“Your problem is you don’t know how to start your stories,” he said, pushing his wire frame glasses up his nose with a nicotine-stained finger. “You need to start with a bang, a hook; a mystery. You need to grab the reader’s attention immediately, not a few paragraphs down the page.” He dropped my dog-eared manuscript in front of me. It was covered in livid red ink; deconstructive feedback.
I sat there feeling mildly humiliated by him, yet again, but then again I’d joined a creative writing class for the criticism. He moved on to the pretty girl to my right (the one who never knowingly left the house without a low-cut top) “Great work as ever, Julia.” A generous glimpse down.
The difference between a smile and a leer is drool.
He moved to the front to deliver his sermons to the class; he’d started the first class with “Most writing is banal, most writers at best merely proficient. With my help, someday you might be proficient.” Was that a meaningful glance in my direction?
2am now and my vision is still fuzzy from embarrassment, mind still fizzy from the output of my internal chemical factory – fight, flight or fright. Old, clammy sweat clings to my forehead reflecting the brutal bathroom light in the mirror. It’s too hot to sleep – too hot in the room and too hot in my brain.
A fly buzzes forlornly against the window that’s never touched a drop of cleaning fluid. The bare light bulb blinks so I pull the string and loiter in darkness peering at the space where my reflection used to be.
Each lesson had a theme: ‘conflict’, ‘character relationships’; today’s was ‘mystery’. “The example piece I gave you opened with the protagonist’s reaction to a photograph he’d received, which caused shock and revulsion. But really it opened by showing the reader a mystery: what is it a photo of? Then immediately: why is it so shocking? Why 2am? The revelation that it was blackmail raised more questions than it answered – who, how, to what end? Why the withheld number? Each reveal in fact increased the mystery, until the final twist that the message had come from his wife – the person he most wanted to keep in blissful unawareness of his philandering.”
To give the man his due, it was a fantastic story, profound despite the mundane subject matter. It takes a special talent to breathe life into calcified clichés.
In reading aloud extracts to us his obvious passion for words really came into its own. He was never more animated than when quoting himself. He wasn’t good-looking but charisma trumps all.
This short discussion, more a monologue, had been followed up by passing a copy of an anonymous new work for the class to critique with our own indelicate tools. “I’ll give you a moment to read through this piece and take some notes.” But of course we knew he couldn’t wait for long to begin explaining everything the author had done wrong.
“This short story explores the father-son conflict through the conceit of two vampires: the master and his pupil, competing for the same victim,” he said, somehow affecting a quizzical eyebrow through speech alone. My heart sank with the realisation that the story to be torn apart was my own.
“Any thoughts, anyone?” The class shuffled collectively and avoided eye contact; as ever, no one wanted to be first. “I’m disappointed…” he tailed off, casting a coolly appraising gaze around the room before it alighted on me. “What about you Mark? Any thoughts?”
From a distance it can be hard to distinguish the flush of embarrassment from that of blind rage. “I quite liked it,” I said, “maybe…too many?.. Adjectives?”
“Too many adjectives,” his eyes blazed, “Exactly right, Mark. Any idea why the adjective use is a problem in this story? Anyone?”
I’m ashamed that I felt grateful for the pat on the head.
Hesitant theories were proffered until the professor heard one he liked. “Yes, Nina, the adjectives make the reader too passive – and unlike with TV, the reader is active. You need the space to draw your own picture, your own conclusions. Well done, Nina.”
No mistaking her blush for anger.
The class warmed to the task – Antoine (not his given name) disliked the pacing, Sarah thought it would have been better written in the third person. Ben thought the vampire idea was “lame”, Chris said he just didn’t really get it. Antoine felt that the “lexicon was too gauche for the subject matter”. Rachel thought the character names “weren’t very vampire”.
With each incision I sank lower in my chair, the crude cuts as painful as the sharp: my grammar was off, too much dialogue and not enough action, the victim too idealised, and on and on.
