Society of
Children's Book Writers
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Last October I taught an adult cultural enrichment writing class for the first time. I was pleased to have only five students so we could spend most of our class time working on their storytelling. I prefer to lead discussions rather than lecture.


Lesson 1: Getting to Know You


During the first session I explained what my course plan was.  We went over what I planned to focus on: how to write something understandable and compelling. We discussed proper grammar and I had them correct errors that appeared in our local newspaper’s articles. I warned them that they would have to learn how to handle criticism and rejection if they wanted to get anywhere with their writing. I asked each student to introduce himself or herself by stating their goals and writing experience. The other students wrote down what they observed about the speaker. This gave me a feel for each student’s particular style of writing and thinking. It also gave them a chance to use their observation skills. I explained that writers must be good observers of the world.

One student wanted to learn how to write an outline. I’m a “seat-of-the-pants,” or “pantser,” type, but I came up with two different outlines. For homework each person wrote a brief story based on a prompt.


Lesson 2: First Outline and Learning to Critique


In the second lesson I gave them the first outline on how to write a story arc. Where does the story start and why? Who is the main character? Who helps the character along the way? Why does the character change?  What is the result of the change? How does the character solve the story problem? What is the conclusion of the story?


Lesson 3: Second Outline and Embellishing Scenes


During the third class we went over my second outline on how to plot a scene. How and where does the scene start? What action prompts the scene? How does the scene build? Where does the character go during the scene? How does the scene end? If it is an interior to the story scene, what’s the cliff hanger to pull the reader onto the next scene? Then we discussed how to embellish the scene with dialog and descriptive narrative. I handed out a list of reference books and a list of books that demonstrated good writing.


Each student had the chance to read his or her story. The other students made comments on what worked or didn’t work in the scene. I started out the critiquing to model how one should gently explain what worked or what needed changing. I always start and end my critiques with encouraging comments. One of my pet grievances is the use of passive voice, so I always try to catch and explain a more active way to express the point. I also shudder at the use of a singular subject and a plural object. If the writer objects to using the pronouns “him” or “her,” I encouraged students to rewrite the sentence so there is no need for an objective noun or pronoun.


Lesson 4: What is Good Writing?


By the fourth session I was down to just one student. We decided to continue online and save ourselves the forty-minute commute. During this last lesson we discussed what was the beginning point for his memoir and what was the lesson learned.


If the class had continued as I had planned, we would have discussed developing character studies for the main characters in the story. What were their motivations? What did they like to do, eat, or listen to? What did they look like and how old were they? This could also be done as an outline. I wanted to make the point that, though all this back information wouldn’t necessarily be put into the story, the writer needed to know his characters.


I had also planned to work more on the nitty-gritty of completing their stories, incorporating feedback from their fellow students. I am not a poet, but I had planned to encourage people to try their hand at writing it. I also would have encouraged people to read and attempt to write short stories and flash fiction because we all tend to be too wordy. I’d planned to read them examples of good writing from various books I deem of value. And, of course, I’d planned to leave plenty of time for discussion.


Next Time: What I’ll Do Differently


I hope my students learned something in my class. I sure did and next time I’ll try my darndest to be more of an outliner type and less of “pantser.” Why will I teach this again? Because I still think I have something to offer.


Sarah Maury Swan has published two YA novels, Terror’s Identity and Earthquakes, and one MG, Emily’s Ride to Courage. She has frequently placed in the Carteret Writers contest and in the Pamlico Writers Group contests. Her books are available at the Next Chapter Books & Art store and other stores around New Bern, in addition to Amazon and her website.  She also reviews and blogs about children’s books. She’s hoping to get her picture books published in the future.