Sweet Spot

spiral notebook and pencilIt’s the first week of my second semester creative writing class, and I’m getting to know my new students.

Half of them have no idea why they’re in this class. They needed an elective and my class needed students. There are twenty-four of them, slightly suspicious, worried about how much work it will be, hoping it will be fun and not too hard. A few did not know what ‘creative writing’ meant, thought it just meant longer essays.

The other half see themselves as poets or the author of the next vampire novel that will monopolize the NYT Bestseller List for weeks. They love to write, and show up on the first day with notebooks full of their writing to show me.

There is a place on the continuum between boredom (under-challenge) and frustration (overchallenge) where they will work their hearts out and actually learn something. I am aiming at that spot. More

The First Paragraph

Last weekend a hundred stories lay piled on my desk, awaiting my assessment. Though I like writing critiques, grading stories is one of my least favorite things to do.

When I could ignore them no longer, I sat down at my desk and thought about how to approach the task. If I read each story carefully and rated it on the criteria I had established, I would have to spend about an hour on each one.

There are not so many hours in a weekend, even when Monday is a holiday.

I worked out a method that would allow me to eat and sleep. The first paragraph and the last paragraph would tell me what I needed to know:

Does the beginning grab me?

Has the writer introduced a character in a setting with a problem to solve?

Does the story have a resolution? (Just to make sure it was a complete story.)

Does the story have dialog, or it is primarily summary?

Did this student care enough about their work to clean up the spelling and punctuation?

And then I understood what an editor facing a huge slush pile must do. Reading the first five pages is a perfectly fair way to evaluate a novel. You really can find out all you need to know by reading the beginning. It doesn’t matter how good chapter 23 is if you aren’t grabbed by the first pages. And if you find a misspelling in the first paragraph, that is a sure sign that there will be many more.

Each story tells me a number of things that didn’t figure into the grade as well. Which students read books? It is obvious that many don’t read. It is just as obvious that the ones who do read understand that life is more than boyfriends and girlfriends, football and shopping. Everyone watches movies and television, but these don’t have the same effect as reading. Readers are more mature, more thoughtful, more realistic.

There are many ways to tell a story, but not all are equal. These days, books seem to be falling out of fashion. But reading is superior to television and movies. People who always have their ‘nose in a book,’ as the criticism goes, are actually learning more than those who see stories on the screen. They are using their more and developing thinking skills. Reading is active; the screen is passive. A book is a good friend, a teacher.

Writers, take your responsibility seriously.

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