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 the next plot session (three weeks), think about and determine what will be the precipitating incident that intrudes on that stasis to get the ball rolling. If you’re really serious about doing this for sale, bear in mind that it’s often the precipitating incident that provides the hook that will get an editor or agent reading past page four. It needn’t be huge; it ought to get under the reader’s skin, though, and create a desire to know, “Well, why in the world did that happen?”
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.
At this point, you’re probably zeroing in on one or two of those stories. You can do the following with either two or with just one. The sooner you cut off your options, of course, the more attention you can give to the main task. At the same time...well, you’re closing off options that you may still want to leave open. I’m trying to let you avoid painting yourself into a corner too early, but at some point you have to make a decision. It’s really up to you. For your story or for each of your stories:
Pick the three or four most important characters. Create a profile for each one. This will take a bit of time, and definitely needs to go beneath the surface. Probably the least important feature you can cite for the character is his or her appearance, though you may certainly include that. Remember that all these characteristics will intersect with the plot and how it plays out, but people need not be aligned to the terms of the plot (certainly not initially) in any kind of polar way. The most interesting characters are typically those who are skew to the poles of the story. In general, since character is story, to a large extent, your main character’s polarity — that is, the range of things that seem to them to be good and bad outcomes — will probably line up reasonably well with the story’s. Other characters’ polarities will be far more interesting if they do not. Even the archvillain (if you must have one) is far more interesting if he or she is not just angling to say “no” to every “yes” of your main character.
Each profile should have two parts — one for the beginning of the story, and one for the end. Feel free to skip any question in the “end” part if the value is the same as the first half. I think I can generalize by saying that any character for whom there is no change in any of these values from the beginning to the end is a waste of your time, though there are some circumstances in which there is not a great deal of change in many of them. Answer these questions twice, therefore:
For next week, think about what kind of theme lives at the core of the situation you’ve set up? What (morally or narratively) is at stake, not just for the characters, but for the reader? I’m not suggesting that you come up with an appended moral, though if you want to, fine. Just be prepared to discard it. Preaching of that sort makes for bad narrative. The interplay between the internal obstacle and the external obstacle will often direct what your theme is about, so bear that in mind
I'm going to give you a little while more to get your character profiles posted. I know they're a chore, and they don't have to be super-long, but you should nail down the three to five most important characters for whatever story or stories you want to go forward with.
For this week, I'd like you to think about the thematics of your story. That is, what questions — be they social, religious, political, personal, or philosophical — does it raise?
I'd like you to write a description of those main issues; there might only be one or two. If you have too many, it's probably a mess anyway. Zero in on a small number. For each one, tell me not what conclusion you want to come to — frankly I think that ought to emerge from the work itself — but what the nature of the problem is. What are the different points of view that might be entertained by one or more of your characters or explored by the story as a whole?
We'll come around again to how to tie this in to your basic plot outline and your characters in the next two weeks. But get your postings up to date now, so we can move forward.
Here's our second pass at plot.
What I'd like to have you do here is to go through your basic plot-lines from the Plot 1 exercise, and start reflecting on how that will intersect with the characters and the themes you've put on the table.
In practical terms, you're probably down to one story-line now. If you still want to do this for two or more, that's okay — but it will become increasingly improbable as we take our second sweep through the plot/character/theme trifecta.
Therefore...with the plot you're most focused on, go through what you have written already (feel free to revise those plots as you see fit: this is not an exercise in arbitrary retrofitting), and annotate each of the plot steps with your reflections on what this will do for or to the characters, and how it will manifest your themes.
For each plot point, therefore, answer the following questions for each of your main characters (I would expect no more than three or four). The accounting of these things need not be elaborate or lengthy, but I think you will find that spelling out even what seems obvious will be productive. Most particularly interesting, of course, is that point at which some character reacts in a way that isn't quite what you'd expect. This is always the point where the reader sits forward in the chair (or hunkers down back into the chair) and really starts to pay attention. If you've constructed your plot backward, as I suggested, that should not be difficult.
Then also write a few sentences about the state of the thematic progression at each stage. This can easily become mindlessly mechanical, and I don't mean for you to do that. But actually stopping to consider at each stage, "Okay, so now what does this say about the problem of x that we were talking about earlier?" can be salutary.
These last three units prior to the actual seat-in-the-chair writing frenzy are largely about synthesizing the strands you've already put into play; nothing is set in concrete, and you're welcome to change anything after this point. But getting something down is better than getting nothing down out of a fear of committing to it. Put it down, and if it needs a change later, you have my blessing (for whatever that might be worth).
Here’s our second pass at character, but it’s effectively going to be a more diffuse one. If it’s not already obvious, we’re trying to knit the different pieces together to form something coherent.
