Seventh graders at Lackawanna Trail recently had the opportunity to pick the brain of author Scott Westerfeld.
Gena Lengel’s honors language arts seventh grade class held a Q&A webcam session with Westerfeld in the school library on Feb. 1, which was one of the prizes Eliza Fotta received for winning an essay contest about Westerfeld’s novel “Imposters.”
Westerfeld has written 22 novels, 17 of which are geared toward young adults. “Imposters” is a science fiction novel where the main character takes the place of her twin sister, thus becoming an imposter.
The national contest, sponsored through Scholastic Scope magazine, required contestants to read the novel and write a letter from the point of view of an imposter.
Fotta completed the assignment for her gifted program teacher DeeAnn Vida, and thought outside of the box by making her submission a letter inside a letter.
“The part of it inside it was talking to the principal, Dr. [Mark] Murphy, but then outside I was talking to my secret agent, and I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t slip up and tell them that I was an imposter,” Fotta explained.
To start off the Q&A session, Fotta asked Westerfeld what advice he has for young, budding writers, as well as why he chooses to write in the genres of science fiction and dystopia.
Westerfeld told the class that new writers have a tendency to start writing, feel excited about a project, but eventually lose momentum and leave it incomplete.
By doing this, writers become great at writing beginnings, but they lack experience writing endings. His advice was to finish everything, even the “terrible stuff.”
“Writing an ending teaches you about the rest of the book,” he said. “You don’t really understand your writing until you get to the end of something. That’s when you see how everything fits together.”
Westerfeld also said he’s drawn to science fiction because he gets to ask questions about the world he lives in. This can be something as simple as questioning our money system, and how it would be very weird to explain to an outsider.
“When you read science fiction, you sort of see the strangeness of your own world,” he said.
Cloe VanFleet asked Westerfeld about his writing process for “Imposters” and how long it took.
Altogether, like most of his novels, it took about a year, Westerfeld said.
This involves nine to 10 months of drafting, then another month of rewriting after his editor reads it and makes notes. Eventually, the book heads to his copy editor, and after Westerfeld goes over the additional changes, his proofreader looks it over before publication.
As for his writing process, Westerfeld said setting is very important in his books, even being “its own character,” so he typically begins by building the world and then imagining the characters and plot to go with it.
Kolbee Soltis asked where Westerfeld typically works on his books.
Westerfeld said he always tries to write in the same place because then it becomes more habitual, and when he gets there, he’s in the right mental state to get to work.
“My whole body just knows this is the writing time,” he said.
Gretchen Rejrat asked Westerfeld when he started writing. While he didn’t finish his first novel until he was 18 or 19, he’s been writing since he was about the age of Lengel’s students.
He said he had trouble writing short stories, which would end up being closer to the “first chapter of a trilogy” rather than a standalone piece.
Westerfeld took the time to discuss more about his beginnings when Owen Polkowski asked about the Powerpuff Girls books he wrote early in his career.
He wrote three “choose-your-own-adventure” books about the Powerpuff Girls, and also was a ghostwriter for choose-your-own-adventure books from the “Goosebumps” series.
A lot of writers start out this way, he said, and it’s a good way to get started in the industry.
“It’s useful to you as a writer for a learning experience,” he said.
Westerfeld also gave advice on getting published after a question from Sophia Fassett. While the industry differs now from when he was first published years ago, he said the best advice he could give is to get an agent to promote your work.
An agent will have relationships with publishers and know what they’re looking for, so this method yields better results than just sending a book to a publisher independently.
“You never pay your agent any money,” he said. “That’s the main rule of writing: You never pay anyone else money, they pay you money. Anything else is a scam.”
Along with the Q&A session, each student in the class received a copy of “Imposters” and Fotta was awarded two sets of other Westerfeld titles, one of which will stay in Lengel’s classroom for other students to read.
The class was also given $100 to use for a party to celebrate Fotta’s accomplishment, which they threw on Monday.
Librarian Kelly Hopkins was also instrumental in the technical side of the Q&A event, Lengel said.
Fotta said she was in complete shock and very excited when Lengel called her out of science class to tell her she won the contest. Similarly, Lengel was just as happy to share the news with Fotta.
“I love students to have opportunities to write for real world audiences beyond just their English teachers, beyond the four walls of the school,” Lengel said, noting that Fotta is a talented writer and it was a challenging assignment.
Fotta said language arts is her favorite subject and she could see herself pursuing it in the future. It’s an inclination she likely gets from her mother, who teaches language arts and writing at the University of Scranton.
“I just think it’s a good way to express yourself through maybe other characters, and it’s just really fun to do,” Fotta said.
Her award-winning essay can be accessed on clubs.scholastic.com.