The Monsters and the Writers (Guest Post)
by Donald LaBranche
The first principle is this: when they walk through the door, take them seriously as writers. Every decision I make will have to grow out of that ground. Purple hair, ukuleles, gothic jewelry and clothing, surly expressions on the face one day and sweet dispositions the next…take them seriously as writers. Whatever it is, writers are just like that.
I’ve been teaching this Young Writers/Young Readers class (Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror) long enough so that I have a process that more or less stays the same. I ask myself the same questions every year. Whose fiction should I read so I can renew familiarity with classic stories? (Mary Shelley) Whose fiction is on the cutting edge of what is being written say, in the last 3-5 years? (Ann Leckie) Also, whose work about the craft of writing will benefit my students by learning and practicing what they have to say? Finally, I want to look at student work from the last couple of years in some detail to discern what it is they can do well and what I need to help them do better.
That’s it. That’s the plan as it looks in mid-April.
From mid-April until mid-May, my job is to plan the class in broad strokes. Although the structure of the class is essentially the same every year, the content of each part changes. (Teachers in the YW program are encouraged not to repeat lessons. In my case and perhaps in yours, that’s mainly because some students repeat the class for two or more years.)
After rereading pieces of work my students wrote for the last three anthologies, it seems I have to address, for example: muddled action sequences, finding a balance between extremes of too much and too little exposition, and better use and control of anticipation (Don’t go all “video game”) leading up to the climax of a scene.
To respond to these needs, I’ve been reading: Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, by Ursula K. Le Guin (2015) and found it to be valuable. Each of the ten chapters in Le Guin’s text offers her own views of these skills as well as providing multiple exercises to practice each craft element. A separate section on how to critique each of these practice pieces enhances their value for the writing teacher.
A second element of the class is the opening Free Writing prompt. This is a classic Writing Project strategy and encourages the writers to indulge themselves. Over the past few years I’ve been working to create a sort of theme or thread to each year’s prompts. Although each day’s writing can be a free standing work, each piece can become scenes or chapters in a larger body of work. I don’t say anything about this until the second week because I don’t want them to feel they have to force a connection. This year, we’ll be using a system that Oxford University used for entrance exams until about 2010. Writers are given a single word for a prompt and then go off to write. In our class, these words could be things like basement, forest, Planet, etc. I’ve found it helpful with such open-ended prompts to have a quick discussion before we start to write, in which we compile a short list of possibilities. This way, everybody has at least an inkling of where to go (or not to go).
A new element I’m planning for 2016 will be a study of “The Ancestors” in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror. I’m going to prepare short Bio statements for each of nine “Greats” in the field, then pick a brief excerpt from one of their stories. I’ll read them on the first two days of class, then have students volunteer to read the rest of them, one a day for the balance of the session. This is where we’ll see how all of this literature is a continuing conversation among authors right down to these young student writers learning their craft.
Each class has a period of freewriting at the end of class when I conference with students. I see this as differentiated instruction.
These are the decisions I have to make and now that they’re made, the structure of the class is pretty much set. During June I have to settle on the details, type it all up, and then select the best genre cartoon for each day.
If anyone has any suggestions or questions as we move forward I’d love to hear them.
I’ll let you know how this year’s class went.
Donald LaBranche (Writing Fellow, ’93) graduated from West Chester State College and Widener University. He taught health, physical education, swimming, third and fifth grade in the Chichester School District. In 2002 he participated in a week long internship at the Center for Teaching and Learning, Nancie Atwell’s demonstration school in Maine. He has taught graduate level courses for PAWLP as well as a class in Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror to fascinating teen writers in the Young Writer’s summer program. He is a poet whose work has appeared in numerous publications.
Don, You share ideas and questions in this blog post that all teachers can benefit from reading — not just the summer Youth teachers. Your students are fortunate to have such a thoughtful and dedicated writing teacher. Based on your comments at our last Honeycroft writing group, I purchased Steering the Craft, A 21st-Century Guide to Sailing the Sea of Story, by Ursula K. Le Guin (2015) – it’s a great book with so many helpful activities and suggestions. Thank you!
Don, thank you for this behind-the-scenes look at your preparation for a summer of horror! I love your first principle — it sets the tone for all that follows. These young writers are fortunate to have a fertile space for risk-taking and growth. We’re looking forward to hearing your post-horror report!