I’ve studied writing at The New School; Vermont College; Antioch University; with Shannon Gilligan at Coaching for Writers; with Kim Moritsugu at Humber College; and at Spalding University in Louisville, Kentucky. Some of the teachers and classes were outstanding.
Sydney Offitt’s fiction writing class at The New School in New York is terrific. He’s a marvelous teacher, and a truly fine person. The New School used to have one- day Saturday writing programs, including a class on suspense and, long ago, Renni Browne’s lecture on Self-Editing for Fiction Writers. Unfortunately, they rarely offer those one-day workshops these days.
What about on-line classes? I’ve been disappointed by some of the other students in on-line classes. Typically, there’s no screening of students, so you encounter all levels of writing and education in a class. Some students have uninformed opinions they don’t hesitate to express. For example, in an on-line class at Gotham Writer’s Workshop, where you post sections of your manuscript for classmates’ comments, a woman insisted that the Chanel suit one of my characters wears should be spelled ‘Channel.’ (I don’t object to anyone correcting my spelling, but those doing the correcting should make sure they’re right.) Size of class is important. I found an on-line Vermont College class taught by Shawn Merwin useful. Shawn was a good teacher, and there was only one other student in the class, so it was more efficient than other on-line courses I’ve taken. A big on-line course can be a nightmare, with everyone scrambling to express him or herself.
Some distance learning courses require the student to send the instructor a certain number of pages of a novel at specific intervals, such as 45-50 pages a month. Problems can arise if the instructor doesn’t keep copies of earlier chapters. I’ve had instructors tell me to put material in a chapter that had already appeared, but had been forgotten by the instructor. (The instructor can turn surly when this error is brought to his/her attention.)
Antioch University had a novel distance learning program: the student designed his/her own curriculum, and found his/her own faculty. (This program may no longer exist; the University has undergone a major restructuring.) I learned a lot from my experience with the program. I arranged courses (each with a faculty member I knew in New York) on Mysteries Set in the Art World; Books and Films Set in the Business World; Mysteries Set in Closed Societies (schools, hospitals, etc.); and Golden Age Mysteries. I also wanted to study technique, so I set up courses on Creating Suspense; Authentic Settings; Character Development; and Writing Effective Dialogue. I identified the best books of the types I wanted to write, the best writers of dialogue, the most successful plotters, the most brilliant builders of suspense, and the most creative describers of settings. I set out to learn from each of them. The experience was useful and made me long for more.
When I searched for other writing classes, I learned that some colleges with distance learning programs allow non-enrolled individuals to attend their residences. When we read about Spalding’s 2008 residency in Bath and London, we signed up. It was a great learning experience, and we decided to apply for enrollment at Spalding. We were accepted, and for two years, we were full-time (distance learning) students. I had a great experience with Kenny Cook, a mentor who challenged me to write some of the essays on this website, and who was very encouraging about the mystery books I was writing. Why didn’t I complete the program? It’s a four-year program, and the third year focused on teaching, which doesn’t interest me. The fourth year is used to write a book, and I’d already completed two—so although I’d like to earn an MFA, I decided this wasn’t the program for me.
Then I tried a residence at an MFA program at another college, but I was unhappy with workshopping there. “I don’t believe in a woman in her thirties being that successful” and “I don’t believe a woman like that would design and make her own clothes” were typical comments. Since I knew (and know) many women successful in their thirties, and the model for the designer and maker of her own clothes was a good friend, I was troubled. The critiques seem to be based on the lack of experience or knowledge of the commentator, rather than dedicated to helping me improve the manuscript. But I continue to consider other MFA programs, and perhaps I’ll earn that MFA one of these days.
Meanwhile, I study books about writing, some of which are illustrated here.