Tuesday 15 January 2019

To begin at the beginning, wherever that is - by Rowena House

Where to start teaching creative writing in schools and colleges? It’s a question I know many writers in the ABBA community have answered in their own professional lives, and I’d love to hear your advice.

Me, I waver between starting with character or conflict + change, although recently I’ve plumped for all three at once. Is place next or endings? Rising tension? Voice or structure? Great openings from published books?

Years ago, a trainer on an author schools’ visit programme urged us to model ‘excellence’ first, and then to work backwards from there, which was all very well except that the model he used to illustrate his point was far from excellent, according to professional writing standards.

Ever since then I’ve worried that I might do more harm than good by enthusing about turning points and climactic choices between ‘irreconcilable goods’ etc. if that’s not what schools, colleges and exam boards want students to learn.

Overcoming these doubts just became rather urgent since (I’m delighted to say) Authors Abroad have now added me to their stable of writers who offer talks and workshops to schools. Hurrah!

Fortunately, this year I’m also training to lecture on fiction prose writing at FE level, so I have the luxury of an academic framework within which to research the issues and practice teaching under expert guidance.

As a learner, I know I have a top-down bias, preferring to see the big picture first and details later. This, broadly, should fit with the ‘model first, work backwards’ approach, which, I now discover, has deep theoretical roots.

Bath Spa’s amazing MA in writing for young people also taught me the immeasurable value of mind maps as a way to avoid linear thinking at too early a stage in a story’s development, so I’m hoping to adapt and adopt non-linear teaching techniques also.

First, though, I’m honing a ‘commercial’ fiction scene in order to model structure. It’s got a lead character with a defined goal, an antagonist with a diametrically opposed goal, conflict between the two, a turning point and a resolution. All in 275 words!

It favours implicit clues rather than explicit descriptions to draw the reader through the plot, relying on our innate human desire to read between the lines and solve a puzzle.

[In the past, I’ve been impressed how quickly students of any age zoom in on the turning point of a scene, and work out which character ‘won’ and which ‘lost’ from the slenderest of clues - a skill my favourite screenplay-writing gurus would attribute to our collective understanding of story, born originally of universal oral storytelling traditions and reinforced time and again in books, TV and film.]

How far this approach is adaptable to the exigencies of an examined curriculum I don’t yet know, but I’m keen to explore opportunities to guide students through the basics of structure, rather than trying to teach them something that many will already know, albeit subconsciously.

Another thing I’d like to borrow straight out of the commercial publishing world is this definition of story, first introduced to me by author, editor and mentor extraordinaire, Beverley Birch:

            Story = a character changing through conflict.

Some writers I know bridle at the apparent over-simplification of this definition, including people who love classical literature. But for me, as a working writer, it helps scale storytelling down to size.

“Changing a character through conflict” is do-able. It’s a solid platform from which to launch a story idea, and one which I think might give confidence to student writers who are just starting out.

Embracing this definition also paved the way for my greatest writing eureka moment to date when I read that plot and character are two sides of the same coin: after the inciting incident, plot is simply what happens as a result of the decisions, actions and reactions of the protagonist.

Before that epiphany I had plotted.

And plotted.

I’d twisted and turned my poor protagonist into ever more hazardous predicaments. But always I put her there. She didn’t have agency.

Understanding that she absolutely had to have agency at every major point in the story led, logically, to telling her story from inside her head, a fresh starting point which, ultimately, got me published.

I suppose what I’m saying, or at least seem to be saying as I write this post, is that there is no single ideal starting point. It all dovetails. Somehow. Hopefully. Perhaps all I can hope to do is present the practical benefits of different approaches to writing fiction with passion and honesty.

Am I in danger of extrapolating too much from personal experience? Possibly. Is it unrealistic to expect similar epiphanies to give joy to students of whatever age? Probably. I do know that I have a great deal to learn about learning, and have increasing respect for full-time teachers. How on earth do they do it?

As a writer, I hope - and deep down believe - that the tradecraft of writing fiction for mainstream publication will prove helpful in deciding what to teach in schools and colleges - if not how to do it!

What do you reckon, people? All and any tips gratefully received.

Twitter @houserowena



Susan Price said...

I've no idea how to teach writing but what kind of crack-brain advises 'model ‘excellence’ first, and then... work backwards from there.' Who in the history of the world has ever started at 'excellence?'
And Art disguises Art, so the more excellent your model, the harder it is for the student to see what is being done.
I fondly remember a book called 'Connie Morgan In the Arctic' which was so badly written that it taught me more about writing in one reading that I would have learned from poring over excellent writing for years.
All I had to do was remember what the writer of Connie Morgan did -- and not do that.

Rowena House said...

Good for Connie Morgan! I'm certainly swimming in strange seas, trying to reconcile my writer's instincts about how to approach it all and the GCSE curriculum. Somewhere, I'm sure, there's a happy middle ground.

Ann Turnbull said...

I've never taken a writing course and, like Sue, I'd have no idea how to teach writing.
On a slightly different subject (not so much 'how to write' as 'what to write'), I do remember once hearing Beverley Birch give a warning about trilogies. She said that the second book sells only half as well as the first, and the third sells only half as much as the second. I just wish I'd heard that advice earlier.

Andrew Preston said...

Yes, I wondered what modelling of excellence meant.

Is it the teaching/learning of good habits, about how to become a 'good citizen' of the writing world?

Or marketing speak ?

Or ?

Rowena House said...

Andrew, like you I think that the phrase 'model excellence' was a bit of a tough one for non-teachers to take on board, tbh. Now I'm discovering more about the many theories about how people learn I can see the purpose of this approach more clearly. Overall, I do believe it is a good idea to give people who are going to be examined in a subject a clear idea upfront about what exactly will be expected of them. It will be lovely, though, with Authors Abroad, to be able to talk as a writer again, rather than a trainee teacher/lecturer. That said, approaching any 'school' writing task from a practitioner's point-of-view - rather than a lit. crit. one - seems to me a very practical way to help students write structured stories.
Re trilogies, Anne, I heard Beverley say that, too. I did wonder briefly if my first 'apprentice' m/s might make an MG trilogy. Maybe one day I'll dust it off - but more likely go up-age from The Goose Road. Teen/YA and even adult beckon!

Sue W said...

No idea but looking forward to following your journey!