Behind the Scenes of "Tiny Tales from Fall 2020"

I am so proud of the students in my Fall 2020 classes who contributed their stories to our class anthology, which you can find here: In this blog post, I wanted to write out some quick thoughts about how that project came together. Please let me know if there is additional information that I can share if you are interested in doing a project like this too! You can comment here, or find me at Twitter: @OnlineCrsLady.

Warning: these thoughts are more of a brain dump, not in any particular order. I wanted to just jot some things down now, so that I'll be ready to come back to this in January and think about how the project can evolve for the Spring 2021 semester.

1. Falling in love with microfiction. The first thing I need to confess is that I am microfiction-obsessed these days in my own writing, and that is how this whole experiment started. For details, here's a blog post about how I started writing 100-word stories for my father almost exactly one year ago. And my obsession with 100-word stories continues; I'm about to publish my latest "Tiny Tales" book this week: a version of the epic Ramayana in 100-word episodes which I'll be using as an OER textbook in my Indian Epics class this Spring. If all goes well, I'll have a 100-word Mahabharata book ready in January too! (You can see that book taking shape right here at this blog.) So, a good first step in deciding if you want to use microfiction in your classes is to try writing some tiny stories yourself and see what you think.

2. Adding microfiction to my classes. Because I was so excited about 100-word stories, I started exploring that with my students in Spring 2020, and based on their enthusiastic interest, I emphasized microfiction even more in Fall 2020. My classes are designed with a set of core activities that has remained very stable over time, along with an ever-shifting set of extra activities (I try new things, and then develop or discard based on student interest; details). That design made it easy for me to add in microfiction as an extra activity in Spring 2020; here's how that works: Writing Microfiction. When I saw how popular that was with students, I expanded on that in Fall 2020 by making microfiction one of the options in the core Story Lab activity, which you can see here: Story Lab. Writing microfiction is not something required, but student interest was high, and some students started writing microfiction every week, in addition to their regular writing for class. (See below for how I would redesign my classes now based on what I've learned this past year about students and microfiction.)

3. Introducing students to microfiction. One of the microfiction activities students can choose to do is exploratory, browsing through some different kinds of microfiction collections. You can see how that works here: Learning about Microfiction. Students write a blog post with their thoughts and impressions from this activity, and that's a good learning experience for me too. (I should note that ALL the writing my students do show up either in their blogs at their website projects; more about how that works in my classes already here:

4. Microfiction and novice writers. Probably the single most exciting thing to me about microfiction is how many students were excited to try it, including students who do not see themselves as writers, students who are English-language-learners, etc. The formal constraint of the word-count was a big help with that, making it easy to say "I'm done!" This doesn't mean that writing microfiction is easy. In some ways, it is really hard, because you do have to ponder every word. But you only have to ponder 100 words, which is quite different than pondering 500 words or 1000 words or the several thousand words that students might need to ponder when writing a typical 8-page term paper. 
About word counts: I already had a "browser tune-up" activity in my classes where students install a browser extension to do word counts; that's obviously a key technical aspect of writing microfiction.

5. Microfiction and revision. One of my favorite things about microfiction is how it makes the revision process so much more manageable. Revision usually involves reading and rereading multiple times, writing and rewriting, reading again, proofreading, reading out loud, etc. Students are usually surprised to see that revision can take more time than the actual writing, and revising something that is a thousand words or even longer can be seriously exhausting, and often not fun as a result. But revising a story that is just 100 words long is a very different experience: it really is fun, like a kind of game. You can "see" the whole story right there on the screen, and you can also appreciate how every word matters, in a good way. I wrote up some tips for a microfiction revision process, and I am really pleased at how students can take charge of this revision process more independently, without relying on me as much as they do when revising stories that are longer. 

