Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Archive | Writing Road Trip

Possible Detours

Once, in one of my (not uncom­mon) moments of think­ing that I could no longer han­dle the finan­cial uncer­tain­ty of the children’s book writ­ing life, I read a book that pur­port­ed to match cre­ative peo­ple to poten­tial career pur­suits. I read the advice, filled out the quizzes, and final­ly received my assigned “type.” With great antic­i­pa­tion I turned to the sec­tion at the back of the book where pos­si­ble career paths were list­ed by type. I expect­ed to be told I should train to become a lawyer or an ad exec, some­thing with a per­haps-some­what- more pre­dictable income stream than my own.

But here are the career options I was strong­ly encour­aged to pur­sue:

  • Pup­peteer
  • Mime

With apolo­gies to all the high­ly paid mimes of the world, I couldn’t help but feel dis­cour­aged at this advice (almost the way one might feel if one were trapped inside a glass box).

I was recent­ly remind­ed of these pos­si­ble detours on my life’s path when some writer friends shared “Non-Teach­ing Jobs Twit­ter Rec­om­mends for Writ­ers” (I have already added “crim­i­nal mas­ter­mind” and “dol­phin” to my own buck­et list). And all of this popped into my head again at a school vis­it, when a stu­dent asked me the ques­tion I am almost always asked: “How much mon­ey do you make?”

The truth­ful-but-vague answer, as I explain when­ev­er I am asked, is that while a few children’s book writ­ers do get rich, most of us do not. I try to describe to the stu­dents some of the oth­er advan­tages I find in the writ­ing life, but I know that’s not what most of them remem­ber. I wor­ry that those of them who want to grow up to be pup­peteers or mimes or even dol­phins will give up their dreams too ear­ly after they hear my hon­est response.

So if you have a young writer in your life, go ahead and tell them the truth: most like­ly, they won’t get rich. But on my behalf, I hope you’ll also let them know that there’s a lot to be said for lov­ing your work. In hav­ing the chance to make an impact on the lives of young peo­ple who know you only through your sto­ries. In defin­ing your­self not by how much mon­ey you make, but by the rich­ness of your expe­ri­ences.

Tell them that liv­ing their dream may be tough, but that there is more than one kind of pay-off in life.

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Wish You Were Here

Shell LakeI remem­ber my first official inter­view about my mid­dle grade mys­tery, called Turn Left at the Cow. It fea­tures fam­i­ly secrets and a trea­sure hunt (and yes, even some of Old MacDonald’s crit­ters make humor­ous guest appear­ances). The book isn’t due out for a few more months, but the reporter had read an advance copy and want­ed to talk while the sto­ry was still fresh in her mind. She lived near the rur­al Min­neso­ta lake that was a big part of my inspi­ra­tion, so much of my set­ting felt famil­iar to her.

Except she was con­fused about the desert­ed island—maybe because it’s nonex­is­tent in real life? And she couldn’t place the giant bull­head statue—probably because the near­est stat­ue of a bull­head is two hun­dred miles away.

So I had to admit that I’d bor­rowed those details from oth­er small towns. After all, what trea­sure hunt isn’t made more excit­ing by a pirate-inspired desert­ed island? And what small town isn’t the more mem­o­rable for hav­ing an unnec­es­sary but over-sized aquat­ic ver­te­brate on a down­town cor­ner?

That kind of geo­graph­ic col­lag­ing is one of my favorite parts of build­ing a sto­ry set­ting. Depend­ing on how fiction­al­ized my sto­ry, I have the chance to cre­ate a mash-up of all the differ­ent places I’ve been, or even wished I could be. If I want, I can fash­ion a place that exists only on the map of my imag­i­na­tion.

There are lots of ways that young writ­ers can use actu­al col­lag­ing and relat­ed tech­niques to build a set­ting for their own sto­ries. Hand around old mag­a­zines, trav­el brochures, and cat­a­logs, and ask stu­dents to cut out (or draw) images that fit their imag­ined set­tings. Then have them paste the images onto larg­er sheets of paper for inspi­ra­tion boards. They can make col­lages to rep­re­sent a whole town, or they can do it for a small­er com­po­nent: their character’s bed- room, or the loca­tion of some key action in their sto­ry.

I also use my cell phone to take pho­tos of any­thing I see out in the world that seems like it might fit into one of my sto­ry set­tings. Then I col­lect the pho­tos in small inex­pen­sive pho­to albums. They’re a great resource when I’ve been away from a sto­ry for a few days and need to re-pic­ture the set­ting.

Pin­ter­est also pro­vides end­less oppor­tu­ni­ties for cre­at­ing inspi­ra­tion boards online. Writ­ers can build boards that show­case the details of their character’s home, school, town, or oth­er key loca­tions by mix­ing and match­ing ele­ments from all dif­fer­ent sources, cre­at­ing the visu­al spaces and moods they want for their sto­ries.

Which means that even if your young writ­ers want to add some­thing unusu­al to their setting—say a giant fish stat­ue, for example—it’s sim­ply a mat­ter of “wish, and it’s here.”

