Writing a Bestselling Series, Chapter 15: On Molding New Writers

When you’re a writer, there are a lot of jobs in the field that are somewhat related.  I’ve worked on videogames and movies, edited computer manuals, helped write proposals, written a little nonfiction, and so on.  Certainly one of the most common careers is teaching.

Now, when I was in college I put a lot of my emphasis on editing, and worked as an undergraduate helping professors raise their writing skills to publishable levels—editing books, magazine articles, scholarly journals, self-help books, funding proposals, and so on.

But I also took a classes on children’s literature and on teaching, and found that I really enjoyed both, and began to wonder if I would like to teach at all.

But every time that I considered it, I shied away from the idea.  There is a quote that many of you have probably heard: “Those who know how to write, write.  Those who don’t, teach.”

If you think about this quote and extend it to all fields, you an easily see why civilization is crumbling.  Those who know how to doctor, doctor.  Those who don’t teach—so our doctors get worse with each generation.  Those who know how to design skyscrapers, design.  Those who don’t, teach.  Those who know how to live moral lives, live.  Those who don’t, teach.

Obviously, the saying isn’t true, and I’ve only ever heard it applied to writers.  Still, there is something about a writer who is looking at teaching that sort of makes him squeamish.  That sort of says, “Don’t do that.  It’s an admission of failure.”

My old writing professor, Leslie Norris, told me once that this saying came about in the 1950s, when colleges first began getting a strong demand for writing classes.  They tried to fill the classes wholesale with professors who had merely been reading and dissecting literature, not creating literature.  Well, you can dissect a frog a lot easier than you can create a frog.

I was more interested in making frogs—in creating living, breathing stories.

So at first, I resisted the impulse to teach.  The first time that I was invited to teach a writing class was pretty early in my career, back in about 1992.  I attended a little science fiction convention, and afterward a group of a dozen people approached me and a spokesman asked, “Will you teach us a writing class?”  Well, I was a fairly new writer, but at the same time I was winning awards and working with the Writers of the Future, so I thought about it and said, “No, I don’t do that.”

But one of them replied, “We’ll pay you money,” and so I quickly reconsidered.

Over the next few years I continued working with the Writers of the Future to discover new writers.  I would give critiques on stories, tell writers how to fix them and where to send them, and by 1995 I had over five hundred writers that I had helped get their start.  As I took over the contest, that process accelerated, and I gradually eased into the role of becoming the lead instructor with Writers of the Future.  In about 1997 I was asked to develop the writer’s track for Dragon Con, which at that time was one of the two largest science fiction conventions in the US.

I discovered in fact that many, if not most, writers teach in some ways.  We often speak on panels at conventions or give presentations.  Many fine writers teach at various workshops, and I learned that some of my favorite working writers, like Roger Zelazny, Gene Wolfe, and Connie Willis, all taught at the university level.  So that lessened the stigma.

Then in 1999, one of my old writing teachers at BYU developed cancer and knew that it was terminal.  He asked if I would be willing to teach a class or two at BYU, specifically the science fiction and fantasy writing course, though we also talked about teaching courses on Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and others.  I went to the interview and was offered a full-time job, a nice one, though I couldn’t justify taking a job that paid me roughly 1/3 of what I was making as a writer, so I said, “I’d love to teach just the one class.”

The value of teaching that one class was that it allowed me to develop my own curriculum, figure out how I wanted to approach teaching the art of writing.  So I settled in and began teaching a group of nice, eager, intelligent folks.  I started out the class by assuring my students that, “If you want to be a writer, you can make a living at this.  I’ll show you how.” And that was my goal for my introductory course.

After I got home on my first day, my wife asked, “Well, did you discover any great new writers?”

I told her, “Yes, I found at least three, if they want the job.”

“Who are they?”

“Brandon Sanderson, Dan Wells, and maybe one other, but I’m worried that his dad wants him to take over his construction company and it’s worth millions of dollars. . . .”

She said, “How can you possibly know?  You haven’t even read anything that they’ve written.”

