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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Writing Road Trip

Pickle Voice

When I was a kid I got lost while participating in a summer recreation program. I was terrified. So the first thing I did when the group leaders found me was to laugh.

I was laughing out of pure relief at being found. And because even as a kid, my emotional stress relief valve was set to “humor.” I’m hardwired in such a way that I often laugh even while I’m crying.

I got in big trouble that day for laughing, and I continued to get in trouble whenever other people thought humor was an inappropriate response. Which led me to believe that if I wanted to be taken seriously as a writer, I needed to use a serious tone. Humor, I had learned, would likely get me into trouble.

Guess what? None of those oh-so-serious things I used to write got published. The writing felt lifeless and artificial; it wasn’t reflective of who I really am. It wasn’t until an editor encouraged me to pursue the “hidden funny story” that she found buried in a manuscript of mine that I let humor back into my work.

That reworked story, complete with lots of “funny,” went on to become my first published book.

I think that what we mean when we talk about “writer’s voice” is a writer’s personality showing up on the page. It emerges through many diverse writing choices, ranging from word usage to tone to rhythm. It’s a tough concept for students to grapple with. Yet editors say it’s a major factor in what they look for in a publishable piece, and writing programs include it as a key component. We can’t ignore voice just because it’s hard to teach and learn. So how do we help students find their voice, especially given that some of them may have been told that the voice that comes naturally to them should stay lost?

I use an activity that encourages students to play with voice. I first choose a group of things that exist as a collective, within which the different components have “personality” without being controversial. Examples are the four seasons—winter and summer have different personalities; or it might be colors—we can assign personalities to green and pink without coming to blows over it; or you could even use food flavors. Then I have students write about a simple topic using contrasting choices from the group. In other words, I might ask them to describe the town they live in, first using a dark chocolate voice, and then using a pickle voice.

It sounds odd, but I’ve seen it have surprising results. Somehow playing with voice in this way can set students on a path to finding the writer’s voice that was lost inside them all along.

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A Vehicle for Change

Fallout ShelterI’d heard my mom talk about “duck and cover”: hiding under her school desk from a potential nuclear attack. And I’d participated myself in tornado drills during my own school days, lining up in a basement hallway with our arms covering our heads.

None of that prepared me for a lockdown drill. I was on one of my regular gigs as a visiting author when the teacher pulled me aside and prepped me on what to expect. Except it turns out there’s no prepping for the feeling that comes over you when you’re locked into a dark room with twenty-some kids crouching under desks, recognizing that you’re practicing in case someday, one of them decides to show up to school with a gun hidden under a peanut butter sandwich. It ranks as the most unsettling moment I’ve experienced during a school visit.

I’m certainly not alone in wishing we could find the way to permanently erase the need for lockdown drills. The one suggestion I can offer is something I know from firsthand experience: writing can provide a valuable outlet for young people who are grappling with life’s harshest realities. When I go into a school, I might be there for only a day or a week. And yet even in that very brief chance to work together, I’ve had students who’ve used their stories to share all sorts of sad and scary realities from their lives: pain over their parents’ divorce, bullying, betrayal by a friend, death, abuse, and fear. These students follow a long human tradition of using art to shed light into the dark corners of our existence.

And because I’ve seen what a difference it can make for a young person to share their own dark corners, I also believe that we could use art as one of the vehicles of change we’re looking for. As much as I understand the unhappy necessity for lockdown drills, I can only hope that we also remember to give students enough time to sit at their desks with the lights on, writing and creating the kind of art that illuminates us all. Maybe somehow giving them those opportunities will prove even more important than teaching them to crouch under their desks, waiting for the darkness to come and find them.

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Shifting Gears

Darth Vader with Light SaberThe only argument I’ve ever witnessed between Teenage Nephew 1 and Longtime Girl-friend was a doozy.

And I couldn’t help chortling with glee because the basis of their disagreement was so close to my heart: What makes for the best possible story?

Actually, the way they put it was, “What’s better, ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Harry Potter’?” But don’t let the fact that they were comparing two fictional worlds fool you: this was a white-hot debate, the competitors more impassioned in their arguments than politicians at a pre-election picnic.

Neither was giving ground; they had dug their heels in, and the “wizard vs. space warrior” dispute looked as if it was coming perilously close to derailing Young Love, when Teenage Nephew 1 suddenly shrugged and said, “All I know is, lightsabers are bigger than wands,” in a definitive way that signaled that in his mind, at least, he’d had the final word.

And they say that size doesn’t matter.

Size may not, but stories do matter. We all have stories that have become an integral part of us; we carry them around and they help shape who we are. Capturing stories on paper, however, can be tricky, and leads some students to dread story-writing. So one of the tricks I’ve found to generate classroom enthusiasm for writing stories is to first get students talking about the stories that have mattered most to them personally. What are their favorite books or movies, and why? Does their favorite song tell a story, maybe about love gone right or love gone wrong? What are their most treasured personal stories: the scary thing that happened on their family vacation? The memory of that time their dog ate the holiday dinner?

Based on the age of your students and the size of your group, you might choose to have them share favorite stories in a big group, or break them into smaller groups. The point is to have them realize how much certain stories have mattered in their own lives, or even to extend the discussion to talk about how a big a role stories have played in shaping human history.

Once all those great stories have filled the room, it becomes a whole lot easier to shift gears into having them write stories of their own.

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License Plate 007

Writing Road Trip: License Plate 007

When I was a kid, my career ambitions wavered between detective, mad scientist, shoe salesperson, teacher, and spy. Fortuitously, most of them have become critical facets of my grown-up job as a writer.

My practice as a spy came in handy just recently when I needed to create authentic-sounding dialogue for characters who are young teenagers. In other words, I eavesdropped like crazy on my teenage nephews and their friends— volunteering to drive carpool for a few outings proved to be a goldmine—but I also lurked via social media and positioned myself strategically near random teenagers in public. It may be that their Adult Detection Systems alerted them to my interest, and therefore skewed my results. But seriously, dude, I doubt it: I’m like, 1 gr8 spy.

Eavesdropping was a great reminder of the way that all of us, not just teenagers, really talk: there are different rhythms to different people’s speech, we use current slang and off-color terms, we prefer contractions and other shortcuts. I was reminded all over again how much less formal spoken language is. Real conversations are composed more of interruptions, fragmented speech, repetitions for emphasis, grunts of acknowledgment, body language, and silences than they are of formally structured sentences.

You can rarely, on the other hand, just recreate an actual word-for-word chat in a story: your writing would too quickly be weighed down by the outright jibber-jabber and the sheer number of conversational “dudes” (or whatever term is currently in vogue in middle schools near you). Making your characters sound authentic is important, but the way I explain it to my adult writing students is, if you’re trying to establish that a character has a Scottish brogue, you get only one “Nay, Lassie,” per 25,000 words.

And remember that dialogue is also charged with the large task of helping to tell the story: it reveals characterization, advances the plot, and provides action. That’s a lot for those lassies and dudes to have to carry—no wonder it’s a struggle for young writers to write good dialogue!

Reminding your students to ration out their slang and eliminate excess is critical, but more important, I’ve found, is to remember to give them permission to make their dialogue informal. If you don’t, they too often end up writing stilted conversations where everyone sounds like a nineteenth-century British butler or a walking research paper.

Effective dialogue lands somewhere in the middle between the way people really talk and the way we’ve all been taught to write prose. Effective dialogue is less redundant and more expressive than real speech; it’s less formal and more fragmented than the rest of the story text surrounding it.

A page of well-written dialogue isn’t exactly what you might hear from the back of the van while you’re carpooling—but it’s close enough that any good spy could decode it.

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Next Exit: Adventure

Writing Road Trip | Next Exit: AdventureSometimes just a town’s name is enough to entice you. Who could drive past the exit for Last Chance, Idaho—or Hell, Michigan—or Happyland, Oklahoma—without at least contemplating how your life might be changed if you took that unexpected detour?

All on their own, names tell a story. That’s why I often do an online search to learn as much as I can about a character name that I’m considering for my writing—looking up ethnicity, variations, meaning—because many times, it opens up new insights into that character for me (or proves to be the wrong choice). Have your students try an online search into the names of the characters in the current story they’re either reading or writing—it’s a fun little research side trip.

The “naming” that I struggle with is in coming up with a title. This is usually a labored effort for me, as it is for some students. Here are the suggestions I share with those who struggle to find a good “name” for their story:

  • Remember that the reader will look at the title first. You want it to grab the reader’s attention.
  • Think about the kind of story you have written. The title can tell the reader what kind of story it is: mystery, adventure, romance.
  • Look at all your story ingredients. Which ones do you think are the most interesting? How could you use them in a title?
  • Think about the most unexpected or surprising thing in your story. Can you hint at that in the title, making the reader feel like they need to read the story to figure out a riddle?
  • Consider slang, word play, and if appropriate to the book, humorous possibilities.
  • What is the book about? What theme, or message, is at its heart? Is there a title that hints at that?

Finally, for a fun writing warm-up for your classroom, ask your students to spend a couple of minutes coming up with an intriguing title for a story they have not yet written. Then when they’re ready, have them trade titles with somebody nearby, and begin the story that fits the new title they have now been handed. When writing time is up, they can share what they have so far with the student who originally created the title.

An evocative name (or title) is just the start of a grand adventure….

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Swerving Over the Line

St. Peters Church in Rome, Ave Maria Grotto, Cullman

Photo by Carol M. Highsmith

During one of my visits to see my Alabama brother’s family, we took a road trip to the Ave Maria Grotto. That’s where a Benedictine Monk named Brother Joseph Zoettl built over 125 Mini-Me versions of some of the greatest buildings of the world.

