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Top
Ten Peeves of Writing Teachers (Including ‘Vegetables for Authors’)
By Melodie Campbell
It all started in 1992.  I’d won a couple of crime fiction awards, and
the local college came calling.  Did I
want to come on faculty and teach in the writing program?  Hell, yes! 
(Pass the scotch.)
Over the years, I continued to teach fiction writing,
but also picked up English Lit, Marketing (my degree) and a few odd ones, like
Animation and Theatre.  Such is the life
of an itinerant college prof.  (Pass the
scotch.)
Twenty-four years later, I’m a full-time author.  Except for Wednesday nights, when I put on my
mask, don a cape, and turn into SUPER TEACH! 
(Okay, ‘Crazy Author Prof.’ Too much time alone at a keyboard can be
scary.  Pass the scotch.)
Recently, a jovial colleague asked me if I
was a good teacher or an evil one.  I’m
definitely on the kind side of the equation. 
The last thing I want is to be a Dream Killer.  But even the kindest, most dedicated writing
teachers can get frustrated.  So when
Anne suggested I rant on these pages, I gracefully accepted.  (With the sort of grace that might be
associated with a herd of stampeding mastodons.)
So here are my top ten peeves as a writing
teacher:
THE OBVIOUS
1.     
 “I
don’t need no stinkin’ genre” aka Students who turn their noses up at the
genres.
In addition to basic and
advanced writing skills, I teach the genres in my course.  Meaning, we deconstruct each of the main
genres of fiction (mystery, thriller, romance, sci-fi, fantasy, horror,
western, literary…etc.) to see what publishers expect.  This is particularly important when it comes
to endings.  Mickey Spillane said those
famous words:  Your first page sells this
book.  Your last page sells the next one.
Most publishers
categorize the books they accept into genres. 
Most readers stick to a few genres they like best for their reading
pleasure.  So it stands to reason that if
you can slot your work into an already active genre, you have a better chance
of getting published and read.
Many students refuse to
classify their work.  They feel it is
‘selling out’ to do so. (Yes, I’ve heard this frequently.)   They don’t want to ‘conform’ or be
associated with a genre that has a ‘formula.’ 
(One day I hope to discover that formula. I’ll be rich.)
So I often start out with
half a class that claims to be writing literary fiction, even though not a
single student can name a contemporary literary book they’ve actually read.  Pass the scotch.
2.     
The
memoir disguised as fiction.
These students have no
interest in writing fiction.  They really
only want to write one book ever, and that is their life story.  But they know that memoirs of unknown people
don’t sell well, so they’re going to write it is a novel. Because then it will
be a bestseller.
Here’s what I tell them:  What happens to you in real life – no matter
how dramatic and emotional it is for you – usually doesn’t make a good
novel.  Novels are stories.  Stories have endings, and readers expect
satisfactory endings.  Real life rarely
gives you those endings, and so you will have to make something up.
If you want to write your life story, go
for it.  Take a memoir writing class.
3.       “My editor will fix this” – Students who think
that grammar and punctuation are not important.
 
Someone else will fix
that.  They even expect me – the teacher
– to copyedit their work.  Or at least to
ignore all seventeen errors on the first page when I am marking. (*hits head
against desk*)
I should really put this under the
‘baffling’ category.  If you are an
artist or craftsman, you need to learn the tools of your trade.  Writers deal in words, and our main tools are
grammar, punctuation and diction.  How
could you expect to become a writer without mastering the tools of our trade?
4.      The Hunger Games clone. 
I can’t tell you how many
times students in my classes have come determined to rewrite The Hunger Games
with different character names on a different planet.  Yes, I’m picking on Hunger Games, because it
seems to be an endemic obsession with my younger students.
What I’m really talking
about here is the sheer number of people who want to be writers but really
can’t come up with a new way to say things. 
Yes, you can write a new spin on an old plot.  But it has to be something we haven’t seen
before. 
There are just some plots
we are absolutely sick of seeing.  For
me, it’s the ‘harvesting organs’ plot. 
Almost every class I’ve taught has someone in it who is writing a story
about killing people to sell their organs. 
