Sharon Watson acknowledges by way of a bit of fictive dialog in the Teacher's Guide to Writing Fiction [In High School] that not everyone has the natural gifts and abilities necessary to become a successful novelist. So why did she write a curriculum for teaching teenagers how to write? Does she expect every student to be evaluated to see if they should use the course?
Far from it. In fact, the course itself is at least partly intended to help in vetting the born-to-write from the not-interested. Mostly, though, it's designed to give students insight into the skills and techniques writers use to bring imagined people, events, and worlds to life. Throughout the course of the program, high schoolers will imitate these techniques, not to create the next Cormac McCarthy so much as to awaken the talent of some and to create a deeper love and understanding of literature in all.
Some will come to the text already with the desire to write, and for them Watson has created a second track within the broader course to help them further hone their skills and dig deeper in order to prepare a short story or novel manuscript for publication. Second-track exercises and information are delineated as "Manuscript Track" within the text. Whichever you are—dedicated writer or n00b—this book has plenty of insights and ways of thinking about the craft of fiction not found elsewhere.
How Does This Work?
Like Sharon Watson's other offerings (Jump In, The Power in Your Hands), this one is self-directed. Students simply read through the non-consumable textbook and complete exercises and writing prompts as they're encountered. 13 chapters cover all the angles, from point of view and characterization to getting your work published.
Each chapter is divided into daily lessons, with some chapters having several lessons and others only a few. While this is a student-directed course in terms of working through the text, ideally it will be used in the context of a classroom, co-op, or writing group. Much of the benefit of practicing fiction writing comes in feedback and discussion, and Watson prompts these activities throughout the text.
What is perhaps most remarkable about this course is Watson's levelheadedness. She certainly loves writing and fiction (and writing fiction), but she never gets giddy. She simply walks through the essentials of her various topics, leaving behind so much insight and good advice that even the best A-student won't pick up on all of it after a single reading.
Which makes Writing Fiction [In High School] a bit of a challenge to review. There are no wasted lines, and all of them contribute to an overall picture of what it takes to write good fiction that trying to find examples is like looking for a particular needle in a stack of needles. So here's one: she urges writers to hear the musicality of good writing, and to choose words as much for their sound as for their definition, advice more writers need and frustratingly few instructors are willing (or able) to give.
Students will gain insight into the history of fiction writing. Watson doesn't just tell readers that they should write a certain way, she tells them why those conventions were established in the first place by placing them in their historical context, and why they might or might not be applicable today.
Watson has clearly read widely and well, and draws on literature of all kinds and from all periods as examples and to make her point. She also understands contemporary fiction very well, and since one eye is always cast on the object of publication, a lot of advice is situated for today's writers—techniques once beloved have fallen into disfavor, and she warns students not to use them.
There are some reading and viewing assignments. Short stories such as "A Good Man Is Hard to Find" by Flannery O'Connor and "The Tell-Tale Heart" by Edgar Allan Poe are available online. The novel The Last Book in the Universe by Rodman Philbrick, a dystopian and post-apocalyptic science fiction story, will have to be purchased. Most of the movies assigned are rated PG or PG-13: The Princess Bride, Iron Man, The Italian Job, Wall-E, The Island, Cast Away, Up, Tangled, The Fugitive, scenes from the TV show Monk, and Inkheart.
Students will write short pieces in exercises designed to increase their awareness of plot, conflict, dialog, etc., as well as longer pieces like short stories and (depending on whether they're doing the "All Writers" or "Manuscript" track) a novel. Checklists are included throughout to help students keep track of what they've included and what they need to consider.
The Teacher's Guide is short but helpful. It consists mostly of notes for leading discussions and evaluating student work, though there are no grading rubrics as the standards for judging fiction are on much more of a sliding scale and vary widely according to subject matter, style, and genre. Unlike The Power in Your Hands, the Writing Fiction [In High School] Teacher's Guide is probably not necessary.
Our Honest Opinion
Not every child is a fiction writer, and not every family will find a use for this book, and that's okay. If you have a son or daughter who thinks maybe they might want to be a writer or who wants help finishing a piece they're already working on, this is an excellent resource. It isn't quite as thorough as the four levels of The Creative Writer by Boris Fishman, but it's more concise and a bit more discerning in terms of good and bad examples of story forms and writing styles.
Also, Watson's attitude that not everyone can be taught to be a great fiction writer is quite refreshing. She asserts rightfully that there are skills and concepts integral to the art of fiction that every student can learn, and she asserts equally rightfully that there's a certain knack to or gift for writing quality fiction that not everyone has (or even cares about). This balance is a much-needed alternative to the "you can be or do whatever you want to be or do!" rah-rah attitude currently so prevalent.
This course is easy on instructors. While you'll want to lead discussions and evaluate students's work, you don't need to worry about planning lessons or pulling together disparate elements other than the assigned reading and viewing materials. This isn't one of those courses that's so complicated it takes the teacher a month just to figure out how it works—you can pretty much have your kid crack open the text and get started. If they do, they'll surely learn, probably have fun, and possibly create the next great work of art. Recommended.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he's a husband and father who loves church, good food, and weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur. Read more of his reviews here
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