Artists are often inspired by someone else’s masterpieces.  But in working with young writers, I’ve found that it’s easy to mistakenly swerve over the center line from the safety of inspiration into the danger of plagiarism (or trade- mark infringement). Not to mention the questions that arise when you’re teaching “creative” writing and the student in front of you has borrowed from another writer’s creativeness.

I’m not talking about sneaky kids trying to get out of doing their work. I’m talking about kids who are innocently inspired by their favorite books, movies, or video games, and who are excited to extend these adventures. And kids aren’t the only ones to do this. Writers of all ages have posted hundreds of thousands of “fan fiction” stories online. But where does “paying homage” end and “taking someone else’s ideas” begin?

I don’t have a “one size fits all” answer about how to handle this situation in the classroom. When the question comes up as part of a group discussion, I take the opportunity to address the issue of plagiarism.

When the question comes up when I’m reading an individual student’s story, I try to personalize my approach. Some kids, I know, are ready to be challenged to invent characters and a setting “from scratch.” Others struggle mightily to come up with their own ideas. Sometimes giving them permission to borrow a familiar character is the very thing that allows them to truly engage in the act of writing for the first time—rather than freezing up completely. In those cases, I have a little chat with them about how important it is that they don’t just “steal” somebody else’s work. But I do sometimes allow them to take inspiration or even characters from their favorite stories and then write their own adventure using them. My hope is that in doing so, they’ll learn how to do it completely on their own the next time around.

I think Brother Joseph would see the whole thing as an act of homage rather than a case of outright theft.

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Watch Where You’re Going

Writing Road Trip | Watch Where You're GoingRiding along with my dad was like going on a Midwestern safari. Even while driving, he had an amazing knack for spotting critters as they peeked out from behind trees, perched on phone poles, or slid along the roadside.

He didn’t seem to pay any attention to the makes of other cars, or billboard messages, or what other drivers were wearing. His focus (with the exception of safe driving itself) was wildlife-centric.

That kind of exclusive focus can be key to successful story-writing. Many stories center around a core focus, a central idea or message. Many characters are built around a core motivation or driving emotion. Anything that pops up during the writing process—even good stuff—that doesn’t support that focus, may have to go. It’s not as easy as it sounds: even experienced writers are sometimes seduced by an intriguing side story, a brilliantly written description, a charismatic secondary character. But however brilliant or charismatic, if those things don’t help develop the core story or illuminate the main character for the reader, they need to be sent packing.

Here’s an example: in the novel I’m working on, my teenage character looks out over the water and speculates that perhaps the person he is searching for has “planted” himself in the lake. The image fits the rural setting and the moment of the story. But it doesn’t fit my character, who’s an urban kid. As one of my critique partners pointed out, my kid would never think in terms of an agricultural metaphor. However deft that description—and I’d received compliments on it from other readers—I had to acknowledge that it didn’t belong to the story I was telling.

Sometimes I think these things are hints of future stories or future characters, playing peek-a-boo from the depths of our subconscious. But it’s better to admit that they don’t belong in the spot they’ve popped up, and save them in a “great ideas file” for later.

Point out these peek-a-boo moments in your young writers’ stories. Encourage them to take another look at what’s at the heart of their story—at the heart of their character—and judge by that whether that great idea belongs to their current story, or needs to be set aside for another writing day.

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Driving in the Dark

A while back I was at my parents’ lake cabin with my extended family. My brother’s teenagers had all brought along friends, and on Saturday we packed everyone who fell into the “thirteen to fifteen” age range off to the late movie. As the resident night owl, I volunteered to pick up the kids when the movie was over so that the other grown-ups could make it an early night.

By davidsonlentz. AdobeStock 91080377Which is how it turns out that the first time ever in my life I was pulled over by the cops, I was driving someone else’s minivan full of McDonald’s wrappers and dog hair.

Those flashing red lights in my rearview mirror instantly had me feeling all Bonnie-and-Clydish, despite the fact that I had no idea what I had been doing wrong. Driving too fast? Nope, I’d just checked my speed. Driving under the influence? Not unless they’d added iced coffee to the list.

What was I missing?

It turns out that one of the van’s headlights was out. Once I knew that, I realized that the road had seemed a lit- tle poorly lit—but then again, I was in a tiny town with no streetlights. It never occurred to me that I might be missing a headlight. The very pleasant sheriff’s deputy ran my license and, as he promised, had me back on the road within five minutes. I arrived to find the kids running around like maniacs in the dark parking lot of the small-town movie theater, and my “street cred” as the cool aunt only seems to have been heightened by my harrowing run-in with the law.

Sometimes it helps to have somebody pull us over and point out what we’ve overlooked in our writing, too. When it’s time to begin the revision process, ask your students to exchange their writing, and then to ask each other, “What’s missing from my piece?” It’s a great all-purpose peer-review question. Often, it turns out, the missing element is something that the writer already has in their head—but that hasn’t yet made it onto the page.

Asking a reader “What’s missing?” often sheds some much-needed light on a writer’s up-to-then shadowy problem.

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Tunnel Vision

Writing Road Trip - Tunnel VisionDriving through a tunnel effectively narrows our field of vision. The walls and ceiling restrict our view to only that which is inside the tunnel. It doesn’t matter if there’s a mountain parked on top of the roof, or an ocean of water being held back by the walls: when we’re inside the tunnel, those things are outside our view.

This concept of tunnel vision provides a good way to talk with your writing students about using first person point of view. This viewpoint is distressingly easy to mess up. When we’ve chosen to tell a story using the “I” voice, it’s all too simple to slip into another character’s head. But it’s a no-no to wander into a landscape that is beyond the “view” of the perspective character.

Sometimes it happens because the writer has been tempted to bring in information that the character doesn’t know, perhaps to increase tension or suspense (Will the snake the author has told us is hiding under the bed strike a fatal bite? Will she ever realize that he’s secretly attracted to her, as the reader knows because the writer snuck into his innermost thoughts?).

And sometimes it happens just as a slip: suddenly the writer has entered another character’s thoughts, or introduced action, that is outside the field of vision of the perspective character.

There’s a simple line I use to remind students that they can’t deviate from their character’s “tunnel vision” this way: in first person, the action has to stop whenever that character falls asleep, slips into a coma, or leaves the room.

The character can certainly come back into the room (or wake up from the coma) and guess that something has happened: they might read someone’s face and guess they’ve been crying, or see a broken vase and interpret that somebody threw it in a rage. But what happened inside that room after the character left is officially “outside the tunnel,” and therefore out of bounds of the character’s direct experience for storytelling purposes. If the writer wants what happened to be part of the story’s action, they have to find a clever way for the point of view character to discern what has gone on; they can’t simply sneak into somebody else’s head.

What happens outside the tunnel, stays outside the tunnel.

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Just Another Roadside Abstraction

For this week’s writing road trip, I offer you texture.

I aim for an abstract element of a realistic subject and use texture to add interest and suggest depth.

—a quote that to the best of my research abilities I find attributable to artist Margaret Roseman.

I liked the way the above quote spoke to how texture can be used in visual art. But what role does texture play in writing? How can your students use texture to add interest and suggest depth in their written work?

As writers we talk about multiple layers of meaning. That’s a kind of texture. Ask your students, “How many different ways do you hope your piece speaks to an audience? How many layers deep have you gone down into multiple meanings?”

Words themselves have texture for me, especially when read out loud. Remind your students not to overlook the simple trick of speaking out their writing. For instance, does describing a character’s voice as “gravelly” rather than “harsh” add more texture when you say them both out loud? Or is it just a different kind of texture? What does your ear hear?

Words of various lengths, sentences of various lengths, all the way up through paragraphs or stanzas of varying lengths—when effectively piecing together the threads at hand, a writer becomes a fabric artist, weaving together strands that have different heft and weight to create a unique texture that is suited to the piece, to the writer, and to the reader. Encourage your students to play with synonyms, to differ their sentence length to see how doing so creates different effects for their readers.

Remember, we often experience texture through our fingertips—the same part of our anatomy that pounds out words on a keyboard.

For today, that’s my take on “just another roadside abstraction.”

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Racing to Catch a Plane

Photo By Nino Andonis

Photo By Nino Andonis

I was working the last day of a book conference in Chicago when I came down with a horrible case of what I later learned was strep throat. My one clear memory of that day is blinking alert long enough to recognize that I was seated in the front seat of a cab that was being driven down the shoulder of a Chicago highway at 70 MPH so that we could make it to the airport on time.

I’ve had other work experiences from the dark side, but that day ranks high on the list of “please, just let it be over” times.

We can experience an urgency around reaching the endpoint when we’re on a trip that’s going badly, or we can experience it when we’re writing—even if the writing is going well. It’s something that I see over and over again, in fact, when I review student writing. I’ll be reading along, feeling like the student’s story is well-paced and engaging, and then suddenly the writing changes. It begins racing towards the finish line, as if the writer has suddenly remembered that they have a plane to catch. Sometimes very young writers I work with literally stop the story mid-thought and write “The End.”

If you ask, they’ll probably tell you that they’ve run out of ideas. But the truth is, they’ve probably run out of creative energy. I find that my own writing is very energy-based; when the energy is gone, the writing stops cold. When this happens, your best bet is to allow your students to take a short break. For a shorter classroom writing setting, that might be as simple as a jumping jacks interruption. For a longer piece of writing, I find I sometimes need to put the project in a drawer for a week or more, to allow new energy to generate.

