Sunday, June 22, 2014

NaNoWriMo YOUNG WRITERS PROGRAM: The Importance to my Daughter and Fellow Future Storytellers

The first book our daughter wrote.
There is one sentence inside.
When our daughter was born we began feeding her a steady diet of books. We read to her every day, many times a day, but especially at bedtime. By the time bedtime reading was an hour, she craved more story than picture books could offer, so I read books like the Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede, Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, Protector of the Small quartet by Tamora Pierce, Redwall by Brian Jacques and eventually, Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien. Tolkien's work was by far the most challenging to read out loud. His sentences can be rather…um…long. (We kid that his sentences sometimes go on for a couple pages or more.) The imaginary worlds of daytime play were built from bedtime stories and included at least 14 "invisible" friends like Gandalf, Kazul, Bilbo and Aslan. She acted out parts of books, made up new parts and memorized long passages to recite.

When she was 6, her favorite author was Tamora Pierce (still is) and she announced she wanted to become a writer. It was only natural that she would want to write books like the authors she admired so much.

Enter NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) – a challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days:
While I was participating in NaNoWriMo, and having a great (and torturous) time doing it, I noticed they had a Young Writers Program where kids could participate and set their own word goals. Since our daughter was interested in becoming a writer, I suggested she give it a go.

It was an experience I will never forget. She was 6 and set her word goal to 500. Later she changed it to 900, but ended up going beyond that. Every day she climbed up on my lap and told me what to type for the day's installment of Jurassic Barbie. I was on the edge of my seat as she spun her tale:

Year One – Jurassic Barbie
"Oh, by the way, I forgot to mention that I am also an archaeologist. One day when I was digging I uncovered an interesting discovery. I found proof that long ago there had been Jurassic Barbies and that they had wings so, they were really more like fairies. There were even some that lived in the water. When I looked at the cells I discovered that they had been alive since the beginning of earth, but that they had looked different than they looked later on…"
---excerpt from Jurassic Barbie by Hannah Brown
Many times she ended the day on a cliff hanger and made me wait until the next day to find out what would happen. I wrote exactly what she said, changing nothing. It was hers and hers alone – a great accomplishment.

When the month was over she looked forward to setting her word goal even higher the next year. She even practiced typing faster so she could keep up with her thoughts and do it all herself. In the meantime, she read books at an amazing speed, no doubt collecting inspiration for future writing.

NaNoWriMo year two and beyond:
Year Two – Jurassic Barbie continues
One little problem we discovered when November rolled around again and she embarked on NaNoWriMo on her own – she absolutely hated to write! Not only was it intimidating to have ideas swirling in her head that she couldn't keep up with, but punctuation stopped her dead in her tracks. It wasn't intuitive enough for her yet and she really wanted to do it "right". My advice? Leave it out! Don't punctuate. Don't edit. We'll do it later. The world was lifted from her shoulders and she wrote freely. (It was quite a task to add punctuation to her very long 1000+ word sentence – rather Tolkein-esque – but we did it.) The story was a continuation of Jurassic Barbie from the first year. The book contains lots of amazing made-up science details on bringing an extinct creature to life – how she collected cells and created different parts and all the characters that helped her do it. And, like any good story, there was danger and intrigue with characters trying to steal or destroy her project.

The years went on. Her word goals doubled and tripled for NaNoWriMo and her stories became more complicated. The most challenging was in 2012 – a novel with only one character in it. She quickly discovered how difficult her concept was, but she got through it and learned a lot from it. Last year, at 13, she surpassed 50,000 words. She had a group of friends to write with who made all the difference in the world and a lot of encouragement from the online community of the Young Writers Program. In her words, "In the past couple of years, however, I don't think that I could have made it to my word goal without the support that I found on the NaNoWriMo website from other young writers."

Being a writer is more than just learning to write – life skills and inspiration:
Year Five – The Leopards of Ireland – snow
leopards kidnapped and held at a testing facility
in Ireland! (I was honored she asked me to
illustrate the cover.)
Our daughter's writing skills were achieved very organically (in part because we homeschool and let her interests guide her learning). She knew what she wanted to achieve and NaNoWriMo helped her progress without taking the joy out of it. She had no desire to take writing classes and any mandatory writing she did for state requirements was like pulling teeth. Now, because she has become such a skilled writer, she can take those state standards and twist them to her will – usually putting a humorous spin on something someone else thinks is important.

Always seeking to improve her writing, our daughter now researches grammar, word meaning and punctuation whenever she is curious. It isn't unusual to hear her say she spent the morning learning how to use semicolons, hyphens, em dashes or any other type of punctuation for a particular project she's working on. She does it as she needs it and it makes all the difference in how she feels about the information.

Writing for NaNoWriMo introduced valuable time budgeting skills. From her first year with NaNoWriMo she would set a word goal and then divide it by the number of writing days to figure out how many words she needed to write per day. If she wasn't able to get to her daily word count, she knew what she needed to do to meet her end goal.

