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The 'Write' Trail - Young Authors Build Characters, Plot
OHS creative writing teacher Chris Perez, left, engages students Avalon Perez, Ariana Moses, and Maria Loza in discussion about character development along with published western author Dale D.B. Jackson, right, during a recent writing workshop at the authors Oakdale ranch. - photo by Dawn M. Henley/The Leader

(Editor’s Note: This is part of a multi-installment series following the progress of a special publishing project.)

Characters are coming into existence and a storyline is starting to take shape as a small group of young local authors breathe life into a story set in the old west.

The student authors, participating in a young writers project sponsored by the Western Writers of America, recently took part in a workshop hosted at author Dale “D.B.” Jackson’s Oakdale ranch. Their goal is to produce a short story, or novella, which is slated to be published in an anthology of works with other schools involved in the WWA young writers project.

Jackson, whose first novel was published in 2010, offered the students advice at the workshop about developing characters, storylines, and keeping the writing sharp. He is a member of WWA and brought the unique opportunity, offered to only a handful of schools in the U.S., to Oakdale High School creative writing teacher Chris Perez near the end of the 2011-2012 school year.

A writing prompt at the end of the group’s previous meeting resulted in the decision for the story to take place in the old west and the formation of three primary characters. The young writers brought their stories to the recent session based on the prompt and each of them came up with something very different, Perez said. Jackson provided the student writers with a fair amount of food for thought in further developing their story, asking them questions and having them go through exercises. Perez reported that via discussion, they culled out pieces of each story character and combined them. They found themes and ideas in each student’s story that fit and worked together.

Jackson had the students go through an exercise using one-word descriptions about the character and physical traits of the heroine and the male lead. They also talked about appropriate traits for characters in that time period. Jackson explained why having buy-in from the reader is important and how the characters’ traits have to sell that. He questioned the students on how they wanted readers to feel about certain characters. After much discussion, he asked the students if they liked their heroine. When they agreed they did, they moved on to identifying the traits of other characters.

“Sometimes you can handle a lot of material with just a little bit of dialogue,” Jackson stated.

He added that dialogue and actions can show traits and different sides of the characters’ personalities.

“I think as you start to go through the first two acts, these characters will more and more start to take on a life of their own,” Jackson shared with the students, noting that the characters may do things that are unplanned or unexpected.

The group also discussed the heroine’s introduction and when to introduce the hero. They talked about using symbolism and how they might incorporate that into their story. They also conferred about areas where conflict would develop.

Jackson also imparted how the first sentence and the last sentence of a book are critical.

“What literary theme do you want this story to end on?” he asked, and suggested themes such as hope or despair.

“Which ending do you think will have the biggest impact on your readers?”

He also issued a few cautions to the young writers. He counseled them about not boxing themselves in with character names. Jackson also said to be careful about devices or strategies they use to move the story along, making sure they have enough room to work them in – otherwise they can detract from the story or make it sound contrived.

“If you’re going to use it, make it buy you something, make it count,” he advised.

He noted that the students have a lot of information to work with and execution of the story will be the real test. Jackson believes the hardest part will be collaborating and blending their thoughts and words into a strong piece of work with one voice.

He and Perez agreed that the students have developed more than enough elements and that the hurdle will be for them to stay focused with only limited space available.

“There’s enough material for a novel,” Perez said. “The challenge is to fit it all into a 2,500 word short story. We have to pick out what works.”

Perez noted that the story will continue to be handled and shaped by the budding authors. His student writers are submitting story information to him online and the next young writers meeting will take place after school starts.

He initially presented the writing project as not being for a grade and to take place outside of school; nonetheless, some of his students were eager to take advantage of the offer. He previously described the project as a “tremendous opportunity for kids who want to be professional writers” because he doesn’t have the ability or connections to just go out and get someone to justifiably publish student work. The first draft of the student collaboration is due in December and another draft is due in February 2013. Some of his new students will have the chance to be involved with contributing to the story and editing before the first draft is sent off.