My chat with bestselling author and writing coach Les Edgerton was so det ailed that I split it over two thrilling installments. If you missed Part 1, you can read via the link. In part 2 of out chat, Les and I discussed his teachings, and books in general. Thank you for reading, and I hope you enjoy the rest of this interview.
A number of your teaching methods include online resources such as Skype, is that correct?
Yes. One of the classes I teach is a class I co-teach with author Jenny Milchman for the New York Writer’s Workshop. It’s a fun class.
I am a big fan of online communication, but still see the benefit of classroom learning. Would you agree that if it were possible –removing all travel logistics from the equation – face to face learning remains the more powerful tool?
Actually, I’m probably going to surprise you here, Alex, but no. I think online classes, if created right, are far better than “on-ground” classes. I teach an ongoing writing class online and we utilize the workshop method. The reason I feel it’s a better experience is this: One of the things that separate even a good writer from a great writer is the willingness of the artist to go down deep inside for those truths we all try to hide from everyone around us and expose those truths on the page. In a class where we’re face-to-face, that’s often hard or even impossible to do. In an online class, it becomes much easier. Here’s an example. If a young man is in a university class and all around him are comely young coeds, he’s probably going to be very aware of them (and, vice versa). That means that if this guy is burning to write this story about a kid who wet the bed until he was eleven years old (perhaps based on his own experience), he’s very much likely to not write that story or at least to have the kid quit peeing the sheets at the age of six instead. The reason is, he thinks that cute little blonde he wants to get next to in the third row, may think he’s writing about himself. So, he doesn’t get to the truth he initially wanted to. However, if he’s in a class and he lives in Gobler’s Knob, Michigan and the nearest person to him in class lives in Phoenix, Arizona and has never seen his face nor is going to, chances are much better that the kid in his story is going to be turning the sheets yellow until he’s eleven. He’ll write a truer story and he’ll get much closer to that deep part of all of us that we’re normally loathe to expose. That doesn’t hold true in the Skype class, but it certainly does in the online class. I get much better and much deeper and truer stories in my online classes than I ever did in my classes when I taught at the University of Toledo and mostly for that reason. So, I think online classes for writing are vastly superior. However, the way lots of them are taught aren’t worth much. The way we structure our classes, they are. Many of those other classes consist of some exercises and the teach sprinkling little inane comments on their papers like: “Good work.” Or “Less exposition here.” Or some equally nutty, worthless crap like that. The truth is, most writing teachers don’t want to work very hard, so they do all these feel-good, nonsense things like “exercises” and give out little “encouraging” pats to the students. Ours works a bit differently. In ours, everyone sends their weekly work in to the entire class and I comment on each person’s work and so does everyone in class for each other’s work. And, we get candid. If the work sucks, we let ‘em know it sucks. We don’t care about their little feelings. We assume they’re there to get better and not to get stroked. They can join a writer’s group and get stroked. If you get a compliment in our class, you’ve earned it. They’re not passed out that often. We expect a certain standard and don’t fall over folks for mediocrity or even just “good” work. They earn it and they know it and when that rare compliment comes, it means something.
Here’s an example of how tough it is. When a writer first joins the class, he or she is limited to five pages a week until they create the right opening to their novel. That means it can’t begin with backstory or setup or a character ruminating in his pointy little head or any of that crappola, but in the only place a contemporary novel can begin and have a chance at publication and that’s with the inciting incident, that event that creates and/or reveals the story problem to the protagonist. Has to be written as a scene. Until they nail that, they can’t go on, nor submit more than the rewritten five pages. Once they achieve that, they’re allowed to send in up to ten pages a week like everyone else. This is one of the toughest things beginning writers have to learn and haven’t. Contemporary story structure. Just isn’t taught. Well, we do. And, most of the people who take our classes end up getting published. By now, since I have the majority of the class returning each session, they’ve taken to calling this “inciting incident hell.” Many are in it for a long time. No one’s ever accomplished a good one the first week. Our record is an author named Maegan Beaumont. She spent nine weeks in inciting incident hell. Nine weeks in what was then a Phoenix College accredited course that lasted 12 weeks. Same five-page limit each week. Same thing—her story beginning. She came to class with a finished novel of 700 pages. It’s long gone. In the wastebasket. But, several months ago, she sold the book she worked on in class in a two-book deal with an option for a third. Got paid real money in a decent advance. Her book is going to be the lead title for the publisher when it comes out. She had two options when she came class. Give up (it’s hard!) and self-publish and sell 20 copies to friends and relatives… or stay the course and become a good writer. Took her a year and a half and now she’s a real writer. A real author. Has a top agent and all that stuff.
Got a student now who’s just passed her sixth week in inc inc hell. Four weeks to go. She came close this week and I expect a breakthrough next week. Long time, but guess what? Even though she’ll only have her first five pages at that point, she’ll be light years ahead of most of her contemporaries. And will end up with a good chance at being published eventually. It’s not a class for sissies.
How would somebody go about joining one of your classes?
They’re very welcome to apply, but it’s hard. We keep it to 12 people per class. More and we couldn’t give the kind of care and attention we give to each writer. Currently we have a 10-week class that we’ll be charging $400 for. Usually, one or two openings occur, but most people keep signing on for the next session and there are few chances to join us. But, we do have an alternative. We have a situation where anyone can sign up to audit the class. They’re privy to everything we do—see all the comments I make and the others make and see everyone’s work. What they witness is the same problems they’re having with their own writing and they see the solutions clearly in everyone else’s work. The only thing is they’re not an active part of class. However, folks tell me it’s extremely valuable to them. I had one guy tell me recently that he’d learned more in one 10-week session as an auditor than he had in his entire MFA program. And, it’s where we get our new students when an opening occurs. Depending on their seniority, they get first shot at any openings. And, it’s just a $100 to be an auditor and we can take unlimited numbers for that.
