On March 27th, Mandy Davis wrote a lovely, truthful piece for “The Storyteller’s Inkpot” about the surprising delights we may encounter—in travel, in writing, in life—when our plans don’t go as expected. That prompted me to think about surprises I’ve encountered when my teaching plans don’t go as expected. Or, as in the case I’m about to describe, when my lack of planning leads to some pleasant—and useful—surprises.
I teach a semi-private middle grade and young adult novel workshop that “meets” online every two weeks. My two adult students are writing first novels, and they are terrific students: motivated, smart, eager to try whatever I throw at them, and—best of all—not afraid to disagree with me. All of which means we have lots of lively discussion.
Our 90-minute Google Hangout sessions begin at 9:30 am. Such a reasonable hour, you might think. But, no, 9:30 am is not all that reasonable, because I am a night owl who isn’t fully awake until…well, never mind. But strong coffee is involved.
Last week, after a particularly owlish night (nothing exciting, folks: just conference prep and a bad habit of reading good novels till the wee hours), I woke, drank something highly caffeinated, pulled out the workshop plan I’d written up two days earlier—and realized it was a bit, well, skimpy. My plan went like this:
- Read page 122 in Cheryl Klein’s book, Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising, & Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, the part about “Conflict, Mystery, Lack,” where Klein asks, “Which model is your central plot and each of your subplots? Are all the narrative requirements of those plots set up at the beginning (e.g. a clear antagonist, a defined mystery, a hole of some kind in the protagonist’s life), developed through the middle (escalating antagonism, clues, the filling of the hole), and satisfactory at the end (a clear victory for one side and/or reconciliation, an answer to the mystery, emotional wholeness at last)?”
- Critique new pages.
My critiques were ready. My discussion plans were not.
Part of me became anxious. Another part sat back (in my mind, that is), smiling, reassuring: Just show them the page. See what happens.
I’d chosen Klein’s passage for discussion because my students’ wonderfully complex stories at times feel unfocused. One student is writing a mystery with several subplots, and one of those subplots threatens to overwhelm the mystery plot. The other student is writing a fantasy with dual protagonists, alternating points of view, and sub-plots in each protagonist’s arena. As a reader, I can’t always tell what exactly each student wants to emphasize. How could I teach my students to know what to emphasize and what to focus on?
9:30 arrived. We read Klein’s paragraph. My mystery writer had considered only her main plot model prior to this exercise. My fantasy writer hadn’t considered any of this. Each of us wrote for five minutes, jotting down the model for her main plot and subplots. As I wrote, I realized that in my own writing I’d been trying to meld two plot models—lack and conflict—into one, and that I needed to make one model primary. Surprise #1: I needed this lesson as much as my students did.
This exercise energized all of us. We felt as though it had burned off a layer of fog that kept us from seeing and understanding our complex stories clearly.
Fully awake now—and I want to believe the exercise more than the coffee was the reason—I asked my students to consider each plot and subplot model on their list and write down each significant character’s burning question. We’d talked about the MC’s burning desire before, but we hadn’t talked about each secondary character’s burning desire. Phrasing each desire as a question—the question that would drive the plot—brought out useful information. For me—Surprise #2—it was that one secondary character’s burning question was too similar to my MC’s, signaling that I didn’t know my secondary character well enough yet and needed to distinguish him further.
The fantasy writer also discovered something useful: her MC #2’s burning question didn’t have nearly the gravitas as MC#1’s question—or even as some of the secondary characters’ questions. This exercise clarified for all of us why we’d been having trouble connecting to MC #2.
Surprise #3: Once we clarified via her burning question why MC #2 seemed so shallow, we were able to discover this character’s deeper, weightier and more intriguing desire. “How can I gain power and respect from the Queen?” became “How can I gain the power and respect I need to transform the realm into a more inclusive, egalitarian society?
I ended this discussion after an hour so that we’d have time to talk about their new pages. It was gratifying to see how a little planning, trust in the creative teaching process, and some motivated students—plus, perhaps, a dose of caffeine—can go a long and surprising way.
***Deborah Davis is a 2012 graduate of the MFAC program. She lives, writes, and teaches in California. Visit her website to learn about her online and in-person classes and manuscript consultation services.