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Real hurdles along rough path of fictional steeplechase
“Master the art of letting the first draft suck.” These are the words spoken by a classmate in my Advanced Fiction Writing class.
As part of the fiction writing major for the Bachelor of Arts degree, you can take Advanced Fiction Writing three times. That is, after Fiction I, Fiction II and Prose Forms, which focuses more on writing nonfiction stories.
Now a second-year undergraduate, I am taking my first advanced fiction course for this degree, and we have embarked on what is called the Steeplechase. On March 31, we will be turning in the first draft of a full movement. For me, this is something that flows and can stand on its own without needing 200-300 pages. But during any of my drafts, I’m always afraid to take my classmate’s advice and let my work suck.
Sitting in the perfectly formed semi-circle in a regular classroom, when we start writing, our professors encourage us not to stop. “Just keep going,” they say. During this activity, I have yet to break the mode of reading what I have so far to make changes. It was the same with our very first attempt of the Steeplechase activity.
According to Dictionary.com, a steeplechase is “a foot race run on a cross-country course or over a course having obstacles, such as ditches, hurdles or the like, which the runners must clear.”
In the Fiction Writing Department, the Steeplechase is a demanding, 12-step activity very similar to this definition. We are the runners, but instead of our feet, our fingers dart across the keyboard or push our pen on paper. The obstacles can include the temptation to stop and edit what’s written so far. Others that could stand in our way are decisions we must make in our work, such as what to keep or cut to make a full movement, and what descriptions are important.
Self-censorship can be a hurdle too, whether it deals with subject matter or simple language. The list of hurdles we jump could probably fill pages upon pages.
Before beginning the Steeplechase, we picked material we’ve been working on for some time; material we’re passionate about. It may be part of a short story collection or something bigger—a novel. Some started fresh with characters who have been lingering in their heads. Other gutsy people in my class started stories from scratch that will probably fit into one of the previous categories when completed.
Going for at least two pages per step, the process kicks our butts. But the Steeplechase allows us to play around with a shifting point of view, using first person, third person and overall storyteller. We also work with forms introduced in Fiction I, such as the letter, story-within-a-story, folktale and model telling (which tells how one thing usually happens and something else comes in to disrupt that routine).
The dialogue form is also weaved into the activity. In prose (using loads of quotation marks), script or a play, you focus less on description and more on getting who your characters are across the page, as well as explaining their relationships through vocal and physical interaction.
The most interesting part in the Steeplechase is the “switch mode of reality” step, where you go from realism to a dream-like scene, or vice versa.
Something some of us dreaded in Fiction II plays a part too—the parody. We mimic another writer’s form or style, or contemporary forms like Facebook status updates or a police report.
I’m working with a story I’ve thought about since I was 16. I’ve attempted to start it many different times, in various ways. However, I’ve always been dissatisfied with each of my beginnings. The Steeplechase is a way to force us to stop thinking about a story and finally put it to page.
While we turn in our first draft of the many drafts to come, I remember the advice author James Ellroy gave me during his visit to Chicago in September 2009: “Write the best you can.”