Monthly Archives: October 2010

Writing it Real

Writers are often asked where they get ideas. I was thinking about this the other day and I realized my house is too quiet. For me, ideas come when I’m surrounded by sounds and images and snatches of overheard conversation. Since my daughter trekked two states north for college, there is an eerie silence here and the cat and I don’t talk much. I think the fat lump is depressed. Or she hates me for sending away her favorite person.

So I went to lunch. At River Middle School. As an upper middle grade and young adult novelist, this was just what I needed. Not television or playlists or movies or even books. I needed real kids. Kids that gallop and goof off and chatter incessantly. Kids that express opinions and sometimes make more sense than adults I know.

It was loud. Very, very loud. River School is a charter of about 300 students; 6th, 7th, and 8th graders full of energy, eating and laughing and apparently, making body parts out of packing tape for art class. Someone’s leg was propped on a bench; another student wrapping furiously. How she was going to get that tape off the model’s leg was beyond my comprehension.

I sat down, notebook in hand, and clicked on my tape recorder. A see-through tape-head lolled in the middle of the round lunch table. It was a little disconcerting but cool, in an artsy way. Looked like Bill Clinton. (My apologies to the artist) I let the students know that I was visiting for story ideas and had so many questions we’d never finish in one lunch period. A crowd gathered. Short, tall, pink-haired and pierced, sweatshirted, brand-named, not brand-named, peanut butter and jelly smelling, elbows digging, grabbing, bouncing, shoes-untied, knees-jiggling, giggling, kids.

I scanned for teachers, instantly regressing to my twelve-year-old brain. The coast was clear so I asked the first question, possibly the most important question.

“What’s the dumbest thing a teacher has ever done?”

Heh, heh. Now we all know that laughing at our mistakes is the best cure, right? I heard the story of a teacher who got “sidetracked” and forgot to give a test and another where the teacher fell asleep in class and woke up to marker drawings on his face, which, according to the storyteller, were there the remainder of the day.

Conner, a lovely, soft-spoken girl with the coolest glasses, said, “Once, a teacher did not know there was water on the floor and she slipped, tripping through a bunch of cords. All the TVs and computers smashed to the floor. She wasn’t hurt, though.” (Whew!) Max told the story of a teacher who asked students to literally count the words they had read during silent reading time. Since he’d read 80 pages, he found it hilarious that he could just do the math—word count per page times 80. Which he did. Without a calculator. “It would have taken me about an hour to count all the words,” said Max, “more time than it took me to read them.”

Andrew mentioned that when giving instructions, “quite often” teachers “make no sense.” So they give instructions again. And again. Sometimes they still make no sense. (I totally get this one)  Jameson’s story was about two fire drills, two days in a row. “The first day was a real drill and the second day when the bell went off everybody thought it was because we didn’t do a good job on the first drill. But it was because we were in science burning magnesium, which smokes up, you know?” Conner added, “The best part about that was our P.E. group didn’t have to run.”

When I asked students who they most admire, though, it was teachers, hands down. Parents and grandparents tied for second place, with musicians third. Not necessarily indie electro hip rock. Yo-Yo Ma, for example, was mentioned as was Charlie Parker. Band Directors, of course, were cited, with forgiveness for the song “Pomp and Circumstance.” Ben, a spirited 7th grader, tucked away the sillies, morphed into deep-thinker mode, and said, “One person I admire is Galileo Galeili. Not only because of his contributions to science and how he stuck to his principles even when placed under house arrest, but that he remained positive through all the bad stuff that happened to him.” Galileo: influencing middle school kids since 1632.

If he hasn’t already read it, Ben might like:

Science aside, stupid-humor is alive and well in middle school today. It’s still hilarious if ketchup squirts up someone’s nose. There is the “occasional” inappropriate joke, said 8th-grader Alec, his blue eyes serious but the corners of his mouth twitching to stifle a smile. Tripping and falling, a towel slipping in the locker room, spilling food, stubbing a toe and otherwise random embarrassing mishaps always bring guffaws. According to one student, protocol is, “First we laugh, and then we show other people and they laugh, and then after everyone in the school is done laughing, one or two people might help the person.” Sounds like real life to me.

Using the wrong word in a sentence cracks them up, which reminded me that words count at this age. And words can be hurtful. Each student had experienced betrayal; secrets told, rumors spread, rejection, lies. I heard the screech of a tape gun as yet another strip was applied to the see-through tape-head’s mouth and I couldn’t help but recognize the symbolism. Middle school kids are transparent but stifled, too, partly limited by society’s perceptions of their capabilities. Yet they are resilient. They bounce back from friendships gone astray to make new connections. They trust. They try. It was refreshing to sit with them, laughing, listening, and learning. If we remove the tape, they have much to say. I asked the question, “What’s your biggest worry?” Answers were so varied and thoughtful and even profound, that I will spend an entire blog post on that single question some other time.

