Tag Archives | Writing
The way we talk can be a dead giveaway that we’re from elsewhere.
Google the phrase “pop vs. soda,” and you’ll ﬁnd color-coded maps that divide the country like election night results. Test this research on the road and you’ll discover that there are haters out there who scorn the term “pop” when unsuspecting out-of-towners (like me) order ﬁzzy beverages.
If you are a “pop” person in a particularly fragile state of mind, you might even be tempted to avoid ridicule by downloading one of the maps and adjusting your word choice based on the region you’re traveling through.
Most likely few of us will decide to take this extreme measure. But the truth is, we do choose our words differently, depending on who we’re talking to. If I’m going to tell someone the story of my terrible weekend, it’s going to be edited differently if I’m describing it to my mother or my best friend or my pastor.
Which leads to a fun way to help young writers learn something about the nuances of dialogue. At some point while your students are working on a story, ask them to write three scenes that draw on their story. Each scene should be a dialogue-heavy exchange that involves the main character talking with one other person about the conﬂict that the main character is facing.
But in each of the three scenes, the person that the main character is speaking to will change. First, it will be a parent, teacher, or some kind of authority ﬁgure. Then, it will be their best friend or someone they trust. Finally, it will be someone they don’t like—a sworn enemy, or someone they perceive to be a rival.
Depending on the age of your young writers, you might have to give them additional help with this activity. But the goal is for them to recognize that people choose what they say—and what they leave unsaid—in part based on the identity of their listener.
Just like a “pop” person might choose to masquerade as a “soda” person when they really want to ﬁt in with the locals.
As an elementary school kid, my most vivid recurrent dream featured a road trip.
In it, I’m in the driver’s seat, although it’s the car that’s in control. My two-years-younger brother and our two best neighborhood friends are also along for the ride. We are on a straight stretch of the two-lane highway that leads out of town, our headlights piercing the otherwise intense darkness. The beams snag on the hungry arms of the craggy pines that crowd along the edge of the road. The grasping trees try to pull us back, but they never catch us; instead, the car just keeps barreling ahead, faster and faster down the highway.
I always woke up before we reached a destination, feeling puffed up with expectation, as if the wind whipping through the open windows of the vehicle had inﬂated me in anticipation of whatever waited for us at the end of that nighttime ride.
I dreamt this often enough that I can still recapture the feeling of it, immersing myself again in the emotions of a
time when it was starting to seem like each year, my own sturdy little vehicle was picking up speed as it raced towards an unknown place called “being a grown up.”
One of my best writing prompts for young writers taps into the power of the much-anticipated state of adulthood, that accomplishment that kids covet or fear, sometimes in equal measure. Even better, the prompt works well for a wide range of students: those who are barely through the opening paragraphs of their lives, and those who are a few chapters further along into life’s story.
Ask your students to write for a few minutes about where they hope to be in ten or ﬁfteen years (or whatever number will have them just entering their early twenties). What do they want their lives to look like? Who do they want to be sharing their time with? What ambitions do they hope to be working towards at that point?
Writing can help them tap into that place deep inside where our subconscious keeps its secrets, the place where it hides both our dreams and our futures.
For this interview, we visit with Debby Dahl Edwardson, author of the National Book Award finalist My Name is Not Easy and co-founder of the LoonSong Writers’ Retreat.
Which celebrity, living or not, do you wish would invite you to a coffee shop?
Anne Lamott. I feel like I already know her so well though her books that I would actually feel comfortable with this kind of meeting, which is a bit out of my comfort zone, for sure. Lamott seems like the kind of person you could talk to about anything—from your struggles with spirituality to your awful first draft—and she’d emphasize, having just dealt with these same issues like yesterday morning or in the middle of the night last week.
Most cherished childhood memory?
Getting lost in books. When I was 12 years old, my godmother gave me a book for Christmas. It was a book that had won the Newbery award that year and it captivated me. Clichés aside, I was pulled immediately into the dark and stormy night with which the book opened and I found myself instantly inside that little attic bedroom where Meg Murry was just beginning to awaken to the series of strange and wonderful events. I remained immersed in that book for several days. I reread it immediately upon finishing it. I simply did not want to leave that world. I am talking, of course, about A Wrinkle in Time, by Madeline L’Engle. Entering new worlds through the world of books are among my most cherished childhood memories.
Favorite season of the year? Why?
Fall. It’s always been my favorite. I love the colors and the smells of fall everywhere, even here in Alaska, where I live on the treeless tundra. I love the way the tundra turns russet and the air tingles with the promise of snow. I remember, as a child in northern Minnesota, watching the sky darken with geese calling out their raucous calls, headed south. And now that I am in the fall of my life, I love that, too!
What’s your dream vacation?
