This course is being offered in this form for the first time in the 2018-19 school year, and it is being developed in detail as we go along; it is loosely based on earlier creative writing courses offered through Scholars Online, but pitched at a more advanced level. This is reserved for strong writers who are reasonably confident that they will have the time and ability to complete its rigorous terms (including the completion of a 50,000 word novel in the month of November as part of NaNoWriMo — the National Novel Writing Month).
The overall plan of the class is slightly different from other Scholars Online classes. It will not have any regular class meetings, though some chat sessions may be set up if necessary to complete our goals. The bulk of our work will be done by means of asynchronous submissions to forums in the Moodle, and, if enrollment allows, a certain amount of mutual review and critique of works.
I strongly believe that the only real way to learn writing is to do it, and to do it a lot; I also believe that a course that is aimed at developing a productive capacity (like a writing or any other skills course) should issue in some actual positive product by the end of the year. If you are studying woodworking, you should wind up with some item or items of carpentry; if you’re studying cooking, you should generate something edible along the way. Accordingly, the student who participates fully in this course should have, by June, a novel, a play, and a poetic cycle to polish and perhaps submit for publication. Actually getting published is not, of course, a requirement of the course, but it would be nice, wouldn’t it?
At the strategic level, the course is broken down into three parts that loosely mirror (in reverse) the organization of Senior English: it will begin with a long unit focusing on the novel, followed by a transitional unit exploring dialogue specifically; this can be useful both for the novel and for dramatic writing, which will be our focus for the month of February. The student will complete a play by the middle of March. The last part of the class will be involved with poetry — there will be exercises in specific forms, and in the development of new forms as a way of shaping disciplined expression.
Each week, there will be a specific set of exercises to be completed and submitted through the Moodle forums. Those for September and October will have to do with defining the core elements of story, leading up to the blitz through the novel in November. The units immediately following are more focused on the kinds of things one might bring to bear to polish up a text that has been completed.
If you want to tell a story, you have to have some idea, either explicitly or implicitly, of what a story is — that is, what it's about, and what it's for. This is where we'll start. You need to appreciate this viscerally, not just as an external lexical definition. In fact the dictionary will not help you at all, because the question we're trying to get at is not a matter of usage; it's more about the philosophical and psychological reality that story is and what it does to us and for us. I would argue that story — the connected narrative of events involving characters, motivations, and their movement from one place (physical, emotional, or metaphorical) to another — is the fundamental element of human consciousness and identity. It's how we make sense of life and experience. It's ultimately the shape almost everything we know or understand will assume. Story is meaning, and meaning virtually always expresses itself as story.
The whole of human experience in the past (which runs right down to the present moment in time) reaches us as history — just an etymological permutation of the Greek word for story — and we process it and relate to it as story. We ask why someone did this, or what happened when someone else did that. The relationship of cause and effect is the irreducible kernel of story, and the irreducible core of understanding.
Religion chiefly reaches us in the form of story as well. The people of the book, as mediaeval Islam called them — that is, Muslims, Christians, and Jews — all had a faith rooted in a narrative that claimed to be a factual historical chronicle of the interaction of people with God. Pagan cultures expressed a slightly different kind of understanding, articulating apparent universal experience in abstract entities — gods and demigods — who nevertheless came to life and assumed meaning for the believers once again through story. Whether or not those pagans believed that these stories were literally true is something that varied a good deal — but a story was still the vehicle by which the relationships were expressed and understood.
The most potent and enduring pieces of philosophical writing — those with the greatest public appeal — have been couched in stories as well. Plato's Dialogues have assumed such a prominence, and such a grip on the popular mind, that Lord Whitehead called the entire history of western philosophy "a series of footnotes on Plato". This is at least partly because those dialogues were animated representations of their issues — more invested in story than in definitive answers.
Most literature — including things that seem largely non-narrative, like lyric poetry focusing on the articulation of a single feeling — is bound into story. The person singing a love song or an elegiac poem of loss or anything else drags along with him or her the implicit mechanism of narrative: almost always it poses at least two fundamentally narrative questions: “How did this come about?” and “Where do we go from here?"
But it's not just confined to the obvious cases. A science textbook may present certain scientific facts in a non-narrative or tabular format, but underneath all that is a seething mass of story: the story of how this particular discovery was made, and the story of how the experiment plays out. The whole construct of the experimental method is narrative in its inspiration and expression — "Do this and you should have the same results." This is not accidental.
Story is our primary way of understanding. Those who tell stories speak the language of the heart and mind.
