Book Review: The Writing Class

Nicky Pellegrino is captivated by a 'how-to' with a plot

Stephanie Johnson's The Writing Class hints at moments with her own students. Photo / NZH, Supplied
Stephanie Johnson's The Writing Class hints at moments with her own students. Photo / NZH, Supplied

The Writing Class by Stephanie Johnson
(Random House)

Commonly, authors are asked for advice about writing and it tends to be the same questions people want answers for: to plan or not to plan, whether it's important to know the ending right from the beginning, how to choose whose voice to tell the story through.

Auckland novelist and teacher Stephanie Johnson has done a clever thing with her latest book; fusing her words of wisdom about the writing process (along with a few cautions about the reality of being a novelist in the 21st century) with a sharply observed work of fiction.

The Writing Class isn't a manual exactly but still is brilliantly structured to lead the reader through the stages of completing a novel, providing examples of each technique along the way.

Our tutor is Merle, an out-of-inspiration author teaching creative writing at the local university. Merle is married to Brendan, a washed-up TV producer who spends his days smoking, drinking tea and sleeping.

As their suburb gentrifies around them they have taken in a lodger, an elderly German drop-out called Jurgen, to help them make ends meet.

Meanwhile, Merle's trendier, younger colleague, Gareth, is being targeted by her attractive, self-obsessed student, Jacinta, who is falling out of love with surgeon husband Hermann.

Johnson introduces us to the lives these people have had and the places they find themselves in now in a section called Ways Of Beginning, which illustrates how to create characters and weave them in with the thread of the story without info-dumping (or being expositional which, as I now realise, is the correct term).

Merle's devotion to her husband despite his failings, Jurgen's internal battles, Jacinta and Gareth's affair, Hermann's heartbreak, the challenges Merle's students face as they try to get their manuscripts ready for submission; all this is the stuff of the story but also supplies its author with the tools she needs to teach us about plot and structure, narrative perspective and even some of the hallmarks of bad writing.

Johnson's wit bites pretty hard at times, particularly in the chapters where Merle is with her students.

She claims not to have based any of her characters on people she's taught over the years but it's difficult to believe their conceits and concerns haven't crossed over from real life and that Johnson hasn't rather enjoyed helping them.

In a way this is a self-indulgent novel. It provides its author with an excuse to quote passages of prose she likes or drop the names of authors she admires. But it's also one of the more useful pieces of fiction I've read. There are lessons to be learned - about life as well as writing - and Johnson teaches them pithily and well.

As the self-taught author of seven novels, I found it intriguing to see things I've been doing instinctively broken down and explained. But The Writing Class would be an informative and entertaining read for anyone interested in the craft; from beginners to published authors, and firmly cements Johnson into place as one of our most accomplished.

- Herald on Sunday

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