446. Writing Fiction

I’ve sometimes tried to write fiction. I’ve liked some of what I’ve written, and even sent some of it to a few publishers (with no success). And yet I only recently learned, in a third grade class, that there are some conventions to follow in writing fiction. I learned that even though you may have mental pictures of what your characters look like and where your story takes place, you’ve got to give those pictures to your readers.
My stories have tended to let the reader know what the characters were thinking, what words were said, and what actions and events took place, but my words have rarely painted pictures.
I thought that writers like Thomas Hardy only described their settings in such detail as a matter of personal style. My high school English teacher told us that Hardy’s description of the heath in The Return of the Native made the heath almost seem like a main character in the novel, and I could see what he meant. But I didn’t think I had to apply any bit of Hardy’s style to my own writing. The first chapter of The Return of the Native was not fun to read; in fact, it made some of us want to go get the Cliff Notes, rather than actually read the whole book. Almost nothing happened in the first chapter. It was torture.
While that chapter of Hardy’s still seems extreme to me, the third grade lesson I observed (and, ironically, helped teach) got me thinking about fiction. When children first start writing fiction, they often start the way I have – they tell the reader what’s fun to tell. For many children, action is what’s fun to tell about. If the reader has no idea who the characters are, or where the action is happening, too bad. It’s no fun telling about that stuff.
The children I taught often wanted to write fiction, but I usually told them that I wanted their stories to be true. My reason was that much of the fiction children wrote in my class was not as good as their autobiographical writing. They gave more details when they wrote about what had actually happened to them, and what they had done. Attending to detail is hard work, and it’s a little easier for some children to find details in their memories than in their imaginations. Their fiction tended to list actions, and connect the actions with the word “then.” At first, I tried to steer them away from that tendency, and later, after I’d learned a little more about teaching, I tried to get them to steer each other away from it. It didn’t occur to me until that third grade lesson I observed that I’ve been trying to teach children how to do something I don’t do as well as I could.
I’ll try to write better fiction now, and I’ll try to help children do so, too. It’s too bad no one succeeded in teaching me about the importance of describing the settings of stories, or the characters. But that kind of focus makes for better writing and better teaching.

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