I’m delighted to chat today with inspiring writing teacher, Léna Roy. Léna began teaching Writopia Lab workshops in Manhattan in 2009, then went on to bring the program to New York City’s northern suburbs in 2010. The author of the YA novel, Edges, published by FSG, she co edited the award-winning Girl’s Write Now anthology, First Lines. Her writing was featured in the essay collection for middle school kids and their teachers: Breakfast on Mars and 37 Other Essays to Devour: Your Favorite Authors Take on the Dreaded Essay Assignment. In 2014, Léna was recognized by the Scholastic Awards “as an outstanding educator whose dedication, commitment, and guidance are represented by student work selected for national honors.”
Mentoring has long been the connective tissue in Léna’s life, whether through her work with at-risk adolescents in Utah, California, and New York; or through her own writing discipline, as fostered by her late grandmother, author Madeleine L’Engle. It was her grandmother who taught Léna to transform the solitary nature of writing into a sacred sense of community, where her art and the art of others can flourish.
Writopia Lab is a national community of young writers, ages 6 to 18. Founded in New York City in 2007, Writopia Lab has now spread to Greater New York, Greater Washington, D.C., Chicago and Los Angeles. www.writopialab.org
1-What’s hardest for most middle grade writers you teach? Developing characters? Coming up with a plot? Finding a voice? Something else?
It depends upon the writer! Plot usually isn’t the problem, because that’s always fun for them to brainstorm. Depending on their emotional maturity, it can be a challenge to develop a strong character arc (how is the character flawed?) and for some it can be a challenge to move them away from fan fiction to find their own original voice.
2-When you get a motivated, ambitious middle grade writer who wants to write the next Harry Potter or Hunger Games series, and has the whole plot all mapped out in her head, how do you keep her focused on developing a good short story?
This comes with time. I find that by seventh grade, most middle schoolers who are devoted to writing want to master the short story, because they see writers just a little older than them winning awards and having their work published. (Having deadlines, such as the Scholastic Writing Awards can be an excellent motivator, where the word limit on short stories is 3000 words.) But if they are writing a “novel” we still focus on having its own plot and character arc.
3-What’s the best way to turn on a reluctant middle grader to creative writing?
If they think that they don’t like reading or writing, I ask them if they like “story”. The next step is to ask them if they like TV shows and/or video games, and this is what hooks them – those are stories too! Part of our human experience is ingesting and telling stories – in several different mediums. I break down an episode of Spongebob (Or whatever their favorite is) and demystify the process – every story has a main character, an objective (something that they want) and then obstacles that get in their way.
4-Are there fiction authors whose techniques you recommend for aspiring young writers? Any books on the craft of writing you find especially helpful for aspiring writers and/or their teachers?
All of Writopia Lab’s teachers are professional writers. Founded and developed by the incomparable Rebecca Wallace-Segall in 2007, Writopia has an original and evolving tool kit full of writing games to help with character, plot development, and sparking that writing mojo!
5-How do you encourage middle grade kids to constructively critique a classmate’s writing? How do you teach young writers to calmly accept constructive criticism from peers– or from you?
We create a warm, inclusive culture where everyone feels that their voice matters. When we workshop, we train our writers to make two positive comments, and then ask a question about a specific part that isn’t clear. Once we build trust, each writer only wants to improve.
6-Can you share some of your favorite writing prompts?
Always use prompts that have a strong action with middle schoolers. I make them up on the spot, depending on the kid. And let them know that it can be in any genre! I’ve had success with this one: “I climbed the tree for a better look.” My favorite: “The glass shattered.”
7-How do you see the role of the teacher in a creative writing workshop? Do you always provide prompts and exercises, mostly help develop the kids’ own writing, or some of both? What do you do if a young writer resists your exercises and only wants to work on his own writing?
The role of the instructor is to be a guide, a mentor, a cheerleader. We are half camp counselor, demonstrating passion and energy, and half serious writing professional. We always ask the writers what their own writing goals for the day are, as the ultimate goal for the end of a workshop series is to have something completed, whether it’s a short story, or Part 1 of an epic novel! So all of the above. If most kids want to do a short exercise/game to begin the workshop, I ask the one who is resistant to give it a shot for just five minutes so that he/she can still feel part of the group.
You can visit Léna at www.lenaroybooks.com.
Barbara Dee is the author of The Almost Perfect Guide to Imperfect Boys, Trauma Queen, This Is Me From Now On, Solving Zoe, and Just Another Day in My Insanely Real Life. Her next book, Truth or Dare, will be published by Aladdin/S&S in Fall 2016.