Middle School Writers Who Rock :-)
Yay for school visits! :-) It’s been a while since my last school visit, back in December. I didn’t do any in January just in case the baby came early (ha ha HA; turns out that was SO NOT HIS PLAN), and then I figured I’d take a few months off after he arrived. But the lovely and super-organized librarian at Manchester Essex Regional Middle School actually booked me for April 8th over a year ago — before I was even pregnant! So I wasn’t about to back out of that. :-) And what a GREAT school to get me back into the author visit swing of things!
Manchester Essex is in a shiny new building with a fabulous, huge, high-tech auditorium, great classroom and library space, and probably the nicest school bathrooms I’ve ever seen (well, seriously!). Even better, the librarians are awesome (of course!) and the students are wicked smart and fun to talk to.
I got to meet some great Warriors fans, including Ashley, who draws truly fantastic cats — I wish I could draw like that!
In addition to my usual presentation (yada yada books and editing and ooh, look, a picture of my dog! — so, kind of like my blog, actually) ;-), I did two writing workshops. We only had time for some quick free writing exercises, but wow, I am so impressed at what came out of them!
We started with an exercise where I set out four objects, and then the students had to write for five minutes about whichever one they wanted. These are the objects they could choose between:
Now, five minutes is not very long, but some of the writers still managed to squeeze a whole story in there — like Alexandra, who wrote about trying to escape King Kong and even gave her story a title: "The Fight I Had Lost". Awesome! Or Preston, who had King Kong and Godzilla battling and smashing the building, then ended with: "The creepy part was when they woke up in the morning, it was the same as normal, except for a big footprint." Cool — now I want to know how that happened! Mass hallucination? Special effects, like someone was just filming a movie but everyone thought it was real? Or magic of some kind?
I got a lot of stories about King Kong on the Empire State Building, which I probably should have expected. :-) I have to admit my favorite of those might be the one where King Kong was caught by poachers, brought to Las Vegas, and then became a money-laundering mob boss. Ha! I didn’t see THAT coming! :-) There was also a hilarious one where King Kong was going to play chess with the president, and if the president lost, he would have to play hopscotch for all eternity. Too funny — most authors wish they could come up with zany stuff like that.
I also like the one where the story was about the Empire State Building toy instead of about the building itself, which was original — Billy was the only writer to do that, and it’s a great short character study about a kid who’s looking at the toy building because he’s thinking about how he’s going to own it one day. What a great beginning…that could turn into a whole story about a guy with big ambitions and the things he might do to get the things he wants (giant buildings, for instance!). What if someone offered him the Empire State Building right now, while he’s still in middle school? What would he do with it? What would he be willing to exchange for it? (His XBox? His trumpet skills? Five years of his life? His little sister?) Hmmm! This could get really interesting…
There were some great stories about the tiara, too. I love Molly’s, where the tiara turns out to be cursed and starts "squeezing her head from the inside out." !!! Creepy-cool! Also Courtney’s, who started a story about a girl named Annabell and how her little sister was about to be crowned princess of the island while Annabell was stuck as her servant. SO fascinating! Why does the younger sister get to be princess? Why does poor Annabell have to be her servant? And what’s she going to do about it — since I can’t imagine she’s too thrilled with the idea! A great start. And so was Susie’s, with the narrator hunting through a dark, musty attic for the box her grandmother left her…you know that’s going somewhere cool!
Nicole also managed to fit in a whole story, and a funny one, at that. I love the bad-tempered princess who steps on the magic frog because it’s the only way to get her story back, and then skips off to her giant castle to live happily ever after. Hee! Characters who do unexpected things are the best, especially when you think you know what they’ll be like but they surprise you instead.
The blue rabbit’s foot didn’t get chosen by many people, but Evanthia wrote a great beginning about a girl who inherits it from her uncle but wishes she could have inherited some of his million dollars instead…especially since it doesn’t seem to be helping her on her algebra exam. This is a great beginning because it hints at all this backstory…why did her uncle have this particular lucky charm, and did it help him get his million dollars? Why did he choose her to leave it to, and are there any strings attached to the luck that comes with it? I’m intrigued!
And then there were several great writing details, like Cole’s description of the Empire State Building as being "as strong and shiny as newly cut diamonds," or Kristiana’s beginning about a city inside a tropical ravine off the coast of Maui (underwater? that’s so cool! are they mer-people, or regular people living in a bubble? I want to know more!). :-) And two without names on them also jumped out at me: one because of the lovely, vivid description of the narrator’s grandfather carving and singing, and one that made great use of our other senses with lines like: "The aroma of sweet apple pie was floating around…"
So, terrific work, everyone! Especially considering you just had to leap into writing first thing in the workshop, with very little warning. 🙂
After that, each student came up with a character, and that was kind of amazing. I’m still thinking about characters like Evanthia’s Rose, who is over a thousand years old and can sew five dresses in a day…wow, I wish I’d had more time to ask questions about her, because how fascinating does that sound? Or Rashad, who lives in New Orleans, steals things, and secretly hates his mother. Or the boy who lives over a pet store, or the girl with purple hair and secret powers. I loved how vivid and unique and easy to imagine the people were — like the woman in her 30’s who lives at home with her parents and loves Grey’s Anatomy. Or Erik’s Norwegian military general who would rather be a horse breeder and who, in a movie of his life, would be played by Anderson Cooper. UM, AWESOME. I don’t remember all the details about each of them, but I felt like I could picture them very clearly as you guys described them…I was really blown away.
