Monday, April 2, 2012

Answers---We Have 'Em (I Hope!)

      One of the reasons we began this blog was to give other authors the opportunity to ask us about their own writing dilemmas. So today's writing puzzler comes to us from reader Barbara Gold.

    I am writing a middle grade novel and have two writing related questions I hope your team would consider answering.

    OK, Barbara. Fire away. I'm listening (reading!)

 1.  In my story, a teacher gives a class an assignment to report on a famous person who has played a part in changing history.

     The kids pick their report dates by a lottery.  Is it possible for the first report presentation to be in 8 days?  Or is it more realistic to give the first kid a minimum of 10 or 11 days?

    My story works better using the least amount of days.  Creates more tension.

2.  Do the kids use the school resource rooms (with computers) for their research, the school library, the neighborhood library or home computers?

     Wow, Barbara...great questions.  Also difficult for me to answer without knowing your central story.

     Lucky for me, I just happen to have three high school seniors with me (I am chaperoning a spring break beach house) who remember far better than I how these projects worked in elementary and middle school.  The four of us talked it over and here is what we want you to think about.

1.  Is the lottery concept absolutely essential to the story?  We all agreed that a teacher would never give the same basic assignment, yet give the students different due dates. My senior advisory board have had teachers assign a project that had to be finished by a certain date (the paperwork had to be on the teacher's desk), but if the assignment involved some sort of presentation (speech, skit, Powerpoint) their presentation date might be chosen by lottery.

2.  How old are your characters?  Is a middle grade novel or chapter book? The younger the student, the longer a teacher would give for preparation.  A middle schooler (grades 6-8) would be given no less
than 8-10 school days in preparation.  An elementary schooler (grades 3-5) could easily have up to three weeks. The time assigned would depend on how complicated the project is. A simple two or three page report would be in the 8-10 day category.

     Middle school projects seem to become more complicated all the time. When my daughter was in the 7th grade (that would be five years ago), she and a partner were required to plan a seven stop world tour that had to include all the continents.  They had to come up with hotel and transportation reservations, choose sightseeing tours and restaurants....and a line item budget for all of this. Although it seemed to take forever, my daughter remembers it as being a three week project, with everyone presenting their five minute tour on the same day.

3.  I agree that the tighter the time frame, the greater the tension. However, I think that different due dates might throw in one complication too many. Also, since you want a shorter time frame, make it a fairly uncomplicated project (no line items for a meal in Cairo, for instance!)

4.  All of my high school advisors say that the majority of school projects are mostly written using school computers. How affluent is your school?  My daughter's elementary and middle schools had desktop computers in all the classrooms, enough for everyone to be working at the same time. I worked in a considerably less affluent school where there was only a computer lab, with enough workstations for one classroom to come in and work at a time. My daughter's high school is in an economically deprived area.  Each classroom has two or three desktops.  The library has maybe two dozen computers.  There is no computer lab.  The economic condition of your fictional school will have a great deal to do with how your students complete their assignment.

     All four of us agreed that our local libraries have too many restrictions on their computer use (and too few computers) to be useful. There is an hour time limit, a limit to the number of printouts (which they have to pay for), and very little actual library assistance. (Public librarians please do not send me hate mail....I have been a public librarian and I know how small budgets least in my neck of the woods). However, even if you decide to have your characters working in the world's richest library, there is still very little actual library help available. This is one of the main reasons that teachers like for the kids to do their research at school. The teachers and technicians are there to keep them from wandering up research cul-de-sacs or hooking up with bogus information. After all, anyone can put anything on the Internet and claim it's true. I always made my students check the authenticity of a website before using it as a source.

5.  If the student has access to a home computer, they will probably type their final copy there. If they are a real overachiever, they may also do some more research at home. You know if you have a character like that or not.

      I realize I am speaking from personal experience.  My experiences, or even those of other teachers may not work in your particular setting and plot.  So here are the questions you need to ask yourself before moving on.....

1.  How old are your characters?

2.  How complicated is the assignment?

3.  Is the assignment central to the plot?  Is the story all about doing this assignment?  Or is it a plot device for the characters to experience something else?

4.  What is the school's economic situation?  Are your characters economically similar or are some more affluent than others?

    Barbara, I hope I haven't confused you further with my own questions. However, when you know the answers to my questions, I think you'll find the exact right answers for your own story.

    Happy researching...for both you and your characters.
Submitted by Mary Ann Rodman

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