Here’s a writeup of the first lesson from a fantasy and science fiction writing workshop I’ve been teaching at my local public library for the last two weeks. It’s for kids ages 9 to 15, but the lessons are useful for anyone. And in case you too are teaching writing to kids … I’ve found this first lesson is a good ice breaker. It’s basically a really sneaky way of getting them to talk about what they want to write, and to do a first session of what amounts to freewriting … but without blowing trumpets and announcing that You’re Going To Make Them (Gasp!) WRITE!
Some kids, especially the younger ones, come to class with no hangups at all and don’t need any coaxing. But other kids (usually the older ones) can be very shy about sharing their own writing.
By the way, if you’re teaching a writing workshop and want to use this lesson yourself, go ahead. Cut and paste and use as you will as long as you credit me: creative commons, blah blah blah, share and share alike. There are two more lesson plans already posted at www.inquisitorsapprentice.com. I’ll try to put the rest of the lessons from this year’s workshop up there too. Just be patient, since I’m crazy busy trying to finish two books right now and it may take a few weeks for me to scrape together the time to write out my class notes in full and check for typos. Especially the checking for typos part. Am I the only person who finds that hunting down typos often takes longer than actually writing the darn thing?
What You Read is What You Write
Let’s talk about you. Who are you? Not you the everyday person, but you the writer. What makes the writer inside you tick? What kind of stories do you want to write? And why?
Asking yourself why you want to write might seem silly or pretentious at first. But it’s really a very practical question. Why? Because knowing why you write can help you figure out what to write … and how to write it.
So before we start writing, I’d like to spend a little bit of time talking about reading. Take out a pencil and paper and jot down the answers to a few questions for me. What do you like to read? What books could you read over and over again? What characters do you know so well that it feels like they’re your best friends? What imaginary places have you spent so much time in that you feel like you know them better than your own back yard? What stories — stories in books, stories in movies, stories in comics, or even stories in computer games — get you so excited that they make you start imagining your own worlds and characters and thinking up your own stories?
So … uh … did you answer those questions? Or did you just skip ahead to this paragraph? Yeah, I know. And I know why too. I mean, you already know how to read. You’re here to learn how to write. So why can’t we get on with it?
Because here’s the thing. Those books I’m asking you about? The books you read for fun, during summer vacation, or after school, or under the desk while the teacher’s not looking? Those books are pure magic. And they can teach you everything you’ll ever need to know about writing.
That’s the single lesson I hope you’ll take out of this workshop. In fact, even if you forget every other thing we talk about for the next two weeks, it won’t matter in the long run if you just remember this:
Writing great fantasy and science fiction isn’t about following some complicated set of rules, or turning in assignments that come back all covered in red ink, or learning a secret handshake that only “real writers” know. It’s about retelling your favorite stories in new and different ways. It’s about learning to think like a writer — not just when you’re reading a favorite book, but also when you’re reading comics, or watching movies, or playing computer games. It’s about learning to see STORY in places you might not ever have though to look for it. It’s about learning to notice how good writers tell stories and what they do that makes you want to keep reading or keep watching or keep playing. And most of all, it’s about imagination — the same kind of imagination you use when you read a favorite book and bring the world and characters to life in your own mind.
But … is it really that simple? Can you really learn to write just by reading your favorite writers? Yes you can. In fact, that’s exactly how all you favorite writers learned to write themselves. And every writing rule you’ll ever read in a book or hear about in a class is really just a way of trying to describe the indescribable thing that great stories do … and that you can learn to do yourself simply by reading lots and lots of stories.
Sounds like a lot of work, huh? I mean who’d want to read thousands and thousands of pages of stories just to learn how to write? Well, gee, I don’t know. Have you ever read The Lord of the Rings? Or Harry Potter? Or Percy Jackson? Have you read any of them more than once? Have you read all of them more than once? I have. And I didn’t do it because I thought it would make me a better writer. I did it because it was fun.
If any of the above describes you then you are in the right place. And you already know everything you need to know to write great stories yourself. All you need to do is take the same powers of imagination that bring your favorite books to life inside your head — and use them to tell your own stories.
So let’s take a look at some of your favorite stories in order to figure out what makes them tick and whether you can learn to write the easy way just by reading your favorite writers…
Exercise #1: Reader, Meet Writer
This exercise is easy. Take out a blank piece of paper and draw a line down the middle. On the left side of the page make a list of your favorite stories. Don’t stop to think too much about it. Just list your favorite stories in any order they come to mind. They can be books, or movies, or comics, or even games. It doesn’t matter. Just write them all down in whatever order you think of them. Now go to the right side of the page, where you still have lots of nice empty white space to write in. Here, next to each story, try to jot down some of the specific things you love about it. A great world? Lots of action? Great characters? Imagine that you’re talking to a friend who’s never read the book (or seen the movie or played the game). You’ve got one minute to convince them that they really need to read this book. How do you do it? What so great about this book that they have to read it instead of every other book in the library??
Now go back down the right-hand side of the page and look at what you’ve written down. See any patterns? What did you talk about? What pieces of the story did you mention when you were trying to convince that imaginary friend to read it? I’m going to guess that a lot of what you wrote down included answers to the following kinds of questions that most people tend to ask themselves when they’re reading a story:
• what’s this story about? (“a magical battle between good and evil” or “superheroes fighting crime” … or “Dragons!”)
• what kind of world is this story set in? (“Middle Earth” or “Outer Space” or “a world just like ours except….”)
• who’s the main character, and what does he want, and who’s trying to stop him from getting it?
Now take a good long look at the two lists you just made. Scan the whole page, both sides. See any patterns? What are they? Take out a fresh piece of paper and try to fill in the blank below:
I like to read stories about _________________ set in worlds where _________________ with characters that ______________________.
There might not be one single version of this sentence that describes all the stories you like. And the kinds of stories you like may change over time too, so the answers you come up with today might not work for you next month. So do this exercise every now and then, especially when you’re stuck for story ideas, or have a story that doesn’t seem to be working for you. What you find out might surprise you! And it will almost certainly help you.
Bottom line: There’s no one right kind of story to write, but if you stick to writing stories that are like the stories you love reading, then you’ll be excited about them … and being excited about your story is the best way to make sure readers are excited too.
Like the old saying goes: you can’t please everyone … but you can please yourself! So when you sit down to write, write the stuff you like to read. If it’s fantasy, write fantasy. If it’s science fiction, write science fiction. If it’s comic books, write comic books. It doesn’t matter what it is. And it doesn’t matter if other people like it, or want to read it, or think it’s what you should be writing. All that does matter is that you like it.
Here Endeth the LESSON!