Tuesday, April 19, 2016

New forms of storytelling 2

More thoughts on teaching flash fiction
After introducing students to flash fiction, how can you help them write their own? 
The first thing I would do is discuss the differences between, say novels and short stories and the considerations writers need to take in each. For example, one area might be eliminating unnecessary information or making sure details push the plot forward. Perhaps a simple wiki page could be used for students to systematically delete these excess details in class and outside. This is not the most creative idea but I mention it to highlight the simple advantages of editing functions in digital environments over paper. 

For more considerations, a quick google search brings up a whole variety of advice like this https://litreactor.com/columns/storyville-how-to-write-flash-fiction or this http://flashfictiononline.com/main/2015/04/thirteen-tips-for-writing-flash-fiction/ , but quite a lot of it is conflicting. So rather than ask questions or impose one way of writing flash fiction it might be a nice idea to get your students to come up with advice for each other. Students could do some research online and come to their own conclusions, or perhaps their own top ten tips. This could be followed by a pyramid discussion, where groups combine and reduce the number of tips until they agree on a top 5 list.

From choose your own adventure to interactive fiction
In my last post I used the terms 'choose your own adventure' and 'interactive fiction' interchangeably but now I've come to realise that a distinction needs to be made. As far as I understand it, choose your own adventure stories have their roots in children's books in the early eighties. At the end of each page or chapter the reader is presented with choices and corresponding page numbers. Interactive fiction (IF), on the other hand, comes from text based digital environments where the reader/player uses commands to explore and solve puzzles. 
A couple of weeks ago I mentioned a piece of interactive fiction called Playspent and the way it uses point of view to develop empathy in the reader/player. I recently tried another story called Lifeline, which has a similar effect. In Lifeline you receive messages from a stranded astronaut and help him/her survive. Messages arrive over a couple of days to add to the realism and you engage in a kind of conversation as the astronaut describes the situations. This approach allows for more linguistic complexity than the standard present tense 2nd person perspective of most adventure stories. The astronaut acts as narrator and can therefore vary tenses to reveal backstory elements. But what I really like is the way you interact with the story and the character, giving advice or choosing supportive or motivational comments. I killed the astronaut a couple of times before getting to a happy ending. https://itunes.apple.com/en/app/lifeline.../id982354972?mt=8


New forms of storytelling

After working on a creative writing project recently, there have been two text types related to technology that have caught my attention; Flash fiction and choose your own adventure/interactive story telling.
Flash fiction
The thing I like about flash fiction is the fact that your students can read from their phones. This means it's easy to use in class and might get them reading extensively. I tried some out ad hoc last week by pulling out the titles and doing a prediction exercise, then getting them to read different stories and report on what they had read and if they liked it. Now, I've asked them to write their own flash fiction and post it on our class wiki. Not quite sure where it will go but I will definitely get them to engage in peer-support/guidance to upgrade their language and develop effective creative writing techniques.
Interactive fiction
However, my main love is interactive stories, which I have already experimented with a bit with my classes. I love the idea of developing elements of collaborative gamification in my lessons through these types of text. Earlier this year, I got my students to storyboard on a poster and provide multiple paths with little paper flaps hiding the next part. They then tried their stories out on other groups. It could have easily been done with ppts, youtube videos using audio/video though.
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Image source: https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7415/10675839115_b265ea8369_b.jpg
There are lots of examples online where you are given a picture and you have to suggest what the character should do, the author then writes accordingly, or interactive stories where you can add your own ending. My original interest came from an activity I did at primary school withZORK. After playing the text based adventure game we mapped out the story and made a 'real' physical representation of the game with students acting as narrators at the story branches/nodes. Pretty cool for the 80s! Then last year I came across the Chad mat and rob youtube channel https://www.youtube.com/user/chadmattandrob. However, there isn't much linguistic complexity going on here, and a lot of shooting. It's funny though. Then I was introduced to this blog https://digitalalternatives.wordpress.com/ which led me to http://playspent.org/ . Spent combines story telling and gamification with social-awareness and fund raising. I suppose this is a type of serious gaming experience. I found the story quite depressing and got a bit freaked out when it suggested I ask a friend on Facebook for financial help. However, it's quite exciting to see the way storytelling, gaming and social media can be combined as the image below depicts.
Developing linguistically
In this story you are the main character, which is interesting and possibly engaging, but it does limit most of the narrative to present tense. In some ways the use of multi-media for storytelling might limit linguistic expression  but it can also help with generating ideas and getting the ball rolling. I would like to try first using images, and then taking them away. This would help students get over the initial stumbling block then force(encourage) them to develop their text linguistically to make up for the subsequent lack of visuals. They could then re-introduce the images, of course. Just getting over writer's block or starting is difficult for a lot of writers, perhaps even more in L2, so anything that can help here is well worth it, even if it does initially act as a crutch and lead to more simplistic language. Once the bare bones of the story are there you can analyse the different aspects and gradually up-grade it through peer/teacher-support/guidance.
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Featured image: https://c1.staticflickr.com/5/4150/4965977998_44b2e8af64.jpg
Adventure time Image source: https://c2.staticflickr.com/8/7415/10675839115_b265ea8369_b.jpg

