“I have written a great many stories…”

This post originally appeared on Felicia Wetzig’s blog The Peasants Revolt at: http://www.scotzig.com/bookish-goals-2013/?fb_source=pubv1

First published and guest posted by me on November 9 while Felicia Wetzig recovered from kidney stones.

Felicia asked if I’d come up with a clever blog post, maybe offer some insight about how to develop a storyline, or advice on how best to come up with a kick-ass antagonist. Her request immediately reminded me of something I read long ago about my favorite author, John Steinbeck, who once said, “I have written a great many stories and I still don’t know how to go about it except to write it and take my chances.”

While I’d NEVER compare myself to the author who wrote one of the greatest novels of all time, The Grapes of Wrath, Steinbeck’s words made me realize there’s really no magic recipe out there to crafting a clever story. Not that I haven’t gone on my own personal quest to find whatever I could that might improve my chances.

One day someone asked for advice on just that subject. I made the mistake of suggesting they try and find the time to take as many creative writing classes as they could work into their busy life schedule. Needless to say it wasn’t well-received. The idea of attending a formal class where they must sit down, listen to an instructor, one that hands out assignments which then have to be turned in to get a grade seemed to insult them.

The suggestion wasn’t meant that way at all because I’ll be honest, without my creative writing classes, I seriously doubt I would’ve ever taken the plunge to self-publish. Even though I wrote for a living back then in corporate America, the idea of selling my work was too outlandish to even consider. But once I signed up for classes that began to change.

Not only did I catch the attention of my instructors who said they saw talent, they also encouraged me. But that encouragement came with a price. I received plenty of criticism. They caught every flaw of which there were many. One thing the classes did for me though was take me out of my comfort zone, outside that perfect little writing cave I’d nurtured for years but didn’t want to leave or have anyone enter. They handed out assignments, a lot of them. Some were dumb, most were boring. But with each paper I wrote, I noticed my skillset increased. My characters got more believable. They took on depth. They were no longer one dimensional. I soon began to see a difference in my ability to weave and layer a story. After some of those classes, I began to think I might actually hone my craft.

For me, the desire to improve began early on. I’ve always loved books, even as a small child I seemed to know they held magical adventures inside. But after getting my first reader at school there was a problem. The teacher decided right away that I needed to go into the slow reading group. Amazingly, that fact didn’t seem to dissuade my love for the written word. I had difficulty reading at first because truth was I simply had no one at home who bothered to read to me. Both my parents worked. Sad to say, even though my father had a college education, he was never at home much. My mother, the primary caregiver, had only an eighth grade education. But this woman was fairly amazing at the art of telling a story. Her main problem was she never wrote anything down. Whether or not she made up the tales entirely or some of them actually happened to her, I’ll never really know. But however she managed to create them, she did so with pop and delivery, add in her own homespun touch and her talent made me want to do the same. When I won my first writing contest in school, no one was more surprised or elated than she.

Of course, not everyone has a mother who gifted them with ghost stories at the drop of a hat or purely for the joy of the telling. Maybe not everyone manages to find the time to get to a writing class, either. But I can tell you this. Both of these things gave me a new perspective, a new way of coming up with characters, whether strong or flawed, whether likable or not, whether good or bad, strong characters are must-have elements to making any story one that readers will relate to long after they close the cover of a book or turn off their Kindle.

While all those classes grew my self-confidence, they aren’t for everyone. I admit that. You get out of them only what you put in. I did come away knowing a bunch of other writers who love nothing better than to critique each other’s work. Something I had to get used to in order to improve. But the most valuable thing I learned didn’t come from a classroom or from a group of people. It came from my own mother. Give something of yourself to each story and therefore to each reader. It’s what she was able to do verbally, time after time. I only hope along the way, I’ve made my mom proud.


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