|Laura Purdie Salas has a great idea to share|
I've enjoyed being a Cybils judge several times, and this year, I decided to use the opportunity to help me grow as a writer.
I changed categories for the Cybils awards this year. Instead of judging in the Poetry category, I've moved to Easy Readers / Early Chapter Books. (See my reasoning here.)
And what I'm doing in my super-sneaky way is I'm using this opportunity to learn a TON about the kinds of books I want to write! And you can, too.
It's like an advanced course in writing to a certain form or genre. And I'm using the Cybils nominations as my starting point, but you could do this with any great list of books, such as the NCTE Notables list, the National Book Awards long list, Bank Street's Best Books of the year, etc.
Here's what you do.
° Pick the Cybils category [http://www.cybils.com/] that features the form you want to learn more about. There are 11 to choose from.
° Find a partner! Buddy up with at least one other writer who also wants to improve his or her work in this particular genre. If you can get 3 or 4 other writers, even better. I feel so lucky that, as a Panelist, I have a whole group of easy reader experts (teachers and librarians, mostly). I know I'll learn bunches from them.
° Get the list of nominated books. In the first right sidebar on the Cybils site, where it says 2013 Nominations by Genre, click on your chosen category.
° Decide how many books you want to read. If you're doing a shorter form, like Poetry, Picture Books, or Easy Readers, read ALL the nominated books. If you're doing novels, maybe you want to pick a limit, like 30 books or something. Contact your library and put all of the nominated books on Reserve or request them through Interlibrary Loan. You and your partner should read the same books.
° If you're on Goodreads [www.goodreads.com], start a Cybils 2013 shelf to keep track of your reading. ° Start a folder for your reading notes.
° Decide what features you want to concentrate on. What are the areas of weakness in your own writing? My struggle with easy readers / early chapter books is structure. Sentence structure, scene structure, book structure. So that's my strong focus as I do my reading.
° Document each book as you read it! Rate it in Goodreads and, either in Goodreads or in separate documents, take notes. I start with the title, author, publisher, and page count. For the books I really like, I'm typing out the book (if it's truly a beginning reader) or a portion of it (if it's longer). Typing it out really gives me a physical feel for it and helps me absorb the structure. After I type part of it out, I run Word's readability stats on it.
° I'm doing this because reading level is pretty relevant to this specific category. In many other categories, I wouldn't bother with that. I also go to Renaissance Learning [http://www.renlearn.com/store/quiz_home.asp], where I can often find the word count of the entire book.
° Then I jot notes about what I liked and didn't like. What was fresh or stale? What did I notice that was the same or different from other books in this category? And if I only typed a portion of the book, I jot down a ONE-SENTENCE summary of each chapter. That helps me see how the main plot is structured.
° Spend a week or two debating and discussing with your partner once you've read all the books. Come to an agreement on the 5-7 top books out of all that you've read. Discuss the pros and cons of each title. It's interesting to see what you both dismiss immediately and what stays on the table. If you can, crown your very own Super-Sneaky Cybils winner in your chosen category!
° Think about and analyze what you found. This is the most important step of all! Re-read your notes. Look for common threads. Actually write down a paragraph or two about what you learned and what changes you want to make to your own writing.
And there you go. It's like a graduate course in your chosen genre-only without the tuition fees and exorbitant textbook costs:>)
Laura Purdie Salas is the author of A Leaf Can Be... (Millbrook, 2012), BookSpeak! Poems About Books (Clarion, 2011), and many more books for kids. You can find more about her work at laurasalas.com. You can also sign up for her monthly e-letter for writers, where this post first appeared, at http://tinyurl.com/notyw92