Chapter 4-6 Breaking the Rules

My basic writing skills needed some tweaking here and there; my teacher’s comments made me work on issues such as varying sentence length, rounding out paragraphs, and when to use commas. An amazing number of people in my writing courses had trouble with punctuation. And then, there were teachers throughout my courses who had specific rules that they wanted me to use, such as not using “like.”  I just followed suit on those preferences when I was in their classes thinking it would make my life easier. As my teachers reminded me, I was still learning the craft; I needed to know the rules before I could break them. Once I was out of class, I could whatever I wanted.

It would have been great if I’d known everything that I needed to know.  There was only one solution, to learn by doing. Nobody could tell me how to think. They could only tell me where to start and following their rules did give me a framework of sorts.

Questions, we all developed lists of questions that we would need to answer during our time in the program. How can I pull my reader into a story swiftly? Do I want to pull them into the scene with description or action? Do I have an intriguing first sentence? Am I in the right point-of-view in terms of character and also in terms of literary technique – first, third, omniscient, etc. Does anything happen in my stories, do they have a strong narrative arc? Is my language artful enough – does it flow, have I made the right word choices, does it make sense? Hey, there are a million of these questions.

Doing everything at once became easier over time. After I’d been in class for a while, I realized most people were concentrating on one thing at a time, or maybe several, not all of them at once. Some of the students were still a little overly confident, we hadn’t had a full-blown workshop yet.

She was very strict about the workshop rules. We would summarize what we thought happened in the story or novel chapter so that the author would know if their message came across clearly. Three good things and three things to work on would complete our analysis of our peer’s work.

This strategy seemed to work well except that most of us were only starting to be able to analyze each other’s work. Most of us found it easy enough to say we liked a metaphor, characters, or some figurative language. It’s hard to say how someone can improve their work when you’re not quite sure how to improve your own.

My own novel chapter had a mixed response. Some people did say they liked it and the response to the sexually explicit part of course, was a great hit with the guys. Their perceptions of me as a middle-aged mom were irreparably damaged, not a bad thing. They’re response to the titillating scene seemed to overshadow what I was trying to say. I did receive some valuable insight into “unpacking” my narrative, telling just enough to get my message across. Of course, after reading an Atlantic interview with Francine Prose, I need to think about this “unpacking” idea once again. More on this topic when I tell you what happened in my workshops.


About marystojak

Mary Stojak has published numerous short stories, her latest will be published September 28th in Mystery Weekly.
This entry was posted in Graduate Writing Programs, Johns Hopkins University, writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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