I have about a hundred dream vacations. Most of them involve ocean beaches because I love the ocean and I love to swim. But one non-beach place I’d love to visit and spend time in is northern New Mexico, the region where Georgia O’Keeffe lived and painted. I have a picture of hers in my writing room. It’s one you’ve never seen: a single blue trail leading up into pastel blue and ginger mountains. I want to go there. I love adobe, too, the way the red houses seem to grow from the red earth—and there’s a hot spring there, too: Ojo Caliente. I love hot springs. Above that picture of O’Keeffe’s painting in my writing room is a photograph of her with the words that have pretty much become my writing motto: “It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough I could have it.” I am attracted to landscapes that hold that kind of power.
Your hope for the world?
That people will learn true empathy and develop, from a young age, the ability to see the world through multiple lenses. I think many of the problems we face in the world come from an increasing tendency to see the world monolithically. This kind of inflexibility is extremely dangerous in pretty much every way you can imagine. One of my favorite quotes is this one, from Wade Davis: “Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you: they are unique manifestations of the human spirit. The world in which you were born is just one model of reality.” We will not begin to find true solutions to our deepest problems until we develop the ability to see multiple ways of configuring reality.”
Betsy Bowen’s book, Antler Bear Canoe: a Northwoods Alphabet, has been a favorite alphabet book for the last 25 years, reminding every reader about the things they love in their unique environment.
Now, a counting book will sit alluringly on the bookshelf next to that title. One North Star: a Counting Book (University of Minnesota Press) has been written by Phyllis Root, and illustrated with woodcuts by Betsy Bowen and Beckie Prange. We’re so taken with the book that we asked to interview the inspiring team who created it.
PHYLLIS ROOT, writer
Which came first, the idea for the illustrations or the idea for the text? They’re both filled with so much wonder and imagination.
The text came first. The book began when an editor at University of Minnesota Press was interested in a counting book, and we decided on one about the flora and fauna and habitats in Minnesota. Ever since I moved to Minnesota years ago I’ve been fascinated with the variety of places, plants, and animals in the state along with all the still-wild places, so the book was great fun (and, as it turned out, a great challenge). When in my research I learned that the Minnesota motto is l’Etoile du nord, the star of the north, the structure of the book took shape.
This is a cumulative tale in that we count numbers, beginning at one, “one north star,” and add other north woods creatures or geology or flora until we’re counting backwards from ten. Unlike many cumulative tales (think A Partridge in a Pear Tree), the words aren’t repeated each time, except for “under one north star.” How were you able to include such a variety?
Lots and lots and lots of research and lots and lots and lots of writing and rewriting. One of the challenges was figuring out what lived where at what time of year and what number you might see. You probably wouldn’t see ten moose together, for example, and even if you did, I couldn’t imagine them all squeezing them into a picture along with nine of something, eight of something, etc.
How did you go about organizing this book? Choosing which flora and fauna you would include?
First was the research. I learned so much reading about all the habitats and what you might see there and visiting places to see for myself. (I’d never been to the bog, for example, and fell in love with the Big Bog when I did visit—enough to write a book just about the bog.) Once I had an abundance of information, I began fitting the plants and animals into numbers and also into seasons so that the book followed through the year. So it made sense that in winter you’d have fewer plants and animals available, while later in summer you’d have many different ones to choose from. Also, I tried to include fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds, and mammals along with flowers, trees, and fungi. I wanted the book to be as inclusive as possible. The whole book became a puzzle to figure out. And when I had a draft I checked with a naturalist friend and found out just how much I had gotten wrong (a lot) and had to reorganize again—and again.
How did you work on your active verbs and your adjectives to get them to be so evocative of the sights, sounds, and smells of the North Woods?
I decided that, just to make the book a little more challenging (what was I thinking?) that I would try to never use a verb more than once, and I wanted each verb to be as strong and evocative as possible, to work as hard as it could so that the book would be fun to read as well.
When you were doing your research, did you discover that any of the animals or plants would not be grouped in the numbers you wrote?
Plenty of times. More times than I can count.
Were there any descriptions that the illustrators asked you to change because they would be too hard to depict?
There were descriptions I was asked to change because they were incorrect, for which I’m very grateful. I learned a lot about phenology from Beckie, what you might see at the same time in the same place, and I learned even more from my naturalist friends. I’m awestruck and delighted at how the artists solved the problem of fitting so many images on the later pages of the book. I counted up roughly 220 images depicting 55 different species in the book itself. The artwork and the artists are beyond amazing.
You have extensive back matter, divided by the type of ecosystem, such as Aspen Prairie Parkland and Bog, with descriptions of each living creature or plant you’ve included in the text of One North Star. Did you have a set of criteria so you could be succinct with those short paragraphs?
Just trying to write sparely, something picture book writers are always struggling to do. I also tried to focus on what was the essential or most interesting feature about a place or a species, such as northern prairie skinks being able to break off their tails to escape capture.