6. Microfiction and making room for more voices. Another thing I really like about microfiction is that there is room for more stories / more voices in the writing and reading space. So, for example, you can think of a book as a writing and reading space with actual boundaries; there's only so much you can put in a book, especially a printed book (both in terms of physical constraints, and also in terms of the labor required for book production). I have about 90 students total, which means there would easily be room for 2 or even 3 stories from every student without the book becoming too long. As it was, only 50 students submitted stories (and many of them submitted multiple stories), but I hope I will have even more students participating next semester when they can see what the actual result looks like. You can also think of more room for stories in terms of time. For example, to read a 100-word story out loud takes a little bit less than a minute. That means there is time for all the students in a class of 40 students to read their stories to each other during the course of a single class session. I teach asynchronously, so time is less of an issue for me, but in terms of both teacher-time and student-time, microfiction has many advantages. That theme of room-for-more is one of the topics I want to emphasize in the Digital Pedagogy workshop I'm offering this summer; more about that here: Critical Pedagogy and Storytelling

7. Deciding to create a class book. Inspired by the student-authored book from Tineke D'Haeseleer's students — China's Magical Creatures (and where to find them) — I was thinking it would be really cool to do a book in the Fall, using Pressbooks as Tineke did (Tineke also inspired me to use Pressbooks for my own Tiny Tales books). Yet with the pandemic semester, it was hard to do advance planning, and I definitely didn't want to put pressure on the students or on myself for that matter. So, I had mentioned to students the possibility of a book from the start of the semester, but I really didn't start actively working on it until Week 14 of the semester. That means it all happened pretty quickly, about 10 days from start to finish. But that was okay to be honest. Except for the book cover (see below), I don't think I would have especially done anything differently if I had had more time. Next semester, though, it sure will be nice to show the students the book from the previous semester so that they will be inspired by that! 

8. Inviting students to contribute. Some students were very eager to have their stories included in the anthology, but I also ended up writing to many of the student authors, sending them an email that contained one of their stories, and encouraging them to contribute that to the anthology. Every student accepted the invitation (although three didn't get the invitation in time to respond), and many of them were clearly pleased to be asked. I didn't anticipate this stage of inviting students individually to contribute, but it was my pleasure to do so, and it gave me a nice opportunity for some dialogue with the students via email at the end of the semester. That was especially nice for students who had finished the class early; it gave me a chance to be in touch with them again at the end of the semester. (I teach asynchronously and I strongly encourage students to finish early if they can so they'll have more time to focus on classes with finals, final projects, etc.) I'm also going to contact all my Fall students again to see if they want to contribute to the Spring book; I'm guessing some Fall students might be inspired to do that now after they see the actual book (plus there were the people who replied late to my invitation whose stories are now my first contributions for the Spring book!).

9. Emergent book structure. The most fun part of creating the book for me was taking the heap of student stories and sorting them into categories. I didn't predefine the categories; instead, they just emerged from what the students had contributed. Working with microfiction is very easy this way: I just pasted one story into a GoogleDoc, and then found other stories that clustered around that story. Then I picked one of the remaining stories and used it to start a new cluster, and so on. Then, after all the stories were in categories, I ordered the stories within the categories, and that was really fun too, looking for stories where the meaning was enhanced by the flow from one story to the next. I thought it would take a few days, but it all fell into place in just one big day of story-sorting. I don't know if I will be so lucky to have everything fall into place like that when I do the Spring book, but for the Fall, it was really easy and fun to sort the contributions into categories like that. Some of the categories were related to reading we did for class, while other categories just came from the students' own experiences and interests. For example, they like horror fiction... and since Halloween comes during Fall semester, the horror writing got a boost from that! It was also exciting to see how some students experimented with putting their stories into a sequence (like the "Tiny Ghost Chronicles" or the "Four Horsemen" stories), and also the students who worked on a particular theme, like one student who did about a dozen stories about the moon in folklore (she's going to use those stories in an application to be a presenter for NASA's Space Exploration Educators Conference next year; how cool is that?!).

