Narrative Writing and Creative Writing Classes

March 3, 2010 in Novel, On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

Yesterday I attended my second class, this time in ‘narrative’ writing.  I guess they didn’t want to use the term ‘creative’ writing because for whatever reason that tends to get frowned upon.

I was really looking forward to this one to re-kick start my stagnant fantasy novel and to get the creative juices flowing.  I’ve only been writing blog posts and journalistic stuff the last few months and I’ve been dying to get back into the swing of things from a storytelling standpoint.

It was another reasonably sized class with around 20 people, but only 4 guys.  The tutor seemed nice, but it took a while to get the ball rolling.  A lot of chit chat (for 3 hours!) and not much actual learning.  Hopefully this will change from next week.

There was a discussion on the difference between narrative, story and plot (seriously, no one had any idea; all confident attempts at answering were futile and bordered on embarrassing).  I, of course, kept my mouth shut.

For those wondering, ‘narrative’ involves a story and a storyteller; ‘story’ is a series or sequence of events; and ‘plot’ is the way those events are arranged.  I don’t really see how that helps much but nevertheless…

The tutor did hand out an interesting piece from journalist Lisa Pryor (you know, author of The Pin Striped Prison, which I reviewed here).  In the UK, The Guardian published an article with some advice from great authors on how to write fiction (link below), and Pryor decided to rip into creative writing courses by effectively piggy-backing off The Guardian.

She said that amongst the hundreds of tips, not one recommended taking a creative writing class.  According to Pryor:

“Perhaps this is because they know that if you can’t work out what good writing is by reading widely, if you need it spelled out with the benefit of a circle of plastic chairs and a whiteboard, you lack the mettle to be a great novelist.”

Ouch, and she was just getting started.  Pryor then tore into the “creative writing racket”, what she calls the “pyramid selling scheme” where schools and universities essentially trick students into taking these courses to provide much-needed funding.

Look, I am often a cynic myself (and I hate that), but this article just rubbed me up the wrong way, and it’s not because I am taking a writing course.  Yes, it is probably true that to be a truly ‘great’ writer, you need lots of talent to go with skills picked up from copious amounts of reading and writing.  But for the ordinary folk (like myself) who know they aren’t capable of becoming or don’t necessarily want to be a ‘great’ writer, there’s nothing wrong with taking a class to learn some basic writers tools to improve their writing (for whatever reason or purpose).

You may argue that these skills don’t need to be taught – they can be picked up from years and years of doing your own readings and writings; but why not pay for a short cut?  It’s like saying people who want to be prudent investors (just to improve their lifestyles) should play with their money through trial and error for ten years rather than take a simple financial management course.

Besides, writing courses offer credentials, and like it or not, that’s what you need to get a job.  And there’s nothing wrong with being a writing teacher, or an agent, or an editor.  Not everyone is doing these courses to be the next Cormac McCarthy.  I probably could have studied law texts and cases by myself at home for ten years and become a more knowledgeable and capable lawyer than by attending law school, but that’s not going to get me admitted or employed at a law firm.

I must say though, such an article is quite typical of Pryor, who likes to put things down without actually having experienced them.  In The Pin Striped Prison, Pryor was scathing in her criticism of law firms, management consulting firms and investment banks.  I agreed with a lot of what she said, but at the same time it irritated me that someone could be so denigrating to professions she has never worked in (and no, being a paralegal doesn’t count) and never experienced the very things she was taking a dump on.

Pryor’s full article can be found here

The Guardian‘s original article can be found here – includes pointers from, amongst others, Elmore Leonard, Hilary Mantel, Neil Gaiman, PD James, Joyce Carol Oates, Annie Proulx, Ian Rankin, and Philip Pullman (who probably gives the best advice of all).

First Day of Class: Screenwriting

March 3, 2010 in On Writing, Study by pacejmiller

Last night was the first day of my writing course, and it was a screenwriting class.  It’s an elective, and since most of my other subjects were serious (like editing), I decided to pick something fun.

Anyway, it started at night and went for 3 full hours with only a 15 minute break in the middle, which is a pretty hardcore length of time to remain focused.

