Saturday, October 16, 2010

writing as in art - can it be taught? I for one say yes!

The Writing Art - Can It be Taught?

As a kid in 4th Grade I knew I wanted to be a writer; never any doubt. On hearing Robert Frost's poem, "The Road Less Taken" at that impressionable age, and having been born in rural Corinth, MS., I also knew I was a "Rebel" as the other kids in a Chicago, IL school called me in large due to my accent and the fact I hadn't known my first name--only my middle name--when the teacher called us up for anything! At any rate, I knew early on that being a writer meant being different and having a love for storytelling. I also early on leaned that many of my teachers--most in fact--had a disdain for this art or feared teaching it and that I was pretty much on my own, that I'd have to be self-taught in this discipline. What I knew was that I needed Gramma's grammar badly--good grammar, that is, and that few to no teachers in my experience really knew how to convey the complexities of this 'dead zone' where no one wished to venture if they could instead turn us to doing paper machete projects (all through elementary especially). However, the basics I did pick up in 4th Grade are the same basics I teach in my 101, 102, and creative writng classes at the college level today -- same "stuff" people are resistant to. Ultimately, I teach "sound and sense" in that if it "sounds" rythmic and it makes "sense"--that is clear, use it and move on with your story. That has served me well, Sound and Sense.

The question still nags at us, however--can Creative, Crafty, Clever Writing be taught? I feel that ultimately it can be taught (depending on what one means by taught, of course!) On a recent kindle discussion group, we got into it with these cogent results thanks to the caliber of the people in the group. First the question was raised by a member, so I thank Carla Rene for bringing it up. Two responses I felt particularly good follow here:

Subject: Re: [Kindlefloor] Can Creative Writing Be Taught?

To: "Kindle Discussion Group"

Date: Thursday, October 14, 2010, 6:37 PM

Carla posed this question: I know some here are creative writing course instructors as well as English
teachers, but I'm involved in a heated discussion on another writing forum, and this brings up a great point: CAN you teach someone the basic skills and inherent ability to write a decent novel? Or short-story?

Anne replied with: I think there are aspects that can, and aspects that can't, be taught. Writing is kind of a trifecta of inspiration, talent and wordcraft. It doesn't matter how well you can lay out a plot or build a character if you don't have an idea for a plot or character. You can have the most wonderful ideas in the world, but it does no good if you can't tell a story. And you can have a great idea and a great story, but neither does you any good unless you have the mechanical skills to tell it coherently and readably.

Obviously the skills of writing -- spelling, grammar, punctuation, structure and so on -- can be taught. To a certain extent, storytelling can be taught in that you can talk about character building and consistency, plot structure, pacing and so on. Beyond that, however, it comes down to imagination and talent, and another vital ingredient: PRACTICE.

No amount of classroom teaching is going to create a really good writer. You can't teach talent and imagination. However, you CAN *encourage* and *exercise* and *polish* them. I think creative writing classes are excellent for that purpose. Kind of the pilates of the imagination.

Sue entered the fray with this: Anne, I totally agree with you. As a long time wannabe writer, I found that my talent (if you want to call it that) lay in expository writing (not what I would have wished for). I taught creative writing to 8th graders and high school freshmen for many years and those are the years that I value most highly. During my many years of teaching English to 8th and 9th graders, the California Board of Education tried something quite phenomenal: actually looking at the writing of our students to determine if we were making any progress! "The California Writing Project" pulled the best of the best for training and then invested heavily in training trainers who then worked with teachers at the school site level. I was a trainer and test reader for a few years and I have to say that it was the most exciting time of my teaching career. We actually were able to teach teachers to teach writing (rather than just assigning it). When we were being trained to read and score the student writing tests, papers were to be scored in a 1-5 range (5 being highest), we were told that when we came across a "5" we would know it - and we did. The "4s" were generally almost perfect in every way EXCEPT they didn't have that extra special undefinable "sparkle" that came right out and hit you between the eyes. Those "5" papers were very exciting to read.

I think that, as English teachers, we definitely can teach most kids to be 3s and the 4's, but no way could anyone teach that extra something that we found in those few wonderful pieces of writing that were 5s.. Unfortunately, even though we were showing great progress in teaching writing for several years there, another, easier to grade (and less costly) idea came along and "The California Writing Project" fell by the wayside, as has almost every other good new idea that has come along It was a sad time for those of us who valued good writing and believed that we could help to make it happen.

