“Living the Dream” as a High School Substitute Teacher Reinforced my Writing Skills by Carolyn J. Rose

Today’s Guest Blogger is Carolyn J. Rose. She grew up in New York’s Catskill Mountains, graduated from the University of Arizona, logged two years in Arkansas with Volunteers in Service to America, and spent 25 years as a television news researcher, writer, producer, and assignment editor in Arkansas, New Mexico, Oregon, and Washington. She teaches novel-writing in Vancouver, Washington, and founded the Vancouver Writers’ Mixers. Her hobbies are reading, gardening, and not cooking.

Carolyn has authored or co-authored eight mysteries, including Hemlock Lake,
The Big Grabowski, and Sometimes a Great Commotion. For more information and a peek at the first chapters, surf to www.deadlyduomysteries.com


In 2001, after the small TV news operation I worked for rolled over and sank beneath the airwaves with a final gasp, I reassessed my career and my life in general. Faced with the stark, sad facts that I wasn’t getting any younger and that stress was no longer more exciting than exhausting, I decided to abandon a twenty-five-year routine of scrounging for stories, sucking up to sources, and meeting daily deadlines as a news producer and assignment editor.

I wanted a job that would be more relaxing, that wouldn’t sap my emotional and physical strength, and that would allow me more time to write. But I also needed stimulation, contact with a wide range of people, and occasional unpredictable elements.

In a moment of what I think of as inspiration tinged with insanity, I decided that substitute teaching would fill the bill—subs were in high demand, the pay wasn’t bad, and the subbing day, like a boxing match, ended with the final bell. That, I thought, left plenty of time to write.

The first day was rocky. No, that’s a supreme understatement. The first day was like surfing down a landslide in bunny slippers. Noise. Motion. Complete lack of control. And that was just getting across the parking lot and through the front office. Suffice it to say that high school had changed since I’d sat in a classroom. At the end of the day I was more stressed than I’d ever been in the newsroom. I was too rattled to do anything more than huddle in a corner of the sofa babbling and sipping at an adult beverage.

But I learned to adapt. I learned classroom management techniques, I came up with ways to connect with students, and I developed strategies to handle stress.

Along the way, I found I could apply these techniques to my writing. Subbing skills are in bold type, the “translations” to writing tips are in italics.

  • Get their attention and get to the point or you’ll lose control.

First sentences and first paragraphs are crucial if you want to claw your way out of the slush pile.


  • Keep things simple at the start.

Introducing too many characters and events can confuse readers. A confused reader might put your book aside and never pick it up again.


  • Lead with your personality.

Author style and characters’ opinions and attitudes make readers sign on for the ride.


  • Be organized.

Keep track of specific character and setting details, research, plot points, and who you’ve queried.


  • Have a plan.

If you don’t know where you’re going with the elements of your plot, you won’t know when you’ve arrived.


  • Be flexible enough to roll with the punches.

Be open to new ideas, plot twists, and character development—even if they come from your husband and even if adopting them will mean extensive rewriting.


  • Stay calm.

A little stress can sometimes be energizing. A lot of constant stress is seldom productive.


  • Don’t get too comfortable.

            Change your writing routines to get new angles on your story.

  • Laugh when you can.

Humor can provide temporary relief from the tension of a tight plot and give readers a chance to breathe.         



  • Care but challenge.

Know your characters well and like them all you want, but don’t be afraid to make their lives miserable for the sake of the plot. As they say in the gym, “no pain, no gain.”


  • Don’t phone it in.

            Make it real. Engage all your senses and emotions.


If you’ve developed techniques through your career that influence your writing, Randal and I would love to know. Please share your comments.



  1. Other lessons my lady and writing partner may have learned from substitute teaching

    * If you turn your back on middle school kids, they will steal your lunch, even if it’s only a sad apple and ziplock of cheez-its.
    *High school kids today use language that would make penetentiary hard-timer blush
    * You can effectively sub for a math teacher even if you can’t remember what a hypotenuse is. Ditto teaching band with chronic tone-deafness.
    What these on-the-job lessons translated to as a developing writer, you’ll have to ask Carolyn


  2. Great article Carolyn! Seems to me being a successful substitute teacher qualifies you for anything from novel writing to trench warfare. 🙂 “Get their attention and get to the point” is good advice. I was reading Donald Maass’ book last night “The Fire in Fiction” and he compares first and last lines to the checkered flag in auto racing. “Like a handshake, an opening and closing line can create impressions and expectations. They can set a tone. They can signal where we’re going, or what we’ve done, or serve any number of other useful story purposes.” Susan


  3. Oh what a great analogy this is–from first to last. “Have a plan” is probably the one I struggle with most since I am real pantser in writing first drafts. However, I certainly see the wisdom since my method has entailed as many as twenty drafts!


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