Tag Archives: Teen Writing Class

Revision Isn’t For Dummies

Yeaton-Fairfax House

Dear Reader:

Okay, so revising isn’t usually a writer’s most favorite part of the job, but it is necessary. When we are in the flushed excitement of creation, we are carried away into that subconscious part of our minds where the stories live and we try to get it all down on paper as fast as we can before we can lose any of the details we are discovering down there in the deep. We are explorers wearing headlamps strapped to our foreheads, digging around in the cluttered shelves of our internal archives, sending messages back to “home base” where the fingers type and the hand grips the pencil and moves it across the paper. We aren’t thinking so much as transcribing. And it is good.

However, after a couple of days or a week (or in this case thirty years), we know it is time to send in the internal editor to do the dirty job of cutting, pruning, pursing of the lips and shaking of the head in disgust, pointing out weak spots, examining the structure for soundness, and causing us pain and suffering in general.

But we should thank our internal editor . . . because without him/her we might be tempted to send a story out into the world before its time where it will flop around and be humiliated and tossed into trash buckets and fade from memory as fast as a snowflake held in the palm of your hand.

So, when it is time to critique your story, or someone else’s, what are you looking for?

I took some of the suggestions from HOW TO WRITE SHORT STORIES by Sharon Sorenson (MacMillan Reference USA, Simon & Schuster MacMillan Company, New York, 1998, 3rd edition.) and went down a list from the chapter “Checking Your Story” (page 73) as follows:

Does the beginning capture the reader’s attention?
Does the beginning allow the reader to entire the character’s world?
Does the beginning start the conflict?
Are the characters believable?
Do the characters’ dialogue and actions fit their personality?
Does the story establish the characters’ motivations?
Does the setting contribute to the tone and premise of the story?
Is the point of view consistent?
Does the conflict make sense?
Do the events arise out of character choices rather than from outside the characters?
Are there vivid sensory details?
Does the resolution grow naturally from the conflict?
Are the conflicts resolved?
Is the ending satisfying?
Have I used conventional grammar and punctuation?
Are the words spelled correctly?

Checking your own work for these elements may not be the most fun thing in the world, but if you give yourself a little bit of time in between first draft and revision, glaring issues will most likely jump out at you. I like to go through first with a quick read and mark places that jar or irritate me. This can be done using “track changes” or “balloons” on the revision tab of Microsoft Office Word if you are using that program. Other programs probably have similar tools. Otherwise, print out your story or look at your notebook, grab a pencil and make notations on your paper.

Next, I go through the story again, analyzing the spots I marked, asking myself, “What isn’t working here?” I make notes. I might try a few different things—getting rid of sentences, adding words, crossing out entire paragraphs. If I make very big changes, the plot may also need to be revised.

Finally, I make another draft, incorporating any changes. Then I begin the process again. When I am satisfied that it is as good as I can get it, I proofread it for grammar and spelling and punctuation. Then, only then, do I ask a trusted “first reader” to take a look at it and give me an opinion.

Unless I don’t wait . . .

Because sometimes I want to make sure the story is even worthy of all that work, so I might share a first draft with a first reader. Or if I’m stuck and want some suggestions.

It’s all about what works for that particular story.

If you would like to read a short story I composed in high school and read more about revision and my own revision notes for the story. . . click on Lesson Five: The 30th Day.

I welcome comments and suggestions. As always, thank you for hanging out with me . . . Outside the Box!

The Plot Thickens

The Hero's Journey

There are two types of writers when it comes to creating structure in a story–Plotter and Pantsters. A plotter figures out, maybe even draws a map or outline of the events that will take place in a story. A pantster puts a character in a situation and maybe has a vague idea where the story will end up, but “flies by the seat of his pants” when it comes to writing the story. BOTH ways are valid.

Stephen King is a pantster. He says, “Plot, I think, is the good writer’s last resort and the dullard’s first choice. The story which results from it is apt to feel artificial and labored.” (from ON WRITING. Check it out. This is one of the best books on the craft of writing, ever!)

King’s way is to start with a situation…a predicament. Into this situation he puts a character or a group of characters. These characters reveal themselves over time. They act, he records. He starts with situation–he calls it a tableux–and throws in some characters and watches to see what they do and writes it all down.

What is the downside to this, you ask? It sounds so simple, and when people ask, you can say something like, “Oh, I don’t want to know what will happen. It would take all the fun out of writing.” Well, here’s the rub. King has read A LOT. He’s also written a lot. He has incorporated the conventions of story (including the rhythm of plot) into his subconscious.

