Archive for the ‘Student writing’ Category

What’s it about?

August 13, 2013

During the school year I often teach a special elective “Creative Writing” class for high school students. Most of them want to write science fiction/fantasy (SF/F) which is fine with me, since that’s what I’m writing, and much of what I read. One of the assignments I give them is to write a deceptively simple statement. It looks something like this:

In one sentence, tell me what your story is about.

I give them a week to answer that question. The answers I get vary widely, and while I won’t reproduce any of the answers here, they tend to look and sound something like this.

“A world where corporations have taken over and infect people with lycanthropy, sort of.”

“A mercenary company in a future dystopia where everyone lives underground.”

“A zombie apocalypse in a medieval fantasy world.”

“A war between humans and aliens told from the perspective of the aliens.”

My expectation in giving this assignment is that most, if not all, of my students will answer in this way; with a setting, or an idea, or the germ of one, but not any actual grasp on what their story is about. The point of the exercise is to teach them that setting isn’t a story by itself, and frankly neither is plot. You need both of them, yes, but if you really want to write the best story you can write (and you should always want to, which is a topic for another time) your story needs to be about something.

As examples, then, I tend to turn to works I can count on their familiarity with to make my point. An example:

The Lord of the Rings is about the refusal to meet power with power; in fact it is about the refusal of power being the strongest, most heroic act any individual can perform.”

Star Wars (the original trilogy) is about the bond between father and son overcoming, and ultimately undoing, a great evil.”

Hellboy is about proving that nurture is ultimately more powerful than nature.”

Batman Begins is an exploration of fear, how it forms and informs our existence, how we can be empowered or destroyed by our response to it.”

Now, are these statements over-simplifications? Absolutely. You could write dozens of such sentences about each of the above properties, and be correct. The point of the exercise is that, in addition to memorable characters, vivid setting, and exciting plots, stories like The Lord of the Rings, Batman Begins, Star Wars, and Hellboy are all about something. I believe that if you want to write good fiction, you’ve got to be writing about something, and that’s what I’m aiming to do. Just what my story is about is a discussion for another post.

In the comments, feel free to add your own “what’s it about?” sentences for the above named properties, or any other favorites. I look forward to hearing them.





The Randomized Exquisite Corpse

March 19, 2010

I know in at least one class in graduate school, we played a randomized version of “The Exquisite Corpse,” the famous collective poetry and/or image-making game invented by the Surrealists. I decided to recreate it this week, as I am currently teaching a creative writing unit to 12th graders (perhaps surprisingly, they are taking to it well).

The Rules

I divided them up into groups of 5, and assigned the line pattern of “Adjective Noun Verb Adjective Noun,” with articles or prepositions to be filled in only on a basis of strict necessity. Each member of the group was assigned one of the words by the rolling of a ten-sided die; 1-2 was first adjective, 3-4 first noun, and so forth. Each was to compile a list of 4 of each of the words. Then, we started making lines, once again using dice as a randomizer. The student who had rolled ‘first adjective’ rolled a 4-sided die; a roll of 1, take the first word from your list, 2, the second word, so on. This would result in 3 lines produced randomly, and a 4th line made up of the leftovers. The 4-sided dice were passed around the group until a line was made, then articles, or occasionally prepositions, were inserted. I tried to add that there should be no proper nouns, but a few slipped into the final product (I have chosen not to list any of those results that used proper nouns).

The Results

Posted with the permission of all students involved


The sleep-deprived portmanteau slurred a large apple.

The legless millstone smoked a colorful textbook.

The flexible miter box hallucinated a bushy watch.

The starstruck falchion sundered a powerful collar.


Pink sunlight whispers to a rubbery heart

Stuffy archways panic thick ships

Gorgeous blackbirds tenderized slippery dogs

In watery dungeons exists curvaceous fire


A sharp thicket subjugates the subtle rudder

While the hellish follicle defecates in the flamboyant staircase

The smoky peaks imbue the smooth river

And vivacious aglets smoke, unimpressed, a filament


The intimidating vodka coagulated many sorry bananas

As a fortuitous manicure trusted the dessicated hangar

The enigmatic swingset stabbed the virginal mother

And an isolated incubus deep-fried a torn apple

I particularly like the last lines of numbers 3 and 4, especially an incubus deep-frying an apple, because it carries with it a whiff of Prelapsarian Demonology (the latter of which is something that sneaks into my own poems here and there).

The Purpose

Why did I make my students do this? To many of my students, “poetry” means “feelings.” I try to teach them that yes, poetry may convey emotion but if we’re writing it, it’s probably a better idea to start with words. This game makes them work with nothing but words, and it helps move us along in thinking about poetry as word-play.