Over the weekend, Paul and I went to my mom’s house in Virginia to pick up our wedding gifts that we’d been storing there since April.
“Can you also help me get some stuff out of the attic?” she asked. “It’s only ten or fifteen boxes.”
“Uhh… more like thirty,” Paul said when he got to the top of the stairs. He handed boxes down to my mom, who handed them to me. I pawed through them, making exclamations like, “my Raggedy Ann doll!” and “my sixth grade Social Studies project!” I stacked everything haphazardly in my mom’s office until it looked, as she said, “like the 90’s had exploded in it.”
Choking on dust, we started going through the boxes, trying to make a pile of things to give away or throw away. But it was hard! As warped and yellowed as my Pippi Longstocking books were, I couldn’t bear to part with them. And, for some reason, my mom wanted to keep my 1992 Clarksville Lake Fest t-shirt.
I got rid of some high school plaques and awards, as well as a few moldy books and a folder of math notes. Then I found a stack of my old writing. Paul grabbed a few pages out of my hand and started reading: “I lying there staring out my window, when it opened and in flew a blindow.”
“Blindow rhymes with window,” I corrected him. “Obviously.” Below my seven-year-old handwriting was a marker drawing of a boy holding the hand of an orange creature with wings and what looked like a frozen yogurt swirl on top of its head
The book went on, in rhyming couplets, to describe a midnight adventure (led by the flying blindow) to a wacky and wonderful place called “Holiday Land,” where the Easter Bunny lives year-round.
“This is so creative!” Paul said.
I shrugged. “I was just copying Dr. Suess.”
As we went through the boxes, it became clear that I wrote mostly fan fiction in elementary school. In third grade, I had written my own American Girl book called “Meet Eva.” I had copied everything about the American Girl series, right down to front cover (in this case it was Meet Eva: An American Girl, 1989).
Then there was my fan fiction Baby-sitter’s Club book. I called it, “The all new Baby-sitter’s Club (a new member, Eva Langston).” The title of the book was Eva’s Revenge, and, naturally, I was the main character except, instead of being eight-years-old and living in Southwest Virginia, I was fourteen and a resident of Stoneybrook, Connecticut.
“Oh man,” Paul said. “I wonder what your revenge was?”
“I don’t know. I don’t remember writing this.” We decided to take it home with us and read it in the car on the way back to Maryland.
As Paul drove, I read from Eva’s Revenge. The first chapter was entirely devoted to introducing the characters: Kristy, Claudia, Stacy, Dawn, Mallory, Jessi, and Eva, the newest member. Since Paul has never read a Baby-sitter’s Club book before, he didn’t realize that some of this was direct paraphrasing, right down to the description of how the club works. I was a little embarrassed by my lack of creativity.
In the second chapter, the story started in earnest. Someone is making malicious prank phone calls and wreaking havoc on Eva’s friendships with the other club members.
“This is rivieting,” Paul said. I couldn’t tell if he was joking or not until he said, “keep reading.”
And then, fifty-one notebook pages in, the story stops abruptly in the middle of chapter five, mid-sentence even.
“Well what happens?” Paul asked.
“I don’t know. I never finished it.” I was a little disappointed, too.
When I was in elementary and middle school, my parents and teachers would sometimes encourage me to read things other than the series books I was so hooked on. And it’s true that The Baby-sitter’s Club and Sweet Valley Twins are not of the highest quality. The first chapters were always a bunch of telling instead of showing, and the writing was full of adverbs and lazy descriptions. As for the theory of “you write what you read,” well, I was writing books exactly like the Baby-sitter’s Club.
But that’s the thing. I was eight-years-old and writing books. Which is pretty amazing.
As a former math teacher, I know that kids need scaffolding when trying new things. You can’t just throw out a challenging word problem and expect them to know how to solve it. You need to ask step-by-step questions, give examples, suggest an algorithm.
As far as writing goes, series books provide excellent scaffolding. The setting and characters are already established, along with a framework for the story. Plus, there are plenty of examples. All a kid needs to do is use his/her own story idea and plug it in to the framework of the series. Plus, chances are, the kid already loves the story-world and wants to imagine other things the characters might do. This is why people write fan fiction in the first place, isn’t it?
People tend to make fun of fan fiction, but it could be a great way for kids to write creatively and learn how fiction works.
And, come to think of it, creating fan fiction is not a bad way for writers of any age or experience level to practice writing. If you’re feeling stuck or frustrated, why not try this exercise: choose a book you love and write in that style, with those characters. Maybe even insert yourself as a character, just for fun. Since the story-world is already in place, you can get started right away with the plot instead of getting bogged down by character sketches or describing the setting. Write about what happens to Tom and Daisy after Gatsby dies and Nick goes back west. Write your own James Bond novel. Write a new Harry Potter adventure from Hermione’s point of view. Use the story-world scaffolding and see what you can build.
As for me, I better hurry up and finish Eva’s Revenge. Paul’s dying to know what happens next.