That question has often stumped me.  I gave her the only answer that I could think of: “They asked the right questions.”  That’s part of it.  But there’s more.  I could see the desire in their eyes, and I could see the dedication and their natural intelligence.  Those are the main ingredients.

I began teaching the class, and with his first assignment, Brandon Sanderson turned in the opening chapter to his novel Elantris.  I told him that if he kept writing like that, I’d not only give him an A for the class but I’d also give him a cover quote for the novel.

A few days later he came to my office and asked how to start a career, and I told him that he would need to go to a large convention to meet some editors.  He brought up some roadblocks—things like his work schedule, lack of money, and so on.  We got rid of those one by one, and Brandon flew across the country and met his agent. A couple of years later, I gave him a cover quote for the novel, and then we began doing book tours together, going through half a dozen states each year, so that we built his audience.  Now, of course, he’s huge.

In 1999 I began playing with the idea of working in film and decided to make some little indie shorts.  Dan Wells volunteered to help, as did a couple dozen other people, and that’s when I learned that he is a creative genius—to my mind, one of the brightest writers working today.

I ended up teaching the class at BYU for three years.  Of course my biggest discovery there was Stephanie Meyer.  She had already graduated from BYU and was raising her family, but her husband was a grad student, finishing up, and when she heard that I was teaching a writing course she decided to attend. She said that she had secretly wanted to be a writer but had never taken a course while at school.  I found her to be very intelligent and fiercely passionate. Those are two of my favorite qualities in people.  After a couple of weeks of class, she asked if she could come after class for a consultation. At it she asked, “How can I become the bestselling young adult writer of all time?”

Now that’s the right kind of question!  At the time I was taking trips, studying greenlighting analysis at a boutique agency in Hollywood, and so I used some of the factors that I had taken into consideration when trying to boost Harry Potter, but then went beyond that.  I suggested that she would write that novel by combining a strong sense of wonder with romance, and then asked some questions that led to thinking about vampires and werewolves in Forks, Washington.  We then went on to talk about how to sell the novel, and so on.  Thus I developed a small connection between the two best-selling novels of our time.

This was in 2002, and at the end of the year I got an offer to become a movie producer in Hollywood, and so I took that job and was no longer able to teach at BYU.  By that time, I was having some trouble with allergies, and realized that teaching at a university setting (where I would be exposed to perfumes, hair sprays, and other things that I’m allergic to) wasn’t a good idea.  So even though I’ve gotten feelers from other colleges and universities, at this point I’ve turned them all down.

I decided to simply teach on my own, and I began setting up live writing workshops.  (In fact, I’m teaching some in the next few months—one in Saint George, Utah; one in Sydney, Australia; one in Brisbane, Australia; one in Phoenix, Arizona; and the Superstars Writing Seminar in the Denver, Colorado area.)  I like the fact that I can set my own curriculum and we can focus on things that I wasn’t able to teach at the university.  Through these I’ve worked with dozens of talented new writers, folks like James Dashner (The Maze Runner), and Brandon Mull (Fablehaven), and many others.

In the past couple of years, I’ve also added some online writing courses, but for the moment, I’ve pretty much closed access to those.  I’m getting ready to finish a novel and write a screenplay this fall, on top of my other projects.  So I’m trying to find some balance between teaching and writing.

Still, I love teaching, and I’m finding that I have a good deal of influence in the field.  A couple of days ago, I watched one of my past students being interviewed on television about her upcoming novel.  My old friend and student Brian Durfee released his first major fantasy novel this week, and I’ve received thank-you letters from several writers who have sold books.

I often hear from readers of this column.  One young writer in South Africa wrote a thank you note after receiving a huge contract and said, “Your newsletter is the only writer’s training I’ve ever received.” Another young woman approached me at a convention in California a few weeks ago and showed me her third young adult novel, and thanked me for helping her to find the courage to write—and thus make a career.

And of course I’m back to working with Writers of the Future and am discovering some amazing new writers from around the globe.

I think I’m finally getting over the stigma of being both a writer and a teacher.  Who says you can’t do both?


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