Fiction Exercise: Final part

The fiction-writing exercise described in the posts of February 2713, 16, and 21 was the first assignment of a class in which the students would later write essays on assigned subjects, using works of fiction and poetry as sources.  The goal was to provide the students with some insight into what it takes to write fiction. (Poetry writing was addressed in another exercise). The greater goal was to engender a keener appreciation of fiction.

The Pitfalls:  Students were assigned to work in groups at least in the early stages of this exercise.  There were two reasons for this:  1) to let students get to know each other, and 2) to loosen up their imaginations by discussing their observations and creative input with others in an atmosphere where there was no “right” and “wrong.” These two goals were achieved, but there were also two problems:  1) Some students did not participate fully in the creative effort, and 2) story-by-committee or any creative effort by-committee does not usually produce high quality work.

I would recommend doing the first draft in groups, and having individual students continue to the second and final drafts individually.

Another pitfall was that it was difficult to grade these stories. This was not a fiction-writing course, so I could not hold them to advanced standards. In fiction the grammatical controls are not even very tight – students can wander and invent language which might be appropriate only within the confines of their story. The group aspect of the exercise  also lent itself to different styles and formats being included within a single story.

I would recommend doing this fiction exercise as a warm-up and a getting-to-know-you activity. This would entail using less than the full five classes doing it – perhaps cutting it down to two classes, with the final draft due on the third. I would probably not even give grades on it, but might think up some kind of reward for the “best” story, like reading it aloud in class.

The Benefits:  This exercise was accomplished with a minimum of stress and a maximum of bonhomie. It was thus an excellent warmup for the course.

The most unexpected benefit was that students could see verb tenses used in a context where it mattered.  If something happened before another thing in the past, and the Past Perfect was not used, then the story fell apart. If verb tenses were switched partway through, the same thing happened.  Suddenly, the purpose of verbs in creating a time frame became vividly apparent.

Matters of form also became clear without any explanation. If there was not sufficient explanation given of a certain action, the reader got lost. In explaining an academic point, “sufficient explanation” does not have a guidepost quite as stark as in fiction. If you don’t explain a certain reason why, for example, “parents should avoid feeding their children fast food,” the reader might easily come to a conclusion anyway, but if you don’t know why John killed Mary, there is no story at all.

I will not know for a while whether writing some fiction themselves enriched their appreciation of the authors we will be reading this semester, but will ask at the end of the semester what their opinion was of the exercise in the context of the whole course.


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