Susanne Dunlap

What do you tell an 8th grader about writing?

In Writing Craft, YA, MG, Kids on December 10, 2010 at 11:55 am

I haven’t done much outreach to young people since I started writing young adult historical fiction. That’s largely because I was working full time, and didn’t have the flexibility in my schedule to do school visits and such.

And it’s also because bookstores and libraries don’t generally like to schedule readings or activities for teens and youth, because often they can’t get themselves to events, but must rely on a willing parent to drive. That was a big difference for me. With my adult books, which had moderate, mid-list-type success, I always did readings in bookstores and libraries when the books first came out. It gave a sort of feeling that I had accomplished something, and gave me a reason to interact with potential readers. OK, many of them were friends and family, but there’s something magical about sitting in a bookstore, surrounded by books, knowing that one of yours is privileged to be among them. It’s a celebration of sorts.

With my YA books, the on-sale dates have tended to be non-events. Sure, I went to a few bookstores and signed stock. But it’s rather a passive, almost pathetic activity. In fact, the interactions I have with readers of my YA novels are almost exclusively online, either through Facebook or when I am contacted via my website.

I recently did a Skype call with a mother-daughter book club, which I enjoyed very much. I’d like to do more of those, but it’s hard to get the word out.

Of course, my own naivete and ignorance about the process of booking school visits hampered me from breaking into that realm very early on. I assumed that my publisher would help, that they would use their contacts with school librarians to make introductions etc. But, apparently, because they’re usually paid gigs, the publisher can’t get involved. It has to be something directly between the author and the school.

That said, I did finally manage to schedule a school visit, coming this January, to my old high school in Buffalo, New York: The Buffalo Seminary. Before you think I went to a Catholic school, think again. It was and is a girls’ prep school, non-religious. That said, we started every school day singing a hymn in chapel…

Of course, this looming visit, January 8th, has forced me to think about what I would say/do with a group of 20 to 100 8th graders that they would find interesting and helpful. The school is using it as a recruitment vehicle, a way to show prospective students the riches of the education they will get if they choose to attend Sem. So I’d better be good.

I remember my own early efforts at writing, and I cringe. I loved to read. But as to figuring out what made the books I loved tick, how the authors kept me turning the pages, and how I might create stories of my own—I was so far away from that. Then again, I never took a creative writing course or workshop when I was young. My focus was always on music. I was the pianist. My older brother was the guitarist and the scientist. My next younger brother was the writer and the artist. The youngest—he was dyslexic, and struggled with school at a time when such things were little understood. He formed a passion for cooking.

So, I’m left thinking, what would have made sense to me? And then I have to realize, the way kids learn and are entertained has changed completely since then. I’ve got to have visuals. Interactivity. Find creative ways to keep them interested.

Boy, teachers have a tough job these days.

But what it all boils down to is that I have to find a way to convey both the magic and the craft of writing. Or at least, just enough to make them think, perhaps inspire them to put pen to paper—or fingers to keyboard—and set down a few of their own stories.

I guess if I keep myself to that goal—a glimpse, a hint, of how writing works and what possibilities it offers—I won’t be too ambitious. Will I?

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