When the break is over, I sit down with the student (or myself), and find the point in the story where it’s clear that the writer switched over to a mentality of “racing to catch a plane.” I read the paragraph before that, and then I ask a simple question: “What happens next?”

More often than not, the break will have done the trick. Erasers get busy and rub out “The End.” The writer has discovered that after all, “the story must go on.”

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Destination

Copyright Adobe Stock. Rome Map Detail; selective focus By Jules_KitanoIn college I was fortunate enough to travel with a school-sponsored group to Europe. I saw many amazing things, but Rome was the place I couldn’t stop talking about afterwards.

When I described my love for Rome to my parents, I focused on one particular episode: Wanting to escape the afternoon heat, a group of us ducked inside one of the churches that crop up everywhere in that city. Inside this unremarkable building, I discovered the original of a painting that had been my favorite out of my entire art history textbook. It was just hanging there on the wall, not even worthy of a locked door in a city that is crammed full of exquisite artworks.

I used a different anecdote when talking to my friends. I described the multi-hour dinner a group of us enjoyed, complete with a different wine for every course, and how we followed it up with a long midnight stroll through what seemed like the entire city of Rome, becoming completely lost, and probably by pure luck managing to eventually make it back to our hotel in one piece.

Here’s an important reminder for your writing students: when they are telling a story using a character speaking in first-person voice (the “I” voice), the character/narrator’s intended audience will play a key role. In other words, at some point the writer should ask, “What ‘audience destination’ does the narrator intend? Who does my character imagine will read their story?” That awareness of audience will shape many things, particularly how honest the narrator chooses to be, and what kind of private details they choose to share.

Do they imagine that there will be no outside readers (such as in a “Dear Diary” format)? Or does the narrator imagine they are telling their story to complete strangers? Knowing the answer to that question, in combination with the personality the writer has established for the narrator, will affect how the story is told.

Case in point: when I knew my parents were the audience, I chose a Rome story set at midday, in a church, featuring a Great Work of Art. I DIDN’T choose the Rome story set at midnight, on dark streets, featuring a group of wine-sloppy college students.

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Guess What’s in My Glove Compartment?

stuffed duckLet’s play a little game. I’ll tell you some things about the inside of my car, and you tell me what you can discern about me from those details.

There’s an ice scraper on the floor and a foldable camp chair in the back.

There’s a copy of a 200-page unpublished novel with my name listed as the author.

CD selections range from the Carpenters to Queen Latifah to the soundtrack from “Shrek.” The backseat carpet is heavily stained. The backseat itself is covered in scuff marks.

There’s a brightly colored, handmade God’s eye hanging off the gear shift. There’s a stuffed duck dressed in a sailor’s outfit in the map pocket.

The glove compartment holds binoculars, mints, a prescription bottle full of quarters, and fast food coupons.

Okay, you get the picture.  My guess is that while you might misinterpret some of those details, there are actually several things you’d guess correctly about me based on knowing them.

You can turn this game into a fun character-building activity for student writers.  Ask them to describe one of the following settings connected to one of their own story characters: their character’s bedroom, locker at school, closet, or (for older characters), their car. Once they’ve created the description, have them trade with another student. Then the other student will try to guess something about the personality of their partner’s character, based on the description of that personal space. That tells the writer which details best reveal their character’s personality and circumstances, and therefore would make the best details to include in their actual story.

Students could also do this as a compare/contrast activity by describing the bedroom or locker of two or more key characters in their story.

Young writers will find that they can convey a whole lot about a character by giving readers a chance to peek into their characters’ personal spaces.

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Seeing the Signs

Ice Cream!Fast food signs taught my twin nephews to read when they were only two.

They couldn’t whip out the dictionary and rattle off definitions. But they could spot a familiar logo and correctly assign language and context to it. The big golden “M” meant a possible lunch break; “DQ” meant ice cream; “SA” was for bathroom breaks. In my book, they were reading, if only on a rudimentary level.

Drivers tend to stop noticing how frequently those same signs appear along the roadside. But if you’ve told the backseat duo that you’ll buy them some ice cream, trust me—there’s no way you’ll be allowed to overlook the next “DQ.”

There are a couple of “bad” writing habits that work something the same way. These habits tend to be scattered all over our writing, but we often overlook them—until we make it our specific mission to notice how often they pop up.

The first habit is overusing some form of the verb “feel”: “felt,” “feeling,” etc. Examples are: “He felt angry.” “She’s feeling sad.” There’s a stronger way to convey that emotion—in writers’ lingo, you want to “show” instead of “tell” your reader how the character is feeling. Instead of saying he felt angry, have him kick the wall. Instead of telling us she’s sad, have her weep. The emotions will be more intense, and the writing will be stronger.

The second habit is overusing adverbs. Look for any words ending in “ly.” Then work to reduce these adverbs while also fortifying the verbs they modify. An example? Instead of saying, “He ran quickly,” say “He raced.”

So here’s a quick revision tip: Have your students scan their documents, circling or highlighting any form of “feel,” and any “ly” endings (or if it’s computerized document, they can use the “find and replace” function). Then have them follow the advice above to strengthen their writing.

Once they see how much difference these quick fixes can make, you won’t even have to bribe them with ice cream.

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Anti-Tailgating Measures

Writing Road Trip | Anti-Tailgating MeasuresA few years ago, a country highway I regularly drive in the summer became part of a pilot program to stop tailgating. Large white dots were painted on the road, and new signs instruct drivers to keep a minimum of two dots between them and the car they’re following. Rear-end collisions are a danger on this roadway, and the program hopes to encourage drivers to leave enough room between cars so they can take corrective action if something goes wrong.

It occurs to me that this hints at an enormously helpful piece of advice you can share with your students about their writing road trips, as well: double-spacing their first draft is one of the easiest tools they have for simplifying their later revisions.

Revising is chaotic work. When I visit classrooms, I often bring along proof of this: the first handwritten draft of one of my stories, complete with dozens of cross-outs, margin notes, arrows, and additional brainstormed ideas spilling onto the back. This “sloppy copy” eventually turned into a finished book that is only 224 words long, but my messy piece of paper must contain thousands of words, all combating to see which of them will make my final cut.

In other words, revising is not merely tidying up your manuscript; it’s an “empty out the back of the closets” type of spring cleaning.

Double-spacing is one simple way for students to make this revision process slightly less messy and slightly more manageable. Unlike the relatively low probability of a rear-end collision on any given day of driving, something always goes wrong when writing a first draft. Encourage your students to think of the blank lines left by double-spacing as the room they’ll undoubtedly need for later corrective action.

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(E)motion Sickness

Wrong Way signMost of my many school visits have been amazing, positive adventures (see my post titled “Traveling Like a Rock Star”). A few of my visits have featured minor bumps in the road. And one school visit—thank goodness, one only!—might be better described as a major traffic incident.

It happened when I was still a “newbie” to school visits. I was visiting this particular school for a week. On Day 1, a student came up front to read his story, got overexcited, and threw up all over my shoes. Unfortunately I didn’t heed that case of carsickness for the foreshadowing that it was.

It turns out that having my shoes soiled paled in comparison to what happened next: I found out that one of the teachers I was working with thought that my approach to teaching writing was completely wrong. At first I assumed this was a “fixable” difference. The teacher and I talked at length several times over the remainder of the week. I modified my approach in many ways.

But I never managed to get it “right.” I left the school feeling like a failure. It remains the most emotionally difficult experience of the twelve or so years I’ve worked as a writing instructor.

In some ways, it’s too bad that this experience happened during my early years of classroom visits. If it happened now, I’d be better able to navigate the unsettled waters and come up with a way to salvage the week for everybody involved.

But it might also be seen as one of the most important things I’ve ever learned: I now know what it feels like to be told by a teacher that I’m bad at something writing-related. As Overachiever Kid, that was never part of my own school experience. But because of that week, I gained a new level of understanding for those students who struggle—and continue to fail—at writing. It was (e)motion sickness inducing for me, but from that day forward I’ve made it a practice to find something positive to say about every student’s writing, to soften whatever less-than-happy news has to follow.

Those of you who have more training as educators than I do probably know other tactics to help motivate the kids who “just can’t seem to get writing right.” Maybe some of you will share your ideas as comments below?

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Focus Your Trip

ButterheadEvery year my mom and I took my nephews and niece to the Minnesota State Fair. We have certain faithful family rituals that we always repeat: mini-donuts as soon as we’re through the front gates. The big slide. Vigilant avoidance of the giant walking French fry man because he terrifies my niece. The butter head renditions of the dairy princesses.

Imagine my bemusement at the fact that there are MN State Fair visitors who never bother with the butter heads. But the butter head haters are actually following a sound principle: when you’re in the middle of an overwhelming experience, you’re often better off choosing to focus on only a few key things.

That explains why traveling to the fair with a grown-up friend one year felt like a completely different experience to me. We focused on entirely different things than I do when I’m herding the kids, and I actually got to spend some quality time in the Creative Arts building. I experienced the fair in a whole new way.

The same concept holds true for me when I set out to revise a piece of writing. If I try to see and do everything in one visit, the task quickly becomes overwhelming. But if I make several different revision trips, picking something different to focus on each time, then I can revise quite effectively. One time through, I might focus exclusively on my overall organization. Another trip, I might keep my attention riveted on strengthening my verbs. Still another trip, I might watch specifically for ways to add atmosphere.

Tell your students this: When they set out to revise, a whole lot of different things will all try to grab their attention at once. They’re probably going to get more out of the experience if they break down the revising task into several different trips. Encourage them to focus their attention on a few key things each time. They can always make the trip again to focus on something different; after all, the fairgrounds are open for twelve long days.

