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There comes a time in every school presentation when the teachers want the author to talk about the writing process. In particular, the editing/revision part of the process. It’s with the hope that we can change the feelings of their students about having to re-visit their work.

Most kids don’t like revision. They want to write the story they’re told to write, hand it in, and go outside. Except for the small clutch of ardent budding authors in every 3-5 group, revision is a tough sell.

Many students don’t like to write, much less revise.

While I don’t think every student necessarily needs to be a good creative writer, I do think they need to learn how to marshal their thoughts into a coherent whole with a beginning, middle, and end – just like any good children’s book author. Stories have structure. Children can learn that. They’re going to have to bring structure to essays, business letters, resumes … almost everything else they write in their lives, so I’m willing to play my part.

Over the years, I’ve learned that the more specific an author is in talking about both his/her process and revision methods, the more interesting it is for the children to listen to. In the same way specific details make writing more vivid, they make talking about revision more real.

Tell them how you exactly how you write: with a pencil, a pen, on the computer, in your pajamas, standing on your head, sitting in a Starbucks … or while lying in the dark, at night, on the small pad you keep on your bedside table. Show them pictures even if you have to stage them. Your office is a mess? Great. You write on top of the washing machine? Even better.

Tell them about electronic submissions and attaching your manuscript to an email. Think your actual process through and give them actual details.

I always take a clean manuscript with me. I hold it in the air and say, “This is the manuscript for “Sophie Hartley on Strike.” It’s clean as a whistle. I sent it off to my editor and hoped never to see it again. Just send me the money, I thought.”

Unfortunately, it came back. Just like the stories you have to write in class.”

Then I show them a slide of the same manuscript covered with the editor’s writing and pink and blue post it notes lining the edges. I show an ecu of one of two post it notes and read them the kinds of things my editor has asked questions about. I say that if I don’t do the revisions, I won’t get this, and I read them the first line from my first acceptance letter, which I have with me.

You can do it any way you think works best for you and your books. I wish I’d saved all of my rejection letters. I’d figure out a creative way to shoot a picture of them papering a wall or reaching the ceiling that would appall them. If your cat sleeps beside your computer while you work (and I know there are crazies like that among us), a picture of that will win you immediate fans. Show them yourself, as quirky or compulsive or methodical as you may be as a writer. Tell them the sad, sad saga of trying to get your first book published. They know about rejection, too.

Recently, I had a revelation about how to make the revision part of my presentation more meaningful. It occurred to me I should choose a specific book to talk about. Not just all books, but one, particular book. Then I'll let the school know, well in advance, that if they want the revision segment of my presentation to actually mean something to their students, they'll need to make sure that every class in 3-5 has read that book.

When I get to the school (what an ideal world I live in), I’ll show the students the original first page vs. the first page in the book they have read. And talk about why the editor didn’t buy it. And what I had to do to convince her.

I have sometimes started a book in the wrong place, I’ll tell them. It happens to many writers – them and me, alike. I’ve had to add as many as two chapters in front of what I thought was the first chapter in order to make a book work. In two cases, it was because I hadn’t established the character’s motivation clearly or convincingly enough. If the children in the audience have read the book I’m talking about, what I say will mean something to them.

Trying to make a point about revision work you’ve done on books they haven’t read is the falling on deaf ears scenario and a waste of everyone’s time.

Carol Berry said that one of their visiting authors showed a paragraph that needed to be changed a couple of times, and then the finished paragraph in her book. That’s another thing you can start thinking about right now and use when a visit comes up. (If you haven’t seen the 6 or 7 alternate first lines E. B. White wrote for “Charlotte’s Web” before coming up with his famous opening line, you should look for those. They’re a revelation.)

Another great “tip” from The Literacy Connection was the idea of including a master sheet of your writing process that you can give to the schools to copy and distribute. Also, a suggestion that authors give written suggestions to the teachers for their follow-up lessons after your talk. Include your contact information so they can share with other schools.

Great ideas. I thank Carol Berry for her participation here, and all librarians, teachers, and children for teaching me how to talk about what I do as a writer.
Where, oh, where, would we all be without books?

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( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 4th, 2009 04:38 pm (UTC)
Stephanie ~ This is a great description of how to handle the writing process portion of the school visit presentation. Though it may not be the most fun to talk about, it is often one reason why you are in the room. I always hope the author will say they find editing to be the best part. How awful would it be if your story was published with a section that just didn't make good sense? Thanks to the editor, you can make it better. Then give the teachers a plug with..."Your teachers are doing that for you right now."

