Kate now teaches full time at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, Michigan. You'll find her listed on the NMU English Department web page as "Katherine Hanson." If you or someone you know attends NMU and wants to learn to write, well, you're in luck. If you live in the Marquette area and don't attend NMU, watch for a continuing ed class taught by Kate. Heck, why not enroll? I'm living proof that you're never too old to start college.
One day in that class back in 1990 we brought manuscripts and copies for each student. That was the moment of truth for me. Finally, I hoped, someone would tell me what was wrong with my story, not just what was right with it. I read my wonderful story aloud while Kate and the other students listened and made notes on their copies. Hummm, I thought as I read, they sure are making lots of notes.
When the comments came, I learned two important facts:
I soon joined Kate's writing group, Cane River Writers, which met at Kate's home on Thursday nights. That group quickly became the focus of my life. Almost every Thursday night for over five years, Kate and that fine bunch of folks critiqued each others' manuscripts. And every Thursday night, Kate taught us something about writing.
If you want to learn to write and you're not lucky enough to live near Marquette, Michigan, and Katherine Hanson, here's my advice:
Learn to take criticism. We had a saying in Cane River Writers Group: If you want praise for your manuscript, show it to your mother. If you want to know what's wrong with it, show it to us. If you can't take criticism, well, keep papering your walls with reject slips.
Needless to say, join a writer's group. You'll find one by nosing around the English department of the nearest college or university, especially if it's a liberal arts institution. Ask your local library if a writer's group meets there. Also, attend every writer's conference and workshop you possibly can. I've attended several and learned something from every one. Met some cool people, too.
Do some studying. As far as I'm concerned the following publications are not suggested reading, they're mandatory reading:
Let's begin with the American Master–Edgar Allan Poe. Don't think for a minute that something written in circa 1850 about writing has nothing to do with writing today. Poe's essays on writing have everything to do with writing today. The Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore hosts a great web site at http://www.eapoe.org with most of Poe's prose and poetry online. Go to that web site and download the following essays and save them so you can read them again and again: "The Philosophy of Composition"; "The Poetic Principle"; and "The Rationale of Verse."
Struggle through Poe's archaic 1850s writing style until you fully understand his timeless message. Although mostly about writing poetry, Poe's essays show how and why every word must logically follow and precede every other word. Let me give you an example:
Around 1991 or so while attending NSU in Natchitoches, Louisiana, I lived in poverty and unbelievable happiness in a little garage apartment at 103 Behan Street, just across from the NSU campus. One afternoon I was struggling with a word–one single word. I don't remember now what I was writing–a story, a poem, an English or anthropology paper, or a what? I couldn't think of a word that would make a sentence flow smoothly so the smooth-flowing sentence would make the paragraph flow smoothly so the paragraph would make the entire document flow smoothly. One word to make a sentence flow. That's all I wanted. One damned word.
I decided to take a walk and clear my head. I strolled down Behan Street, turned right on Bossier Street, crossed over Caspari Street, and headed for Second Street and the peaceful oaks and circa 1730 tombs in the American Cemetery. As I approached Second Street and the cemetery, I heard a piano. As I reached the street and the cemetery, the piano grew louder and I could tell that the music it produced came from within the Catholic church in the edge of the cemetery. I crossed the street, approached the church, then stopped and listened.
From out of the church poured what sounded like a piano concerto by Beethoven or Tchaikovsky. Then came the jarring clang of a mis-hit note and the music stopped. Then it started again. Out poured the perfectly played music. Then came the clang again and the music stopped again. I stepped inside the church. A young man sat at a grand piano, his fingers flying across the keys as he started playing again. He nodded at me, and I nodded back. Then came the clang, and the fingers stopped. He gave the piano a look of disgust and started again.
As I watched him play, the thought struck me that he was doing the exact same thing I was doing. I searched for the perfect word, and he searched for the perfect note. Without them, neither my document nor his song flowed. A poorly played song clangs against the brain with no less clamor than a poorly written document. And that in a nutshell is Edgar Allan Poe's timeless message.
So take another look at that wonderful story you're about to send to an editor. The first time one of your words clangs against that editor's brain, your wonderful story is going in his reject pile.
I'll go out on a limb and say that the chapter on point of view is the best and easiest to understand ever written. But don't take my word for it. Click the cover art and read this book's reviews on its page at Amazon.com.
Gatsby is one of the most perfectly written books ever. F. Scott Fitzgerald was and is the writer's writer. I've attended several writer's workshops where the instructor–famous and not-so-famous–used passages from Gatsby as writing examples. No one could make a sentence flow like F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Fitzgerald made his sentences flow through the device of movement. Two passages in particular are often used by writing teachers:
Read Gatsby again. You'll see what I mean. But wait until after you've studied Writing Fiction so you'll better understand Fitzgerald's writing techniques. Alas, you will soon find yourself analyzing fiction instead of enjoying it.
I have agonized many times over why a paragraph I wrote just didn't seem to work for some damned reason. Then I remembered Fitzgerald's grass and skirts and made my paragraph move.