Let's Write a Collaborative Novel!

Find out what it would be like for your class to write and publish a complete novel.

By Barry Nitikman

Posted

kids writing at school

Each year, I have my GATE fifth grade class write a collaborative novel. Every student in the class is responsible for writing one chapter. The completed novel is illustrated by the class, prepared for publication by me, professionally published, sold to the public, and placed in local schools and public libraries. It is a highly-involved and time-consuming process, but very rewarding and well worth the effort. The value and rewards of this project are many:

  • Students learn firsthand the elements and processes that go into creating a published book.
  • They learn about setting, premise, characters, writing, editing, proofreading, illustrating, and finally, publishing.
  • Many language arts skills are addressed during the novel writing process.
  • The looks on the kids' faces when they see their completed novel is the highlight of the year for me! Their expressions are priceless, and their pride in their work is tremendous.

Worth The Time  

I recognize that this is a project that will probably not be feasible for most teachers, primarily due to the considerable amount of class time required to complete it properly. In a time when emphasis is placed on test scores, and so much time is taken trying to get struggling learners up to speed, it may be hard to justify all the time this project would require. However, it is my goal to inspire some teachers to attempt this, knowing that for determined teachers, very little will stop them. Even in a class with second-language learners and kids far below grade level, this might provide a way to overcome some of the challenges. For those who make the commitment to undertake this project, I guarantee that you will be thrilled by how much your students learn. From the level of ownership they feel about their novel, to  how much effort and thought they put into it, this is an experience they will never forget.

All Grades Welcome!

This project can be undertaken by almost any grade level. Thus, I will try to keep my guidelines focused in such a way that they could apply to any grade or situation. Without question, these parameters and guidelines will have to be adapted for your particular situation. This is what worked for me, but I am confident that if you commit to undertaking this worthwhile project, you will be able to alter the details in order to make it work for your class. 

Getting Started

Here is a general overview of the process and schedule we follow each year. The time it takes for completion obviously depends on how many students you have. I have successfully completed this project with a class of 26, 32, and 35 pupils. The approximate timetable is as follows:

  • Approximately One Month: Preliminary foundational work on novel elements, such as characters, premise, and setting. Pupils meet in committees to discuss the basic aspects of the novel: the guidelines that all of the authors must follow in order for the novel to be cohesive and consistent from chapter to chapter.
  • Approximately Five Months: Actual writing of novel.
  • Approximately One Month: (1) Creating illustrations and general art work. (2) Extensive and rigorous revision, polishing, proofreading and editing to guarantee that the novel is completely ready for publication. (3) Publication and release.

First Steps

Here are some of the elements that you will need to establish, but obviously this is not the place for an exhaustive discussion of how to teach concepts like setting, plot, and character development. I trust you will teach these in your own way, according to your unique situation.

  • The Genre: Students decide whether the story is going to be science fiction, fantasy, realistic fiction, etc.
  • The Premise: This is the crucial beginning. The class must decide on a premis. Here are some examples:

- A boy and his sister become trapped in a video game, and have to escape through multiple levels to get out to see their families again.

- Three kids wake up in the back of a van in the middle of a desert. They have no idea how they got there, or why they are there.

- Two friends set off on a quest to recover a mythical sword so they can defeat an evil prince who threatens them.

- A boy who has grown up lonely and isolated in the home of his cruel relatives discovers that he is actually a wizard, and that he has a thrilling and terrifying destiny awaiting him.

We discuss the premise at length. The class brainstorms premises. Then we discuss them, and whittle them down to the ones people find most interesting. Finally, we vote and majority rules. Once the premise is established, I assign committees to come up with the main elements we will need to begin the story. Each committee is responsible only for their particular area, however you will see them communicating with other groups over certain things (“Who’s your main character? We are thinking of having the villain be such and such; do you think that will work with your character? “)  NOTE: All of the committee decisions are to be discussed and refined with the whole class. In some cases, they are left pretty much intact, but for some, there will be spirited dialogue to work out details.

The Elements

  • The Setting: Obviously this goes along with the premise, but the details are very important.
  • Main Characters (2-3 only): Must be very well fleshed-out. Here is our list from last year:

- Tiffany: Long, straight blond hair, prissy and sassy. She is a real know-it-all who is very stuck-up and tends to be rude. She is spoiled, and has big blue eyes, a perfect nose, big red lips, and wears lots of makeup. Tiffany is tall, medium weight, and 13 years old.