What do you find most satisfying about adding One North Star to your deep list of books?
I love how beautiful the artists have made the book, and I’m very glad to have a book that celebrates Minnesota’s rich natural diversity. I hope the book will make folks want to go out and see these places for themselves.
BECKIE PRANGE, illustrator and woodcut artist
How were you asked to work on One North Star? Why did you agree?
I was approached by a former UMN Press editor and was excited about Phyllis’ concept for One North Star, and its scope.
When you work on a book like this, how much planning goes into the illustrations before you begin to make your woodcuts?
The amount of planning and research is massive. The former editor wanted the illustrations to be realistic scenes, which meant finding a way to fit all of the species into an image of what you could possibly see from a particular viewpoint in nature.
For this book, there were two of you contributing woodcut illustrations. I know that you have been teacher and student in the past. Did that help when you worked on this book together?
Due to the quirks and timing of life events I was unable to finish the illustration work on One North Star. There was a gap in the progress on the book after I had completed most of the work on the draft illustrations. By the time we could get started again, I had a full time position in a field I’m excited about and found that I was unable to continue as illustrator. I’m very thankful that Betsy was able to pick up so skillfully where I left off.
How did you work together to make the illustrations a cohesive whole?
All I can say here is that Betsy is totally awesome, and did a beautiful job with the final illustrations without any help from me.
Was it challenging to compose the chock-full, two-page spreads that included many critters? How did you make decisions about where to place everything in the illustration?
Creating single scenes from one viewpoint which included all of the organisms Phyllis wrote about, while being faithful to those organisms’ habits and habitats was incredibly challenging. It was especially tough with the higher numbers, but there were challenges with lower numbers too. For example, how do you put a nocturnal creature and a diurnal creature in the same scene and have it look at least marginally believable? Little brown bats and rough-legged hawks just don’t hang out in the same space and time. I just had to play with it, and let it go until something came to me.
Have you worked on projects before with this many different objects included?
No! Nowhere close.
Which two-page spread in the book gives you the most satisfaction?
I love all of them, but the one that makes me happiest right now is number three, with the black bears, grouse and lynx. When I was drawing that one, I struggled with it. I could not get it to feel right. The perspective was bothering me. I never did solve it to my satisfaction. Betsy translated what is basically the same layout into an image that really works. It looks perfect.
A big thanks to all three of you for sharing the way you worked on this book that all who are fond of the north woods will cherish.
BETSY BOWEN, illustrator and woodcut artist
How were you asked to work on One North Star? Why did you agree?
This is my third book with Phyllis, and I really enjoy her lyrical and informative language. I also like working with University of Minnesota Press.
When you work on a book like this, how much planning goes into the illustrations before you begin to make your woodcuts?
In this case, Beckie had made the layouts in pencil and watercolor for the number pages. I joined the project later on, and so I used her designs. I added ideas for the parts before and after the number section. And then I made the final version of the art. Planning and sketching is a big part of the work (and the fun!).
Was it challenging to compose the chock-full, two-page spreads that included many critters? How did you make decisions about where to place everything in the illustration?
This was Beckie’s doing, I think it must have been tricky.
Illustrators often use photographs to plan their composition or get the details right. Is it the same when you’re carving wood?
I like to look at photos to help inform the drawing, and study the way animals and plants really look. That is if I can’t get the moose to stand still long enough …
How long does it take to create a woodcut for one two-page spread?
The carving took me a few days for each spread.
Do you make mistakes? Do you have to start over with a fresh block of wood?
Most mistakes I can fix with either Elmer’s Glue® or a Band-aid®. Rarely I do start over with a new carving. I try to shake out the questions in the drawing/design phase before starting the longer process of carving and printing. It’s not very easy to just move something over ”just a little” once the whole picture is made.
Have you worked on projects before with this many different objects included?
These were detailed pages! I think all more intricate than I have done before.
Which two-page spread in the book gives you the most satisfaction?
The Seven page, viewing from underwater, was tricky for me. I would try to see how the light came through water while I was swimming at the local pool. I really liked the result more than I expected.
It’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.
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.
I 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.
When 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.
Steve and I returned earlier this week from Montpelier, Vermont, where we spoke at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, specifically to the alumni of their Writing for Children and Young Adults MFA program. We were there to talk about “Marketing as Storytelling,” with the goal of making these typically introverted writers feel more comfortable about touting their books. Marketing is all part of the business of writing, especially in these times when the social media cacophony makes it harder to be heard.
We’ve heard about this program at VCFA for years. A number of our colleagues are faculty members and a number of our clients have graduated from this college. Did it live up to the many laudatory statements we’ve listened to? The graduates speak about the school as though these are hallowed halls. What is it that creates their reaction?