As children’s authors, we need to write real, whatever our style or genre. That means believable characters, settings that resonate, plots that strike home. Maggie, bouncy, with straight bangs and a direct gaze, told me that she reads Ellen Hopkins’ young adult books because they are “full of truth” and said that she would recommend them to kids who feel that they are mature enough to take on tough topics. She eloquently stated, “These books gave me an idea of what could happen, impacting the way I am and showing me, okay, this is what I don’t have to do with my life.”

Maggie might also like:

Alec cited Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series as “stories that relate to how we are with characters that interact the way we do.” A good story rocks with middle school kids. These are savvy readers, many of them reading beyond the state-assigned level. Ben, for example, is currently reading Grapes of Wrath because he likes Steinbeck’s writing style. Max reads most genres, especially graphic novels (and wishes there were more), sci-fi, and fantasy. He said, pointing to a Dean Koontz novel, “I don’t believe that any book is beyond my reading level.” Sci-Fi is big with both boys and girls. Ghosts are huge. Girls want paranormal romance with male characters who are not vampires. Reading for fun should be, well, fun.

This age group also accepts books with a global focus where the storyline reveals an unexplored issue, dilemma, abuse or trauma in an unusual or foreign setting. One student reminded me that “kids are more plugged into the world and people around them than adults think we are.” Kathy, the school librarian, was passionate about two titles rich in contemporary realism and social issues: Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth and The Breadwinner Trilogy by Deborah Ellis. I would add Bamboo People by Mitali Perkins to that list.

And here’s one for Alec:

The bell shrieked, students scattered, snatching body parts from benches, slinging backpacks over shoulders, aiming trash toward cans. I scooped my notebook and recorder into my bag, resisting the temptation to line up, fold into a desk, sharpen a pencil, pat the classroom bunny. I drove home in such silence. The fat lump of a cat stared at me when I came through the door as if to say, “How was lunch?”

Lunch was good. I’ll be visiting River Middle School again. I need sounds and images and snatches of conversation. Real kids. By staying in touch, I will keep my writing real and the next time someone asks me where I get ideas, I will say from you, my friends. From you.

Diana Greenwood and the fat lump of a cat live in Napa Valley, California. Her debut novel, INSIGHT, Zonderkidz (Harper Collins), will release in the fall of 2011.

NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program

NaNoWriMo Logo

(Note: This is the first of a five-part series about NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program.  Click the following links to read Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5 of the series.)

Twenty kids at my elementary school have taken on the challenge of writing an entire book in one month!  November is National Novel Writing Month, also known as NaNoWriMo, and you can learn more about it here:  Last year, 35,000 kids around the country participated.

Here’s how it works: The Office of Letters and Light has put together what they call a “100% Awesome, NON-LAME workbook” and this workbook, which really is awesome, can be downloaded from the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program website.  There are also detailed lesson plans to download.  Having never taught kids as young as five years old how to write a book, these guides have made teaching a lot easier!

A co-worker, whom I’ve nicknamed WigMo, and I started prepping our brave writers at the beginning of October.  Since our project is an extra-curricular activity, we were asked not to use school class time for our NaNo instruction, so we faced a bit of an obstacle there.  Plus, space for twenty writers in a busy school is often hard to find.  But our dedicated writers helped us find a way to make it work.  Three days a week they arrive a full forty-five minutes before school even starts and we meet at the back of the library, the auditorium, or, if those spaces aren’t available to us, we sit on the floor in the hallway.  When there’s a will to write, there’s a way to get ‘er done!

On our first day, we discussed our “inner editor” and how sometimes criticism can stop us cold dead in the middle of a sentence.  To write a book in a month, the kids agreed that they needed to temporarily feel free of punctuation and spelling rules.  So, they each made a cut-out paper doll of their inner-editor and WigMo gathered them up and locked them away.  They will be allowed to come out in December for the revision, but until then, they stay quiet in a box, high on a shelf.

We’ve warmed the kids up with discussions and exercises on developing really cool and interesting main characters.  As a group, they created Cleopatra, a faceless goddess of work who lives inside a whale and invents toys that she distributes through the whale’s blow hole.  What Cleopatra wants more than anything in the world is to get out of the whale.  There’s more to the story, but I probably shouldn’t spoil it for you because our youngest authors from Kindergarten through second grade, will be working on this story as a collaborative effort in November.  WigMo and I will scribe the book for them and I can’t wait to find out how Cleo will get out of the whale!

Our older authors will be writing independently.  We’ll all still meet at the same time and same places during the month of November, but they’ll be doing their own writing while getting some help and encouragement from WigMo, me, and the other authors.  Yesterday we had our kick-off party.  Parents came for juice and pastries while their kids signed the NaNo contract, agreeing that they intended to write a book and meet their designated word count (most chose to write 3000 words) during November.

Wish them luck!  And if you’d like to follow their progress, check back here every Thursday during November.

Jennifer Duddy Gill has the privilege of working with truly amazing kids in an elementary school in Denver. She also writes humorous middle-grade novels and is represented by Wendy Schmalz.

Making a great first impression

There is no denying the importance of making a good first impression. Look online…ask a friend…go to the bookstore! You can find a lot of solid advice about how to impress in a variety of environments. Regardless of the relationship – personal or professional—getting off on the right foot is critical to establishing credibility. And likeability.

