Showing posts with label George Mason University. Show all posts
Showing posts with label George Mason University. Show all posts

15 June 2018

Story & Structure: "English 398: Fiction Workshop" in EQMM


By Art Taylor

Writers often get questions about the weight of character and plot in their works, the balance between them—which they start with when sitting down to write or which ultimately drives the story as it unfolds.

For me, another element seems both inseparable from a story's success and the key, for me, in figuring out how to write it in the first place: structure.

My fiction workshops at George Mason University focus on narrative structure first and foremost. While we obviously discuss character and plot and dialogue and setting and... well, everything that goes into making a story, the semester itself is divided into two assignments: first, write a linear story (chronologically driven start to finish, rising action leading scene by scene to a climax, Aristotelian really), and then write a modular story... which may require some explanation. In class, I assign Madison Smartt Bell's Narrative Design, which likens modular design to the mosaic—bits and pieces of narrative adding up to a more complex whole—and then analyzes modular stories by breaking them down into various vectors, looking at how those vectors interweave and interact.

At its most basic level, there are several ways to understand vectors as they contribute to modular design. Imagine a story that shuttles section by section between two different time frames—exploring how past events impact the present. Or a story with several different narrators, interweaving various contrasting/conflict points of view to reach a clearer truth (I did this myself in my story "The Care and Feeding of Houseplants," navigating the points of view of all three characters in a love triangle.) Or perhaps two seemingly unrelated tales which dovetail on some thematic point. Bell's Narrative Design is also an anthology, and one of my favorite stories is Gilmore Tamny's "Little Red," with one of the vectors narrator the story of Little Red Riding Hood and the other providing commentary from the narrator herself, analyzing the fairy tale, fretting over the themes and implications, even arguing with Little Red herself at various points.

I'll admit that I thrilled by experimental structures. Robert Coover's "The Babysitter" is one of my favorite stories, whose short sections swoop through various perspectives, fears, fantasies, and possibilities all centered on the title character. And then there's Joyce Carol Oates' "How I Contemplated the World from the Detroit House of Correction and Began My Life Over Again: Notes for an Essay for an English Class at Baldwin Country Day School; Poking Around in Debris; Disgust and Curiosity; A Revelation of the Meaning of Life; A Happy Ending..." which plays with chronology and perspective so magically. It's a story I teach and reread regularly, I just find it so endlessly fascinating.

Both of these stories were among the inspirations for my new story in the July/August issue of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine—and its full title shows a clear nod toward Oates' story: "English 398: Fiction Workshop—Notes from Class & A Partial Draft By Brittany Wallace, Plus Feedback, Conference & More."

As the title promises, the story is an amalgam of bits and pieces—with those "note from class" providing the overall framework, punctuating the story with the kinds of advice and guidance that are common to creative writing courses: show, don't tell; use sensory detail; escalate the conflict in as many ways as possible; that sort of thing. A draft from one of the workshop's students is submitted, along with her own notes about other characters, other potential plots twists. Students comment on the draft. And then comes a discussion with the professor—that conference being a required part of the whole process. The "& More" is basically an article from the student newspaper (and I anticipate that last element is part of what prompted Kristopher Zgorski at BOLO Books to comment on the kinds of "contemporary social issues" I'm weaving into the story; thanks again, Kris, for the kind words).

The structure here may not be to everyone's tastes, I recognize that, but I hope that the plot itself will prove interesting and those characters at the core of it—basically, as one of the workshop participants comments, "James M. Cain relocated to a college campus," charting a dalliance between a college professor and one of his top students and then the fallout from that relationship.

(Though I actually teach "English 398: Fiction Workshop" at George Mason University, the story is, um, not autobiographical. Just feel the need to point that out (again and again (and again)).)

Finally on this story, I want to say how pleased I am that EQMM not only gave me a shout-out on the cover but also top billing there—even above recent MWA Grand Master Peter Lovesey, which kind of astounds me. I've already been sampling other stories in the issue—including "The Mercy of Thaddeus Burke," a terrific tale by former SleuthSayer David Dean—and look forward to reading more, with another SleuthSayer in the mix as well, Janice Law with "The Professor," another academic mystery! Looks like a great issue, and I'm honored to be part of it.

08 December 2017

From the Analytical to the Imaginative


By Art Taylor

This post appears on the last day of the last week of the semester's classes at George Mason University—but while this may seem to mark an ending of sorts, it's also a beginning, because as I'm writing this, I'm thick in the middle of grading those final papers, projects, and revisions that have suddenly appeared.