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Headlights

Recent­ly, I’ve been think­ing back on a time when my focus was riv­et­ed on help­ing to care for a fam­i­ly mem­ber who was deal­ing with seri­ous med­ical issues. It’s been stress­ful to have this large “life moment” dis­rupt my nor­mal rou­tine, but it also brings with it a cer­tain kind of clar­i­ty. It’s kind of like dri­ving at night on a coun­try road, when the only thing you see clear­ly is what is illu­mi­nat­ed by your head­light beams; you’re aware of the shad­owy shapes of oth­er objects flash­ing by along the road­side, but the illu­mi­nat­ed area in front of you is what gets your pri­ma­ry atten­tion.

Focus can be a handHeadlightsy plat­form for a writ­ing exer­cise for young authors, too. I love col­lect­ing small, unusu­al objects, often from the nat­ur­al world—interesting stones, seashells, a strange­ly life­like stick—and I keep a bas­ket of them on hand. For the pur­pos­es of this exer­cise, it’s best to choose objects that can stand up to han­dling. I place them in a grab bag and cir­cu­late through the room, allow­ing each stu­dent to choose one “sur­prise” object from the bag by touch alone.

Then I ask them to exam­ine their object in minute detail. What does it feel like? Look like? Smell like? Can they hear the ocean whis­per­ing from inside the secret curves of their seashell? Does the life­like stick “speak” to them? (Some of them, of course, can’t resist actu­al­ly tast­ing their object, although I nev­er explic­it­ly encour­age this.)

Using the sen­so­ry data they’ve col­lect­ed, I then ask them to write a poem about their object. They can give the item a human voice and per­son­al­i­ty, or sim­ply address it as an intrigu­ing object; the goal is to stay intense­ly focused on that one thing until the poem that it has hid­den inside begins to emerge.

The voic­es of even small things can speak loud­ly when, for what­ev­er rea­son, they have become the cen­ter of our uni­verse.

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Watching for the Brown Truck

mouse in the houseA few years back, I had one fright­en­ing week. I had my head down, work­ing hard, when I heard a com­mo­tion out­side. I got up to look out my front win­dow and saw the SWAT team march­ing towards my house, car­ry­ing guns and wear­ing bul­let-proof vests. Once the sound of the news heli­copters alert­ed me to turn on the TV, I found out what was going on: there had been a work­place shoot­ing in my nor­mal­ly qui­et neigh­bor­hood, and at first law enforce­ment thought the gun­man might be on the loose.

Things even­tu­al­ly went back to being qui­et here, but they’re not the same. There’s an almost tan­gi­ble sor­row hang­ing in the air because of the lives lost. I can’t help but remem­ber the care that our neigh­bor­hood UPS dri­ver, one of those killed, always took to hide my pack­ages from the win­ter weath­er (some­times he hid them so well that I didn’t find them at first, either). The last pack­age he deliv­ered to me was some­thing I’d great­ly antic­i­pat­ed: the line edits for my nov­el. I’ve tied a brown rib­bon on my rail­ing in his hon­or.

I’m not the only one who wait­ed fear­ful­ly until they announced it was safe to leave our homes again. I was talk­ing to a neigh­bor yes­ter­day, and she said that her five-year-old reas­sured her, dur­ing the time when we still thought there was active dan­ger, by say­ing, “It’s okay, Mom­my, I learned what to do in school. We just get down on the floor and hide.”

That breaks my heart.

Dur­ing that chill­ing week, I was also deal­ing with anoth­er series of mini-scares—and I want to make it clear, I rec­og­nize that these are on a rad­i­cal­ly small­er scale than the tragedy above. But for me they’ve been fright­en­ing events, nonethe­less: mice have sud­den­ly appeared in my house. I’m ter­ri­fied of mice. It’s a fear that goes way beyond ratio­nal, housed in some deep pri­mal cor­ner of my brain, as evi­denced by the fact that my response when I see one is the embar­rass­ing­ly stereo­typ­i­cal duo of jump­ing up on the clos­est piece of fur­ni­ture and shriek­ing.

My response, although way over-the-top, is a good reminder that fear isn’t always ratio­nal, but it’s always deeply felt. Some­times the things we fear are based on hor­ri­ble real­i­ties, and some­times they’re just a mouse in the house. Wher­ev­er they fall on the spec­trum, fear is still one of the biggest human emo­tions. And writ­ing, I’ve learned, is one way that young peo­ple can effec­tive­ly grap­ple with their own fears. Ask­ing your stu­dents, “What is the thing that most scares you?” and then giv­ing them the chance to jour­nal about it, or to address a let­ter poem to that fear­ful thing, or to con­struct a plot where the char­ac­ter shares their fear, can lead to deeply pow­er­ful writing—as well as, some­times, to a sense that they have some con­trol over the fear­ful thing itself.

With sin­cere apolo­gies to author Neil Gaiman for most like­ly hor­ri­bly man­gling his words, I remem­ber once hear­ing him respond to an inter­view­er who asked why he wrote such fright­en­ing books for kids. He answered that kids are all too aware that there are mon­sters hid­ing under their beds, and it’s no use try­ing to con­vince them oth­er­wise. So he tries to give them sto­ries that acknowl­edge the mon­sters, but where kids still win out in the end.

