Parent toolkit for Kid Authors #1: Choosing a story

I work with kids who love to read and write. They love to read and write so much, they want to publish their own stories. They squeal with delight at the prospect of having their very own book published with their name on the cover.

Most authors can imagine their book – that part is easy. What can be much more challenging is knowing what story will go between those imagined book covers.

How can adults help a kid author (KA) choose a story? And stick with it? The number one thing you can do is listen. Here are some thoughts to keep in mind while listening to the story ideas bubbling out of the KA in your life.

  • Truly listen. Start by letting her do the talking and keep your comments to a minimum.
  • Take notes while you’re listening. Write down a few tidbits about each idea and notice when your KA gets particularly excited, or when her energy spikes. This is a good sign that the story under discussion is one she’ll be able to stick with.
  • Watch out for fan fiction and let it run it’s course (at least verbally). The first KA I worked with started with a story that included a wizard, a dinosaur, a robot, a couple of humans, and an alien space ship. It was dripping with similarities to favorite scenes and characters from books she loves. This is completely normal. Keep in mind that writing in school is focused on teaching the conventions and rules of writing. Spelling, punctuation, grammar, etc. In that setting, students are often not limited in their content. In other words, they can write a story about Harry Potter, or Wilbur the pig, or Matilda, and it’s okay, because they are being graded on their ability to apply the conventions of writing, not on their original ideas. Letting the stories based on characters they already know come to light clears the way for getting to their original ideas. In coaching sessions with young authors, I work to help narrow down characters and storylines. I also teach about fan fiction, which is not something I publish. Most importantly, I allow them the space to explore every idea, and then teach them to question what a reader might enjoy.
  • Listen to the tough ideas. Sometimes the ideas of a KA are difficult to listen to. Dark content may bubble to the surface. If that happens, try to roll with it for a short amount of time. Most parents, myself included, are not too keen on the idea of their kid publishing a dark, scary, sad story, but in my experience talking about the story sort of gets it off their chest and makes room for exploring a more kid friendly idea. We can’t necessarily be surprised by this either. A large number of books and movies feature a child protagonist with one or more missing parents. This theme comes up often when working with KA’s.
  • Listen to the ideas that are a little less then compelling. Stories by kids, for kids, are not necessarily intriguing for adults. It’s easy to be distracted by the other things we have to do. I have found that with my own kids, I invite them to sit on a stool in the kitchen and talk while I’m cooking dinner. I keep a notebook handy to jot down ideas they share, but this way I can keep my hands busy while I’m listening to a story they just need to practice articulating.
  • Note your own power. The adults in the life of a KA have a great deal of power and influence. Parents and coaches can build kids up, giving them support to try new ideas and experiences, or we can discourage, pushing them to retreat. Kids in general are less likely to take risks if a primary caregiver is quick with a “no” or “you can’t” or other negative language. We don’t want to stop young writers before they get started, so it’s a good idea to keep our language as positive as possible. I handle this in coaching sessions by listening and then asking questions along the lines of “if a kid in your school that you didn’t really know that well wrote the story you just described, would you pick it up and read it?” or, “what kinds of stories do your friends seem to enjoy?” or even, “how do you feel when you finish a really great book? Do you think this story would leave your readers feeling that way?”

As you listen, your KA might land on one idea that really resonates and the commitment is made.

If that doesn’t happen, and there are two or more ideas your KA is trying to decide between, encourage her to dip her toe into each story. I recommend you take notes on a separate piece of paper for each idea and answer a series of questions. You can even make a mind map on one side of the page and answer the questions on the other.

Here are questions that can help you focus on each story:

  • Who is the main character in the story? What is he or she like?
  • What is the problem the main character is trying to solve?
  • Does the main character have support or help? If so, from who?
  • How will the main character change by the end of the story?
  • Can you list some of the challenges the main character will face?

Go back to noticing. Is your KA equally pumped about each story? Or is there a clear leader? Is she considering two completely different story types, such as mystery verses humor? If so, which one fits her personality more?

Try to keep your opinion to yourself until after you’ve talked through each story. Usually after spending time with each story a writer will see a clear path forward.

There will be a story she is the most excited to write – that’s the one for this project!

Keep your notes on the other story ideas. As your KA transitions into the writing process, it’s important you have a simple system for capturing ideas. It’s common while writing to have other story ideas appear. What we want to avoid is starting on one story, losing interest, and switching to another when a great deal of progress has been made.

This happens to writers all the time.

A bump in the road pops up and there’s an urge to abandon ship. The feeling that writing this story is too hard can nestle into your brain and in an effort to save yourself, it’s best to just walk away.

One of my favorite things about writing and publishing with kids is that when this comes up, we push through and carry on. We can do that because we have a system for capturing the other story ideas that come up. We give them a short amount of time and then switch back to the story we originally committed to.

This system can be a file folder to hold notes, a journal for ideas, a bulletin board with sticky notes or index cards to capture thoughts, or even just one document on your computer titled “Story Ideas.”

It doesn’t matter what the system is; it only matters that you have one.

The next post in this series discusses writing tips you can use at home with your KA’s. In addition to having a system, some of the ideas here will help your KA stick to her story and see it through to the end.

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