And then there are exams beginning next week, so the moment we finish up one batch of grading, another batch will arrive.

One of my classes is an upper-level creative nonfiction class, a smaller workshop filled with some fine and even extraordinary writers. So many of their submissions are really a joy to read, and I find myself eager in many cases to see what some of those writers are going to produce next. Grading there is work, no doubt about it, but it's also fun in many ways.

My gen-ed lit class, however, maxed out at 75 students—much larger, many more assignments to manage. And students in this class often face more struggles with writing.

The class itself has been enjoyable—the subject is "Sherlock," so hard not to feel indulgent about the readings and discussion—and I've been fortunate to have a great T.A. for the class to help with grading. But as the final days loomed, both of us got that deer in the headlights look about the onslaught of project and exams ahead. At the beginning of Monday's class, I told her flat-out I was dreading it—and one of the students overheard our conversation and piped up with, "We are too! So why are you assigning all this?"

Clear answers to that one, of course: We need to have ways of measuring learning and performance. But the whole exchange underscored the fact that all of us were feeling overburdened a little and on a sharp turnaround for meeting deadline after deadline.

One thing I've tried to do to boost enthusiasm at end-of-semester in my lit classes: Give students the opportunity to write some fiction themselves. While many students still choose to write a more traditional analytical essay—thesis, textual evidence, etc.—others welcome the chance to, in this case, write their own Sherlock Holmes pastiche or parody. We've read a number of Sherlock stories by writers other than Conan Doyle in The Big Book of Sherlock Holmes Stories, and I've been grateful to have a couple of writers Skype into the class to talk about their own stories reworking the characters and these elements, including Dan Stashower and Dana Cameron. And several of the students have been pursuing terrific ideas: Sherlock and Watson investigating a scandal related to Brexit, Sherlock Holmes on a visit to Mason's campus and investigating shenanigans in the classroom, and then something about Sherlock as a Mason student himself and losing some laundry—building on one of the cases that Watson mentions only briefly in the canon: the bogus laundry affair. (This student did his research, clearly, but ultimately opted instead to write an analytical essay about different kinds of justice in the stories.)

The student who wrote about Brexit had originally proposed having Sherlock investigate the voter fraud claims in the U.S. but then felt like setting the adventure in Britain would be better. Either way, he's been very enthusiastic about the project and mentioned at end of class (if I'm remembering the relationships correctly!) that his girlfriend's father is a big Sherlock Holmes fan and is eager to read what he produces.

I've done this in other classes in the past with fascinating results. One student in a survey course on the mystery short story several years ago relocated a Sherlock-like figure to a U.S. Army base investigating trouble at the perimeter. Though he'd never written fiction before, he'd been in the service himself and he drew on his own past as well as the readings from class to produce what I thought was a first-rate story: engaging, suspenseful, satisfying.

Students appreciate the opportunities here for a number of reasons—maybe first and foremost that it's something different. Some of them think, I'm sure, that it'll be easier than that whole thesis, evidence, analysis thing. And on our side of the table, I'll admit that my TA and I are appreciating it too—something different to read for us as well.

But the trick is that whether they choose the creative or the analytical project, students are still revealing their engagement and understanding (or lack of engagement/understanding) of the course materials. Understanding the characters, navigating the way the stories work, folding in some of the common thematic elements, even mimicking here and there Conan Doyle's singular style.... Well, there's much to be said for application over analysis. And because students opting for the creative project are still required to write a reflective essay, connecting their work to their reading, with in-text citations and a bibliography to boot, ultimately they're entering into some analysis as well.

I'm still early in the grading at this point, plenty ahead. But I'm looking forward to seeing what they've come up with—and to spending a little more time with Sherlock himself, courtesy of the students and their imaginations.

22 January 2016

The Possiblities Are Endless


By Art Taylor

This week marked the start of the new semester at George Mason University, and except for an immediate snow delay Thursday and the cancellation of classes Friday (and potential syllabus reshuffling), all has been going well.

One of my classes this semester is a fiction workshop, and on the first day, I invited the students one by one to introduce themselves, to provide some background about their writing, and to say what they hoped to get out of the semester ahead in terms of honing their craft. Several of them mentioned various elements of fiction—character, plot, setting—as areas they'd like to focus on, but one student's response seemed particularly frustrated. She said that she simply had trouble finishing her stories.

