Riding The Bus With 5th Graders

Yesterday I squished onto a big yellow school bus with a few dozen 5th graders to chaperone a field trip. The bus smelled like wet socks. The girls across the aisle nibbled bits of neon green paper. The kid behind me kept jamming his knee into my back. One girl wore a cluster of key chains on her eye glasses–and my daughter informed me that the one that said “I *heart* Justin Bieber” was meant to be ironic.

I scribbled notes about all these potential characters in my little notebook.

But my biggest writing lesson happened during the play we went to see: Honest Abe Lincoln. The actors were fun to watch, but I couldn’t imagine anyone except a school group watching this message-driven play. Abe was honest. Abe loved to read. Abe was honest. Abe loved to read. Abe was honest. Oh, and he loved to read.

Bam. Bam. Bam. 

The writer hammered the message into almost every bit of dialogue, as well as dumping information into conversation, “As you know, Abe, [insert facts that no one really says in dialogue].”

I watched the sparkly-ballet flat-wearing girls, slumped in their seats, fuchsia-encased iphones resting on their laps. Earlier these girls showed off impressive dialogue skills as they flirted with the boys sitting behind them.

Kids are sophisticated these days. And smart. Even 5th graders deserve our best storytelling skills. Plus, they’re at an age when most people talk down to them. And they hate that!

If the play had focused on an interesting anecdote in Abe Lincoln’s life, it would’ve had more impact than constantly telling the audience that he loved to read and that he was *gasp* honest.

Tonight most of those 5th graders will be putting on a production of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The kids have embraced the challenge of learning new vocabulary, memorizing lines, puzzling out the meaning of each scene… Because they’re smart.

Remember that in your own writing. Your readers are intelligent and sophisticated, even the ones who chew neon green paper on the school bus.

Developing A New Idea

My WIP is off with its first readers, so I’ve allowed myself a few lazy days of lounging. But now it’s time to think about developing my next idea.

My new idea came to me through random chance encounters…

Teen in bookstore cafe + a joke made during a dinner party = my cool new idea.

(I chose this idea because the challenge of pulling it off kind of scares me.)

But it’s just an idea–an unformed blob. How do I give it shape? The idea sparked on June 13th last summer, so since then I’ve been collecting more information.

An essay in Men’s Journal gave me a hint of voice, attitude… so I asked my hairdresser if I could keep the magazine. I’ve found a few more clippings–photos of the kinds of characters I plan to create, stuff that might interest my characters…

I’ve been gathering a stack of research books too. Some deal with my main topic, but others only relate to the themes a little bit. I plan to read a wide variety of stuff that will allow my mind to make unusual connections that will–hopefully–deepen my original spark of an idea. And add lots and lots of layers.

I won’t be ready to write for several weeks, but I’ll start playing with my characters’ voices during my writing exercises. Let them talk without the pressure of creating WIP word count.

I’m also asking myself lots of “What If” questions about plot–jotting them down in the notebook I’ve set aside just for this story. Once I finish the bulk of my research I’ll sit down with a thick yellow pad and list possible scenes, plot points, figure out each character’s motivation, etc. For me, plot works like a puzzle.

Now I just have to find all the pieces…