- Austin: Sandy brown hair, green eyes, small nose, big feet, ragged, dirty clothes. He plays basketball well because he is tall, lean, and muscular. He is a manly fighter. At 14, Austin is a nice kid, but very poor.

- Annabel Shamberg: Short brown hair, thick glasses, green eyes, and very nerdy. She is eight years old, but says she is eleven. Although she is quite smart, kids pick on her.

  • The Villain: This is the committee everyone wants to be on.
  • Minor Characters (maybe 2-3): Not too many, and they don’t need to be that well-defined. Also, point out that other supporting characters can be invented by authors as the story goes on.

It is crucial to decide what items the characters have with them. This is very important! if they are in a desert, or a maze, you must define ahead of time exactly what they have with them, so there aren’t any magical discoveries, as in “Oh, look, here’s a gun and some rope and a cell phone! We’re saved!” Here's an example list from last year (the wake up-in-the-desert plot):

  • Two-inch thick, twenty-two foot long rope
  • Cooler with four gallons of water
  • 5 bologna sandwiches
  • Complex Swiss Army knife
  • Box of crayons
  • Spare clothes

The Rules/Parameters

This is where you establish the guidelines that should guide your authors through the entire novel. These guidelines maintain consistency, and keep your authors on-track. Last year, the class wanted realistic fiction, so our list reflected that desire:

  • No magic.
  • No talking animals.
  • No extra-terrestrials.
  • No gruesome killing.
  • No ending the story with a dream.

Once all the committees have met and their decisions have been discussed and agreed upon, you have one job left before beginning the actual writing: selecting the sequence of authors.

Here are my thoughts on this: For the most part, I just pick the sequence at random. We do it with fair sticks: I pick a child’s name, and they say, “Oh, I’ll do Chapter 22 "and so on. However, I feel it is important that you have talented, creative, reliable authors for the first and last chapters. In my case, I also hand-pick the Chapter Two author, and I subtly make sure that the two to three final chapter authors are also known to be good writers. The beginning and ending are too critical to take a chance on a random author. 

I assess writing skill by having the class write two or three narratives within the first two weeks of school. Sometimes it is beneficial to ask last year’s teachers for recommendations. Again, I strongly suggest that you don’t leave the first and last chapters to chance. They are critical. Once you have drawn up your list of authors, you are ready to begin!

Posting the Novel as it Progresses

I suggest you leave a space on your classroom wall to post the chapters as they are written. It creates a lot of excitement and anticipation. In addition, have the chapters posted online as well, so that all of your authors can keep track of the story. This helps ensure that each individual chapter makes sense in the context of the whole novel. 

If at all possible, try to get a parent volunteer to do your online posting. I've had good luck in finding parents who will take the finished chapters each week, format them for display, print out a copy for the class, and post a copy online. Obviously, this is a really nice option to have. If you can arrange this (for high school, maybe even a student could do it), it will make things easier for you. Be aware that it is critical for the posted copies to reflect updates that are made in class. There is nothing worse than winding up with confusion over which copy is the revised copy. The best way to avoid this is to have only one person assigned to post the chapters.

IMPORTANT NOTE: As the chapters are posted, you need to monitor progress in order to help the students keep the story flowing, avoid discrepancies in the plot, stay consistent in details and manner of speech, and remember where characters are at any given point (i.e. in the house, outside, walking along a road, etc.) If the character is walking along the road at the end of a chapter, he can't be lying in bed in the next chapter without some sort of explanation. It is inevitable that there will be occasional discrepancies; the characters ran out of duct tape two chapters ago, but they're still using it, or where did that money come from? Whatever you can do to minimize these discrepencies during the writing/posting process, will help to make your finalizing process smoother and quicker.

