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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Lisa Bullard

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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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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The Birthday Surprise

I had pretty much given up on finding an appropriate gift for my dad’s 82nd birthday; the last thing he needed was more stuff. So I headed off to the family lake cabin for the 4th of July holiday (also his birthday weekend) with the thought that I’d figure out a clever celebratory idea at the last minute. Maybe some kind of game that everyone would enjoy?

The problem with that was the “everyone” involved. My brother’s four kids each brought a friend along, so 13 to 20-year-olds made up the clear majority. All of them travel at a speed that far outdistances their grandpa, and their lives revolve around completely different cultural touchstones. Not to mention that two of them seemed to have self-identified as space aliens sent to catalog the peculiar behavior of earthlings, sitting apart and observing the rest of us with a dissecting air. What kind of game could I possibly come up with that would work for this multi-generational (not to mention multi-planetary) crew?

Out of desperation, I decided to just go for it, and I scratched out a series of 10 questions about Grandpa. What major world event radically changed his life when he was a kid? What dangerous animal did he capture when he was a teenager? How many colleges kicked him out? How did he meet his wife (the Grandma we were all still mourning)? In other words, questions that translated Grandpa’s life into the concerns of a 13 to 20-year-old. Then I told the kids that they were going to work as pairs (grandchild plus friend) to answer the questions, and whoever got the most correct would win a small prize. Partway through the game, each team would have a chance to privately ask Grandpa to share stories to provide two of the answers they didn’t know.

ph_lb_dad_erinThey’re good kids. I figured they would hide their eye-rolls and play along for courtesy’s sake. Meanwhile, Grandpa would be the center of attention for a few minutes, getting to share a few of the details from his first 81 years, and it would make him feel like we’d at least taken notice of his birthday.

In all my worry about finding an appropriate way to celebrate my dad’s life, I had inexplicably forgotten the power of his stories. I’d momentarily overlooked stories’ facility for bridge-building—their capacity to create a connection between someone whose childhood was altered by the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the grandson whose childhood was shaped by 9/11. My little quiz turned into a fierce battle for story supremacy; even the space aliens couldn’t get enough. Everyone was a winner.

And this children’s book writer went home from the weekend with a reminder about the importance of the work I do on an everyday basis. Just wait, world: have I got a story for you!

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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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End Cap: Turn Left at the Cow

Turn Left at the CowWe hope you enjoyed reading Turn Left at the Cow, solving the mystery. Did you figure out whodunit before the climactic scene? If you love puzzles and games, we hope you have a good time solving this Word Search. 

Simply use your mouse or touch pad to draw a line over your found words and the program will mark them off for you. Words can be found forwards, backwards, horizontally, vertically, and diagonally. As you find a word, it will be highlighted on the board and it will disappear from the word list.

Have fun!

Hidden Words

Puzzle by mypuzzle.org
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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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Twisted Tots Hotdish

Twisted Tots Hotdish
Serves 8
For a delicious hot dish, which Trev's grandmother may well have cooked for him, you can't beat this slightly different take on the Tater Tot Hotdish. Because it's a Minnesota thing, don't you know?
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Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
50 min
Total Time
1 hr
Prep Time
15 min
Cook Time
50 min
Total Time
1 hr
Ingredients
  1. 1 lb very lean ground beef
  2. 1 can cream of mushroom soup
  3. 2 cups shredded sharp cheddar
  4. 1/4 cup diced red bell pepper
  5. 1/4 cup diced green bell pepper
  6. 6 strips cooked bacon, crumbled
  7. 1/2 cup French fried onions
  8. 2 cups tater tots
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 350ºF
  2. Press uncooked ground beef into an 11x7” baking dish. Spread the tater tots evenly on top of the ground beef. Pour the soup over the tater tots. Sprinkle the diced bell peppers, bacon, and French fried onions on top of the soup. Distribute one cup of cheese over the top.
  3. Bake for 20 minutes. Remove from oven and stir the casserole, breaking the meat into chunks. Add the rest of the cheese and cook for an additional 20 to 30 minutes until top of casserole looks as enticing as you’d like it to look.
Bookology Magazine http://www.bookologymagazine.com/
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Lisa Bullard

Lisa BullardIn this interview with Lisa Bullard, author of Turn Left at the Cow, our Bookstorm™ this monthwe asked nine questions to which she gave heartfelt answers. 

