Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Story Time

I'm not sure what it is with kids and fiction, but my students are writing short stories right now, and they couldn't be happier.  Composing fiction is not mentioned specifically in either my state writing standards or in the draft of the new National Standards that was released today, although both include objectives addressing kids writing narratives, and of course that includes fiction.

I've found that many middle school teachers hesitate to include fiction assignments in their writing programs; I used to be one of them. I guess it didn't seem quite rigorous enough to me, either that or it could be that such assignments usually produced such sprawling tales teeming with ill-defined characters who wandered about without ever resolving anything that I had no idea what to do with them.

In her foreword to Ted DeMille's book, Making Believe on Paper, Nancie Atwell recounts a conversation she had with the educational researcher Nancy Martin on this very topic. Like many of us, Atwell was explaining why she didn't teach fiction, despite the fact that it is what most kids love to read best. She considered her students' fiction "daydreams on paper."

But Atwell tells how Nancy Martin convinced her otherwise. In Martin's opinion, fiction gives young writers the chance to compose fluently and at length. Martin also makes the point that fiction "gives children access to the hypothetical" so that "they can begin to see how to improvise on their own experiences." She understood children's stories to be fables where they reimagine their lives and mix them with the stories they've read or heard.

That is an accurate description of what my students do with their fiction, although they are influenced also by the stories they see on TV and, more and more, in games. Humans have always used storytelling to make meaning of our lives, and I think it's important to give kids the opportunity and the tools to do that. More importantly, though, writing fiction is motivating to my students: with few exceptions, they write cheerfully and at length. For that I'm glad, because I can't teach writing craft, conventions, or skills to someone who won't write.


  1. You put into words exactly what I saw today in class. Thanks to you, Nancie, and Nancy for explaining it so well.

  2. Bravo to you for teaching the writing of fiction. I know I'm biased, but I think we might have some better writers if we did more of this. Why? The sentence structure serves the narrative, that is, when you write a terrible sentence in the middle of the essay it's easy to shrug and move on. But if it's in the middle of a good scene in a fictional piece, and you can't figure out what the author is saying, you are obliged to correct it, fix it in order that it serve the story.

    Here! Here! to teaching fiction.


  3. You're right; storytelling is important at all ages. I salute you for encouraging their imaginations. As for the character development, emotion, and other aspects of good fiction, I don't think you can expect too much at this age.

    Actually my business partner/co-author Matilda Butler and I have a book coming out that will make it easier for every writer to improve the color/detail/emotion in her/his writing. It's called Writing Alchemy and will be out later this year. We're writing furiously. We also did a two-hour workshop on our technique at the Story Circle Network conference back in Feb--sold out (more than 80 in the class) and rave reviews. Participants agree with us that it will change anyone's writing forever.

    I hope you'll come visit us on Women's Memoirs ( ). Also, we're holding a 3-session online version of Writing Alchemy (the Quick-Start Method). If this interests you, you can find more detail here:

    In the meantime, thanks for sharing your Slice of Life stories.