During those years when I shelved Such A Dreamer, I took an important step that would ultimately help me understand how to improve it. I took a creative writing class in the spring of 2005 at Saint Petersburg College taught by Professor Daniel Lawless. Each class, we were expected to bring a freshly crafted sentence, which could be about anything, and write it on the chalkboard. Next, we would review each sentence as a group, and Daniel, as he preferred for us to call him, would ask for us to identify any issues with the sentences. We would dissect them, examining each word and placement, and, if needed, edit them until each sentence was flawless. So each week, I would try harder and harder to write that perfect sentence, so my imperfections didn’t have to be pointed out to the group. This exercise taught me two things: one, the importance of word choice and sentence structure, and two, how to critique the writing of others.
But the best thing about Daniel’s class is that it forced me to focus on the short form of fiction. We had weekly writing exercises of 1-3 typed pages. Each assignment usually focused on a different element of literary craft. Daniel demanded excellence and would fill our papers with plenty of red ink. By being pushed in this manner, it made me conscious of repetitive mistakes and not wanting them to be pointed out to me again. I used to over-write by adding too many words and including too much detail. My early papers were smeared with red ink. But by week 7, I wrote a paper where his only notes were, “This is perfectly written, perfectly paced!” I was on cloud nine! (That story, a 2nd person flash fiction piece called A Window to Your Soul, along with a few other stories I wrote in that class, were published in The Rogues Gallery Writers collection, Writing is Easy. Another story from that class, Keepsakes, was published in the FWA Collection, From Our Family to Yours, prior to being included in Writing is Easy.)
Aside from the weekly sentences and writing exercises, we worked on our final project throughout the semester, a short story of no more than ten pages. We had a couple one-on-one’s with Daniel, so he could give us guidance, if needed. I struggled to write a true story I wanted to tell about a friend who had passed away at a young age. Sensing my frustration, Daniel recommended that I try a different story, one that I wasn’t so personally and emotionally attached to. I gave him a few pages of a work-in-progress, a satirical piece, I called The American Scream. He encouraged me to work on Scream instead. Once switching gears I’d come to realize that, if done properly, Scream would turn out to be more than ten pages. After discussing with Daniel, he gave me the freedom to write it to my satisfaction. At the end of the semester, I turned in Scream as an 18-page, 8,500 word short story.
Although Daniel gave me a lot of positive feedback on Scream, he highly recommended that I focus on becoming a better self-editor. Advice that has stuck with me ever since, and is a skill that I continually work to improve. Over the next few years, I continued to edit and tweak The American Scream, and even wrote two alternate endings (the second of those becoming my actual ending.) Last year, it won 2nd place in the Royal Palm Literary Awards for unpublished short story.
As I had said at the beginning of this post, Daniel’s creative writing class would help me to rewrite Such A Dreamer, for the simple fact that his class helped me to become a more efficient and well-rounded author. Until that point, I had been self-taught and never received feedback from experts in the field. But thanks to Daniel’s class, I knew better how to pull off tight, well-crafted, and believable short fiction. The next step was to take what I had learned and apply it to novel-length fiction.
I thought more about Dreamer and my first person character, Dane Whitmore. Something dawned on me. If I wanted Dane to come off as a fairly selfless guy–not very egotistical at all–why would he be telling this story himself, in the first person, when it takes a fairly strong ego to do so? At least for the story I wanted to tell and the messages I wanted to convey it did. It no longer made sense to use first person, so I began the laborious process of converting the novel from first person past tense to third person past tense.
The year following Daniel’s class, in the fall of 2006, I moved back to St. Augustine. I became involved in the local writing community and began attending meetings for the St. Augustine Chapter of the Florida Writers Association. With encouragement from fellow members, I took my revamped Dreamer and entered it into the 2007 Lighthouse Book Awards. To my surprise, I had received an Honorable Mention (3rd place) for the general fiction category. This certainly gave me encouragement, but soon after, I would be hit with a strong reality check.
(Looks like this is going to require a Part 3. Now you really know why my novel is taking twelve years! 😉 Please tune in next week for the conclusion.)
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