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To Each Maker, Their Model

many, many carsDespite my appreciation for cars as a transportation mode, I was always hopeless at telling one make and model from another. Then I took on an assignment to write about some high-profile vehicles, and I had to learn about their distinguishing characteristics.

Even with all that extra study, I still can’t authoritatively identify those cars if I see them from the front. But a split-second glance at the shape of one from behind now tells me if it’s a Corvette or a Mustang. I guess I’m just better at naming something when I view it from the backside.

Written pieces are the same for me: I can rarely come up with the right name for them until I’ve seen them through to the end. I have all sorts of titling tactics that are useful after the piece is written. I share those with students who are having trouble coming up with a title: Is there something attention-grabbing that also reflects the tone of the piece? Is there something quirky about the contents, or some great one-liner within, that could command attention at the top of the page? Is it meant to be informative, so the title should make that clear? Does the writer need to hint that it’s a mystery or an adventure or a fantasy, so that the piece attracts the right readers?

But here’s the funny thing: as often as I tell students that I prefer to wait until I can see the entire shape of a piece before I title it, there are always those who ask me—beg me, really—for permission to write their title first. I’ve come to recognize that for some of them, writing out the title is an important first step. A blank piece of paper is scary to them. But allow them to slap a title up top—and presto, they’ve claimed that piece of paper. They’ve told it, “Watch out—I have something to say. It’s just going to take me a little while to get it all down.”

In other words, some writers find it helpful to title a piece when they’re staring into its headlights, while others find it better to wait until after they’ve watched its taillights speed by. Both approaches can have their merits; to each maker their model.

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Writing around Roadblocks

Mutzi and Lisa Bullard's deskI’ve tried to create a stimulating atmosphere in my home office. Works of art by the illustrators of my picture books adorn the walls. I have a Rainbow Maker in the window. There are blooming plants and inspiring sayings and a basket of toys to play with. There are birds chirping outside the window (even an occasional owl when I’m working at midnight). My desk chair is large and comfy. Mutzi the tailless cat perches next to my keyboard and purrs. Everything in my writing space is meant to help me transition quickly and happily to a creative and productive writing frame of mind.

Which works great, some days. Other days, I sit here like a dud. I’ve found that the only answer on those days is to take a writing road trip.

It doesn’t have to take me far, or to a particularly fancy destination. One time I had about given up on finding the right words for a particular picture book concept, despite weeks (maybe even months?) of battling to pin it down. Finally I grabbed my notes and headed off to a coffee shop, without even my trusty laptop as a token of the familiar. Suddenly, in this different environment, I was able to crank out an entire rough draft in about an hour and a half.

Of course, all of those unproductive attempts in my home office also fed this creative burst. But I’m convinced the story might never have come out if I hadn’t broken through that writing roadblock by taking my pen-and-notebook show on the road.

Here’s a simple way to give your students a creative kick start when you sense their writing energy is flagging: allow them to move to a different writing spot. Do you have a long writing session planned for the day? When you have ten minutes left, allow students to stretch out on the floor or curl up in a corner of the room with their notebooks. Or initiate a “musical chairs” type of desk exchange, where everyone at least ends up with a different perspective of the room.

The combination of movement and a change of scenery can work wonders for our brains when they’ve become too complacent to remain creative.

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Driving Miss Daisy

limousineWhen I was a kid, one of my neighborhood gang’s favorite summer games was to “play chauffeur.” We’d jump on our bikes and gather for shoptalk at chauffeur headquarters (a.k.a. the middle of our quiet side street). Then we’d race off in different directions to pick up members of the enviably wealthy and pampered (yet of course imaginary) families that utilized our driving services.

A big part of the fun was that we each got to invent detailed back stories for our fantasy employers, constructing elaborate scenarios around the parents’ demanding work, the children’s exotic activities, and a multitude of overheard backseat battles—all while driving “our families” along the street and up and down various driveways and around Blue Jay Way (the dirt path that curved through Mrs. Elliott’s yard). And then we’d all meet up again at chauffeur headquarters to trade stories about our family’s doings, seeding each other’s imaginations for potential new gossip-worthy developments for the next day.

When I talk with writers about developing their characters, I encourage them to develop such detailed biographies for their characters that it seems as if they are spying on them from the vantage point of a trusted family servant. I know from my own experience that even details that don’t make it into my stories still inform my work in an important way.

I’ve created multi-generational family trees and imaginary iTunes lists for past characters. So at some early point in your students’ story-writing journey, have them try the following character-development brainstorming activity.

banana seatFirst, ask them to create a list of details about their main character: name, age, likes and dislikes, personality traits, physical details, report card grades, locker contents, secret crushes. Once they have a list started but seem to be running out of steam on their own, have students divide into small groups. Ask them to take turns going around the group, adding one more detail about their character each time it’s their turn. Even those whose lists weren’t long to begin with will have their group’s examples as inspiration for more ideas.

I bet you the banana seat off my old bike that if you try this simple exercise, your students will discover, with each other’s help, new details to help fully flesh out their characters.

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Traveling Back Through Time

Photo by Ren at Morguefile.comA few years ago another Laura Ingalls Wilder fan and I made a pilgrimage to Walnut Grove, Minnesota. Other faithful followers will remember that tiny town as the setting for On the Banks of Plum Creek as well as the TV version of the books.

Our favorite experience of the day was visiting the Ingalls Dugout Site. I’ve been to a lot of places with historical relevance, all around the world—but almost none of them have given me as much keen pleasure as this one. Other than a wooden bridge across Plum Creek and a simple sign, there is almost no evidence of human habitation. You feel as if you are seeing the spot exactly as it was when Laura first set eyes on it nearly 140 years ago—but without any fear that somebody wearing a sunbonnet is going to spring up and start churning butter as some kind of recreated history.

We had the place completely to ourselves. We happily dabbled our toes in the waters of Plum Creek. We planted ourselves atop the sod roof of the dugout (now just a depression in the side of the creek bank), and sighted across prairie grasses that stretched far away to the horizon. We reveled in a serenade of songbirds. For one whole hour, we lived between the covers of a book. And then we got back in our car and drove home to the city.

One of my favorite pieces of writing advice comes from author Faith Sullivan. I share it here for you to pass along to your students. When you are writing about a story’s setting, don’t leave the reader feeling like a distant observer. Don’t go on for paragraph after paragraph with static setting details and boring descriptions. Instead, have your character interact with the setting. Give the reader small, telling details of the setting as the character engages with it.

In other words, show a character running through the tall grasses, pushed along by the sneaky prairie breezes. Give us a character who’s shivering because icy fingers are trying to poke their way through the walls of their sod home.

Writers who describe their setting in this way will make us feel, for that hour or two that we are reading, like we are living between the covers of a book.

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Drive-by

Adobe Stock 53485590When I visited Los Angeles not long after the 1992 riots, a home-town writer told me a story that made me feel what it was like to live there in those uncertain times.

His drive home passed a large police station. He was always on alert as he drove by; everyone thought there could be more trouble at any time, and he assumed that a police station might be a key target.

And then one day, when he was still some distance away, he saw smoke billowing out from the building. This is it, he thought. They’ve set the station on fire. Visions of escalating chaos, this time in his own neighborhood, raced through his head.

He drove closer, on high alert—and discovered cops swarming all around the outside of the building, intent on…

…the burgers being cooked on a large barbecue grill.

I think about this example when I hear a writer advise: “show, don’t tell.” That’s a way of writing that puts readers inside of the story’s action.

He could have just told me, “It was a scary time in LA. We thought things might go up in flames at any minute.” How long do you think I would have remembered that?

Instead, I can still recall small details of his story. That’s because he conveyed his tale (trust me, it was done in a much more riveting fashion than my retelling here), in such a way that I smelled the smoke and felt the sweat that trickled down his neck—and then shared his bark of laughter when it became clear that the only things to be charred that evening were the burgers.

Here’s a way to give your young writers some “show, don’t tell” practice. Ask them to write a scene that features a character experiencing an intense emotion—but don’t allow them to use the actual word (or any synonyms) that represent that emotion. Instead, ask your students to make the emotion evident through their character’s actions. In other words, if the emotion is anger, they can’t use the words “angry” or “mad” or “raging.” Instead, they could show the character stomping his foot, or screaming and tearing at her hair.

A “show, don’t tell” kind of writer won’t just tell me there’s a dead fish on the beach; he or she will have me smelling it for an entire chapter.

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Fitting in with the Locals

Writing Road Trip by Lisa Bullard | Bookology MagazineThe way we talk can be a dead giveaway that we’re from elsewhere.

Google the phrase “pop vs. soda,” and you’ll find color-coded maps that divide the country like election night results. Test this research on the road and you’ll discover that there are haters out there who scorn the term “pop” when unsuspecting out-of-towners (like me) order fizzy beverages.

If you are a “pop” person in a particularly fragile state of mind, you might even be tempted to avoid ridicule by downloading one of the maps and adjusting your word choice based on the region you’re traveling through.

Most likely few of us will decide to take this extreme measure.  But the truth is, we do choose our words differently, depending on who we’re talking to. If I’m going to tell someone the story of my terrible weekend, it’s going to be edited differently if I’m describing it to my mother or my best friend or my pastor.

Which leads to a fun way to help young writers learn something about the nuances of dialogue. At some point while your students are working on a story, ask them to write three scenes that draw on their story. Each scene should be a dialogue-heavy exchange that involves the main character talking with one other person about the conflict that the main character is facing.