On our drive back to Boston to take the plane home, Steve and I talked about this. We overheard the faculty and staff referring to themselves as Brigadoon throughout the three days we were there. Are you familiar with that legend? The city in Scotland that appears for only one day every one hundred years? A step outside of time? A haven for good and talented people?
Set among the verdant hills of Vermont, the College’s buildings are arranged around a green grass plaza, a place where dogs catch Frisbees and fountains burble and trees shade students who are writing, reading, and conversing.
Students in the WCYA program are enrolled in a low-residency program, meaning that they work in their homes and come together twice a year on the campus to listen to and work directly with faculty and visiting speakers. They get to know the other students in their class, all of whom are working toward the common goal of having sustainable publishing careers. They spend ten days together in the summer and ten days in the winter (another popular time in skiable Vermont) and then they fade away to their own homes, inspired once again to work intently on improving their writing and storytelling techniques.
Brigadoon? Yes. The spell fell upon us, too. What a charming place to learn your craft, to strive toward being the best writer you can be. We look forward to great books from the men and women we met during our brief sojourn. We’re confident we’ll be reading them soon.
If 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.
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.
Lots of people ask me for advice on writing.
That’s a hard one to answer. Writing is personal, and it’s different for everyone.
But people are curious about my process, the daily practice of my craft.
They think that hearing about my process might help them in their own work.
Maybe it will. At any rate, it is a question I can answer.
This column, Page Break, is my answer to that question. Welcome to my world.
The other day, a public librarian asked on social media for graphic novel recommendations for readers aged 6 to 12. I immediately recommended the Adventures in Cartooning series by James Sturm, Andrew Arnold, and Alexis Frederick-Frost.
The first book was Adventures in Cartooning: How to Turn Your Doodles into Comics, introducing us to The Knight, Edward the chubby horse, and the Magic Cartooning Elf. With humor and breathless storytelling, this story captures both attention and imagination. I cannot envision a reader who wouldn’t want to pull out a pencil and give cartooning a try.
Since then, there have been three more Adventures in Cartooning story/how-to books and four picture books featuring the beloved characters.
The book I’ve fallen in love with now is Adventures in Cartooning: Characters in Action, first published in 2013. An affordable paperback, this is a stealthy way to buy an activity book that also encourages storytelling, writing, spatial thinking, and math (yes, math, while figuring out how to lay out the story).
These books are clever because they tell a story while showing how to write a story. And the story is good, not didactic.
In this volume, many characters are introduced as a way of showing how you can make different characters out of a few shapes and how you describe a character with a minimum of words, clothing, facial expressions, and placement on the page. And they all move the story forward! With each page turn, something unpredictable happens—that’s great storytelling. I admire the authors’ skillfulness.
Reading these books as an adult cracks me up. The jokes are clever, but they’re layered—and they, too, move the story forward, so they also teach while tickling the reader’s funny bone.
Summer’s nearly here. Are you gearing up with things to do? Buy the series of Adventures in Cartooning books and pull them out of your boredom-reliever bag at opportune times. They’re a can’t miss for any kids who like to tell stories and draw.
As writers, we learn to expect the unexpected and be ready to capture experiences in words. One such moment stands out from this past winter for me.
My husband and I were sleeping in our cabin loft, on 60 acres where we keep our horses. I woke at 3 am to crunching snow below our window. I sat upright, wondering what sort of late night intruder it could be. An escaped convict heading north to Canada? Our three horses? Had they escaped from their pasture? No. We had tucked them in the barn in warm stalls due to 30 below temps outside that night. That left a moose. Or two. The crunching of snow continued. I crept to my window and gazed down at the entry steps.
Three dark rumps of … horses! But they couldn’t be ours. I woke my husband. We threw on boots, jackets, hats and gloves. The moment we stepped outside, we caught the sight of not three, but seven horses as they trotted off through the woods under a star-sprinkled sky. The air, deep cold, turned the sound of hoofbeats into drumbeats as the herd trotted off down the county road.
Now what? We couldn’t let horses disappear into the night without trying to rescue them. We’d woken more than once to the blood-chilling howls of a wolf pack. Other times the shrieking cries of coyotes. Riskier still was for the horses to continue down the county road, which joined up eventually with a busier highway. The horses, we started piecing together, must have escaped from our friends’ ranch in the other direction.
From our barn we hastily gathered halters, lead ropes, and a bucket of sweet-feed: a mixture of oats, corn, and molasses. In our Ram pickup, we set off. A mile and a half later, our headlights caught the startled eyes of horses to either side of the road. Charlie slowed to a stop.
I hopped out, sat on the metal tailgate, and shook the bucket of oats. Whoosh, whoosh, whoosh. The horses ears pivoted toward the sound and they nickered. Though skittish in the truck’s white beam, the horses zeroed in on the bucket. “Go!” I called, knowing that one bucket and seven horses could turn dangerous.
