Loretta and I are ensconced in a hotel room at the Powderhorn Ski Resort near Mesa Colorado, preparatory to participating in a Middle School / High School writing workshop tomorrow morning. Collbran, Colorado, the school’s location, is best described as not near anything. Truly, it’s a town atop Grand Mesa at the end of a rather long and twisting road. If you have 4WD, you can go further—I’ve done it on a motorcycle.
Why the workshop? I credit a dynamic teacher, Leslie Nichols, with organizing this event. It draws students from nearby schools (nearby being a relative term) both to the workshop and the associated competition. I was told that in addition to teaching a workshop on “The Essentials of Fiction,” I (along with other workshop presenters) would judge “some” student writing. You can therefore imagine my surprise when I opened the mail and out poured dozens of submissions. A stack over an inch thick! Several evenings were devoted to crawling through each piece.
A few observations: First, writing talent knows no grade. My favorite piece was by a 7th grader who wrote about the hunting trip on which he bagged his first elk. Now I’m no hunter (and, being bipolar, should stay away from firearms), but his enthusiasm burned through. His piece had “voice” and was well-written to boot. Another favorite piece was from a similarly-aged girl, who wrote about tagging along with her father on a trip to revisit Viet Nam—this time without the war.
Now, based on what I saw, I thought I’d jot down a few things I’d love to pass onto all the kids:
- Punctuation matters. Commas. Periods. Apostrophes. All that and more. I had to punctuate several pieces just so I could read them. This should not be. Standard punctuation rules are there for a reason. That reason is to make writing intelligible. After all, you know far more than you write, but your reader only knows what you write. If it’s impossible to sort out, no communications takes place. And, no, there’s no such thing as “creative punctuation.” Get it right!
- Characters need to be characters. Fiction is about conflict, and generally the conflict is between people. Those people need to be introduced, fleshed out, and made believable. No one is perfect, or for that matter anywhere close. The good guys have faults. The bad guys have virtues. When characters are thought through properly, the conflict becomes believable.
- Don’t go to the big battle scene immediately. Apparently kids like battle scenes. That would explain why the (excellent) movie version of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe has such an extended battle scene. In the book it hardly merits a page. But even the movie spent an hour and a half building up to it. Before we see the conflict play out, the reader needs to understand what’s at stake and, more important, why it’s at stake. That means first building characters who come into conflict based on character flaws. The conflict builds. Then something changes, which could be a character’s growth or change, or perhaps there is a change in circumstances. But however it’s done, if a reader is thrust into the story’s main conflict without any forewarning, the battle will be unfathomable.
- Foreshadowing matters. Several of the student pieces failed to foreshadow, so a sudden development at the end of their story seemed out of place and not believable. If the villain is to die in a sword fight, then swords and fighting had better make an appearance early in the story. That way, when the evil villain draws his sword, we don’t say “hey, where’d the sword come from?” but rather we sit on the edge of our seats to see how the hero will defend herself.
- Put yourself into your story! The best fiction came in those pieces that clearly reflected the writer’s life experiences. Several students wrote about horses—rather common around here—and wrote convincingly. Why? Because these kids are in ranch country and ride horses. Every day! Their love of these marvelous animals (which I think remain something of a mystery to them—after all, horses are much, much taller than kids!) shows in their word choice, their verb choice, the choice of subject, and the way things are done. All fiction is just autobiography. My Broom books are a testament to that; most scenes are grounded in one of my own life experiences.
- Research matters. One writer tried to put herself into a NYC ghetto, imagining it to be pretty much a dog-eat-dog battleground with bodies everywhere. Well, no, we try not to let kids starve to death on the streets, and no, middle-school kids don’t run around the streets unsupervised killing each other every night. Yes, some seriously bad things happen in ghettos (and elsewhere), but I couldn’t get through this piece because my willing suspension of disbelief took such a beating early on. A couple of student pieces imagined what it would be like to be captured by slavers and hauled across the oceans. This is an interesting idea, and a good one for a youngster to imagine. However, the heros sure sounded like Americans! Twenty-first Century Americans at that. I was just waiting for one to pull out an iPOD. The fundamental problem with historical fiction is that the facts need to be dead accurate. And that includes customs (which in historical times often revolved around religion of some sort). I would suggest that while these exercises are mind-expanding, one should stick with a subject one either knows or has thoroughly researched.
