Teaching Creative Writing Online? Some Tips.

Hi everyone! I’ve been teaching a significant portion of my courseload online for the last four years, so I just wanted to share some quick tips for those of you moving online suddenly because of coronavirus.

Here’s what my classes generally look like:

  • Workshop with some combination of video chat and critique letters.
  • Reading analyses that have them apply some craft reading to a story.
  • Exercises where they imitate or work on something from the craft reading.
  • Open discussion where they propose their own discussion topics.
  • A discussion with a specific question about some topic of the class. This last one is more fun or asks them to find their own work to reference so it doesn’t matter if they see others’ answers. Questions like: “This week we talked about unlikable characters. What are your favorite unlikable characters or villains, and why are they compelling?”

I usually have at least one of each due each week, depending on the class.

Tips:

1) Do not try to translate your workshops directly into video chat. Trying to video chat with more than a few people just doesn’t work well. Instead, think about ways to do intense things with just a few members of the class, but less intense things with the whole class asynchronously.

You might consider video chatting with a small percentage of the class, and doing something with the video recording after.

For example, I record a Skype with the workshopped student for one of their stories, and we have a non-silent workshop discussion of their story, one on one. I always have a few brainstorming questions at the end of the recorded video, in which I ask the rest of the class to imagine solutions to story issues we talked about, usually with pointed questions. Instead of regular critique letters, students respond to my specific questions about the story after having watched the video.

I’ve also seen having a small group discussion with 2-5 students over video and rotating which of the students those are every week.

You can also have two students talk with each other about the story via video chat or regular chat, send that discussion to the class, and the class responds to the chat and the story together.

You can also just do critique letters instead of workshop, posted on a discussion board, and then I write my own letter or record a quick video having read all of those, summing the discussion up for the writer to help them make sense of the letters.

2) Instead of story discussions, I usually ask them to do an analysis as an assignment, with pointed questions for the prompt. You can do online discussions by having them respond to each other, but it won’t be very natural, and often they can “fake it” by reading everyone else’s responses. When I do ask them to discuss and reply, I usually ask them to “answer a question, ask a question,” so that the replier has something specific to respond to, otherwise they’re vague or they’re just responding to my original prompt.

3) Instead of a workshop-only class, you can gear it more towards exercises and make it more of a generative class. Then you can do some small pairing and sharing.

4) Use whatever discussion tech feels most natural for you. I’ve hosted discussions on canvas and Facebook (making a separate private group for the class) and Discord.

5) Do not try to have a separate discussion for each Socratic question you might have asked in class. Instead, combine them into one main discussion or assignment in which you ask many questions, so they don’t have ten little assignments due.

6) If you think you’re going to miss open-ended discussion, you can have an open chat or discussion forum and ask students to propose their own question related to class and have the other students answer it. You have to require engagement with it, though, or they tend not to respond to each other.

7) Know that any time you separate out students into groups, this will be a logistical headache. Small groups, there’s always the risk that one or more students won’t respond and then the other student won’t do the assignment. If you assign the groups yourself, you’ll have to manage this. If you have the students self-assign groups, that adds another deadline, more confusion. If you change the groups with every assignment or rotate, more confusion. Even if you have the students self-assign by responding to a student post to “claim” partnering or groups, the last person who responds may be stranded because the early people all responded to each other, or students won’t follow instructions and overfill or underfill groups. If you do use groups for anything, I recommend assigning them yourself and using that same grouping for everything you do. I also recommend having at least 3-4 people in each group, so that if anyone is delinquent, it doesn’t strand the other group member–the risk if you have only 2.

The advantage to using groups is that online you don’t ever have to do anything with the whole class. The “whole class” is just another way of thinking of a large group. It’s all the same to the students whether they have 5 people in their group or 30 people in their group. And some students may benefit from having, say, a 5 person “class” with the intimacy and the attention that brings.

8) Try to have a routine. Consistent due dates, have the same kinds of things due. The more scattered everything is, the more confusion. For example, Tuesday’s I might have exercises due, then Thursday’s I always do reading analyses. Etc. Whatever it is, try to make it consistent every week. Try to make the places on the site where students find things consistent as well.

9) Try to limit student interactions that require scheduling or passing things back and forth. Every contact with a student requires a different deadline, so if you have them schedule a day to talk, then talk, post their responses after the talk, and then reply to another student, that’s four different deadlines. If you only have twice weekly due dates, that’s two weeks for one thing. It might work if you have several assignments going and just a few big ones that you spread out over multiple weeks, but not for common weekly assignments.

10) Don’t rely on just one place where you put the instructions. No, they won’t read the syllabus. Yes, they will forget what you said at the beginning of the week. I have instructions atleast 3 places: Once, as a heads up in the weekly overview, Once in a lecture where I explain it. And finally, in the assignment turn-in link itself, I re-link to the page where I explained it and explicitly ask them to check it again. For example, MLA format with double space, times new Roman, header, etc? I have a page explaining and then I relink to that page in every assignment that requires it. I also might generally reference in the syllabus, “Please use MLA formatting,” though I don’t fully explain until later in the class.

