Top Ten Things I’ve Learned From Kids About Writing a Book by Augusta Scattergood
One of the best things about discovering a second career as an author after many years as a librarian? Having the great good fortune to be in classrooms again. How many times during the years I spent writing and trying to get my first book published did I wish for wisdom from the mouths of babes! All those clever things had somehow faded from memory.
When I was invited to do school visits and talk about my first novel, Glory Be, you can bet I listened in. And I learned a lot. Turns out, kids still say the most amazing things and share some very wise writing tips.
Here are ten of them.
- Always put a dog in your story. (Or perhaps a cat, if you’re a cat person. )
Just as I was creating my NCTE Nerdy Books panel presentation, none other than Brian Williams on NBC flashed across my TV screen claiming there was actual research proving this point. Teachers all over the world could have told him that!
There was no dog character in my first middle-grade novel. But you can bet there’s a small part for a dog named Ginger Rogers in The Way to Stay in Destiny. Which just happens to feature a dance teacher. I do love the dogs in my life and now know kids love reading about them. Dogs= more readers!
- When you make a mistake, think creatively.
This might be my favorite story from a school visit. Not long after I talked to their class, the kids wrote lovely notes. Illustrated. But as the bell signaled the end of their day and they tucked their notes into a mailing envelope to send off, something was amiss on one.
He’d left out an L!
Never fear. He squeezed it in and added a P.S.
“Dear Mrs. Scattergood. I think your next book should be titled Gory Be: Gloriana Gets Mad.”
Now that’s what I call creative problem-solving. We writers could take a lesson from that young man.
- Pay attention to names.
Whenever I visit a school, I tell them about my Name Notebook. I collect names of streets, students, towns, rivers—anything that might fit into a story. In my current notebook, I have a real fellow named Taxi Jones. How wonderful is that?
I love how Cynthia Lord finds names of Honor Roll students in local newspapers where she sets her novels. Names do matter. Kids have told me this. So writers, young and old, choose your names carefully. They may well influence a character’s personality or a setting.
- Details are fun!
Historical fiction comes alive when crazy things are part of the narrative. Things that readers who weren’t alive in 1964, when my first novel took place, have no clue about. When I pull this out of my Junk Poker box during a school visit, and ask if anyone knows what it is, only a teacher or two holds up a hand!
(If you’re still scratching your head, this is a skate key, circa 1964.)
Now I’m working on something new. There are many phone booth references. How many phone booths have you seen lately? Will this intrigue young readers? From what they’ve told me, yes.
And don’t forget to look out the window!
Yes, we all know kids love to gaze outside. Writers should, too.
Put those details into your writing. Flowers! Rain! Bugs and lizards!
- Think like a kid.
Remember how they talk, what they like. If you write your supposedly-children’s-book for the adults who might also read it, you’ll lose your intended readers.
- 6. If you’re basing a book on facts, try to stick to the truth.
Do your research on even the smallest details.
This is an actual picture of Elvis’s wallpaper from his little house in Tupelo.
(In the case of Elvis in my novel, I told the Mostly Truth. And please know I was not arrested for stealing wallpaper, or even pulled over by a state trooper.)
- Defend your position.
Young and older writers, stand up for what you believe in and have your characters do the same. Write letters if you must. Make your protagonist do exactly what kids would do.
- To write a good book, you need to read good books.
Teachers know that the best readers often make the best writers. Their students love to share the books they’ve just read. Or the ones they’ll never forget.
Here are two books I’ve learned from.
I read a lot. I learn a lot about craft just by reading. I love listening to students sharing their favorites. Such a gift.
- Check in with your friends!
Now you all know how much kids like to confer with each other, right? Grownup writers do, too.
While writing THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY, I wanted to be sure the Shuffle Ball Changes worked the way I’d written them. I remembered my own childhood filled with dance lessons. But I knew a someone who was even better informed about dancing.
Just like kids, writers often consult with each other when faced with a tricky passage, a character who won’t behave, an ending that falls short.
Or even a dance step.
I asked my writer friend Barbara O’Connor about the dance steps. She sent back precise instructions and this picture of her younger self.
- And perhaps most important of all: Never Give Up.
I say this when I talk to kids. And they tell me what they haven’t given up on. Soccer, baseball, budding music careers. It’s the same with writing books. If there’s something you love, you don’t stop trying just because somebody says it’s not ready yet. Make it the best it can be, and try again. That’s the kind of helpful advice any kid will tell you.
Augusta Scattergood is a former school librarian whose first novel, GLORY BE, was named an Amazon Best Middle-Grade novel of the year, chosen as an NPR Backseat Book Club selection, and was on seven state reading lists. Her 2015 book, also published by Scholastic Press, is a middle-grade novel set in 1974 Florida, THE WAY TO STAY IN DESTINY. She admits to receiving a lot of help from both kids and wonderful writer friends, but thinks the best advice she took was not to abandon a project just because it was very hard work. You can find her online at www.augustascattergood.com and on Twitter as @.