A Real Audience

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by Guest Blogger, Dori Butler author of Image from AmazonDo You Know The Monkey Man? and Image from Amazon
Trading Places With Tank Talbott Note from Darcy: Dori will be talking about our parallel projects of reading our novels aloud to an audience of kids. I talked some about my experiences here. Dori will talk about reading her work-in-progress novel to a class.

A Real Audience

Shh! Don?t tell my editor that I’m blogging over here. I’m supposed to be finishing up a revision of a middle grade novel right now. And since my editor reads my blog, I decided I’d better not do any more blogging until I turn that manuscript in. But I told Darcy I’d do a guest blog a long time ago, so here I am.

Darcy wanted me to talk about my experience reading my work in progress to a classroom of real, live kids last year. Basically, what I did was I wrote two new chapters of a novel each week and then I went in and read those raw chapters to a class of sixth graders.

Actually, the TEACHER read them so I could sit back and listen and watch the kids’ reactions. I also brought a page of questions I’d made up on the chapters each week. The type of questions varied from week to week’so did the wording of the questions. Sometimes they were open-ended; sometimes they were multiple choice.

But no matter how I worded the questions, I was always interested in the same basic information each week:

what did you like best about these chapters,

what did you like least,

what was boring,

what was hard to understand,

what did you have a hard time believing,

what do you think of such-and-such character,

what do you think is going to happen next?

As soon as the teacher finished reading, I’d pass out my list of questions. I wanted to make sure I got honest responses, so we always went right from reading to the questions. (I would tell them NOT to put their names on their papers.) Then we’d have around 10-15 minutes to discuss the chapters after they finished filling out my questionnaire.

I found it was valuable to have both written questions and a discussion because sometimes I heard different things in writing than I heard out loud. I kept a journal of my experience from week to week, so I thought I’d post excerpts from my first and last days reading to this class.

Day 1 (or?What I Hope to Get Out of This Experiment)

I was intrigued when Darcy told me about this experiment she was trying. Donna Jo Napoli told Darcy that she always reads her work to a live audience before it’s published, so Darcy wanted to try that, too. I read Darcy’s diary entries on the subject with great interest, all the while thinking I should try this, too. I can see the value in reading my work aloud.  I think I’m likely to HEAR things in my own work that I don?t necessarily SEE.

But that’s not the main reason I decided to give this a try. I have a problem balancing my “supplemental writing” (the writing assignments that build my resume, pay pretty well and are generally kind of interesting, but they’re not really “mine”) with my “real writing.”? It’s so easy to say yes to every assignment that comes along and then never write anything new of my own. By making a commitment to go into a classroom every week and read two new chapters, I know I”ll continue to make progress on my new novel. And by the time the school year is over, I should have a completed draft of this book.

That’s my real goal here–to end the school year with a draft of a new novel.

So my main goal is a little different from Darcy’s. I’m also going into the classroom at a completely different stage in the writing process than Darcy did. I’ve only written about five chapters of the book I?m planning to read to the kids. Darcy had a complete draft of a manuscript. A complete draft that she’d already spent substantial time revising. So this may not go as well for me as it went for Darcy.

My “relationship” to my chosen classroom is also different from Darcy’s. Darcy knew the teacher she approached, but she didn’t know any of the kids. My original plan was to go into a classroom where I didn’t know the kids, either. Preferably a sixth grade classroom because my story is probably a “low YA.” My youngest son is in sixth grade, so I was going to contact a sixth grade teacher at one of the other schools in town. But when my son heard I was going to do that, he got upset. He really wanted me to come and do this in HIS classroom. And well,I know his teacher pretty well. We already had a relationship before the start of this year.