Lisa, thank you for your willingness to share your writing process and your thoughts about mysteries with us. Mysteries have rabid fans and you’ve written a book that’s not only smart and funny and sassy, but it’s a taut thriller. We appreciate having such a good book to read and to share with other fans.

Turn Left at the CowAt what point in writing your novel, Turn Left at the Cow, did you know it was going to be about an unsolved bank robbery?

That’s a great question—it makes me think back to the whole exciting process of how this story evolved over time! When I first set out to write this book, I actually imagined it as a murder mystery for adult readers. And then one day, when I had about 5 or 6 chapters written, I was revising the opening to the story, and a completely different voice marched in and took over the first-person narration—and it was the voice of a young teenage boy. He had so much energy, and I could “hear” him so clearly, that I knew this was truly his story to tell. And of course he wanted to talk to other kids more than he wanted to talk to adults! But that meant I had to rethink many other elements of the novel to instead make it a story for young readers.

I thought it seemed unlikely that a 13-year-old would be able to get involved in a murder investigation in a way that felt realistic, so I brainstormed other possible mysteries. At about the same time, I read a newspaper article about a man who was convinced that infamous hijacker D.B. Cooper was actually his brother. I used one of my greatest writing tools—the question “What if?”—and started thinking along the lines of “What if my character discovers that one of his relatives was involved in a notorious robbery?”

You’ve set Turn Left at the Cow in a small, rural town. Trav’s grandma lives in a cabin on a nearby lake. Why did you decide that the “place” for this story should be in this locale?

This location was at the heart of this story from the very beginning; it stayed the same no matter what other details changed, and to me, this setting speaks so loudly that it’s like another character in the book. It’s based primarily on the location of my family’s lake cabin, which is on Green Lake (near two very small Minnesota towns, Spicer and New London), in west central Minnesota. Since my family moved around when I was a kid, it’s the one place that I’ve consistently returned to since I was a very small child, and it’s a place that has sunk deep into my bones. Our lake cabin originally belonged to my grandparents, and I’ve spent some of the most important times in my life there with family and friends. It’s even where my parents had their honeymoon, so I’ve truly been visiting there my entire life! But of course, my story is fiction, so I did take some liberties with the setting—for example, I gave the town in the book a (nonexistent in real life) giant statue of a bullhead (fish), because many of my other favorite Minnesota towns feature giant statuary.

Parade in Spicer

Travis, your protagonist, is a 13-year-old boy whose dad died before he was born. This serves as a strong motivation for him running away from his mother in California to his grandmother in Minnesota. Does your sure-footed knowledge of Trav’s motivation come from your own experience?

I have been so lucky to have a dad who has always been very active in my life. To this day, we still talk and laugh and argue with each other like we did when I was a little kid and a teenager. But many of the people I’ve been closest to throughout my life are not so lucky. I’ve been close friends with several people who lost their father when they were quite young, and my closest uncle died the summer I turned nine—so my cousins no longer had a father of their own. As my mom explained to me, that meant I needed to “share” my dad with them.

As I mentioned earlier, one of my greatest writing tools is the question “What if?” It challenges me to expand my stories beyond my own personal experiences and to live inside the experiences of a character who is very different from me. One of the biggest “What if” questions in my own life has always been: “What if I didn’t happen to have the dad that I was lucky enough to have?” I decided that this story was the place for me to try to imagine what it might be like for someone to desperately crave a relationship with a lost father.

Readers are fascinated by the “red herrings” in a whodunit, the clues that could, but don’t, solve the mystery. At what point in writing the story did you consciously work with (plant your) red herrings?

walking catfishI love quirky details, and I built a lot of them into the story: for example, there’s a human head carved out of butter, a walking catfish, and a game where the winner is chosen by a pooping chicken. But I don’t want to give away any clues to readers who haven’t yet had a chance to read my story, so I’m hesitant to tell you here which details are red herrings and which details are key clues! I’ll just say that some of the red herrings were in place before I wrote a single word of the story, some of them wandered in out of the mysterious depths of my subconscious as I was writing the first few drafts, and others were things I created quite deliberately when I was revising and reached a point where I felt I needed to mislead readers from figuring out the solution too easily.

