Sunday, October 24, 2010

Writing Best Friends: Pass It On

The first time a light bulb went off inside my young brain and said Aha! People actually write books, real people, people I might one day meet was quite possibly sparked by an autographed copy of Once on Esplanade by Frances Parkinson Keyes. The summer I turned six, my parents spent a weekend in New Orleans and happened upon a local author. Instead of a box of pralines, my gift was a book. Although I wouldn’t actually read that book for many years—the topic of a Creole wedding was beyond me —I don’t remember being disappointed. The thick script of a real person, who'd actually written a note inside the book, fascinated me.

But the first real flesh-and-blood author who took me under her wing and red-penciled my verbs was my senior English teacher at Cleveland (MS) High School. Mrs. Effie Glassco, the most frighteningly challenging teacher I ever encountered, wrote a weekly column for the local newspaper’s Society page. Using a tricky pen name, “I.C. All,” she reported on travels—her own and others’, weddings, baptisms, parties, all with a flair.

Tiny, black-eyed, full of fury by the time my class rose to senior status, Mrs. Glassco was a fierce defender of strong verbs and of choosing just the right word. She disdained weak writing: “Wonderful?” she’d shout, waving a classmate’s essay in the air. “Why write the word wonderful? Wonderful is not specific. That wastebasket is wonderful, the chalk board! Wonderful tells me nothing!”

Even today, if my fingers dare to begin typing W-O-N…, I can’t get past the N.

Mrs. Glassco introduced our class to the English Romantics and to the great Mississippi writers. One fall Friday, after she’d begrudgingly dismissed the football players early from homeroom, she called me to her desk. She wanted to share her copy of Lanterns on the Levee. She’d lived through the Great Flood of 1917, was a friend of William Alexander Percy’s and had scribbled her personal reflections in the margins of that book. Another Aha Moment! Writers who connect to fellow writers.

“Miss Effie,” as she became known to me, was quite possibly the first real writer who sat by my side, crossing out large sections of my prose. After I left her tutelage and eventually realized her bark was much fiercer than her actual bite, we became friends. From Effie Glassco, I learned to be attentive to words and to love great literature.

From my most recent writing mentor, Leslie Davis Guccione, I learned to dig deep into writing specifics.

When she invited me to join her writing group, Leslie was already a friend. She and another member, Lee Stokes Hilton, welcomed me and my critique partner into their living rooms. Each Tuesday morning, Leslie put on her editor’s cap and (nicely, always) showed us how to improve. She encouraged us to polish our writing and get it out into the world, all while making us laugh.

Leslie taught me to spurn floating body parts. Before I joined the group, I don’t know that I’d worried about FBPs. Possibly, I wasn’t even aware of this horrible writing phenomenon. But now, you’ll never catch me (intentionally) floating a head in the wrong part of a sentence.

No more of these sorts of sentences:
1.She retrieved the arm that she'd wrapped around Annabelle and reached toward her son. 

2. She pulled her body out of his arms.

3. MacFarland's eyes roamed the hillside.

4.The nurse's head peeked out from the door and smiled at her.

5. His eyes traveled to the bathroom.

No longer will eyes travel to the bathroom or any other place in my writing.

Another of the many lessons Leslie gently taught our group (and me specifically) was the importance of choosing the right names for characters. Of course, I already had huge lists of great names from old high school yearbooks, notebooks sprinkled with Bubbas and Lynettes, Miss Sister, Lady Margaret, Big Mama.

Leslie, however, showed me how just the right name can influence a character’s personality. You can write to type or write against type, purposely call up stereotypes or not, really manipulate the reader. She brainstormed one of my characters whose name was inadvertently “stolen” by another middle-grade writer, just as I was getting to know her. When we came up with Gloriana as a new name, the character and the story took on a new, better life.

And Leslie believes in paying it forward. Early in her career, she helped another writer mentee of hers get started. That writer became a friend and advisor to me. I hope some day I can pass this gift along. This is what Leslie does for her students in Seton Hill University’s MFA in Popular Fiction program. Her fans are many, her advice priceless.

Thank you, Leslie Guccione. Thank you, Mrs. Glassco. Two of my writing BFFs.

Augusta Scattergood reads constantly, reviews books and writes middle-grade fiction. 
Truthfully, there aren't too many days when she wishes to be back sitting at a desk in senior English class. 
But there are many mornings when she longs to be back on the front porch of Leslie's cabin in the woods.


Hilary Hyland said..., mighty fine!

nreddick said...

Great lessons for us all!

Peggy Webb said...

I wish I had known your formidable mentor! She taught you well.

Zach said...

I think I'm in love with Ms. Effie.

Heidi @ Decor & More said...

I laughed out loud!! Miss Effie sounds remarkably familiar! And isn't Leslie's porch an inspiration itself? Well done. Off to check for FBPs in my ms!

Augusta Scattergood said...

Ha! Miss Effie scared the pants off most 16/17-year-olds of her acquaintance! But she was remarkable.
As is Leslie's porch.

Unknown said...

We all need mentors and to mentor. Great stories Augusta and wish I could be on that porch! I can only imagine the view but I can see it!

Anonymous said...

In the year I had Leslie as a mentor I learned more than I had in all my previous years of writing. She's an amazing mentor. :) Jennifer