Is Your Student’s Storytelling Engine Stalling?
By Tineke Bryson, Staff Writer
There are many reasons why young writers stall. And it’s hard to watch, as a parent and teacher. What do you do when your son or daughter loses momentum with The One Year Adventure Novel course? The grind to a standstill can come as a shock given all the raving reviews about the program’s popularity with teen writers.
Is it the course? a parent may wonder. Maybe its approach to writing is too structured for my son? Too advanced? Or is this a sign that writing isn’t really in his future? Yet before starting the course, he LOVED to write. Where did that passion go?
All homeschool parents have the experience of buying highly-recommended curriculum that somehow flops for their student. And these parents are the first to tell me that it’s because “Every student is different.” That’s true. There could be a good reason to press pause on OYAN. If you tried it early, for example, you may have a student who is overwhelmed by a workload intended for someone older.
But before you give your student permission to stop The One Year Adventure Novel—or “OYAN” for short—it’s important to know that “stalling” is a universal experience for writers. There’s an overused handle for some form of it, after all: writer’s block.
If we allow the student to give up on OYAN without exploring this with them, we could be giving them an out just when they are on the cusp of significant growth.
A year ago, I wrote Hearing the Questions beneath Your Writer’s Frustration, exploring the deeply emotional reasons why a young writer may feel discouraged. Today’s post is less emotional in focus. It covers three common reasons why a storyteller’s creative engine will sputter out. Personality does impact how young writers experience OYAN. Some respond to learning the secrets of novel structure and technique with relief, pleased to finally “know the rules.” Others find some of these same discoveries irritating; the boundaries get under their skin.
Lots of gifted writers are perfectionists. For some of them, the seeming perfection they found in the books they read was what originally inspired them to write. Perfectionists are often high-achievers, their writing skills quite advanced. That potential is awesome, but being a perfectionist and a high achiever is a powerful combo with some painful risks. Some of the most gifted writers I know write much less than more average writers. Sometimes their fear of falling short of what they could write if they were in top form prevents them from writing anything.
Praise is no remedy for this type of student. The more you try to persuade your young writer that they are wonderfully gifted, wonderfully capable, the worse your student will probably feel. What you intend as encouragement will often feel to them like added pressure. The remedy is to focus on excellence, not perfection—or, to put it another way: faithfulness.
God does not require perfection from us; he doesn’t even require that we excel beyond other people’s abilities. He asks us to be faithful and to receive our writing ability as a gift, not a burden. (See The Burden of Purpose: When You’re Haunted by Your Creative Gift.) In truth, your student desperately needs the confidence and stability they will gain when they see the view from the other side of a less-than-perfect achievement. If storytelling is important to your student, it would be very sad for their OYAN novel to end up on the pile of “Dreams I Gave Up before I Could Fail at Them.”
Idealism is related to perfectionism. Writers are often sensitive to ideals and beauty—think of Anne of Green Gables, a perfectionistic would-be writer who thrilled to ideals. We probably also know perfectionists with a cynical outlook—a mask for their disappointed idealism.
But idealism doesn’t always translate to high standards. It can be confusing as a teacher or parent. The student who is starry-eyed about the idea of writing a novel may make the least effort. These students love to think about writing their stories, and often come up with great ideas, but the ideas aren’t a means to an end for them. They are the end—they really enjoy the beautiful ideal of the possible novel inside them. Some of them would like to leave that ideal undisturbed.
In one sense, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. We don’t have a moral obligation to write novels! For some students, their aspiration to be a novelist doesn’t go very deep. It will soon be superseded by other ambitions. Other students already know they don’t want to be writers. And that’s fine.
But idealists do need to learn follow-through. They also need to see that grand plans in their imagination aren’t as effective as precise plans on paper. While you might have that rare student who will follow through once they finally hit on the “right” big idea, most idealists need to learn that even the ordinary world—and by extension, the ordinary work of planning and writing a draft—is meaningful and beautiful. Hard work is a beautiful ideal.
It can help to ask the student to think of their OYAN novel as distinct from the idealized novel inside them that is waiting to come forth. This is a practice run, to prepare them to someday write that amazing story percolating inside their minds. Truth be told, every OYAN novel is a practice run, because that’s what first drafts are!
3. Testing Boundaries
There are also OYAN students whose storytelling engines cough to a stop because they chafe under the guidelines. For some of them, OYAN is their first experience of any kind of creative boundaries. If their creative writing until now has been purely a hobby, or an undertaking without constructive criticism, OYAN can come as a shock. Creating can be thrilling. It can transport us. It’s a rude awakening to learn that succeeding as a writer requires putting in time when you don’t feel like writing. It can also come as an affront to find out that you have so much to learn—that your passion and aptitude aren’t already enough.
The more prior writing experience this type of student has, the more likely they are to argue that the guidelines shouldn’t apply to them. They will often pour so much energy into testing the boundaries that it becomes a distraction from the opportunity OYAN offers them: to learn novel writing as a craft.
Sure there are exceptions to every rule, every technique, but if you want to master your craft, don’t you want to know what the rules and techniques are, first?
It’s an expansion of “Why do I have to use sentences when there are famous writers who use fragments?” and its many variations. Whether your student wants to die on the hill of third-person point-of-view or the adverbs mountain range, the energy they invest in the battle will likely blind them to the true danger: losing sight of the end goal of growing as a writer.
Don’t let your writer convince you that they are “too good” for the course. That’s simply not true, though it may well feel true to the student.
We empathize with these students. It’s hard to wrestle through story decisions. It’s sometimes okay for a young writer to refuse our advice. They are allowed to learn the hard way. But it’s our responsibility to give young writers the very best chance of succeeding, and the guidelines are our way of doing that.
As you talk to your disoriented and boundary-testing young writer, you may want to compromise. We would rather, for example, that your daughter write a novel with an elderly protagonist (versus one roughly her own age) than not write a novel at all. She will still learn a lot from the experience. But encourage her to give some of the other guidelines a fair chance. Disregarding all of them may not go well, and would rob her of the helpful experience of considering new ideas.
It’s uncomfortable to be in the position of pushing your young writer—the role of champion or cheerleader may come more naturally. But no matter how eloquently “Mr. S.” makes the case for certain Story principles or writing habits, a video instructor can’t look you in the eyes in person and tell you not to give up. The breakthrough your student could experience if they called roadside assistance and got back on the road is significant. We have heard too many breakthrough stories to quickly support a decision to quit. They probably don’t need a new storytelling engine; they may just need some fuel and a bit of a push.
There are other reasons why students stall. If your student has lost momentum, I would love to read your insights!
If you’re reading this as an OYAN student, have you ever stalled out on a story, but found the determination to push through? What strategies helped you to persist?
Tineke Bryson (Honors in Writing, Houghton College) lives in the very center of a pretty complicated Venn diagram, right where fiction and nonfiction, creating and editing, and North American, European, and West African culture meet. Tineke grew up abroad, and before joining The One Year Adventure Novel, she worked as an editor.
She and her husband live in Lawrence, Kansas. She loves British and African history, reading middle-grade fiction and YA fantasy, and collecting moths.