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Sunday, June 28, 2020

Learning by Teaching by Annette Dashofy

I’m wrapping up teaching a monthlong online writing course on Creating a Cast of 3-Dimensional Characters for Pennwriters. I posted the final lesson and assignment on Friday. All that’s left is commenting on homework and answering questions. My main goal for my students was simple: make them think.

I think I’ve succeeded. I know they’ve succeeded in making me think.

I love teaching writing workshops. Every time I do, I walk away having learned as much if not more than I’ve taught.

The timing of this class has been perfect. I’m plotting out my next book, creating the cast of characters—victims, red herrings, a villain, and the supporting players. As I make out my list of who’s who in this mystery, I’m doing the exact same exercises that I’m giving my students.

In a nutshell, I let each character tell me about him or herself. What brought them to this moment, how they feel about the other characters, what they want, and what they’ll do to get it.

I learned long ago that when I get stuck while writing, it’s usually because I’ve lost track of the villain. Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason series, once advised writers to plot from the viewpoint of the villain and write from the perspective of the protagonist.

That one bit of advice is probably the best I’ve ever received. If I don’t know what the villain is doing behind the scenes, I have no clue where my story is headed or what Zoe and Pete will encounter on the page.

Another workshop I taught recently revolved around the creation of red herrings and misdirection. Once again, I’m being my own student. This morning, I was scanning my list of suspects and their motives for potentially being the killer, and I realized I needed one more. It took me an hour to come up with a name, a motive, and—most importantly—a history. Where had he been since the time of the murder? Why had he been mysteriously absent? What was his connection to the victim? But once I finished “channeling” this new character (one of my students dubbed it “a stream of consciousness” and I love that description!), I knew in my heart that my cast was solid and complete.

And 3-dimensional!

As a writer, it’s amazing how much I’ve learned over the years. It’s even more amazing how much I’ve forgotten. Putting together a new workshop or dusting off an old one for a new presentation does wonders for bringing it all back. Watching a new student make the same mistakes as I once did brings it back even clearer.

Have you ever taught a class or a workshop (on writing or anything else) and felt you received as much as you gave?


Susan said...

Great post, Annette. You are so right. I was lucky enough to learn from my students for 44 years. It’s a two-way street.

Kait said...

Wonderful post, Annette. I have cut and pasted and put in my plotting file for future reference.

I've not taught writing classes, but I did teach scuba diving - and yes, as Susan says, it's a two way street. Keep us informed of your classes. I know I'd love to take one.

Annette said...

Susan, it's definitely a two-way street.

Thank you, Kait. I don't have anything else lined up right now, but I'll keep you posted.

KM Rockwood said...

If my students over the years have learned as much from me as I have from them, I would be pleased.

Annette said...

I hear you, KM!

Charlie Jones said...

As a student of Annette's in the recent class, what I learned from her was to never forget the other characters in your story. Let them have a backstory and motivations just like the main character. The other characters should be working just as hard in the backwaters of your story as the main character is in the foreground. Thanks again, Annette. I promise I'll never take a secondary character for granted again.

Annette said...

Awwww... Thank you, Charlie! Your writing is so clean and intriguing, I feel I've shortchanged you because I've had so little to "critique" with your assignments. I'm glad you found the course helpful.

Grace Koshida said...

Interesting post, Annette!

I am not a writer but I did teach some graduate courses while I was an adjunct faculty member at the University of Toronto. I was considered an expert in my field (climate change research) but had no training from my employer (federal government) on how to develop course materials and teach in an academic setting. I had done plenty of (short) scientific presentations but that was to my peers. It was a steep learning curve and challenge to develop enough material for an entire semester and to keep graduate students engaged and interested! But I really enjoyed it. And you are's weird how many references and facts I had to dig up from my own past work that I had forgotten about.

Your students are lucky to have you!

Annette said...

Thank you, Grace!

And you are so right about developing material. I've said in the past that if there's a topic I want to learn about but can't find a course or workshop on it, I create one of my own just so I can do the research for the class.