Either that or he really has made a deal with the Devil.

So, while King makes pantstering look fun and easy and, dare I say it, cooooool, the rest of us may not have developed our talent to that extent. What happens when we try? We end up writing ourselves into corners we can’t get out of. We go down dead ends. We lose the threads of the story. All those threads get tangled up, and we waste time rewriting, scratching our heads, wondering how the heck we are ever going to unravel this unruly story/novella/epic plot.

Since we are beginners and we really want to finish something in our lifetime, what can we do to compensate? Especially when we are still in the beginning stages of learning the craft?

We can become Plotters, if only for a little while.

Okay, so King thinks it is the dullard’s first choice. Whatever. I love King’s characters and his stories pull me along, but guess what? We aren’t all Stephen King! There are other ways to get the action down on paper, and they are just as valid. There are outlines. There are index cards. Story maps with bubbles and lines drawn in between connecting them are another choice. There are many plot worksheets, maps, schemes, rubrics, etc. that the beginning writer can use. You can find many on the internet and many more in books specifically written on the subject of plot. Try a few, if you want. See what works best for you.

Keep in mind, though, that even here in Plotter-land you start with the basics: A situation and at least one character. The character has gifts and foibles and goals and fears and needs. The character will act in situations and from that other situations will arise. Pay attention to cause and effect. Pay attention to how your character is learning and growing. Have a premise in mind, i.e. what is the point of this story, anyway?

Eventually, you and your character will make it to the resolution, and you’ll both be able to revel in the rewards of your hard labor.

If you are interested in learning more on this subject, click HERE to access Lesson Four in the Teen Writing Workshop series. At the end, I include a short plot “aid” as well as some helpful websites about plot structure.

In Joseph Campbell’s classic study of universal elements in plot structure of mythology and legend, Campbell’s heroes are given a Call To Adventure which they can either chose to accept or not. Consider this your call to adventure! Embark on a new story today . . . Outside the Box.

What A Character!

Teen Characters by The Teen

Dear Reader:

Last night was Teen Writing Class night, and this week we discussed the craft of characterization. I am enjoying this process of teaching narrative and fiction writing techniques and terms. The students are remarkable writers–open, observant, funny. Teaching also forces me to write examples, and I’ve been rather amused by the characters and scenes that have popped out of my subconscious with just the teeniest prodding around in the psychic storeroom.

Following is a short scene showing characterization techniques–dialogue, vivid verbs, and sensory details. Mostly we hear the character’s voice, though, and I think we learn quite a bit about Penelope Perry just by listening to what she has to say. Also note that we don’t know much about the narrator. He or she is a classmate of Penelope’s, that much we can gather from his/her point of view, but everything else about him or her is still hidden in that storeroom of story ideas in my subconscious.

If I wanted, I could probably dig a little deeper, find some more pieces of the story, and put it all together. I have a feeling, though, that frantic Penelope is seeing the light of day for the first and last time this week.

Back she’ll go to whatever dusty shelf in the storeroom she has been languishing for who knows how long. Perhaps since my own elementary school days? Maybe she’ll be tossed into the recycle bin someday, emerging in another form in another story, and maybe not. Who knows? The truth is, we don’t really know where stories come from. They are just there, waiting for us to find the pieces and put them together. If the end product is sturdy enough, it will last for centuries (think Shakespeare and Dante). If not, well . . . at least Penelope had her moment in the sun.

Penelope Perry’s hand shot up into the air as soon as Ms. Walker swooshed through the classroom door after recess.

“Ooh-ooh-ooh-ooh!” Penelope bounced around in her seat, a pink-cheeked, over-pressurized steam-engine about to blow. The rest of us slouched behind our desks and glared at her, but, as usual, she was oblivious.

“Yes, Penelope? What is it now?” Ms. Walker exhaled as she spoke and her eyes slid toward the clock.

