September 16, 2013

Guest Post: Carolyn Rose

Filed under: The Writing Life — jenny @ 10:51 am

No Substitute For Money

Carolyn Rose is a frequent contributor to this blog as her last guest post reveals. This one may be my favorite yet. In it, Carolyn likens substitute teaching to being thrown to the lions–and lays out a plan for writers to come out stronger for it, and their books, too.

Now what kind of writer do you have to be to pull all that off? A good one. Read on…and learn about the giveaway!

Carolyn J. Rose

What I Learned as a Substitute Teacher And Used as a Writer

When my long career in TV news ended in 2001, I turned to substitute teaching to make ends meet—or at least come close to meeting. Fortunately my husband had a job, so I didn’t have to take every assignment the automated sub-locator system called to tell me about.

Barbara Reed, the protagonist of No Substitute for Murder and No Substitute for Money, doesn’t have that luxury. Barb is single and struggling. She has to take every job—no matter how difficult or demanding.

If you have ever subbed, you know all about difficult and demanding. If you haven’t had the “pleasure” of filling in for an absent teacher, cast your mind back to the days when you were in high school. If you’re anything like I was, your goal was to disrupt the class and drive a sub to the brink of a breakdown—all without getting into major trouble.

Guess what?

That hasn’t changed.

I sometimes compare myself to those inflatable punching toys with the weight in the bottom—the ones that right themselves after they’re knocked over. I try to roll with what comes and still be standing at the end of the day.

A few deceptively simple concepts help me do that. They also help me write, connect with readers, and “suffer the slings and arrows” of publishing and promoting.

  • It’s good to have a plan
  • Don’t get too comfortable
  • Project confidence
  • Think before you speak
  • They won’t all like you

It’s good to have a plan. On my first day as a sub, I got a late call to fill in for a middle school teacher struck down by stomach flu. I arrived on the run to find an administrator covering the first class. “I can’t find any lesson plans,” he warned me in a tense whisper. As it turned out, they didn’t exist; the teacher hadn’t made any. I found out later that she never did.

Writers call that pantsing. Writing by the seat of your pants. I used to do a lot of it, but that looonnnnnggg day of subbing cured me of full-out pantsing. I don’t outline to excess or plot every little movement, but before I start a book, I figure out how it will end and most of what will happen in the middle. Then I get all that down on index cards. Knowing I’ll change the first paragraphs many times, I don’t worry about that until I finish the first draft.

Don’t get too comfortable. One night my husband wondered why my feet hurt after a day at school. “Don’t you just sit behind the desk?” he asked.

I laughed for about ten minutes. “If you went into a cage with a bunch of lions,” I asked, “would you sit down?”

I might spend 5 minutes of a 55-minute period in a chair. The rest of the time I’m moving around the classroom. That lets me connect with more kids, offer help, and spot small problems before they become big ones.

As a writer, getting too comfortable with my characters and plots can be dangerous. I might miss something, leave something out, fail to knit up all the loose ends of logic, or not even notice that those ends are dangling.

Project confidence. Let’s go back to that lion image. One survival scheme is to make the lions perceive you as larger, stronger, and braver than you are. In the classroom I stand as tall as my 62 inches allow. And, while I don’t use my outdoor voice, I do use one a notch or two below it so back-of-the-roomer sitters can hear.

I use the same techniques when I speak to writers’ groups and classes. If I don’t come across as confident about my books or the workshop I’m putting on, my audience won’t have confidence in me. If they can’t hear me, they’ll make sure organizers don’t invite me back.

Think before you speak. There are a lot of words that will get a laugh in a high school classroom—some you might utter unintentionally because it’s almost impossible to keep up with teen culture. Meanwhile, actual attempts at humor may fall flat or be taken the wrong way.

I remember that when I’m writing dialogue. The possibility that what a character says may be misunderstood or intentionally misinterpreted can put a whole different spin on a conversation—and on the plot.

They won’t all like you. No matter how many kids I connect with along the way, there will always be a few who wish I’d get out of their space and out of their school. It could be that one of us is having an off day. It could be a personality conflict. It could be the generation gap. The result is that anything I say or do is wrong. And they have ways—not always subtle—of letting me know.

The same is true of readers and reviewers. The ones who don’t like my books use those dreaded one-star reviews to make their case. I don’t let those reviews get to me, but I don’t write them off. I consider what those reviewers had to say and why they said it, and I consider what I might learn to improve the next book.

Someday soon I’ll turn in my sub keys for the last time. But I’ll keep the rules as long as I have the will to write.

If you’ve got rules to share—about writing, working, living, or even lunching—please stop by and leave a comment.

