The McComas Method

[First, a note!  Next Friday is November 1st, and we all know what that means: NaNoWriMo!  Regular blog service (daily picture prompts, Friday Writers’ Corner) will be on hiatus for the month.  I will, however, be posting daily word counts and a sentence or two about how things are going, and how close I am to chucking my computer at the wall in a fit of frustration and despair.  So stay tuned!]

I have been writing since I could hold a pencil and form sentences.  My current dedication to the craft, however, started in the summer of 2006.

When we moved the year before to Evanston, IL so my husband could go to grad school at Northwestern, I had intended to get serious about my writing.  Sadly, that quickly stagnated.  By the next summer, my son was almost two, I was unhappily  working at a funeral home as a family services counselor, and I was pregnant with our daughter.  I had to do something different.

Luckily, that’s when I learned about Northwestern’s “Mini Courses.”  They’re six week, once a week, open to the community and (very importantly) inexpensive classes taught at the University’s Norris Center.  The classes offered range from Spanish to ballroom dance to beginner’s pool.  And they had a fiction writing class.


I wound up liking the class so much that I took it again in the fall semester, the winter semester, the spring semester, and the next summer.  I was writing.  I was getting better.  And I had an awesome teacher.  That class wound up being the beginning of a writerly relationship that would last my entire time in Evanston and continues today.  Paul McComas became a mentor and a friend, and the single biggest influence on my writing to date.  If you’ve read my book Haunted (and if you haven’t, what are you waiting for?!) you’ve doubtless noticed that I thank him profusely in the acknowledgements.    He edited Haunted, and we collaborated on the piece “This Too Too Solid Flesh” that was published in his book of genre short stories Unforgettable.

Part of what makes Paul such an effective teacher is that he’s managed to distill his views on what makes good fiction into simple, understandable principles.  He insists that new mini course students must attend the first class of the semester, because that’s when he explains his method.  I took that course five times, and each time the first class was exactly the same, to the point where it was almost like an in-joke.  He’d explain the Plausible Surprise, and Specificity Lends Authenticity, and the Tightrope of Disclosure, and I’d sit there, nodding with a knowing smile.  Everyone else was hearing it for the first time.  I had not only heard it before, I had seen it in action.  I had seen my own work improve when workshopped with those principles in mind.

I’ve thought about teaching writing sometime in the future.  If I do, I’m going to dig out my notebooks from Paul’s class, because the first thing I’ll want to teach my students is the McComas Method.

Dear reader, what teacher has most inspired your writing?

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