9. Anonymous and initials. An important part of helping students to feel comfortable in contributing to the book was making sure they could publish anonymously if they want, or just with their initials. Many students chose those options. The initials option was an especially nice choice I think: with initials, they could show their family or friends which stories were theirs (luckily I did not have any authors who shared the same first-last initials; if I did, I would have prompted them to include a middle initial too), and so also with the students who chose pseudonyms. That way their identity is not public exactly, but at the same time they could still privately share their author identity with anyone they wanted. Students had also made similar choices about this in setting up their blogs and class websites, where they choose to use their own name, their initials, a pseudonym, or go anonymous (it's all fine with me!), so this idea was not new to them.

10. Creative Commons. Given how quickly the book process happened at the end of the semester, I didn't have time to engage in a collaborative discussion with the students about Creative Commons licensing options, but they had all learned about Creative Commons licensing at the start of the semester in order to help them with searching for openly licensed images to use in their blogs and websites. So, they were aware of the concept, and I made an executive decision to use the same BY-NC-SA license on this book that I use on my other books, explaining that choice when I opened up the book for contributions. People were definitely interested in different ways to reveal (or not) their identity as authors (see previous paragraph), but they did not have any questions or concerns about the CC licensing option I had chosen.

11. Microfiction and book production. In the same way that revision is very do-able for microfiction, the same is also true for book production. Each story fits easily on a page (even with lots of short paragraphs, a 100-word story still fits on a page), with room for author credit on the page also. I used Pressbooks to create the book, adapting the basic process for producing my own Tiny Tales books, with just a few tweaks for the class anthology, like including author credit on each page. I prefer to work from a plain text file to which I add HTML mark-up, but Pressbooks is also Word-friendly. I invited the students to do a final round of revising before I assembled the manuscript (only a few took me up on that; most left their stories as they had published them in their blogs), and then I did light copyediting for spelling and punctuation on the final versions they submitted. 

12. Pressbooks print and digital. Some schools have a Pressbooks installation which is great of course; you can see how that works in the URL of Tineke D'Haeseleer's book which is at the Muhlenberg Pressbooks project. My school does not support Pressbooks (yet? maybe next year!), so I did the book with my own Pressbooks account. Pressbooks charges separately for the ebook and print upgrades: you can do ad-free ebook production for $20, and the combination ebook/print production is $99 (details), and of course you can recover some of those costs if you sell the book through Amazon (I use the lowest price Amazon offers, but you can set the price as you wish). There is also a free version of Pressbooks with a Pressbooks watermark, and you can publish that watermarked version as a printed book with Lulu if not with Amazon (more about Lulu and Pressbooks).

13. Book cover. For the book cover, I just adapted a Canva template that I've been using for all my Tiny Tales books. I am not a skilled graphic designer, but sometimes I have some students in class who are great designers, so next Spring, I'll be able to promote the idea of a class book from the start of the semester, and perhaps a student will want to design a cover for it. Except for the specific pixel dimensions and having the title in there somewhere, book covers can be a very creative space and it would be very cool if someone in class wanted to design the cover next time!

14. If I were redesigning my classes... I'm actually retiring from teaching at the end of Spring 2021, but if I were teaching next year, I would spend the summer redesigning my classes with this upside-down approach: instead of emphasizing longer stories (500-1000 words) with optional microfiction, I would do that the other way around. In other words, I would make microfiction the focus of the class, with the longer stories being something optional for students who want that extra experience. Based on this Fall semester, I now think the 100-word form is the approach that offers more to all students, both sophisticated writers and also beginners. So, I would continue to offer the chance to explore longer forms for students who prefer that (and some students would seize that opportunity), but I now think that focusing on the shorter forms is the way to go, rather than pushing all students to write longer stories as I've done in the past. In retirement, I will be writing lots more microfiction books myself, and I also hope to collaborate with teachers in different contexts to see what kind of microfiction writing resources I can create and contribute, like this Teaching Guide for example. Please let me know what you think could be most useful! My retirement countdown clock says 138 days at this moment (I just checked, ha ha)... and after that, I'll be writing and writing-about-writing all the time. :-)

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