As if merely existing weren't enough, NaNoWriMo also supplies pep talks from other Wrimos (NaNoWriMo participants) and seasoned authors like Scott Westerfeld and Justine Larbalestier. They throw out writing prompts and suggestions for those days when writing seems impossible. Scott Westerfeld says, "For a lot of people, Nano is a great way to move away from the concept of a muse they must wait for. It teaches you to write whether or not you feel inspired. You can find the inspiration in rewrites or after an hour of hard slogging. And basically, that’s the best way to get to a novel length. The muse, she is fickle. Nano is a machine."

This is a personal journey, but for teachers who wish to harness some of the joy and enhance the process, the Young Writers Program has impressive teaching materials they supply free of charge to groups and classes. It is truly an amazing program for anyone wishing to explore writing.

The importance of writing and loving it:
Does our daughter still want to become a writer? Well, she is a writer and no one can take that away. Does she want to do it for a living? She doesn't know. One day a couple years ago she mentioned hesitantly that she might not want to be a writer as a career and there was a brief melancholy moment – I think because she had been so adamant before. But she said she thought about going into the sciences, linguistics, or perhaps forensic linguistics. She loves words and language (and science and math), is a four time K-8 spelling bee champ, a three year participant in regional final spelling bees and she has been learning both Irish and Spanish with plans to learn many more languages. There is no way to remove the writer and lover of words from this young woman. Writing will always serve her in whatever she does as a valuable part to her chosen career. And who knows, she may still pursue writing as a career. The future is...an open book. (Couldn't resist.)

Thank you NaNoWriMo from the bottom of my heart, for your dedication to the pursuit of writing for joy and for inspiring others to discover it…

……………….

Our daughter is currently raising money for the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program. If you would like to participate, you can do so on her fundraising page or directly on the NaNoWriMo Young Writers donation page. The NaNoWriMo goal is to revamp the Young Writers Program website and expand their outreach to correctional facilities, halfway houses, and juvenile detention facilities. Every little bit adds up...

Sunday, April 7, 2013

IF AT FIRST YOU DON'T SUCCEED, FAIL, FAIL AGAIN (just keep making it better)

This year at the SCBWI Spring Spirit Conference, illustrator/writer/instructor, John Hendrix gave us permission to fail. In fact, he suggested we do our best to fail at least 10 times. It's actually a requirement in his Illustration and Communication Design classes at Washington University. I love that. I had a couple illustration teachers in college who taught that it wasn't okay to fail - even on an honest attempt at an assignment - especially if you were usually highly successful. I was one of the unfortunate students who presented early in the semester with pieces the teachers really liked. They sang their praises and it felt great.

I later learned that I would receive a rather personal wrath from those same instructors when I deviated from my successes to experiment with new ideas. That felt really bad and discouraged me from experimenting freely. I have been back on that uneasy ground for the past two years experimenting with new ideas and techniques. Last year I did 5 new pieces for my portfolio and I only feel that one was a success. It was hard to pull the failures from my portfolio after all the work I did, but I learned a lot in the process. 

Chicken Licken - before
For this conference, instead of rushing to create a new batch of illustrations, I decided to make what was staying in my portfolio even better. I took a cue from Eliza Wheeler, 2010 winner of an SCBWI LA Conference mentorship and 2011 winner of the LA Portfolio Showcase. Eliza blogged in 2011 about how she improved her portfolio based on feedback she received. The pieces I decided to keep in my portfolio were already ones that I really liked (that's important) and I had gotten feedback in critiques from art directors on how to make them better.

Chicken Licken - after
In order to improve these pieces without touching the originals, I had to perform digital surgery - some of which involved (gasp) new techniques for me. I've been doing minor edits for years, but decided to branch out. And you know what? It worked! The faculty at the conference viewed our portfolios and put sticky notes on some of our illustrations. All of the notes I had were on pieces I improved and all were positive...except one. It looks like I'll be pulling another piece from my portfolio. I've been told to pull it before and I did, but I tried to save it one last time. Against my better judgement, I put it back into my portfolio after trying to resuscitate it. I find it really appropriate that it was John Hendrix who declared it a fail - but he also said one of my other pieces was "weird and charming" which is one of my favorite bits of feedback yet. "Weird and charming" was an experiment from a couple years ago and will be staying in my portfolio. I hope to add more weirdness and charm in years to come. In fact, I wouldn't mind in the least if people started describing my work...or me...as weird and charming.

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On a side note, while improving my portfolio, I decided to redo my website (again!) to better reflect what I do. My offerings have been morphing too. I've been working hard to only do the work I love most, so I'm featuring book design and layout more prominently. Check out the new look of my website and my new children's illustration portfolio.

If you'd like to have a reminder that failure is okay - check out these mini Failure is Required sketchbook/journals by John Hendrix.