I’m currently teaching an online class on plotting a character-driven mystery novel to a wonderful group of the Guppies, an online chapter of Sisters in Crime. As always happens when I teach, though, I find that I’m learning things myself.
When I first began teaching creative writing many years ago, I discovered that students didn’t want just theory—they wanted to know what worked for me. This forced me to examine my own writing process and to get really serious about streamlining it, abandoning practices that had stopped working for me (if they ever really did) and trying out new practices that I learned about from other writers.
I’ve been doing this for a while now, so I feel pretty confident about the techniques I teach. I stress that they are not the only, or even necessarily the best, techniques, but they are the techniques I use successfully. Every class I teach, though, I end up learning something new about my own writing practice.
In this class, I was teaching about a technique of asking myself questions about how the characters will develop and where the book will go and putting these questions down on paper—because the very act of writing them down will stimulate more questions and eventually answers. Also, later as you’re in the midst of the first draft, you can look over the list and strike through the ones you’ve answered and know what you still have to deal with.
Right after giving feedback on the previous assignments that students had emailed me, I turned to my current writing project. I’m doing final revisions on a project I can’t really talk about yet, and I’m also in the earliest stages of developing characters and story in the fourth Skeet Bannion mystery. As I sat down with that last project, I looked over the character list I’d made to start the book, which will take Skeet to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, and thus entail a number of new characters, and I began my question list by writing at least one question for each character. Major characters had more than one question—sometimes a lot more.
With the class in mind, I realized this was something I do with each book but had never paid close enough attention to the process to notice before. Of course, I immediately told my class and offered it as an addendum to the question-list strategy. As usual, the act of teaching has made me more aware of my own process and what works best for me and what doesn’t. With each class I teach, I become not only a better teacher, but I become, if not a better writer, then, certainly, a more efficient one.
Do you find the same thing when you teach? Or perhaps when you critique someone else’s work for a writers group?