Ok, so I’ve been reading a lot about writing.  Character development, plot development, rules, dos and don’ts, word count, page count and so on and on and on and on.  I really appreciate all the hard work that writers have written about writing… but it’s funny, when I’m done,  I always feel like something is missing.  It’s like I’m not being told everything…some hidden writer’s secret.  For a long time I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.  So, I decided to take a night class from Sandy City on writing to see if I could find this elusive writing attribute … I listened intently to the instructor (we’ll call her Ms. Krump to disguise her true identity) talk about all the nuances of writing… “You can’t do this,” she said. “You can never do that,” she added and then went on and on until I wanted to throw up!  Still the intangible trait was missing.

As I sat in the class filled with middle-aged writer want-a-bees, listening to Krump ramble on and on,  my mind wondered back to a writing class I took while attending Rick’s College in (and I hate to admit it was soooo long ago) 1973.  As with Ms. Krump, that instructor, a thin gaunt woman in her mid-sixties by the looks of her graying hair, talked about all the rules of writing, and then barked out an assignment.  “Write a three page, type written, short story about baseball,” then dismissed us.

A story immediately popped into my young fertile brain.  I tore home, pull out the Smith-Corona electric typewriter with auto whiteout film and started to write my paper.  It was a great little story about a five year old little girl who was infatuated with LA Dodger’s pitcher, Sandy Koufax and dreamed of being a catcher for the team.  I worked on it all weekend long and eagerly turned in my paper on Tuesday, thinking it was a pretty darn good story.   (Keep in mind there were no word processors back in 1973, typewrites didn’t put the little squiggly red lines under a misspelled words and I am a horrible speller.) When I went to class on Thursday my paper came back with a great big “F” on top.  I was crushed.  “The story was good,” I told myself.  Then I looked closer. In the first paragraph the teacher found, and circled, three spelling errors.  After class I approached her and asked what she thought of the story. 

She peered over the top of her reading glasses and cackled in a fingernails-on-the-chalkboard screech, “I only read until I find three spelling errors, then I quit.” 

“So, you only read the first paragraph,” I asked.

 “No,” she shrieked, grabbing my paper. “I only read until I find three spelling or grammar errors. There,” she pointed to a red slash mark in the second sentence. “That’s where I stopped. Didn’t read any further.” Then she gave me a cocky little smile and added, “But, don’t feel bad, sonny.  Most students fail this first assignment.”

“But, what about my story?” I asked.

“I don’t care about your story. The story is irrelevant,” she retorted. “Structure and proper technique is what I care about.  Get the structure right and the story will naturally follow.” Removing her glasses and letting them dangle around her neck on a beaded chain, then pinching the bridge of her nose, she added “I only care about structure and spelling,” a little bit a spittle dribbled from the corner of her lips, “ is a part of structure!”

Dejected, I left the classroom, tossed the paper in the trash and walked directly to the registration office, dropped the class and stopped writing.  For nearly 34 years I stopped writing.

I was pulled out of my daydream when Ms. Krump asked me a question. “I’m sorry, can you ask the question again.”  She repeated her question and I gave some non-descript answer then asked her the following question.

 “When you read one of our papers, how do you evaluate the story vs. the structure?”

“I don’t know what you mean?” she replied.

“Ok, let me put it this way.  Have you ever read a story written by one of your students that was really a good story, despite the fact that it may need some structural work?”

“Well,” she said, turning her back to me, facing the white board and walking towards the front of the classroom. “If it needs structural work, then it’s not a good story,” she turned and looked right at me.  “Is it?”

“Gotcha,” I said, picking up my notebook. “I guess I am in the wrong class. I thought this was a writing class, not a spelling class,” and l left.

The missing link…the illusive writer’s secret… was the story.

I had another instructor, Sonja Farnsworth.  She was my first instructor after I decided to go back to school to get my MBA.  The class was not a writing class, but we did write many papers.  For the third assignment we had to write a paper on personal strengths and weaknesses.  As I sat down at the computer to write the paper a story came into my mind.  At first I dismissed it as it was not what the paper was supposed cover, but after a while I just let the story flow.

When I turned in my paper titled, The Complete Mechanic’s Guide to Life, I added a little note to the instructor.  “I don’t know if this is what you were looking for, but this story just popped into my mind and so here it is.”

When Sonja turned my paper back to me, she had given me an “A” and wrote across the paper, ‘You should publish.’

I recently came across that paper.  As I reread it, I found that the spelling was terrible and the grammar, iffy… but the story, patting myself on the back, was great.

So, if you haven’t figured it out by now, this is all about the story.  I agree that there must be structure to your stories, spelling is important… but how’s the story.  The thing that I really appreciate about Wido Publishing is that they were able to look beyond my weaknesses in structure to see my story lurking in my manuscript. (If we all had perfect structure, grammar and spelling… what would our editors do?)(I’ll get hate mail on that one… hey Kristine?)

My two cents for all you aspiring writers is story first, spelling second.  Sit down.  Write, write, write and write.  Reread, reread, and reread. Rewrite, rewrite and rewrite.  Don’t worry if your chapters are too short or two long.  Don’t worry about word counts and paragraph breaks. 

Ernst Hemingway’s goal was to write one thousand words a day.  That’s about five pages, double spaced.  That’s easy to do.  Dan Brown’s goal has been five hundred words a day.  That is even easier.  Whatever it is, start writing. Writing a thousand words a day, you can complete a rough draft — three hundred page manuscript in three months.  That’s dang good.

Remember, story first, write five hundred to a thousand words a day, and get that story out of your head and on to the paper. Then you can work on structure.

(This story has 1208 words)

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