Thursday, March 6, 2014

Newsrooms make great classrooms -- Jen Doktorski

A girl accidently blows up her ex-boyfriend’s car, gets served with a temporary restraining order, and goes on a cross-country road trip to avoid further trouble. No doubt there are some teachable moments in my debut YA novel, HOW MY SUMMER WENT UP IN FLAMES (i.e. don’t play with matches and lighter fluid). But I think most people would agree with me when I say it’s not the kind of book that can be used in the classroom.

However my second YA novel, FAMOUS LAST WORDS, is a great fit for the classroom. It’s about a sixteen-year-old girl, Samantha D’Angelo, who gets a summer internship writing obituaries for a local newspaper. Readers definitely get a look at the workings of a real newsroom, and while the most obvious fit for this book would be in high school and junior high journalism classrooms, I believe the story lends itself to language arts curriculums as well.
FAMOUS LAST WORDS is a coming-of-age story and because Sam is a very innocent main character, both the content and language in this book are very classroom friendly. Sam learns a lot about life, love, and writing during her summer at the obit desk and I think her lessons could be a lesson plan for a writing program.

Here’s a page from Sam’s imaginary notebook.

1.      Always carry a notebook. (Or a tablet, or smart phone.) Great story ideas sometimes come at unpredictable times and in the unlikely places. Don’t let a good idea slip away. Write it down.

2.      Be observant. Great characters are often inspired by real people. Pay attention to the way people talk, walk, dress, sip their latte. No detail is too small. Sometimes it’s those little things that make a character come to life.

3.      Listen carefully. Wherever you are—the mall, the train, the hair salon, the cafeteria—listen to the way real people talk, even if it means eavesdropping. (Usually it does mean eavesdropping.) That’s the way Sam learns to get quote people accurately and it’s how fiction writers create real dialogue that rings true.

4.      Set deadlines. That’s how articles, short stories, and novels get written. Reporters often have daily deadlines. Fiction writers should too. There’s no substitute for getting words on the page every day.

5.      Do your homework. Some projects require more research than others, but it’s always important to get the facts right in both non-fiction and fiction. Triple check everything. Sam learns the repercussions of mixing up the names of a dead person and his very alive, and angry, son. No one wants to read about themselves on the obit page.  

6.      Interview your subjects. Sam learns to conduct interviews to write news stories, but the technique can be applied to fiction as well. Some novels require research (see above) and sometimes that means conducting interviews with experts in your subject matter. But the interview works for characters too. Conducting interviews with your characters is a great way to learn everything there is to know about them, before you start writing.

There’s a scene in the book where Sam’s co-workers present her with a framed copy of her front-story. Jack, one of the editors tells her: “You can show it to your kids someday. Tell them it’s how people used to get their news before we all got chips implanted in our brains.”
Who knows? Maybe in ten years FAMOUS LAST WORDS will be found in history classrooms.



  1. Jen, I loved Famous Last Words, and I think you are right it would work well in English as was as Journalism classes. There is something nostalgic about the book--the whole time I was reading it, I felt a little sad and wistful. I know this is only a subtext of the story, but upon a time there used to be newsrooms like this... You do a great job capturing the job and showing why it would be a terrible thing if that totally went away.

  2. I love this! My son's studying journalism. Will definitely check out your story.

  3. Thanks so much Patty and Jody! It's nice to hear your son is studying journalism, Patty! I wasn't a very good news reporter, but I have such respect for the people in the industry.

  4. This sounds like an adorable book! I love what Jack tells Sam in the end. I can definitely see classrooms using it!

  5. I swear, I think that first sentence of this post is the best pitch ever.

  6. Thanks, Holly!! The temporary restraining order gets them every time. :)