- Consistency matters. If you write fantasy, you can construct your own world. But if a framistan is used to cut down trees, then a framistan later in the story should be cutting down trees and not building fairy castles. A wood nymph, however you define him/her/it, needs to behave like a wood nymph throughout. Even if your characters can morph, they have to morph in consistent ways. One otherwise delightful piece had a person getting himself lost in Kansas and then suddenly turning up in a mountain town (a town that sounded suspiciously like Collbran, in fact). Sorry, this isn’t consistent. Kansas and the mountainous parts of Colorado are hundreds of miles apart—the hero would at least have had to get gasoline somewhere in between.
- Scene setting matters. Some of the pieces I read were promising, but others took me awhile to figure out just where/when the piece was set. All I want to know about a scene is just enough to move the story along. For example, suppose we note that Bill’s bedroom has a dresser he received as a gift from a former girlfriend. That’s an interesting factoid. But, if that girlfriend is never mentioned again (or if the dresser is never mentioned again), what does that tell us? Are we supposed to have learned something about Bill? The rule is simple: omit scene-setting details that don’t matter to the story. One I ran across in a student story was the hardwood floor. I kept reading “hardwood floor.” But it had no relevance to anything. So just say “floor.” Or not even mention that the hero had to have a floor to stand on.
- But do put in scene-setting details that matter. For example, if your hero will later be in a sword fight, decorate his castle with swords or armor. Describe your hero’s visit to the village smithy to get his new sword, which the smithy hasn’t quite completed. Tell us about the hot fire and the tempering of the steel—remind us how noisy these places are. This gets your reader excited about swords and builds up tension, because the reader knows that swords will be crossed at some point.
- Don’t bother with flowery language. It gets in the way. Some students talked about the awe-inspiring, reddish, early-morning sunshine that lay across their closed eyes like an invitation to see the morning before our hero gave into the seductive sunshine and rose delightedly from his cozy bedroll beside his gently-grazing horse. Give me a break! That list of adverbs and adjectives is so long it fumbles over itself. Just say that the sun’s warmth woke your hero. If your hero is of an artistic bent, then describe the scene the way an artist might see it—perhaps a color or two. But again, only include those scene descriptors that are relevant to the story. (Personally, I’d be unhappy because I couldn’t sleep late, the bedroll would have frost on it, and the ground would’ve been lumpier than my first attempt at making mashed potatoes.)
- Passion is wonderful, but back it up with facts. Some of the student papers were essays. An essay is simple. Somewhere in there you state your thesis, or main idea. Then you persuade your reader that you’re right, usually by providing examples or some closely-reasoned argument based on examples. Without the specifics, it’s not an essay; it’s a rant. Rants are no fun to read unless you agree; even so, it would be nice to have an example or two. Yes, be passionate! But help me understand why I should be passionate too! And, OBTW, not everyone will agree with your assertions. I can spot assertions from a good distance away because they all seem to contain the word “should.” People should be kinder. People should not discriminate on the basis of skin color. People should get better educations. People should save money for the future. Every one of those is an unsupported assertion. Your job in an essay is to persuade me that your assertions are grounded in facts and logic.
- You must, you must, you MUST attribute your quotations! Quoting someone else is no bad thing; we all do it. But if I include some factoids from Wikipedia, then those need to be attributed to Wikipedia! Put quotation marks around quoted material. Even if you rephrase it, if it follows from some source of yours, you must attribute it also. Anything less than this is plagarism! I don’t think any student was trying to plagarize. But it sometimes came out that way. Just be careful with your sources and you’ll avoid the problem.
Well, that’s enough for now. What did I think of the writing overall? I enjoyed the variety, which simply showed that even young kids aren’t alike; they all have different things to think about and different passions. I loved the passion, whether for hunting, riding, loving their heros, or just plain argument. So what do I say to these kids? Keep at it! After reading, writing is the most enabling skill you’ll ever possess. You can’t persuade others to follow if you can’t convey your vision. Write early, write often! My hat is off to these kids.
(I just hope that my critiques don’t cause them to feel anything less than motivated!)