Saturday, June 16, 2018

Inspired (and Humbled): Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers (WIFYR)

I'm back from a grueling and glorious week in Utah, teaching a course called "Getting Ready to Write the First Novel" at the Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers workshop (WIFYR), now in its 19th year. I've taught at WIFYR several times before  (I've lost count of how many), and it's always the same: exhausting and exhilarating, where no one leaves without laughing, crying, and growing in our craft as writers.

My class met every day from 8:30-12:30, for the five days of the workshop: a total of 20 hours in the classroom, more than half the hours of a typical semester-long university class. My eight students had submitted 20,000 words (around 80 pages) of their novel-in-progress to me and the rest of the students in advance. Some chose to submit opening chapters and then skipped ahead to climax and resolution; others just chopped off the first 20K-word chunk and gave us a synopsis for the rest. In the weeks before the workshop we sat at home hundreds of miles apart, frantically reading, reading, reading, So when we finally met in person, we already knew each other well, just from dissecting our stories so intently.

I structured the class in this way.

On Monday, we introduced ourselves more formally, each writer sharing the origin of how his or her story came to be. Then we gave rapid-fire fifteen-minute overall responses to each manuscript, devoting half the time to listing the things we loved best and half to raising questions or concerns for further discussion throughout the rest of the week. Even though I knew from experience that reactions would change as we talked together - critique is best when it's interactive - there is value in getting a first reaction to one's work. After all, that is what future readers are going to be giving. Few spend an entire week in close analysis of a literary work before weighing in with an opinion.

On Tuesday, we focused on characterization. For each protagonist (and some books had two equally important main characters), we asked: what does this person WANT at the start of the story? It's often hard, even for the author, to figure this out, but without a clear desire/goal, a character tends to be passive rather than active, and the story fails to pose a central dramatic question that keeps readers turning pages. Then we asked (a question borrowed from the brilliant Kathi Appelt): what is each person's "controlling belief"? - i.e., their guiding principle that will be tested through the course of the story, climaxing in a "crisis of faith." What is their character arc? How does each one change and grow from the first page to the last?

On Wednesday and Thursday, we focused on plot structure and gave close a close reading to each manuscript's opening chapter. Was there an "inciting incident" that sets the story in motion? Did the chapter have a strong opening paragraph and a final line where the central dramatic question of the book clicks into place for the reader?

On Friday, our final day, we read some revised (and much improved) beginnings by those who offered them for additional critique. Then we turned to theme and imagery: what were the philosophical issues explored by each book? If there were more than one, which one was most important? Could any imagery be created to make this thematic material more vivid for the reader?

And then we said our teary farewells.

In case all of this wasn't enough, every afternoon there were four more talks and/or workshops to attend, by agents, editors, faculty authors, and other authors coming in to share their expertise. My workshop was "How to Write Morally Charged Stories without Teaching or Preaching." I have to confess that the biggest treat for me was the session by Charlie Holmberg, "Kissing Like You Mean It (Smooching 101)." I doubt I'll ever write a kissing scene, but if I do, now I'll know how to make it a great one! Over lunch and dinner, WIFYR faculty shared hours of intense conversations while sipping root beer floats and gobbling Fat Boy ice cream sandwiches (and meal-type food, too).

I learned so much from my fellow faculty members who gave these talks and conversed so passionately with me. But I learned even more from my students. Some have attended WIFYR over half a dozen times. Some have been rewriting their books for years, while raising families and working at challenging day jobs. Could I work as hard as they do? Could I care as much as they do? Could I give as much of my heart to my books as they do to theirs?

All I know is: I'm going to try to write the best books I can to be worthy of having been their teacher.

I'm going to model their dedication and commitment.

And I'm going to have myself another root beer float, too.

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