It’s been done, I tell them.  I
can’t think of a new angle that hasn’t already been done, and done well.  Enough, already.  Write something else.  Please.
Leave the poor organs where they are.!
THE BAFFLING
5.     
 The
Preachers: Students who really want to teach other people a lesson. 
And that’s all they want
to do.  Akin to the memoir, these
students come to class with a cause, often an environmental one.  They want to write a novel that teaches the
rest of us the importance of reuse and recycling.   Or the evils of eating meat.
Recently, I had a woman join my fiction class
for the express purpose of teaching people how to manage their finances
better.  She thought if she wrote novels
about people going down the tubes financially, and then being bailed out by lessons
from a friendly banker (like herself ) it would get her message across. 
All noble. 
But the problem is: people read fiction to be entertained.  They don’t want to be lectured.   If your entire goal is to teach people a
lesson, probably you should take a nonfiction course.  Or here’s a novel <sic> idea: become a
teacher.
6.      Literary Snowflakes –
Students who ignore publisher guidelines
“A typical publisher
guideline for novels is 70,000-80,000 words? 
Well, mine is 150,000, and I don’t need to worry about that because they
will love it.  Too bad if it doesn’t fit
their print run and genre guidelines. They’ll make an exception for me.”
I don’t want to make this
a generational thing.  Okay, hell yes –
maybe I should come clean.  I came from a
generation that was booted out of the house at 18 and told to make a living.
‘Special’ wasn’t a concept back when we used slide rules instead of calculators. 
Thing is, these students
don’t believe me.  They simply don’t
believe they can’t write exactly what they want and not get published.  And I’m breaking their hearts when I tell
them this:  Publishers buy what readers want to read.  Not what writers want to write.
7.     
Students
who set out to deliberately break the rules to become famous. 
There are many ways to
tell a story.  We have some rules on
viewpoint, and we discuss what they are, the reasons for them, and why you
don’t want to break them.  Then we
discuss why you might WANT to break them. 
Apparently, this isn’t enough.  (*sobs into sleeve*)
 I have some students who set out to break
every rule they can think of because they want to be different.  “To hell with the readers.  I’ll head-hop if I want.  And if Gone Girl has two first person viewpoints,
my book is going to have seventeen!  No
one will have seen anything like it before. 
They’ll think I’m brilliant.”
Never mind that the prose
is unreadable.  Or that we don’t have a
clear protagonist, and thus don’t know whom to root for.  e.e.cummings did it.  Why can’t they?
8.      Students who come to
class every week but don’t write anything
They love the class.  Never miss a week.  But struggle to complete one chapter by the
end of term.  Not only that, this isn’t
the first fiction writing class they’ve taken. 
They specialize in writers’ workshops and retreats.
It seems baffling, but
some people like to hobby as aspiring writers. 
They learn all about writing but never actually write.  Of course, we veterans can get that part.  Writing is work – hard work.  Writing is done alone in a room.  In contrast, learning about writing can be
fun.  That’s done in a social environment
with other people.
THE ‘I COULDN’T MAKE THIS UP’
9.      Other writing teachers
who take our classes to steal our material for their own classes and workshops
.
(*removes gun from stocking*)
Not kidding.  I actually had an adult student come clean
about this.  By class seven, he hadn’t
done any of the assignments, and admitted he was collecting material to use for
the high school creative writing class he taught.  I’m still not sure how I feel about that.
10.  Students who don’t read. 
This is the one that gets
me the most.  Last term I did a
survey.  I asked each student to write
the number of books they had read last year on a small piece of paper and hand it
in.  I begged them to be honest.  They didn’t have to write their names on the
paper, so I would never know who had written what total.  Here’s the tally of number of books read;
Highest number by
one person:  26
Lowest number by
one person:  0-1
Average:  7
Yup, I’m still
shaking my head over that low.  He
couldn’t remember whether he’d actually read a book.  (How can you not KNOW?)
And these people
want to be writers.  *collective groan*
Why – will someone please tell me why anyone would want to be a writer if they
don’t read books?
To be clear
here:  I read 101 novels last year.  I read for one hour every night before I go
to bed, and have done so for years.  That’s seven hours a week, assuming I don’t
sneak other time to read.  Two books a
week.  And that doesn’t include the hours
I spend reading students manuscripts over three terms.
