Posts Tagged student writers

Hey, Let’s Build a World!

When I was in the fifth grade, my teacher frowned on all fantasy books that hadn’t been written by Natalie Babbitt. We read Tuck Everlasting and The Search for Delicious, which were certainly fantastic, but failed to provide a full grounding in the fantasy genre.

This month, my daughter started a unit on fantasy stories in her fifth-grade class, with an integrated curriculum of reading, writing, and analysis. 2019 might have its problems but this, at least, is an enormous step forward. I take this educational unit as a sign of the inroads of respectability the genre has made. And, of course, the great service J.K. Rowling has done for our society.

Pulling fantasy from shadows shines a spotlight, especially, onto the skill of worldbuilding, the construction of convincingly functional settings in which a story can unfold. Although most vital for fantasy, science fiction, and horror, proper worldbuilding provides a canvas that any story can hang upon.

Proper worldbuilding addresses the unseen 90% of the story world that never makes it into a book, the part that hangs below the surface like the bulk of an iceberg, but which has to exist in an author’s mind in order to make the other 10% feel like it’s happening in an actual place.

When setting a story on an alien planet, or on an altered version of our own world, or in a fantasy land with its own laws of physics, I’ve tended to make up the details as I went along. Random bits of geography, weather, culture, history, architecture, cuisine, fashion, governments, and organizations all hung out in my head, on a scribbled map, and in a jumbled file of digital notes. I called this process worldbuilding, once I eventually heard the term, and my stories usually felt like they were set somewhere. But if readers looked too closely, they could see the rivets of a shoddily constructed facade.

Then I had a revelation that my story, set in a specific time and place, with an alternate culture, a huge cast of characters, and a deep mythology, would require more worldbuilding than I could carry in my head.

My second revelation was that there were specialized worldbuilding tools available that nobody had ever told me about.

My third revelation was that there are active communities of worldbuilders who put a whole lot of time and effort into exploring the strange new worlds that they’ve made up themselves. Some of these worldbuilders build their worlds to support a writing project. Some build their worlds to support tabletop role-playing game campaigns. And, most amazingly to me, some build their worlds just for the fun and challenge of it all!

And it is fun. And it is challenging. And it does get your puzzle-solving mind to wander off in all sorts of interesting directions. And it requires a bit of discipline remain focused on just the necessary parts of a constructed world, and to avoid the excessive breadth and depth they refer to as “Worldbuilder’s Disease.”

So I got myself into worldbuilding. I got my fifth grader into worldbuilding. She got her teacher into worldbuilding. And now their whole class is worldbuilding!

If you care to join us, here are some resources to get you started, or to help you guide your own class of worldbuilding students:

World Anvil

I can’t recommend World Anvil highly enough as a platform for developing and organizing notes on worldbuilding. It’s a wiki-type system where users build a Wikipedia style encyclopedia of people, places, and things in their story worlds. Like Wikipedia, these articles can be organized into categories and can reference each other with links. Even better than Wikipedia, for worldbuilding purposes, there are templates that help in eliciting and developing ideas in greater depth. The free version is quite usable, and premium versions offer more presentation options, storage space, and access control.

Worldbuilding Magazine

Now into its third volume of publishing six issues per year, Worldbuilding Magazine and its archives are free online. Each issue focuses on a different theme and its relevance to the development of an imaginary world. The most recent at this writing is “Death and Taxes,” but previous issues have explored the worldbuilding aspects of Magic, Food, Government, History, and other useful topics.

Worldbuilding Books

Tops on my list to read is Collaborative Worldbuilding by Trent Hergenrader, who teaches worldbuilding co-creation as part of his classes in creative writing at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Worldbuilding on Social Media

Worldbuilder’s Sanctum is a Facebook group that skews toward tabletop role-play designers and game masters, but includes are many resources and discussions of value to authors as well.

Worldbuilding on YouTube

Worldbuilding Software

If you need a map to visualize your world, Wonderdraft is a specialized graphics program that makes it quick and easy to create some very nice looking maps in a variety of styles.

My Newsletter

Plug, plug! I’m starting a newsletter focused on my writing and worldbuilding, with instructive examples of how the one helps with the other. The first issue comes out next month, but the subscriptions page is live right now!

Other Resources?

Do you have any resources you like to use to help develop, visualize, or organize your story worlds? Share them in the comments!

