Key to good writing is writing and reading — and lots of it
Throughout my childhood, I dreamt of becoming a writer (I also dreamt of being an actress/veterinarian/farmer/fashion designer, but writing is the one dream that stuck). Before I could actually write, I dictated stories to my mother and illustrated them. As I grew, I filled boxes with my stories and journals. In high school, all of my favorite classes were English, and one of my favorite teachers was my creative writing teacher, Mr. Van Pelt. Many of the journals in those boxes were filled in his classes.
I haven’t become a writer yet, not by my own definition. I am held back by fears that I’m not good enough, a lack of discipline, and an odd desire to sleep in the early morning or late at night rather than using that alone time to write. Instead, I have happily settled for the much safer and still fulfilling path of teaching. Now middle age is setting in, I have children, I teach children, and I am constantly telling them they can achieve their dreams if they work hard enough. If the best way to educate children is by example, I better start acting on the words I so often say in class.
With this in mind, I attended the first installment of the Writer’s Night Workshop Series at the Mesa County Public Library earlier this month. James Van Pelt, now retired, hosted the session about writing and selling the short story. His most recent short story, Coyote Moon, was published in Analog magazine. The room was packed with people: from teenagers to retirees, amateur writers to published authors. Many of us have a story to tell, it seems.
Van Pelt started the session with a writing exercise he developed — the seven-sentence story. The room was silent as we scratched away in our notebooks under his direction. By the end of the exercise, we all had our own first draft of a short story. The session continued with advice on characterization, plot and conflict. These elements are vital to a good short story, according to Van Pelt. He detailed different methods of crafting these elements and described the strengths and weaknesses of each. He also emphasized the importance of individual sentences. Strong sentences convey professional writing, making editors more likely to choose the piece for publication.
The last portion of the session advised us on selling the short story. Van Pelt’s advice was honest but encouraging. Each time you submit a piece, you will move up the hypothetical stack of submissions, from the completely unpublishable pieces on the bottom to the few at the top. Writing is all about growth, says Van Pelt, and every time you write, every time you submit, you are getting better.
As a teacher, I am constantly encouraging my students to focus on their growth, not just the end product or the grade. Van Pelt’s advice echoes this sentiment. He submitted one story 49 times before it was finally published. In his view, it simply took that long for the story, which later won an award, to find the right market. While rejection can be discouraging to some writers, Van Pelt expects it. He writes not to publish, but to discover something about himself and to hone his craft. This attitude has helped him write consistently since graduate school.
Like most authors, Van Pelt advises writers to set aside time each day to write. Because many of us have careers and demanding yet adorable children, I asked how we can achieve this consistency. As a teacher and married father of three, Van Pelt also struggled to find an acceptable level of consistency for himself. Over time, he found he could realistically write 200 words a day, squeezing in writing time when he had a free moment. By the end of the year, he calculated he had written 70,000 words, roughly the length of a romance novel or 14 short stories. He pointed out Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin while raising kids in the 1800s. This bit of information makes it more difficult for me to skip my writing time to watch Paw Patrol with the kids, while the dishwasher hums in the background.
There is one last piece of advice Van Pelt gave that I already follow easily. Good writers read, and they read a lot. He said reading poetry is especially helpful in crafting good writing. Thankfully, the Western Slope is packed with writers to read, learn from and admire. As your new books columnist, I am excited to introduce you to the literature of our area and to opportunities for writers, and to do so as part of my own journey as a writer and reader.