But in each of the three scenes, the person that the main character is speaking to will change. First, it will be a parent, teacher, or some kind of authority figure. Then, it will be their best friend or someone they trust. Finally, it will be someone they don’t like—a sworn enemy, or someone they perceive to be a rival.

Depending on the age of your young writers, you might have to give them additional help with this activity. But the goal is for them to recognize that people choose what they say—and what they leave unsaid—in part based on the identity of their listener.

Just like a “pop” person might choose to masquerade as a “soda” person when they really want to fit in with the locals.

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Driving After Dark

Driving after Dark | Lisa Bullard's Writing Road TripAs an elementary school kid, my most vivid recurrent dream featured a road trip.

In it, I’m in the driver’s seat, although it’s the car that’s in control. My two-years-younger brother and our two best neighborhood friends are also along for the ride. We are on a straight stretch of the two-lane highway that leads out of town, our headlights piercing the otherwise intense darkness. The beams snag on the hungry arms of the craggy pines that crowd along the edge of the road. The grasping trees try to pull us back, but they never catch us; instead, the car just keeps barreling ahead, faster and faster down the highway.

I always woke up before we reached a destination, feeling puffed up with expectation, as if the wind whipping through the open windows of the vehicle had inflated me in anticipation of whatever waited for us at the end of that nighttime ride.

I dreamt this often enough that I can still recapture the feeling of it, immersing myself again in the emotions of a

time when it was starting to seem like each year, my own sturdy little vehicle was picking up speed as it raced towards an unknown place called “being a grown up.”

One of my best writing prompts for young writers taps into the power of the much-anticipated state of adulthood, that accomplishment that kids covet or fear, sometimes in equal measure. Even better, the prompt works well for a wide range of students: those who are barely through the opening paragraphs of their lives, and those who are a few chapters further along into life’s story.

Ask your students to write for a few minutes about where they hope to be in ten or fifteen years (or whatever number will have them just entering their early twenties). What do they want their lives to look like? Who do they want to be sharing their time with? What ambitions do they hope to be working towards at that point?

Writing can help them tap into that place deep inside where our subconscious keeps its secrets, the place where it hides both our dreams and our futures.

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Driver’s Ed

Adobe Stock ImageIt’s amazing that I passed my driver’s test on the first try, since I can see now that I was a pretty bad driver. But I was an excellent test-taker, and the State of Minnesota sent me home with a score of 96 out of 100. Mere weeks later I backed the family van into the mailbox.

It’s not that my parents didn’t try their best to improve my driving skills. In fact, they each logged enough hours of behind-the-wheel training with me that I learned to translate their two very different approaches to corrective feedback.

My mother’s primary feedback was to initiate the following sequence when I made a driving mistake: 1) make a horrified face, 2) suck air in wetly over her teeth, 3) clutch the dashboard, and 4) stomp her foot onto an imaginary passenger’s side brake.

My father was more verbal, but prone to understated commentary such as: “Did you happen to notice that was a red light you drove through?”

It’s hard to find just the right way to give somebody helpful feedback. And it’s just as tricky an issue when it comes to giving students feedback on their writing.

Praise for what is working well is always a good starting point. But then I also try to provide something concrete that students can work to improve. Leading questions are a great tool for this: queries such as, “How could you help readers better understand the character’s problem?” or “Can you make the readers feel more like they’re inside the setting of the story?”

You also want to avoid imposing your own voice over the student’s voice. The key is to remain in the role of editor rather than “re-writer.” I point out where changes could improve the writing, but then give students some room to learn to rewrite for themselves.

It’s totally tempting to stomp on the brake yourself, and just tell them how you would do it. But if you do that too many times, they might never learn how to drive without you in the car.

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On the Lam

My affection for road trips may have started with my many times on the lam as a kid. I ran the neighborhood crime syndicate for the under-ten crowd; they played what I wanted to play. On rainy days, it was often cops and robbers (naturally, we were always the robbers) in my mom’s garage-parked, ancient station wagon. I was the getaway driver while my accomplices shot their fingers at our pursuers from the back window.

Kid CopI instigated other games, too. Our pirate ship (a.k.a. the living room couch) sailed through shark-infested waters. The hardy pioneers who made up our wagon train scrabbled for provisions as we crossed the vast backyard prairie. Our spy network tracked the movements of a dangerous gang of evil siblings. Our games were full of imagined crises and drama.

Kids understand conflict;  it’s built into sibling rivalry, into games, into organized sports and tic-tac-toe. But as common as combat is in their lives, kids all too often forget to include it in their stories. And a story really isn’t a story without conflicting elements.

The good news is, once students understand the necessity of conflict, helping them pull it into their stories is fairly straightforward. Invest some time in a brainstorming break. Give students examples of common types of conflict: character vs. character, character vs. society, characters conflicted within themselves. Then ask students to create lists of possible conflicts that their own characters might face. Emphasize that there are no “stupid” ideas at this stage: even the craziest possibilities can lead to fantastic story developments. Remind students that the longer their brainstorming list, the more they’ll have to draw upon when they sit down to write.

Encourage students to drive their imaginations like speeding getaway cars. Before you know it, their stories will be packed with the suspense and tension that conflicts provides.

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What a Picture’s Worth

 

Time and UmbrellaWhen I was a kid, a visit from my Texas grandparents guaranteed horizon-expanding experiences.

For one thing, we were exposed to food choices not common to our little house in Minnesota’s north woods. I’m not talking about chili—my Texan father cooked that all the time. I’m talking about Grandma drinking hot Dr. Pepper instead of coffee. And Grandpa slathering peanut butter on his hamburgers.

From the vantage point of our small town, these outlandish approaches to familiar foodstuffs convinced me that the wider world held unimagined possibilities: apparently even peanut butter could be made strange and excitng, if experienced somewhere glamorous like Texas.

Another element of my grandparents’ visits was Night at the Movies. We’d crowd together on the couch, the lights would dim, and then we’d have: the slideshows, the director’s cut versions of every road trip my grandparents had recently ventured upon. I’d see captured images of exotic places like Oklahoma or Missouri, and I’d marvel at how much world was out there waiting for me. Those photos were enough to inspire me to grand imaginings.

Photos are also a perfect way to trigger writing road trips. Create a collection of quirky or outlandish images (like the one of mine at the top of this page, which you are free to use). Sort through your own photos, or take a local road trip with your camera in hand, or venture online to track them down. My writer friend Laura Purdie Salas posts a new writing-prompt photo on her blog every Thursday morning. Once you’ve collected your photos, hand them around your classroom, letting students pull out the one that most intrigues them. Then ask them to write a poem or start a story based on whatever the image inspires in them. Sometimes, you’ll find, a picture is worth a thousand words.

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Traveling Like a Rock Star

rock starI raced into the school bathroom and dashed into a stall, passing two small girls at the sink. Phew! I had just moments before I had to be on stage in front of a large assembly of kids, but this was a necessary stop.

Then I realized that there was complete silence from the area of the sink, although I could still see the girls through the gap next to the stall door. I heard the outer door push open, and another girl joined the first two.

“She’s in there,” one of the sink girls loudly whispered. “Who?” asked New Arrival.

“The author lady. She’s right in there. We saw her.”

Next thing I knew, a pair of eyes were fastened to the other side of the gap, as New Arrival took her opportunity to catch a glimpse of me—the “famous” person visiting her school.

I may not have to fight off paparazzi like a movie star, but I’m still spy-worthy when my knickers are down. And roadies don’t load my car, but oftentimes I feel like a rock star before the day of a school visit is over.

That’s because kids make even writers of relative obscurity feel like visiting royalty. I’ve been sung to, prayed over, hugged, photographed, and begged for my autograph. I’ve received thank you notes that tell me I’ve changed somebody’s life.

Just one visit like that can keep me motivated to write for weeks. Which leads me to some pretty simple advice: make writing a standing ovation accomplishment in your classroom. Talk about authors as superheroes. Turn students’ writing milestones into major celebrations. Encourage your students to cheer for a friend’s well-written story or poem.

Treat your students like rock stars when they write well, and who knows what writing results you might inspire.

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The place I go back to…

Going to the Lake | Lisa BullardThere is a particular road trip that has become a summer ritual for me, a journey that takes me to another time as well as another place: going to The Lake.

No other place has been such a constant in my life. I spent early summers there dive-bombing off the dock with my cousins and listening to my grandma’s stories of the moon spinners. I spent teenage summers there playing mud volleyball and yearning over the boys next door. More recently, I’ve spent summer weekends there watching a new generation pick up where the last one left off.

It is the place I go back to when I need to find myself again.

Sometimes in the middle of a hard-frozen winter I will pull something out of a closet that I carried home from The Lake months before, and as soon as the familiar scent of that place reaches me, I jump straight back into some of my deepest memories.

Our sense of smell holds that ability to instantly relocate us to another place and time because it is deeply entangled with our memories and emotions. And yet as writers, our sense of sight too often dominates. When seeing a scene for the reader, we focus on what our eyes perceive, and forget what the nose knows.

Encourage your young writers to allow the sense of smell to sneak its way into their writing. For the youngest writers, you might challenge them to perceive a story seen “through a dog’s nose.” For more developed writers, you might ask them to write a scene where all the emotions are signaled through smell.

You might find, with a litt‚le encouragement, that smells are powerful enough to transport your young writers on their own evocative journeys.

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Let me show you this great video I took on my trip…

alligator“We’re stuck,” Airboat Man said.

Stuck: three people, on an airboat, nearing sundown, with nothing but swamp and alligators for miles.

