The Writing Teacher I Never Met

Nothing matters until you’ve finished your first book. Anyone who gets you there is a hero. The single most important tool I ever found for learning to write was a series of twelve double-sided tapes called “Let’s Write A Mystery” by a guy named Ralph McKinerny. His whole process was to tell you the basics while writing a book right alongside you on his tapes (all of which sounded like 1950’s science teacher lectures.)

The book that Ralph writes during the process is included in the box with the tapes. To my tastes it’s maybe the shitiest book I’ve ever read. If he’d wanted to, he could have shown off the talents that helped him write dozens of successful novels. And yet, somehow, his willingness to write crap right there in front of you, all the while telling you to stop worrying about whether your stuff is good or not but just get your damned pages out, somehow that’s what helped me write my first novel and prove to myself that I could be a writer.

Ralph McInerny was a theologian who wrote books I never bothered to read and who had largely opposite values to me (he once wrote a screed protesting Barack Obama speaking at Notre Dame.) He died in 2010 and I never met him. He was the best writing teacher I ever had.

Recent Comments

  • Hicham
    October 22, 2018 - 8:37 am · Reply

    Firstly I’m french and I use googl translator so sorry for the faults I just wanted to tell you that I love your book series THE ANTI-MAGICIAN I finished the 2 there is about 2 weeks and is seen in the dènnières pages the address of your quote so I just came to say hello and encourage you to continue your books they are awesome waiting for the second. 🙂

    • decastell
      October 22, 2018 - 11:19 am · Reply

      Thanks so much for the kind words! Glad you’re enjoying the books in French. I was just in Paris with my lovely publishers, Gallimard, discussing the third book in the series, so it looks like there will be more coming soon!

  • Karo
    August 15, 2019 - 8:14 pm · Reply

    I’m currently catching up on your Spellslinger series. Although I am late to the party and probably not your target audience, I’m enjoying it greatly. I have a distinct weak spot for tricksters and your Spellslinger is hitting it squarely. So thank you for your work!
    Your dedication in one of the books made me realize that you are familiar Ralph M. McInerny. I also happen to own one of his cassette courses. It is called “Let’s write a Novel!” and was published shortly after the success of “Let’s Write a Mystery!” And I agree with you. He was a wonderful teacher freely giving of his experience as so few are.
    I’d love to compare the two courses to see how they differ regarding structural advice. May I ask where you found your copy?

    • decastell
      August 20, 2019 - 2:28 am · Reply

      Alas, the only copy I ever found of “Let’s Write A Mystery!” was at the Vancouver Public Library, which of course removed it from the collection many years ago now (there not being a high demand for cassette tape courses!) More recently I found a copy of “Let’s Write A Novel”, which appears to be almost entirely the same content and approach, with the only exceptions being the example book he writes and the specific references to detectives and such.

      • Karo
        August 21, 2019 - 2:51 pm · Reply

        Thank you, good to know how similar they are. Finding a working copy of “Let’s Write a Mystery!” has been almost impossible. Legend has it that in a land far in the north of California there is a Junior College that still possesses one. Alas, it is so fragile that they will not lend it out and it is guarded by a dragon. I know because I talked to her.
        Thanks again and I’m looking forward to your next spellslinging adventures!

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