Taking Writing Criticism from Teenagers

Hearing a group of teenagers critique my unpublished YA novel was fantastic, but it was also an exercise in self-censorship (something I am historically inept at doing).

Don’t get me wrong: I am grateful to all twenty-five of the high school freshmen who elected to read my manuscript and thrilled by the degree to which they have helped me. Many of their insights have been rewarding and their questions have helped guide my future revision. While I was nervous about this “experiment,” I am very pleased with the results.  It is clear that my book has some strong elements going for it though it still needs work (some scenes were unclear, some questions left unanswered, and several of my students’ suggestions were good ones!). My students have given me the insight I need to improve the novel in a variety of ways. As a result, I feel rejuvenated and am excited to work on the new draft!

Of course, not every nugget of criticism was golden. Smiling and keeping quiet when students missed details that I know where there was a challenge. As an English teacher, I’m used to students overlooking or not remembering details from their reading. However, it is a bit different when they are overlooking or perhaps speed-reading your own work and then criticizing your writing for being confusing. I wanted to say, “Look right here! It’s right there! And look! It is mentioned again over here!” but I am happy to say that I refrained at all times. Instead, I just smiled and said, “Oh. Huh. Thanks for telling me.” More often than not, when they were confused or had questions, the fault was indeed mine because I didn’t explain something well enough, but when the answer to the question was right there in the text I had to bite my tongue. When they had major questions about the story, a scene, or character, I would stop and explain those things and turn the conversation into a lesson on storytelling and the kinds of decisions authors have to make, but if the question or comment was unimportant to understanding the overall story, I just let it go.

I learned a great deal about the strengths and weakness of my writing from this experience and the positives certainly outweigh any possible negatives by about 100 to 1.  Several students seemed to legitimately enjoy the novel and many were able to identify the very themes I wanted to incorporate. No one thought the novel was terrible (though several had trouble with it and were drowning in questions). As an added bonus, I don’t think any of the students thought I was a bad sport about hearing their criticism. After all, I asked them to rip the book to shreds, so THANK YOU to “The Schmidty Committee” for all of your hard work. You guys are great! Should the novel ever get published, I’ll have to put you all on my “acknowledgements” page.

Now go and have a great summer!

Star Wars VS Star Trek in the Age of Abrams

Since there is a new Star Trek film coming out this weekend and since the director (J.J. Abrams) is also taking over the Star Wars franchise, I think it is appropriate to look at his first Star Trek film “through the lens of Star Wars.”

The following is a point-by-point comparison of the original Star Wars movie (1977) and Abrams’ Star Trek film of 2009. As you can see, J.J. basically said, “We’re going to turn Star Trek into Star Wars.”


Similarities between Star Wars (1977) and Star Trek (2009):

  • Starts with Big Ship bullying a smaller (underdog) ship.
  • Goes to a farm boy (early twenties) = (Luke Skywalker/Jim Kirk).
  • Farm boy meets allies in a bar. There is a bar fight. Shortly after this, the hero leaves his home planet for 1st time.
  • The hero finds a mentor who knew his dad and who becomes a kind of father-figure. This mentor asks the farm boy to “join him” and become like the boy’s own father.
  • Farm boy is a rookie but has a lot of potential.
  • Story is about chance, choice, and destiny.
  • Though events seem random, there is evidence that fate/providence is playing a role and guiding these events because the characters seem destined to meet (Droids to Luke and then Ben in Star Wars VS Kirk to Old Spock and then Scotty in Star Trek).
  • Most aspects of the Hero’s journey are present.
  • Farm boy/rookie and the Secondary hero (Han Solo/Spock) do not get along that well but become friends by the end of the film.
  • Bad guys have a weapon capable of destroying a planet.
  • One character is made to watch as his/her home planet is destroyed (Leia/Spock).
  • Bad guy “killed” the farm boy/rookie’s father.
  • Farm boy enters the big bad ship on a rescue mission. He succeeds and saves the prisoner (Princess Leia/ Captain Pike).
  • Just as a “good guy ship” is about to be destroyed by the bad guys, another “good guy ship” appears in time to save the first.
  • The last battle ends when the good guys destroy the big bad ship.
  • Rookie proves himself.
  • Ends with an award ceremony.

Choosing the Perfect Setting – Part Three

Edinburgh, Scotland may seem an odd choice for a YA novel about King Arthur returning to modern day. Given that premise, London probably makes more sense or else somewhere in the English countryside where Camelot may have been located. But Edinburgh? Why there?

Because it is perfect. Here’s why:

The architecture helps visualize the themes and what the characters are going through internally.

  • While Edinburgh is a thriving modern city, most of its facades are cold stone several centuries old. Everywhere you look, the present is clashing with the past . . . and considering King Arthur is returning from some otherworldly past, this visual is appropriate: He feels this clash within himself—a man out of time. So the juxtaposing architecture reflects his inner turmoil.  Arthur isn’t the only mythical person or creature who steps foot into the modern world, so although he’s the one the story focuses on, what he feels is echoed by all of the legendary beings that pop up.
  • Additionally, Old Town is a multi-layered maze with new mysteries around every corner. There are more ghost stories and local tales of gruesome horror than any other city I know of—plenty of interesting details to help flesh out the world. There’s even a system of tunnels sealed up beneath the city—the world of the past, sealed up and forgotten, but right there, just underneath the surface. In my story, the barrier between the world of myth and our own world is weakened. Where better than a city where the barrier between past and present is already thin and, at every turn, under attack?
  • The city’s mysterious nature reflects another theme: that no one is what they seem and that everyone has a secret.
  • Edinburgh Castle sits atop a hill at the center of town, backed up to an imposing cliff. This castle was actually J.K. Rowling’s inspiration for Hogwarts. This is the perfect setting for my climax when our heroes defend the city against a siege of mythological beasts.
  • The mountain opposite the castle is called Arthur’s Seat. Legend has it that King Arthur led a battle campaign from there. Is there a better place for King Arthur to reappear than on a mountain that bears his name?

It is also true that I fell in love with Edinburgh. It is one of my three favorite cities (alongside Chicago and Wellington, New Zealand). I might say this story is my love letter to this amazing city.