Here’s the deal. I could tell you this story several different ways and remain truthful.  I could make it seem scary, or adventurous, or even perverted. But being me, I’m going to tell you what I hope is the “funny” version:

“You two stand down on the edge there and bounce.” Airboat Man pointed to the lower portion of the airboat. “That should jar us loose.”

BFF and I glanced dubiously at each other. Was this how Airboat Man got his kicks? By dragging zaftig, out- of-state females deep into the lonely swamp, where he manipulated a set of diabolically evil circumstances so that he could force them to—bounce?

“It’s the only way,” Airboat Man said.

So we bounced. Sure enough, we got unstuck. Airboat Man looked amused.

“I wonder if that Japanese film crew over there got videos of ya’ll bouncing,” he said.

Indeed, while we had been busy bouncing, another airboat had appeared behind us.  They had pulled close enough that I assume you could google the phrase, “Large American women bounce on airboat” (if you knew enough Japanese), and you’d get an up-close-and-personal of our bouncing back ends.

So what does this tell you about writing? I’ve talked before about how difficult it is to help young writers understand the term “voice.” Voice is the distinctive way that each writer acts as a filter for how the reader experiences a story. If BFF or Airboat Man wanted to write about this same event, they would do so using a different voice—and it might sound like a completely different story.

Why not ask all of your students to write about an adventure you have shared together?  Then have them each read their work out loud, so the group can hear different voices relating the same experience—and begin to learn by comparison what is unique about their own voice.

Developing your voice as a writer is a little like bouncing to “un-stick” an airboat.  At first, the whole concept sounds pretty suspect. But once you give it a try, you find out it works. In fact, some writers are able to develop such distinctive voices, they become famous enough to google.

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Journeying Inside

Writing Road Trip: Journey InsideI once sat next to a young Pakistani woman for a long red-eye flight. She had been living in the U.S. for a couple of years, and had many interesting insights on the differences between our two cultures.

I was especially intrigued by the details of how her arranged marriage had come about, and her belief that this practice was so much more successful than our current U.S. tradition of love matches. I was able to gain a new understanding of a custom that had always seemed unfathomable to me—someone else being allowed to choose one’s life partner—by sharing an insider’s view of that life path.

And the whole discussion gave me many intriguing insights not only into her culture, but into my own as well. Writing also allows us this kind of insider’s peek into another life. Every time we create a character, we do our best to imagine what it would be like to travel inside that existence. We immerse ourselves as deeply as we can into a borrowed consciousness, hoping to make the character seem authentic to readers.

One of my writing prompts helps young writers practice this ability to step inside another existence. First I ask students: “If you could be transformed into any animal, what animal would you choose?” Then I ask them to write about what they imagine life would be like as that animal. How would it feel to be able to fly? To swim on the ocean bottom? To run with the pack, or to slither on desert sands?

I ask them to imagine that they have experienced a kind of metamorphosis; that they are living inside another creature’s existence.

Very often I find that when they return from this journey of the imagination, they bring back new insights into their own lives as well.

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Driving Past Effingham

erasersIf a road trip ever takes you past Effingham, Illinois, you won’t be able to miss the 198-foot giant cross that looms over two interstates.

And yet, did that towering symbol of her religious beliefs inspire my mother to sing a rousing chorus of “Beneath the Cross of Jesus” as we drove past it? No, indeed.

That was because at the time, she was much too busy chortling over the name “Effingham.” To her, it sounded like a euphemism for THAT word—the one that, in her opinion, is the single most offensive utterance in the English language.

Labeling something “naughty” only makes it more irresistible. So from the moment we first spied an Effingham road sign, Mom sporadically repeated the name out loud, laughing anew each time. It turns out that “Effingham” is eminently glee-worthy to at least one grandmother of five.

Or maybe she’d just inhaled too many exhaust fumes that day.

One of the best ways to give student erasers a workout is to tell students to read their writing out loud. This is a surefire revision tactic; reading something out loud ensures that students will hear mistakes they have never noticed before. Or you can have students give a copy of their piece to a partner. As their partner reads it to them, the writer of the piece should listen especially for all the places where the reader stumbles, pauses too long, or looks confused.

These are all places where the writer will need to consider revisions.

Perhaps the founders of Effingham should have said their new town name out loud a few more times, until one of them noticed its potential for pronunciation humor.

Or maybe, in the end, they simply chose not to revise.

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Moseying

ph_moseyingMy favorite road trips focus more on the discoveries the journey holds than on rapidly reaching a destination. You might call me a moseying kind of person.

Every fall, my mom and I load my nephews and niece into the car for one of my favorite meanders: a visit to the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. In the years it has taken for the oldest of the kids to go from babies to texting teenagers, we have perfected the art of stretching the Arboretum’s Three-Mile Drive into a several hours’ ramble.

There are yearly rituals: a stop to see if the kids can still squeeze themselves inside the little houses, a good long roll down the big green hill. But our leisurely pace also affords us the time to notice something new each visit: the texture of this particular tree trunk, the fire captured in that individual autumn leaf. The vista of the distant barn crowning the treetops.

This taking-a-deep-breath journey allows me the chance to notice the way the teenaged nephew who Grandma once carried across this same parking lot, now leans down to protectively offer Grandma his arm.

Sometimes writing, particularly in the revision stage, requires that we slow ourselves way down. It is not always possible to hurry and still do it right, but given enough time, we have the opportunity to notice the texture of the words, to ask ourselves if the piece’s fire burns brightly enough.

The next time you challenge your students to revise, encourage them to notice each individual word. Ask them to focus on the discoveries they are making, rather than on the destination of a due date or a grade.

Sometimes moseying makes for better writing.

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Secret Destination

Secret DestinationIf I hadn’t made the trip myself, I don’t think I would believe how quickly you can travel from the curious world of the Las Vegas Strip to what seems to be its diametrical opposite: the Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area.

Red Rock is composed of desert and rock formations, the kind of place that inspired one website to urge visitors to leave news of their intended destination with a “responsible party” before they journey into its mysteries.

The Vegas Strip is composed of showgirls and casinos. In other words, it’s the kind of place where visitors should leave news of their intended destination with a “responsible party” before they journey into its mysteries.

It’s almost as if Las Vegas keeps a giant secret wilderness tucked away in its backyard—a secret unknown to many Vegas visitors who don’t venture beyond the familiar flashing lights. And yet, now that I know that secret is there, a whole new dimension has been added to my understanding of the Las Vegas experience.

Discovering a secret can be illuminating when you’re on a writing road trip, too. Some of the best advice I’ve ever been given about characterization came from mystery writer Ellen Hart. She urged me to give every one of my characters—even those who play small roles in my stories—a secret.

She was right. These secrets have added a wonderful dimension to my understanding of my stories. Now that all of my characters have something tucked secretly into the backyards of their lives, my stories are more infused with potential and humanity.

Every young writer knows the refrain “I’ve got a secret.” Remind your students of it; urge them to study their own characters, to find out what kind of wilderness each one has kept hidden from the world.

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The Quest

ruby slippersMy one visit to Hawaii might best be defined by an afternoon quest.

I was there to say goodbye to my cousin, who was coming to the end of her battle with cancer. I discovered she had developed a singular ambition: to find a pair of size 11 ruby slippers. She took great pleasure in the thought of giving them as a gag gift to a male colleague originally from Kansas. But she was too ill to shop herself, and I sensed
she might never have the chance to deliver the punch line to her grand joke.

But—hadn’t I journeyed thousands of miles for just such a purpose? It became my personal mission: if necessary, I would walk across lava fields to get my hands on the Rainbow State’s last pair of appropriately hued, and enormously sized, footwear.

I was fortunate in Hawaii’s geographic realities. I drove along, making sure to keep the ocean to my left, rationalizing that eventually I would either stumble across enough shoe stores, or I’d circle the island back to where I began. Many hours and much adventure later, I returned triumphant to my cousin’s home, ruby red trophies in hand.

If young writers are struggling to develop their story’s plot, the model of a character on a quest can be a great help. Ask them this: What is their character seeking to find? Is it a treasure or a person? An undiscovered land or the answer to a mystery? Their own destiny? Or are they searching for something they have lost, or something they have yet to find?

A quest offers writers the opportunity to explore mission and misdirection, trepidation and triumph. And when well told, it allows readers the chance to go along for the ride as well: even, perhaps, to a place that is somewhere over the rainbow.

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Treasure Hunt

gemsOne of my favorite road-trip memories is “mud-puddling” in western North Carolina. We had followed signs that lured us in with the promise of gemstones practically free for the taking. The space we wandered into looked like a roadside picnic area, and seemed ideal for the kind of lazy afternoon we had in mind. We each purchased buckets of dirt-covered rocks for a small fee, and then claimed our places along
a bench in front of a trough of running water.

While sunshine dappled the green of the surrounding hills, my best friend and I reverted back to one of the great delights of childhood: mucking about. We played in the muddy water, washing off our piles of rocks, convinced each time that the natural beauty of a stone was revealed that we had discovered a fabulous treasure. Could this be a ruby? An emerald? A sapphire?

We left a few hours later with nothing more than a pile of pretty rocks. But we had found something much more valuable in our treasure hunt than a gemstone: one perfect afternoon, reclaimed briefly from a childhood we’d both left behind long before.

Words are the treasures I’ve carried forward with me from that childhood; I’ve been collecting my favorites for most of my life: Collywobbles. Lugubrious. Gobbledygook. Insouciance.

Why not spend a few moments on a perfect afternoon taking your students on a linguistic treasure hunt? Ask them to them crack open the dictionary and write down one or more new word “gems” and their meanings. Have them use these new-found words to inspire their own poems, or create a collective class poem by swirling all the words together.

