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Top Ten Peeves of Creative Writing Teachers

11 February 2018

From Melodie Campbell via Anne R. Allen’s Blog:

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 creative writing teacher:


  1. “I Don’t Need no Stinkin’ Genre.”

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.)

. . . .

  1. 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!

Link to the rest at Anne R. Allen’s Blog

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9 Comments to “Top Ten Peeves of Creative Writing Teachers”

  1. I know it bores the teacher, but let the students write whatever they want. They’ll learn something from every page, including that it’s been done before.

    And once in a while, they’ll do it better than ever before.

  2. Exactly; the stories aren’t for publication, they’re for learning. As such, consider them training wheels. Chances are the overdone plots attracted them to writing in the first place, so why discourage them? Rather than fight it, perhaps she might consider having the students survey the tropes or trends and challenge them to put their own spin on them?

    I agree with her that writers should read (widely in general, and deeply in whatever genre they’re into) and pay attention to the basics of craft.

    As for point 7, I haven’t read Gone Girl so can’t speak to whether it’s a good example of multiple first person POVs. I last saw that technique with the Baby-Sitter’s Club books, where each chapter was from the first person POV of Claudia or Kristi or Stacey, etc. That technique can be used to delight readers, so rather than insist on not doing it at all, explore with them the difference in the technique done well from one done wrong.

    I prefer writing advice to focus less on personal peeves and more on “how to.” Even if you’re not into whatever it is the writer is trying to do.

  3. My first short story had an O. Henry ending. My second short story was entirely predictable. My next few were also juvenile, cliched, and not very original.

    Of course, I was in ninth and tenth grade at the time. And I had two amazing English teachers who encouraged me to write, told me that my stories were good, and that I should keep on making more of them.

    What you should be focusing on in new writers is the raw talent. Encourage them to read widely, use whatever influences they want as they learn, and develop their own voice. Also, learn how to steal from the best. 🙂

  4. After visiting OP’s blog I’m suddenly craving a piece of Key Lime pie. Can’t imagine why. :\

    Beyond that, I’m a little surprised publishers are so strict about word count. (Her point # 6.) I had a vague sense we’d moved beyond 1960, where some guy named Herbert something, or maybe it was something-Herbert(?), had to publish some weird “doorstop” book about giant worms on a desert planet via the same folks who did auto repair manuals, since no science fiction publisher would take a shot. I believe it went on to sell a few copies.

  5. “Publishers buy what readers want to read. Not what writers want to write.”

    LOL, no. Publishers buy what publishers want to publish, not what readers want to read.

    It seems like anyone teaching creative writing in 2018 really ought not to utterly ignore a major way to get that creative writing out into the world. Teaching as if going through a major publisher is the students’ only option is doing them a grave disservice. If that’s really how she approaches it (the only way to get a book into the world is by selling it to a big publisher), then I’d question the value of her classes entirely, because it seems to inform far too many aspects of her teaching.

  6. What she may be sick of seeing, readers may not be sick of buying. I know that I have some archetypes/premises that will get me to buy (if the sample/blurb nail it). When I read a romance a day (no lie), I’d buy anything that smacked of Beauty/Beast and looked twice or thrice at anything that had mail-order brides or widow hired on at a ranch or had a handicapped veteran. Why? Who knows. I just like those sorts of situations or character set-ups. They couldn’t write B&B stories fast enough for me to buy em. So, no, I didn’t get tired of that kind of story. And since I know romance readers who would go nuts for runaway brides or secret babies or, like me, fairy-tale references, clearly they didn’t get tired of those either.

    Maybe the question should be: Is this a cracking good “organ harvesting” tale, not whether one is tired of organ harvesting. (Not that this kind of story interests me, but since there are vampire lovers, werewolf lovers, superhero lovers, there may be organ-harvest story lovers, who knows?)

    I suspect some folks doing well as indies are filling that niche some readers do not tire of (like me and retold fairy tales or Messiah type fantasy/sci-fi heroes, which some would say is a worn out trope, like I care) but B5 publishers aren’t providing.

  7. Richard Hershberger

    From the linked item: “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.”

    I am always bemused by people who brag about how many books they read. What I take away from this brag is that she only reads books that can be polished off in a few days: nothing too long, of course, and also nothing that might make her pause to think about what she has just read, much less go back and read it again. In short: mental junk food. I enjoy junk food too, but not exclusively. And it certainly isn’t something to brag about.

    • Yeah, either that or she’s skimming and not really reading–and as you say, certainly not pausing to absorb/reflect on anything as she’s reading. Reading a book in three and a half hours–and doing this every time you read a book–is not really something to brag about. There’s nothing wrong with popcorn reading in and of itself, but it’s hardly brag-worthy. And if she’s reading books in three and a half hours all the time because she’s skimming, then I really have to wonder how much respect she has for the craft of writing.

  8. Creative Writing in 2018
    Semester 1: Write story
    Semester 2: Edit and indi publish.

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