Friday, January 8, 2010

Kids These Days

Cricket McRae
In early November I received an email from a local high school sophomore. She was looking for a community mentor to help her with the personal project she was doing for the IB program she was in. She wanted to write a novel.

I agreed. Meet once a month for six months, answer questions, give advice and encouragement. No problem.


First off, she didn't just want to write a novel. She wanted to write a novel and get it published. The first time we met, in the second week in November, she said she planned on having the first draft done by the end of the year. It was right there on the goal sheet she'd worked out with her project advisor. Six weeks, one book.

Okay, I said, and to her horror brought up the calculator on my phone. To write a 250 page book she'd have to write 6 pages a day. Every day. And it might a good idea if we met more than once a month.

With a relieved expression she waved it off. "Oh, I can do that."

And she did. In fits and starts, around school, advanced homework, violin lessons, orchestra concerts and travel for speech and debate, she wrote a book. The last seven chapters hit my inbox at 12:30 a.m. on Tuesday. From what I can tell from all the chunks -- she's putting them all in one file now -- it's over 300 pages about a group of teenagers coming of age.

I'm so stinking proud of her.

It's rough, and she realizes that. On Tuesday she was ready to start rewriting. I reviewed all of it as she wrote, and very deliberately kept my feedback to structural, character and plot issues. Left her writing alone, not wanting to trip up her considerable momentum.

The writing has a crazy, raw vibrancy. Some places it's nearly unreadable, others are crisp and spot on. Some of the dialog is amazingly good, other places she's feeling her way with the characters and it shows. She's learning how to show rather than tell, and has a real knack for describing characters.

I handled the text-y dialog (OMGee Yay! jsyk) and the occasional dip into hip-hoppity lingo all right, fo' shizzle. Then toward the end of the book I cottoned to the fact that a lot of the dialog between the teens is in song lyrics.

Pointing out a particular line, I asked her about it. The look she gave me was full of pity. "You don't know that song? It's Queen."

Hrm. I know that look. See, my brain is the place song lyrics go to die. But I recognized what she was doing, finally, because I live with a musician, and he quotes songs all the time. Sometimes I notice and sometimes I don't.

"Do kids actually talk like that?" I asked.

"My friends and I do all the time. It's like a code."

I am so glad I'm not in high school now.

So my mentee is plunging back in to her book. She has three months to rewrite and research publishers (and agents) and send out queries. I'll be giving her more specific feedback on her writing now, but I don't want to step on her decidedly unique style.

I know a lot of you are teachers, and even more have kids. Any advice?


Jess Lourey said...

My advice is to always say no to teenagers who ask for help. Too late.

There is a special place in heaven for you, Cricket, and that's awesome you're helping her with her structure without squashing her voice. It sounds like you're a natural teacher!

And my brain is also the place where song lyrics go to die. Ha! I love that line. You better use it in a book or I'm going to.

G.M. Malliet said...

Does fo' shizzle mean for sure? Or are we not meant to know?

My hat is off to you, Cricket. And to her for meeting that deadline!

Sue Ann Jaffarian said...

This post made me cry - in a good way. I'm so stinking proud of this girl, I could bust a button! Cricket, keep up the great mentoring job. I smell a very good future novelist in the making. She already has the discipline down, and sometimes that's the biggest struggle.

Cricket McRae said...

Jess, next time I'll ask your advice BEFORE I commit to something like this.

Gin, fo' shizzle is for sure. I think. ; - )

You can certainly speak to the need for discipline, Sue Ann! Working with this girl has really energized my own writing bug.

Keith Raffel said...

Cricket, good things happen to people like you. Like being on the Seattle Mystery Bookstore's list of bestsellers for 2009. Congrats!

G.M. Malliet said...

Holy cow, Cricket! That's fantastic news! Congratulations!

Alan Orloff said...

Way to go, Cricket! Sounds like you know exactly how to deal with teenagers. I think you're making a huge deposit in the Bank of Karma.

In fact, I'd like to send you my 17-year-old so you can help him with his writing. He won't listen to me, that's for sure!

Deborah Sharp said...

Alan wants to send his teen-aged son to you; I'd like to come myself for inspiration, dedication and discipline. Great job, Cricket ..
Have your new literary star look into things like writing contests for teens, writers under 20, that kind of thing. Once it's polished and ready, she should start getting her work out there. Maybe her high school English teacher could help find outlets? Karma bank, indeed.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Cricket, you *really* invested some time with this girl. Wow. I can't imagine how many hours this must have taken between reading, giving suggestions, and having meetings.

Advice to teens? I think it's all in the phrasing. But she's asking you for your help (and she's clearly really smart if she's in IB.) I bet she's going to take all your suggestions to heart...and that you've made a big difference. Fo'shizzle (Snoop Doggy Dogg...)

Mystery Writing is Murder
Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen

Sheila Deeth said...

No advice, but she sounds a wonderful character for a book! Good luck to her, and you.

Sharon Mayhew said...

As a former teacher and mother of a teen writing her own novel, I applaud you. Mentoring is a lot of work. You have to say the right things, be encouraging, but truthful.

My writing mentor, Laura Bradford, (you might know her as Elizabeth Lyn Casey, Berkley Press) is younger than me by a few years. She encouraged me and taught me how to accept rejection. Thanks to her I write...

My life mentor, Barbara Holleman, (HS teacher and role model) taught me by example. I saw and still know what she does for her kids and her community.

Mentoring is very important! I keep in touch with "my kids" through facebook.


Cricket McRae said...

Thanks, everyone, for the congrats and the advice!

But I want to be clear -- this girl is doing all the heavy lifting; I'm just along for the ride and counting myself lucky to be a part of the journey.

I like the idea of connecting her with local teen writing groups. I know just the one. There's also a writing conference here in March where she can pitch to agents and editors, and I'll encourage her to attend.

That delicate balance of saying the right thing, being encouraging but telling the truth, is so darn tricky.

Elizabeth: Why does Snoop Dog carry an umbrella?

Fo' Drizzle!

Ba Da Bump.

Beth Groundwater said...

Will you be my mentor, Cricket? (just kidding!) It sounds like this teen is off to a great start and that you're doing a great job keeping her enthusiasm up while still steering her gently toward what she needs to do next. I really admire the time you've put in with her. I've been a guest speaker for the local teen writing group at my library, telling them how to write query letters and giving them ideas and references for characterization, etc., but I've never been brave enough to mentor one of them and critique what they're writing.