Melinda Metz – author of more than 50 books who worked as an editor under “Goosebumps” series author R.L. Stine – started a session of her basic fiction writing fiction class with an exercise in character and plot development.
The Concord resident asked her students in the September Tuesday night class at Rowan-Cabarrus Community College whether they wanted to develop a character or a plot. Someone yelled out, “Corrupt judge.”
The class morphed into a discussion on enneagrams, nine basic character archetypes whose actions are molded by a unique set of prescribed traits.
Some pegged the judge as the challenger: a strong-willed, truthful, but vengeful, person whose worst fears are of being harmed, violated or controlled. Other archetypes are the healer, the helper, the achiever, the investigator, the individualist, the loyalist and the enthusiast.
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From there, the story could go anywhere, and it did. That seemed to be part of the intrigue and fun behind the process.
No matter the story, students are asked to create a “When, then, until” statement that compresses the whole plot into a sentence or two.
The class never finished the sentence for the judge, but it ended up something like this: When a judge’s gambling habits put him in debt to the mob, he then has to bend to their will. He falls to corruption in the process until his family is threatened and a battle of hidden and public power unfolds.
Metz doesn’t think much about publishing has changed since she joined Berkley Publishing (now Penguin Books) in 1987.
“It was like pop fiction, mysteries, thrillers and romances,” she said. “The genres haven’t changed, and it’s always been fairly formulaic. But people look for a certain formula because they enjoy it.”
Her classes mix basic writing principles with various brainstorming exercises and other strategies and techniques.
She said writing talent isn’t necessarily something you’re born with.
“I think you can learn a huge amount of it,” she said. “I think because I started as an editor, I don’t see it as quite as magical. I don’t think it’s that mysterious.”
Metz encourages beginning authors to perfect their writing before submitting work.
“You only get a few chances,” she said. “Sometimes people get so focused on being published before they’ve even written, and I think that can be a big distraction.
“I hope to give (students) a running start to try and get the ideas they have out of their heads and on to paper.”
During the second hour of the class session, students shared some of their work.
Carolyn Brown, who lives in Salisbury, took the class because writing has long been a passion of hers.
As part of a previous writing exercise, Metz had asked students to create a story using a photograph. Brown’s inspiration was a close-up photo of young boy staring intently at a parakeet.
Brown read her story to the class. It was about a 5-year-old blond boy with autism who darted into a road, chasing a red balloon.
When his grandmother caught up with the him on the other side of the street, they discovered the balloon stuck in a red maple, near a green parakeet that eventually landed on the boy’s outstretched arm and inspired the his first words: “Pretty green bird.”
Salisbury resident Jason Michaud, 53, took the class to write a short novel about his grandparents, who escaped German concentration camps and came to America in the 1940s.
“I want to write this not for public consumption, but for my two grandchildren, … so when they grow up, they can read about what sacrifices their great-great-grandparents made … ,” Michaud said.
Michaud’s favorite nugget from class involved The Steps of the Hero’s Journey, a pattern of narrative identified by American scholar Joseph Campbell.
“That, in itself, for me, was worth attending the class,” Michaud said. “She is able to instruct students with various levels of experience in such a way that everyone gets something out of it.
“Also, she’s worth listening to just to get information about the process of publishing and writing a book.”
Alma Marshall, from Salisbury, was an English major in college. She took the class as a way to write more fiction. Her best tip so far: Keep writing, and pay attention to plot structure.
“Melinda has a very laid-back style,” Marshall said. “She had plans for the classes but was willing to be flexible, answering questions and taking suggestions as to what the class wanted to focus on.”