I now have a first full draft of the fourth book in the Franklin School Friends series. (Previous titles: Kelsey Green, Reading Queen; Annika Riz, Math Whiz; Izzy Barr, Running Star.) This is a spelling bee book, starring Simon Ellis, who has been Kelsey's rival in the reading contest, Annika's rival in the Sudoku contest, and the rival of Cody (soon to star in book number five) in a race. The challenge for me in this current book is to make good-at-everything-Simon a sympathetic character with whom readers can identify, to find the vulnerabilities in the kid seemingly without any.
With a full draft done, it's time to call on my peeps to give me wise counsel that will help me write the next draft.
My son Gregory had already helped me enormously in writing the first chapter, where Simon is trying to find out what the longest word in the whole world is. When I was growing up, playground wisdom was that it was antidisestablishmentarianism. I knew that different times might generate different answers, so I asked Gregory what the longest word was taken to be when he was growing up. Without missing a beat, he told me, the syllables tripping with ease off his tongue:
That went into the book.
Now I needed his help even more. I had decided that I simply could not keep writing realistic fiction about contemporary kids in school settings without having some kid sometime play a video game. So I wrote two video game scenes in Simon's book: one where his best friend, Jackson, is upset that Simon beats him; one where Jackson is equally upset that Simon lets him win.
The trouble is: I have never played a single video game in my entire life.
Luckily for me, Gregory has.
I sent him my first try at the scenes, and he sent me back pages of kindly worded but sweeping critique:"In the beginning of the game Xalik and Satu are fighting each other, but
then right afterwards they go to trying to find a treasure chest. It
is unlikely that a game would have the players switch objectives like
I rewrote the scenes and sent them back to him. His verdict: much better, but. . . . He sent me links to websites where I could learn more about game design, the difference between 2D and 3D games, game settings, game moves. My heart sank. Finally I threw myself on his mercy: "Gregory, could you maybe write just a couple of little details I could put in that would be accurate and real and engaging?" He did so within the hour. I feel a bit guilty about letting him ghost-write these lines for me, but then I remembered that Maud Hart Lovelace, author of my most beloved Betsy-Tacy books, had her husband, Delos, write the football scenes for her in the high school stories.
Next I emailed my brilliant former grad student Sara Goering to vet my Scrabble scene; she is a Scrabble-playing fiend. I emailed my philosophy department colleague Graham Oddie, parent of a now-grown-up violinist, to ask what scales Simon's teacher would ask him to play at his lesson:
Jessica, sitting with her dad in Reutlingen, Germany, sent me this: "Now let me hear a d major
scale, two octaves, and the major and minor arpeggios."
I've sent the entire book off to my Boulder writing group friend Leslie O'Kane for what I know will be enormously insightful comments on its overall shape and pacing. My Hollins students have asked to read it, so I've emailed it off to them, too. Two Hollins faculty colleagues, Lisa Rowe Fraustino and Hillary Homzie, are working through it in a little manuscript exchange conducted over margaritas with fabulous Palestinian or Thai food made by Lisa's husband, AKA "The Cutie."
Yay for the village that it takes to write a book.