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Staff photos by JESSE YEATMANLeonardtown Middle School writing club students T.J. Ball and Laura Helbling look at some of Tom Kirkbride's sci-fi novels as the author pulls out the manuscript for the first book in his series.
Author Tom Kirkbride started off with a simple question for the group of middle school students.
"How many of you believe in aliens?" Kirkbride said.
Several hands quickly shot up and one kid said, "I am one."
This was just what the 60-year-old sci-fi author from Oceanside, Calif., needed to connect with his young audience, a group of about a dozen students in Leonardtown Middle School's fledgling writer's club.
Kirkbride's first novel of a series called Gamadin came out last fall; the second in the series is due on shelves next month.
His first book, "Word of Honor," begins with teens surfing of the California coast when they rescue a movie star and half-alien socialite. Fate intervenes and the group finds itself aboard the galaxy's most powerful weapon, an ancient Gamadin spaceship.
The second book in the series, "Mon," takes up where the first left off as the group explores a way to get off of Mars.
He bills his series as for anyone age 11 to 111.
Kirkbride offered the students at Leonardtown Middle School tips on writing, including starting out writing about familiar topics.
"It comes across better if you're writing about things that you know," Kirkbride said. He said he drew on his love of surfing and intense interest in flying saucers and aliens for his book.
"I've always thought wouldn't it be cool to own my own spaceship … I put the spaceship and the surfers together and now we're on our way,' he said.
He pulled out the typed manuscript from his first novel. The large stack of paper was heavily marked with corrections.
"After the first edit, they take about this much out," he said, indicating the publisher's cut to the manuscript. "It actually breaks my heart sometimes," but does make the story read better, he said.
Most importantly, Kirkbride said, do not be afraid to make initial mistakes.
"I'm a published author, and I've got red everywhere," he said, holding up the manuscript with corrections.
He also said that a writer should be able to sum up the plot of a book in one or two sentences. "Without that, there is no book," he said.
By writing a paragraph describing each chapter in advance, Kirkbride said he was able to save a lot of time working on his second and third book, for which he just finished writing the first draft.
"That's about the only shortcut I can think of, is having an outline," he said. His first book took much longer to put together in part because he did not come up with an outline in advance, he said.
He said he also carries a notebook with him to jot down interesting names that he can use later in stories. He pointed out the uniqueness of two area convenience stores — Wawa and Sheetz — both of which caught his fancy.
"I think it was a really cool experience," seventh-grader Laura Helbling said of meeting a published author. She said that she learned writing a book takes a lot of time and to not give up.
"Every year I have kids that just love to write and we don't have enough time" during the regular school day, said Theresa Wood, language arts teacher and sponsor of the club.
Each of the 15 or so students in the club is working on a writing project and shares drafts with other club members to get feedback.
The writing club has set a goal for each member to have their work published, whether in a teen magazine or some other periodical, Wood said.
Sixth-grade student Lacie Parillo said she is not usually interested in sci-fi books but would like to read Kirkbride's series.
"He gave me a new hope to be a writer," she said. Parillo is currently working on poetry and hopes to have it published.
Kirkbride also spoke to students at Spring Ridge Middle School, Chesapeake Public Charter School and Leonard Hall Junior Naval Academy this week and plans to make an appearance at the county fair. He donated copies of his book and promotional posters, which he designed, to the schools' libraries.