Things Your Writing Teacher Never Told You: Story in Its Many Forms
My Exploring Fantasy Genre Writing course was designed based on the idea that “story” can be told in a vast array of forms; and exploring those forms, both through observation and by wading in and taking a crack at them, enriches the way we work when we return to our preferred art form. Even if one’s painting skills are closer to a kindergartner’s finger-painting “masterpiece” than Leonardo da Vinci’s “Mona Lisa,” the act of working with paints can help us better understand the use of color to create a desired mood.
The course is designed specifically to look at the reach of the Fantasy genre across a wide array of media and forms including fiction, fairytales, film, television, cartoons, children’s books, music (classical and otherwise), music videos, plays, radio plays, audio and video blogs, art, photography, fashion, comic books, mock journalism, poetry, games, and any other form we may stumble across.
Each week starts with an exploration of a Fantasy theme that has a large body of work built around it, such as Mermaids, Pirates, The Big Bad Wolf, Alice in Wonderland, Voodoo, Arthurian Legends, the dizzing array of Faerie creatures, The Ring of the Niebelung, and psychic detectives. After covering the basics of the theme, we read, look at, watch, and listen to various works based on or inspired by that trope.
For example, for the Pirates unit we: read issue 2 of the comic book Cursed Pirate Girl; read the short story “We Are Norsemen” (because Vikings are simply Norse pirates), recite three short poems about pirates by Shel Silverstein and laugh at his cartoon drawings; watch a short, animated historical film about Jean Lafitte, America’s most famous pirate, on YouTube; then read an essay I wrote about some little-known pirate women from around the world.
Jetting back to YouTube, we watch a low-budget music video of Steve Goodman performing “Lincoln Park Pirates” (a political commentary on a past Chicago mayor’s farming out parking violations and towing to a shady for-profit outfit); watch one chapter from Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.
We watch a pirate-themed sequence from the cartoon Family Guy which does a fine job of touching on the historical details of piracy; read a 10-minute pirate play; look at pirate art through the ages and across cultures; listen to some sea shanties; watch the Kevin Klein performance of “I Am a Pirate King” from The Pirates of Penzance; and read the pirate poem the amazing C.S.E. Cooney wrote just for me (which was published recently at Uncanny, here).
I haven’t found a good children’s book about pirates, yet. But we read several of those for other units.
For some of the 15 weeks of class, a specific writing form is assigned, and students write the opening pages of a story inspired by the theme. (They choose one or more of these starts to finish as their Final Project.) We cover the obvious basics: short story, poem, play, mock news article, comic book. But other weeks, they can choose from a list of more than 65 sample forms, or come up with their own.
This past semester, for the Big Bad Wolf unit, a student put together a magazine ad for toothpaste with extra whitening ability to get those blood stains out and make the fangs shine. For our Voodoo unit, one of my students did a series of 5 Cajun recipes, with some good homespun, magical advice peppered in. One of my film majors was able to put together – creating his own music and vocals and editing together free stock footage – a 4 minute trailer that was a pitch for a made-up TV series about pirates.
I’ve had a music video script retell the Brunhilde vs. Oden valkyrie battle set to the student’s favorite song by Nightwish, a symphonic metal band out of Finland. I’ve gotten an original pagan prayer, multiple haiku cycles, a couple of children’s books, game sequences, even a portion of the Ring of the Niebelung story told in Post-it Notes. One of my music majors wrote the lyrics and music to a story about a siren and her pirate lover. She performed, recorded and mixed the 3 instrument track, then convinced her boyfriend to sing the haunting 10 minute-duet with her. We had chills listening to it in class. I’ve gotten the text for a rap battle, the words to an original sea shanty, and the story of Little Red Riding Hood retold via police reports.
Other options on the big list of forms that I haven’t received yet but am hoping for include: an advice column tailored to the denizens of the trope we’re studying, a television commercial for a product the monster or creature might need, a cos-play fashion shoot, and a stand-up comedy routine.
The class of twenty is generally comprised of about half writing majors (a mix of fiction, poetry, and play writing) and a good mix of other majors (a significant percentage come from Film Art + Science, but also from game design, fashion design, music, acting, photography, animation, and scattered others).
My students groan when they hear my prime directive: You can’t work in the same form more than once. So they each get one freebie – one chance to cast a story in the medium or form they’re most comfortable with. Most of the students have a second favorite medium or form – so that assignment doesn’t feel too tough, either. But after that, they’re pushed out of their comfortable nest and forced to try things they claim they’re not good at. As I tell them, I grade on enthusiasm, a whole-hearted effort, and their integration of the fantasy trope that was assigned that week. Fail brilliantly, and you won’t fail. I take into consideration what their major is, and how far along in they are in their college career. I expect a better, more polished short story from the fiction major about to graduate than I do from a music major who’s an incoming freshman. I do everything I can to dis-incentivise people playing it safe.
I’m a firm believer in the “Dance as if no one is watching” and “Don’t be afraid to color outside the lines” approach to creation. In some few cases, some few of them are right about some of the forms. They’re more finger-paint masterpieces than Mona Lisas. But that’s not the point. And often, their self-assessment is wrong.
New things often feel awkward, clumsy, and uncomfortable. Those feelings are seldom a reliable reflection of what winds up on the page.
