Category: Voice

A Masterclass in Writing Fiction pt. 2 – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 12

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.

See pt. 1 of this amazing session here. As I’m blogging this as it occurs, the post will have a certain disjointed quality to it.

Mark Farrington continues his presentation on writing fiction with a discussion on the intersections of reality and fiction. He reminds us that:

1. Fiction is not reality.
2. It’s not a mirror of reality.
3. It’s an illusion of reality.

You don’t try to duplicate reality. You suggest it and let readers react to it. What details are essential for the reader to know? You must convince the reader to believe in your story.

Tips for writing fiction based on real life:
1. Changing the name
2. Changing the gender
3. Changing a key personality quirk
4. Changing the events or the outcome of events
5. Looking for metaphorical or symbolic truth vs. literal truth
6. Realizing that the setting is often the easiest to both “steal” and “alter”/fictionalize

Gain distance from a real life story by asking yourself “What if?” and then following your line of thought. Mark says this also works if you’re at a point in your story when you feel it’s slowed down.

Mark also recommends the Mr. Potato Head approach. You can pull different personality and setting and plot aspects from whatever you want. It’s not who or what you based it on that matters, it’s how you manipulate it and how it ends up on the page.

Another tip Mark suggests is the “situation / catalyst” approach. First you come up with an interesting situation (one that has potential for conflict and tension). But without an initiating event nothing happens. Therefore you try to think up a catalyst that gets the plot going. The catalyst is an event or situation that makes the tension of the situation concrete and real.


Don’t try to force the ending. Writing fiction is like driving a car at night, he says. You can always see in front of you, and you get where you need to get, but you can’t always see the path. I’m reminded, not for the first time, of the disconnect between what Mark is saying and the way many of us (myself included) teach fiction writing. I’m not necessarily saying Mark’s word is gospel, but it’s important to think about the ramifications behind what we do and why we do it.

Prompt: Building a character. Mark asks us questions and we write down answers to each one. Quick rapid fire. The only rules are that the character you create must be human. Try not to base the character on a real person.

1. What gender is this character? M
2. What age? 23
3. What words or phrases describe this character’s appearance? Puny, emaciated, hunched
4. What about the way your character looks would they like to change? giant ears
5. Where does your character live? Arlington, VA
6. What kind of structure do they live in? A micro-home
7. Who else lives there? Three cats and a bird
8. What’s their favorite place within the structure they live in? The bathroom. Twee wall paper, retro shag carpeting, furry toilet seat cover, and, most importantly, a giant mirror.
9. What do they like to eat for breakfast? Poptarts with frosting on them
10. What work do they do? OR how do they spend their weekdays? Sweeping hair at an all-male salon
11. Speaking in the voice of your character, finish the sentence: ‘It makes me angry when…’ I get a haircut and my ears are always clipped,
12. What clothing do they wear when they want to feel comfortable? Skinny jeans, snug sweaters, beanie cap pulled down tight
13. How does your character usually spend Sunday morning? Making boutique teas for the old folks living in his apartment complex, delivering door to door
14. What vehicle do they drive / ride in most often? A battered brown bike with a deflated, punctured black horn attached to the right handlebar
15. Which parent was more important? Dad, he made sure his kid grew up on a steady diet of Led Zeppelin and other hard rock staples\
16. Finish the sentence in the character’s voice: ‘I am afraid that/of…’ people will see the way I dress and reduce me to a hipster stereotype
17. What is the educational background? HS grad, community college associate’s degree in progress
18. When confronted with a decision, is your character decisive or ruminative? Quick-witted and decisive
19. Does your character believe that the world is orderly and fair or chaotic and purposeless? Orderly and fair
20. Finish the sentence in your character’s voice: ‘I don’t know why I remember the time…’ my dad brought me home a furby, a special Kiss edition complete with Gene Simmons tongue

Write five of this character’s stepping stones. Two of them have to be what the character would describe as ‘difficult.’ 

  1. I was born on September 12th, 1995
  2. Dad played my first Zep record
  3. Got my first crush on my 3rd grade babysitter
  4. Parents divorced
  5. Dropped out of college 
  6. Moved to new apartment and bonded with the building’s septuagenarian population

That was frustrating! I had to keep going even though I wasn’t satisfied with most of my answers. Now we begin to write a story in the first-person voice of this character. They have to talk about one of the difficult stepping stones or begin with “I don’t know why I remember the time…” Okay, let’s do this.

