We were a bunch of innocents that day at The Ohio State University in 1979. Thirty or so of us, packed into an English Department classroom for class that would introduce us to the world of writing fiction. I think the course was called “Introduction to Writing Fiction” or something similar, but it was a long time ago and I do not recall such details 40-plus years and seven novels later.
What I recall is being terrified.
And I recall other, more important things. I remember the lessons imparted that day and in the weeks that followed. But the thing that sticks with me the most is the initial terror. That made an impression.
I was a freshman at OSU, but some of my classmates that day were further along in their college educations. I think we were evenly split between men and women. What we all had in common was an interest in learning to become authors. Perhaps we all had dreams of writing best-sellers or stamping our legacies upon the world of literature.
And there was one man in the room who seemed intent on stomping those dreams into dust.
His name was Nicholas Guild, the instructor of the course and the time an author of spy-thrillers and he looked stern, like one of his own characters. He has since included historical fiction in his repertoire, and I recommend you seek out his work. I have, and I enjoy reading his work and learning from it. I particularly recommend “The Summer Soldier,” “The Assyrian,” “The Macedonian Dagger,” and “The Ironsmith,” but all are worth a read, in my opinion.
Those book recommendations stem from latter impressions, of course. That first day, as one of thirty or so prospective writers sitting at traditional classroom desks and staring wide-eyed at the rather severe-looking man leaning against a teacher’s desk and crossing his arms as though he already was rather disappointed in us, I came away with a very different impression.
I felt fear. So did my classmates. It was palpable. Tangible. Mocking us.
“Most of you,” he said, quite confidently, “will fail.” I am paraphrasing, decades later, because I remember the fear more than his words, and I was not taking notes. I was staring at Guild, and listening, and trying to stave off hyperventilation.
“It does not matter if your mother thinks you can write,” he said, and I am still paraphrasing. “It does not matter if your boyfriend or wife or husband or all your friends think you can write. The truth is, you probably do not write as well as you think you do.”
He went on to tell us how difficult it is to break into the world of writing fiction. He explained how most people who started writing a novel never finished it, and how most who finished writing a book never found an agent or publisher, and how most who did manage to get a book out into the wide world did not go on to fame or fortune.
In other words, publishing was a tough game and even people who could write — and write better than any of us probably could — were not going to find success.
We would bang away at our keyboards, pour our souls into our work and, most likely, end up with drawers full of unread, unloved pages. That was our destiny.
He went on to explain how the course would work, how he would try to help us and how we would all help one another, blah blah blah yadda yadda yadda. I don’t think we were listening at that point. I think we were all deer in headlights, watching this man’s Dracula stare and convincing ourselves that we should maybe switch majors or enlist in the military.
Eventually, that first day ended and we all shambled out. No one said a word, but there were many loud exhalations.
I remember looking into the eyes of another student, a curly-haired blond guy as young as I was. He was a stranger to me, but we had just shared a traumatic experience and so we had a bond of sorts. His eyes looked frightened, and I am sure mine did, too. We had fear in common.
But there was one vital difference between me and that other fellow. I came back for the next session, and he did not.
Only seven or eight of us returned to that classroom. Guild leaned on the desk, looked at the nearly empty room and clasped his hands together in apparent delight, and we learned that Dracula could smile. “Well,” he said, “now that we have this class down to a manageable size, and some of you are not frightened off, let me tell you how this class is really going to work.”
He had tried to scare us away, and he’d succeeded with most of the class. He no longer looked upon us like we were flies on his prime rib. He genuinely seemed pleased that we’d come back for more.
Important writing lesson number one learned: Don’t let anyone scare you off. If you want to be a writer, take up your lance and spur your steed. You have to want it.
Guild’s motives, of course, were not evil. He was not there to dash dreams. There simply was no way to conduct the class in the proper way with that many students and, frankly, if you could be sent crawling away you probably weren’t a candidate for success in the first place. And so, he had culled the herd.
He moved us out of the classroom and into a lounge with comfortable armchairs, a nice carpet, and tables to hold our coffee or water bottles. We sat around the room, facing one another, while Guild took a corner seat. We were a team now, survivors, feeling saucy and eager to learn.
The class worked simply. We would write and make copies of our work for each class member. There were no restrictions as far as content or genre or anything like that. We were just to write the stories we wanted to write, and then share them with our classmates and Guild.
Then we’d each take a turn in the hot seat, while the class discussed our work.
There was just one rule: As your work was critiqued, you had to remain silent. You could not explain what you were trying to do, or try to justify your sloppy word choice, or tell a classmate they were being overly sensitive to the harsh dialogue uttered by your characters.
“You won’t be able to sit by the reader, will you?” Guild was adamant. “The work has to speak for itself.”
And so we took the assigned reading for the week, read it, formed our opinions and came back to the class to tell that week’s author what we thought. We were encouraged to be direct, and brutally honest.
None of these short stories or sample chapters we wrote for class ever got a grade as the course went forward. There were no exams or lectures. We just wrote, and read, and critiqued. Guild let us do most of the talking, although he had his own observations to share about our work and he was blunt and honest, whether praising or being critical.
