Wednesday, January 26, 2011

My secret weapon

I don't see how anyone writing a novel for the young adult or middle school audience can hope to achieve anything without a bunch of kids to read it to.

That's my secret weapon. My wife Tori teaches fifth grade at the Good Hope School, and at least once a week, sometimes two, I bring the latest chapter to class and read it to them.

Their enthusiasm is (or at least so far, has been) bracing. No matter how glum I happen to be feeling about my progress, they are so into it that it drives me. And of course, I don't want to disappoint the kids, so that keeps me on task. Gotta have a new chapter ready by Tuesday!

And sometimes, they point me in the right direction. Their praise is great, but even better, they're not afraid to tell me when something isn't working for them. They're not afraid to say, "That was a little boring," (one of them actually said that once, bless her) or "I didn't understand that." And then I know I have work to do and an idea of what that work is.

It also was tremendously helpful on the second draft. Last year I read them The Wreck of the Gladys B. as it progressed. And their comments and discussions helped me see exactly the kind of work I needed to do in the rewrite. So much so that midway I was able to write the new chapters as if I'd already made those corrections in the earlier part of the story. I would tell them, "I'm going to go back and change this or that," so the next material would make sense to them. And when it came time to do the second draft, I already knew what I had to do. It was much easier than the second draft of Chance.

When I finish reading the day's chapter, they always go, "Aawwww!" I like to think it's because they really like the story, although maybe it's just that the story is better than a math test. Some days that's good enough. Last year, when I finished Gladys, they applauded. Don't think THAT felt great?

And they have become very possessive about the story. I ran into three of the kids, now in the sixth grade, after school yesterday. They wanted to know if had been published yet, and then demanded to know why not, as if it was my fault. (Maybe it is.) I tried to explain how the system works, but they wanted none of that. They want the book, on the shelves, and they want it NOW.

This violates one of "the rules," the one that says you "write the first draft with the door closed." Write what's in your heart, then fix it up, THEN show the world and let them fall all over themselves praising your brilliance.

Maybe that's good advice. All I know is, reading it to the kids sure worked for me. Gladys went much more easily than my first novel, Chance. I'm sure in part that was because I had been through it once with Chance, and knew I could actually do it. But having the input of those kids as I went along was priceless.

It goes without saying, if you're going to write in a genre – mystery, thriller, romance, teenage vampire love story – you ought to read a few, familiarize yourself with what's out there, what's selling. How can you write a YA adventure if you haven't read one since you were 17? This just takes it one step further – I'm familiarizing myself with the genre and the audience, and letting them help tell me if the story is working.

For their part, they get to see what the creative process is like. We talk about some of the choices I've made or coming up. They get to see how a novel is written. A couple of them have started writing their own. To me, that is the best part of all this, and I can't wait to see what they come up with!

The Wreck of the Gladys B. is kid tested. You can tell me there are problems. You can tell me a character doesn't work or the plot has holes. You can tell me I can't write. But you can not tell me kids won't like it. I'm sending it out to agents with the confidence that kids will, because I already know they do.

And of course, they'll all be named in the acknowledgments.


  1. That's such a great idea for a writer, and awesome for THEM to get in on the process. Brilliant!

  2. That's really super cool... Great idea to involve your audience, and I must say, I'm 30 years old and YA novels are my favorite reads. I don't think you can ever get too old for them. :) Good for you!