Tuesday, August 31, 2010

THE VIRTUAL PROFESSOR

I graduated from high school in the age of dinosaurs, when English teachers took their jobs very seriously. They forced their students to work their little fingers to nubbins diagramming sentences and set young brains a-spinning trying to sort out the difference between a dangling modifier and a misplaced pronoun. But, by golly, if you managed to get an “A” in English in those days, you could put together a competent sentence in a variety of styles, with all the words in the right places, spelled correctly and punctuated properly.

That explains how a working journalist could advise me to major in history or government in college, rather than English, to prepare for a career in news. “You already know how to write,” he said. “You need to know how the world works.”

So I took an interdisciplinary major in International Relations (heavy on the history and government) and ignored the English Department. And it was good advice, overall, seeing as how I needed flexibility once I graduated into that mid-Seventies recession. (That’s the one no one seems to remember now.)

Little did I know that I’d need something from those old guys in the tweed jackets years later. Who knew I’d want to write fiction, of all things, and competent sentences, with stuff in all the right places, is just not enough. (Though, you know, it does count for something, after all.)

Now I could spend a lot of money and go back to school for another degree. Heaven forfend. Or I could fork over some more cash along with a pound or two of flesh and try to get accepted to a prestigious writers’ workshop or two—Clarion, say, or Iowa. Is it wrong of me to envision those classes full of 23-year-old grad students with little life experience and a high opinion of themselves, plus one or two thirty-something alcoholics with plenty of dissolute life experience but no life, and one housewife whose sold her car to be there but gets no respect because she wants to write commercial fiction? Well, at least I’d have one person to talk to.

Fortunately there is a wonderful alternative to these depressing options. I can learn about almost any aspect of the writer’s art through online classes taught by professional writers who are themselves at the top of their game as authors of commercial fiction. I can focus on a very specific topic—fight scenes, for example, as I did in a course with paranormal writer Angela Knight—or I could take a whole I-want-to-be-writer independent study course with writing gurus Jacqueline Lichtenburg and Jean Lorrah of SimeGen fame through the Worldcrafters Guild (http://www.simegen.com).

A two-week workshop can provide a lifetime’s worth of information and insight into the world of creative fiction, from someone who is involved in the process every day. That’s something that money could never buy. But the best part of these workshops is that they range from free (at Worldcrafters, for example) to very cheap ($15 for local Romance Writers of America chapter members for the typical two-week course; $25 for non-members).

At RWA Online (a relatively new chapter of the national organization), a $25 one-year chapter membership buys unlimited free access to online courses for the year. Woo hoo! Sounds like unlimited fun to me. I peeked in on a course run by Leigh Greenwood the other day just because I’d met the author of 40-plus Western romances at the National Conference. The topic was gender-specific language—what would guys say or talk about that gals wouldn’t and vice versa. Fascinating! Did I mention Leigh is a guy?

Many local and online RWA chapters (such as Fantasy, Futuristic & Paranormal) offer workshops as a service to their members and a way of generating income for the chapters. Information about what courses are coming up can be found on chapter websites and are shared widely on chapter loops. (Though if you are not an RWA member, well . . .)

I just finished a course (“Prune Your Prose”) at RWA Online with Linnea Sinclair. Yeah, that’s right. I schmoozed with the Queen of Science Fiction Romance. Exchanged homework and emoticons. Clinked virtual martini glasses. We all had a blast in that class, though I must say we worked our little behinds off. I was reminded of some of those English teachers of yore.

Like the best online courses, Linnea’s class offered all of us—from the rawest newbie to the most polished professional—the chance to interact with a writer who loves her craft and puts it to work every day. She assigned tasks (every freakin’ night!) and gave us individual feedback to help us hone our skills in a very personal way. And though that could be challenging (and difficult for some), it was also inspiring, even intimate. I find it amazing that someone with Linnea’s schedule and commitments would take the time to give us that kind of individual attention.

Linnea may be unusually patient, but the online course format seems to encourage close interaction. I’ve experienced it in courses I’ve taken with Angela Knight and with writing/marketing expert Bob Mayer, and I suppose now I’ve come to expect it. I’m spoiled. It would be awfully hard to pay good money to sit at an actual desk in a real classroom only to be ignored because what I write isn’t “real literature”. Forget that. Let me learn from the people who know. And thank God they’re willing to teach me.

Cheers, Donna

3 comments:

  1. Loved hearing your take on education options for busy writers, Donna. I haven't had a chance to check out RWA University, but now I plan to very soon!

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  2. Wow, Donna. That sounded fascinating. Bob Mayer, eh! I've read what he's written with Jenny Crusie. I'm amazed at what there is on offer!!!!

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  3. A great blog, Donna. I, too, have learned much on the go. I'm one of those housewives, though I didn't sell my car to attend a class. Thank heavens I found online! I'm also a hermit by choice. LOL!

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