Charlie turned the truck back toward our barn and paddock, all seven horses trotting along, jostling to get closer to the bucket. A tailgate in 30 below zero is dangerously cold without long underwear or snow pants. I’d dressed in a hurry. Now I worried my skin would freeze through my jeans to the metal. Orion and the Milky Way looked down as we turned into our driveway toward our barn.
I hopped off the tailgate, hurrying with the bucket toward the red metal gate and unlocked it. Gate wide, I scattered oats on the snow-covered ground and dashed out of the way. The horses squealed and whinnied, circled and kicked in competition for the grain. When the last horse entered, I shut the gate, then I threw them extra hay bales from the hay shed.
Horses with heavy winter coats do survive cold, as long as they have plenty of feed. Without a wind, the horses would be safe until morning. We left a message on the answering machine of our neighbors, who would wake up to an empty pasture and come retrieve their horses. Satisfied with our good deed, we returned to the warmth of our bed, feeling like true wranglers.
That night’s rescue still feels like an unexpected dream. Fortunately, when we awoke to runaway horses we were prepared with oats, equipment, and a place to contain them. To our relief, in this harsh northern landscape, it all ended well.
As writers, we need to be equally prepared to capture unexpected ideas. We need to lasso them with pen and notebook paper, napkin, or grocery bag—whatever’s on hand. Lure them in with a quick note on an iPhone. Sit down at a laptop or computer and start typing. We need to take swift action and capture unexpected ideas when they pass our way. Or risk losing them forever..
When 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.
My 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!
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.”
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.
I once believed nothing was harder than writing a picture book. Writing picture books is a cakewalk compared to beginning readers. Kids don’t have to read picture books, just enjoy them. Beginning, or leveled readers, are designed for newly-independent readers who have graduated from phonics texts. Levels vary according to publishers, but usually include an early level for pre-readers and/or kindergarteners.
When I wrote I Like Shoes (2005) for Scholastic’s Rookie Reader series, I wasn’t even sure the 44-word rhyming text was a book. It didn’t have much of a story.
The preschool to kindergarten readers have very short texts and are splashed with cheerful illustrations. They look easy to write. Fun, even! I’ve written three Level 1 (Ready-to-Read) books for the Step into Reading imprint of Random House. I’d love to brag I dash these fripperies off in a day or so, but my orange notebook would be quick to report the fib.
My battered orange spiral notebook is used exclusively for writing level 1 readers. It’s battered because I drag it everywhere. Sometimes I throw it across the room in a fit of frustration. The orange notebook knows I will pick it up with a sigh and go back to the difficult lines I was struggling with.
At the front of this notebook is a typed version of, at least in my opinion, the Moby Dick of leveled readers. Harriet Ziefert’s Sleepy Dog was first published in 1984 and is still a strong seller. The short charming text about a dog-child going to bed is deceptively simple.
My first Level 1 ideas were rejected for being too sophisticated, such as the canine etiquette guide written by fleas. Gradually I understood this audience needs stories about their world.
I finally got it right with Pumpkin Day (2015). The story, about a pumpkin-picking family, employs rhyme and rhythm. Unlike I Like Shoes, Pumpkin Day has a narrative arc. The 113 words were carefully chosen and discarded, revised and reworked, page after scribbled page, as evidenced in the orange notebook.
Level 1 books teem with action. Illustrations match the narrative. If the reader has trouble decoding the text, the art provides necessary cues. Apple Picking Day (2016) will follow Pumpkin Day. Same family on a different fall adventure. This story was even harder because there was no story. After you’ve picked pumpkins, what surprises await picking apples? Plus I had to use the same rhyme and rhythm scheme as in Pumpkin Day.
No metaphors, my editor warned. And no contractions. While I wasn’t given a word list, I had to rely on common sense. The stanza “Over mountains/cross a bridge/apple orchard/on the ridge” contained “mountains,” “bridge,” and “ridge.” I loved the image of the family’s little yellow car motoring through the countryside, but the stanza had to be changed. The published version (after many scratch-outs in the orange notebook) reads, “Over hill tops,/big and small./I see apples./Hello, fall!”
Simple wins every time.
For Tooth Fairy Night (2017), I applied a guide of sight words for kindergartners. Draft pages in the orange notebook are littered with tiny marginal lists of one-syllable end rhymes, like stay, away, day, play. Words that seem ridiculously easy to us give the youngest readers pleasure and satisfaction.
I actually love writing these little stories. The orange notebook often sits on the kitchen counter while I fix dinner or wash dishes. I’ll mutter lines or try out rhymes while soaping the same plate over and over. If I’m riding in the car, my trusty notebook rests on my lap like a puppy.