Since that’s a really vague answer, how about this? After you’ve read the story, feel free to visit the contact page on my website (lisabullard.com) and send me an email with any questions you have about the specific red herrings in my story—I’d be delighted to send you an answer!

Your story is very tense as it approaches its climax. Did you have to re-work your manuscript to achieve this?

Yes, absolutely! The entire story required many rounds of revision, but I received some key advice that really helped me make this section more dramatic and suspenseful. The novel took me about 3 years total to write, but one year in particular was very productive. During that year I took a series of classes from mystery writer Ellen Hart, and got great advice and feedback from her and the other students in the class. One of the things I learned was that you should write in short, choppy sentences when you want to create a scene that feels chaotic and quick-moving. Those short sentences push the reader forward through the story more quickly because they read more quickly. In my first draft, I had included lots of long and meandering sentences, and those had to be broken up or deleted altogether.

No time to think!I had also written a lot of reflective passages in those tense scenes—paragraphs where my character was doing a lot of thinking along the lines of “How did this even happen?” But in real life, when something really high-action and stressful is happening, a person usually doesn’t have time to stop and think too hard—they only have time to react and keep moving. Stopping to figure out exactly where things went wrong comes afterwards. So I went back and took out all of those places where my character was “over-thinking,” and just had him responding to the danger of the moment as best he could.

When you write a mystery, how do you know that it’s mysterious enough?

Wow, that’s another great question. I’m not sure that I know how to answer it exactly, but I’ll do my best! To me, mystery stories are puzzles: as the writer, your job is to hand the reader all the pieces of the puzzle, but to do it in such a way that the puzzle isn’t overly easy to solve. So for example, I’ve never liked mysteries where the answer is something the reader couldn’t possibly have figured out—when there’s some important clue that the author has held back, and then on the last page, the detective says something like, “This letter that was locked in a bank vault until 5 minutes ago proves that the thief was Mr. Villain!” As a reader, I want a fair chance to put together all the puzzle pieces for myself—and if the writer still fools me after playing fair, then good for them!

Clue MapSo when I was writing this mystery, I knew I had to play fair—I had to give the reader all of the important clues. It was okay if I spread out the clues over the whole book. And it was totally okay if I mislead the reader into thinking that some of those clues weren’t as important as they turned out to be in the end! After all, it’s the reader’s job to put the puzzle pieces together to get the right answer—I trust my readers to be smart, so I don’t have to make it TOO easy for them!

As far as the actual writing process, I made a long list of all the clues I knew in advance, and I thought about how I could work them into the story at intervals so there would be clues all throughout. I also built in things that seemed like fake clues to heighten the suspense and to make the puzzle more exciting. Finally, as I was writing, at any point where I felt like the story was slowing down too much, I would ask myself, “What is something really unexpected or surprising that could happen to my character next?”—and that approach provided some additional clues.

I also worked to think of metaphors and setting details that would add a spooky atmosphere to the whole story, and I tried to put my character into situations that seemed dangerous. After all, another big part of mysteries is that they’re more fun if they’re kind of scary!

Do you read mysteries? How old were you when you began reading them? Can you remember some of the first mysteries you read?

Three InvestigatorsI love mysteries! They’re still some of my absolute favorite books, and they’re some of the first books I remember reading. When I was in elementary school, I was lucky enough to be given a huge box full of books that had belonged to either my mom or my older girl cousins when they were younger. The box held a lot of mystery series, some of them pretty old-fashioned but still wonderful. The different series included Judy Bolton, Trixie Belden, Nancy Drew, and the Three Investigators. And some of the first “grown-up” books I ever read were Agatha Christie mysteries and suspense stories by Mary Stewart. As a kid, I loved mystery stories so much that I made up my own mysteries and forced my brother and friends to “play” Three Investigators in our basement—we even wrote secret messages in invisible ink (lemon juice) and then decoded them by holding them over the toaster.

