The teacher becomes the student

There are no second chances in life, except to feel remorse.” – Carlos Ruiz Zafón

Day four in the mountains. Another big thunderstorm last night. I was in town grabbing dinner (I found a brewpub in Pagosa that makes great beer and a killer lamb burger. Score!) and didn’t want to risk heading to the cabin over wet dirt roads in the dark. With the Hedgehog’s city tires, it’s like driving on grape jelly. The friends who let me use the cabin also have a condo in town. It’s got all the creature comforts (hot shower! A flush toilet!) and it’s a good backup in bad weather, but I prefer the cabin for working (see previous photo of the mountain view).

I’ve been sleeping a lot since I got here; exhaustion comes on fast at 8,500 feet for a sea-level person. Typically I need three days to adjust to the altitude. The long afternoon naps needs to stop soon; I have a lot of work to do.

Work, for now, means a lot of reading and studying. I’m a beginner again. I’ve been writing all my life, but 20-plus years in journalism isn’t necessarily a good springboard for fiction writing. I’m like a lifelong sprinter who suddenly decided to run marathons. I need to work on technique. And endurance. Or I’ll blow a quad.

I don’t have any formal training to fall back on. I applied to a graduate fiction writing program earlier this year but didn’t get accepted. I haven’t done any workshops or seminars. I just sort of dove in, and now I’m having to learn as I go.

living room
The living room/office in the cabin

What I do have is a 147,000-word draft of a novel that I wrote mostly at the cabin over two summers. I haven’t looked at it in months. This summer, I want to chop it down by about 25,000 words (ouch) and do a lot of re-writing to deepen the characters and speed up the plot. Then it’ll be time to send it to agents and start praying.

Before I touch the book again, I’m planning to read several books on fiction writing. I’m starting with Stein on Writing, by Sol Stein – one of several books recommended by a Dallas literary agent who read most of my novel and basically said, You’ve got a lot of work to do. I bought every book on writing he suggested: one on novel editing, another on character development, another on common fiction writing mistakes (wonder how many I’ve made?). And I brought two that I’ve read before and loved: Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird and Stephen King’s On Writing.

The half loft

I’m about halfway through Stein’s book (taking copious notes as I go), and already I see what the agent was talking about. Too much static description that doesn’t move the plot forward (“You’re a storyteller, not an interior decorator,” Stein writes. Yeah, guilty as charged). My characters need to be more distinctive, more layered. And that’s just for starters. It’s a little intimidating, feeling so out of my depth after having a job (newspaper reporter) where I felt like I was ready for anything and a side job (teaching feature writing at the University of Texas) where college students looked to me as the old hand who could teach them how to tell a story.

So for the first week or two, I’m trying to just be a student of writing again. Truth is, I don’t really know what I’m doing up here. But I’m doing it, rather than thinking about doing it “someday” – which is what I did for too many years. Someday is here. Finally.


12 thoughts on “The teacher becomes the student”

  1. Glad to see you’re so open to switching roles. Keeping a student-of-life mentality can be extra hard when you’re officially on the teaching side…

    1. Thanks Addie. Glad you’re out there watching — I’m expecting a social media report card from you at the end of the summer.

  2. Wait–you have access to a real condo also? Phhhhht! And I thought you were roughing it!

    Just kidding. I hope you are having fun and being productive.


    1. I’m having fun, D. Starting to get productive around altitude naps. And thanks for catching that typo. A lawyer’s sharp eyes miss nothing….

  3. Oh my gosh. This blog made me flash back to some of the days when I was writing my book. How out of my depth I felt, despite all the years of newspaper reporting. I’d lie awake at night with a pit of fear in my stomach, trying not to think too far ahead, because I could not imagine how I was ever going to finish.
    If you persevere, all will be well. You have a better handle on your project than I did and are in such a good space, geographically and emotionally. I’m sure you’ll do great.
    Work hard, but also ENJOY this time. It is sacred space.

  4. Go for it, Dave. You will get it done, and be SO proud of your accomplishment! So many people die with their music unplayed. You won’t be one of them!

    The writer’s critique group I belong to (in Round Rock, TX) made the difference for my first book. Perhaps after you’re book is done, and before you submit it to agents, you’d like to join us? Excellent critiques and professional editors are in this small group. Because of their priceless help, my book has already won one award, and I just learned yesterday, it’s a finalist for another international competition. The hardest part, I’m finding, is getting the book sold (it’s all on the author’s shoulders these days). Anyway, I look forward to seeing snippits of what you’re working on? Maybe a teaser of the characters? Best of luck, enjoy the process. It’s really fun once you get into it. And, nice digs there in Colorado!!

    1. Thanks Kathy. Love that quote, “so many people die with their music unplayed.” I’m going to steal that, it’s too good.
      And thanks for the offer on the critique group, that sounds great. If I can work quickly enough I may be able to do it — I told two agents I’d have the MS to them within a couple of months.
      And I’ll post more samples soon. Thanks again.

  5. Love your posts, Dave! Good on you for backing up a bit and taking stock of where you’ve been and where you can go. “On Writing” is one of my favorites — particularly love “The road to hell is paved with adverbs”!

    Meanwhile, you’re an inspiration May I borrow “Someday is here. Finally.” as my new writing motto?

    P.S. Can you REALLy nap too much?!

    1. Thanks Cyndi, glad you liked what you saw. And once I’m done with the other 3 or 4 books on fiction writing I brought up here, I’m going to dive into On Writing again. I forgot that great line; gotta watch those adverbs. And of course you can borrow my line, hope it’s useful for you.
      Thanks again for your help/guidance at the WLT conference, it was really good to talk to you.
      And no, you can’t nap too much. Scientific fact. :)

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