Sometimes I long to be asked to write a Level 2. Bigger word list! More syllables! Yet I picture a brand-new reader picking up one of my Level 1 books and happily sounding out those hundred or so words to the very end. The orange notebook and I toast (ink for the notebook, iced tea for me) another reader’s success.
They say that, if you’re a doctor, it’s not something you want to admit to at an event where you’re going to have to make small talk with a lot of strangers. Because invariably people will want your opinion on their rash, or the funny flutter in their chest, or the odd bump on their knee. I wouldn’t know, not being a doctor, but I understand feeling cautious about admitting what I do for a living. Because there are apparently a lot of people who have always wanted to be a children’s author, and most of them have a great idea for a book. Or so they tell me.
The general feeling seems to be that anyone can write a children’s book. They’re so short! And everyone’s been a kid, right? So everyone can write from experience!
It’s all quite true. But while anyone can write a children’s book, more to the point, will anyone want to read it? Learning to write something that children actually want to read (and publishers want to publish) is slightly more tricky than just putting down childhood memories.
For one thing, childhood memories won’t cut it. You can’t just remember. You have to become the child you were; you have to open the door to that inner room where that child still resides, and allow the emotion to hit you in the face. It is a task that requires some bravery. After that, of course, you must call into play all your adult skill to craft a plot and develop your characters—but first, and above all, you have to access the emotion.
If you are one of those people who has always wanted to write for children, you may be wondering how this is done. There are a lot of ways, but I am going to tell you one exercise that is very good. Be careful, though—you may just open the floodgates.
Here is the exercise:
- Think back to the house you lived in as a child. If you lived in more than one, pick one. If you are not sure which to pick, choose the one you remember best.
- Pick one floor of that house.
- Draw a floor plan of that floor, in that house, that you lived in as a child.
- Pick a spot somewhere on the floor plan, and mark it with an X.
- A memory will come to you of something that happened in that space.
- Allow yourself to smell the smells, see the colors, feel the textures of this memory that happened in this room. Allow yourself to feel what you felt then.
- Write about this feeling.
Of course you can use this method with your school, your neighborhood, the grocery store from your childhood—but once I became adept at slipping into my child mind, I found that I could use this in wholly made-up worlds as well. If I became stuck at a certain point in a story, for example, I would visualize the spot my character was in, put myself in the place of my character, and experience the sensory details around me just as if it were my own childhood I was re-experiencing. And then I would wait to see what happened next. I would go through a door, or I would open a book, or I would bend down to look at something on the floor. Always, some detail or the other would make itself known to me, and I would pay attention to it. Once I paid attention to the detail, the emotion would follow—and the story would move forward.
I wish I could give credit to the proper person for this exercise, but I honestly can’t remember where I heard it. If any of you do this exercise, I would be interested to hear what happened, though. Did it work for you?
by Vicki Palmquist
Looking for hours of fun with a book the whole family can enjoy … or one person can easily study to learn to write or tell a story … better? Then you’ll want to give this a try: How to Tell a Story, written by Daniel Nayeri, illustrated by Brian Won, and published by Workman Publishing in 2015.
This book comes in a box. Inside the box there’s a small-format book (5-1/4” x 5-1/4”, 143 pages) with lots of illustrations and visual cues to help understand the many ways telling a story can be not only fun but interesting and challenging.
To help you “get ideas,” which kids often feel is the toughest part of writing or storytelling, there are 20 cubes. Each face of the cube contains a character, object, place, adjective (description or emotion), action, or relationship. They’re color-coded so you can set particular parameters for your “game play” or the challenge you’ve made for yourself.
With chapters on conflict, motivation, dialogue, character, plot, and theme, the basics of storytelling are packed into this guide.
The author has included a number of games that can be played with two, up to 20, blocks. For instance, in “Debate,” we’ll roll 10 blocks. We’ll choose two blue blocks and one red block. Nayeri writes, “Oh, no! There’s a deadly storm on the horizon and Captain Lark has to decide what to do with a ship full of precious (blue block), the crew of (red block), and the magical (other blue block), which can only be used to save one person or thing. What should Captain Lark save first? Why? Come up with enough stories to argue for saving either the precious (blue block), the crew of (red block), or himself.” My fingers are itching to roll the blocks, aren’t yours?
The blocks can be used in simple ways with young children or they can be engrossing for adults. The author is very instructive in the text:
“As our storyteller, if you start in the middle, then you’re going to have to introduce us to the important bits of the backstory as they become necessary.
“The ancient Roman poet Horace called this method IN MEDIA RES, which means “in the middle of things.” He recommended telling stories this way so you can jump straight into the action and fill out the details as you go.”
The illustrations by Brian Won are appealing to children, teens, and adults. They’re the same style as those used on the blocks (and often the same images) so we feel a connection. They’re descriptive enough so that our brains begin making stories out of them immediately, but not so reductive that they only convey one possibility.
