I’ve been doing fiction workshops in schools for a bunch of years now, and one would think that I would have made it easier on myself by creating a bunch of fairly standardized lesson plans so I wasn’t having to make it up as I went along every dang time. Alas, if one should think such a thing, one would think wrong. I’m not much of a planner as a general rule. When I shoot, I shoot from the hip. Every time I organize a workshop, I re-invent the whole thing. It’s the only thing I know how to do.
This year, I decided to teach the kids about story structure – cause/effect, three-act, non-linear, etc. I had them plan out the stories they had started, starting with fleshing out their main characters, identifying the central problem and mapping out what was going to happen in the beginning section, the middle section and the end.
To demonstrate what I wanted them to do, I pulled out the longhand manuscript of my new WIP, called The Sugar House, and did my own story plan on the white board. So as they were planning out their stories, so I was planning out my own. And talking about my own. And wrestling out loud.
And here’s the thing about spending time with third and fourth graders. They are incredibly encouraging.
“Wait,” one boy said, after I had written the central problem for The Sugar House on the Smartboard and was waiting for the kids to write down their own. “Is that book out?”
“Which book?” I asked.
“That one,” he said, pointing to the notebook in my hand.
“Oh,” I said, “No. As you can see, I’ve just hit the 150 page mark in my notebook, and I’ve run out of space. So now I’m going to start transferring it into my computer, expanding the details, and do fussy little things like work out the ending.”
“Oh,” the boy said.
Later as I wrote out the main events – beginning, middle and end – for The Sugar House as a demonstration, and waited for the kids to write their own, the same boy raised his hand.
“Well,” he said. “It looks like you did it.”
“Did what?” I asked.
“Worked out the end. Right there. ‘Nate and Mrs. Otterholt save the day even though they still hate each other’s guts.’ That’s a GREAT ending.” He smiled encouragingly.
“Well,” I said. “Thank you. I actually haven’t gotten that far yet in the actual narration, but I’m pretty sure that’s how it will end. I’m glad you like it.”
He paused. Raised his hand again.
“So,” he said. “It’s coming out, like, next month maybe?”
“No darling,” I said. “But I’ll let you know when it does.”
“Good,” he said. “Because I can already tell it’s my favorite book.”
And that’s what it’s like with these kids. I read them sections from The Witch’s Boy and they tell me it is their new favorite. I read them sections from other books that I love - Winter of the Robots, Breadcrumbs, Goblin Secrets, The Thirteen Clocks - and they tell me those are their favorite books too. They stand up when I walk by to give me a hug. They ask me to autograph random scraps of paper which they shove in their pockets, lose, and then ask again the next day.
I have spent the last year staring at my manuscript in a state of utter fear – writing, erasing, writing, erasing – wondering why I do this job at all, wondering why I scribble words just to pronounce them failures and kill them forever. Wondering how I could ever hope to do right by these characters whom I love so very much.
And then I go to a classroom. And I share my characters with kids. And the kids love them as much as I do. This right here – this is why I teach. I teach to remind myself why I write, and I write to have the opportunity to connect with the kids I teach. The two are connected. And it’s only when I’m in the classroom, that I can feel that connection in my bones.
Time to get back to class. I hope everyone has a wonderful Friday!