I’ve made a career out of proving that there are lots of treasures to be found when you go mucking about amidst
words.

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Time Travel

sun dialWhen you tour Rome, you’re not always sure if you’re traveling in taxis or time machines. Down one street, you’re transported back to around 2,000 years ago, watching the Christians take on the lions in the Forum. Head down another street, and you’re enraptured by one of Michelangelo’s Renaissance masterpieces. Turn your head, and you see—the Golden Arches?

It’s the kind of place where it’s hard to remember exactly “when” you are.

“When” can also be the perfect jumping-off point for a student writing road trip. Is your classroom studying a key time in history? Ancient Egypt? The American Revolution? World War II? Eliminate the distance between your history lesson and your writing lesson by asking students to write a story set in that historical time, using details accurate to the setting. Talk about how setting details such as the correct technology, period-appropriate clothing, food choices, even the smells of that place and time, will help shape not only the story’s setting, but the characters who live in the “then” and the “there” of that story.

Or why not create a story-writing time machine? List the various historical periods you’ve studied this year on different index cards. Count up the total number of cards. Assign each card a number. Then have students number off into that many groups, or choose some other way of randomly assigning time machine destinations to each student. You can even use the time machine over and over again, with students ending up in different “times” each day they journey down this writing road.

Writing can help take your students anywhere, and any-when, you want them to travel.

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Roads Not Taken

One Way SignMy brother’s driving directions are full of “roads not taken.”

He’ll say something like, “Go about a mile and you’ll see Hamilton. Don’t turn there! You want the next street.” But without fail, I see Hamilton, remember that it was part of his directions, and turn before I’m supposed to.

My father and I are equally directionally incompatible. He’ll recite a mystifying succession of compass points to me. To give him credit, I’m sure his directions are completely clear and sensible to somebody who can actually tell east from west.

Here’s the only kind of directions that seem to work for me: “Turn left at the third Dairy Queen.” I guarantee I won’t miss a single turn if you use “ice cream directions.”

It’s a simple truth:  different approaches work for different brains. What launches one student’s writing road trip might amount to a “road not taken” approach for another. There is no “one way” that works to inspire every student. But for every student, there is probably “one way” that will ultimately inspire them.

When I first started  teaching students to write, I found it frustrating when kids would ask if they could draw their stories instead of write them. I saw my job as reinforcing writing skills, and I was afraid that the writing would get upstaged.

But gradually I realized that for certain students, drawing was the perfect “gateway” activity to writing. So while I still encourage all students to work with words, I also make room for drawing as part of our brainstorming and pre-writing activities.

Words are my artistic medium; drawing remains my personal road not taken. But it turns out that you can follow two completely different sets of directions, offered by two people who think completely differently—and somehow still end up at the same place!

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Misdirected

Several years ago a friend and I got lost driving through New Orleans. Eventually we pulled over so I could ask a gas station attendant for directions.

He rattled off a set of instructions in a Cajun accent, ending with, “then take the Hoopalong.”

I looked at my road map. No Hoopalong. I asked him to point it out to me. His finger tapped a section of my map while he repeated his directions, this time with a hint of impatience. I looked again. Still no Hoopalong that I could see, but he’d moved on to another task. I shrugged. I figured we’d follow his instructions as far as we could, then watch road signs for this mysterious “Hoopalong.”

Huey P. Long Bridge

Photo credit: JohnnyAutomatic, Wikimedia Commons

Which is how I soon thereafter found myself being driven across the Huey P. Long Bridge (identified by some as the “scariest bridge you’ve ever driven across”) by my shrieking, bridge-phobic friend. By the time the two of us had realized where the attendant’s directions were taking us, it was too late to do anything but keep driving forward.

I once heard author Laurie Halse Anderson tell a group of writers that we should “lead our characters deep into the forest.” I’ve heard other authors refer to it as “throwing our characters in over their heads.”

To phrase it slightly differently, we need to somehow trick our characters into crossing the scariest bridge they’ve ever driven across.

Keep drumming this fact into your student writers’ heads: a story doesn’t become compelling until you heap trouble upon your characters. Trouble is what makes a reader want to keep reading.

As for the students, they’ll learn one of the biggest satisfactions a writer can have: the fun of figuring out how you’re going to teach your character to swim after you’ve thrown him or her into the deep water.

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Road Food Re-Mix

by Lisa Bullard

2_11lemonPieI love seeking out oddball road food opportunities. In New Jersey: a Chinese-Italian buffet where the spaghetti and lo mein rubbed shoulders like long-lost cousins. In Nashville: a Swedish-Southern all-you-can-eat spread, with fried chicken and pickled herring vying for att‚ention. In New York City: a Greek-Mexican café.

Many of the world’s diverse taste temptations are no longer exotic options to us. But I still admit to surprise and delight when I stumble over a place where the burritos are backed up by baklava.

Combining an oddball set of options can also prompt a writing road trip. I’ve shared the downloadable activity found here before, under another context. I offer it up to you again with the encouragement that even if you tried it then, it’s something you should use with your students on-and-off throughout the year. Each time you offer it to them, they’ll have a chance to work with a surprising remix of story ingredients.

Not only has the activity proven to be one of my most reliable writing prompts for a wide variety of ages, but you’ll also be reinforcing in your students a taste for the fundamental ingredients that any good story requires: character, setting, and conflict.

Besides, the whole thing is almost as much fun as egg rolls with marinara sauce.

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Return Visit

by Lisa Bullard

1_14GooglyEyesSan Francisco has an eerie quality of reinvention that is unique to that city for me. When I make return visits to other destinations, the visual “pieces” from each trip start to fit together like giant jigsaw puzzles, and eventually I form an integrated picture of the whole place.

But despite the number of times I’ve visited San Francisco, each new visit feels as if I’m seeing someplace new: the city feels completely remade to me. It’s as if, between my visits, the curtain goes down and they replace the stage set.

If only I could bottle it, this San Francisco syndrome would be enormously useful to writers. The ability to successfully revise requires the ability to return to a work-in-progress as if you’ve never seen it before. But this can be incredibly difficult. We become attached to the work as it is already wri‚tten and, when we revisit it, we notice only how easily it fits together, instead of being able to truly “re-vision” it.

Sometimes, however, all it takes is time away. One of the best tactics I’ve found to aid a fresh look is something I call “putting it in the drawer.” If I set a piece aside completely, ignoring it for several weeks, I often find that during my absence from it the set changers of my imagination go to work. When I return to the piece, I’m able to tackle the revising task with far greater objectivity and skill.

I know from experience how reluctant students usually are to revise their writing. Why not try my simple San Francisco trick? Ask them to set the work aside for a week or more. When they finally come back to it, they are more likely to return with a fresh set of eyes.

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Well-Traveled Paths

by Lisa Bullard

12_17PinkCarriageI slip into auto-pilot when I’m driving through overly familiar territory; I stop taking in the same old landmarks. And then one day, there’s a stop sign where there’s never been one before, and my eyes are re-opened to the possibilities around me.

There are “story paths” like that too: fairy tales and other narratives that have grown so familiar we fail to notice the power they hold unless we’re forced to take a fresh look. But these stories have much to offer; there’s a reason they’ve been passed down through ages of story-tellers. Sometimes they even serve as the foundation for new stories in new generations; “once upon a time” becomes “here, in this time.”

I use some of these time-proven stories as student writing prompts (download here). They are particularly useful when students are struggling with pulling stories together. The prompts provide the basics of character, plot, and conflict; students draw on their knowledge of earlier versions of the story to craft a new version. By exploring the existing narrative from the inside out, they learn how a story is crafted. And they carry that knowledge forward to other stories they write.

Sometimes writers turn time-proven stories into even more powerful new stories. When I added the last of the four prompts to my list, I had “The Ugly Duckling” in mind. But it didn’t take me long to realize that the same basic description could apply to another children’s story: the tale of a boy, shunned by his family because he’s different who one day shocks everyone with his amazing hidden talent.

I offer you the two words that changed children’s book publishing: Harry Pott‚er. Who knows what other “new classics” your students might create when they begin traveling the paths of time-tested stories?

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Pilgrimage

by Lisa Bullard

12_31BikerLegEvery year, thousands of bikers road trip to Sturgis (South Dakota) to celebrate their shared passion for motorcycles. For some of them, attendance is an eagerly anticipated annual tradition that holds the same power found in spiritual rituals.

One year my friend and I were caught unawares in the middle of the experience. We had traveled to South Dakota without knowing about the pilgrimage of believers, but as we came closer to our destination, the growing number of bikers, thick as plagues of locusts at gas stations, forced us to piece together the clues. It turned into one of the most illuminating of our many road trips together. After all, it’s not every day that outsiders such as us are allowed a glimpse into secret ceremonial rites involving fur-covered bras and leather chaps.

And we had good reason to know we had nothing to fear from the bikers, however oddly they were adorned: “Most of them are dentists in real life,” the local newspaper assured us.

Apparently even dentists love an excuse to leave the regular world behind and celebrate with their own kind. So I draw on that fact for one of my more reliable creative writing prompts—one that works even on those deadly just- before-vacation or just-back-from-break days when students are completely distracted.

Namely, I ask students to invent their own holiday. I ask them to write about the reason their holiday exists and the special traditions that surround it. When is their holiday? What foods are eaten? What costumes are worn? What rituals take place? Are gifts exchanged? Are there figures such as Santa Claus that play a prominent role?

Hopefully you’ll find, as I have, that students really enjoy channeling their pre- or post-holiday energy into creating their own imagined visions for “the best celebration ever.”

