I guess not many people think being in enclosed spaces with thirteen year olds is something to go out of your way for but for me, this was the chance of a lifetime to write and be read by the most valuable focus group ever – the kids who haunt the Ghostmistress. A Boo Crew that keeps growing.
Each week, I posted a part of a ghost story I am writing. They read it, critiqued it, wrote their own stuff and posted it on the site. I learned what made them tick, they learned how to be good reviewers in an online community. We wrote stories, poems and screenplays. I brought cookies. Ghost cookies made by my friend and Seth’s carpool buddy, Joanne.
Here’s what the Boo Crew looked for:
Dialogue that drives action
Descriptive writing that created a character or a place
Characters that revealed their thoughts
Cliffhangers that provoked curiousity
Characters with complex personalities and unexpected actions
Fast paced stories
Challenges they could relate to such as bullying, being the youngest child, liking someone
I looked forward to seeing the comments the day after I posted each scene. No matter what I thought of what I wrote, I was always surprised and often startled by their opinions. Always, always grateful for the chance to have my stuff read by my target audience.
As I work on finishing Ghostmistress this summer, I will imagine a group of blue clad young critics ready to devour the 1000 words I write with a critical appetite. They have already sharpened my sense of what rings true and what makes a good story they would read. They have pre reviewed and pre critiqued my young adult story and I am so grateful to them for helping me write a better story.
This makes sense to me.
Need to know what your readers, your audience, your market likes? Give them a way to tell you. Let them in on your creative process – a little unnerving, yes, but vulnerability is really appealing. I created the Ghostmistress site which they took creative ownership of and where they could discuss my story.
How are you connecting with your readers?
Get more Wow!
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Remember that saying, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”?
You can see how that applies to great works of literature which all begin with – a single sentence.
A single sentence is not as daunting a task as writing the great American novel. But it is also not a simple task to write a great sentence.
Nouns and verbs
I keep going back to my well worn copy of “Elements of Style” by Strunk and White and revisit the praise of brevity, economy of words, wit and that elusive quality that transcends – style. These are lessons well worth learning and relearning.
Here’s one of my favorites:
Nouns and verbs. Verbs and nouns. Well chosen, vigorous and unapologetic ones will lift your writing off the page.
A place to wonder
This is something I find difficult to explain.
A great sentence does more than state a fact or describe something. It invites you into a world. And it makes you wonder, curious, and intrigued. It leaves a place for you, the reader to fill in.
Here are some recent gems:
Yesterday afternoon the six-o-clock bus ran over Miss Bobbitt.
from “Children on Their Birthdays” by Truman Capote
I have friends who begin with pasta, and friends who begin with rice, but whenever I fall in love, I begin with potatoes.
from”Potatoes and Love: Some Reflections: by Nora Ephron
When I got there they were burying the lion in the back yard again.
from “A Need for Gardens” by Richard Brautigan
Sentence to Story
The reason we write sentences is for story. They are the footsoldiers in the grand army in pursuit of your imagination, your captive readership.
Steve Errey wrote a great piece at Men with Pens about how to think and rethink the story you really want to tell.
“The story you tell is up to you. You can either have that story enable you to move forwards in ways most important to you, or you can have that story remind you of the pain, the struggles and the reasons why you can’t have what you want.”
Everything I could squeeze out of my head onto the page was awful. No matter how hard I tried, the sentences were stiff, not interesting and even I had to run out of the room screaming, “Boring!”
And the most upsetting thing of all was the fear. I am terrified that I will not have anything to post on Ghostmistress when Sunday rolls around. For those of you who are new to Ghostmistress, it is a writing blog I have created where thirteen year old readers and writers can find their inner ghost. If you sign up, you become part of the Boo Crew. You can follow my serial ghost story, you can also post original writing of your own for the Boo Crew to comment, critique and review each week.
So, here I am, without an original thought in my head, frantically trying to come up with next week’s story because I don’t want to disappoint my sixty plus Boo Crew members. I absolutely love reading their comments and I am amazed by the writing they are capable of.
This is what I am going to do
Nothing works like putting my butt in a chair and a pen in my hand. Add a little fear and guilt and voila!
I am also going to take a deep breath, calm down and go for a run on the beach. While I am out there, I am going to think about Dashiell Loong Rubinstein, the main character of my story, and talk to him. This is what I do whenever I want to get to know someone – I talk to them.
Remember what Agatha Christie said,
“Conversation reveals all.”
Then I am going to do the same thing with the rest of my characters so that I really know them, how they think, what they listen to, what they love and hate. I am actually getting excited thinking about it. Just as if I was going to hang out with a bunch of my friends!
This way, I can really understand their world and create a story that I am happy to share with the Boo Crew and with you.
Here’s what you should do
Are you interested in what thirteen year olds like to read? If you want to write young adult fiction, you should be. I suggest the following:
When I started writing Ghostmistress, I asked Sky what he liked to read and why in a post about what thirteen year olds like to read. He shrugged and said,
“I dunno. Whatever.”
He was, however, thoughtful enough to suggest that I put together a writing elective with his teacher and work with a group of kids, not him of course, to find out for myself what appeals to young readers.
Ghostmistress is the result of this journey and it is the place where close to fifty members of my Boo Crew read my weekly serial ghost story, comment, and post their own writing. We are at Week 5 and heavy into character development and figurative language. I am amazed and truly appreciative of the feedback I get from this group and I love their boldness in their thinking and their own creative writing.
When I started Ghostmistress, my ghost story and ghost camp for writers, I had no idea who would be interested and who would respond. Would anyone be interested in following a ghost story written as a weekly serial with challenges to readers who signed on as the Boo Crew?
As my Jewish mother-in-law Mildred P. Krakauer always said, “Misery loves company.” Well, so do writers.
We are in Week 3 of the Ghostmistress project and there are over 40 members of the Boo Crew all with something to say about everything. One member is posting segments of her ghost story on almost a daily basis. There is a lively comment thread following each week’s installment.
How it began
My first children’s book was published in 1994 by Little, Brown & Company. ”Rabbit Mooncakes” is a classic 32 page picture book for readers from 5 to 9. It is now part of the multicultural curriculum of school systems in 19 states and I still get a thrill seeing my name next to Jon Krakauer’s name in author listings.
What have I been doing since then? Many things, including trying to write another book.
And that, mes amis, was my first mistake.
Don’t try to write.
So, this year I decided I would write a ghost story for young adults. A friend suggested that I ask my son Sky, who happens to be on the brink of young adulthood at the tender age of thirteen, what kids his age like to read.
I had completely forgotten that adolescence brings on loss of speech and any interest in anything a parent asks about. I asked the question differently.
“What do thirteen year old kids, not you of course, like to read?”
Sky stared at me as if I was nothing more than a mere piece of patio furniture. ”Idunno.”
Discouraged, I slumped back to my desk and stared at my computer screen. How was I going to write a story for this age group when I can’t even hold a conversation with someone from this species?
“Maybe you should talk to someone in my school about the writing elective.”
I looked up nonchalantly. Have to be very careful not to be overly parentlike or grateful. Luckily, I have made these mistakes many times before with his older brother and sister so I have some experience in these delicate matters.