What I learned in high school English

What I learned in high school English

My search for a critique partner brought back memories of high school English. Some fond, some not so much. I also remembered why I hate short stories.

If you follow my blog, you probably know I’m currently on the hunt for my perfect critique partner (CP).

“You haven’t settled on someone yet?”

Yes, I heard you say that. No, I haven’t.

And not because no one’s approached me or because I’m terrible at making decisions (though I am).

I want a relationship that will give maximum value on both sides and last at least a decade. You can’t rush into that sort of thing.

In the meantime I’m having conversations and exchanging chapters with several talented and committed writers, hopefully giving value and definitely receiving it.

In case you’re wondering I’m also still open to being approached by new people. If you’re on the fence, don’t be shy. The worst that could happen is that your house could be invaded by a herd (snap? swish? gobble?) of hungry alligators.

I feel bad at times that I might be stringing along these wonderful people, some of whom are already close (internet) friends. If I am, I hope they’ll forgive me (and keep being my friends).

Lessons from my critique partner search

As a result of my CP search, I’ve found myself analysing a good number of first chapters, and in a couple of cases I’ve gone well beyond first chapters, pulling apart a larger section of the book and asking “does this work?”

I won’t claim my answers to this question were helpful to the writers, but asking the question was helpful to me.

It’s always different when it’s not your book.

I am dragon. Hear me roar. No, I’m not doing a twelve-step programme for being a compulsive liar.

I analyse my own book before, as, and after I write it, but analysing someone else’s book is different. It’s less an act of creation and more a massive jigsaw puzzle. Is this the only way these pieces can fit together? Would they fit more snugly if we rearranged them like this? Are these even the right pieces? What’s missing?

Oddly, it brings to mind high school English.

Reminiscences of high school English

Before you jump on me, you should know I enjoyed high school English.

We leaned about simple, compound, and complex sentences (I sort of remember this), the difference between a phrase and a clause (one’s a complete sentence, I have no idea which), and how to diagram sentences (this ability has been replaced by more immediately useful knowledge such as the drinkable brands of instant coffee).

We read Shakespeare (fun!) and Wuthering Heights (mind-numbingly dull).

What I did not like was my high school English teacher.

I’m pretty sure she didn’t like me either.

With the benefit of (considerably more than) a decade of hindsight, I recognise I may not have made her life the easiest.

I hope she forgives me, wherever she is (and whichever students she’s currently putting through hell).

But she did make us both read and write short stories, and possibly gifted me with my undying hatred of them.

She taught me that short stories are dull, pointless snippets of real life, obsessed with theme and social commentary and utterly devoid of character, charm, or plot. (Possibly I didn’t fully appreciate the stories she set.)

Still, she was perfectly clear about what she considered a good short story, so when she set writing a short story as an assignment I knew what she wanted and, boy, was I going to give it to her.

Passionately angry and self-righteous as you can only be when you’re sixteen years old, I set out to write the dullest, most pointless short story that was about nothing and went nowhere.

Predictably, she loved it.

She loved it so much she shared it with the class and asked them to discuss what it was about.

A haircut? someone suggested. A pet bunny? In the end they agreed with the teacher, it wasn’t really about anything.

Success!

To her, that was brilliant.

I wrote a story about a bunny. Maybe.

In the intervening years I’ve come to realise a short story can (perhaps even should) have a plot, magic, dragons, and other things that make a story worth reading.

My only remaining issue with them is that they’re too short. If I enjoy a story I want to live in the story world for more than half an hour.

I still don’t write short stories, but I probably won’t declare an everlasting feud with you if you do.

What scars did high school English leave you with?

Become my friend. Find out when I write random stuff, possibly even short stories.

Author: A.S. Akkalon

By day, A.S. Akkalon works in an office where the computers outnumber the suits of armour more than two-to-one. By night, she puts dreams of medieval castles, swords, and dragons onto paper.

13 thoughts on “What I learned in high school English”

  1. I find, with good a story of any length it’s too short and I want to know what happened next.

    As for you writing the dullest story you could for your English teacher, that reminds me of a similar experience when I was at secondary school (back when knights still wore plate armour and dragons were real). We’d been told to write a diary entry, now this was something I thought I’d left behind in primary school so I wrote the most boring piece I could come up with. If I recall correctly, it was about my attempt to build myself an amateur radio aerial. I didn’t suffer the humiliation of having it read out to the class but the teacher did add the comment: “One man’s meat …” to it. I think that was one of my few successes in English, which is probably why I remember it.

    1. That’s an excellent point – all good stories are, by definition, too short.

      Ah, my partner in crime, my fellow tormentor of English teachers. I don’t envy how much rubbish writing by students they have to read.

      1. I’ll have you know that the piece was excellently written, as was everything else I ever wrote at school. It’s just in later life where I’ve lost the ability to write a decent story.

  2. We are living in a time when long-form art is becoming the norm. Movies spin out multiple directors’ cuts and then trilogies, then series, then prequels. Television has turned into box sets. Books are written with series in mind. Where once we would have taken pleasure from a 14 line sonnet or a 3 line haiku, now we look at War and Peace and wonder why there isn’t a sequel. Or three.

    There can be entertaining short stories. Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew comes to mind. Edgar Alan Poe. Most of the Sherlock Holmes stories.

    Sure, it can be harder to write science fiction or fantasy short stories. There is rarely enough time to fit in all the world-building that we need to ground the reader in the world of the story.

    We could think about chapters as a form of short story. For me, a well written chapter has a format and a reason to exist that is not far off being a short story. Think of a chapter as, say, an episode of Lost or Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones. Yes it has to work within the whole of the novel or television series. But it also has to be a self-contained story, with a beginning, a middle and an end.

    So perhaps a chapter is simply a short story with buddies.

    1. It’s odd that this is happening at the same time that (they tell us) our attention spans are getting shorter and shorter. But binge-watching a season of Breaking Bad I suppose you’re never waiting more than 40 minutes for your pay-off. And if that pay-off isn’t enough, 40 minutes later you get another one. Or perhaps we just want all our short stories to have a lot of buddies.

  3. Sigh — I love short stories. But I grew up on old-fashioned anthologies, full of stories by the masters of the form. So high school English didn’t wreck that for me, but my freshman year teacher nearly did in Shakespeare for me by turning Julius Caesar (the play, not the guy) into a torturous, mind-numbingly tedious slog. Kind of an impressive reverse achievement, when you think about it. Luckily that was the same year my mother undertook to read Macbeth aloud to me, and I was hooked (witches, murder, ghosts, mad queens, walking forests!). All Shakespeare instruction should begin with Macbeth, and anyone teaching it should be required to pass an exam that proves they can either act, or at least read aloud decently.

    1. Reading aloud is a definite skill. Judging by some of the mangled attempts by my fellow students at school I suspect they never did much reading of any description because they could make the most exciting passages sound exceedingly dull.

      1. I understand this kind of dull reading out loud is useful when you’re editing your work. If the words not the tone they’re read in convey the excitement of the story, you’ve got a good thing going.

        1. I bow to your superior knowledge on this. I’ve never attempted that sort of editing on someone’s work. All I tend to do is proofread and provide the odd suggestion if I can’t work out what the author is trying to say.

    2. Ah, Macbeth. You can’t go wrong with witches, murder, and ghosts. Not even when you spend weeks listening to the whole play read line by line by fifteen-year-olds.

      I expect your early exposure to short stories matters a lot for whether you end up loving or hating them. What worries me is that high school English is forcing the wrong books on students and teaching them to hate reading entirely.

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