11) Try to link to repeat references rather than recopying. I often need to update my content or fix typos. If you’ve re-copied 7 different places, you have to change it 7 times and remember where those references are. If you link, you only have to change once.

12) The simpler the instructions, the better. If anything is complicated, suddenly you’ll get twenty emails asking nitpickey questions about exactly what you meant by X.

13) Remember that you can still do all-class communication.

If you do find yourself overwhelmed by questions, you can send out an announcement to the whole class addressing the concern rather than replying individually. You can send out an announcement addressing several questions at once. You can send out an announcement summing up issues, feedback for the whole class rather than responding to each student individually.

In fact, I recommend figuring out which assignments to give feedback on individually and which ones not to. Remember that most class participation in-person is not graded evaluatively. You usually just give them a check mark for participation. Similarly, if you’re translating your class online, just because you’re having them do a discussion post does not mean you need to grade it rigorously out of ten points or a hundred points–same as in-person. Instead, consider whether you can give some assignments out of 1 point, graded on completion only. Engagement is rewarded no matter where the student is at. Save your feedback and qualitative evaluation for the large assignments that the students are expected to significantly revise and demonstrate learning rather than engagement. If you do find yourself wanting to give some feedback on the engagement, stick to all class announcements about how they did that week and don’t directly tie it to the grade. (Unless the student just didn’t complete the assignment.)

14) Remember that the first time you do anything, it’s going to be awkward. It’s not going to be perfect. Rely on textbooks and craft readings if you don’t feel comfortable or don’t have the time at the moment to write your own craft lectures yourself. Be kind to yourself.

Okay, good luck, everyone, and stay healthy!!

 

SFF Stories Award Eligibility

Hi everyone!

It’s award nomination season in the science fiction/fantasy field, and I am thrilled that I have some eligible stories for 2018. I’d be honored if you’d take a read.

 

“The Kite Maker,” a science fiction short story (7,100 words) published in Tor.com.

After aliens arrive on earth, humans do the unthinkable out of fear. When an alien walks into a human kite maker’s store, coveting her kites, the human struggles with her guilt over her part in the alien massacres, while neo-Nazis draw a violent line between alien and human.

N.K. Jemisin said of it, “Such a powerful story.”

It can be found here: https://www.tor.com/2018/08/29/the-kite-maker-brenda-peynado/

 

“The Dreamers,” a fantasy/magical realism short story (6,000 words) published in The Southern Review.

In a world where people can stay awake for most of their lives and then sleep all their lives’ sleep at once, a high school girl must wake her boyfriend from his sleep coma in time for prom, though her traitorous ex-best-friend stands in her way, the town’s Dreamcatcher is out prowling, and if she’s not careful, she could succumb to a sleep coma as well.

It can be found on Project Muse or in the Nebula’s reading list. https://www.sfwa.org/forum/topic/13388-the-dreamers-brenda-peynado/ https://muse.jhu.edu/article/690478

“What We Lost,” a fantasy story  (1,600 words) published in The Sun.

When a mysterious leader gets elected, promising to make the country better, citizens’s magically start to lose part of their bodies.

https://www.thesunmagazine.org/issues/505/what-we-lost

 

2017

2017 has been a year packed full of both struggles and successes.

A fellowship at the Vermont Studio Center gave me a month of time to write and read, plus a studio over-looking a frozen river. I got to meet some amazing artists and writers, and thanks to my time there,  I graduated from my PhD (and passed exams!) with the help of my wonderful mentors, Leah Stewart, Michael Griffith, Jennifer Glaser, and other wonderful peers and mentors at the University of Cincinnati.

I was offered a tenure track teaching job at the University of Central Florida. Micah and I moved to Orlando, Florida over the summer, and we are so glad to be back in the heat and where we first met. I have wonderful students and supportive colleagues. I will be teaching a craft class on fabulism, magical realism, and genre for the MFA students this spring.

In the last year, I’ve published stories and essays in Kenyon Review Online, The Writer’s ChronicleEcotone, Day OnePrairie SchoonerIndiana ReviewHunger Mountain, The Masters Review, Ninth Letter, and Pleiades. I’m so thrilled that Prairie Schooner published a chapter on my novel, called “The Shadow,” about a Puerto Rican soldier parachuting into the Dominican Republic during the American occupation in 1965. Day One published my surreal story about a group of Venezuelan anti-narco agents who get exposed to a radioactive source and develop superpowers, “The Radioactives” as a Kindle Single. Esteban, who can read minds, Hector, who grows giant arms, José, who grows multiple hearts, and Marco, who can multiply himself, must all journey to reclaim what is most precious to them. “Yaiza,” in the Kenyon Review Onlineis about a rivalry and frenemy-ship between two tennis-playing girls. “The Whitest Girl” in Ecotone, is about a group of Hispanic girls at an all-girls school encounter the whitest girl they’ve ever seen. The Indiana Review nominated “The Lion and the Beauty Queen,” a story about a family moving into a house haunted by a child beauty queen in the attic and a lion prowling the garden labyrinth, for a Pushcart Prize. In the same issue, they also ran my flash fiction, “Weathering,” a story about a couple staying together amidst a flood of divorces, as runner-up in their ½ K Prize. The Writer’s Chronicle ran my craft essay, “The Fabuleme: On Belief and the Reactivation of Disbelief in Fiction,” about how both literary fiction and “magical” fiction function on wonder and use the same techniques, and what we call elements of fiction that move beyond realism. Hunger Mountain published and nominated for a Pushcart Prize my story about a boy who is given a jacket that can make him into the man he wishes to be–at a price. “The Drownings,” in The Masters Review, is about a group of kids in a pool-ridden town where most of them drown before reaching adulthood and a new girl who has to understand death in this dangerous town where downing is normal. In “True Love Game,” published in Ninth Letter, two girls play a game about true love in a basement, surrounded by ghosts and their doomed desires. In “The Tool Factory,” published in Pleiades “Human Future Fiction” feature section, a girl gets fired from a factory where the labor eventually twists the worker’s hands into gnarled fists.