A fact is just a prejudice confirmed by others
A fact is just an opinion with poorer manners.
I am a bad writer. This is a fact.
Then Julia put her hand up. “Yes Julia?” the professor gave her an amused-bemused look. All eyes turned to her. “I really liked it; I thought the author captured the dynamic really well. And I didn’t feel spoon-fed. In fact I thought it was beautifully written, adjectives and all.”
He nodded slightly then raised his voice for the class, “Julia liked it, everybody. And that’s the point!… It’s not just about what I think – it’s what you all think too. I am only here to show you the way to good taste.” His words dripped with the charming sincerity of the chronically insincere.
“All good points, well done. But despite this story’s over-reliance on them, don’t be too hard on adjectives. After all, if we never used adjectives they would die out and our language would be all the poorer for it. However, as I’ve always said, a few go a long way.”
“My own impression of the story is this: there were some strong details – the dilation of the victim’s pupils, his quickening breath. All very ‘bodice ripper’ as though part of him is turned on by the inevitable. Adds a slightly sexual element to the violence. And the writer cleverly resisted the urge to tell us this too explicitly. It’s also quite interesting that he made the victim a male when they are so often women in this sort of fiction.”
He broke off for a sip of water from the bottle he always kept full on the desk. He believed in good hydration.
“But the fundamental flaw with this story is the characterisation. A writer must neither idealise nor demonise his characters, which can be tricky as space is so limited and exposition so dull.”
“Likewise, in real life we might take an instant dislike to someone for no apparent reason. But in writing we must at least imply one. Jealousy, for example. This also helps flesh out the players. In contrast, in this story, the elder was ultimately too cruel to be believable. And before that, the younger had no apparent motivation to hate him – their conflict was merely competition for the sake of it. In your writing you must go deeper.”
He paused, bathed in the applause of 20 pens furiously scratching.
I stumble blindly to my bed – must clear out the hall – to a sticky bed framed by the hunter’s moon. Nothing yet from Julia, my writing partner for the task. After a few weeks of class it became clear that my writing wasn’t improving, that whatever he had to teach me wasn’t going in. But I kept going.
I’d noticed she had a habit of biting her lower lip, an endearing display of shyness at odds with her outfits. She was the type of girl other women dismissed as ‘pretty in an obvious way’ – she hit the male libido with the subtlety of a nuclear warhead.
Julia had held out her hand politely that first week. We’d exchanged the odd word since, nothing you’d call a conversation. I’ve never been shy with women but with some you just can’t help yourself. But this was the opportunity to get to know her, preferably biblically.
“He’s a bit up himself, but I suppose you can be when you’re that good. I still can’t believe he’s teaching us,” she’d said.
“I suppose being a lecturer doesn’t pay that well, even if you’re also a novelist.” She’d ignored my bitter barb and exchanged numbers with a promise to text a date. Left me in my misery to clarify some points with him.
“Ok, sermon over. Now there’s a bit of a change for next week – you’ll be writing in pairs to try and learn from one another. And don’t forget we’ll be looking at Roald Dahl’s short stories, so do try and actually read a couple.” A wolfish smile before besotted sheep.
I sat there in misery while the class slowly dispersed. The professor remained perched on the desk at the front fielding questions wildly and flirting mildly. I wanted to speak to him in private but could feel the tightness of tears at the back of my throat. Instead I blankly packed my things to the damp, ambient soundtrack of hero worship and trudged off with concrete feet.
2am and I stare dumbly at my phone, willing it to go off. It does, but it’s not from Julia. It’s from him.
A photo message, surprisingly well defined (another of his apparently limitless talents).
Dilated pupils in kohl-rimmed eyes, a face flushed with pink. And falling away the eye is drawn to firm, swollen breasts, down to a supple waist and beyond that… Julia’s nakedness hits my solar plexus with all the subtlety of a nuclear warhead.
And below that a caption: all the best, love Dad.