To which Rob-me, myself, and I added: I have worked at Jr. High and High School levels also, so I bemoan the fact that so many FINE writing programs at those levels instituted in the 70s and excellent results like the one Sue spoke of -- all across America in fact -- were shut down unceremoniously, or rather unceremoniously shut down due to first cuts always going to the arts--and writing is one of the arts with a somewhat scientific element called sentence structure, types, and grammar wherein you demonstrate skills but you also learn the art of active voice for fiction in particular--dramatic writing.

Sue is absolutely and sadly right on the money when it comes to ANYTHING proven to work for our students is the first thing to be tossed from our schools as a result of cost cutting and administrative jockeying, and teachers' unions concerns also place the most crucial concerns regarding actual classroom dynamics like teacher-student ratio so that real instruction can happen at the bottom of the list of ideals. Money always a key factor and there's no poetry in money nor money in poetry--not as there is in accounting and the sciences.

That said, as one who is self-taught in what is termed creative writing and a writer who happens to be capable of teaching, and a teacher who practices what he teaches daily, I can safely say that yes, a 'talented' young person can learn umpteen thousands of techniques from every published author who has ever put pen to paper. Talent is an iffy word, and imagination is like quicksilver and mercury often coming and going, and to be called talented, even genius, is at best an affectation. What creates most excellent writers is the steady practice of the trade, especially any sort of creatve work, be it the well-crafted essay/expository writing or story. The more one writes, the more one reads, the more one prospers as an author (not always monetarily but via the cache of learning). Talent if a dangerous term in my opinion along with the notion of the silver-tongue born into the head of the child as if prepared via lineage--although they may well have found an "artistic-right-brained genetic connect" as well as a left-brained science-oriented genetic connect" due to lineage. Hard to say. However, I do feel strongly that I have not wased 30+ years in teaching writing; that is, that a great deal of writing is teachable, and we can bring students to the brink of that "Sixth Sense" element that goes beyond the 5 senses and touches the reader in that spiritual zone we all aspire to.

Rob Walker
"Autographed" ebook ARC of Titanic 2012 available by contacting me direct at

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Are Cheap as Dirt eBook Prices Creating Devlaued Authors & Their Works?

Short Answer: NO....long answer is a debate between authors who have taken the plunge and other authors who are sticking with what they've always known. Here is my take on the subject but before I say Publishers are Devaluing authors who are setting prices low on ebook platforms, let me say this: There is no integrity in this so-called business. Like any other job, when they target you for a raise or an upgrade, you get it and you are happy with The Company - whatever its name. When they target you as simply one of the work force as in "the stable" folks who they draw on to fill spaces with paper or books in this instance, you are pigeonholed as surely as when you could never, no matter what, get anything above a C from Mrs. C, your English teacher at H.G. Wells High Schooooool. The company, school, publisher always demands loyalty from you, the worker, but they offer zero loyalty to you in the end--Zero. That said and posited in your mind, know that the illusion that publishing is somehow above such behaviors and is a "gentlemen's game" -- well maybe in 1890 but I doubt that even then a publisher had anyone working for him that he could not cut loose.

Now know that I believe I hold the record for number of Series characters, and so have had a lot of my characters and storylines CUT.  So this is where I an coming from when speaking of loyalty to the job and the job display loyalty in return and such shocking things as integrity and the lack of it found anywhere in publishing.

So here goes:

Dee-Dee Doit says: I am not saying that the individual readers devalue the work of individual writers.
I am saying that the downward trend in pricing devalues our work in the marketplace at large and makes publishers see us as a lesser commodity.

Rob: I object to the word commodity but let us get to the point. Publishers already devalue our work as example: We do our own damn advertising and such groups online as MMA (Murder Must Advertise...Mystery (writers) MUST advertise, so by the behaviors of publishers - specifically the big six - giving no advertising budget to 99& of their 'stable' of authors devalues our work.

No support for midlist authors, no decent income, below living wage income devalues our work. When publishers persist in rewarding gimmick writing rather than quality writing, this devalues our work as when no dollars go to a lifetime professional author because those funds are budgeted to the latest Pamela Anderson's Dress for Success for Little Girls.... and they did it to Mark Twain before us...have since the printing press came into being. Devalued. Readers do not do this when they pay for a 2.99 ebook but publishers do?