What is there about a mystery that you think appeals to kids?

puzzleIt’s fun to get that little spine-tingly feeling that comes when something is a little bit scary, so that’s part of it. Many mysteries are action-packed and fast-moving (rarely boring), so that’s another part of it. But I think a big reason is that working to put together the puzzle of the story is kind of like a game—and if, as a reader, you manage to figure out the mystery before the story’s detective does, then you also feel pretty darn proud of yourself, and smart!

Can you share with us what you’re working on now? Is it another mystery? (We hope so.)

I’ve written several nonfiction books since Turn Left at the Cow was published, and now I’m wrestling with another mystery. My writing process is pretty slow when it comes to novels (and my life in the last few years has been really complicated)—plus I write a lot of my first draft in my head before any of it actually hits paper—so there isn’t a whole lot actually written down yet. But I can tell you that this story is set in the north woods of Minnesota, and like Turn Left the mystery has to do with a complicated family story and a lot of quirky small-town characters. Including Bigfoot, by the way—now there’s a mystery for you!

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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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Bookstorm™: Turn Left at the Cow

 

Turn Left at the Cow

Turn Left at the CowWho doesn’t love a mystery? Whether your find them intriguing puzzles or can’t-wait-to-know-the-solution page-turners, a good mystery is engrossing and a little tense. Throw in a little humor, a detailed setting, and well-drawn characters and you have a book you can confidently hand to young readers who are already hooked on the genre and those who have yet to become fans.

We are pleased to feature Turn Left at the Cow as our May book selection, written by the expert plotter Lisa Bullard, replete with her characteristic humor.

In each Bookstorm™, we offer a bibliography of books that have close ties to the the featured book. You’ll find books, articles, and videos for a variety of tastes and interests. This month, we’re focusing on books for middle grade readers with mysteries, humor, and bank heists. 

Downloadables

 

 

Don’t miss the exceptional resources on the author’s website. Try your hand at butter carving with “Butter Head Beauties,” engaging science, art, and language arts skills. Re-create the book’s chicken poop bingo with “Chances Are,” calling on math and language arts. Lisa Bullard’s Pinterest page has more great ideas that you’ll find useful as you incorporate this book into your planning.

BOOKSTORM TOPICS

Middle Grade Mysteries. There are amazing books written for this age group. We’ve included a list that would help you select read-alikes or companion books, drawing on titles first printed in 1929 (yes, really) to 2015.

Butter Heads and Other State Fair Strangeness. A butter head is one of the attention-worthy objects in the book. Begin an online research assignment with a few articles about butter heads around the country.

Fish Out of Water. Travis lives in southern California. When he runs away to his grandmother’s cabin in northern Minnesota, it walks and talks like a different world, one that Travis has to learn to navigate if he’s going to solve the mystery.

Missing Parent. Even though Travis left his mother behind with her new husband, Travis is most interested in finding out about his dad, who died before he was born. Books for this age group often revolve around a parent or parents who are not present. We’ve recommended a few of them. 

Robberies and Heists. Travis has trouble believing his father could have robbed a bank but the townspeople seem to think so. We’ve included books that delineate bank or train robberies, some of them true.

Small Town Festivals. One of the most exciting scenes in Turn Left at the Cow takes place in Green Lake, Minnesota’s annual summer festival where chicken poop bingo is a tradition. We’ve found articles about other small town festivals that would make good writing prompts, research projects, or PowerPoint projects.

Mysteries offer a special pleasure to many readers, both children and adults. They provide an excellent opportunity to talk about plot and how that plot is reinforced by intriguing characters (and good writing!).

Let us know how you are making use of this Bookstorm™. Share your ideas and any other books you’d add to this Bookstorm™.

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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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Lisa Bullard: My Not-So-Overnight Success

ShoesEarly on, when people would ask my kid self what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d answer “Shoe Salesperson.” But then I discovered that feet sometimes smell, and I moved on to a different dream: Book Writer.

I could invent a great story and tell you that I crafted a long-term plan to realize my dream. But instead, this is a tale of false starts and misdirected wanderings. Perhaps you’ll find it inspiring if you’ve made missteps on the way to capturing your own dream!

I wrote all the time as a kid—songs, stories, poems, comic strips. But I didn’t believe that anyone would pay me to do something I loved so much. And my first several jobs didn’t serve as models for fulfilling work: babysitter, fast food employee, cardboard box maker, school janitor.

