Linda Ulleseit knows all about the word ‘daring.’ For the last three years, she’s guided her fifth and sixth graders through the Young Writers Program. She taught these budding authors the joys of novel-writing, and led by example: she managed to publish her first novel, On a Wing and a Dare this year.
Amidst the chaos of the new school year, Linda shared tips for NaNoWriMo from her experience with publishing, bringing NaNoWriMo into the classroom, and facing her harshest critics: her fifth and sixth graders!
With NaNoWriMo fast approaching, do you have any advice to keep us from panicking about the 50,000 word count?
Goals are very important. I set my daily goals and treat them like laws. I had to make them, or die trying. Most mornings I got up at 5:00 a.m., which allowed me an hour to write. For the rest of the day, my head was full of my story, running plot scenarios. It was especially helpful on days I discussed plot development with my students, and I could share my own experience.
You’ve brought the Young Writers Program into your classroom for the past three years. For teachers interested in bringing the Young Writers Program into their own classroom, can you share your strategy for success?
- At the beginning of October, we begin a fictional narrative unit. They are thrilled to move into a fictional realm! In mid-October we begin planning for NaNoWriMo by doing character sketches and roller coaster plot plans. The elementary workbook that NaNoWriMo provides is extremely kid-friendly and useful.
- We also spend a lot of time planning goals. Our school district has Veteran’s Day off, and a day off for parent conferences. I tell the kids to plan to write a LOT on those days. We also have a week off for Thanksgiving, and they have to temper their writing plans with their holiday plans.
- November is spent writing. My school is lucky in that we have a laptop cart to be shared among classrooms. I check out the cart for a full day at least five times during November. Students love to compose into the computer. Usually they have to write longhand first, then type it up. Creating as they type is new, and they love it.
- They also love our NaNo Kickoff. Last year we gathered two schools, five classes, at the local public library. We had an entire room full of fourth, fifth, and sixth graders writing for well over an hour. Parents were astonished. Teachers were excited and proud. Students were inspired!
- In December, students revise their work. They turn their novel in to me, on a flash drive, before they leave for Christmas break. I edit each story and compile them into an anthology.
- We now have three very thick anthologies in the school library! Last year, my sixth graders’ stories averaged 20,000 words.
What’s the most inspiring experience you’ve had with your fifth and sixth graders?
The first year, they were shocked when I told them that they would be writing a novel. It was gratifying to see that change as the month wore on. I published an anthology of their work through Createspace, and the awe on their faces as they held their book was inspiring.
That year I had two students with special academic needs for which they were pulled from the classroom for instruction by a specialist. Writing was difficult for them, but they reluctantly agreed to set their goal at 1,000 words when I pointed out that a picture book was a thousand words and couldn’t they write a picture book? Both of them wrote over 2,000 words, dictating their story to me as I typed it into the computer. Their pride gave them lasting confidence.
A year later, one of them came into my new class to encourage them to work hard on their novels. Here was a boy who never had confidence in anything he could do, standing in front of a class of strangers and telling them how wonderful it was to write a novel! Moments like that still bring tears to my eyes.
NaNoWriMo is not just about writing. It is a bigger writing project than students have ever attempted, and when they achieve their goal they are exhausted and thrilled to their very toes.
How did NaNoWriMo help you to write On a Wing and a Dare?
Long before I’d ever heard of NaNoWriMo, I wrote a novel called Wings, Waves, and Wisteria. The reviewers in my online writing group weren’t satisfied with the world-building. They had lots of questions about the flying horses, the town that harbored them, and the role of women in the society. After thinking hard about their feedback, I realized a prequel was needed. Then I discovered NaNoWriMo.
On a Wing and a Dare was written as a prequel to my first novel, under the title Love, Lies, and Longing. I started planning it in October 2009 alongside my class. I did the character interviews and roller coaster plot plan, and I was as excited as they were come November 1! Throughout the month I was motivated by my ego—I was not going to let my fifth graders finish their novels and not finish mine!
Tell us about your revision and publication process.
Revision is always a nightmare. At least now I can say to my class, “I worked on my novel for two years, I don’t want any complaints when I ask you to revise your work!” I added, cut, polished, and reworked On a Wing and a Dare for six months. Reviewers online loved it, but one major part didn’t work. Originally, the story was set in modern-day California, in a small town in the Sierra Nevada foothills. No one bought the notion that a herd of flying horses could live there.
Finally, I admitted to this fatal flaw. Then a reviewer mentioned that the setting sounded like her grandmother’s farm in Wales. I loved tales of the mystical remote mountains of Wales, so I switched the setting to medieval Wales. After a great deal of research, I re-titled my novel On a Wing and a Dare, and for NaNoWriMo 2010 I rewrote the entire thing and set it in a different century and different continent. In December, I polished and cut.
In early 2011, I began to think about publishers. In spite of online doubters, I had sent Wings, Waves, and Wisteria out to publishers and agents. I accumulated 20 rejections, most without any advice. The big publishing houses and agents are inundated with submissions and I despaired being able to catch their attention. I decided to aim for smaller independent publisher with On a Wing and a Dare. Briona Glen was the first publisher I sent it to, and they snapped it up!
What have your fifth and sixth graders said about the novel?
Sixth graders can be brutally honest. While that is a good thing, since they are part of my target audience, it can also be hard to take. When a chapter is good, you can hear a pin drop in the room as every student stops breathing and no one wants to go to recess. That’s when I mutter, “Yessss!” under my breath.
Sometimes, though, they tell me a chapter is really boring or they don’t like a character. They get to be pretty good reviewers. One of them told me, “You can’t marry everyone off at the end. Something bad has to happen to someone to make it real.” That’s pretty real-world for a ten year old!
For more about Linda’s books, check out:
Top photo by Flickr user KristinNador.