There was a long while when we stopped trading critiques--the writers and the stories were too immature to handle them--but we're grownups now, and we've developed thicker skins. I've even developed a part-time job based on editing and critiquing other writers' manuscripts. I most enjoy working with writers who check their egos at the door: they are out to improve their work, not to hear pretty compliments. Yeah, we all like to hear nice things about our babies, but if those nice things don't help our writing, what's the point?
Anyway, back to trading stories: Jade and I have been stretching our writing muscles, venturing into fictional territory we've never explored before. She recently wrote a short story about a vampire hunter. I thought it quite good; she's struggling with a re-write. (She sees flaws I don't see. My uncle was like that. An artist, he could always see the mistakes, but the rest of us were blown away by the images he presented.)
I only read a short story, but she's reading an entire novel, passing along comments on a few chapters at a time. It's cool whenever she asks a question I know I've answered later in the text, or she gets a small joke I've tossed in, or she wants to know more about a character. That means I'm doing my job. She also points out inconsistencies or gaps in the information, and that is (to me) more valuable than the other remarks; by calling my attention to the problems, she helps me fix them.
I traded another story with Eamon. He sent along the first three chapters of his children's science fiction tale; I sent the space pirates. He has created some interesting characters and an intriguing history/backstory that I want to explore further. (hint, hint, ahem) He also gave permission for the story to be read to the kids at the youth organization where I work. Talk about instant feedback! Kids will be honest every time. I predict they'll want to read more.
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Tomorrow's Story Time, we will finish Coraline by Neil Gaiman, a scary little tale that has them enthralled. I think they like it when I "do the voices" and pace back and forth in front of the group. It was really cool when one boy said, about two years ago, "It's just like going to the movies, only better, 'cause you can see things for yourself."
Hey, if I have to wave my arms and make faces and talk in really bad accents, I'll do it, if it gets kids interested in reading for themselves.
Our annual literacy program, Reading Quest, had its most successful year in 2008. From January 1 to May 9, the children turned in 467 books. Amazing. Last year, we didn't even make it to our goal, and this year we blew out the record (set in 2006) by more than 100 books. Tuesday afternoon, we had a pizza party, handed out certificates and awards, and drew names for other prizes. A fun time for all.