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Hampton 7th-graders guide author through adventure novel

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By Bethany Hofstetter
Thursday, May 20, 2010

When Kate Dopirak set out to write a novel for preteens, she struggled to remember what it was like to be that age. So she went straight to the experts.

Dopirak, a 1994 Hampton High School graduate, enlisted the help of seventh-grade students from Hampton Middle School to form a writing team to read and revise her novel as she worked on it.

"The feedback ... has changed the book completely," Dopirak said of her young editors.

Dopirak started working on the adventure novel about four years ago after reading an article about a Florida island being infested with black spiny-tailed iguanas, which she thought would be a fun setting.

"I had what I was thinking was a finished draft, but I felt it wasn't ready to get sent off, so I put it away," Dopirak said. "I knew it needed something else."

Dopirak wanted to connect with a middle school student's world again so she e-mailed her former reading teacher, Mary-Ellen Hilko at Hampton Middle School. Hilko put her in touch with a group of students who wanted to work with the author.

"I said 'If you like to read, and you like to write, this is an opportunity,' " Hilko said. "They took it pretty seriously. They did it really all on their own."

Each Sunday night, Dopirak posted a new chapter on Hilko's class wiki, a website that allows easy editing and posting for various assignments. The students then had until the end of the week to read and comment on the chapter or each other's comments through the wiki.

Dopirak said she wasn't sure what to expect when she started working with the students, but believes the experience was more rewarding than she could have imagined.

"They hated the preface, so it's gone. They told me 'You need more meat on the bones' and wanted to know what the main characters look like. How can I not tell (the reader) what the main character looks like• I got so wrapped up in what happens next," Dopirak said.

Even through the multiple snow cancellations, scheduled breaks and the start of the spring sports season, a core group of students remained dedicated to following Dopirak's posts and giving her feedback.

"Anytime you can see a book before it's published ... it's a once-in-a-lifetime (opportunity)," seventh-grader Emma Kallquist said.

Recently, Dopirak visited the middle school to talk to the team about writing, what she is doing with the book and where she is in the writing process.

Dopirak said she used a lot of what the students said about the book and themselves to make the characters more realistic and relatable and to improve the characters' voices in the novel. Based on the students' comments, she continues to rewrite chapter one.

"I learned that writing is rewriting," Kallquist said. "It taught me if I ever want to write, I will have to revise like crazy."

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