For the third summer in a row, I’m teaching at the Young Writers Institute in Pittsburgh, a day camp for grade school and high school students who have elected to spend their time away from school learning about poems and stories. Before, I always taught at the grade school component which, although it involved serious writing, was also broken up with trips to the library, parks, and various tourist locations across Pittsburgh. This year I’m teaching in the high school version and really enjoying it. The day is broken up into a series of workshops which any student can sign up for. I teach one a day, and I’ve been experimenting with things that come from my own writing and other lectures/exercises I use with my college students.
I thought it might be interesting to share some of my workshops here. Much of what I do in the classroom involves talking. I’m chatty. Below, there are three prompts about sports, but most of that hour long workshop was spent discussing why sports are so important to so many of us and why it’s so difficult to write about something so many people can relate to. I figure out what I think on a subject by talking, and the students who gravitate toward me the most do the same. This is all to say that I can never replicate an hour long workshop by posting prompts, and I hope you don’t judge me on these alone. That’s not the intent.
Dude. I just want to share some exercises and thoughts.
1. Writing About Sports: Nonfiction AND Fiction
A. Write about your most vivid experience playing a sport, organized or non-organized. Focus on the sights, smells, and sounds. Can you make your experience stand out for people who’ve gone through similar events?
B. Explain why your favorite team is your favorite team. What makes them special and unique? Why should anyone care what team you root for other than you? Should they care? Is it all basically the same anyway, or is there a fundamental difference between a Yankees and Pirates fan?
C. Write a fictionalized account of your favorite athlete. Do not put them in a familiar situation. What does it mean to be an athlete/celebrity if we’re putting them into scenarios we know have nothing to do with them? Can a totally fictionalized scenario about an athlete/celebrity shed light on who we perceive them to be?
2. How to Write a Comic: Superheroes and Origins
Note: This is an excerpt from an unpublished script written by myself and my longtime comics co-writer Mark Kleman.
Page 1 EXT. OUTSIDE SNAKE WELL – DAY
Wide establishing shot of Snake Well. It’s a small 3 road town in the middle of the desert surrounded by a twenty-foot wall built from logs. In the center of the town is a a 4 story wooden tower vaguely resembling a rook chess piece. The buildings are are all reminiscent of the main streets in classic Western films like True Grit or The Searchers of Tombstone. There are a few wooden houses apart from the main roads and a tent city as well. The city is buzzing with haggard men and women milling about and tending to their horses. The sun hangs bright in the distance.
Snake Well, Texas – 1885
A covered wagon pulled by two side-by-side horses approaches the reader slowly. Two men are sitting in the front bench of the wagon, and a third sits on a separate horse that trots alongside them. The reader cannot see inside the wagon. The men are dressed like cattle rustlers–worn cowboy hats and chaps, dust-covered and hungry. REGULATOR 1 (the man on the bench) is bearded, curly hair hanging down for his hat. REGULATOR 2 (the other man on the bench) looks young, no older than a teenager, a twinkle in his eyes. REGULATOR 3 (riding the horse) is paunchy.
Two guards sit atop a fortification on the gate in the wooden wall surrounding Snake Well. Both guards appear middle-aged, neither are particularly tough looking. They eye the approaching strangers suspiciously.
What do you want, strangers?
We’s just looking for a place to stay and water our horses. On our way to California.
I got orders not to let any pass till the boss returns.
Close-up on the wagon. REGULATOR 2 has moved the curtain and now the reader can see a little bit (although not everything) inside. There is a sick woman–FEMALE REGULATOR–brunette with her hair in a bun dressed in a torn Victorian dress. She is coughing, holding a handkerchief to her mouth. REGULATOR 1 looks disgusted because the guards won’t let them in.
My wife’s sick with dysentery! Please, she just needs water!
Close up on the guards. GUARD 2 gives GUARD 1 a pleading look to do what is right. GUARD 1 looks put out.
Ah, hell. Open the gate.
A. Jack Kirby and Stan Lee used to work primarily in the nine panel grid, the most classic of sequential art structures. One of the major difficulties for writers in the comic business today is not being overly wordy and letting the art tell the story. This can be especially difficult for those of with a prose background. Today, can you write a one page, nine panel script using less than 15 words of dialogue or captions on any given panel? Remember, your descriptions can be as long as you want, just make sure you keep your panels clean of too many words. To get you started: a character in a New York City apartment looks out their window and is shocked to see…
B. You are now freed from the nine panel grid and may use as many or as few panels as necessary to tell your story. I’d like for you to now create your own superhero or villain and tell their origin. Think of how Spider-Man was born when puny Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider. Remember, origins don’t necessarily have to be long. Look at the Fantastic Four example above. Dr. Doom’s entire origin is given in five panels.