Last week I was lucky enough to be invited to speak about writing to a class of 6th graders at a local middle school.
The fact that the middle school is attended by my nephew Michael, and the request came from his teacher was a complete coincidence.
Okay, maybe it wasn’t a complete coincidence…
Michael’s class has been learning about National Novel Writing Month, and he and his classmates are all writing their own stories this month. When I talked to their teacher in preparation for my visit, I was amazed by how much the class already knew. They’d learned about protagonists, antagonists, and how to derive information about a character from action, feelings and reactions.
I will share the materials I put together for the class, but first I need to provide you with some context:
1. I am terrified of children. Well, let me back up from that. I love my nephews. I love my friends’ kids. I am generally pleased that children exist and think very highly of them from afar. Up close, though, and standing in the classroom in front of a room of middle schoolers? Terror. I made my sister come with me for moral support so that I didn’t pass out.
2. I am not a teacher. I don’t know anything about curriculum or any rules when it comes to imparting information onto kids. I just know what I know, and generally what I wanted to help them to know.
So, with those two caveats, a request to discuss “character development” and a 50 minute timeframe, here is what I came up with:
- My writing process: I talked a little bit about my book and my writing process. I emphasized the fact that editing is very important, and sometimes you have to write something over and over again before you get a finished product. I also talked about the fact that everyone who writes is a writer. There are people who publish and people who don’t, but those who don’t are no less writers than those who do.
- Types of novels: In my mind, there are two types of novels: character-driven and plot-driven. That said, both are still important because interesting characters need something to do, and books like The Hunger Games have great plots, but wouldn’t be nearly as exciting if you didn’t care about the people involved, like Katniss.
- Different ways to present information about your character:
- Indirect: – Sometimes we tell readers about our characters by showing how they react to situations. To illustrate this, I read a blurb from from The Hobbit that showed how kind and compassionate Bilbo is, by the way he treats Gollum.
- Direct – The most common way to learn about a character’s physical appearance is by having other characters describe them. To illustrate this point, I read a blurb from my own book where Sarah describes her boss, Frank the first time she met him.
- Writers need to know their characters: I shared with the students the fact that they can only tell their readers about characters if they already know them very well, themselves. They need to know what their characters look like, talk like and smell like. They need to know whether their characters have brothers and sisters and what they liked to do after school. Were they involved in clubs and sports? Who were their friends?
- Character flaws and motivations: It is very easy to get caught in the trap of perfect heroes and evil villains, but the most interesting characters are more three dimensional. We talked a little bit about heroes who have flaws (like Percy Jackson) and villains who do bad things, but you can understand their motivation and why they do those things (like Draco Malfoy). Interesting characters are well-rounded characters, whether they are good or bad or somewhere in between.
During my time with the students, we took a few minutes to do different writing assignments.
All I can say is “Wow!”
I was blown away by the talent in that classroom.
Look out, my author friends and colleagues. There is some serious talent in this 6th grade class.
I can’t wait to read what these writers turn out during their National Novel Writing Month!