I don’t know why I remember it. The Furby I mean. Pops didn’t normally bring me home gifts. When I think about it I’m pretty sure that was the only thing he ever got me outside of a holiday. 

He called me into the living room where he was seated with Ma. Her eyes looked real red, I could tell she had been crying. We need to have a talk, he said. But I can’t remember anything he said. It was like one of those Charlie Brown wom-wom-wom voice overs, you know?  I sat down on the ruddy carpet, almost prostrating myself before the thing. It sat on the living room table, a heavy oak thing my dad picked up from some country store. 

I was afraid to touch it. Maybe I was afraid that if I touched it I would break the spell and whatever my parents were saying would reach me. So I just sat there, transfixed by the thing’s plastic eyes and ridiculous eyelashes. I don’t know how long I stayed like that. 

You don’t have to do these types of exercises, Mark says, but they can be helpful for generating content or fleshing it out. Have students volunteer questions for the class to use. He also brings up interviewing your character. Asking them, “why did you do X?”

Here are some more story prompts for getting started with fiction:


He ends by reminding us that most people don’t build stories like a bookcase. We don’t start with exposition, rising action, etc. The form grows out of the piece, not the other way around. And besides, not all stories follow story grammar.

Hope you’re able to glean some useful info from this wonderful presentation!



Stretch A Little, Stretch A Lot: Using Hyperbole to Enhance Memoir Writing – NVWP Summer ISI – Day 11

Welcome to the Northern Virginia Writing Project’s 2016 Invitational Summer Institute! I’ll be blogging the demonstration lessons and the various activities occurring during our four-week duration. Find out more about the NVWP and the National Writing Project.


Today’s first demonstration lesson comes from Katlyn Bennett, an amazing colleague. She’s going to show us how to study a mentor text, Roald Dahl’s Boy: Tales of Childhood, in order to use hyperbole to enhance details in a personal memoir.

The context of this lesson is an author study unit. Students pick an author they’re interested in and then read a variety of works by that author. This helps students tease out a particular author’s voice (syntax choices, literal/figurative language usage, tone and mood, etc.). Katlyn uses Roald Dahl as the mentor author for this project because his collected works run the genre gamut. She got the idea from Roald Dahl’s website. Today’s demonstration lesson comes from a unit with the following objectives and essential questions.


Katlyn links this unit and lesson to Kelly Gallagher’s two central premises from Write Like This:
1. Introduce young writers to real-world discourses (express and reflect)
2. Provide students with extensive teacher and real-world models.

She also discusses reading as a process. First draft reading is for meaning and second draft reading is for techniques/craft/nuance/etc. Another way to think about this is as reading as a reader (immersion) vs. reading as a writer (analysis of rhetoric). This assignment and this unit focus heavily on reading and writing on process.

Quickwrite: Look back in your memory. Think about a time you got in trouble, were injured, were angry, were happy, etc. Now write down what happened. This is a no-nonsense summary of events. 

When I was in 7th grade I wrote stories back and forth with a classmate and friend. These stories tended to be pretty gross depictions of comical sexual acts and explosions of bodily fluids. This is pretty standard stuff for hormone-addled middle school boys. I know this because I teach 7th graders. Oh wait, this is supposed to be no-nonsense.

I wrote a gross note to a friend. My English teacher confiscated it and I went to the principal’s office. I had to read it to my parents, apologize, and write an apology note.

Katlyn sets our purpose for reading (an excellent technique). What details stick out to us?

time to read

The section she reads is amazing. Dahl presents a truly grotesque depiction of a mean-spirited candy store owner. He knows how to zoom in on a key detail and then twist it into a disgustingly wonderful description. Dahl is also adept at immersing the reader in the memory and then sliding out of it to address the reader in a more authorial fashion. We discuss what we notice. Voice, point of view, hyperbole, characterization, and perspective are all mentioned. This is our first draft reading.

After she finishes we read the section again ourselves. At what point do we question the truth of Dahl’s writing? What images stand out? Is it okay if he’s not telling the 100% truth in his memoir? Katlyn comments to us that middle schoolers have a much harder time believing the veracity of every word or phrase, whereas adults don’t. Our conversation about truthfulness in memoir becomes wonderfully complex. Personally I believe that exaggeration and detail-massaging are not only acceptable techniques in a memoir but are essential to crafting an interesting narrative. It’s possible to tell the truth of the moment without being 100% factual, I think.

