The Art of Fiction Writing

The Art of Fiction Writing

Quickly rearranging the furniture in Room 314, Amber Bryant’s students settled into their circle of seats, ready to participate in a class unlike any other. As members of “Fiction Writing Workshop: Friends, Enemies, Lovers and Others,” an English elective, these Upper Schoolers had the chance to experiment with the exhilarating genre, and to study their classmates’ impressive efforts, in a supportive, safe and rewarding environment.

Although each person worked independently to strengthen their world-building and technical skills, the collaborative format was vital to bolstering confidence and affording students the freedom to take artistic risks, Ms. Bryant noted, adding that the course explored the profound connection between fiction and the human experience.

To ensure their success as fiction writers in Ms. Bryant’s course, her Class 10-12 students actively developed four key competencies: investigative reading; writing generously; communing with fellow readers and writers; and productive revising.

In addition to crafting an original short story (or two stories for those electing to take the class a second time), they also completed regular writing exercises to spark their imaginations and read and analyzed character-driven pieces by a diverse collection of masters to learn how compelling fiction comes together. Thus far, the class had been introduced to the authors Jenny Slate (“Going to the Restaurant”), Juliet Otsuka (“Diem Perdidi”), David Levithan (“Day 2934”), Dorothy Parker (“Here We Are”) and others.

On this particular afternoon, it was one student’s turn to share the second draft of a short story, which everyone had read in advance. Like all final projects this term, the story fell under the class-generated and far-reaching theme, “the mysteries of multitudinous selfhood.”

The student read the opening paragraphs out loud, then leaned back and listened to her peers. “What do we think is really working in this piece?,” asked Ms. Bryant, who holds an M.F.A. in creative writing in addition to a B.A. in English literature.

One by one, voices around the room chimed in with feedback. “I love the atmosphere,” one complimented. “You do a good job of writing in one perspective and showing other characters,” said another peer. “I like your message. It reminds me of ‘Coraline’ [the 2012 bestseller by Neil Gaiman],” remarked a third student.

Ms. Bryant weighed in as well. “Your building of tone creates such an ominous vibe,” she commented. “Your character knows something, and it’s very clear she knows it.”

To make the workshop as valuable as possible, the participants were asked to offer both praise and constructive suggestions, which the writers were welcome to incorporate or disregard, while always demonstrating kindness, encouragement and respect.

“What are some opportunities in the next draft?” Ms. Bryant prompted.

Again, every student contributed to the discussion. “There might be too many question marks at the end,” one observed. “I wanted to know a little more about the grandmother,” said a classmate at the next desk. “I was looking for more meaning behind some of the actions,” added a third.

For the last step, the student whose story was being workshopped was invited to rejoin the conversation. “Do you have any questions for us,” Ms. Bryant asked.

A lively exchange took place that helped the writer clarify a couple of fuzzy plot points for the next round of revisions. “I hope you keep working on this because it’s so good,” said Ms. Bryant.

As the class began to pack up their laptops and notebooks, the feeling in the room was warm, collegial and uplifting. The students were no doubt eager to put the finishing touches on their short stories and continue honing a vibrant fiction-writing practice.

“You are all so talented and gifted,” said Ms. Bryant. “You really ran with our theme.”