The really important thing to do now is to decide for real which of your characters is the main character — the protagonist. You can have multiple characters, and they can all be important (at least some reasonable number of them can be important), but a story is virtually always centered around one. That’s important for a number of reasons. Ultimately it is in the person of the protagonist that the inner and outer stories cross. Perhaps one might say that the inner and outer plot strands cross to make the story as a whole. That’s a terminological quibble. The point is that with precious few exceptions, I think we can say that most solidly satisfying stories contain an external arc and an internal arc, and the real dynamism of fiction comes from their intersection.
First of all, there is — there must be — some quantifiable and visible change in the character’s external circumstances between the start and the finish. It’s possible to have a completely internal story, but few of them are, and they tend to be fairly brittle.
Many stories — a preponderance of potboilers, probably — really don’t have much by way of an internal arc. But you want to do better. I’m not calling for you to dredge up some psychological categories. Much of what passes for psychology even today is more speculation than established truth, I think, though I’m certainly willing to be proven wrong. Mostly what I’m looking for is that the character learns something that changes the way he or she sees the world, and provides some new understanding.
For years I’ve been somewhat resistant to this notion: there’s a kind of tendency to produce an internal goal — the place to which your’e driving your character — that will look a lot like a cliché. I’ve been scratching my head about that and reading about it over the last few weeks, and finally I found a book that attempts to deal with some of these issues in an organic, rather than a superficial or pro forma way. I can (cautiously) recommend it: it has some language that some of our students might find problematic, but its basic analysis of the what-it-is of story is, I think, dead on. It’s given me some clarity about some of the stories I’ve had lying around in a quasi-completed but (at least to me) not quite satisfactory condition. It’s Story Genius, by Lisa Cron. Among the obvious things she points out in the early chapters of the book is the fact that it’s probably okay if that realization is, or can be couched as, a cliché. So what? Ultimately it’s how you present it and how you craft the experience of that personal growth that will make it unique and capable of transcending a clichéd reduction.
Therefore, I’d like you to sketch out for your protagonist — only that one character — the following. Some of it will be redundant, but indulge me. You may find that revisiting some of these questions brings about a slight change in perspective.
The assignments have slipped a bit, but here’s what I’d like you to do for what remains of this week. Next week is split: you don’t get to begin actually writing your novel until November 1. (How would I know if you cheated? I wouldn’t. But you would. Take the challenge on the terms under which it’s offered.)
Review all the sections you’ve done so far, to make sure you have sorted out what your plan is and where you’re headed with it.
Summarize, in a paragraph — no more — what the arc of the inner story is going to do (i.e., where is it going to take your character — from what mistaken self-understanding or what fears to what resolution) and what the arc of the outer story is going to do (again, what the problem is and how it will be met). See that both of those intersect in the domain of the theme you’ve outlined for yourself. This calls for relatively little writing, but a moderate amount of thinking.
Write one or two scenes to warm up. These scenes will not be part of your novel (at least not from here) but should have directly to do with the character’s back story. That is, it should show something about the foundation of those fears or inner errors that the novel itself will address and that the main character will (at least provisionally) solve. Use this time to try to get your creative juices flowing. Use some dialogue. Describe a few actions. Make sure that it is set to send your main character directly into the starting gate, so to speak. That’s where you’re going to pick up and start telling your story. Unless you decide during revisions that this scene needs to be included in the final novel, don’t expect it to be there. That’s not why you’re doing this. If something happens in that scene that you need to refer to, of course, you may do so, though try to do it with the perspective that the current state of the novel requires. If you get this into the forum early enough, I will try to give you some feedback that may facilitate your actual writing of your novel.
Then, come Hallowe’en night at 12:01 (or any time the next day), put your writing car in gear and step on the gas.
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, as well as the “hidden” background scene or scenes (don’t make them too many: fewer and more intense is better) written to begin to let you make the acquaintance of your characters. Be ready to take off from the starting line right away. Write. Write. Write. Post your word counts to your NaNoWriMo page daily. Yes, I know that seems like a fussy requirement, but it’s a great motivator. Trust me. Do not edit. Do not indulge in any backward looks. There will be plenty of time for that. You can clean stuff up later — and we will. For now, your goal — your only goal — is to get it out there in a form that we can work with. If you write a chapter and decide that it’s all just horribly wrong, keep it; write the alternative version, and keep on going. You can cut it later.
Write. Write. Write. Don’t stop; don’t look back; don’t edit, don’t delete anything. Post your word counts daily.
Write. Write. Write. Don’t stop; don’t look back; don’t edit, don’t delete anything. Post your word counts daily.
Write. Write. Write. Don’t stop; don’t look back; don’t edit, don’t delete anything. Post your word counts daily.
Post in the forum in the Moodle a descriptive passage taken either from your novel or something else written for the occasion: it should be of a place, a thing, or a situation — not a character. Make it somewhere between 200 and 500 words. We will look at one another's descriptions and see what we can make of them. What can you do with a description to maintain interest?