Ms. Carlene A. Carmen
City, State Zip
I smiled when I saw that I was going to take
another trip to Mr. Cranmer’s classroom. You’ve done a good job letting me see
what it was about Mr. Cranmer and his English 431 class that captured your
attention in the first place. I think you made a good choice centering the story
around the syllabus itself, since that gives the story a nice, tight focus.
The addition of the hapless Mr. Dodds adds the
potential for rising tension and conflict in your story, as well as offering
opportunities for humor. I loved when the poor boy made the mistake of saying
“Yes!” when the week six assignment was ultimately cancelled. His just reward
from Mr. Cranmer was quite fitting.
One suggestion that would give this humorous
tale more depth is to add a little more tension. When Mr. Cranmer hands out his
syllabus, does the class (or even the narrator) react in shock at the length and
detail? Groan? Thumb through the pages as if in disbelief? If the reader knows
that everyone is wondering how all this work is going to get accomplished, but
no one is willing to say so, that will give Mr. Dodds’s challenge to Mr. Cranmer
even more punch.
And if the dialogue between them is snappier
(“Mr. Cranmer, there’s no way we’ll be able to do all this!”) and you insert a
hint that Mr. Dodds may be right—the class is gradually getting a little bit
more behind each week—the reader is going to wonder just who will end up with
egg on their face over Mr. Cranmer’s syllabus.
Another suggestion to
make the story more vivid would be to add sensory details of the classroom. It
is a larger classroom
than is needed for the ten
students, but is it a white walled modern room with a
whiteboard? A nineteenth-century classroom with big drafty
windows and pitted chalkboard? Does Mr. Cranmer write his
name with the squeak of marker against whiteboard, or rasp
of chalk against a blackboard? Are the student desks
individual and ancient? Long desks with rows of chairs
tucked neatly in? When the students move restlessly at the
first sight of their syllabus, do their desks creak and
groan? Does Mr. Cranmer’s voice echo in the nearly empty
room? Or is he hard to hear and students must sit up close
to the front?
Take a look at “Mrs. Comfrey
Wins” in your Voices anthology, for an example of
using sensory detail to capture the stifling nature of Mrs.
Comfrey’s daughter’s home.
One more suggestion I have for you is to work some more on
your sentence structure. You’ve made good progress judging by the improvement
I see from the last assignment, but you might want to try reading your story
aloud to hear whether the sentences and dialogue flow as you mean them to. In a
story so short, each sentence should be as well-crafted as possible.
example, “I knew that he had to be more intelligent than to show off his
manly build.” This sentence does not make sense as it is written. Readers
get impatient when you throw in a sloppy sentence. It pulls them out of the
story. It is better to make two clear sentences than try to force two competing
images into one unclear sentence—“I knew he had to be intelligent by the
way he carried himself. His thin, frail body was held as proudly as if he were a
prime example of physical fitness.”
You’ve made a great start in fiction with “Mr. Cranmer’s
Syllabus.” Assignment #3 will offer you a change of pace. Since you’ve
decided that you’d like to work on a nonfiction family history, I think this
is a good time to try. I’m looking forward to reading about your father’s
In addition to following the steps in Section 3 of Breaking into
Print and reading chapters 9–12 in On Writing Well, check out the
article in Voices, “Through a Glass, Painted,” for one idea on
how to approach your non-fiction topic.
My comments on “Mr. Cranmer’s Syllabus” should be
self-explanatory, but please don’t hesitate to ask for clarification when you
drop me a note with Assignment #3.
In addition to any questions, I’ll need to
know whether, after completing Assignment #3, you still wish to focus on
nonfiction for Assignment #4. If you’re not certain, I’d suggest that you
take a second look at the authors’ comments at the end of each Voices
piece before deciding.
I’m looking forward to seeing your next assignment. Please
try to have it to me in five weeks.
Enclosure: Assignment #2
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