By Mark Alpert
My wife is a can-do person. Although Covid-19 is again spreading unchecked across the nation, and America is suffering from its worst economic debacle since the Great Depression, the crisis hasn’t dented her spirit. In just the past two months she’s launched a new nonprofit that’s educating and entertaining New York City kids who have been isolated by the resurgent pandemic.
The organization is called Summer in the City, and two weeks ago it began to offer dozens of free online classes in art, music, theater, dance, and writing to public-school students in NYC. And because I always try to be helpful to my wife (well, not always, but pretty often), I agreed to teach one of the classes aimed at teenagers: Writing Science Fiction. My description of the class in the online course catalog (which you can peruse here) includes the tagline, “You probably feel like you’re already living in a science-fiction dystopia right now, so why not write about it?”
I’ve talked about fiction writing with students many times over the past decade, in Skype chats with school book clubs and in person at school auditoriums, but until now I’ve never taught a class with scheduled meetings (every Tuesday and Thursday at 2 pm) and weekly assignments. The experience has made me wonder which particular pieces of writing instruction are most helpful to beginning writers. It’s also given me some insight into the difficulties that many teachers are confronting while trying to teach on Zoom and the other online platforms.
The best thing about Zoom is that I don’t have to commute anywhere. I teach the class from the comfort of my living-room couch, with a mug of coffee within easy reach on the coffee table. I also benefit from the fact that these NYC students used Zoom for all their regular public-school classes from March to June, so they’re all very familiar with how the online platform works. For instance, they swiftly mute their microphones when they aren’t speaking to the rest of the class, which greatly reduces the problems with background noise. Furthermore, back in March the city’s Department of Education provided free iPads and wireless Internet access to all students who lacked their own computers and Wi-fi connections, so low-income students can enroll in my class just as easily as wealthy students can.
I have another advantage that many teachers would love to have: I’ve limited the enrollment for my class, and only six to nine students attend each session. This makes it much easier to give every student a chance to contribute. At the start of each session I ask the kids, one by one, to read aloud the three or four paragraphs of fiction that I previously assigned them to compose. I listen carefully to each passage, then deliver my comments, my off-the-cuff reactions to what they’d written. Then I ask if any other students would like to comment on the passage, and usually one or two kids will offer some praise or suggestions for improvement.
This process usually takes about 30 minutes, or half the hour-long session. I then spend the next 30 minutes giving the lesson for the day. During the first class, for instance, I discussed how to write a great opening paragraph. I told the students that the first paragraph is by far the most important part of any short story or novel, because readers won’t continue to the rest of the story if the opening sentences don’t grab their attention. I gave them tips for making the first paragraph more compelling: start at a moment of great drama, start with a really engaging narrative voice, start with a hint of mystery that makes the reader ask questions and want to know more. And I gave them examples of great openings written by masterful authors such as Neil Gaiman, Frank Herbert, Douglas Adams, Ernest Hemingway, and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
At the end of the class, I assigned the students to write an opening paragraph — a minimum of one sentence, a maximum of five — and be prepared to read it out loud during the next session. And I was very pleased with the results. Here’s an opener that one of the students read aloud: “These are the two most important days in your life: the day you’re born, and the day you find out why you were born.” It’s fantastic, right? I told my 20-year-old son Tommy (via text message) about this student’s opening sentence, and he responded with a single-word text: “Damn.” I replied, “Right? Either I’m a great teacher, or this kid is a naturally great writer.” To which my son replied, “Probably the latter.”
Another assignment was to introduce a really interesting villain in just a few paragraphs. I urged the students to avoid the standard stereotype of an irredeemable evildoer who delights in talking at length about his or her dastardly plans (which is also called monologuing or mustache-twirling). In reality, the great majority of villains don’t do evil for evil’s sake; on the contrary, they usually think what they’re doing is right. Maybe the villain has been terribly hurt somehow and feels that he or she fully deserves to exact a brutal revenge. Or maybe the villain is convinced that everyone else is hopelessly corrupt or incompetent, and therefore he or she is justified in seizing control and pursuing his or her goals by any means necessary. In other words, even the worst villains often see themselves as heroes.
The students excelled at this assignment too. One of them read a passage that featured a father who comes home to his apartment carrying a mysterious box from a medical-supply company. The father hears the sound of sobs coming from his son’s bedroom, and he rushes inside to see his six-year-old staring at the floor. The boy is focused on a half-dead bug that’s making a futile attempt to limp its way to safety. He explains to his father that he accidentally stepped on the bug and doesn’t know what to do now. The father kneels beside his son and asks, “What do you think we should do?” The boy says, “Take it to the vet?” The father shakes his head sadly and says veterinarians only treat pets, and the bug isn’t a pet. What’s more, the bug is so badly hurt that no vet could save it. But if they do nothing, the father adds, the bug will spend hours in horrible pain before dying, so they need to put it out of its misery right now. Then the father nudges his son forward and says, “Do the right thing. Finish what you started.”
So the boy squashes the bug. But wait, it gets worse! The father opens the mysterious box that he brought home and takes out a syringe. The son asks, “What’s that?” and the father replies, “I have to do the right thing too. I have to finish what I started.” The son says, “You’re going to kill a bug?” and the father says, “No, not exactly.”
Super creepy! I loved it.
During last Thursday’s lesson, I talked about different kinds of narrative point-of-view: first-person POV, third-person limited, third-person omniscient, etc. Then I assigned the students to write a two-character scene in two different ways, first from one character’s point of view and then from the other’s. (They’re free to choose either first-person POV or third-person limited.) I stipulated that the characters are time travelers, and the scene must start as soon as they step out of their time machine, but the students are free to choose any period of history, past or future, in which to set the scene. So the characters can travel back to Lincoln’s assassination or the Roman Empire or even the Age of the Dinosaurs, or they can travel forward to some distant future epoch.
What’s more, I specified the types of characters for this scene. I told the students that one of the characters should be a scientist, a levelheaded cautious type who’s careful with his words, a curious researcher who values evidence and precision. The other character should be more hotheaded and freewheeling, an impulsive non-scientist who sometimes goes off without too much thinking. I considered offering the examples of Mr. Spock and Captain Kirk, but I wasn’t sure if today’s teens would be as intimately familiar with Star Trek as I am. So instead I called the assignment, “Adventures in Time Travel with Dr. Fauci and President Trump.”
I’m looking forward to seeing what the students come up with.