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Shona aged four

This is probably what I looked and felt like when I started writing three years ago. I was winging my first draft, super cocky, ready to dazzle the world. Nobody told me my glasses were too big. Nobody told me I had a bad haircut. I furiously jotted ideas in an expensive leather notebook. Brilliant lines flashed though my head while driving to the grocery stone. I took writerly walks like Stephen King: so writerly, I refused to even let my husband come along. Now, when I look back I see a small girl with big glasses driving a monster truck. I was hurtling down unpaved roads, veering dangerously close to the drop off. My story meandered willy-nilly and often went into some very foggy woods. But did I care care? Hell no! I was a writer!

What happened?

I wandered into Rob Halls’ writing class. I had heard about Rob’s class from another writer. It was difficult to get in. Students pre-registered even before the semester was over. I put my name down on the waiting list and got called one day before the class started. I was in! I found myself in a writing group of 12-16 writers. Mixed ages, no specific genre. There were no prerequisites for the class but all writers had to have a full-length novel in progress. We met once a week at the Community College and critiqued each other’s writing while Rob moderated in his wry, funny way, and made sure nobody got fatally wounded. I was the disruptive one. An unbroken mustang: no critiques had ever reined me in.

Rob Hall never cut with his sword, he always pointed. This was his first gentle critique:

“There is some really good writing in this chapter. You have a particular strength with similes that create, new relevant images for the reader. Clearly, you have the skills. That being said, I don’t know where we are going or what the story is about.”

My fellow writers all had the same complaint. My writing was like pretty leaves scattered on the ground. Nobody saw the magnificent tree in my head. There were no interconnecting branches, no main trunk.

Rob explained things simply but he was never patronizing. Here is another critique:

The things I remember most about this scene is her toe worrying the paint on the verandah and her father lacing his boots. Why is that? You forced me to see those things. In a screenplay those close-up images would be called “insets.” I call the scene truncated because you never finish it. The father stands up and gets his pipe and tin of tobacco. Does he ever pack the pipe with tobacco? Does he ask his daughter what she is going to do with the rest of her day? Do they go down to breakfast together? We don’t know. You have the talent to write well and create images that are fresh and artistic, but I am a bit lost as to what is going on or what to expect when I turn the page to the next chapter. Good luck and keep writing. Rob Hall.

Then he got tougher. This time it was a hug followed by a couple of smacks and a final hug.

Your writing is so lyrical and imagistic that I’m crazy for it: until to get to dialogue, and then it’s atrocious. It seems as if a beam came down from somewhere and stole your grammar, absconded with your Tab key (sometimes) struck you dumb about keeping commas and periods INSIDE double quotation marks, and then impishly snatched away some of your terminal punctuation when you went to get a cup of tea. Then, when we return to the narrative, your writing is again beautiful and lyrical. Are you being possessed? Jekyl and Hyde? The words in the dialogue are good. You simply need to get command of the structure. It’s actually the easiest thing to do in fiction. Make it a habit to write correct dialogue. I really like your writing and your characters. You have talent, girl. Good luck and keep writing. Rob Hall.

I have to admit, I was not entirely clueless about grammar: I was just too damn lazy. Plus I had a crappy attitude:  I believed punctuation was for librarians and school teachers and not talented writers like me (why hadn’t Rob Hall told me himself?) I did not want to be bothered with those pesky little things. When I refused to toe the line,  Rob Hall just let me have it.

“What is this stuff”. What is that period hanging outside the double quotation marks for? “It is supposed to be like this.” Always.

And what – is this thing? This hypen hanging out in the wind? I suspect you think that it is a dash–but this is a dash. A dash is two hypens with no spaces within a mile of themdo you see?

And again, what is this…three squeezed periods? An Ellipses is presented  . . .  like this in a manuscript. Good luck and keep writing. Rob Hall.

He always ended with.“Good luck and keep writing.” It was those five little words (plus the hugs and smacks) that kept me going.

This writing class forced me off the dirt track on to the highway. I began to understand road signs and steer my story towards a clear destination. I learned about plot, narrative arc and pacing. Oh, how I hated structure! All I wanted was to step on the gas and drive like Rambo over potholes.

I have been told I am a good story teller. I can make people laugh, cry, think and wonder. I never thought I would need anything else to be a good writer. But I had much to learn and Rob Hall’s class was only the beginning.

Shona Patel’s debut novel Teatime for the Firefly is a love story set in a tea plantation in Assam. You can read more about it HERE.  She is represented by April Eberhardt Literary.

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