That’s the beauty of this set of story starters. There’s a myriad of ways to use them, to learn from them, to play games with them, and to have fun. This is a perfect gift for the storytellers in your family.
by Lisa Bullard
The drivers are only completely happy when they have control of the steering wheel. But, on every trip, there comes a point where they tire out and lose their concentration. Then it’s necessary to shift drivers. Even a short break can bring the original driver back to peak driving ability.
This is true of a writing road trip as well. At some point, we tire out and lose our concentration. When my students have been focusing on a longer writing session, I’ve discovered that temporarily “shifting drivers” works as a quick and effective break.
Here’s how it works. Ask students to shift their writing utensil to their non-dominant hand, and to try writing two or three sentences with that hand. Sometimes I use the board to model the “crazy ax murderer” results that my left hand produces when I shift drivers this way.
This gives students a chance to shake out their dominant hand, which has likely grown tired of gripping a pencil. It provides students a chance for a quick laugh over their attempts to write with their non-dominant hand. And I’ve read information that suggests that shifting hands this way re-engages the other side of our brain, which enlivens the writing process.
So when you’ve assigned a longer writing project, remember to follow the road signs in today’s photo at some point: First, STOP. Then, TAKE TURNS. It’s a little trick to bring your students back to peak writing ability.
For this week’s writing road trip, I journeyed to the Alphabet Forest. For those who haven’t had the pleasure of visiting, the Alphabet Forest is the remarkable creation of author/illustrator/innovator Debra Frasier, who through pure passion and persistence, managed to carve out an oasis for words in the midst of the consumable craziness that is the Minnesota State Fair.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the State Fair. I just don’t think of it as a place to sit quietly and muse deeply. And yet, Debra’s love of fair lettering started her on a journey that led to creating this enchanted place: in the midst of sunburn, sore feet, and stomach aches, here is a corner where there’s shade and plenty of places to sit down and people who offer you fun for free. But better yet, there are words enough to stuff your imagination even more than those mini donuts have already stuffed your stomach.
Last year, I watched as my niece ignored every other fair offering (okay, with the exception of that giant brownie) as she obsessively filled out her Fabulous Fair Alphabet Game Card. This year, I had the pleasure of serving as author-in-residence at the Alphabet Forest for a day. I worked with oodles of kids who settled in at my table and promptly became utterly absorbed in writing or drawing. It didn’t matter that the parade was passing them by (literally!) and that there were still corndogs and cotton candy to be eaten: when given the option, their number one priority was to lose themselves in the creative act.
It reminded me, all over again, why I do what I do: giving kids the gift of words and story is like handing them the magic key to life. Even kids who think they hate reading and writing can be won over easily once you find the right key for them. A forest full of words can beat a clutch of corndogs any day.
If you’re near Minnesota, and you’re going to the fair, you can be inspired with ideas for how to create an Alphabet Forest in your own classroom or dining room. If not, there are a myriad of amazing downloadable resources to help you, starting at this link and moving on from there to Debra Frasier’s website.
You’ll be mighty glad you made the journey.
In Absolutely Truly, my new middle grade mystery set in a bookshop in the fictional town of Pumpkin Falls, New Hampshire, a first edition of Charlotte’s Web goes missing. There’s a reason this particular book features so prominently in the story—it’s a nod to my literary hero, E. B. White.
E.B. White and I go way back. He’s one of the reasons I became a writer, thanks to Charlotte’s Web, which was one of my all-time favorites as a young reader (it still is). It tops a short list of what I consider perfect novels—a list that includes Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, among a handful of others.
The year I turned 12 and declared my intention of becoming an author, my dad slipped a copy of Elements of Style into my Christmas stocking. It was an inspired present, as the book on writing and grammar that Mr. White co-wrote with William Strunk, Jr., made me feel both validated and grown-up. I displayed it prominently on my desk, and if I read it with more enthusiasm than comprehension, at least I felt very sophisticated as I did so. Later, in college, I would discover White’s collected letters and essays, which helped inspire my early career as a journalist.
Of all the gifts that E. B. White has given me, though, the one I treasure most are his characters. I can’t even imagine a world without Charlotte and Wilbur, or without Fern Arable, and Lurvy, and Templeton the rat. Memorable characters such as these are what make for memorable stories. Sure, setting is important, research is important, and a story without a plot is a hot mess (anybody sat through Waiting for Godot recently?), but for me, memorable characters are the main course, the engine that drives the train, the beating heart of a book.
Characters like Charlotte and Wilbur don’t just spring full-blown onto the page like Athena from the head of Zeus, however. Writing is a deliberate act. It is artifice; it is craft; it is intentional. While the concept for a character may come to a writer in a flash, the construction of that character is the result of much effort and care.
