The Mystery of Writing–What can be taught and what can’t

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This past week I had the good fortune to teach Writing the Mystery Novel here at Chautauqua Institution in Western New York.  I really wasn’t sure how many students would sign up.  The offerings here are many, and this was fairly specialized.  But the perfect number of students arrived, and we commandeered a room that was ideal for our needs.  Then we got down to business.

I’d forgotten the exhilaration of standing in front of a group of students.  The realization that I do, indeed, know something about the subject at hand.  The fun of answering questions.  The joy of hearing other people’s creative ideas.

I’d also forgotten how much work teaching can be.  No matter how much you know or think you do, you have to be able to impart knowledge in an interesting way.  Lesson plans are required.  Weeding through a dozen ways of saying the same thing to find the most useful is imperative.

So first, to all you teachers out there, as your school year begins?  I’m applauding from the sidelines.  You have my gratitude.  Your contribution is immeasurable.  And to all you students?  Pay attention.  Many things you’ll need to know in life CAN be taught in a classroom.

And sadly, some can not.

Only when I began to work on my plans for the week did I “remember” how many elements come into play when plotting and planning a novel, much less a mystery with all its specialized plot threads.  How could I, in five hours, touch on the most important–and how did I decide what those were?  How could I leave time for questions?  How could I leave time to begin to brainstorm our own mystery, set right here at the Institution (which is indeed a strange term for this amazing place.)

Exactly what can be taught in five hours or fifty, that will help anybody begin and finish a novel? 

This question falls into the category of unanswerable questions, joined by others such as “Why on earth did THAT book make it to the bestseller lists?”  Or “She/he’s such a wonderful writer, why isn’t she/he on every bookshelf?”  Or “Exactly what do all those people see in vampires?”

Years ago I taught a continuing education class, and by the end I was certain I knew which of my students would go on to great careers and which would never publish a novel.  I was wrong.  Not across the board, but enough times that I gave up predictions.  I also gave up pretending to know what makes a saleable novel and what doesn’t. 

Still, here’s one thing I do know.  There’s one element I couldn’t teach my students, one element that makes all the difference between success and failure, one element some of those continuing education students actually had in abundance, and the element some of the other students did not have.


Writing a novel is not magic.  Bestsellers or literary masterpieces do not suddenly appear in our heads waiting to be typed into our computers.  They take work, dedication, months with our seats in a chair, months of staring out the windows.  Those who are willing to put in those months and willing to take whatever well intentioned and intelligent criticism they’re given to improve their work are way ahead.

I hope some of my Chautauqua students are among them.  After all somebody HAS to explain the mysterious body we left floating on Lake Chautauqua.  I just hope I don’t have to wait too long to find out which of our long list of suspects was responsible.


  1. Patricia Barraclough on September 6, 2009 at 10:54 am

    Have always wanted to attend the Chautauqua Institute. What an opportunity. Would love to have taken your class, not that I’d be writing a novel any time soon. The creative process is an interesting thing to observe as well as participate in. I think you are right, talent isn’t always the most important factor. Perseverance and luck sometimes seem to be more important.

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