Teach the classics or teach what students want to read? Too often this is the dilemma of a middle school teacher. The classics are rife with all the teachable elements we want our students to know about: symbolism, personification, metaphor, etc. More recent YA books? Sure, those literary tools are there, but not in the sort of abundance that makes them good material for teaching in class. There’s simile galore, of course; it seems to be the YA author’s go-to figurative language device. So what’s a teacher to do?
I’ve decided the best recourse is to beg for more. You writers out there, you move us with your character development. You rock our worlds with your fast-paced action. You lead us down dark alleys of intrigue. Time to hit us over the head with some of those literary tricks your language arts teachers used to bore you to tears (or at least to graffiti). I know you can do it. I’ve seen it in the best of some of the current lit. I’ve seen it in plenty of brilliant Scriva stuff. I know I need to add more of it to my own work.
To wit: upon hearing of my intent to write this blog, my own novel has just up and walked in front of the cross-town bus.
To read or not to read? That is the question that nips at the heels of aspiring writers.
Some years ago while carpooling home from a crit group meeting, I told Scriva Addie about this book I’d been noodling about for quite a while. I was bored with my current novel-in-progress, and I wanted to dive into something new. After listening to a brief sketch of my idea, Addie asked if I’d ever read a book she’d heard about named W—-.
I hadn’t, but I thought I ought to maybe check it out. Or maybe not. Or maybe later. Or maybe before I got started. I let the question of whether or not I should read the book bounce around in my brain for a good four years or so.
Fast forward to this summer; I finally had time to pick up a few YA books I’d been intending to read and also start tapping away again at the books that have been yammering away in my head. Imagine my dismay when, in a flash of why-the-heck-not, I finally picked up the book Addie had mentioned to me so many years ago and discovered that it was uncomfortably similar to what I’d been plotting in my head for so long.
I nearly dragged the file to the trashcan in dismay, but then I talked it over with the Scrivas, and, again, their collective wisdom overwhelmed me. While there are some definite down sides to having the story you’ve been meaning to tell already told, there are some possible up sides, too. I’m redefining characters, remapping plot lines, and adding complexities I’d been wishy-washy about before.
So fear not: someone else’s story is just that. Your story is your own, and reading something close to it might help you craft it even more finely.
A few weeks ago, I happened across a blog post on character goals and motivations that nagged me like a just-below-the-skin’s-surface splinter – but in a good way. I’d pick at it a little, forget it for a bit, and then rediscover it and set about finding a better set of tweezers.
I stumbled across http://www.writerslikeme.com/tag/princess-bride/ while looking for an image from The Princess Bride to use in a prop for an 8th grade graduation celebration. In the blog, Cheryl writes about Westley’s, Buttercup’s, Inigo’s, and even Humperdinck’s goals and the importance of character motivation. I added the blog to my bookmarks, fully aware that I might never again visit it because, let’s face it, I’m only a blogger by scriva-default. I rarely read blogs because there are only so many hours in a day and only so much writing advice I can swallow before it begins to taste like hemlock. I did, however, pull up my character rubric for the novel I’ve been promising myself to work on this summer, and I gave myself a nice pat on the back for listing on it goals for my two main characters. Splinter? What splinter?
A few nights later, in the midst of reading one of the five YA books I try to read each trimester (gotta have stuff to recommend to my students), I wondered why the author hadn’t clued me in to the motivations of anyone except the main character. Was it a plot technique? Had I missed something? Was my new-found focus making me a writer-snob?
Fast-forward ten days. I asked my 7th graders to write a paragraph about which character from Dead Poet’s Society they most identify with and why. I expected about half would mention Neil and the other half would bring up Todd. What I got was at least five references to each student character in the movie – and plenty of explanations about how the characters’ needs and goals were similar to what my own students wanted. Damn splinter. I graded my essays and went back to my rubric. Sure, my main characters had goals, but what about the ancillary cast?
I’ve got my summer writing work cut out for me: understand the goals of more of my characters, get some actual writing done, and spend a little time catching up on splinter-inducing blogs.
This month each of my thirty seventh-grade students selected a novel from roughly 10 options to read and discuss in small groups. I’m amazed each time I do this because, regardless of the novels I select, inevitably the students end up split fairly evenly into groups of three or four. I’d like to own to being just-that-good at knowing the literary needs of my students, but, in fact, I believe it’s due more to the wide-ranging tastes of these middle-grade-bordering-on-YA readers. Many of them will go on to read most of the other novels over the summer; they’re hungry to read and willing to follow an author almost anywhere.
Every now and again I ask myself what it is they want more of. (And then I remind myself not to end a sentence in a preposition. Then I write a lesson plan on prepositions.) So today, I asked them what they want to read over the summer, and here are their responses:
- More books with strong male AND female main characters
- More action/adventure books
- More romance, less sex (Okay, I DO teach in a Catholic school)
- Less romance (virtually every boy in the classroom)
- Bibliographies that sound more like novels
- Shorter time between series books
- More scary, but not too scary, books
- Biographies about athletes
- Books that work in some sort of sport (“Athletes like to read, too, you know.”)
- More comedies or books that are funny/humorous
- Factual history books (esp. on war, hunting, sports)
- Books that explain phenomena
- Stories where a character clearly grows or changes (it’ll make writing essays easier!)
- Books that explore friendships and how they change
- How to books (on art, writing, songwriting)
I started the summer with the best intentions: write every day, learn to play guitar, read all the YA books that have been piling up on my nightstand, and take my kids on a cross-country road trip.
Well, in a nutshell, what I wrote and the chords I learned to play on our 65 mph whirlwind tour of the western U.S. would fit in a very tiny nutshell. The stacks of books though – those took up more than half of the back of my minivan. My regret at not using every spare moment to work on my novel took up the other half.
Arriving back in Portland, late last night, I unloaded all the baggage and uncovered something important I’d forgotten: I need a quiet space to write in. I climbed into bed long after midnight, and around three, I was ready to take an axe to the characters and scenes clamoring for attention. Before I’d even had my coffee, I headed to Vivascriva.com and read all the posts I missed while on the road. Scriva Sabina’s and Scriva Melissa’s words pummeled me into reflection.
As surely as I did not learn to play anything beyond an E chord, I surely did make progress on my novel. Okay, okay. No words made it onto the screen, but the descriptions and dialogue and action scenes that piled up as I drove are begging for some quiet space in which they can be typed.
And so I’m ending the summer with the best intentions: find a quiet place, write every day, learn another guitar chord.
Every once in a while I decide that I should drop out of Viva Scriva, the better to focus on my job as a first-year middle school teacher, meet the needs of my three kids, spend time exercising, complete some crossword puzzles, solve the energy crisis. I spend a weepy evening composing my resignation email to the group. Inevitably, I wake the next morning and, sometime between oatmeal and toothpaste, decide to suck it up and delete the unsent email.
I’m one of those over-committed people who juggle too many things, always flinching at the prospect of a dropped friendship, a missed assignment, a kid left at school (sorry, Andrew), or an unread manuscript. The most amazing thing about a critique group, though, is that it provides a quiet space where all the energy lasers in on just one thing at a time. The most amazing thing about the right critique group is that it provides the support and encouragement and focus and humor its members need.
Last month, I crafted a beautifully worded missive to my Scrivas. I wish I could paste it here; it was touching, spare, heartfelt, and all that. But I sucked it up, deleted it, and went to our monthly meeting the next night. And there, I got to suck up their enthusiasm, collective wisdom, support, and a PBR. I can happily report that I didn’t drop a single friendship or manuscript. The energy crisis, however, remains unsolved.