Hi, everyone!  Yesterday, I had the privilege of giving a talk to two sixth grade classes about writing novels.  The Language Arts teacher is just starting a novel-writing unit that’s really cool, where the kids will come out of the process with a 30-50 page novel of their own creation, illustrated, bound and “published.”

6thgrade talk3So she asked me to give a little presentation.  You know, the Here’s-A-Real-Author-Who-Knows-What-She’s-Talking-About-So-Listen-To-Her kind of talk.

Ahem.  Yeah, I was a little nervous, even though I’ve given presentations like this before, and I’m certainly not new to teaching: I’d taught literature at the college level for many years.  But there’s something about talking with adolescents as opposed to 18-22 year-olds that can heighten the anxiety level a bit.  Especially when your own child is in one of the classes you’ll be talking to.  And I’d be speaking to them as an author, not their teacher.

For this year’s talk, I wanted to bring in more of what I’ve been learning as a writer.  I put together a new powerpoint slide show (more on that below) and revised, revised, revised.

And it went well!  No erasers were thrown, no one was sick…in fact, I got a lot of good questions and participation.  So here’s my take-away:

My Top 5 Reasons Why It Rocks to Talk to 6th Graders About Novel-Writing:

1. You get to pass your own novel around…and later, read aloud from it.  I’m still buzzing from that.

6thgrade talk2

2. The teacher makes you feel like a rock star. When else do I ever get a mocha latte and a blueberry muffin handed to me?  (There was a break between talks – I wasn’t eating in front of the class, LOL).  #WillTeachForMuffins

3. Your kid actually looks happy you’re there.

4. When preparing, you have to strip the material down to its essentials.  What’s absolutely important to say about writing?  What will be the most beneficial?  What’s too complex?  How can this be organized in a meaningful way? (More on that in a minute).  While this was a challenge, it was a wonderfully clarifying process.  Doesn’t that often seem to be the case – the teacher learns, along with the students?

5. They applaud when you’re done, and not just because it’s lunch-time, either. 😉

What I considered important to emphasize:

6thgrade talk11. Commonality:  all human beings crave stories and tell stories in some form or another, every day.  In fact, researchers have found that storytelling makes up 65% of our verbal exchanges.

2. The importance of storytelling:  scientists believe it evolved to give humans a survival edge, and now it is our primary way of sharing, persuading, entertaining, and forming the human experience.  No matter how digital we get, we look to the story form to get our message across.

3. Ways to get started:  the “kernel” idea, “what if” questions, and the logline.  We had lots of fun with my “guess the book/movie” logline activity, and we created a logline from a brainstorming session involving videogames and an evil artificial intelligence.  Bwahaha.

4. Antagonist, Protagonist, and Power Imbalances: I emphasized the importance of developing your antagonist first, because the story would not exist without the problem; I also talked about the power relationship between the two of them, with the protag being the metaphorical gum at the bottom of the antag’s shoe throughout most of the novel, and then how things turn around so the protag finally has the upper hand and vanquishes the antag.  Fun stuff!

5. Structure:  I like the 3-Act structure, although I know there are other paradigms out there.  I talked from this slide:

3Act structure

6. Suspense: I read a suspenseful scene from my debut mystery, Dangerous and Unseemly, and we analyzed the scene’s strategies for creating suspense, which they can apply in their own writing.

Resources I used:

Wired for Story: the Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence (thanks to Rachel Funk Heller for telling me about this book!)

What Listening to a Story Does to Our Brains

Your Brain on Books: 10 Things that Happen to Our Minds When We Read

Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat – really helpful for explaining structure and loglines.

NaNoWriMo’s Young Writer’s Program – this is a fab resource for students and educators.  It has cool workbooks and online support for kids from 4th grade through high school.

Have you given an author talk at an elementary school?  What would you want to emphasize in giving a book talk?  I’d love to hear from you.

Until next time,


P.S. – a special thanks to Ms. H, for hosting me!  And thank you to all you school teachers out there – I don’t know how you do this extraordinary job, every day.  You are amazing. 🙂

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