Our tutor is a relatively successful screenwriter, director and producer of short and feature length films (well, she can’t be that successful or else she wouldn’t be teaching us!).  There were around 20 students in total, doing a variety of different courses and from all walks of life.  There were actors, fashion designers, freelance writers, copywriters, teachers, journalists, graphic designers, waiters, and just one other lawyer (still employed, unlike me) who looked just like Ron Eldard.

Ron Eldard

I sat next to a casting agent (we had to chat and then introduce each other to the class – I hate stuff like that) who had done the casting for several very popular TV shows.  She says she works long hours and reads a lot of scripts everyday, most of them really horrible ones (such as B-grade American films that want to be shot in Australia).  It’s hard work but she finds it enjoyable.

Everyone seemed somewhat wary in the first class, where we went through the history of screenwriting and watched a few short clips on the big screen at the front of the room.  I suppose writers are naturally shy?

There were a couple of more confident people that gave off ‘dick’ vibes, especially the Vincent Cassel lookalike (side view only), but of course they were the ones that had more experience than everyone else.  Ron Eldard did give off a ‘nice’ vibe.  Everyone else had a ‘scared’ or ‘nervous’ vibe, though in comparison I probably had a ‘shitting himself’ vibe.

Vincent Cassel

I liked the class and what it had to offer.  I didn’t even zone out, which has never happened in the history of my business or law classes.  Must be a good sign that I am doing the right thing.  However, I’ll have to get used to attending night classes.  I was pretty tired by the end of it.

Can’t wait for tonight’s class: creative writing!

Update: Discipline is hard to come by

March 3, 2010 in Blogging, Novel, On Writing by pacejmiller

I’ve been disappointed with myself lately.

A few weeks ago, when my time at work was winding down, I had all these brilliant ideas brewing in my mind.  I’m going to work on this, finish that, get this done, enjoy my time off, apply for some writing gigs, recommence work on my novel, start exercising regularly again, etc etc.

But when the free time rolled around at last, I found myself lacking in motivation.  Well, perhaps not.  Perhaps I had the motivation but just not the discipline.  Rather than do something productive, I end up doing something lazy like watch TV, or watch a movie, or play video games.  The weird thing is, I wanted to do all those things I had planned, but was almost afraid to start them because I knew it would take up time and it would take effort.  It was easier to just put things off for another hour, another day.

So my free week rolled by, and while I did do a few things, such as get the alarm system upgraded, write to movie studios for free invite passes (got one response!), get a dental check-up (unbeknown to me I had chipped a tooth and needed drilling and filling without anesthetic (hurt like a mother), AND had to get a mouth guard made to stop me from grinding my front teeth into calcium powder during sleep), catch up with a couple of friends, read the sale contract my neighbour got me to review, and finish the books I borrowed, etc, I didn’t get to do everything I had planned.

The day just goes by so freaking quickly when you don’t have “real” work.  I do a couple of blog posts here and there and suddenly, the day’s almost over.  How is that even possible?  And if you waste time – any time – it just makes you feel insanely guilty.

I don’t know how these professional writers/novelists manage to work from home.  There are too many distractions, too many temptations, and no one to keep an eye on you.  It’s just so easy to get sidetracked, and the less disciplined you become, the worse it gets.

So today I put my foot down and forced myself to be productive.  So far, so good.  I haven’t bludged one bit yet.  I have finally finished my Taiwan Adventure posts (and created an Index to go with it on the front page), got up-to-date with my book and movie reviews (apart from the movies I watched in the last couple of days at home), and completed my first Bleacher Report National Assignment (yes, I accepted the task from the guys at BR to write on a topic they give me every week which will get a lot of exposure) on the Top 10 Most-Compelling First Round Possibilities for the 2010 NBA Playoffs.  These sports posts are so time consuming because you need to put in pictures and do a lot of research and statistical analysis.  But it’s fun and it’s rewarding, so I’ll keep doing them for as long as I can.

Anyway, I’ll see how I go over the next week or so.  If I can replicate today’s performance I’ll be fine.  Otherwise I may have to force myself out of the house to the university library or someplace else where I can focus on writing.  I really need to get back on track with my novel and the new book idea, and get into the right frame of mind.  I’ve been very lucky to already have a few contacts in the industry that have been terrific and willing to help me kick things off – I just need to take advantage of the opportunities, and remind myself what it is I want to do.