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Some reflections on the course

Writing the third/final draft

While writing possibly the last version of my story I tried to focus on two areas that were brought up in the second workshop; providing an epiphany and anchoring the story around the main character through point of view and zooming. In fact, in the end these two areas went hand in hand and helped to resolve each other. I will start by explaining changes to point of view and zooming.

When I look back on my first draft I can see what a disaster it was in terms of point of view. I kept changing from first to third person and back to create distance rather than using the main character's observations and leaving the reader to infer the meaning of those observations. The most difficult part for me to change was the shift from the perception of the virtual world to the reality of the teenager's bedroom. In the first draft I used omnipresence and in the second draft I used another character (the mother). However, in this way I created more gaps for the reader to fill and perhaps ended up telling rather than showing. In the bedroom scene in the third draft I tried to use the teenager's shadow to zoom out from his perception to the reality and linked each observation to the next until I reached the top of the wardrobe and the photo that looked back at the teenager from a distance.

An Epiphany
In order to develop an epiphany for the main character I needed to make it clear that he had understood the reality of his father's death. This had not been achieved in the first or second draft due to the switch in character from protagonist to drone pilot and rather weak link in the words 'three years ago'. I had to find a way to tell the story of the pilot without going into her mind. Again, I tried to use the visual aspects of the drone, as seen by the main character, to provide information about the pilot and invoke an epiphany.

The Theme
I also needed to change the ending slightly from fighting in a war to drug dealing to link the ideas and context together and create a more feasible form of changelessness for the protagonist. I tried to incorporate suggestions to use the word 'click' to create a theme through the story. In fact, I changed the title, had the main character turn his mum off with a 'click' and finished the story with a 'click' of acceptance.

The Workshops

Peers and constructive criticism
I can definitely see how peer suggestions/corrections from the workshops have helped me develop as a creative writer. And there's still a long way to go... It isn't always easy to come back to your story and rewrite it though. Sadly, very often with my students there is just one draft that gets corrected by me and never seen again. I have experimented with peer corrections/suggestions but never asked my students to rewrite their text.

Another thing I found difficult was constructively criticising other people's stories. I'm not sure if this is because I consider myself very much a layperson in this department and didn't know what to say or because I didn't want to offend anyone. That said, my peers also seemed hesitant to express their opinions on each other's stories, perhaps this was due to similar feelings. We might have also had difficulty in feedback due to the synchronous CMC environment in which the workshops took place (adobe connect). issues such as not being able to read facial expressions and delayed audio for turn-taking might have made it more difficult to make a personal connection and develop trust. We had the opportunity to give asynchronous CMC feedback in the blogs but I personally felt a little bit restricted by the public nature of the blogs. One way to get around this might be to use a private space specifically for asynchronous feedback which could be referred to in the workshop.

Back to my F2F context, I think it might be useful for students to have specific areas to concentrate on and perhaps a set number of good and bad points to mention. It would also be a good idea to divide my classes up into smaller groups of three or four to avoid excessive reading loads.

The Future

I'm not sure if I will continue to write stories but I will definitely continue to blog and encourage my students to do the same. I have found engaging in a kind of 'self talk' through blogs to be very useful for reflecting on my learning, whether it be for creative writing or some other endeavour. I might find more enthusiasm for creative writing if I explore the idea of multimedia or trans-media story telling, especially in the form of a choose your own adventure or computer game. I think there is a huge difference between creating a story with images or video and one with text alone. In fact, what was interesting about the workshops was the fact that each reader interpreted the story in different ways. It seems that if you really want to communicate a specific idea you need to be very skilful with your words so that the readers are led to perceive the gaps in the way you intended. On the one hand, the use of images can act as a crutch for less confident writers but on the other it might offer less opportunities for linguistic development in L2. Looking back at my three drafts, I think I definitely used the technology as a crutch to begin with, took it away in the second draft and then reintroduced minimal use of images in the third draft. This might also work with my classes as a way of using digital technologies to overcome writer's block or blank page syndrome.