Now we return to our original quickwrite and look for details.


I wrote a gross note to a friend. It was funny! My English teacher confiscated it and I went to the principal’s office. He grabbed it from a kid. I had to read it to my parents, apologize, and write an apology note to the teacher. I got in trouble. It was embarrassing. 

Katlyn puts up the following organizer to help us pick out details to stretch, and then stretch a lot. We’re looking for specific details to exaggerate. This is a great way to help children begin seeing writing as a series of rhetorical decisions. You can see the way she exaggerates and then hyperbolizes the facts.


Here’s mine! 

-The note was gross ->
-The note was the stuff of schoolyard whispers. ->
-The crumpled paper oozed/was soaked the blunt, comical perversion of early adolescence.

-My friend sat on the other side of the room. ->
-I could barely see Jackson’s flat top across the tiled expanse of the class. The note had to travel quite a distance to reach him. ->
-As Jackson and I sat on opposite sides of the room (a familiar teacher tactic for dealing with disruptions), our notes had to travel the precarious distance of the entire length of the room.

-The teacher was watching us. ->
-His eagle eyes scanned the crowd for morsels. ->
-The teacher’s eyes swept over the class like searchlights hunting down an escape prisoner.

I realize that I exist in the hyperbole zone. This is my truth, the way my brain perceives and processes things. This makes sense with my earlier position on being liberal with the ‘truth.’ Oh, this is just so much fun. It really makes you focus on the purpose of every word. What choices would a journalist make? What about a comic? How do expectations about audience play into word choice? It’s probably best to finely tune the writing so it’s not either 100% over the top or 100% dry. Katlyn ends her presentation with a couple samples of student work.



“If You Really Want to Hear About It”: What Holden Caulfield (and Others) an Teach Us About Voice – NVWP Summer Institute – Day 11 pt 1

Mark Farrington kicks off today’s first demo lesson.

“If You Really Want to Hear About It”: What Holden Caulfield (and Others) Can Teach Us About Voice

Mark Cover

Part 1: Voice

Mark begins with a quote: “Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make it the whole way like that.”

Q1: He gets us writing. What do you think of when you think of the term “voice” in writing?

When I think about the term ‘voice’ in student writing I think about sound, about authenticity. I think about big things, like how developing a student’s authentic writing voice is perhaps one of the most important things to me as a teacher. How teaching voice can be difficult.

Q2: Do you teach voice? What kind of things do you do? If not, why?

I haven’t taught voice in any sort of formal/successful way before. I know that this upcoming year I’m going to tackle the idea of voice by using different authors who have distinct styles. Then, true to the Jeff Anderson method, we’re all going to practice mimicking various authors’ styles. What makes them unique? What makes them idiosyncratic? After this analysis and emulation, then we will begin talking about their writing voice. The way they speak on the page (which isn’t necessarily the way they speak in “real life.”) 

We share out what we think. Hard to teach. Teasing it out. The magic dust of life and personality, the words they use, the tones they conjure, We teach it by tying it to audience and purpose. That there’s more than just a singular voice. Voice can be contextual. Writing to a bully, a grandma, a higher being. Shifting audience to force the change in voice. Taught a lot in the primary grades, that voice comes more naturally to children. We talk about the dangerous dichotomy for writers of feeling like “I can write like myself” or “I can be correct.” We discuss how the language of “ALL WRITING MUST BE IN COMPLETE SENTENCES” can go against teaching voice. We say teaching voice can be a good way to talk about fragments and clauses and phrases and sentences. Multi-voice. The difficulty of “taking the I out,” says a teacher. This makes me think about, again, Maja Wilson. Wilson cautions against barring the use of “I” in formal writing, that the personal has seeped into all but the most erudite of writing.

Let’s get into it!

Style and Pizza

Mark wants to talk to us as both writers and as teachers of writers. He gives us a sheet with three paragraphs. What could we say about the speaker based on just the paragraph?

3 Par

We read the first paragraph. What can we say based on it? He’s a teenager. He’s cynical (mocking the reader, believing he knows what the reader wants, and refusing to do it). He is intelligent and at least somewhat well-read (the Copperfield stuff). Conflicted (hating the parents but also saying ‘they’re alright’). He feels aggressive. We talk tone (the speaker’s attitude towards things). Tone as the attitude behind the voice. This involves some close-reading, btw. Some real parsing of language. Love it!

