Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Engagements & Boot Camps: Getting Ready to Write Realistic Fiction

Yesterday, my students got engaged.

I know. They're a little young.

Yesterday, after a week of speed dating ideas for realistic fiction stories, we all settled on The One. I figured they could handle that level of commitment. Despite queries about prenups and divorce (they really bought in to my analogy), I knew my students were ready to see how their carefully-chosen idea would play out on the page.

I will beat an analogy into the ground, so this was like our engagement announcement

Today, when students walked in, I told them that this was the day where we would finally jump into the water of writing our stories. Except I'm the kind of parent that throws their kid into the deep end.

You know what gets kids really excited? When you tell them that they'll be participating in a scene boot camp in ELA class.

Just kidding. Probably not a phrase anyone wants to hear associated with school, but I'm glad to report that, in this sort of boot camp, we got to write, experiment and imagine. Three of my favorite things.

When I called my students up to the carpet for workshop, I asked them to make sure that they grabbed a comfy pillow and that they had a writing utensil they liked. At this point in the year, "healthy" pencils are starting to become rare, so I loaned out many pencils and several of my favorite writing pens. After all, we were getting ready to write like our lives depended on it. Having a good writing tool on your side is always helpful.

When we were all cozied up and ready to go, I explained to them that we would be using a technique today that many, many published authors use: taking their characters for a test drive by putting them in an everyday situation and seeing how they'd react. After all, the truth always comes out in the smallest of incidents. Even the way a character eats toast can reveal something about them to the writer.

To start, we brainstormed some general traits for our newly-created main characters. I told them about Sloan, my MC, who struggles with social anxiety and fitting in at her new school. Quickly, we jotted a bulleted list of traits we knew our MC would have.

After a short turn and talk with our writing partners where we shared out a few traits, I demoed how I could take my MC, drop her into an everyday situation, and let the writing show me who my character really was. By writing in front of my students, I showed them how I discovered that Sloan is a bit of a perfectionist simply because the chipped paint on her locker bugged her.

Then, I invited them to pick up their pencils and to drop their character into an everyday scene. I threw out a couple of options: a family dinner, walking into a coffee shop or opening a locker. Students chose one and threw their character into the scene. And we wrote. And it was awesome.

As they wrote, I voiced over with a few moves that my writers might like to make in their scenes.

  • Add a detail about the setting. What's on the walls in the coffee shop? Is there a really annoying bell at school?
  • Have your MC do something, big or small. Maybe she organizes her pencils into neat rows on her desk. Perhaps he adds tons of cinnamon to his coffee. 
  • Let your MC make a choice. Big or small, these actions will be revealing. 
  • Has anyone said something yet? Have someone address your MC. See how he reacts. 
  • What's going on inside your MC's head? Let us peek inside. 
And we wrote. Pencils were moving furiously; the only sound I heard was the scratch of lead against paper and the rustle of turning pages. Most students wrote well over a page. 

Sweat-free boot camp

At the end of class, I asked, "How many of you feel like you know your character a little better?" Almost all of my students raised their hands. 

Gonna call that a win.

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