Celebrating Creativity With Imaginative Young Minds

Yesterday, I had the pleasure of visiting my son’s elementary school and sharing a day of reading and creativity with some of the students.

I was invited to my oldest son’s 5th grade class where they are beginning to learn about and explore creative writing. After answering some general questions about the craft and about my own methods of revision and work processes, I read them the first chapter of my middle-grade work in progress.

If you ever have the chance to sit down with a large group of children and share your work with them, DO IT! To begin with, it is magical. No matter how many adult readers, editors, and peer readers you have, none of them can give you the intangible reactions you hope to get from your target audience.

I was escorted to my chair (a VERY comfortable rocking chair) by the student of the month and then the kids gathered around, in bean bags and on the rug; in chairs and on stools. I explained the premise of the story and told them that they were my first young audience to hear the beginning of the story. They were excited. I was excited.

And so I read….and it was AWESOME! There were laughs when there should have been laughs. There were smiles when I hoped there’d be smiles, and there were shocked expressions or gasps when I’d written in sections that were expected to cause those same reactions.

If I’d had the book done and published and ready for purchase, I would have had a room full of new readers. In other words, it was a success. They’d not only enjoyed the story, but they’d given me the proof that I had succeeded in my attempt to write a fun, quirky and enjoyable story for young readers. It was written all over their excited faces.

And afterward, I fielded questions about the rest of the story, about writing in general, and about key concepts and components of storytelling. It was great to discuss, point of view, foreshadow, metaphor, theme, climax, character evolution, and idea generation with the kids. They were as excited to demonstrate that they’d noticed the foreshadowing clues as I was to hear that my inclusion of them in the story had worked. They were as eager to learn what happened next as I was to tell them about it.

It was truly a rewarding experience. To give them a chance to explore their creativity and to pen a short story of their own, I prompted a little writing exercise. Using Rory’s Story Cubes (and if you haven’t seen these, they are the coolest things!), we rolled up nine images and put them up on the projector so the whole class could see them. The idea is that our minds think in pictures and an image gives us an infinite variety of interpretations. So, we rolled up the nine dice (the student of the month had the honors) and broke the class up into groups of three.

One person was responsible for writing the beginning. They had to write the hook and establish the conflict, along with introducing the character. Another child wrote the middle, working toward conflict resolution and inserting obstacles. The last person wrote the climax (having worked out with the middle writer where they were going to “meet”) and the resolution.

The groups were free to arrange the nine images in whatever order they wanted, each person taking three of the images and incorporating them into their section of the story. Their teacher and I listened in to the brainstorming process and watched as they eagerly created fantastic tales, some of which included mysteriously locked doors, laser shooting eyeballs, a honey-hunting cyclops, and giant alien bees. It was so much fun! And afterwards, some of the students shared their work with us, reading their sections and demonstrating how their voice, their imagination and their approach differed from their classmates who had the same pictures to work with.

I hope that when I left, I left some of them with a hunger to continue creating. I hope that when I left, I left some of them eager to tell more stories, to explore worlds within their own minds that they may have been hesitant to explore. I was there once. I was a 6th grade student when a similar experience had changed me forever. It was a similar experience that showed me that all I wanted to do was tell stories.

If even one creative young mind takes pen in hand and walks through that door of imagination and storytelling, then I’ll feel as if I have come full circle. But I’ll never know that, we’ll never know that, until they are sharing these same sentiments one day and remembering that afternoon in 5th grade when there were no walls and their minds could take them places where nobody could hold them back.

Here’s to creativity. Here’s to the next generation of wordsmiths, ready to ply their craft at the imagination forge.

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Anthologies: The Whizzing Monkey of the Short Story World

Anthologies kick ass. There, I said it.

They’re like one of those cool beer samplers at the pub. You order up a tray of sample sizes and start throwing them back. Who the hell knows what you’ll find. What was that caramel colored stout? That was good! Whizzing monkey? And that third one we tried, the one with the long name? Too hoppy, no thanks. The cherry wheat was a surprise…

Yeah, yeah. I could have used a chocolate sampler but you know what? I like beer. You can have the chocolates. Besides, it would have been too Forrest Gumpy had I brought in the box of chocolates.

The point here is how cool anthologies are. Some of you may know this already and I may just be the lone weirdo finally appreciating their value. If not, well then, I suggest you read on. If you already know this…well then, I suggest you read on. What? Nothing. Just go with it.

So, I’ve been reading Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series and being the obsessive, information order reader that I am, I had to do everything in precise sequence. Everything. This meant tracking down the side stories he wrote and reading them in turn. For example, “Something Borrowed” comes between books #7 and #8. This required the acquisition of My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding (edited by P.N. Elrod, St. Martin’s Griffin: New York, 2006. ISBN-13: 978-0-312-34360-6).

The cool thing about anthologies is that you find one with a topic you are interested in, something that strikes your fancy, and you indulge. Zombies? No problem. Transgender circus clowns? Quite possibly. This particular anthology (My Big Fat Supernatural Wedding) contained nine short stories written about or around a wedding with each tale steeped in paranormal roots. So, you’re going into a place you’re already comfortable with. Besides that, you may have been drawn in by a “friend”. For example, I followed Jim Butcher in. If all hell broke loose and things got ugly, I knew he had my back. Point is, you might see a familiar author or two in the credits and trust them enough to spend the cash for a sampling.

Because that’s what it is, a sampling. I read this last anthology knowing only three of the nine authors. Of those three, I hadn’t been too thrilled with one of them. Charlaine Harris. Damn, why’d you make me name names? I started her first Sookie Stackhouse book and couldn’t finish it. But her short story, “Tacky”? Loved it. Loved it enough to give her another chance. In case you’re interested, it’s a story about a vampire/werewolf wedding and it was pretty cool. So there’s one plus, you get to see another side of a writer you may have written off.

But that’s not all you’ll get! Act now and you’ll also get……this set of inside information. That’s right, for the cost of reading the anthology, you’ll be privy to novel info nuggets that might otherwise have you scratching your head. Jim Butcher, in his short story “Something Borrowed”, spins a tale in which he not only propels information forward, but the guy kills a side character. IN A SERVICE ROAD SHORT STORY! And the info is not something that makes the following novel unreadable, or even confusing, but if you had read it, you’d have a whole different appreciation of the scene(s). Whew, that’s a lot to say. I need a Whizzing Monkey. No, not…damn it, take this thing away please. Now my shoes are wet.

But wait. There’s still more! You’ll also discover new authors that you’ll want to read. I’d never read any Susan Krinard, but was fascinated by her story “…Or Forever Hold Your Peace”. I’ve added her to my Nook wishlist. Now there are 9, 216, 542 books waiting to be read. By the same rationale, you’ll get a chance to discover writers that you may not be too fond of. It’s like test driving an author. Ok, maybe that sounds slightly invasive and perhaps not legal (except in Nevada).

So get out there and order up a sampler. Indulge in an anthology or two, you’re bound to find a few pleasant surprises. And if you order a Whizzing Monkey….don’t wear open-toed shoes.

Enjoy, friends!