That meant my expectations for the world of work, even after graduating from college, weren’t all that high. With no clear ambition other than “it would be great to get a job that didn’t involve scraping gum off desks”—a key feature of the school janitor job—I moved to Minneapolis, rented a drafty apartment with my cousin, and took on a series of uninspiring temp jobs. I wrote in my spare time, but my efforts went no further than my file cabinet.

Insurance FormsThen one day I arrived home from my position as Forms Clerk (temporary) at an insurance company to find the first heat bill had arrived. It totaled over $800. And the insurance company had just offered me a job. That is the “carefully plotted” career trajectory that resulted in my position as Chief Forms Clerk (permanent)! But despite this meteoric rise, and my willingness to work very hard, I found I didn’t enjoy sorting forms. I started visiting the human resources department for guidance, and a very kind woman took me under her wing. She gave me a barrage of career assessment tests, then looked me in the eyes and said, “Lisa, I don’t think there IS a job in insurance that will make you happy.”

That HR person did me two great services. First, her notion that happiness might be a valid factor in job selection was a revelation to me. And second, she knew of the Denver Publishing Institute—an intensive summer course focusing on book publishing—and she recommended that I consider attending. A few months later I moved on from the world of insurance and attended the Denver program.

CockroachPerhaps the most important thing I learned there is that publishing houses are money-making enterprises. Publishing is a creative industry full of people dedicated to books and the written word, but it’s also a tough business. Very few people get rich off of books. Day after day at the Institute, publishing professionals came in to share the realities of working in the industry, and they’d all conclude by saying, “If you want to work really hard, make almost no money, and live in a roach-infested apartment in New York, this is the field for you!”

I was willing to take on everything other than the roaches. Fortunately I discovered there was a booming publishing industry in Minnesota, so I flew back home and began my sixteen-year career as a publishing employee. I worked with a lot of amazing people, both co-workers and writers, building relationships I still value highly. I reveled in being able to do work I was passionate about, despite the fact that the warning about low pay proved all too true.

Not Enough Beds!Towards the end of those sixteen years, I celebrated a life-changing event: my first book was published. I believe it finally happened partly because I had continued to refine my writing skills, partly because I had learned what makes a book concept salable, and partly because I had built important connections in the industry. I am the opposite of an overnight success: it took me fourteen years working in publishing to get published myself!

Later, with another book in the wings, I decided to shift my focus from publishing employee to writer, and I started officially calling myself a Children’s Book Writer—a job I am proud to have now celebrated through many years and ninety books. I still don’t make very much money. I still work really hard. Sometimes I even get bored. But I love that I’m actually living my dream, and nobody expects me to scrape gum off desks.

I’m thinking that’s not too shabby for a little girl who once dreamed of selling shoes.

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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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Middle Kingdom: Anchorage, Alaska

Nicole RoohiThe books that most delight middle school and junior high readers often straddle a “Middle Kingdom” ranging from upper middle grade to YA. Each month, Bookology columnist Lisa Bullard will visit the Middle Kingdom by viewing it through the eyes of a teacher or librarian. Bookology is delighted to celebrate the work of these educators who have built vital book encampments in the transitional territory of early adolescence.

This journey takes us to Goldenview Middle School in Anchorage, Alaska, where Lisa talks with librarian Nicole Roohi.

Lisa: Nicole, thank you so much for inviting us to make this virtual visit to your school library! Our first question is, what are three to five things our blog readers should know about your community, school, or library/media center?

"Nicole

Nicole: Goldenview Middle School serves 700-800 seventh and eighth graders and is located in Anchorage, Alaska. The Anchorage School District is the most desegregated school district in the country, and because of that we have an incredible diversity in each classroom, in race, language, culture, and socio-economic status. The top three most diverse high schools in the country are in Anchorage, and six of the top seven most diverse middle schools are also here. Although Goldenview is not one of these six, it can’t help but be incredibly diverse as a result of being in this wonderful city.

Lisa: What five books (or series) are checked out most often?