I asked for clarification about that, since—to my mind—there were at least three different things she might be saying, specifically: 
  1.  I have trouble writing full drafts of stories.
  2.  I have trouble writing endings in particular.
  3.  I can write full drafts and get endings, but no matter how much I revise, the story on the page ever feels done, never seems good enough, never seems like it matches what I pictured in my head, etc. 
Turns out the answer was a little of all of that.

I assured her and the class that many writers have struggled with these same issues. Endings are indeed, for me, often the hardest parts of the story to write. And I'm a constant reviser—even after I've submitted a story for publication, I often keep tinkering with it—so I understand that sense of a story never feeling like it's entirely finished.

I've written elsewhere before—in other blog posts and interviews (so excuse me if you've heard it)—about a lesson I took from the work of sculptor Alberto Giacometti and specifically his Women of Venice series. Back when I worked at the North Carolina Museum of Art, we hosted an exhibition that included one of the sculptures (the series as a whole is pictured to the left), and I was fascinated not just by the artwork itself, the texture of it, the existential starkness of it, but also by the story of how Giacometti created the series. As I understood it, all of them were cast from the same mass of clay, clay which Giacometti worked and shaped and reworked and shaped until eventually it reached a form that he found suitable, at which point he called his brother in to make a cast of the "finished" product.

And then he began working and shaping that same clay again.

In the end, Giacometti ultimately created ten sculptures, each unique in its own way, each with a kinship, clearly, to her sisters, and each—here's the key—equally finished, perhaps equally perfect, as the next in the series.

Over the years, as I've thought and reflected on this anecdote (and hopefully not transmuted it in my own mind from the truth of it), it's become core to my own sense of process. Certainly we can and should keep searching for the best word, the best rhythm of a given sentence, the best flow of a paragraph, the best structure to a story, etc.—but after a point, we could keep working and reworking any choice we've made as writers and it might be tough to say with certainty which revision is better.

I'll likely bring up this story to my fiction workshop later in the semester, and as we embark on the revision section of the course, we'll study Raymond Carver's stories "The Bath" and "A Small Good Thing" in their various incarnations—the same story told in two dramatically different ways, and each with its own strengths and weakness, to the point that in the past when I've taught them, no class can agree which is better, which more finished or complete than the other.

It's not only the new workshop that has me thinking about this, but also a book that I've recently picked up. As I mentioned in my previous post here at SleuthSayers, I like to kick off a writing session by reading a little something about writing: craft essays, exercises, etc. Having finally completed Rules of Thumb, the book that had become a regular companion in that regard, I've just started browsing between two other books: Patricia Highsmith's Plotting and Writing Suspense Fiction (a rereading in that case) and Raymond Queneau's Exercises in Style, which was recently recommended my way.

Though I'm only partway into the Queneau, I'm already fascinated by the project—which reminds me of the Giacometti anecdote but also takes things a step further. Exercises in Style presents a very short story about a man on a bus—an argument, and a chance encounter later the same day, the whole thing barely a half a page in length—and then retells that story 99 different times, determined in each case by certain approaches. "Notations" is the headline of the first version, which presents the story as fragmented notes. "Litotes" tells the story in understatements. "Retrograde" tells it backwards. "Metaphorically" tells it... well, you can see where this goes. In addition to underscoring the fact that there are many, many, perhaps innumerable ways to tell any story—and tell it well each time—Queaneau's project also reminds us that writing is or can be or should be fun, playful even, which is something that I sometimes forget, I'll admit. That's a lesson for my students as well there, some of whom might be as fretful as I often am about my chosen craft.

Queneau's Exercises also remind me of something else too, an idea inherent in all of this: Style is constructed out of a series of choices.

Yes, we hear folks talk about a writer's style as if it's a natural part of their being, or about a writer needing to find his or her own style, as if it's waiting there for each of us if we'll just look hard enough. And maybe after a while, each of us does have a set of approaches and mannerisms, etc. that become like second nature—a part of who we are as writers and instantly recognizable to readers too. But at the same time, I think it's worth recognizing and remembering that the development of that style reflects a series of preferences and opinions and decisions; and an awareness of those preferences, opinions, and decisions—of the impact of those choices—enhances our skills as writers.

At least I hope.

Maybe.

In any case, I'm enjoying the new book, and I'm curious if others have read it—and curious too about a number of other questions. How would you define your own style? Is style something that you have self-consciously cultivated? Do you shift styles depending on the project at hand? Would love to hear, of course, about others experiences!