In the Hamline MFAC program we encourage students to try different forms of writing as well as to write across the genres. This isn’t a “do as I say, not as I do” injunction. Members of the faculty also play around with their writing, and some of that play time has been a springboard for serious projects that resulted in publication. Most recently, Ron Koertge and Anne Ursu have explored fairy tales (Lies, Knives, and Girls in Red Dresses; Breadcrumbs), Gary Schmidt bit the bullet and wrote a fantasy (What Came from the Stars), and Mary Logue wrote a picture book (Sleep Like a Tiger).
Though nothing is headed toward publication—or even the open air of a public reading–I’ve been playing around too.
Earlier this week I wrote about the NY Times interview with Kate Atkinson. Another gem from that article was her description of what she learned by writing fiction for women’s magazines: “You learn to turn a story around on a sixpence.”
This is not a writing skill I have, something that was made clear to me a few years ago when doing some work-for-hire writing. The editor of the project kept rejecting my ideas for stories with the same question: where’s the moment of change?
Those clear short-story moments when things change elude me. I like a bit of ambiguity, you see, served with a side of complexity. Novels are my natural playground.
Still, I want to have the skill, and as a result I’ve recently been writing flash fiction and reading a lot of revised folk tales, hoping that an immersion in the modern use of old stories will help me acquire a feel for the short form.
I’m not sure I’ve got that under control, but I did come up with a splendid writing exercise, one I’ve already had fun with for my work-in-progress as well as the novel on the back burner. The origin of the exercise is Newbery-winning writer Laura Amy Schlitz’s book The Bearskinner. (I should note that lately my source for finding folktale retellings is Lise Lunge-Larsen; her wonderful weekly blog for Children’s Literature Network (Snipp Snapp Snute) is loaded with recommendations. Yes, I could browse through the 398s at my library, but why not let an expert do some legwork?)
In The Bearskinner, a man makes a deal with a devil, and the story goes on from there. As Lunge-Larsen points out, a deal with the devil is an old trope. It’s also a great idea for character exploration. What deal would your protagonist make with the devil? Once the bargain is struck, what are the specific challenges that threaten success? If the devil is walking alongside the protagonist during the period of the deal, as in The Bearskinner, what conversations would occur?
Even if your story is firmly grounded in a world that acknowledges no supernatural whatever, I bet you can still learn something by playing around with the devil.