I am thrilled to welcome author Kevin R. Doyle. His intriguing guest post is about lessons learned during his 2 ½-week stint guiding sixty students through a fiction writing exercise, not without its zombie moments.
I ended up this school year with, irony intended, a true learning experience. It’s kind of interesting that, having written in an amateur or semi-professional role for nearly thirty years and having taught English (among other subjects) for seventeen of those years, I never took students through a fiction writing exercise. Most of my classes are either strictly literature based or deal with expository writing or speech. However, this year I had sophomores for the first time in several years, and we had about three weeks to go once we’d completed end of the year testing. So we spent the last few weeks writing short stories. I began with a quick lecture as to how stories are classified by length, reviewed the elements of fiction for a few days, and then we proceeded to write.
So what did I learn during the two and a half weeks that my students were hammering away on their stories? Let’s start with the cons:
- It’s really, really hard to get young people away from copy editing during first drafts. So many times one would call me over for help and, a page or two in, they’re worrying over comma placement. Crucial, sure, but not the first time through.
- Young people today are too infatuated with zombies. Again, not a huge surprise, but after a while I did get tired of reading about them. And yes, I did read all of them all the way through.
- As any editor will tell you, someone’s first few attempts at fiction tend to be excruciatingly autobiographical. So much so that I had a couple of students, on their own, coming up with the same plots concerning high school athletes and the big game.
As for the positives? Here’s a few of the main ones:
- Amazingly, in all three sections (about sixty students total) nearly every student got into the project. We had a cart full of laptops in the room, and each day, after going over a few things, they hopped right in. Naturally, I had a few stragglers and goof offs, but for the most part they did okay.
- Most of the stories ended up fairly long and complex. The average was around three thousand words. (Made grading them all in about a week rather tough, but worth it.)
- And several, in a few cases kind of surprising to me, came up with intense, well-structured and subtle stories. One in particular had a young teenage girl going to her friend’s funeral, and rather than lay everything out at the beginning, bit by bit over two thousand words the reader follows the protagonist through the course of the day and gradually learns the story of how her young friend died. You never got the full story, there was a fair amount of ambiguity involved, which actually heightened the punch in the final paragraph.
So what did I take away from the experience? For one thing, a fair degree of humility. In some ways, some of the stuff they came up with was actually better than my own fledgling efforts, and I started writing fiction in my twenties. Also, as many of the students commented, the thing they seemed to like best about the work is that subject matter (as long as somewhat school appropriate) was up to them. That sense of liberation seemed to go a long way in propelling them. I’m not sure that would have been ideal earlier in the year, but it fit right in with that end-of-the-year, almost-out-of-here spirit.
But I think the most satisfying thing I took away from the experience was that a fair number of our modern, video-game obsessed, short-attention-span youth, had absolutely no problem with spending days on end furiously, with great concentration, putting thoughts, ideas and words down on paper.
I think that bodes well for the future.
I just don’t want to read about zombies again any time soon.
Bio: A high school teacher and fiction writer living in central Missouri, Kevin R. Doyle has seen his short stories, mainly in the horror and suspense fields, published in over twenty small press magazines, both print and online. In 2012 his first e-book, a mainstream novelette titled One Helluva Gig, was released by Vagabondage Press. In January of 2014 Barbarian Books released his first full-length mystery novel, The Group.
Doyle teaches English and public speaking at a high school in rural Missouri and has taught English, journalism and Spanish at a number of community colleges in both Kansas and Missouri.