Saturday, October 16, 2010

Working Mom: How to Write Fiction

I have often wondered this myself and of course am no expert. I usually prefer writing about my own life and the people in it. I have written a few fictional pieces, my most recent was based on my own life as a recent college grad trying to find her way in the real world. It was so similar to my real past that even friends who didn't meet me until much later were saying, "Uh, yeah, you can totally tell it's about you."

I often wondered how in the world to fiction writers come up with all those details. Do they have to experience it themselves? Do they actually visit the places they write about and take photos or notes? Do they interview people who have been through those situations? I truly have no answers here, but I imagine that it depends on what they're working on and the methods they are comfortable with.

In any case, I need to write a fiction story for an upcoming assignment, and I really welcome the challenge but had no idea how to go about it this time. Writing about an American woman who is married to an Asian guy and living in his country is a bit too close to home.

I hit upon a useful method while at work because I am in the middle of a project with my seniors. In groups of five, they have to write a soap opera scene or set of scenes from scratch, and in November, they'll have to perform their scenes on stage. This project is in its eighth and possibly final year, so I am hoping it goes well. (It may be cut due to certain teachers' opinions that a soap opera drama is just not challenging enough for our high-level students who should be spending their time debating and discussing serious social problems. I am into discussing social problems - in fact, I created the Current English elective class where they do just that, but right now, we are talking about the required English Comprehension class that we only have once per week.)

Step One:
The Soap Opera Project begins with magazine cut-outs of various people - some famous and some not, but that doesn't matter in the end. We let the students choose pictures from a combination of five categories: Women under 40, women over 40, men under 40, men over 40, and children/teenagers. Some groups will have no children in their combination while other groups will have no one over 40. It's kind of random, but it's one way to force them to be more creative.

Step Two:
Now that each group has five images of people, we ask one person to come up and choose five cards from our stack of "character cards." The character cards each have two characteristics on them, for example: heartless and cruel, shy and timid, lively and outgoing, sensitive and kind. The cards are facing down so they cannot choose the cards based on the what is written.

Step Three:
We do the same thing with "job cards." The number of job cards matches the number of characters over age 15. So, if a group has a child character, they can only take four job cards. Examples of jobs include super model, hotel receptionist, millionaire, flight attendant, doctor, etc.

Step Four:
The students now have five images, five characteristic cards, and four or five job cards. Then next step is to match everything up, and decide names for each character. This takes a little while, and we usually have to write a variety of girls' and boys' names on the board.

Step Five:
Sometimes we skip to Step Five and let them do Step Four a bit later in the process. Step Five consists of choosing two "setting cards". In each soap opera, there must be at least one change of scene or they must show action in two different places. Examples of settings include ski resort, the bathroom, a pub, a church and an airplane.

Step Six:
The last card is a "plot card." Students are often surprised we won't even let them choose their own plots, but we think this forces them to be creative as they try to fit the puzzle pieces together. Each group chooses one plot card, and some examples include family argument, money problems, an accident, natural disaster and a crime.

Step Seven:
The writing process which takes the longest begins here. Of course, the group members must all agree on the outline of the story and it takes quite a while to first figure out the relationships between all the characters and how the setting and plot will fit in. Once they are ready to start writing, we hand out blank script sheets and they begin the process. Currently, my seniors are at this stage, and I am hearing rumors of a tornado that carries an entire casino full of people to another land and era; a group of four neighbors ganging up on their money laundering super-model neighbor. It's all good, but we'll see how these stories come out in the end. I will post about that in November after the performances.

What's this got to do with me?
So, here was my dilemma. For the AFWJ Journal, the theme for December is to write a fiction story and remembering my last attempt (back in 2004 when I was editor), I really wanted to give this a try. However, rather than base it on my own life, I wanted to do something really different. Sitting at my desk one day this week, it occurred to me that I could use the soap opera method and have elements of my story chosen for me by the cards! I quickly went through my stash of famous/not famous magazine cut-outs and chose five characters, randomly picked out the appropriate cards and set to work.  I am now on page four of this awesome story.

I don't know if others will agree about its awesomeness, but I am really enjoying this process. The most fun part, I think, is that rather than including entire situations from my own life, I am just choosing small details here and there. For example, I listen to the podcast Foolish Adventure which is about how to build an online business, and I listen to several other podcasts as well. In my story, one of the characters has her own online business where she hosts a few podcasts every week. Another example is that one of the characters spends a lot of time at Starbucks. Oh, and the whole story takes place in Chicago because Yusuke is in the middle of planning his trip to Chicago this winter, so I'm envisioning Michigan Avenue here.

One great thing about setting a story in a place you are only vaguely familiar with is Google Maps and Earth. You can actually pick up a little figurine of a green man and make him walk through the city and you can see everything from his point of view.

Though I am used to writing and getting interrupted many times, I find that with this story, I enter a zone where I can sit there typing and feel like only one minute has passed, when actually an hour has gone by. Therefore, it's hard to do this at night when I could be interrupted at any moment by the kids or by Yusuke. Same problem at work. Anyway, the process is definitely fun and exciting. I'm looking forward to the finished product.


Anonymous said...

You are so creative. I am so impressed that you find the time for all this stuff. You're such an inspiration.


Jill said...

Another way I've heard to help start writing a fictional tale is to find three (unrelated) stories in the newspaper and weave them together into a story. Sounds fun! (I've never done it.)

I like your method, too!!