Thank you to all the editors, writers, teachers, and readers, VSC, and my agent, Michelle Brower, who made all this possible.

 

“The Stones of Sorrow Lake” in The Georgia Review

I haven’t update my website in a while, so I’ll just add some of the things I’ve been doing lately at once.

A short story of mine, “The Stones of Sorrow Lake” came out in the new Georgia Review, and it’s also up on their website.  It’s about a town of people who wear sorrow on their skin in the form of stones. You can read it here: http://garev.uga.edu/spring16/peynado.html

Thank you also to the Editors and Lindsay Tigue, who was kind enough to interview me about the story: http://garev.uga.edu/blog/peynadointerview.html

Recently, I’ve also had pieces come out in EPOCH, Michigan Quarterly Review, Daily Science Fiction, Shenandoah, and the Mid-American Review.  I also received the Dana Award in short fiction, and one of my flash stories will be included as a flashcard in issues of the Sycamore Review as winner of their flashcard contest.

The Michigan Quarterly Review story is perhaps the strangest thing I’ve ever written. Read on for plastic toy soldiers that invade a Caribbean island.

Daily Science Fiction published a strange, tiny story about the Apocalypse and blob aliens. You can read it here.

The EPOCH story was about a group of flying prodigals returning to their island home.  Here’s an excerpt:

“We jackknifed through clouds and dodged large birds. Our parents, those who were still alive, came out to greet us, eyes squinting against the sun and hands on their brows like visors. Some were expecting us. Others were surprised, terrified at the spectacle of millions of their prodigals blotting the sky with our skirts billowing, our shirts starched for the arrival, skidding to rough landings right in front of them. We touched down on the landing strips of our parents’ driveways, denting cars, squashing flowers, rattling windows….”

I’m lucky to be in the company of lots of wonderful writing in these issues, so be sure to pick up copies. Thanks to all the wonderful editors who let my stories grace their pages!

 

AWP Readings

If you’ll be at AWP and want some entertainment, I will be reading at two events.

The first: the Mid-American Review is reading from their latest issue on Friday from 8-11 at Gallery 13.  I’ll be reading my story about an ambulance stuck in the clouds above New York City. And there will be cake!

https://www.facebook.com/events/1528730340747891/

The second: Join us for a literary performance to remember at Boneshaker Books! Boneshakers: A Cambridge Writers Workshop Reading will feat. Bianca Stone, Alex Carrigan, Jonah Kruvant, Jessica Piazza, Anca Szilagyi, Micah Dean Hicks, Brenda Peynado, and more. We promise to light up the night!

https://www.facebook.com/events/1430483207246292/

TriQuarterly

Triquarterly has been the home of some of my favorite work, so I thought I’d link to some of it here.  It’s amazing that this topnotch journal moved online for free.

I first got to know this wonderful writer through Triquarterly with her heartbreaking scifi story in which the earth’s atoms start fusing: A Bad Year for Apples, by CJ Hauser.  Then I met her in person and she blushed madly while I told her how much I liked her work.

Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni’s Shadow Work.  I love everything I’ve ever read by her.  Her stories are heartbreaking, centered around loss, and they have such depth of poetry to their lines.

Ben Ehnrenreich, The Dream within a Dream.  Strangely affecting surreal story about dreams a couple has together, then separately.

I just read these two poems by Marty McConnell in TriQuarterly that blew me away with their wonderful, funny, heartbreaking commentary on modern life and the emotions we try to communicate to others.  She has a great reading voice, too!  Here and HERE.

Nick Francis Potter

I just met fiction and comic writer Nick Francis Potter, who went to Brown’s innovative MFA program and is currently a PhD student at University of Missouri. We talked about his illustrating and Micah and I writing children’s stories together. It’s so exciting that there are people working in the intersection of various art forms even though we are so often cordoned off from each other. Check out a few of his comics at http://www.hobartpulp.com/web_features/3-comics or his website at http://nickfrancispotter.tumblr.com/page/4

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