The Weekly Chapter Expectation

Each person has two days to complete his/her chapter before it is read to the class. He e-mails it to me the night before so I can look it over (of course pupils can give me a hard copy the day before, but e-mail is easier for me). In general, we try to complete two chapters per week. This will not always be possible, and if someone absolutely cannot finish in the allotted time, I extend the deadline. This is because I want each author to take the time needed to create a cohesive and exciting chapter. I know there are unforeseen events and circumstances, but I stress the importance of deadlines with my class. I also ask the parents: “Please encourage your child to stay on-task and finish in the prescribed two days." Enough time needs to be padded into the schedule to allow for some flexibility. Just keep this in mind when you schedule the chapter writing, you don’t want to get into a situation where you fall seriously behind and are in danger of not finishing in time to publish before the end of the school year.  

Note: I have a policy that no other homework will be assigned to the person who is writing the current chapter. Their sole task is to focus on writing a great chapter. Also, I make sure that all the parents get the full explanation of expectations and requirements before we begin, as it’s important that they understand the process.

Completion Process

The teacher reads the chapter to the class and then conducts a detailed discussion. This includes applause, but also respectful and vigilant criticism. The author is expected to take detailed notes regarding comments and suggestions.  This, to me, is possibly the most valuable part of the process. Those who are doing the critiquing learn to make respectful and to-the-point comments, and the author being critiqued has the benefit of receiving a great deal of positive and constructive feedback. Each person goes through this process at one point or another, and by doing so, he learns a tremendous amount about what goes into writing a novel.

Decide how much time should be allotted to the discussion and the best way to conduct it in a respectful and positive way. Having done over 90 of these class discussions, I’ve found they can last anywhere from 15-45 minutes. I believe that a lot of the value in this project comes from the students being obliged to have in-depth discussions. I think you will be surprised by the level of buy-in they feel. This is their novel and they want to get things right. For example, last year some of the things that were challenged in individual chapters included whether or not a certain type of lizard would actually be found in the Sahara, and whether Stealth Bombers leave vapor trails. They care.  

After the discussion, the author goes home and makes the necessary changes. He e-mails the finished chapter to me to check it over. If the revisions do not materially affect the narrative, the next author begins his/her chapter right away. The revised chapter is formatted for display in the classroom and also posted online, where it can be easily accessed by all. If everyone doesn't have internet access, maintain a folder with hard copies.  

Illustrations

This can be handled in various ways:

  • You can have an Art Committee who does all the art work. However, the drawback is that all drawings of characters must be consistent from chapter to chapter, and this is difficult to do with a committee.
  • You could have one or two talented pupils selected by their classmates to do the artwork.
  • This is what I’ve come to greatly prefer. Each person does his own illustration for his chapter, if possible under the direction/guidance of an art instructor. To get around the problem of having characters appear different in the chapters, we agree not to show any faces or even bodies. Instead, artists use textures and lines to create an illustration of an element of the chapter like sand dunes, an old barrel, or an iguana. 

Cover illustrations: Teacher are rightfully reluctant to put value judgments on students’ art work, but all can agree that what goes on the cover of a book has to be very special. The cover illustration should be done by an individual with particular flair and skill. This is a real novel, it will be published in the real world, and if you want a book to sell, it must look as attractive and intriguing as possible. (If you do not agree with this, you’ll come up with your own solution). Here’s how I handle this delicate issue. I announce that there will be a contest for anyone interested in creating the cover illustration. Anyone who wishes to compete places his/her entry in a sealed manila envelope on my desk by a certain date. When it comes time to vote, I have another teacher remove them and put them all in one envelope. I show them all to the class, either on the board or on the Elmo, with no discussion because it could give away clues as to who did what picture.

We then vote on each, (heads-down vote is best to avoid peer pressure), and if necessary, there are two voting rounds. The winner is announced, and revealed, which is always a special moment. This past year, we used the runner-up for the back cover illustration, and that worked out really well. The anonymous nature of the vote has another wonderful fringe benefit: it eliminates popularity voting. This year one of my girls had trouble getting along with the other girls, which often left her sad and isolated. Therefore, it was a very special moment when her drawing was chosen for the cover. I feel certain that had the students known it was her drawing, this may have affected their vote.

Editing, Revising and Proofreading Phase

We generally do this during the same time period as the illustrating; it’s up to you. This phase is critically important for obvious reasons: everyone wants to publish a book free of mistakes and typos. You can't stress enough that this is for real; people are going to read this book, even purchase it. It has to be right.

