The Power of Writing Collaborative Fiction

After participating in a recent Twitter chat about Thomas Newkirk’s new book, Writing Unbound: How Fiction Writing Transforms Student Writers, I was the happy winner of a free copy of the book. Some books challenge you. Some books teach you. Some books confirm for you that you are not insane. This book did all three.

I am finishing up my 29th year of teaching. Even as the field of teaching English has progressed further and further away from teaching secondary students to write narrative, and especially away from writing fictional narrative, I have continued to give my students opportunities to write fiction. Newkirk outlines the benefits I have seen for myself. Fiction writing engages students, develops skills that are applicable to other forms of writing, and makes them better able to analyze the fiction they read because they have viewed the process of writing from the inside.

Newkirk notes that many of the student writers he interviews eschew planning in favor of making stories up as they go. He also notes that many students never know how to end stories. I have found that planning can actually be useful, both as a fiction writer, and in my work with student writers.

I was fortunate enough to teach fiction writing for over ten summers at my alma mater, Stetson University. Each summer, a mixed-age group of students, grades 4 through 12 met in a room and wrote a novel in a week. I am not, as Dave Barry would say, making this up.

It was inevitable that I would eventually turn the experience into a series of comic strips. Although this kind of writing flourished in the summer originally, it has since found its way into my Creative Writing class and even my regular English classroom. You can spend five minutes a day coming up with story ideas until you have a story on your hands – I just find it helpful if I have limited time to also limit the length of the story (in both words in duration of events) and the number of characters involved.

In the comic strip, as in real life, my son joined me as both student and co-teacher, a role he played for all ten years of the class.

Newkirk delves into the realm of fan fiction, which certainly has its place, but I have always tried to make it clear that it is even more fun and creative to come up with something original.

Since fiction writing is seldom taught in schools, for reasons Newkirk details in his book, many students tend to write stories a bit lacking in coherence and that often move very quickly.

As I tried to find my way as a fiction teacher, I figured out a model I have since found useful for every kind of writing, and which moves away from the idea of rigid rubrics: the idea of Big Picture Elements and Closeup Elements.

Early in the week, we would rehearse the closeup elements of fiction writing with a series of exercises that reviewed point of view, moment-by-moment narration, description of people and places, and writing dialogue that both revealed character and was in the correct format. Once we’d practice those skills, the time had come to create a story together.

The first year we stumbled into the idea of a collaborative novel…

But every year after that, the collaborative novel became the goal. Although it might seem to stifle individual creativity, what I found instead is that it made creativity visible. For many students, thinking up and writing up a story is an invisible, all-inside- one’s-head kind of act. In coming up with a story collaboratively, I both modeled and simultaneously had students participate in the thought process and creativity of coming up with the story. And collaborating to create a story has real world precedent: movie students come up with stories in writing rooms all the time. It’s how many of Pixar’s plots have been concocted.

Early in the week, we would metaphorically throw ideas against the wall to see what would stick. I often have students bring in interesting photographs to generate ideas, but we also go exploring on Wikipedia, the magazine website Mental Floss, and Atlas Obscura (which is a gold mine – our pirate novel Deception Island came about because of a single entry there!).

Eventually, someone would have the idea – THE idea – that made the whole room realize we had our premise…

Once the class has a basic premise, we do some additional research on the subject, which maybe lead to more breakthroughs.

One of the main revelations my student writers and I both had was this: writing is a process of asking yourself questions and then answering them. This is especially true with fiction writing. Characters need to have motivations. Everything in a story has to happen for a reason – especially when it’s a fantasy story!

Many times, our initial premise becomes the basis, not of the story itself, but of the backstory! This realization is sometimes a bit disorienting for students, until they realize that many of their favorite books rely heavily on extensive and complicated backstories. The Harry Potter series is a case in point: every book develops not just Harry’s story, but the stories of his parents and their contemporaries.

Once the back story is set, we would come up with a present day cast of characters and a reason for them to unravel the backstory. We will often use the mythic archetypes for the stages of the hero’s journey to help guide us at this stage. What is our protagonist’s ordinary world? What is their call adventure? What are they on a quest for? By this time a theme is usually developing as well – and it is usually a student who detects it. Our very first year, on our very first book, it was a fourth-grader who realized our theme was parental expectations!

Once the entire plot is outlined, backstory and main plotline, the time has come to divide into chapters and decide who gets to write which sections.

We usually write in a shared Google Doc so everyone could see what everyone else was doing, which helped with continuity. Once the writing started, it was hard to make them stop!

The experience of writing a novel together didn’t inhibit individual creativity – it made them all want to go home and write more on their own. But we also had students return year after year – one student, Royce, started the class as a 4th grader and returned for nine more years until he finally graduated high school and aged out of the program. He started as a novice fiction writer with a very short chapter and ended up being one of our pros who could handle any kind of scene.

In the end, we sent our students home with a new sense of the work that goes into a putting a novel together, ideas for stories of their own, and the knowledge that they could write their own novels, one step at a time.

Each year we also self-published the novels at Lulu.com so each student could get one free copy, and then more copies for family and friends. I have duplicated this group storytelling technique with creative writing classes, but also with shorter stories in regular English classes. If you create a short story instead of a novel it is less time consuming, but equally effective as a learning experience.

Students come away with a new appreciation for what goes into putting a story together.

It’s a bit like walking a tightwire without a net. But it’s worth it!

Below are some of the covers of our summer program books and books from my creative writing classes!

Images via www.mrfitz.com. Created by David Lee Finkle.

Where in your year, unit, week, or class period could you slip in some fiction writing – even a collaborative story? How have you already managed to put more fiction writing into your classes? You can connect with me on Twitter @DLFinkle or on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mrfitzcomics

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1 Comment

  1. Pingback: Literacy Lenses

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