I also coach writers privately on their novels and that’s $150 an hour. Don’t have a spot right now, but may have one in the next month or so. For those clients, I don’t take on beginners. It’s too pricey and I don’t want to waste either of our time on basic stuff they should have learned by eighth grade… at least in the schools of yesteryear that used to actually teach something.
People say that Writing is one of those crafts that you can never truly master. There is always something new to learn. Would you agree?
Well, sure. You’ll never learn even close to everything there is in writing. We have a saying: When you’re green, you’re growing… and when you’re ripe, you’re rotten. That’s what’s exciting about being a writer—the learning will never stop and you’ll never get close to knowing even a hundredth of what is to be learned. Interestingly, John Gardner, widely regarded as one of the best writing teachers ever, told his prize pupil shortly before Gardner died, the brilliant Ray Carver, to “forget everything he’d taught him in college. It had all changed.” And, it had. We write in English, which is a living, mutating, evolving language and the only constant about it is that it changes all the time. As do story conventions. What was publishable ten, twenty years ago has changed dramatically… and will continue to do so.
What is the most recent writing discovery you have made?
Good question. I have to think a bit. Probably about transitions. Years ago, we used to have these classes in high school and college about how to write transitions. Well, we don’t use them much any more. The reason is movies and television. When movies began, they borrowed story structure from books. The reverse is true today—novel structure borrows from movies. In the “old days” movies would do transitions much like novels did at the time—there’d be this scrolling message when they switched scenes that read something like: “Meanwhile, back at the ranch…” That’s over. It started to be over in the forties when jump cuts became the standard in movies and today’s audiences (and readers) are so schooled in movies that just go without preamble or warning into a very different place and time that we now do the same in novels. We’re still using space breaks to signal such, but those are fast beginning to disappear as well, and in five years we probably won’t even see those. Problem is, like most schools, there are English teachers out there still teaching this b.s. and dooming another generation to unlearn much of what they’re teaching if they want to become a writer. But, I discover something I didn’t know about the craft almost every single day. Every time I pick up a new novel, if it’s any good, I learn something new. Even if it’s bad I learn how not to do something. Reading is the single best way to learn to write. When you encounter something in a novel that affects you emotionally, stop and figure out how that author did that. There are no “secrets” in writing. The secrets are right in front of us, in the books we read. Problem is, most beginning writers read to be entertained only, not grasping that what they’re reading is also a textbook and should also be read on that level.
All writers I know are avid readers. Many of them read multiple books at one time. Personally, I cannot do this. Can you?
Absolutely. I’m usually reading 4-5 books at a time. I average about 3-4 novels a week, sometimes one a day. I read very quickly. That’s how we become writers—by reading. When I taught in the university, sometimes I’d get kids in a writing class who hadn’t read a book in a year and when they did, at most they’d read 4-5 books a year. There’s no way they’ll ever become a good writer. It’s over for them. As Jim Harrison, one of our best writers said, when asked about advice on how to become a good writer: “Read the whole of western literature for the past 400 years and if you live long enough, read the same span of time in eastern literature. For, if you don’t know what passed for good in the past, how can you expect to ever know what good is now?” He’s exactly right. The first and foremost requirement to become a good writer is to first be a voracious reader and from about the age of five or six. Now, you didn’t ask that—you asked if I can read multiple books and that’s different. I can and do, but if a person only reads one book at a time, there’s nothing wrong with that. Just as long as as soon as he finishes that one, he immediately picks up another one!
What are you reading currently?
Gotta check. Okay. Right now, I’ve got open OUT OF THE GUTTER 8 (a noir collection in which I have a story and just got my copy—btw, my story was just nominated for a Derringer Award), THE DARK MAGUS AND THE SACRED WHORE by my Brit buddy, Mark Ramsden, PIGGYBACK by Tom Pitts (second time I’ve read it and I’m rereading it because I like it and I’m writing a review of it), SACRE BLEU by Chris Moore, DOVE SEASON by Johnny Shaw, and GALVESTON by Nic Pizzolatto. I just opened ASSUME NOTHING by Gar Anthony Hayward and am just 20 pages into it and dipping into it between other books. That’s a normal list for what I have open on an average day. I don’t watch TV except for a handful of sports events, so I’m reading constantly. When I eat supper, I’m reading. When I’m sitting on the “throne” I’m reading. I read for a couple of hours before I go to sleep each night and I read it in bits and pieces all day long.
Are there any young /up and coming authors that have caught your eye in recent years.
Quite a few. These days, I only read what I like and what I like are mostly crime and noir—it’s where I see the best writing these days—and there are a bunch of guys and gals who are writing truly gritty and brilliant books. Among them are Frank Bill, Julia Madeleine, Matt Funk, Court Merrigan, Cort McMeel, Heath Lowrance, Eric Beetner, David James Keaton, Tom Pluck, Ian Ayres, the aforementioned Maegan Beaumont… there are dozens of new and exciting writers, too many to begin mentioning and I always leave somebody out and then feel bad.
It would appear I have gotten rather carried away, I apologize for the extensive interrogation, I often lose track of myself.
I find it difficult to provide short answers, so we’re both at fault here, Alex!
Thank you once again for taking the time to answer my questions.
Thanks so much for having me on, Alex
If you are interested in reading some of Les’s work, then you can find them all via his author page on Amazon: