Before you read Carrie’s blog post, the Fluency Matters Team thought it might be a good idea to hear from Carol Gaab, the Editor in Chief at Fluency Matters:

I won’t go as far as saying that writing a good story is easy. I would, however, say that given the freedom to choose any words in the language without regard for frequency factor or comprehensibility, writing a good story is a cake walk compared to writing a comprehension-based reader. A compelling storyline is crucial, but beyond compelling, we pour hundreds of hours into editing to ensure that a good story becomes a comprehension-based reader. 

The Fluency Matters Team goes to great lengths to ensure that every story we publish adheres to strict guidelines for comprehensibility, plots/climaxes that appeal to diverse student populations, maximum frequency factor and minimum unique word counts. If a reader won’t leave your students with a love for reading AND noticeable growth in proficiency, then the story stays on the threshing floor.

Having your story dismembered and then put back together can be a trying experience! It’s tough on both authors and editors! We don’t do it for fun, and we don’t do it for sales. We do it for STUDENTS! We’ve got to provide a compelling, comprehensible, enjoyable read every single time, or we risk losing a student. This week’s featured author is an AMAZING writer with extensive knowledge to share. She masterfully weaves her knowledge into her stories, and we are extremely privileged and fortunate to work with her! Thanks for putting your stories (and your heart) through the ringer for the good of language students everywhere, Carrie! We love you!

I want to write a novel. Where do I start?

This post was originally published on Somewhere to Share, Carrie Toth’s blog.

I have to be honest, I didn’t know how to write a comprehension-based reader when I wrote La hija del sastre.  I was finishing my Master’s degree and had taken a class on the Spanish Civil War.  I wanted to bring what I had learned into my classroom so I designed a UbD (Understanding by Design-backward planning) unit that incorporated the cultural pieces.  But something was missing!

By this time in my life, I knew Kristy Placido, and she was a cool, famous author and I was a big fan.  She asked me if I’d like to meet Carol Gaab because she thought Carol might be interested in my Civil War unit.  OF COURSE I wanted to meet Carol Gaab!  I was so nervous, I bet I apologized 100 times during our conversation!  A little like this:

Carol- Oh, Carrie, you don’t want to have something to eat?
Me- No thank you. Sorry!
Carol- You don’t have to apologize!
Me- Sorry!
Continued for 20 minutes…

At this meeting, it was decided that I would try to write a reader to accompany my unit and the unit would become the Teacher’s Guide.  Well let me tell you, it was not easy!  I wrote the most Hallmark Channel story… full of running into each other’s arms and tears and gushy love… So then came the hard part… making it a real book!  From this first ‘TPRS novel’ to the comprehension-based readers that I now create, I have learned a lot of valuable lessons and wanted to share just a few with those who may be interested in writing comprehension-based readers… and by golly, if you’re a French teacher, write a darn book!!! Your people need you!!!

  1. Editing is IMPORTANT!- I knew my story needed to be edited but I don’t know if I was prepared for how editing feels! At first, my heart wanted to see editing as my story being awful.  I wanted to beat myself up about being bad at this… but that isn’t at ALL what editing is!  Editing is about taking your story and making it the most engaging, well-crafted piece that it can be!  I was SO blessed to work with Carol Gaab during that process because her eye for what makes a good story is impeccable!  There are so many factors!  Is the vocabulary going to frustrate weak readers?  Is the story driven by emotion throughout? Is there enough repetition of structure for acquisition without “feeling” the repetition?  Will boys be turned away by the Hallmark movie moments?? As she taught me how to find the best path for my story, we co-authored my first baby: La hija del sastre. Since then, I’ve written La Calaca Alegre– which I dreamt and it had no end so she was instrumental there again in helping me find exactly what I was looking for! Bianca Nieves y los 7 toritos, and Vector.  I even wrote one last year that will live forever in my heart although probably never on paper!  The editing is the key to the best story in all of them!
  2. Cut the Cheese– HAHAHA Punny, right… One of my hallmarks is that I have a scene (or maybe two) that are impossibly coincidental… or that everything magically works out tying up 100 loose ends all at once. I’m learning to manage fewer balls in the air so that it doesn’t seem impossible that these books actually happened!
  3. Know your characters– When I wrote Bianca Nieves y los 7 toritos, I knew I wanted the stepmother, Salomé, to be evil! I went back to the Bible story of John the Baptist and how Salomé wanted his head on a platter… There’s an evil lady, right? Her last name is Cuervo Real- Royal Crow. ? I listed things she could do to bully Bianca… before I ever wrote a word, I knew I wanted her to drive the story.  After Salomé was developed, I could drop the other characters into the scenes and stay true to her mean streak! When I wrote Vector, I knew I wanted Antonio/Antoine to be like the main character in the Cortázar story La noche boca arriba… jumping back and forth in time… but he needed some “tells” that would make it obvious he was really jumping into that person. After a read aloud with friends on a writing retreat, we realized that if he blurted some French-Creole expressions as he was waking up, it would help him see that he was really there… how else would he know French-Creole, right?
  4. Leave the cultural meat in the Teacher’s Guide– There are SO many cultural pieces we want our students to know as we teach with a comprehension-based reader, but when it comes to the story, write in little nuggets and leave the whole lesson to the guide! Students can feel it! “This is the part where we’re going to learn something.”  Let the story be a powerful narrative and either front-load those cultural bits or present them post-read as a way to clarify context!
  5. Don’t get too attached– The best advice I can give you comes back to the first point I made. Editing is so important.  If you get too attached to your story just the way it is, then it might feel painful to edit.  If you focus on creating the best possible resource for learners, you can walk through the editing process with an open mind!  Cutting out some out of bounds vocabulary or tightening up story events WILL result in a great product!  It isn’t a process meant to hurt feelings or say that a story isn’t good… it’s a process meant to make stories great!  Good grief, Stephen King has an editor who is working on his stories… and he is a MASTER storyteller!  I’m just Carrie Toth!  Why wouldn’t my story need the same!

Have a great week this week, and exercise your writing muscles!

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