Sunday, March 27, 2011

WiNoWriMo: Teaching Noveling, Pt 1

Here’s what I did for our 6 week NaNoWriMo-inspired noveling class (with gracious bows to Lydia, whose curriculum inspired many of my own activities). We had eight kids, ages 10-14, and two adults, who also wrote. We met around a table for about two hours, once a week.

The materials I used are what I had lying around the house. If you have different books on writing, by all means, use those!

Materials I used:

  • No Plot, No Problem: A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days, by Chris Baty (creator of NaNoWriMo)
  • Guaranteed Non-Lame Young Novelists Workbook, from The Young Writers Program (they also have curriculum). I had access to a spiral binding machine and asked families to print out a copy and then I bound them (or I charged a nominal fee to print them out). Some kids kept them in 3-ring binders. I personally thought the Staples/Kinko price for printing and binding a bit high since in my class, at least, use of the workbook was optional. Some kids really got into them and enjoyed them, and found them useful, and others hardly used them.
  • Memorable Characters. . . Magnificent Stores: 10 Mini-Lessons on Crafting Lively Characters – the key to Great Student Story Writing, by Susie Garber
  • A big piece of paper to track group progress
  • I asked each child to have a notebook and pencil for class, but I was also realistic and had a stash to share. The notebook could be to write their novel in, but it was definitely for wordwars and other class writing. They could also use it to write down ideas they had about their novel when they were not actually writing, but I’m not sure any of them actually used them like that!
We wrote for one calendar month, but since we started in the middle of February, we only wrote for 28 days – 29 if anyone was sneaking in a few last words before our 10am meeting! Doing this project in November has the huge advantage of being able to take advantage of all of The Young Writers Programs perks, but if you can’t do in November, it’s still worth doing.


Session 1: Discuss the whys of writing a novel quickly. Brainstorm plot and pick word goals.
Session 2: Think about adjectives & conflict.
Session 3: Think about nouns and character voice. Do a wordwar.
Session 4: Share stories and do a wordwar.
Session 5: Wrap up, many congratulations, and discuss editing.
Session 6: Prepare readings and read a page or less to an appreciative audience. Follow with a party!

If you have the time, it would make sense to introduce the concept in the first class and then have the kids spend the first week working on the workbook. However, our schedule changed a couple of times due to snow, so this is what we ended up doing.

And now in slightly more detail. My apologies if many of the details have been lost, but my hope is that this is still useful to someone!

Session 1

We started by stressing very strongly that to make our group a safe place to share our writing we all had to be very respectful of each other and work hard to censor intended and unintended criticism. We had to reiterate this often, throughout the session, as kids often just say whatever pops into their heads!

Community builder: We didn’t end up doing this, but some sort of exercise to get kids working together and trusting each other would certainly be useful.

The Whys: Why try to write a novel or a story in a short amount of time? Read from No Plot No Problem. Chapter 1 deals with this. It is clearly written for adults, so preread and decide if you need to make any substitutions to the examples.

Genre: What is it, what are some examples, What are your favorites, what genre will your novel be?

What makes a book good? (Hero, villain, conflict)
Write a recipe for your novel (i.e. 2 cups adventure, 5 explosions, ¼ teaspoon romance, etc.)

Quick thoughts about paragraphs, quotations, chapters. (Use a favorite novel as a model)

Store your inner editor (workbook)

Brainstorm novel ideas in small groups

Where to write your novel? a notebook, Word, Google Docs

What to do when you get stuck:
  • ask for help: share email addresses (or set up a group) to get help from each other (I emphasized that no one has to use anyone else’s ideas, but that they may help to get the creative juices flowing, also, again emphasize being gentle and avoiding anything that can be construed as criticism of someone else’s idea)
  • Describe things in detail
  • Skip to another part of the story (write an exciting scene that you have to work up to)
What to do if you don't like your story? Make a change. It doesn't have to be logical, it's a first draft. If you end up liking it, you can go back and fix inconsistencies later.

Writing exercise to help determine reasonable word count (I’m sure this was a good idea, but we didn’t do it due to time constraints)

write an exciting scene (we didn’t do this either, but I’ve used this successfully myself for NaNoWriMo)

We did, however, pick word goals. The lowest the goal any of the kids had was 2400 words which is high for 5th graders (who made up a large portion of our class) according to the Young Writers Program guidelines. However, all the kids with that goal exceeded it, one by nearly 400%. The word goals varied between 2400 and 7000. The two adults writing had word goals of 15,000, which had the potential to mess up the group progress chart when we both got behind. On the one hand, the kids got to see us struggle, but I wouldn’t have been happy if my own failure to write had caused the group to fail to meet its goal. That didn’t happen, but I offer it as food for thought.

This is the email I sent to parents after the first session:
Welcome to the crazy life as a family member of a novelist!

Today in class we looked at the workbooks put out by the Young Writers Program ( I encourage the kids to make use of these workbooks, but I'm not assigning specific pages -- I want them to concentrate on writing their stories. However, if they seem stuck, the workbook is a good place to turn to.

As of tomorrow, they need a way to start working on their novel. If you need technical assistance, please ask. We talked about writing in Word (or another word processor) or in Google Docs, which is accessible anywhere you can get internet access. If they are going to write longhand, they should have a notebook devoted to that. I discouraged them from deleting or tearing out pages -- everything they write counts towards their word goals. If they really need to they can put gentle x's or grey out the words they wouldn't want to use in a final product. But we are not writing a final product! Our goal is exuberant imperfection -- there is no bad writing at this point, as long as they are writing!

My ideal is that they spend about 3 hours a week writing -- either three 1 hour sessions, or 6 half hour sessions, or whatever works for them. However, their progress is not measured in time spent, but in words written. Below is their word goal for the four weeks (writing from February 10 to March 10), with another column for the weekly goal. We're shooting for 100% success here, and they are encouraged to write more than their goal -- the goal is a minimum. If they are writing longhand they do need to count their words and make a note of it on each page (a cumulative count would be useful too). If they are using a computer, there is always a way to get the program to tell you how many words you have written. I encourage them to track their progress as it can be encouraging to see what they've accomplished. The Ready, Set, Write section of the workbook has place to note progress and goals (i.e. pages 83 and 85). Note that our "month" starts today and is 29 days long.

Word goal Weekly words
[Table of individual word goals and group total word goal]

If your novelist has an email address, please send it to me. I'd like them to be able to ask each other for advice. I'd also like to be able to nudge them personally during the week (I'll CC parents on that too, in case they don't check their email often).

Next week I would like them to bring their workbooks, a writing implement, and a copy of what they have written (with word count noted). (A small notebook would be useful also, and I've suggested they have one to write down ideas when they are not actually writing.) They will retain control of their own writing, and will be asked to share a bit if they would like to. I think that a hard copy is a useful, tangible mark of their progress, but even that is not required. I can print out their stories if you would like to send them to me on Wednesday.

Please let me know if you have any questions!

That's it for Session 1. More to come in a future post!