Thursday, October 30, 2008

What I Learned From Fifth Graders

Today I spoke to five fifth grade classes at an elementary school in town. If there's anything that will make a writer think about why they write, and how they write, it's standing in front of a room of kids. I took a poll as I started each talk. Many of these kids loved reading, and some didn't. A few of them liked to write and a few of them struggled with the writing process. As a writer on deadline who prides herself on being a professional, their questions made me take a moment to take stock of my attitude and my work habits.

As I expected, the classes asked many of the same questions:

1. When did you start to write?

2. What do you do when you get stuck?

3. What was your favorite book to write?

4. Which book was your hardest to write?

5. How do you get started with a story?

6. How do you know when the story is over?

I found myself encouraging them as I realized they're at the age now where it's make it or break it. Will these children toss books aside as troublesome sources of dreary assignments? Will they give themselves the chance to be creative and experience the joy of story?

I told them about the importance of passion. Especially in fiction, write what you love. Writing is difficult enough that it's wrong to complicate the process by trying to force yourself into a niche.

We also talked about remembering the reader. Not only do we write because of passion, but we write because we want to give the reader a great read. It's supposed to be fun, entertaining, and we're sharing something with them that we hope they'll remember.

We talked about rewriting and doing the best we can. I told them I have good friends who read for me and tell me how I can make by books better.

One of the fun parts was talking about story structure, and the importance of problems for our character. We talked about finding the main conflict in the book Holes, and how once that main conflict was solved, the story was over. Causing problems for our character helps move stories out of those tight spots and keeps our readers interested. The kids saw some practical examples from what they'd recently read to help them as they write.

They asked some great questions of me and I left the school exhausted, but also with renewed focus on why I write, and what I need to remember as I write.

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