Teachers at Work

A column about teaching

The Trouble with Creative Writing

The day after Halloween, my Facebook feed exploded with posts about numbers. "I've written 5,200 words!" one friend exclaimed. Another claimed to have written 2,300. Someone else only had 1,500. And so on.

Everyone posting was enthusiastically starting his or her NaNoWriMo challenge. NaNoWriMo stands for National Novel Writing Month. The goal is to write a complete novel during the month of November. To succeed in completing a 50,000-word book in a 30-day period means that a person would need to average around 1,667 words a day.

Now many of my Facebook friends are published authors who find it entertaining to pump out a book at the same time as everyone else. Others are serious contenders who still have never sold that first book. But for all, NaNoWriMo is rather like Christmas shopping — at the beginning of the season everyone is full of fun and good cheer. But the closer it gets to the end, what used to be a pleasurable excursion suddenly becomes a chore. It's tiresome. Certainly, for those who make achieve the goal there's great satisfaction.

The trouble is that writing the novel is only half the equation. Writing it makes you an author. Selling it makes you a published author.

In essence, writing a book is a lot like giving birth to a baby. You don't want anyone to tell you that the product of your labors is ugly. You want everyone to rave and tell you how beautiful it is.

But the fact is that entire book you just wrote might be nothing but junk. It might forever remain unsold. While 50,000 words is great, many novels average between 60,000-80,000. So your work could be a manuscript that we writers refer to as "one that gets shoved under the bed." In essence, that manuscript will probably never see the published light of day unless you do it yourself.

Where I teach, NaNoWriMo is a big deal, and celebrated in the creative writing class. I'm going to admit up front, each May I'm asked what classes I want to teach and which classes I don't. At the top of that "don't list" is the creative writing class.

Now this seems illogical, considering that I've published 23 novels with Harlequin Enterprises, the world's largest publisher of romance fiction. But unfortunately I've found that teachers get caught in the middle whenever we're asked to evaluate a creative project. On one hand, we want to celebrate successful completion of our students' writing projects. One the flip side, we also don't want to feed our students' unrealistic expectations. We could have the next Stephen King or Nora Roberts in our classes, making us the bad guys if we long ago tried to sap our students' creativity.

So for teachers, creative writing assignments put us in a vicious cesspool of death. Once one of my colleagues sent an aspiring young author to me, and the girl let me read her first chapter. Frankly, it was terrible. But I could see she had potential. So I gently tried to give her some constructive criticism. I was kind, 100 percent nicer than I ever am when working as a writing coach to my journalism students. I pointed out some areas where she could tighten her prose and eliminate some redundancies. I made sure I smothered her with encouragement. After all, there were plenty of people who'd patted me on the head and gave me a "sure you will" smile when I said I wanted to be an author.

But this student reacted in typical fashion — you would have thought I would have killed her favorite pet. She didn't want to hear anything was wrong — and I'd picked out the least sensitive things — she only wanted to hear me gush over it and tell her how perfect it was. She wanted me to tell her it was ready to send to agents. Really, with admittedly rare exceptions, most teenagers are not ready to be published. (I've discovered many adults are the same way. They want you to tell them it's ready when it's not and refuse to listen to anything else.)

This means we teachers are stuck. On one hand, we don't know what New York is going to want. The Lovely Bones featured a dead girl talking. Now multiple points of view or switching from first person in one chapter to third in another is acceptable. James Patterson's Beach Road had the narrator turn out to be the villain in a surprise twist — he'd been lying to the reader all along. In essence, many of the old rules no longer apply.

But what does still apply is the idea that the writing must be special. It must have voice. It must draw the reader in. It must be a page-turner. The middle can't sag. Plots should work. Characters shouldn't be acting in unrealistic manners. Heroines shouldn't be too stupid to live. For example, I once read a contest entry manuscript where an undercover cop, who was dressed in drag, used his pistol to commandeer and car-jack a pizza delivery girl so he could chase down a suspect. He's driving one handed and stripping out of his beaded top and she's thinking he has sexy biceps. I don't know about you, but if I were carjacked by a transvestite I wouldn't be thinking about the guy's biceps but how much pavement my body can withstand after I throw myself out of the car.

So teachers walk a tightrope. We're not trying to kill the dream, especially when we hope that somewhere down the line that student will develop voice and an understanding of plot and characterization, so that he can write the next best seller.

But we have to be honest. Kids must learn that they are going to be edited. I always tell my students that my editor will always be harder on me than I am on them. My editor's goal is the best book possible; she really doesn't care that much about my feelings. I've learned to be tough skinned. I've learned that when she says "Cut chapter one and start with chapter two" that she's probably right. I've learned to face the dreaded process of revisions — and I've gotten up to 11 pages of single spaced suggestions and notes. No one wants an ugly baby, but sometimes that's what our manuscript is until we pretty it up.

We must teach students to be realistic about their work, but at the same time, we should stress the revision process. Students often think that earning the grade of an A means it's perfect, and ready for the real world, when in reality it's not. It's a grade; the student met the criteria on a high school assignment.

The publishing world is hard. It's full of rejection — just ask John Grisham and Stephen King about how they got started. Sometimes it takes years — I know of an author who sold her first romance novel when she was 70, after decades of trying. I know some want-to-be authors who are very good, but for some reason no editor has ever called and said "I want to buy that."  Instead, the letter saying "no thanks" arrives. Even I don't sell everything I send in.

We do kids a disservice when they hear stories of how O. Henry wrote "The Gift of the Magi" in one afternoon, while hung over, and how Stephenie Meyer and Nicholas Sparks each sold their first books for millions. But that's not how it usually works, and students need to realize these authors are the exceptions. Student authors have to learn that the key to success is more often to keep coming back to the story and tweaking it until it's ready. If not, you scrap that story and move onto the next.

If a student is serious about his craft, then he must listen to constructive suggestions, weigh them, accept or reject the suggestions, and then revise (and not wait until the lesser known National Novel Editing Month in March).

This is the hard part. A writer has to be willing to put himself out there and take the feedback, whatever it may be. Teaching students this is often an exercise in patience on the teachers, but it must be done. Sometimes teachers must be the bad guys when we push for improvement.

Creative writing is hard. It's emotional. I hate when my agent calls and says, "They didn't like this. They want this instead." But that's life. I pick myself up and try again.

Our classrooms must be safe, encouraging (yet realistic) environments where our students can do this. We must provide the framework to learn revision and that not everything is going to sell. Just like not everyone is going to play football in the NFL, not everyone will be a best selling author.

Thus, I would suggest also providing resources like King's "On Writing" and Al Zuckerman's "Writing the Blockbuster Novel." Even the Dummies and Idiot's writing guides can be helpful as these books include chapters on everything from starting to write to how to go about selling. Kids need to realize writing is much more than putting words on paper. It's always a process.

While finishing a book in a month is great, it's only the first step. We need to celebrate that success, and then teach our students there's more that comes next.

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Michele Dunaway is an award-winning English and journalism teacher who, in addition to teaching English III, advises the student newspaper, yearbook and news website at Francis Howell High School in St. Charles, MO. In 2009, the Journalism Education Association awarded Michele with its Medal of Merit. She has received recognition as a Distinguished Yearbook Adviser in the H.L. Hall Yearbook Adviser of the Year competition and was named a Special Recognition Newspaper Adviser by the Dow Jones News Fund. She also practices what she teaches by authoring professional journal articles and writing novels. Click here to read more articles by Michele Dunaway.

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