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Through the Woods

by Lisa Bullard

12_17SantaSleighA few years ago I decided to visit a friend in North Carolina over the holidays, and the only way I could afford the airfare was to fly on Christmas Day. I admit to a case of self pity as I set out, picturing the rest of the world in their new pajamas, opening presents and reveling in a holiday feast, while I suffered the long lines, cramped seats, and other indignities that air travel offers

What was I thinking, leaving home for Christmas? How could I possibly enjoy another family’s holiday traditions? Would it even feel like Christmas in a place where pansies were still blooming?

And then I spotted a family at the airport who were all decked out in Santa caps, the two young children big-eyed with excitement as they prepared to journey over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house. They hadn’t left their Christmas at home: they were carrying it with them, packed along with their toothbrushes and clean underwear for the trip.

My entire mood turned instantly ebullient. All it took was that reminder that even when we travel far away, we still carry a little part of home with us.

Writing is a journey too. It might begin with the things we know best, but eventually our imaginations take us into unfamiliar territory. Sometimes this is exhilarating. Sometimes it’s uncomfortable or even a little scary. The best thing to do is to keep moving forward, taking out whatever little part of home we’re carrying with us when we need some reassurance.

The path to Grandmother’s house may take us through the woods. But never forget that Grandmother is waiting on the other side with a big cup of hot cocoa and a thousand twinkling Christmas lights.

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Crossing the Border

by Lisa Bullard

12_3MooseMountieOnce when flying back to the U.S. from Canada I met up with some zealous border control agents. The customs guy wanted a detailed description of what I’d purchased.

“I bought one of those souvenir snow globes with a little Mountie inside,” I said.

The guy thought a moment and then sadly shook his head. “Ma’am, if you’d played your cards right,  you could have taken home the real thing.”

The immigration guy looked me up and down and then barked out, “What’s ‘Oshkosh?”’

“It’s either a small town in Wisconsin or a kind of overalls,” I said. I was hoping for a gold star, but instead he rolled his eyes and waved me through.

Years later I was telling a friend trained in security about this story. “Would he really have kept me from crossing the border if I had answered the Oshkosh question wrong?” I asked.

She laughed. “He didn’t care what you answered. He cared how you answered. He’s trained to know when someone is telling the truth or when they’re lying.”

Fiction writers are also heavily vested in the kind of truth that lies underneath the surface answer.

When student writers use real-life events as their inspiration, they often get worked up over “what really happened.” But this isn’t the task of fiction. Instead, fiction is all about reshaping “what really happened” to reveal to the reader some of the biggest truths of all: truths about life, truths about people.

Explain to your students that it’s okay to leave out some details, add others, change a few more, if it’s done with the goal of pointing the reader towards the emotional truth of the story. This isn’t crossing the border from “telling the truth” over to “lying.” It’s making important writing choices.

It’s digging down to the truth found underneath “Oshkosh.”

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Packing List

by Lisa Bullard

9_10SpiralNotebookI generate a flurry of lists for every road trip: A “bizarre attractions to stop and see” list. A “things to tell the cat-sitter” list. A packing list.

I love lists. I love them so much I have a whole journal full of different sorts of lists—I write down everything from household repairs to my bucket list. And I don’t keep lists because I’m one of those super-achiever types who expects to get all those things accomplished.

Instead, I make lists because I manage to forget even the most obvious of things if I don’t make note of them. Sometimes when the temperature is below zero here in the winter, I actually forget to breathe while I’m walking outside.

Okay, I don’t really write down “breathe,” because I’m not quite that hopeless.  But I do write down most practical stuff.  My lists are the best way I’ve found to successfully de-clutter my brain. By making them, I clear out space for my imagination to play.

And then whatever quirky, catawampus ideas were previously shoved to the corners of my mind have room to grow, to end up on their own lists. These get filed away under headings like “great ideas for a book someday,” or “awesome oddball character possibilities.” They are the best resource I have when I need a prompt to get me started on a new writing project.

In honor of this kind of list-making, the type that feeds the imagination, I offer you a “list poem” activity here. It reminds students not to forget four important things: namely, the other senses—sound, touch, taste, smell—that writers too often overlook. It also reminds students to “feed” their imaginations by noticing the many things that they are thankful for this Thanksgiving season.

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Winter Roads

by Lisa Bullard

WRT_12-3SnowWinters add the element of surprise to the Minnesota driving equation. Mid-journey, you can be sucked into one of the car-devouring potholes caused by my state’s radical temperature changes. Or you can skid on a deceptive slick of black ice, and end up straddling a snow bank.

In those moments, you realize that your trip isn’t going to turn out as you thought it would. You might not even reach the destination you had planned.

The writing road is full of sudden surprises too. Even when I think I’ve figured out exactly where a story is headed, my creative brain might pop up one of these “journey adjustments”—an oddball image, a repeated song refrain, a quirky possibility that changes my whole perception of the story.

Often these surprises make no sense at first. But strange as they are, I’ve learned to invite them into my writing. Sooner or later, I come to understand their role in the story—and it’s often something that changes that entire writing road trip.

For one of my stories, this unforeseen “pothole” was an ugly winter hat, which floated into my brain and eventually came to represent an important turning point for my character. In another story, the surprise was a walking catfish—which proved to be a metaphor for the underlying theme of the novel as a whole. I allowed these unexpected gifts from my subconscious to reroute my stories, because I’ve learned that doing so makes my writing all the more compelling.

You can’t force your students’ brains to pop out these intuitive hints on demand. But you can teach them to be receptive to bizarre elements when they do turn up. As practice for that, throw some winter surprises at your students—by using the downloadable “Snowball” activity found here.

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Home Away from Home

by Lisa Bullard

10_22I like to play a certain game when I’m traveling. I pretend that the place I’m visiting is my home, and I imagine how my life would have been altered if I had in fact taken root in that other environment.

How would things be different for me if my world swirled amidst New York City’s self-fulfilling energy? If my abode was perched atop a fog-shrouded island in the Pacific Northwest? If I was planted on the lip of a tall-grass prairie, with the world dropping off into nothingness on the other edge of the great grass sea? If I dreamed my dreams in a twig-built hut?

Part of a writer’s task is to create alternative homelands, to build distinctive worlds for each of our characters to inhabit. Once we have our world crafted, we invite readers to make themselves at home there too. We hope that they will want to hunker down into this habitat that we have fashioned and make it a part of themselves; to allow it to take up residence in their hearts and imaginations.

One of the easiest ways to teach young writers about envisioning an environment is to talk with them about the worlds they have wandered through in their fantasy reading. Good fantasy writers are masters at the art of world-building, and students can learn a lot by meandering through the keyboarded landscapes of these writers who have built worlds before them.

Once you have had a chance to help students recognize the importance of “place” in the stories that they have loved reading, start them writing with the Fantasy Land activity found here. It will help your young writers begin to visualize a “home away from home”—a place where they might house their next story.

 

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Plotting Your Route

by Lisa Bullard

10_8PaulBunyanUsing an “I’ll just see where the road takes me” approach has led me on all sorts of adventures. But it’s also meant I’ve arrived at midnight and discovered every hotel room in town is rented to lumberjacks.

I still don’t plan ahead for lumberjack influxes—I figure one of those per lifetime is probably my quota—but that experience has forced me to rethink my approach a bit.

I’ve learned the same thing about writing road trips. My earlier, shorter projects didn’t travel enough distance to require planning ahead. I always had a final destination in mind (the ending of a story is clear to me early in the process). But I didn’t worry over the how-to-get-there details. A few unexpected detours just meant more fun.

It was different when I began drafting a novel. I jumped in with my usual spontaneous approach, steering towards the ending but exploring all the intriguing side roads. Then my character dug in his heels and refused to move forward. I suddenly recognized what a vast expanse stretched between the beginning and the ending, and I completely stalled out.

I reluctantly recognized it was time to plot my route. As soon as I had that outline in place, I began writing again at full speed. I’m not a full outline convert, but I now see that a road map can be an important writing tool.

Some young writers are natural outliners. Others are like me, dragged to it only by necessity. You can help these “outline resistant” students develop their outlining skills. For example, you can work together as a class to outline a published story. Or you can outline a “typical” human life or a calendar year for practice.

Sometimes even the most spontaneous writer needs to stop and plot their route in order to make forward progress.

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Round Trip

by Lisa Bullard

9_24One of life’s great satisfactions is returning home after a long journey. We rejoice in the familiar clasp of our own bed, in the bracing taste of our home air. Everything seems comfortingly the same, yet also fresh and remarkable.

This is because, even if home has stayed the same, journeying has changed us. The cat’s suspicious investigation of our foreign smell confirms it: We have returned to the place our old self lived, altered by the world. You can go home again, but it will be a different “you” that you bring there.

This thinking comes in useful when I talk with students about story endings. Strong story endings have two important elements. Even young writers seem to intuitively grasp the first: some kind of satisfying resolution to whatever conflict the character is facing.

But students often overlook the second element. That element focuses on the way the character has been transformed by facing the conflict. How have they been changed by taking the long and complicated journey through the story?

A story that doesn’t include this second element is easily forgotten. The stories that do explore character transformation can linger in our imaginations long after we’ve returned the book to the library. Moments from these tales may periodically spring up to surprise us, like the unexpected whiff of suntan lotion the next time you open the Miami suitcase.

Here’s a way to explain it to your students: A merry-go-round only circles us back to the place where we started. But before the ride is over, we’ve been through a whole lot of ups and downs. A ride like that alters a person.

Great story endings have two parts: First, the writer gets the character off the horse. Then, the writer shows us how taking that wild ride has changed the character forever.

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