Finally we talked about first lines, and how the first line of a book can really grab you and draw you in — how it can tell you so much about the book, and yet you can also take one first line and go in lots of different directions. So for our last free writing exercise, everyone chose one of these sentences to begin a story with:
The first time I shapeshifted, it came as quite a surprise to all of us.
There was an unopened letter lying on the sidewalk.
I woke up to find myself on stage, surrounded by half a million people.
One of my favorite pieces that came out of this was by Abby B., who actually changed the sentence to read: "The second time I shapeshifted, it was quite a surprise to all of us." That’s hilarious, and even MORE fascinating. I thought the question was just "why is she shapeshifting?", but this change adds the question: "wait, why didn’t anyone notice the first time?" Too awesome! It’s also really funny…I love the lines: "The second time, we were in the car and I changed into an alligator. Well, as you probably guessed, we now have a new car." Ha! Nice work, Abby — you managed to totally surprise me and make me laugh as well. 🙂
Alex B.’s shapeshifting story is great, too — I especially love the part where the narrator notices a flock of ravens and thinks: "Like my last name", right before the shapeshifting happens. That’s very cool foreshadowing…it makes me think there’s a reason for this character turning into a raven, like maybe it’s a genetic quirk, or some kind of power passed down through the family. Or maybe the whole family is secretly a group of ravens who are hiding out disguised as people in this world for some reason this character doesn’t know about…I don’t know if you had any of that in mind, but I love the hint that there’s something else going on here!
Peter C.’s is also unexpected and intriguing; if this were the first paragraph of a book, I’d definitely want to keep reading. He chose the letter option and went on: "I had no idea what was inside, but it was addressed to someone unique. Someone who knew what they wanted and why." He then goes on to describe this person a bit more, and concludes: "He was different and could hurt you. Or kill you. The letter was addressed to me." !!! Wow — I’m already thinking this story is going to be weird and dark and awesome!
There are a few without names that are pretty great, too. Someone took the sentence about waking up on stage and added: "I was on a stretcher and my hands and feet were bound tight." Which takes the story in a whole other direction than this one, from Niki: "It was dead silent. Then someone shouted, ‘She’s no good! I want my money back!’" Both so cool!
With the first one, I get the feeling someone’s about to perform an experiment on the narrator (yikes!) — is it aliens? Or even creepier, fellow humans? Why is this particular character interesting enough to operate on? Who are all the people watching something so creepy? And with the second story, it’s a whole different kind of danger…embarrassment! What is she supposed to be performing, and what happened right before this moment, and why doesn’t she remember? Was she somehow transported into someone else’s body? Or is she a rock star with amnesia? The story could get so interesting from here.
The unopened letter went in some surprising directions, too — I love Cole’s story, where it turns out to be a threat/demand for money, and Lizzie’s, where it’s a gossipy note from the clique’s queen bee to one of her minions, and Courtney’s, where it’s an invitation for her character to attend culinary school. So many possibilities!
Anna’s letter, when her character opens it, is particularly hilarious:
You are a vampire. So, yeah, that’s it.
From, Anonymous (The Vampire League of Supernatural)"
Ahahaha! That is awesome! Why would they send her a letter like that? Did she know she was a vampire before getting it? Are they trying to recruit her, and why is it anonymous? This story is too funny already, and as my blog readers know, I SO approve of humor in the things I read. 🙂
A few people came up with their own first line instead (which is totally allowed in this exercise). I especially like this one (there’s no name on it): "Just taking one look around at the camp I grew up in, you would know that at this time in the war, no human lives a peaceful life." OOOOOOO. Is this the future? Or are we in a foreign country? Who’s at war with whom? Is it all humans vs. an outside threat (aliens, robots, mutated hamsters, etc.?)? Or are the humans fighting each other, and is the whole world involved, and why? Why do they have to live in camps? Is the narrator living with an army, or is it some kind of refugee camp, or has the whole world been reduced to rubble and makeshift camps? So many questions, just from that one sentence! I love it!
Anyway, those are the highlights of the workshop, and my impressions of what stood out in the writing pieces I got — although everything was really great! I know it’s tough to write spontaneously like that, so I’m seriously impressed with everyone, and I hope you had fun, too! Yay for future authors!
I wish I could go through every bit of writing I got in more excruciating detail, but I have this most demanding baby who is demanding my attention. What’s that? You want MORE photos of Jonah? ;-) Oh, all right, twist my arm… 😉
Awww, small and squashy and splendiferous little guy! :-) Hopefully one day he’ll have as great an imagination as the students in these writing workshops…and hopefully he’ll have awesome librarians like they do, too! 🙂
Thanks for having me, Manchester Essex Regional Middle School! And good luck with your writing, everyone who participated!
Quote of the Day: “We should have a signature line: ‘She’s armed, he’s dangerous.’ Or, oooh, how about: ‘A whole new chapter in crime-solving?’ ” — Castle on Castle (man, I love that show!)