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!
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.
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.