I have been teaching a memoir class at Mount Hood Community College called Writing Your own True Story. I am working too hard, but I can’t help myself. The way I teach writing includes a whole lot of talking, assigning reading (usually to prove some point or introduce some concept) and then assigning short writing exercises. When the students turn these assignments in I have to read them and make constructive comments, praise parts that I really like (while proving reasons and a direction to go for growth).
Once a week I create a lesson outline with a PDF of the reading. Aside from staying organized and keeping my class update, the majority of my work is reading and deciding how to comment. I enjoy it, but it is time consuming. I only get paid for two hours a week (I currently have 8 students, but I am supposed to be able to handle 15.)
It is a simple formula. And my students are moving along. Everyone seems happy (most of the time). But if I add up all the prep work and the reading and mark up time, I am working more like twelve hours a week instead of 2.
I don’t know what sort of work you do, but if you have to work six times as much in order to get paid, burn out is not far behind you. I have a hard time doing less – I mean, I am serving the students, not the college.
I realized this morning that I am not going to be able to continue at this pace.
So I am working on alternatives.
One of the problems that I have found with many writer’s blogs is that they give great advice, but there isn’t anyway to clarify the concepts and try them out in a controlled environment. Unless you are enrolled in a class or a workshop, (or an MFA program) you have to flounder along alone until you decide that you have mastered a particular step.
I think the non-college student, aspiring writer, needs more options for professional feedback. So in between posting stories, I am proposing to build a portal through this blog where writers can try exercises and get feedback on them without investing hundreds or even thousands of dollars. As time goes on and I see if there is interest in this program I may expand the prompts, tips and assignments. But for now, each will be a simple concept followed by a 500 word test run.
There is a popular method of marketing gaining prevalence these days where you provide a basic service or product for free, but you charge a small amount for added value. I have heard it called a Freemium. This is what I am proposing. I will post a small article on writing every few days. You can read it and enjoy it, do it or not. No strings attached. But as an added value, you can post your work at our Submittable site with a nominal fee.
I will attempt a fast turnaround, but if this idea picks up I reserve the right to take up to one month to respond. As (if) the idea gains acceptance, I will develop more extensive projects with additional cost – I do not expect and assessment fee to ever exceed $20.
There will be some collateral reading, but in order to satisfy copyright issues, I will only be suggesting the texts. Later I may create a method to provide this reading as a part of the blog –
Stay tuned for updates.
Basic Elements of Fiction
Whether you are writing fiction, creative non-fiction, or memoir, you will benefit from the skills a fiction writer relies upon to create engaging characters and situations as well as detailed and believable scenes and environments. Think of it as a set of tools (nod to Stephen King’s On Writing) that you can keep at the ready in your writer’s virtual toolbox.
In order to have a reasonable conversation about writing we will need to start with a language so we all know what we are talking about.
We can start off with the basic elements of fiction (as said, these are really the elements of creating living characters with engaging stories). That 7 basic ones are:
- –Plot – The series of occurrences which transpire
- –Setting – Where is the story taking place
- –Tone The tone in a story can be joyful, serious, humorous, sad, threatening, formal, informal, pessimistic, and optimistic. MOOD
- –Style – What unique way is the story being told – distinctive vocabulary and choices in expression
- –Point of view – Who is telling the story
- –Character – Who are the actors in the story
- –Theme – What is the story about.
This list can be expanded or reduced. Depending upon form (short story, flash fiction, novella, novel or epic) some of these elements may be reduced. More on that to come.
So one way to make your stories better is to be sure you are including all the important aspects of each of these elements. As always, you can get really caught up in this, so try to treat it lightly and keep it simple.
My favorite place to start is with Character. And one way to learn about what works is to try it.
Lets do some character sketches.
The easiest character to write about is yourself. You know (or at least you have tie chance to…) this character better than just about anyone else. But in order for it to be a creative exercise you should flex your creative muscles. So for today’s exercise, I want you to write a biography with one small difference. I want you to lie. Make up every detail. Embellish it with your creativity. And only include one true fact.
Now don’t go off the rails. This should be believeable. Coleridge coined the term Suspension of disbelief, which is a little weird because it is a double negative (which if you remember anything about math, which I often do not, means that two negatives together create a positive). What he was trying to say is that the writer’s job is to create an illusion of truth. And as long as the reader believes it, then the writer has a chance to succeed.
As soon as the reader steps back from the writing and say, “Hey, I don’t think that is possible,” then the construct of your imaginary world disappears. It is hard to recover after that. So suspend the readers disbelief by never pushing them too far. Even if it the truth, your job will depend upon making sure it is a believable truth.
Keep you attempts to 500 words or less. Put in a lot of details. See where it gets you. and stay tuned for more about character and the elements of fiction in my next post.
If you would like feedback on this assignment, please visit our Submittable site. Follow the instructions. I will respond. See Conventions Here
NEXT LESSON: Direct and Indirect exposition.
writing better stories by Ron Heacock is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License.
Based on a work at http://wp.me/p4fgRf-V.
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Thanks to George Booth for the detail of his amazingly appropriate cartoon: Write About Dogs.