In February I’m scheduled to teach “Writing the Mystery Novel” at the Off-Campus Writers Workshop in Winnetka, Illinois. Teaching the class is a result of having published Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. While I’ve taught many writing classes in many different places on many different topics, I’ve never before taught one based directly on the contents of one of my books.
You would think that this is an easy teaching assignment: pick up the book and go through it, chapter by chapter.
Not. A. Chance.
I remember how horrified I and a classmate were when, freshmen in college, we encountered a World History professor who proceeded to read from the book. Day after day, hour after hour.
What, we asked ourselves, was the sense of our reading the book and attending the lectures? Doing one or the other would have been more efficient. Doing both was boring, and the professor didn’t seem to understand that it’s often more productive to teach the same topic in several different ways, maybe from several different directions, to increase the chance that students will grasp the meaning of what is being taught.
Because of that experience, I never teach “from the book.” Instead, I approach the topic (in this case, writing a mystery novel) in a different way, from a different direction.
Speaking live to a group of people is quite different from writing a book. For one thing, a book is dated the minute it’s published — but in teaching a subject face-to-face, a mentor can mention or use as an example something that happened yesterday. Or this morning. Or just five minutes ago. In teaching “Writing the Mystery Novel,” I’ll be able to bring in current events if I wish, or novels I’ve just finished reading.
For my in-person teaching I plan to use a wider variety of mystery novels as examples than I did in Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies. The examples in Guide are strong examples that illustrate the techniques and problems I discuss. They are, however, all examples from my own writing — not only because I know my own writing process best, but also because I freely give myself permission to quote from any of my books.
Such is not the case with getting permission to quote passages from other people’s novels. Getting permission is a boring, time-consuming affair. (For Women at Play: The Story of Women in Baseball, I spent three full months doing nothing but getting permissions. . . . ) But each teacher is free to hold up somebody else’s book and talk about it in class and read a passage from it. In fact, reading aloud to students is a great way to entertain them and get them to hear/see things in a different light.
I find that the structure of a live class often reveals itself to me in a different form or outline than does that of the book. As I prepare a class, I imagine what students expect out of (in this case) two sessions. They will receive less information than is contained within Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel — maybe only one-third as much. But what they receive will be central to their immediate concerns: for example, the crime, the villain, the suspects, and planting clues. And what they receive will be a give-and-take experience: if they have a question, they can ask it then and there. Ask for clarification, ask for examples, tell what they’re writing about and what problems they’re facing.
I love writing books both because I am captivated by story and because I love the written word. I love teaching in person because I enjoy the opportunity to clarify, the spontaneity of examples, and the unexpectedness of random questions from students.