Jenny and I will draw three names from those who comment and I’ll give each one an e-copy of one of my books.

Carolyn J. Rose grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. Now getting her quota of stress as a substitute teacher, she lives in Vancouver, Washington, and founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking. She is the author of a number of novels, including No Substitute for Murder, A Place of Forgetting, An Uncertain Refuge, and Hemlock Lake.

She has also authored five books with Mike Nettleton, her long-suffering husband. He recently released a solo effort, Shotgun Start.


  1. Great correlation, Carolyn. Your rules apply to many things in life, including regular teaching.

    Comment by pam stanek — September 16, 2013 @ 11:22 am

  2. How I remember those days of subbing! Great analogy.

    Comment by Marilyn Levinson — September 16, 2013 @ 11:47 am

  3. The one star reviews are the ones you’ll probably never win over, they’re just having fun giving you the boot. The two star reviews may serve up a hidden hint, though, as to why they didn’t connect. How about adding a sixth item to the list: choose who you pay attention to. Some reviewers have great feedback, some don’t make any sense.

    Comment by Carol Doane — September 16, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

  4. While I’ve never subbed, I can relate to some of what you’ve said. It’s amazing how you can relate your experiences to writing. Excellent post!

    Comment by Marja McGraw — September 16, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

  5. Choose who you pay attention to. Great idea. Thanks, Carol.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — September 16, 2013 @ 1:49 pm

  6. Great article, Carolyn, so much wisdom my head is about to explode. Seriously, how can I not like the analogy to lions. I have another item for the list:

    It’s good to have a friend who will tell you the truth–in life and in writing.

    Once in a presentation to a writing group, a woman came up afterwards with a correction to one of my handouts. My title promised 64 tips divided into 8 sections about craft. Problem–math. I had 56. Oops! I gave her a free book.

    Comment by Elizabeth Lyon — September 16, 2013 @ 2:32 pm

  7. You don’t need to put me in the drawing for a book. If I want one, I’ll just walk upstairs to her office and steal one. Carolyn’s sharing of lessons learned as a sub that translate to writing resonate even more with me after two years of working as a tutor/mentor in the AVID program at a couple of local high schools. Here are a couple of additional thoughts:

    #1. Kids respond to respect. So do readers. If you insult your reader’s intelligence, they’re unlikely to have much interest in your next book.

    #2. Everybody’s got perfectly good reasons for what they do. That rotten-to-the-core kid you deal with is probably responding to something from her own past. The same is true of your characters.

    #3. You’ve got to be willing to forgive yourself. On a day when you feel like you were of no use to the kids or yourself, you’ve got toe be able to go home, enjoy an adult beverage and remind yourself you truly are a good human being. After a fruitless day of trying to grind out pages, you have to keep perspective. Substitute the word “writer” for “human being.”

    Comment by Mike Nettleton — September 16, 2013 @ 2:37 pm

  8. Elizabeth, we’re all fortunate that you’re a better writing coach than a bean-counter. Congratulations on your recent release, Writing Subtext.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — September 16, 2013 @ 3:00 pm

  9. I remember subbing quite well. (The nice part of it was not having any homework to grade for the next day.) I recall it as particularly challenging in the hands-on classes, like art, or a lab science, although I remember that I was surprisingly helpful in sewing (somehow I still remembered how to thread a machine). Nice job relating the two enterprises. God knows they both require creativity, stamina, and good humor.

    Comment by Sandra Hutchison — September 16, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

  10. P.S. The link for the book isn’t working for me.

    Comment by Sandra Hutchison — September 16, 2013 @ 3:53 pm

  11. Wow, well, clearly Mike & Carolyn need to turn this into a combined article. GREAT ideas, both of you. And I love the one about choosing whom to pay attention to. It syncs up with how a writer has to learn to filter feedback: the kind you reject because deep down you know it’s right but are resisting, the kind you reject because it’s truly wrong for the book or you as a writer, the kind you accept right off the bat. It’s hard to know which kind is which in the beginning.

    It’s great to see you all here, and thanks for the heads up, Sandy! Siccing the resident tech guru on this :)

    Comment by jenny — September 16, 2013 @ 7:32 pm

  12. Sandra – oh, yeah – leaving the building while teachers are grading or heading for a meeting or a conference – that’s priceless.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — September 16, 2013 @ 7:35 pm

  13. Still hung up on the punching toy with the weight in the bottom. I’ve never subbed, but I think I should get one of those. Then when I can’t figure out what to write next, I can start punching it.