It was somewhat agonizing, even on days when it was not my story being eviscerated. The author in the hot seat tended to squirm a lot, inhale sharply often, and stare at the ceiling as we all pointed out plot weaknesses, unrealistic dialogue, tropes and cliches, overly floral prose, and all the other literary sins. I am sure we hit almost all of them, and possibly invented some new ones.
I vividly recall the first time my work got critiqued in class. “Oh, look,” Guild said. “Our first cop story.” He made it sound as though it was absolutely inevitable that some poor fool would turn in a cop story in every class, and he probably was correct. Anyway, I had about thirty or forty pages of a story about a journalist and a police detective who were buddies, and this was the first chapter of an eventual novel in which the reporter would be a thorn in the side of his cop friend as they went on to unravel a murder mystery. I thought my dialogue was funny and brilliant, and I thought people would love my characters.
Boy, was I wrong.
“I’m wondering what the story is?” That came from a guy who had written a mountain climbing adventure that featured some improbable sex on a ledge. “I mean, this reporter just seems like a smartass, but what’s the plot?”
I squirmed but held my tongue.
Others agreed I had given them no real hook or reason to keep reading. It had been just page after page of two guys whose friendship seemed primarily based upon annoying one another. It wasn’t the start of a story. It was just a transcribed conversation between two fictional characters.
And they picked apart my descriptions, or rather the lack of them. I recall some comments I disagreed with, and I recall wondering if some of my classmates had read books before, and I wanted to breathe fire and defend myself.
But I remained silent, and listened, and later I incorporated the feedback I agreed with and disregarded the stuff I thought was idiotic.
Important writing lesson number two learned: You are not as good as you think you are, but you are not as bad as some others think you are. Learn to walk the tightrope between embracing good advice and trusting your own instincts.
My next time in the hot seat a few weeks later went better. I did not try an updated version of my first story. Instead, I wrote a chapter of a new novel, this one about a New York cop who resigned and left the city in a tailspin after a particularly ugly case. My writing still wasn’t great, but I paid more attention to setting a hook and descriptive detail and other things my classmates had noted. I still squirmed as I listened, and I still got mad, but I had been through that fire once and I handled it better.
Important writing lesson number three learned: Just keep going. You really can learn and improve.
It took me a long while to publish a novel. I worked in journalism for years, got married, became a father and occasionally wrote short stories of fantasy and horror that showed up in small-market magazines. I learned that the things Guild told us on that first day were true. Writing is a tough business. Not everyone makes it. Even talented writers can struggle to find an audience.
But I kept at it, and now I have five published novels out in the world, four historical mysteries featuring pirates and a modern-day detective novel called CITY PROBLEMS, which eventually sprang from one of the sample chapters I wrote for Guild’s class so long ago.
Important writing lesson number four learned: Never throw away your ideas. They might work out one day if you stay at it.
My sixth novel, WAYWARD SON, is due in stores soon, and I am reviewing my publisher’s edits on the seventh. I am far from a household name in the literary world, but I have found readers who like my work, and I am very happy I did not let Nicholas Guild scare me away from trying all those years ago.
By the way, when I sold my first novel, THE BLOODY BLACK FLAG, I tracked down Guild and asked him if he would be willing to write a blurb for the cover. He did not specifically remember me, but he very graciously agreed to read my book and provide a quote. When he sent me the blurb, he also sent me a bit of feedback from one professional to another and pointed out a weakness in my novel. And he was absolutely correct, damn it.
Important writing lesson number five learned: Find people who know what they are talking about and listen to them when they critique your work.
I did not take any other fiction writing courses. I am not an MFA kind of writer. I learned what I know about writing this stuff mostly by reading other authors, paying attention to what works and what doesn’t and, of course, wandering around blindly in the dark wondering what the hell I was doing. But I am a published author, by God, and I even get the occasional note from a fan via social media, and a good deal of that success stems from the lessons learned in one class at Ohio State in 1979.
If you want to be a writer, I hope this essay is one thread that helps you along the way. I certainly hope I haven’t scared you away. That won’t get your name on a book spine. Trust me.
An Ed Runyon Mystery #2
A PI goes hunting for a missing boy—and ends up being prey
Ed Runyon, a former sheriff's deputy haunted by past missing child cases that went horribly wrong, is struggling to launch a PI agency and still live in the Ohio farm country he loves. His love life is in shambles, too, as his partner turns to someone else. His best friend got roughed up by a rogue cop, so Ed is in a fighting mood.
Ed finds a new focus when he is hired to find a runaway chess aficionado who is keeping secrets from his homophobic, religious parents. Finding kids is the reason he became a PI, so Ed is determined to succeed and put the demons and other problems behind him. But Jimmy Zachman made a bad move and ran into far more trouble than he was already in, and the hunt for him leads Ed to a deadly and desperate confrontation. Everything comes down to determination—and one very risky move. Ed must find Jimmy at all costs.
Perfect for fans of John Sandford and Robert Crais
Mystery Private Eye [Oceanview Publishing, On Sale: August 2, 2022, Hardcover / e-Book, ISBN: 9781608094455 / ]
Steve Goble is the author of the Spider John mystery novels. A digital producer for the Cincinnati Enquirer and the USA Today Network in Ohio, Goble edits news copy and helps manage website and print production, along with social media presence, for ten USA Today Network sites in Ohio. Previously, he wrote a weekly craft beer column called “Brewologist,” which appeared on the USA Today Network websites.
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