Look at these three links. You don't have to watch all the Khan Academy videos, though as far as I've come, they've been good.
Khan Academy links.
Like any discipline, the writing game has its specific terminology, some of which is of general interest, and some of which verges on jargon. We'll try to ignore the latter, but here are some terms, the meanings of which you should know. If you don't, let's get those nailed down pretty soon:
For this week:
Develop a kernel description of ten stories that you would be willing to write and expand into something larger. They need not be wholly original (few are, in fact) but they should be general enough that you don't just wind up repeating someone else's work. What I'm looking for here is a premise — the setup, so to speak — which should contain the who and what of the story. That is, who (in a grammatical and narrative sense) is the subject, and what (again in a grammatical and narrative sense) is the predicate? Implicit in this relationship should be the elements of the central problem or conflict of the story. Every story has some kind of conflict or struggle, whether between people or groups of people, people and nature, or different aspects of the same person.
Write a description (a sentence or two) of each of them. For example, “A moisture farmer on Tattooine finds that he may be able to help the rebellion free the captive princess and turn the tables on the Galactic Empire. He proceeds to join the Rebel Alliance and win an important battle against the Death Star” is too specific and obviously derivative. A more general description of the same narrative is more to the point: "An isolated young man comes to realize that he is in possession of special powers that may help him break the stranglehold of an oppressive overlord. Though initially reticent, he is drawn into taking action and meets a sequence of increasingly difficult challenges, until he makes a major breakthrough." After this, include a specific analysis that will spell out whether the struggle is internal or external, interpersonal or human vs. nature, whether the solution results in a victory or a loss for the protagonist, (either is possible), and suggest a precipitating incident that will get the plot moving.
Post those ten in the Moodle. Next week, I'm going to ask you to zero in on a subset of them and expand your plans further.
Also address, after these, the following question:
Most stories involve deviating from a status quo for a time being and then returning to a kind of (probably altered) norm or stasis. The variation from the norm can be something good that comes about, and is eventually (at least largely) lost, or something bad that comes about, and needs ultimately to be defeated (though its effects will inevitably linger, at least in part). Which kind of story that interests you most?
Continue watching the videos from last time, if you have time.
Pick four of the ten stories you sketched last time. For each of them, present a three-to-five paragraph short version — the fairy tale version, one might say.
For each of them, you should address the following questions. You can do that in condensed narrative or in a list of answers:
One of the most sensible pieces ever written about either the analysis or the construction of dramatic plots — and these will be just as useful in novels as in plays — is David Ball’s Backwards and Forwards. In it, he argues that plots ought to be — and, in most successful cases, actually are — constructed from back to front. That is, you need to know where you are going to wind up before you know how you’re going to get there. To create a good functional plot that will keep your reader engaged, you need to have a sequence of issues that will be resolved, each bringing the plot closer to its conclusion while at the same time raising the stakes for the reader and for your characters.
Pick the two most interesting of your stories from last time, and create a plotting sequence for each one.Build it from back to front.
Answer these questions:
These problems can be big ripsnorting action movie scenarios, or they can be internal drama of a subtle sort. They probably should vary somewhat, but not too widely, from a norm. One doesn't want to watch Arnold Schwarzenegger blowing up a house with his .45 in one scene and then engaging in introspective Angst-ridden interior dialogue in the next — at least not normally. But you can be the arbiter of what the bounds are for your dramatic structure. Either way, they should (in general) increase in magnitude, each one raising the stakes for the next stage.
When you're done, you should have a plot winding up with your characters and your situation at the starting line, so to speak.
For next week, think about and determine what will be the precipitating incident that intrudes on that stasis to get the ball rolling.
Consider also how the final situation in your story will differ from the starting situation. Often stories are a case of “there and back again” — a satisfactory (even Edenic) situation is interrupted by an outside source, and balance needs to be restored. Alternatively something good or beneficial happens but it proves transient, and things eventually slide back into their original situation (cf. “Flowers for Algernon” or the whole of the Arthurian mythos). Both kinds of stories can be powerful. Some kinds of stories can even fuse both types of arc. What's usually interesting is the extent to which the final situation still differs from the first one.
You should have established your NaNoWriMo account by the end of the week at the latest — you can do it at any point prior to this. (If you have already done it for a previous year, you can carry it forward this year.) Connect to me as a writing buddy. By the first of November, you should already have your story, your main characters, your plot, and your themes outlined — be ready to take off from the starting line right away. Write. Write. Write. Don't stop; don't look back. You can clean stuff up later.