I have made my share of good and bad first impressions. I have stumbled over words. I have said the right…and wrong thing. Once I fell flat on my face.

So on that note, I’d like to introduce myself!

Hi, My name is Sarah Aronson. I have just joined this very wonderful blog, and this is my first post. I am so very happy to be here.

Some of you may find me likeable. Others may wonder if I am just too grateful to be true.

I could start this way:

Hey there—I’m Sarah and this is my very first post. Shannon’s first post scored a lot of readers and comments. I am really nervous that mine will be the first to receive none.

Both these introductions are honest, but they project extremely different images. And appeal to different readers. If we were all hanging out, I would know what would work. I could make eye contact. Shake hands.

But we’re not.

You’re just reading my words. So I can’t know. I can’t react and respond.  Online, I can only hope that you’ll get the sense that I’m humble. And friendly. It has to be clear in my words that I am a bit of a mother hen. Also self deprecating.
You might think I don’t know how to use commas.

(My Vermont College advisors would tell you: No. She does not know how to use a comma!)

This is my topic for today. Knowing how to create a good first impression on the page…in a middle grade novel.  It is so important.  On Page One, we have to convince readers to keep reading.  To trust us.  To care.

How long should it take to hook the reader? How long will a skeptical reader read?

One page? Two? Ten? Fifty?  We don’t know.

What I can tell you: Over the past few years, I have organized many conferences, classes, and retreats. I have participated in three first pages panels for New England’s annual SCBWI conference. I have probably read at least 600 beginnings! I know that it is absolutely magical when a book makes such a good impression that I cannot put it down.  Often, that magic happens on LINE ONE.  I also know that it is really easy to miss the mark and alienate the reader with ONE WORD. Usually, the impression made by the end of the very first paragraph is accurate.

That is why I spend so much time on my openings, my first impression. Frankly, it borders on obsession! I love fussing over my beginnings. I probably write my first paragraph fifteen, twenty, thirty times before I am brave enough to move forward. For a good beginning, I don’t rule anything out. Some day, I will write a book called Chapter One. It will be a collection of all my false starts!

It’s just like my introduction here. I have to think about my voice, the particular words, and syntax. I have to think about white space, and where the reader might want a pause. I have to consider my intended master effect with what is actually on the page.

And then, I have to trust the reader. I have to also accept that some readers won’t like my beginnings. Not all books are for all readers. Our job is to make sure our intended readers know that this one is for them.

So…let’s dig in. What do we need to do to make a great first impression?

You cannot underestimate the power of a great first line.

Barbara Kingsolver said that the first line of a novel must offer up a promise to the reader. Keep reading, and something or someone is going to be changed. The story is going to have a point and a meaning. It’s worth your time. You will connect emotionally.

A great first line HOOKS the reader. Do not underestimate its power. The first line is a signal to me that I will like the book, that the book will suit my sensibility. It is the ultimate good impression.

Let’s put three first lines to the test:

What a lot of hairy-faced men there are around nowadays.

When Jamie saw him throw the baby, saw Van throw the little baby, saw Van throw his little sister Nin, when Jamie saw Van throw his baby sister Nin, then they moved.

Just let me say right off the bat, it was a bike accident.

Are you hooked?

I am. In each case, these lines made an impression on me. They drew me in. Or they made me laugh. A promise was made and accepted. As a reader, there is nothing more exciting that. In each case, I knew this was my kind of book. My kind of promise. I couldn’t wait to keep reading.

The first line, and by extension, the first paragraph and page and chapter, act like a firm handshake, a wink between people who realize right away they are going to be good friends, that sense that YES. I get you.

So now, let’s think like writers. How can we make that impression? How do we ensure that our readers know our books are for them? How can we hook the reader??

The first thing I do is become a reader. I read like a writer, a reader, a teacher, a skeptic. I read my opening seriously. I think about who my intended reader is.

We really should understand whom we are writing for! I spend a lot of time thinking about my “ultimate reader.” I read the books my ultimate reader would love. And hate.

Then I ask myself the following questions:

___Is this a book of character? Or is this a book of action? Is that reflected in the opening?

___When do we first learn something interesting about the main character?

Note: there must be something about the main character that is important/essential to you, the writer.

___What is your book about? Describe it in LESS THAN ten words. How soon will the reader know this?

___Can you describe it in ONE word?

If you are having trouble, and even if you are not, here are some other irritating questions that will help you figure out the big picture:

___What does the character want?
___Why does the character want it?
___Why is he doing this NOW? Why is he doing this HERE? In this setting?
___What is your character’s joy? Pain? How does your character use joy to deal with pain?
___Why does your book have to open where it does?

With these questions in mind, I evaluate. I remind myself that there is a sacred relationship between my book (and me) and my reader. I remind myself that no book is loved by every single reader in the universe, but that my readers. . .the people I am writing for. . . should know that this book is for them. And they should know it fast. Because that is what a good beginning does. It makes a great first impression.

Do you have a trick for making a good impression? A story about when you missed the mark? Do you have a favorite opening line? I’d love to hear it. Let’s chat!