ES: Welcome to The Corner, Julie. We are going to make this interview a bit longer than our norm here because you have so many experiences to offer from all perspectives – writer, publisher, AND teacher!
So, diving right into our first question: you have this miraculous project you complete with middle schoolers - you get them to produce a first draft of a novel in 1 month! Many adults find this a challenge, and most of us find kids tearing their hair out when assigned a simple 5 paragraph essay. Your secret is something called....NanoWriMo! Can you start by telling us what this is?
JM: NaNoWriMo is a project that coincides with National Novel Writing Month in November of each year. Its headquarters is a website that challenges adults and kids to write a novel in one month. The kid site is the more developed one - it provides a whole curriculum for teaching fiction elements in October, in prep for writing in November. For adults, the word goal is 50,000; for students, they set their own goals, then check in each week with their teacher to see what percentage they've finished. NaNoWriMo provides professional-looking posters and stickers and buttons to teachers (you can get these for free if you strategize a bit).
Once November starts, the website really kicks up the energy with interviews with other writers and published authors. The interviews provide tips for success such as helping kids stay on task - to "just write" and "put away their inner editor." There are blogs and a place to set up an online classroom where students can chat with each other or with other classes around the world. These help build excitement among the students, but the biggest incentive is the goals that they set for themselves. They love seeing their progress, and it's incredibly instructive to them to have to revise their word count goals mid-way through the project if they discover they've been too ambitious.
At the end of the month, students who've finished get online kudos from the NaNo staff and can get two bound copies of their novels printed by Amazon. This is also cool for the students.
ES: That is so wonderful! There is surely something humans find beguiling about achieving the impossible…since it gets so many kids who otherwise dread writing to be excited about writing a novel!
Perhaps the first question on everyone's mind is: In the Twittering Age of rampant ADHD, how do you get kids motivated - and committed - to sit and write for so long at a time and for so long every day?
JM: I think the fact that this is all student-driven really gets them going. They pick their own topics and their own word count goals. It's all on them and they love the ability to set their own goals. They challenge each other by watching each others' word counts grow on the goal-tracking posters I put outside in the hall. I think they also feel like they're "getting away with" something in that this isn't structured lesson time. But of course they are applying all the fiction skills they've learned--they're just doing it in a way that seems real and relevant to them--writing their own stories.
ES: Student-driven is definitely a huge factor in classroom success! I just switched to a very open, student-driven classroom model and the kids are loving it.
What are the brainstorming and outlining tools that you encourage the kids to use before their drafting - or is it just grab that pencil and write?!
JM: NaNoWriMo provides a workbook that leads students through the brainstorming process. The lessons start out asking students to write down novels they love and ones that they hate and write book talks about them. Then they rough out their topic and characters, practice dialog and setting, even watch a TV show to get a sense of how supporting characters can contribute to the plot arc, etc. I think what helps most is the personification of all their insecurities and fears as the "inner editor." They each draw this creature, then put him away, physically--in folder or pencil case or some such--so that they are free to create and not worry about the mistakes that might happen.
ES: Oh my goodness, I absolutely LOVE the idea of creating a physical inner editor and then tucking that lil munster away!
What about your revision process with them? And do you find kids are more interested in revising a novel - something so few of them ever dreamed they were capable of producing?
JM: This is the hard part - the real work is in revising. This year is my first year doing the project with my 7th graders, and because of scheduling problems/fitting in all the curriculum I've had trouble getting back to the editing as regularly as I'd like. That said, whenever we revisit the novel, I hear "yay"s and "oh great - cool" from the students.
I had the students pull out excerpts to work on - there is no time to edit their whole novels. I also broke up the editing process into chunks (I used to work in book publishing, so I know the process pretty well). I had the students work with partners and switch roles between author and editor, critiquing each other's novels using Google docs. (I did the whole project on Google, but it can also be done on paper.) They started with content editing, using questions such as: “Does the plot move forward logically?” “Have you told the reader your protagonists' name?” “Is the setting described enough for the reader to "see" where the action is happening?” And so on.
