November is National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and for years the NaNoWriMo organization has put forth the challenge to write a novel in 30 days. Starting on Nov. 1, and ending at the stroke of midnight on Nov. 30, those who accept the task “lock away their inner editor and let their imaginations take over” — as NaNoWriMo describes the invitation on their website www.NaNoWriMo.org. Adults who sign up must produce a minimum of 50,000 words during the month. In the Young Writers Program (YWP), under-17s set smaller but no less formidable word goals…and that means about one hundred children in four classes of the fifth grade at Hunters Woods Elementary School in Reston have their pencils sharpened and their computers in overdrive.
October is the “Pre-Writing” stage, which is just as important and essential to a successful outcome as the actual writing, said Hunters Woods teacher Amanda Shopa.
After taking the challenge herself several years ago, Shopa decided to bring the project to her classroom and pioneered the YWP at her previous post. With a lot of support from the school administration she has recreated the program at Hunters Woods and is its most enthusiastic champion.
“The pre-writing time is when we plan, brain storm plot ideas, learn about the elements of good storytelling, set goals, find resources and really help each other out,” said Shopa. “The whole project from start to finish is an amazing educational opportunity to learn and practice a lot of different skills.” After they pledge their word count goals, the young writers track their progress on the NaNoWriMo website, where they find tips and writing resources and can “meet” with their fellow students for assistance and encouragement.
So what better way to start off the “pre-writing” phase of the challenge than to bring in a published author, particularly one who writes for the younger crowd, to give the budding novelists some guidelines and a rousing pep talk.
ON WEDNESDAY, OCT. 1, the Hunters Woods fifth graders were treated to an assembly featuring Terry Catasus Jennings, an award-winning author of children’s non-fiction and fact-based fiction. In addition to her books, Jennings’ work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Reston Connection and Ranger Rick. She is a contributor to the Science and Technology for Children and Science Technology Concepts series published by a consortium between the Smithsonian Institute and the National Academies.
Jennings’ audience loved her presentation right from the start. After advising them to get down to it and write their first drafts, she called out that with that accomplishment comes “Congratulations! You have a crummy first draft!” When the laughter died down, Jennings instructed that they then go on to write a “less crummy second draft,” then a “not so good third draft,” a “not so bad fourth draft,” and possibly then a “Final Draft.”
Using several of her own works as examples, Jennings took the youngsters step-by-step through the writing process, from where to find story ideas, to how to develop an interesting plot and characters that the reader will care about.
“Just keep looking around you,” she said. “See situations and ask yourself ‘What if?’ about what you see. And keep asking that question as you develop each moment in your story. Give your characters challenges, and be careful to make them solve their own problems. Don’t solve their problems for them or have adults solve them. “
During the hour-long assembly, Jennings involved the students in a number of exercises to help them find their character’s “voice,” to help them develop those challenges for their characters to face, and to work on describing their settings to make the readers really “see” where and how the story was unfolding.
Jennings’ involvement with the Hunters Woods Young Writers NaNoWriMo Project will not end with her guest speaker role at the school assembly. “I do school visits,” she said, “and they’re good, but it’s a short lived effect.” Because she will be participating in Google Hang Outs with the writers as they progress towards their goals, she is “excited because this has the potential of waking up the creative juices…making them life-long readers and writers.”
Project champion Shopa is equally excited. “Who knows what will come of this year’s project?’ Everyone who completes their word count goal is certified a winner, but Shopa had several students last year who had their books made available for sale through the self-publishing company CreateSpace.
“I have a student who is a real, published author with a book available for sale on Amazon.”
And like Jennings, Shopa knows that this project can have positive long-term effects. “Not all the students love the project, but one of the best outcomes is that even those who say they would never want to do this again all agree that they are glad they did it the one time. This is a time and a safe place where they get to write about what they want to write about in a way they want to write it, no judgments. No matter what, this is a real accomplishment.”
And it’s one in which Shopa is equally invested, since she takes the challenge right along with her students. “I want them to know that I am not asking them to do something this challenging that I am not willing to do with them.”
AFTER ALL THE HARD WORK of the “pre-writing” and the month-long writing, December brings the celebration. “We have an ‘It’s Over!’ party, and we usually have T-shirts printed with sayings like ‘I Wrote a Book in November – What Did You Do?’” said Shopa.
Later, the students pick one scene from their work to polish to perfection and submit for grading. “It’s not an easy project for any of us,” Shopa admits, but with the dedication of supporters like Shopa, the HWES staff and mentor Jennings, it certainly seems like more and more students and teachers are joining the ranks of the next generation of novelists.