I learned this lesson the hard way many years ago. As a quite-new writer, I was encouraged to submit to a high profile anthology of medical thrillers. Lots of A-lister best-selling names already in the lineup. It was not an open anthology that anyone might submit to, but it wasn’t a guaranteed sale. I was being given a shot. A longshot. I had never written a thriller or a mystery. Their pacing and structure are significantly different from the dark fantasy and humorous horror I’d been writing. I did a crash course study of thrillers, then tried my hand at it. The first draft felt awful. It felt klutzy and clumsy. Even polished up, I thought it was awful. But the editor told me to send it to him, anyway.
He sent it back with a fair bit of praise and some significant revision notes. I made the revisions. I still thought it was awful. He told me to send it, anyway. I sent it. He published it. It got singled out for praise in the Publisher’s Weekly review. People to this day tell me they think it’s the best story I’ve written. When I read it today, I still feel ooky about it – I’m remembering how uncomfortable I felt creating it. I still read that discomfort between the lines. Folks whose opinions I value say they can’t see any of that on the page. And, when I went back to writing the sorts of stories I did feel comfortable writing, I found my sense of pacing and plot were much improved.
One of the benefits to making them try out forms they’d never dreamed of trying is that some of them discover they really, really LIKE this new form. For those who fall in love with the comic book assignment, I point them toward the Writing in Graphic Forms class. Those who discover, “The play’s the thing!” get encouraged to go check out the play writing courses. Or the poetry courses. Or the Young Adult or Writing for Children courses.
One of the forms I require the students to write is a blues song. Blues is filled with the supernatural and magic. And it’s a good form to tell a story. Working with Liz Mandeville, a professional blues musician, who happens to be a Columbia College grad, we choose four classic blues songs in four traditional blues forms. The students choose one of those songs, and write a fantasy story via the lyric pattern for that song. I give them feedback and the chance to revise it through three drafts.
I hear a lot of grumbling during the writing and revision process. I hear a lot of, “I can’t write poetry or song lyrics!” I hear a lot of, “I don’t know enough about the blues to write a blues song.”
When all the grumbling is done, they have turned out magical, mystical, marvelous songs: A Big Bad Wolf origins story set to “Hoochie Coochie Man.” A sympathetic story about a cannibalistic Wendigo set to “Wild Women Don’t Get the Blues.” A Banshee’s lament set to “As the Years Go Passing By.” A gorgeous, detailed retelling of the Isis and Ra myth set to “High Heel Sneakers.”
At the end of the semester, Liz comes to our class and performs the songs. The kids know she’s coming, and they dread it, all through the back half of the semester. All through their revisions. The terror remains, the day she comes to class. They slink down in their seat when she calls out their song title and starts to strum. But by the end of the first verse, they’re sitting up in their seats; head up, shoulders back. By the end of the second verse, they’re grinning. And by the time the song ends and the applause dies away, they are beaming like their heart has just gone supernova.
(If you’d like to check out some of the students’ songs, you can do a search at YouTube on “Tina Jens Liz Mandeville” or click this link. The songs from the most recent class aren’t up there yet, but songs from the two previous semesters are.)
Finally, on this last day of class, the words I repeat to them all semester long ring true in their minds: If you put words on paper, you’re a writer – I don’t care what your declared major is. Forget the notion that only Poets write poetry. That only Musicians write songs. That only Playwrights write plays. It’s stories and words on paper. The rest are just some odd rules about formatting, and you’re all bright enough to be able to learn those. You’re a writer – you got this!
If you enjoyed this blog, I hope you’ll check out some of my others on writing.
Story in Its Many Forms
Escaping the Darkness, or What to Do When Your Imaginary World Gives You Real Nightmares
Season’s Greetings: Some Recommendations To Warm Your Cold Cockles
It Was Only A Dream…
Seven Common Approaches to Stories That Use Mythology, Fairy Tales & Other Established Source Material
No TV for You (when it comes to publicizing your book)
Peer-Pressure Writing: Offering Encouragement & Just a Little Shame
A Story Analysis Worksheet
Tricks for Writing in Public
Location, Location, Location! or How to Find and Maintain Your Writing Space
What Should You Put In a Cover Letter?
Ignore the Market Guidelines at Your Peril – How (Not) to Build a Career
Tina L. Jens has been teaching varying combinations of Exploring Fantasy Genre Writing, Fantasy Writing Workshop, and Advanced Fantasy Writing Workshop at Columbia College-Chicago since 2007. The first of her 75 or so published fantasy and horror short stories was released in 1994. She has had dozens of newspaper articles published, a few poems, a comic, and had a short comedic play produced in Alabama and another chosen for a table reading by Dandelion Theatre in Chicago. Her novel, The Blues Ain’t Nothin’: Tales of the Lonesome Blues Pub, won Best Novel from the National Federation of Press Women, and was a final nominee for Best First Novel for the Bram Stoker and International Horror Guild awards.
She was the senior producer of a weekly fiction reading series, Twilight Tales, for 15 years, and was the editor/publisher of the Twilight Tales small press, overseeing 26 anthologies and collections. She co-chaired a World Fantasy Convention, a World Horror Convention, and served for two years as the Chairman of the Board for the Horror Writers Assoc. Along with teaching, writing, and blogging, she also supervises a revolving crew of interns who help her run the monthly, multi-genre, reading series Gumbo Fiction Salon in Chicago. You can find more of her musings on writing, social justice, politics, and feminism on Facebook @ Tina Jens. Be sure to drop her a PM and tell her you saw her Black Gate blog.