Nicole: Naturally, all the dystopian trilogies are topping our circulation list for the fall, followed by the movie tie-in books, so I’ll concentrate on the next most popular books after these usual suspects. That’s what makes it interesting, isn’t it? Intriguingly, The List by Siobhan Vivian was hands down the biggest single book in circulation this fall. I book talked it to one class, and then word of mouth made it spread like wildfire amongst the seventh graders. A few days later I noticed we had 14 holds on it, so I had to ILL several copies from other schools to fill the demand! The next four top books were Case File 13: Zombie Kid by J. Scott Savage, Ruby Red by Kerstin Gier, Girl, Stolen by April Henry, and Zero Tolerance by Claudia Mills.

Gardenview 5 most circulated books

Lisa: What book(s) do you personally love to place into students’ hands?

Nicole:

  • Graceling (by Kristin Cashore) is a favorite, and is an easy sell 95% of the time.
  • Ashfall (by Mike Mullin) is another easy sell, especially to boys. I like how the character matures.
  • Some years, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind (by William Kamkwamba and Bryan Mealer) is very popular, other years not. This year it is circulating because some girls have read I Will Always Write Back (by Caitlin Alifirenka and Martin Ganda with Liz Welch), or I Am Malala (by Malala Yousafzai with Christina Lamb) and want something similar, so I put this in their hands.
  • The Thief (by Megan Whalen Turner) and The Raven Boys (by Maggie Stiefvater) are two of my favorite fantasies but are harder to sell. Generally girls who love fantasy and romance will take them, and they come back gushing and tell their friends about them.
  • We have a sizeable Native population here, so The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian (by Sherman Alexie) is always popular; it’s one of my favorites and is one I love to show kids.
  • Whale Talk (by Chris Crutcher) and Slam (by Nick Hornby) appeal to boys once I point them out to them.
  • Finally, The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks and even the Ruby Oliver series (all by E. Lockhart) are ones I love to give out because they are, as my daughter calls them, subversive chick-lit. The girls get hooked on the romance and drama, but they are quite empowering too. Probably The Disreputable History is too empowering as the girls hate that Frankie loses her boyfriend in the end. I’m guessing high schoolers are much less disturbed by this ending.

Gardenview Booktalks

Lisa: If you had a new staffer starting tomorrow, what piece of advice would you be sure to give them?

Nicole: Whenever I get a new library assistant, I tell them our first priority is service. Also, you have to love kids and books. If you do, then this is the best job in the school. What could be better than helping students and staff every day? We make their lives better and easier and more fun! The best thing about this job is personally delivering a book on hold to a student’s classroom and seeing the excited smile on their face.

Lisa: What do you like most about working with middle-schoolers?

Nicole: This age group is still young enough that they read all the time and homework doesn’t interfere too much, so we still work with books a lot. But they are finally old enough that they are thinking about the world around them and are trying to figure out what their place is in it and how they can make a difference. So we get to talk about how to make the world a better place and I can help them find resources for that too.

Reading in the library

Lisa: Could you share some information about your most popular, successful, innovative program for promoting books and reading to middle schoolers?

King of the Mild FrontierNicole: There are lots of ways we promote reading here. We just finished the Amazing Race, which is a district-wide reading competition among six of our middle schools. Last year several of the secondary librarians decided to genrefy our fiction sections to increase reading, and one of the things we did with that was to take our Amazing Race competition and turn it into a way to encourage our students to read in all seven genres. This year with all our students reading together, Goldenview read 3,268 hours in just 28 days! That is twice as much as we did last year.

We also have video announcements every morning, and I have been doing occasional recorded book talks for many years. However, last year we got a fantastic new announcements teacher, and we’ve worked together to improve the book talks. We now have Book Talk Tuesday every week, and the kids greatly look forward to it. They often sing the book talk jingle to me when I pass them in the hall.

Finally, I have for years created, curated, and updated a series of book pamphlets on different topics in our library. I have these on our circulation desk and students take these every day to help them find books of interest. Of course now that we’ve genrefied our fiction section, that helps them too!

Lisa: What do you want your students to remember about your library in ten years?

Nicole: In ten years I hope that my students still love to read. And I want them to see reading as a pathway to continue their education and growth for the rest of their lives. I very much would like to have them be strong public library users and supporters.

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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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