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Author inspires Chilliwack students

Vancouver author Susin Nielsen gave Chilliwack middle school students a lesson in book writing.
Vancouver author Susin Nielsen leads a creative writing workshop at Chilliwack middle school.

Picture this:

A man, named Ushtenov, so fat he has to roll to get anywhere. His only family, an uncle named Victor, whose words reverberate every time he speaks. His favourite activity, eating peanut butter while watching The Mentalist.

Ushtenov, a man who was once so fit, he was renowned in the boxing ring. A man who fell into a tailspin of depression after getting his lights knocked out by nemesis Ducky the Viking. A man who went from boxing legend to cookie dough addict. A man desperately seeking happiness.

Would you read it?

Vancouver author Susin Nielsen would.

Nielsen, who has penned several young adult novels including Dear George Clooney Please Marry My Mom, The Reluctant Journal of Henry K. Larsen, and Word Nerd, recently conducted a creative writing workshop for a group of 20 students at Chilliwack middle school.

In the workshop, Nielsen heard a wide selection of tween-aged tales, some serious, some dystopian, and some completely off-the-wall.

That's the beauty, she said, of writing.

In Word Nerd, her main character befriends an ex-con through a common love of Scrabble. In Dear George Clooney, her character is so fixated on setting her mom up with Clooney that she crashes a golf cart into his car.

In fiction, anything is possible.

"All of my books started with the character first," said Nielsen. "Once you have a good character, someone who's starting to develop personality, then you can take that character and start asking yourself what would happen if…?

For three years, Nielsen's been conducting school-based workshops for young adults interested in the writing craft.

The students, paired into groups of three or four, were given three 10-minute brainstorming sessions with prompts from Nielsen. The questions started out basic – what is the character's name, sex, age, family, favourite clothing item, defining physical characteristic, favourite activity, etc. – and then grew more complex to help build the character and then later the plot.

"It's amazing what these kids manage to come up with in such a short time," said Nielsen.

Following each session Nielsen gave advice on where the stories could go, or how the authors could better build up their character.

Each student participating was required to write a short essay expressing why they wanted to attend.

For Grade 9 student Sam McLean, it was easy.

"I've been writing basically as long as I can remember," said McLean, who participated in last fall's National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) where she wrote 50,000 words in a month. "I'd do anything to get my hands on more help with my writing."

Especially from someone as experienced as Nielsen.

In addition to her young adult novels, Nielsen has also written children's books, as well as several episodes for Degrassi Junior High and other television productions.

"She's a real writer, she's gone through the process of publishing a book," said Grade 9 student Brynn Gagne, who is 173 pages into her first novel.

Grade 8 student Jared Hodgson, one of the young writers behind Ushtenov, said the experience was invaluable.

"I tend to start writing without a character in mind," Hodgson said. "I think this is really going to help how I plan out my stories."

And Ushtenov?

A package lands on his doorstep, sender unknown, containing his old boxing gloves that he thought he'd forever lost.

The plot thickens.