Schools may want it included because the visit could be financed from the curriculum budget. Think of yourself as a guest lecturer...with pazzazz.

Bottom line for all author presentations is to have fun. Students will sense your love of writing in minutes. I enjoy it when I see an author's face light up with the memory of getting a story "just right" and telling about getting to share it with others.

Be honest! That doesn't mean you can't be creative. Writing on the washing machine? Ha! Just tell your story. If you love writing, it will show and all will work out fine.

Stephanie, you have proven to be a great presentor. I hear from the schools you visited that students are still clamoring for your books and can recall your very words about the writing process. You have made a difference to those students and teachers. Thanks so much!

Thanks also for your kind words about me. What is true though, I don't work alone. The Literacy Connection is a team of dedicated ladies that do their jobs very well. I would be lost without them!

Good luck to all your readers in their efforts to publish and then share their experiences with youth.

Carol Berry, The Literacy Connection
Dec. 4th, 2009 05:21 pm (UTC)
Many thanks, Carol. And you have proven to be a wonderful collaborator - thanks for all the invaluable tips you gave me, and have written here. Now all you have to do is travel the country and spread the word about how other cities can have their own Literacy Connection. You have a place to stay when you come through North Carolina.
Dec. 4th, 2009 04:57 pm (UTC)
Revision talk with laughter rather than groans
Thank you, Stephanie, great ideas - specific ideas. Your examples show how you engage the students with you in the revision process, with or without cat on lap. You show them - what an individual you are, you don't get it right the first time, you try again with specific problems described. And humor - great to laugh together about a hard process.
Dec. 4th, 2009 05:24 pm (UTC)
Re: Revision talk with laughter rather than groans
Sometimes, the only way to get through a hard process, no? btw: If you use any of what you learned here on your school visits in Guam, Hawaii, and Saipan, I reserve the right to carry your bags.
Dec. 4th, 2009 05:24 pm (UTC)
Stephanie, these are great ideas for engaging all students--not just the few budding writers in the crowd. When I talk to younger grades about my picture book text, I have the kids count aloud with me the number of drafts I had to write before the editor was happy.They're always amazed when we start to hit the double digits! I also tell them that their teacher is just like an editor. That makes them all turn around and stare at their teacher with a new appreciation. And you're right that kids understand rejection. Recently, a 5th grader asked me if I get "depressed and paranoid when a book gets rejected." I noticed they all perked up waiting for my reply! I agree that using humor and sharing the particulars of your process (as well as lots of props) makes for a lively and meaningful time with students. Thanks for sharing your experience and the good tips from all the librarians and teachers you met. --mg
Dec. 4th, 2009 08:19 pm (UTC)
I love it. I hope you told the 5th grader that, no, you stay cool and calm in the face of adversity. That's after a few swears, a few tears, and a box of good chocolate.
Dec. 4th, 2009 06:25 pm (UTC)
This has been such a wise and wonderful week of posts, Stephanie.

E.B.White's first lines are a revelation. Another author's revisions I like to show kids are Kate DiCamillo's first page revisions for Because of Winn-Dixie. You can find them here- teacher.scholastic.com/activities/.../pdfs/WinnDixie_story.pdf If you can't get the link to work google Scholastic "see this story grow" and "because of Winn-Dixie" Truth told, it lifts my spirits, too, to see that Kate DiCamillo struggles just like us mortal writers!

Edited at 2009-12-04 06:27 pm (UTC)
Dec. 4th, 2009 08:22 pm (UTC)
Thanks for the interesting questions you posed to Carol, Tami. I've never seen the Winn-Dixie first page. I'll have to check that out.
Dec. 4th, 2009 10:00 pm (UTC)
This is a wonderful post. Even my copyediting students don't always think something should be edited, because "we should respect the voice of the author." It's not always possible to convince them that a good editor does exactly that by suggesting changes that will help the author better achieve the vision that the book is trying to convey.
Dec. 5th, 2009 04:54 pm (UTC)
That's very nice of them to have that attitude about the voice of the writer. Of course, writers know better, and what better way to make your point than to show an inferior first sentence or paragraph and then the new, improved edited version.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )