I wrote my first short story in the First Grade then my first play in Third Grade. The summer before Sixth Grade I pounded away on a melodramatic western novel. Actually, it turned out to be more of a novella at almost 42,000 words. Quite predictably it was a western and, surprisingly, a sweet romance. I had read every single one of Zane Grey’s books by that time so had those as my model. Go figure.
As my passion for books ebbed and flowed with life’s busy-ness, I really didn’t tackle another novel until I began work on my degree in creative writing in the late ‘70’s. After outlining the idea for a more complex western romance and writing the first chapter, I formulated a thick binder of research--two years of research. It wasn’t until in my Junior year when I took “Historical Research” that I discovered I had wasted all that time accumulating information that wasn’t really needed for me to actually write the book. Predictably, my fiction professor in the writing program was nada-zilch-zero help. Why? Because I dared to work at category fiction rather than something at the “fine literature” level. That professor did nothing but try to discourage the project.
Was I deterred by ANY of these convoluted trials? Nope. In fact, I became more determined. In my Senior year I proposed a semester of independent study of five genres: Mystery, Western, Romance, Science Fiction and Juvenile Lit. I read three text books covering each genre then wrote a short story “example” incorporating the principles I had learned. I met with my fiction professor once a week to go over the notes I had made and to discuss examples I had found. Every session with him was torture because he absolutely would not give ground that any examples in those genres could possibly measure up to “fine literature.” His main contention was that each of these genres operates from a prescribed formula therefore the writing could not truly be innovative, unique and thought-provoking. GRRRRRR!
Ultimately, I gave up trying to convince him, but I also came to one major realization: Literary Elitists have blinders on. I had my “revenge” when Pulitzer-Prize winner Richard Ford came to our university to lecture and spent over one and a half hours lauding my “literary” short story the instructor had asked him to comment on. That story was one of four written for my “senior thesis” and was the only “A” I ever got out of my fiction professor. Ford encouraged me to evolve a novel from that story. LETTING GO OF SACRED THINGS was the result. The Midwest Review has given glowing comments on the book’s literary value. So, yeah, I proved I could create something critics could call “fine literature.”
BUT, my heart and soul has always been more invested in the “lesser” literature of genre fiction. I set about teaching myself how to “grow” into the discipline of writing novels that entertained at both a fun AND a visceral level. I read every craft book I could get my hands on, adding pages of notes to my original independent study notes. I memorized STRUCTURING YOUR NOVEL by Meredith and Fitzgerald and the rest is history.
After getting my degree in writing I founded the Nebraska Writers Workshop and began teaching the concepts I had discovered and used. The more I talked AND wrote the more my confidence grew. I developed a process of step-by-step novel evolution from idea through research through character profiling through outlining and even through the steps of revision. Ultimately I created 32 workshops, but the fundamental course that I now call “Novel Perspectives” was one of the first. I have continued to tweak and add to it as I’ve discovered more techniques and concepts that enhance my creativity. I teach what I practice. I don’t blather principles and techniques at an abstract level. My information is meant to inform as a basis to practical application.
And you know the best part? I learn new things and explode with new ideas every single time I teach this and any course. Maybe that’s not the “best” part. Quite possibly it could be that I have proven how wrong my long ago college professor was. My students and my readers tell me I indeed write genre material that is innovative, unique and thought provoking. Added to that satisfaction is the statistic that I now have over 5,000 students that I have taught to do the same. Take that, Literary Elitists!
Sally Walker’s published credits include literary, romance and western novels, a nonfiction essay collection, stage plays, poetry, and many magazine articles on the craft of writing, including staff contributions to two international film magazines. With 30 screenplays written, she has a WGA-signatory agent marketing those. Aside from long time active memberships in such national writing organizations as RWA, WWA and SCBWI, she just finished a four-year term as President of the prestigious Nebraska Writers Guild. She still has time to work as a small press Editorial Director. Sally has taught writing seminars, both on-site and on-line, for over 25 years and is the facilitator for the weekly meetings of the Nebraska Writers Workshop in Ralston , NE.