I taught my last writing class at UCLA Extension on Tuesday night, at least for a little while. I'm taking a semester or two off to focus on personal business and getting back to my novel. I taught Novel III this year and it was my favorite class to date. I had a great mix of committed students, half of them loyalists who have been with me through Novel I, whose work I have watched progress in that time; and half of them genuinely talented noobs who have brought a welcome new energy to the class.
What I enjoyed most about Novel III was the opportunity to go into greater detail than in previous classes. Where Novel I did one class apiece on character and point of view, Novel III included three classes on character - one class on main characters, one on secondary characters and one on minor characters - and two classes on point of view, one of which looked at the same scene as told by three different characters. The text this semester has been The End of the Affair which has lent itself very nicely to that kind of study.
Now that the class is over, I thought I might share some highlights of some my lessons here, since I know many writers read this site; as well as many close readers. And my lessons more often than not have been much more about reading than writing. My recent discussion on voice and language was a case in point.
Here is a paragraph I distributed from The End of the Affair. It's from a scene in Book One, where the narrator Bendrix is waiting for the first appearance of Sarah, his former lover whom he hasn't seen in years.
I laid the newspaper on the table and read the same page again because I wouldn’t look at the doorway. People were coming in, and I wouldn’t move my head up and down and betray an unmet expectation. What have we all got to expect that we allow ourselves such disappointment? There was a murder in the evening paper and a Parliamentary debate about sweet-rationing, and she was late. She caught me looking at my watch. I heard her voice say, “I’m sorry. I came by bus and the traffic was bad.”
Only it's not the actual paragraph from the book. It's an altered version, in which I changed some of Greene's word choices and sentence rhythms, resulting in a paragraph that essentially does the same narrative lifting but is workmanlike. The original paragraph, which I put on the back of the distributed page, is as follows.
I laid the newspaper flat on the table and read the same page over and over again because I wouldn’t look at the doorway. People were continually coming in, and I wouldn’t be one of those who by moving their heads up and down betray a foolish expectation. What have we all got to expect that we allow ourselves to be so lined with disappointment? There was the usual murder in the evening paper and a Parliamentary squabble about sweet-rationing, and she was now minutes late. It was my bad-luck that she caught me looking at my watch. I heard her voice say, “I’m sorry. I came by bus and the traffic was bad.”
I wanted my class to think closely about word choices. Why the first paragraph, while doing the same work, is inferior. How the efficient use of the word "continually" paints, with one word, a busy cafe that a less experienced writer might have spend a sentence or two on. Why "squabble" is more interesting, more telling and more musical than "debate." I urged them to listen for the melody of sentences - the "over and over again." I used the analogy of the knife drawer - we all know which is the sharpest knife in our kitchen and invariably reach for it, bypassing the duller blades. Writers should reach for the sharpest words possible - precision, focus, tone are the writer's sharp blades.
In future posts, I'll share highlights of our point of view class, as well as my famous "The Many Dratfts of the First Draft" lesson. And thank you again to my wonderful students, whom I hope to see again in the fall for Novel IV.