Saturday, January 19, 2008

Author Visit to Newton Middle School

Here’s a shout out to the students and staff of Isaac Newton Middle School in Littleton, Colorado. Super-librarian Jennifer Colmenero planned a great day for my recent author visit: three “assemblies” ( a term used only in schools, for some reason) for 6th, 7th, and 8th grades, and a writing workshop.

The assemblies were in the gym. There’s something about a gym that encourages enthusiasm. Maybe it’s because that’s where the pep rallies are held (something else that goes on only in schools!) But there’s always lots of bleacher-stomping and hallooing in a gym. And no sleeping at all. That’s a refreshing change from my over-scheduled and sleep-deprived college students. But there’s also the unsettling sense that one has a bull by the tail that might run amok at any moment.

The writing workshop was held in the library: thirty-five students plus teachers and forty minutes in which to put magic on the page. We zipped along at a blistering pace, but we had fun.

Things have changed since I was in school. For one thing, students and staff are allowed to wear street shoes in the gym these days. The custodians were apprehensive but resigned. Another thing that’s changed is that the custodians were very capable women. Lady custodians. What a concept.

My favorite part of author presentations is the Q & A session, particularly if the students have read the work and/or are primed to arrive with questions. Here are some questions from Newton Middle School:

Where do you get your ideas?
I use a quote from JRR Tolkien, where he says “One writes stories…from the leafmold of the mind.” Ideas are all around us, it’s what we do with them that counts. Ideas can totally be recycled, too!!

How long does it take you to write a book?
The students were appalled to find out it takes me a year or more. I could tell they thought I was one of those lazy-butt authors who putzed around while they waited for the next installment in a series. I found myself apologizing, saying I had a day job, a family, after all.

How much do you make?
For me, that’s still like asking about my sex life. Used to be, I’d just mumble something about “less than you think, but I don’t do it for the money.” Now I talk about royalties, how authors might get royalties of 10% or 12% on a hardcover book, so if they pay $18.00 for a book, the author gets $1.80 of that. That satisfies most of them.

What’s your favorite book you wrote?
Sheesh. That’s like asking me to choose between my children! I usually say it’s the book I’m writing right now, because I get so totally tangled in my characters’ lives.

What would you do if you weren’t an author?
See day job. Well, I say, I’d watch TV, clean my house, read more books, and live my life in a series of vivid daydreams, further enhancing my reputation for weirdness.

What’s the hardest part about being an author?
Well, I love to write, and I even enjoy revision, because that’s when I make the words sing. I’d have to say it’s the constant rejection, or fear of rejection. Even well-published authors get rejected. It still stinks.

What’s your advice for young writers?
Lie down until the feeling goes away. Or go work out. Or something. Seriously, I tell young writers to focus on craft. Take classes. Read voraciously. Reading great fiction is like taking a workshop from a master craftsperson. Find colleagues who are serious about their writing, too and form a critique group. Learn to live with revision. One of the greatest things I learned from completely rewriting my third novel is that it didn’t break. It was actually better at the end of it.

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