Then we did research, picking a topic from their novels that they want to know more about so as to make their stories more authentic.
Finally, we do copy editing - the nitty gritty of punctuation and grammar. All through this, I'm teaching the curriculum related to the part of the editing we're working on: expository essays for the research, grammar lessons during the grammar editing, etc.
ES: It’s fabulous how you tuck the regular English lessons into their beloved individual projects. And they are so lucky to have someone who worked in publishing to help them!!
What are some of your favorite reactions from the kids about this project?
JM: Here is some feedback from different kids:
“[My favorite part…] was experiencing the rush of writing a novel in 30 days.”
“I really enjoyed creating characters that were all different from each other. It was fun to make their personalities original and make their lives change in miraculous ways.”
“I just made my font bigger then smaller to trick myself into typing.”
“Before I changed my goal, the project as a whole was quite daunting and it felt like no matter what I did, I would never finish, but I just HAD to.”
“The most fun part about this project for me was seeing how much my story changed from my original idea as I went along.”
“If you set a goal, you can always change it, don’t be afraid to set a crazy goal, because it will motivate you, and if you can’t reach it, you can always lower it to a more reasonable one. I set my goal but then didn’t use my time wisely so my goal became too hard for me so I lowered it.”
“I think I'm best at writing dialog, because I daydream a lot, so making up fake conversations that sound real come pretty naturally to me. For example, when I wasn't too sure what to write next, I decided to add some dialog, so I stood up and acted it out with myself to see what I would say naturally, and then changing it up a bit to fit the character that was talking.”
“My favorite part of this project was meeting my characters.”
ES: You’ve certainly inspired many kids! It must be a great satisfaction to you at the end of every day.
As it turns out, your mother, Robin Hathaway, was a writer with many children's fans! What was her method of drafting? Did this influence you in any way in terms of your teaching?
JM: My mom is with me in spirit in the classroom every day that I teach, and especially during the novel project. She was a writer, but also knew so much about English and American literature. Growing up with her influence, and my dad for history, was like living out a humanities course every day, but without the boring lectures. ;)
My mom didn't get published until she was 60, so her motto when speaking to fledgling authors (and seasoned ones) was "never give up!" I tell this to my kids and use it throughout their writing adventure, because there are definitely moments when they get discouraged or tired or scattered in their thought processes, and just want to stop. I also try to channel her knowledge of authors past and present to tell the kids stories about them and expand their literary knowledge while entertaining them too.
That doesn't really answer your question, though. Mom always said that she wasn’t an "outliner." She just wrote her draft, then outlined from what she’d put down. She often said that the characters in the novel took on a life of their own and she was just there to see them through their adventure. I know a lot of writers say this, and I think it's because they really do experience this. Some of my students have said this too. I love when they do, because that tells me that they are really "in the moment" with their novel - creating and connecting with their characters.
ES: As a writer, it is also one of my favorite moments – seeing people and situations spring to life on their own between your fingers and the blank page!
You were in educational publishing until just 2 years ago - any advice for our nonfiction authors reading this?
JM: I spent most of my years on the marketing end, so I would say the harsh reality is that most authors have to know how to promote themselves, and this must start even before their book has been accepted for publication! Being online is important nowadays: a blog, a twitter account, having a "presence" among the audience the author is trying to reach.
Also, research your industry, go to conferences in the field you're writing about, get to know "names" in the industry, maybe even get them to give you a positive quote to include with the query letter or to post on your website. These are all good ideas to separate yourself from the pack. Research the publishers, too, because different houses specialize in different types of books, of course. If your book is about spirituality, for instance, do a search on Amazon for similar books, find some quality titles, then see who published them. It's a good way to target your publication quest.
Also, of course, never give up!!!
ES: Wow, Julie, thank you for giving us so much of your time and sharing such great advice from your wide-ranging experiences!
To contact Julie by email, click here.