An Inside Look at Revision: Taking the Write Kind of College Courses

Aubrey: Remnants of Transformation is available on Amazon and Smashwords. With every chapter, I posted notes about the process of revision. With this chapter, I address creative writing courses, the classic narrative structure, and Alva Vanderbilt.

Chapter 15

This chapter contains the internal climax of the novel--Aubrey makes a concrete emotional decision about how to move forward (the physical climax/confrontation comes later).

Which brings me to a story about my brother Eugene, a writing class, and getting A's in English.

When I was getting my B.A. in English several, a-hem, years ago, I took creative writing classes every semester. They were designated 218-R & 318-R which meant that I could take the same course several times from different professors. I worked my way through all the available professors and then got special permission to take a graduate level course.

The further I moved up (starting, actually, with 118), the more I encountered not only the same students but the same type of writing: stream-of-consciousness, contemporary, realistic fiction. By the time I reached the graduate level, I was just about the only student left who was still writing fantasy and science-fiction (there were a number of these students in 118, but they dropped off the radar).

This experience pretty much cured me of any belief in the effectiveness of university writing programs to provide readers with unique, popular, or culturally relevant works. As I saw for myself, such programs focus on producing the same types of writers writing the same types of stuff. I don't regret taking those courses; they forced me to produce and to deal with feedback, but as this story will soon show, they didn't make the BIG difference in my writing.

I was already trying to get published (I started when I was 17). I wasn't having much luck, a reality not reflected by the A's I received every semester from my creative writing professors. Hey, I write readable sentences. And even then, I could create drop-and-run beginnings.

But not endings. Unfortunately, even though I was continually producing fantasy and science-fiction, I'd allowed myself to be influenced by my stream-of-consciousness, contemporary, realistic writing peers. I should mention that these writers were skilled at what they were doing. The problem: applying the rules of such "creative writing" courses to genre storytelling does not work.

To compound the problem, I was excusing the result--lame endings with no pay-offs--by saying stuff like, "But life doesn't have endings! People never know what will happen next! Life just, like, happens, you know."

Does that sound like a 20-year-old or what?!

And then my brother Eugene, an alum, signed up for a How to Get Published class and invited me to join him.

And I started getting Bs.

I don't like getting Bs!

So I looked harder at my writing.

The classic narrative arc: if you write
fantasy & sci-fi: LEARN IT!
Once I figured out what was wrong, I blocked out every one of my stories from the previous two years  using the classic narrative structure: problem, climax, resolution. And what do you know: my problems were not only not paying-off, they kind of disappeared half-way through the story!

Paying-off-the-problem is one of the toughest issues faced by a genre/classic storyteller: if the problem is physical, is there a physical confrontation? If the problem is emotional, does the character learn/change/grow? In either case, does the climax (how the problem is confronted) move things forward for good or for ill?

I still struggle with pay-offs, but that class that semester put me back on the right track.

The lesson (other than take writing classes with your older brother) is as follows: Go ahead and take college creative writing classes, but do not let them force you off your chosen path!

*Balls in the nineteenth century could be incredibly elaborate, obvious morality tales about wealth-induced boredom and wastefulness. The young woman is Alva Vanderbilt, the mother of Consuelo Vanderbilt.

Alva is the quintessential example of a woman who makes society bend to her will while still adhering to its culture and precepts. She is best known for forcing Consuelo to make one of those famous (and doomed) Anglo-American marriages to the 9th Duke of Marlborough. Since Alva divorced Conseulo's father, the same year that Consuelo got married, so she, Alva, could marry a man she preferred, you'd think she'd have a clue about loveless marriages.

But then I think that Alva is an excellent example of why historical fiction is difficult to write. On the one hand, she was a woman outside her time: getting divorced when people rarely did, becoming a suffragette. On the other hand, she was a woman entirely of her time, encapsulating in her single being all the philosophies and views of her class. To do her justice, a writer would have to capture both facets of her personality.

Aubrey, luckily, is already on the fringe of high society; it is easier for her to break away. And that is ultimately what she may have to do to be happy.

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