Voice can be personality, attitude, structure. What is told to the reader? What is left out?

“This is not a happy story. I warn you.” -Great Falls by Richard Ford – So this sentence suggests perhaps a lack of warmth (short, staccato sentences), or maybe protective (trying to keep the reader safe from what it is they’re about to dive into) Does this voice have an agenda? What do you choose to tell? When do you choose to tell it? What are the expectations they believe are in the writing? Age? Background? Education? Culture? Economic situation? All of these things enter into who someone is as a speaker.

Voice Questions to Ask Yourself
1. What is being said?
2. Who is saying it?
3. Who is being spoken to?
4. How is it being said?

Q3: Here we pause to do some writing. Think of an experience you’ve had at any time of your life when you behaved in a way that might be described as “reckless” or “risque,” but might also be described as “fun.” Imagine you’re writing a letter to your closest friend in the world. They know you did something but not exactly what you did. Tell them about it in a letter.

Dear Mike, 

As anyone who’s spoken with me lately knows, I recently de-graded my class. I threw out all the grades (except the one that the county requires). I did it in my trademark, hap-hazard way, with seemingly minimal planning and foresight. I just sort of woke up one day and decided that I had to do it. That the students would make a portfolio that would lead them to come up with their own final grade. To others this probably doesn’t seem that reckless. To me it was a pants-shittingly terrifying experience. In my mind, I was willfully uncoupling myself from what every other adult in the building did. I didn’t really tell admin or parents; I just sort of did it. I wanted to see what it was like without submitting the process to the painstaking slowness and conservatism of the school bureaucracy. 

Q4: OK, now tell the same story to someone you want to protect. Think parents, grandparents. They heard that I did something, but they don’t know what. 

Dear Mom, 

Just wanted to let you know that I’ve been experimenting with some different methods in my English class. I’ve been reading a lot of progressive thinkers, and I think I’ve caught the progressive bug. I made up my mind to de-grade my class. I don’t want you to think I jumped into this willy-nilly. I planned it out over a series of months, removing various academic structures every two weeks.

Then we talk about the differences. Sentences to my mom had a bit more professionalism to them. I was coming from a place of wanting to neutralize any fears or concerns my mom might have about her son making such a bone-headed move. When he isn’t even tenured.

So, how did audience affect the writing?

Audience Q

I really like thinking about this notion that the audience expects certain things of the speaker, and that as the writer you have the power to decide how you’ll deal with those audience expectations. Also a little side thought here about how students have to navigate a landscape of shifting audiences when traveling from class to class throughout their average school day.

Part II: The Voice of the Writer

Mark talks to us about how we often see voice as a binary entity. A one true voice vs. absence. Mark says we have many voices. Consider: teacher voice, angry teacher voice, child voice, friend voice, a stranger voice. Voice is chosen. It represents a part of you. Like code-switching. We have many voices.

The way you feel may be at odds with the way your persona / mask / chosen self needs to feel when writing this piece. The way you feel toward one aspect subject, form, writer, style, may be creating an obstacle for writing the piece. Voice reveals. Revealing can be risky.

Exercise: Begin by making a list.

Write quickly and add as many things as you can think of that finish the sentence: “I am a/n ___________”. This should draw from your multiple selves. Look for some of the provocative ways to answer it. 

-a fledgling teacher
-a mass of sweat and nerve
-an uprooted stem looking for fertile soil
-a reservoir of absence

Now, pick a term from your list that would engender some sort of “tell me more” response in the reader. Then write one paragraph where you begin with that one sentence and elaborate on it. What does that self I’m speaking with feel about the subject? 

I am a reservoir of absence. A capacious urn built to be topped off. A blackhole of want caught in an endless cycle of consumption (I am obviously not in a great mood today). 

The stuff people share out is so good. You could feel the different tone and the different voices in the chunks everyone reads. Mark gives a plug here for creating a room where everyone feels safe to speak from a voice of vulnerability.

Now think of an image or a photograph of someone you have or have had a relationship with. The image or photo must be from a time in the past – at least five years ago. Think about this image or photo as pinning this person to a specific place and time, and you want to capture that person that person at that exact point in time (there may be other times when you’ve known that person). Think about what your feelings are when you think about that person at that time. How do you want the reader to feel about the person? About you? 

I’ll always remember watching television with my mom while I was in high school. Just the two of us. ACK didn’t get time to finish this! 

(These exercises, btw, make for amazing prewriting).

Break time!