So I got to thinking: 1) it won’t be long before my sixth grader doesn’t want me to come into his classroom, so I may as well take advantage of that while I can;

2) I already have a relationship with this teacher: if I find this to be a useful exercise, I might want to do it again in future years. And it would be easiest to work with the same teacher;

3) I’ve been volunteering in my son’s classes since he was in first grade. For five years I?ve been telling this same group of kids what they need to do to improve their writing; so now it’s their turn to tell me how to improve my writing! The only problem is I don’t know if I’ll be able to trust them to be completely open and honest with me. They know me, so we may have a little “sitting on Grandma’s lap” effect and they’ll just tell me everything is wonderful. Though with five years of frustration built up, it could go the other way, too. They may tell me my chapters are awful just to get back at me for all the times I?ve made them rewrite things they thought they had finished. Only time will tell?

My final day (or?What I Actually Got Out of This Experiment)

I am so glad I did this!

I wanted to complete a draft of a new novel this school year, and I did that. I also got a sense of whether going in to a classroom of real kids and reading from my work was useful to me (it was) and educational for the kids (the teacher says it was), and I learned way more than I ever expected to learn. I learned how to phrase questions so that I’d get the most useful response out of the kids (yes, you CAN train kids to be good critiquers!); I learned how to read the kids faces; I learned what?s working in this story and what’s not; I learned what kids respond to and what they don’t.

This experiment forced me to take a closer look at my own writing process. Every week I analyzed what I was doing in this story and why I was doing it. Eventually, I became less fearful of “taking a risk” (just showing up every week to read chapters in draft form was a risk!), more willing to try new things.

As I told Darcy last week, this is really my first experience writing a TRUE first draft. Usually, I rewrite so much as I go along that by the time I get to the end, the manuscript is well beyond the “first draft” stage. But I didn’t have the luxury of going back and rewriting so much this time around. not when I had this commitment to produce two new chapters every week.

Having a true first draft is really exciting! I feel like there are all these possibilities open to me for revision, new avenues to explore. I already know what the story is about. I know my characters. I know where the strengths and weaknesses in the story are. I can go anywhere from here. And I can build on those strengths in order to fix the weaknesses.

Darcy talks about “seeing the shape” of a novel/ I’ve never really been able to do that before, but I see the shape of this one! (I see where I need mold the story into shape!) I certainly got frustrated with this experiment part-way through, though–especially when I faced a blank screen two days before I was supposed to go in to school and I had no idea what was going to happen next in the story.

I’ve never forced myself to write through the frustration like this before. But I discovered that interesting things can happen when you force yourself to write through frustration. All in all, I’m glad I read this book to the kids as I wrote it rather than after I had a complete draft.

But I wondered how good it was for the kids to hear something that wasn’t polished? So I asked the kids and the teacher what they thought–were they glad I came with a rough draft or did they wish I’d come with something that was more polished?

It was interesting to hear that the majority of the class (as well as the teacher!) preferred that I come at this stage. That’s not to say I’ll always do it this way.  I’d like to try going in with a more polished draft sometime, too, just to see how the experience differs. But I get the impression it’s easier on the school schedule for me to come once a week over many weeks than it would be for me to come several times a week for fewer weeks (which is how I’d want to do it if I had a polished draft.  I’d be too impatient to just go once a week in that case).

I thought it was interesting that the reason most of them liked hearing the rough draft is they felt they were in a better position to be of some help. And they DID help–but not necessarily in ways they think they did. For instance, I’m not necessarily going to change a plot element or a character’s name just because several of them said I should.

Like Darcy said, “I’m not writing a book by committee.”

Still, just getting a sense of what they responded to in the story, and taking their answers to the various questions into account gives me a better sense of what’s important to my audience (both as average kids and as readers).

For instance, while friends are clearly very important to kids at this age, their parents are still MORE important. And it’s important for me as a writer to know what to do with that information. Also, kids crave ACTION in their stories. I knew that, but I’m not sure I really got it until I had the experience of reading to them. So I?ll have to think about that chase scene in the middle of the book.  It’s a terrible scene. I was thinking I’d get rid of it altogether. But several of the kids listed that scene as their favorite scene in the entire book. I suspect they’re remembering it to be a better scene than it actually was. I think what really grabbed them about that scene is it/s an action scene. So even if that scene doesn’t make it into the next draft, I will be more aware of action in my stories and its placement in the story.

Will I read a story aloud to a group of kids again sometime? Absolutely!

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