Here is how I approach it:

  • I insist that they read the entire novel through, so they have a perspective on the overall story, and where their chapter fits in context. Their job is also to take notes on anything major that they feel must be corrected. I emphasize major; as in “They were inside the tent, and now all of a sudden they are walking through the desert. How did they get there?” Or “The guy’s name is Frank, but here it says 'Tracy,' which is it?” At this point, we are not looking for “Oh, maybe describe the trees a little better.” Those sorts of details will be looked at during the peer-editing sessions.
  • Depending on how well you’ve kept track of the story, events, and characters, there may be discrepancies in plot, location of characters, someone’s actions, etc. This is almost inevitable. We have a session devoted entirely to a discussion of major issues which need to be resolved. I go from student to student asking for issues they’ve discovered, but no repeating. For instance, if Chloe already pointed out that the guy’s name is supposed to be Frank, not Tracy, there is no need for others to repeat it. This is tends to be a lengthy session. (If you come up with a better way to do this, please let me know!)
  • As part of this session, there will inevitably be an issue or two that the authors will need to resolve as a group. This could be a plot element that some see as unrealistic or silly, the way a character is acting, or a disagreement among the class as to one of the character’s manner of speech (in this case, a street kid who many felt should be using "ain’t" and "gonna" as opposed to more formal speech). Every minute of discussions like this are valuable for the kids; it forces them to think hard about the many important elements that go into a good story. During this session, everyone has a note sheet in front of him. They must to jot down any specific revisions they are personally responsible for making in their chapter.
  • The authors do their own editing/revising.
  • After that, I have them peer-edit with several different classmates (not all at once; individual peer-editing sessions). You might require them to do at least three, and insist that each peer editor make meaningful comments on the paper. Follow through to check so they see you are monitoring progress.
  • Authors do any further revisions based on the feedback they received from their peers.
  • Each pupil carefully proofreads his chapter, then asks his parents to do the same. Obviously, with non-English-speaking families, ask the kids if they know someone they can ask to proofread. If not, you do it. Note: I always do a final proofread myself, I honestly don’t completely trust anybody else.

Layout/Publishing Phase 

This may be something you can do yourself depending on your experience. I am fortunate that amongst my parent group, I’ve always had someone with desktop publishing skills who has volunteered to take on the task of laying out the book. Depending on your school and demographic, this person can be either be easy to find, or next to impossible. However, I really mean it when I say that you can absolutely find someone to do this for you if you really try. It could be someone associated with the school, or a volunteer from outside. Sometimes, a publishing/print business can be talked into doing it. If you have to beg, do so! In this case, the rewards are well worth it.

For the actual publishing/printing of the novel, we contract with a local printing shop that is associated with our school (they do our flyers, brochures, etc.). They give us a special rate. There are many such businesses out there; I’ll bet even Kinko’s or one of the other chains would be willing to help out with such a worthy cause.

As a benchmark, our book costs $2.50 each to print, and we sell them for $10.00. We do pre-orders for the parents, and by getting enough pre-orders, it pays for about 250 copies. This allows us to give each child his own copy, plus copies for other teachers, the principal, and school board members. We make it a point to donate several copies to the public library. One of the coolest things about this is that they are cataloged under each author’s name. Imagine how your student Mario feels when he goes to the library and finds his novel under his name. Priceless. We also put the novel in a local bookstore on consignment, and sell them in the school office as well. In fact, so many people come through the office that, they always sell out!

Media events to celebrate the publishing are a a great addition. If the major newspaper in your area won’t do a story (and why wouldn’t they? It is a BIG story when a group of children write a published novel!), there are always smaller papers which are happy to do so. You can also showcase at events such as fairs and book store signings. We exhibited at our local StoryFaire last year. This is an event featuring various authors and special performances. We sold over 60 copies of the book that day!

I can’t encourage you enough to try this, it will be an experience that your young authors will never forget!

More Lessons:

Inspiring Students with The Right Writing Prompts

This is an excellent guideline for getting your kids excited to write.

Adding Strong Voice to Your Writing

Intended for grades three to five, this article will help your class to think about, and develop, the kind of voice that will give their writing more emotion, excitement, and direction.  

Learning to Write Narratives

This article is intended for second to fifth graders. It will help young writers learn to write more descriptivelywhich is an important skill to master.