Last April, the 100-odd Payson Middle School students who would soon take Dawn Casten's seventh-grade literature class probably spent their evenings working on homework and playing. They may have even been finishing reading a book.
This April, much the same is probably true, except that the books those youngsters finished were 16-page hardbacks that they wrote, illustrated, printed and bound themselves.Casten started the program in her literature classes three years ago, after hearing about the "National Written & Illustrated By . . . " awards contest run by a publishing company in Kansas City, Mo.
Since then, approximately 80 percent of her students complete the project in the assigned time (from four to six weeks), and some have sent off their projects to Missouri as contest entries. Though last year Utah students placed two projects in the contest's honorable mentions category (out of a field of some 7,000 entries worldwide), Casten said she hopes one day to have some of her students' projects wind up as winners.
She said her students may have two very strong contenders this year with Branton Vest's "Wrinkled Rugs, Riches & Rags" and Ben Jacobs' "The Song of the Elves."
In addition to size and page restrictions for the contest, Casten requires the books to actually be the students' work, as well as meet four requirements of literature - characterization, conflict and solution, plot and setting.
"I want them to understand these elements and what they give the story. Other than that, the stories can range on what the students want them to - from fantasy to real-life adventures."
Casten displayed 89 of her first-semester and second-semester students' books in the school's third annual Young Author Night Monday evening. Parents and students were able to review the youngsters' projects and take theirs home after the events while also comparing their books to their peers' work.
Writing experience doesn't seem to play a hand in whether the students will enter the contest or not. Brian Bean, 12, said he plans to enter his "Zork, Knock It Off!" - a tale of superhero derring-do - in the national contest, though it is his first published work, while Kerri Jones, 12, is planning on keeping her "The Cowpoke and the Coyote" to herself and her family, though she said she enjoys writing.
"It was fun," Bean said. "It was the first thing like this that I've written. I hope I can do well in the contest."
Though Bean said he's planning to become a pilot, he said this experience could motivate him to write more stories. "If I win a lot of money in this contest, then that's different."
Jones said the project was hard but well worth the effort. "It was a real learning experience, but it was a lot of fun. I'll probably keep writing."
However, it isn't either the school's or the students' ultimate goal to win the contest, Casten said. "I just want these students to understand what goes into producing a book, and hopefully they have some fun with it.
"The kids do a fantastic job with the project. I'm really proud of them all, and the projects just keep getting better from year to year, as does the program itself. If some of these students remember this project in years to come, then the efforts were really worth it."
Author says practice, early start are keys to successful writing
According to an award-winning author, the keys to success for writers may be practicing and starting early, as well as writing for the audience they understand best, which includes themselves.
"The sooner you start, the better off you'll be someday," said Paul Pitts, author of the Parents Choice award-winning novel "Racing the Sun."
"Your goals can slip out of your hands very easily."
Pitts, who is also an educator, told an audience Monday night that when writing becomes habit-forming, especially when writers employ daily journals, "you can see the jewels sparkling out among what you write."
Writers "should write about their pictures of life - ones that are more vivid and vibrant," he said while speaking for Payson Middle School's Young Authors Night. "It makes your life richer, and writing improves from such a practice. It makes you a better writer and a better person."
Pitts said that writing is not an innate ability, and that ultimate success for writers "comes with perseverance."
Authors "want to keep writing until the work is finished," he said. "It's a passion for authors to keep writing - they feel that it's something they have to do."
Also, he said, answering two questions early on - "Do you love to write?" and "Are you any good at writing?" - may give some prospective authors pause or make them reconsider their career goals. "If you can answer both positively, then you may be on to something."
However, since young writers can improve, that latter question can be interpreted as "Are you getting any better at writing?" he said.
Surveying works that the seventh-grade students had written, illustrated and bound, Pitts said he was intimidated by the relative talents of the youths.