Mark Sureshot: I think advances are the only thing—other than a huge inheritance—that makes it possible for a writer to work full time instead of having to struggle with a day job all their life, and ebooks offer no advance.

Rob --A hundred thousand dollar advance for four books = 25,000 a year...subsistence living unless you live in a cardboard box.  And since the publisher devalues you and your writing by the time you finish the book (giving it no support by the time 9 months to a year and a half rolls around (pub date) as they are busy with their latest PR campaign for a dead author like VC Andrews who has a greater budget than many thousands of live authors), this devalues your work. Your publisher is busy entertaining the idea of publishng OJ Simpson's "How I Would Have Done it Had I Done it" -- so too busy to be reading your novel...this devalues your work. Condescendingly telling an author that a Stephen King blockbuster creates a trickle down effect that rains down on all of the writers in the house (nonsense), this devalues you.

Ariana Selfassured: I’ve heard some writers say that it does not matter that major publishing houses like Random and Simon and Schuster and Penguin devalue your work if you are willing to sell it for 1.99 or 2.99.  But it does to me. I don not want the major houses thinking I sell my work cheap!
Rob: After thirty years of being a slave to the system controlled by a few hundred people called agents (the front guard), editors (the gatekeepers), and publishers (King of the fiefdom or thiefdom), I for one am enjoying the fact that technology has caught up to my childhood dreams of being my own damn publishing company in need of no King or Thiefdom. No longer an indentured servant, and the freedom from all the nonsense I have endured over these many years, I cannot tell you how wonderful it is.

There are many rivers to the ocean, but as to devlauing you and your books? The readers value your writing far, far more than does the typical publisher who is going to choose the Lady Gaga biography over your literary thriller or historical thriller any day. It is kind of like how everyone talks a big game of how teachers ought to be paid what they are worth but never are. Niether teaching for teaching's sake, the art of it, nor writing quality for quality's sake is rewarded, not in the main most certainly.

It has otten to that point for me (when a publisher apparently does not know what he/she has in hand because of the distractions of the gimmick books bound to make huge profits in the marketplace) that I have had it up to here and I ain't gonna take it anymore!!  OK but you may disagree and fine. To each his own but my personal "bestseller ever" appears to be the novel turned down by every agent, editor, and publisher in New York City and in fact anyone who looked at it who was in a position to purchase it but for inane remakrs on rejections like "Sorry but, etc...not right for us...been done...etc." -- Children of Salem is rubber-stamped REJECTED.

But...Same book... but Kindle readers have made their voices heard over what I feel is a novel that ought to have been valued but was not--along with my Cuba Blue and Dead On Writing and now Titanic 2012 (which by this time, I didn't bother as it was REJECTED once long ago when Cameron's movie came out). Now it's me and my partner not my publisher putting out quality books for readers who respond to quality NOT to pricing. Kindle readers and ebook readers in general are far smarter than NYC publishing tells us writers all the time..."Write to the 4th Grade level...No one would be interested in a heroine in Cuba in a one wants to see another book about witches....or the supernatural...or a psychic detective..."  All to do with dictating what readers should be reading.

Sara Serenade: Holding a full time job added stress and frustration to my life. I am grateful I can write full time.

Rob: I personally as a professor gain so much for my writing from my students.  They inspire me every bit as I inspire them and so they grant me energy and do not steal my strength.  I would never quit my day job, not after what I have been through in Dead Tree Publication biz wherein you never know when they decide to cut you off at the knees. A good six or seven of my characters were cut off and I have had to find creaive ways to continue working and developing the characters I want to develop as in ressurecting Inspector Alastair Ransom of Chicago to become Constable Alastair Ransom aboard the Titanic...a character killed off not by me but by my publisher.

This does not even go to the money in the author's pocket.  I have in the past three years pocketed far, far more money from my ebooks (cheap as they are) than I have in paper and hardcover books. In fact, this year have made enough to move into another house. So you can keep your so-called integrity, your so-called loyalty, and your so-called "value" of publishing with those in control conglomerates.  I will take my small business and quietly sail down my river like Huck and Jim's Moon River.

Robert Walker
Come find me on Facebook where we really have fun!