, utilize my, um, best talents. Also, I can talk for a long while, but whenever I prepare for a conference, there’s the comfort of knowing that if I time a session terribly, I can ALWAYS fill time with questions from the audience. This has a more structured time breakdown. That means I’ll be sitting on my couch this weekend talking to myself while holding a stopwatch.

 

Regardless, the point of today’s entry is that I know there’s a charge for this class, and it isn’t cheap. I’ve always been aware that conferences are pricey, but that never really settles in because there are so many attendees and also so many participants. Now people are paying to learn from me and just me, so I’m extra concerned about folks getting their money’s worth. So I’ll be dusting off my best material and worrying about letting people down which I hope ultimately means I’ll deliver a great class (I’ll know next week!).

 

In the meantime, as I pondered this over the weekend, I was really left wondering how much money aspiring writers have had to lay out for their craft. I imagine it’s cheaper than acting (fewer headshots and diction classes), but there are so many workshops and classes and conferences out there that even from the other side of the table it looks a bit overwhelming.

 

So my questions for all of you: how much have you spent trying to make it as a writer? What was worth it? What wasn’t? And who wants to come give me a PowerPoint tutorial before next Thursday?

11

Antiquity

GalleyCat beat me to it, but when I saw this piece on the decision to let Indiana schools decide whether or not to teach cursive penmanship, I knew I had to blog about it.  A month or so ago, over a couple beers, a client and I got into a conversation on this very subject.  We were talking about our habits as students, and it suddenly dawned on us that school children might not be taught script anymore.  Learning JavaScript would probably have more use to them than knowing that an uppercase cursive Q closely resembles a 2.  Unless their names are Quentin or Quinn, they’re probably never going to use one anyway—besides which it’s a hideous letter, so I’d recommend they come up with a creative way around it in their signatures.

As with all questions about what the kids these days know, I base my opinions on surely 100% reliable anecdotal evidence from interns.  It seems every year or two I have to explain something new I assumed they’d know on arrival, so I use them as a gauge of how quickly the world is changing in little ways.  At this point, the majority of them have never photocopied anything before their first day here.  Ever.  I may have discovered my incessant Google habit in college trying to unpack the copious allusions in Paul Muldoon’s “The More a Man Has the More a Man Wants,”* but I still spent seemingly half of my college income buying Bobst copy cards.

A few times a year, we have to handwriting test our interns for the odd task that requires handwritten legibility.  You’d be surprised how often I get a stack of 12 subrights contracts all missing the same clause, already signed by a far flung publisher who’d taken 6 months to put pen to paper to begin with on a contract they didn’t even have to draft.  Handwritten contract changes require printing, of course, but I’ve found that whether we want print or script, it can be hard to find even one intern who can write legibly anymore.  There have always been people who never learned or quickly unlearned how to write clearly, but the number of reasons to actually write with pen on paper just isn’t as high when you carry a computer in your pocket everywhere you go.  The number of interns who can be counted on to handwrite a mailing label that we can be confident will arrive at its destination decreases yearly.  The odd scribbled post-it to a roommate isn’t going to keep your penmanship in shape.

I’ve always prided myself on having nice handwriting (my Catholic school-reared mother has penmanship so impeccable that the bar was set very high in my household), but I wonder if Indiana isn’t on to something.  Other than signing our names, how often do most of use cursive?  You’ve got to be able to write clearly somehow, but these days, doesn’t print cut it for most things?  Schools have a finite number of hours to instruct students, and penmanship instruction is probably not getting them anywhere productive.  Yes, sure, they should learn to use a keyboard efficiently as early as possible—perhaps even instruction on predictive text and thumb typing would benefit them.  I say they should get more spelling lessons as well, since the deep recesses of their brains will need reinforcing against the detrimental effects of text speak and internet acronyms.  Let’s truly prepare the kids of today for the world of tomorrow!

What do you think?  Anyone clinging to fond memories of that weird beige paper with really widely spaced lines?  Are there still good uses of cursive?

P.S.  It’s been a quiet week on the blog, between the holiday Monday and three agents being on vacation, but we’ll return you to your regularly scheduled programming next week!  I’m sure you wait with bated breath.

*Nerd that I am, I count among the seminal weeks of my life the one I spent in the computer lab googling phrases in every poem in Quoof trying to figure out what Muldoon was getting at.  It’s what made me realize that the internet knew the answers to virtually everything one might wonder, and it’s the first time I really put a great deal of research time into anything I was studying.  It’s also the week I discovered the internet could lead you down a rabbit hole of fascination, obsession, awe, and disgust at the human condition, since the aforementioned googling led me to the transcripts of the then-ongoing Saville Inquiry.  I basically lived in the computer lab that semester, devouring knowledge the internet could offer me.  Man, I bet the interns don’t even set foot in the computer labs any more, do they?

7

People Who Knew You When…

Yesterday, while leafing through my new May issue of the Atlantic (which I found worryingly slender) I spotted an unusual letter to the editor in response to Sandra Tsing Loh’s altogether entertaining essay “Sympathy for the Tiger Moms.”

Mike Shatz of Brookline, MA writes, “I do have a perspective on Ms. Loh’s writing that I suspect few of your readers share, since I first encountered it in grading her homework and exam papers when she was taking sophomore physics. It has improved tremendously since then. Surely that is in part because of her practice of her craft. But I have no doubt that much of the improvement comes from writing about what interests her rather than trying to please her father.”

I thought this letter was interesting even for those who have not been following (or could care less about) the tiger parent brouhaha. Although most writers I know write for themselves, or an interested but unspecific reader, it’s also true—and fun to imagine—that an authors’ work may well end up in the hands of her high school physics teacher, or any of a host of the people “who knew you when…”

So in light of Miriam’s recent post about the importance of teaching writing, my own suspicion that my posts are a far cry from the well-ordered essays my sophomore-year English teacher taught me to construct, and the humbling gaffe I made using “stationary” for “stationery” last week, I’d like to solicit tales of teachers. I’d love to hear about your early writing mentors—people who encouraged your love of words—or alternately, teachers who might be surprised, even shocked, to note that you are a now a writer. No need to use whole names here, indeed, probably best if you don’t.