If reading isn’t
your hobby, how can you possibly think you can write?  Why would you want to?
By this point, you are probably asking:
Hey Teach!  Why
do you do it?
As this term draws to an end, I decided to ask myself
that question.  And give a completely
honest answer.  Here goes:
It’s not the Money.
Hey buddy, can you spare a dime?  Part time profs in Canada are poorly
paid.  I’m top rate, at $47 an hour.  I’m only paid for my time in the classroom (3
hours a week).  For every hour in the
classroom, I spend at least two hours prepping and marking.  We don’t get paid for that.  At end of term, I spend several days
evaluating manuscripts.  We don’t get
paid for that either.  This means I am
getting paid less than minimum wage.  So
I’m not doing it for the money.
It’s not all those Book Sales.
When I first started teaching, an author gal more
published than I was at the time said a peculiar thing to me:   “Be sure you enjoy teaching because aspiring
writers don’t buy books.”  At first I was
puzzled, but then I started to understand what she meant.  Students are here to learn how to make their
fiction better.  That’s their focus.  They really don’t care about what their
teacher has written.
So why the heck do you do it, Mel?  That’s time you could invest in writing your
own books…
It’s Vegetables for Authors.  Let me explain:
It takes me back to first principles.
I teach all three terms.  Every four months, I am reminded about goal/motivation/conflict.  Three act structure.  Viewpoint rules.  Creating compelling characters.  Teaching Crafting a Novel forces me to
constantly evaluate my own work, as I do my students.  In other words, it’s ‘vegetables for authors’ –
good for me.
It’s the People.
By far, the most valuable thing about teaching a night
course year after year is it allows me to mix with people who would not
normally be part of my crowd.  Adult
students of all ages and backgrounds meet up in my classrooms, and many are
delightful.  I’ve treasured the varied
people I’ve met through the years, and keep in touch with many of them. 
Getting to know people other than your own crowd (in
my case, other writers) is extremely valuable for an author.  You’re not merely guessing how others different
from you may think…you actually *know* people who are different.  This helps you create diverse characters in
your fiction who come alive. 
As well, you meet people from different
professions…doctors, lawyers, salespeople, bank officers, government workers,
labourers, grad students, Starbucks baristas, roofers, police, firefighters,
chefs, paramedics.  I have my own list of
people to call on, when I need to do research.
It’s good for my Soul
I’m paying it forward.  Believe it or not, I
didn’t become an author in a vacuum.  I had two mentors along the way who
believed in me.  Michael Crawley and Lou Allin – I hope you are having a
fab time in the afterlife.  Hugs all around, when I get there.
Students take writing courses for all sorts of
reasons.  Some take it for college course
credit.  Some take it for interest, as
they might take photography or cooking classes. 
Some need an escape from dreary jobs, and a writing class can provide
that escape, if only temporarily.  But
many actually do hope to become authors like I am.  When I connect with one of them, and can help
them on their way, it is magic.  There is
no greater high.
No question, my life is richer through teaching
fiction writing, even if my bank account is not.
You can help
Melodie’s bank account by buying her humorous books, like The Bootlegger’s
Goddaughter.  This will keep her from
writing dreary novels that will depress us all. 
Pass the scotch.

About Melodie Campbell
The Toronto Sun called her Canada’s “Queen of
Comedy.” Library Journal compared her to Janet Evanovich.  Melodie Campbell has won the Derringer, the
Arthur Ellis Award, and eight more awards for crime fiction. In 2015, Melodie
made the Top 50 Amazon Bestseller list, sandwiched between Tom Clancy and Nora
Roberts.  She is the former Executive
Director of Crime Writers of Canada.
www.melodiecampbell.com
The
B-Team!
They do wrong for all the right reasons…and sometimes it even
works.

Perhaps you’ve heard of The A-Team?  Vietnam vets turned vigilantes? They
had a television show a while back.  We’re not them.
But if you’ve been the victim of a scam, give us a call.  We deal in
justice, not the law.
We’re the B-Team.

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