The Limitless Middle Grade Imagination: Ideas for Encouraging Students’ Fiction

Intro with thesis, three main points, conclusion with cap.

The traditional five-paragraph essay format is one of those topics I’ve been teaching for… let’s just say a lot of years. Valuable and necessary, it’s a handy tool in the toolbox for middle grade students. It helps to structure and organize weighty and mature thoughts into real and powerful language on the page. Students learn to let this formula work for them, the way you let the weight of a hammer do the work of driving the nail. I love the five-paragraph structure for its simplicity and efficiency, and for the way it prompts students to write without worry.

And sometimes, I cheerfully throw it out the window.

Middle grade students — whether in a traditional classroom, a non-traditional environment, homeschool, or virtual learning setting — have vast potential as writers…all sorts of writers. At times, the taming of their wild ideas with that five-paragraph structure is appropriate, but kids in this age group can also bring fierce creativity to writing jobs as seemingly limiting as vocab sentences, and that talent should be given room to grow. And then there’s the untapped storyteller inside many a middle grade student, who needs only a bit of encouragement, a cool assignment idea, and permission from the teacher, librarian, or homeschooling parent to Go ahead…make it up. Forget the 6- to 8-sentence paragraphs that must support your thesis. Don’t dare tame ideas into any kind of structure. Let the tale-spinning begin—and set it free to roam the dark woods and swamps, the castle hallways strewn with trapdoors, the hidden monster-lairs on distant planets.

The freedom of fiction writing in the classroom has just as many (and in some cases, more) educational benefits as learning proper, formal sentence and paragraph structure. This is true at any grade level, but middle grade fiction freedom is especially important. Fiction writing projects

  • Work the imagination–not the handy gadgets and devices.
  • Bring out new talents and skills at a crucial identity-building age.
  • Allow independent, personalized work and countless project options for a variety of types of learners.
  • Can be shared in whole or in part, or in nutshell summations of premises — tasks which offer practice at additional skills.
  • Inspire many middle grade students to read more, inside and outside of the classroom.

Fiction writing projects don’t have to be limited to the classroom. Teachers and librarians might consider the following suggestions for school hours, but parents and after-school group leaders seeking enrichment projects for their middle graders might find them helpful as well.

The Historical Premise: Middle grade writers create a plot scenario with conflict and characters based on a historical setting, time period, and event.

The Character Blueprint: Writers “map” out characteristics for a character unlike any they’ve read, detailing physical and personality traits, likes, dislikes, goals, dreams, family, home, daily life.

The Conflict-driven Plot Scenario: Writers compose short situations that “up” the conflict with each new line: But the next day…suddenly…just then…unfortunately…

The Look-Alike: Writers use already-created characters — perhaps from a shared class read — and send them down unfamiliar roads of conflict, or place them in a conflict from a different novel they’ve studied.

The Choose Your Tale-teller: Writers select a format that suits their story idea best: illustrated picture book, graphic novel, comic book, story in verse.

Remember that in order to truly encourage the creativity that comes with fiction writing, teachers, parents, and librarians might have to rethink traditional lesson planning and writing “rules.” Here are some ideas for inspiring your middle graders as they create fiction.

  • Don’t go with your first idea…dig deeper. Reject that which comes too easily.
  • Don’t worry about a beginning or an end. Start in medias res and stop when you want.
  • Try creating only the premise of a story – without the overwhelming work of writing the actual story.
  • Write a detailed beginning full of mystery and sense imagery, then stop. Write another full of opposite choices to the first (night instead of day, freezing instead of sunny), then choose one to continue.
  • Write a whole scene of dialogue, without narration. Use dialect, jargon, fragments, idioms.
  • Write only a one-page real-time scene (or half a page, or two pages, etc.), without worrying about descriptions and set-up.
  • Write from the point of view of an animal or a plant, or a rock or a wall.
  • Design a character, and write unrelated scenes featuring him or her in different genres.

With fiction writing, the options for learning by doing about literature and storytelling are endless: Plot. Character. Imagery. Genre. Dialogue. Theme. Excellent practice opportunities for mechanics, vocabulary, syntax, and a host of other communication skills come into play in the revision stages, as well.

But best of all, a student has made a piece of something that was not there before, and with these new creations almost certainly come sparks of continued inspiration.

Thanks for reading and good luck to your middle grade-aged writers!