    Comment by Melanie Sherman — September 16, 2013 @ 9:45 pm

  14. I had to laugh when I read Jenny’s announcement. What a great post, Carolyn. I taught middle school for 25 years and after I retired, I thought I’d sub just to stay in the game. The first time I walked into a classroom to sub, a student announced, “I hate subs!” Well, that pretty much says it all. I soon realized I needed to pull from all of my bag of tricks just to get through the day. I no longer sub. My number one rule is always smile and don’t take things personally.

    Comment by Kathleen Kaska — September 17, 2013 @ 10:24 am

  15. Kathleen, I can handle the “don’t take it personally” part, but by the end of a long day that smile is sometimes just a little forced.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — September 17, 2013 @ 10:48 am

  16. Thanks for recommending my booklet on subtext, Carolyn. Everybody should know that Carolyn takes the blame, ah, um, the credit for suggesting this topic and the booklet series.
    So another rule is this:

    Rule: If someone you trust and admire, teacher or writer, offers a good idea you’ve never considered, pursue it. It just might be a better idea than the one you’ve been entertaining.

    I can’t remember any sub ever doing that, but hey, it could happen.

    Comment by Elizabeth Lyon — September 17, 2013 @ 11:18 am

  17. Not to mention high schools are a great opportunity to gather material! Well said, Carolyn.
    Susan :)

    Comment by Susan — September 17, 2013 @ 11:27 am

  18. Your post is a nice combination of wisdom and entertainment, like your books. I have one other principle to propose. To turn off someone is inevitable, to anger large numbers takes talent.


    Comment by David Cournoyer — September 17, 2013 @ 12:11 pm

  19. What a great post, Carolyn! So now I’m about 90 pages into

    Comment by Theresa de Valence — September 17, 2013 @ 12:50 pm

  20. What a great post, Carolyn! I’m on about page 80 of NO SUBSTITUTE FOR MURDER and it’s a great, great book. Should I have started with NO SUBSTITUTE FOR MONEY?

    Comment by Theresa de Valence — September 17, 2013 @ 12:52 pm

  21. Theresa – no, you’re fine. Money is the second one. I’m just finishing No Substitute for Maturity and hope to have it out in January. These aren’t “great literature,” but they’re fun to write. I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — September 17, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

  22. Excellent post. Substituting and writing, like aging, is no place for sissies. Glad you were able take those life experiences and put them to good use.

    Comment by Anna Drake — September 17, 2013 @ 2:27 pm

  23. I have worked in schools, and yes, I had to learn to roll with the punches :) Kids are just built that way. I saw it as a challenge. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t-at least I was being creative. Do you know I’ve avoided great literature for a long time. I want pleasure and satisfaction out of the books I read, to be transported to a different time and place. Today’s great literature is often dreary and depressing. I don’t need that to fill up my free time.

    Comment by Lil Gluckstern — September 17, 2013 @ 5:03 pm

  24. Lil, maybe I’m lazy, and maybe it’s because I’m aware of how time is fleeting, but I don’t want to work and work to access a story, especially a dreary/depressing story.

    Anna, you’re right – aging isn’t for sissies – this from a woman who’s ending the coverup and letting the roots grow out gray.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — September 17, 2013 @ 8:18 pm

  25. Really enjoyed this article and now I know why I would never be able to teach a class.

    I am a pantser; I cannot plan other than what the story will be about and where it is set and a few of the characters. Then it sort of writes itself and I find my characters doing and saying stuff I never dreamed of. I get there in the end, edit a lot and often re-write whole sections but it remains in general the way it spills out from me. I found your article fascinating and I really wish you lots of success. Thanks Jenny, once again a fab guest and interview.

    Comment by Jane Risdon — September 23, 2013 @ 10:27 am

  26. I love it when characters “take over” and do things we didn’t expect – even though that was probably in the sub-conscious mind all along. It makes them feel real, as if they have lives in other dimensions and just kind of drop in to our world to appear in books.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — September 23, 2013 @ 11:13 am

  27. Good post, Carolyn. I subbed for 6 years after retiring as a 3rd grade teacher.
    I think it may have been easier as a middle grade sub than it would have been
    in high school although several times I subbed for 7th and 8th grade. The grade
    I disliked most was kindergarten – cute, but so upset if you don’t do anything
    exactly as their teacher does it. It’s sort of like teaching popcorn in a popcorn
    popper. Also, isn’t it funny that every time a classroom teacher is out, he/she
    just happens to have recess or lunchroom duty which then falls to you?

    Comment by Gloria Alden — September 25, 2013 @ 10:57 am

  28. I love “teaching popcorn in a popcorn popper.” I think that just pulled ahead of “herding cats” and “nibbled to death by baby sharks” as my favorite description.

    Comment by Carolyn J. Rose — September 25, 2013 @ 9:50 pm

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Leave a comment

Powered by WordPress