Penelope sat with both palms flat on the table, elbows jutting out to the sides. You could see her arms shake with barely-repressed excitement. Her knees bounced up and down beneath her desk as she spoke in her girly-girl-goody-two-shoes voice. “I know you said we weren’t supposed to touch the goldfish, Ms. Walker. So I thought you should know that Timmy Landry stuck his hand in there and grabbed the fish which is now floating on top of the water and I think its dead and you’d probably want to know that. Plus, Marissa and Lolly were fighting over who had the prettiest pencil eraser–Marissa said pink and Lolly said green–and Marissa called Lolly a swear which I won’t repeat because I know you don’t want us to say swears in your classroom. And then Derek called Marissa a swear and I had to cover my ears because it was a really, really bad word and my mother would be mad if she found out. I’ll probably have to tell her when I get home and she’ll call the principal.” Penelope took a breath and then she was chugging off again, her voice rising higher with every word. Her eyes widened. “And I’m pretty sure how you feel about kissing, Ms. Walker, so Colin and Tami really shouldn’t have gone into the art room closet when the were supposed to be taking a note to the office for you. And . . .”

“Enough!” Ms. Walker held up a large, firm hand. “That’s quite enough, Penelope.” She lowered her voice to a near whisper. “Class, please take out your math books and start working on page 56. I need to take a look at that fish.”

Creating multidimensional characters is challenging. Listening to conversations, taking in the rhythm of speech, observing people’s unique ticks and habits, analyzing body language that demonstrates inner emotional landscapes, trying hard to be honest about what we see, hear, know about people–these practices help us to write characters that are vivid, sympathetic, real.

Listen. Practice. Stretch. Work. If you do those four things, you’ll get better.

If you’d like to read the entire lesson, please click HERE. Or you can find it under the Teen Writing Class tab at the top of the page. Remember, to be a writer all you really need is a notebook, a pen, and a block of uninterrupted writing time a day. Go ahead. Be a writer. I dare you . . . Outside the Box.

Who Is A Writer?

From Lesson One: Writing With Intention

Beautiful Blooms

How does a person become a writer? Who or what is a “writer” anyway? Is a writer someone who has been paid money to write? In order to be considered a “real writer” does someone have to be published? If so, in what kind of publication? Would a self-published blog be enough? How about a church newsletter? The local paper? A literary magazine? The NEW YORKER or some other national magazine? A book publishing company?

What about a student newspaper or literary magazine? Or a photocopied manuscript that you’ve bound yourself and given to your grandparents for their anniversary?

This is a question students ask (and all writers secretly–or not so secretly–ponder).

Stephen King in his great book about writing called ON WRITING says:

I don’t believe writers can be made, either by circumstances or by self-will (although I did believe those things once). The equipment comes with the original package. Yet it is by no means unusual equipment; I believe large numbers of people have at least some talent as writers and storytellers, and that those talents can be strengthened and sharpened.

Natalie Goldberg in WRITING DOWN THE BONES, does not give a definition, but rather asks the question “Why write?”

“Why do I write?” It’s a good question. Ask it of yourself every once in awhile. No answer will make you stop writing, and over time you will find that you have given every response . . . Yet it is a good and haunting question to explore, not so you can find the one final reason, but to see how writing permeates your life with many reasons.

She also says, “Don’t worry about your talent or capability; that will grow as you practice.”

Here is what I believe: A writer is someone who writes with intention.

When you write, you are present, engaged, explaining or exploring or describing the topic at hand. Not striving at first to write a great poem or story (although you probably will, eventually, want to edit and prune and expand and make it the very best your talent allows), but rather opening yourself up to the topic, reaching deep, getting to the truth of things. More on this later on.

A writer writes with a goal in mind, an idea that begs to be explored, or with a serious intention to create an image with words, to play with language, to see what you can do with the medium of words the way a sculptor creates with the medium of clay or a painter creates with the medium of watercolor paints. A writer likes to tell made-up stories (fiction writers), or wants to capture a moment in rhythms and imagery (poetry writers), or enjoys giving information in a vivid, complete way (journalists), or likes telling true stories about places, people, things (non-fiction, narrative writers, memoirists, diarists, etc.) A writer writes in order to see how a story or poem or narrative idea will turn out on the page.

This may sound serious (it is), but it is not so serious that it becomes a chore–at least not all the time. Because when you are a writer, at heart, writing is work and play at the same time. You may procrastinate sitting down to write. You may dread it. You may drag yourself kicking and screaming to the notebook or computer. In the end, though, when you get yourself down to the business of scribbling or tapping away, something magical happens. Your brain engages. You energy begins to flow out into words and sentences and images and rhythms. Time speeds up. If you come out of the zone for a minute or two (to stretch or have a drink of water–highly recommended, by the way) you realize, gasp! You are enjoying the process.

Maybe it is THIS that makes you a writer. We feel engaged, happy, useful, “in the zone” when we are doing what we are meant to do or have the capability of doing well.

To read the entire lesson, click HERE.