So how does a writer go about creating characters that walk off the page and straight into a reader’s heart?
It comes down to something I call “borrowed fire.”
There are other tools writers employ in creating characters, of course—tools such as description, dialogue, and voice. But all of these ingredients would be nothing without borrowed fire. Without this elemental flame, characters remain as lifeless and cold as the paper on which they’re printed.
I live in the Pacific Northwest, just a few miles from the end of the Oregon Trail. While reading about the early settlers at one point, I learned just how crucial fire was to survival. The pioneers depended on it for warmth, for cooking, for light, and for cheer. If a campfire or cook stove went out in a log cabin or along the wagon train, someone would be rapidly dispatched to a neighbor’s with a lidded pan to “borrow fire”—a few embers or coals with which to rekindle their own.
In writing, we, too, need fire. We need the blaze of emotion to light up our stories and stir our readers, igniting in them a sympathetic response.
But from whom do we borrow this fire?
From ourselves. From our own lives, our own experiences. Robert Frost once said, “No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader.” Writers have to be willing to dig deep. I’m not talking about spilling dark secrets onto the page. I’m talking about tapping into your own unique well of emotional experience and sharing it with your reader. We all know what it’s like to be anxious about something, to be envious or fearful or alight with happiness or crazy in love. Investing our characters with these emotional truths creates the point of connection. That’s the moment at which a character walks off the page and into a reader’s heart.
E.B. White was never an eight-year-old girl named Fern. He was never a worried piglet or a literate spider or a scheming rat with a soft underbelly of kindness. But he knew about friendship, and love, and loss, and he borrowed those embers from his own life to kindle his characters, and the light and warmth they radiate have touched the hearts of readers down the years.
Borrowed fire is where the magic happens in a story. It’s by the light of this fire that memorable characters are made.
There has been a lot written about the bravery of cows (no, there hasn’t). Some of it has startled us with the sheer audacity of amazing feats of derring-do of which cows are capable (News at 10!). Young children everywhere are pinning up cow posters on their bedroom walls, hoping to one day be as […]
Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table written by Jacqueline Briggs Martin illustrated by Eric-Shabazz Larkin afterword by Will Allen Readers to Eaters, 2013 Introduction My second passion in life after books and reading is sustainable agriculture and organic farming. There are a few good books for children on this topic, but I’m always delighted […]
Spike, Ugliest Dog in the Universe Debra Frasier, author and illustrator Beach Lane Books, October 2013 Ever since I saw my 10-year-old niece pose in front of the television, trying to imitate the supermodels at the end of the runway, my awareness of the beauty culture in this country has been acute. We took her […]
We’re in post-season, when a lot of fans start to look wild-eyed, wondering how they’ll hang on for three months until spring training starts in February. Here in Minnesota, it’s tough for sandlot baseball or Little League games to be played in the snow with an icy baseline. Young fans can keep up the momentum […]
As I ready this article for publication, I am sitting in the coffee shop where I first met Heather Vogel Frederick, now a much-admired author of some of my favorite books. I still enjoy getting caught up in a series, accepting the likeable and not-so-likeable characters as my new-found circle of friends, anticipating the treat […]
This week, join me as we continue to look at books that orbit the constellations of children’s series books much-loved by adults: Louisa May Alcott’s books, the Little House books, the Anne of Green Gables books, and Maud Hart Lovelace’s Betsy-Tacy books. A brand new novel, Venom on the River, is now available from my favorite […]
Growing up, I loved to read mysteries, biographies, but especially series books. I didn’t read Nancy Drew or Anne of Green Gables (not until I was an adult), but I followed most every other series character. I read Cherry Ames, Sue Barton, Trixie Belden, Beany Malone, Janet Lennon, but especially Louisa May Alcott’s books, the […]
Children aren’t the only kids who get bored during the summer. Teens are looking for something to do in more subtle ways. If they’ve got the writing bug … or if they don’t have it yet … you might tempt them with one or more of these books. You’ll find something for every taste, with […]
Although I remember my puffy pink diary with the curious brass clasp, I don’t recall writing in it much. Age nine, I may have experimented with writing on the first page. Something like, “Today was my birthday. I had a party. Nothing else happened.” If only I’d had books about writing stories … I loved […]
I’m reading Heather Vogel Frederick’s newest book, Pies & Prejudice (Simon & Schuster), the fourth book in the Mother-Daughter Book Club series. The girls are fourteen in this book. Their book club is reading Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice this year and a number of exciting plot developments make this a page-turner. Near the end […]
In Leonard Marcus‘ interview with author Beverly Cleary, which you’ll find while reading one of this month’s Chapter & Verse Book Club selections, Funny Business: Conversations with Writers of Comedy, she passes along a wonderful tip for prompting kids (and others) to write. Q: In the Ramona books, Beezus worries about not having enough imagination. […]