Some­times, maybe, we can also gain a lit­tle ground on our mon­sters by writ­ing about them—just like I’ve done here.

UPS driver cookie

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Emergency Car Kit

Emergency car kitWhen I was a kid grow­ing up in the north woods of Min­neso­ta, a group of my neigh­bor­hood friends had a “Chip­munk Fort.” It was con­struct­ed out of a pile of old fenc­ing mate­ri­als in my friend Paul’s back­yard; each kid had their own “house” in the fort. We spent some time col­lect­ing pret­ty rocks and odd­ly shaped sticks and soft clumps of moss to dec­o­rate our hous­es. But the pri­ma­ry work of the Chip­munk Fort was to sup­port our large com­mu­ni­ty of striped squir­rel neigh­bors by peel­ing acorns for them.

I don’t know if chip­munks appre­ci­ate such efforts or not, but the crea­tures are genius­es at stock­pil­ing food for when times are scarce. In fact, if you look care­ful­ly at the pho­to, you’ll see that one of them has found his way into my dad’s con­tain­er of bird­seed; the crit­ter spent the entire day stuff­ing his cheeks with the con­tents of the jug and car­ry­ing it home for win­ter pro­vi­sions.

To me, stock­pil­ing ideas has proven to be a great tac­tic. One of the most com­mon ques­tions young writ­ers ask me is, “Where do your ideas come from?” The truth is, they come from every­where, all around me. But they often show up when I can’t actu­al­ly make use of them, and prove elu­sive when I’m sit­ting in front of my com­put­er. I don’t keep a jour­nal (a tac­tic that has worked well for many oth­er writ­ers); I’m too undis­ci­plined to fol­low through on that reg­u­lar prac­tice. But I have learned to car­ry a writer’s note­book so I can stuff it full of the good bits when they spon­ta­neous­ly pop up. The note­book becomes an assort­ment of ran­dom mus­ings, eaves­dropped con­ver­sa­tions, bizarre facts, and won­der­ful-to-say words. Then when I face one of my reg­u­lar “writ­ing win­ters,” those times when it seems impos­si­ble to come up with an inter­est­ing con­cept, I’ve got plen­ty of seeds stored away.

That note­book is a lit­tle like hav­ing an emer­gency car kit when you set off on a long winter’s dri­ve. You may be blessed with good for­tune and nev­er need the emer­gency kit. But in case you do get stuck—whether in a snow bank or faced with a “writ­ing emergency”—you’ll be awful­ly glad you’ve got it on hand. Why not encour­age your young writ­ers to take a sim­i­lar pre­cau­tion and keep a writer’s note­book of their own in their desk or back­pack?

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Fake ID

Fake IDA while back, Facebook—apparently hav­ing run out of snazzy gift—ideas that said “thank you for using our ser­vices” in an under­stat­ed yet pleas­ing way—gifted me instead with a social media dop­pel­gänger named Yvonne. The gift arrived in my email box in the form of thou­sands of extra­ne­ous noti­fi­ca­tions. I get noti­fied any time one of Yvonne’s many (seem­ing­ly unsta­ble and to me com­plete­ly unknown) friends does any­thing they deem Face­book-wor­thy. I get noti­fied any time there is a yard sale any­where near Yvonne’s home, which hap­pens to be approx­i­mate­ly 1,000 miles away from where I live. I get noti­fied with reg­u­lar updates about Yvonne’s alma mater, a school whose mys­te­ri­ous insid­er jokes don’t trans­late well if you’ve nev­er been near that cam­pus in your life.

If you ever find your­self pre­sent­ed with the same thoughtful gift, let me just tell you that, short of the wit­ness pro­tec­tion pro­gram, there is no easy way to drop a dop­pel­gänger. I have done every­thing Facebook’s “help” pages sug­gest to report and rem­e­dy the prob­lem. Noth­ing has worked. This week so far I’ve got­ten 594 updates on Yvonne. And for those of you in the area, I can report that the Hazel Green yard sale has girls’ win­ter clothes, sizes 5 and 6.

But just when I thought that no good could come out of the whole sit­u­a­tion, I described it to a friend (in this case I’m using “friend” not in the Face­book sense but based on the tra­di­tion­al defi­ni­tion of “a per­son whom one actu­al­ly knows, likes, and trusts”). And he said (yes, Steve Palmquist of Wind­ing Oak, I’m look­ing at you), “That could make a good book idea. Just throw in a zom­bie or two.”

Huh. You know what? It might make a pret­ty good book idea even with­out the zom­bies. But even bet­ter, it makes a real­ly great char­ac­ter-build­ing exer­cise for young writ­ers of the age groups that are attuned to social media. I can vouch for the fact that a per­son can learn a stag­ger­ing amount about a stranger mere­ly by vic­ar­i­ous­ly expe­ri­enc­ing her Face­book pres­ence. Why not turn things around and use social media as a tool to help your young writ­ers figure out just who their char­ac­ter is?

Ask your young writ­ers to imag­ine a social media profile for their main char­ac­ter. Do they use Pin­ter­est or Face­book, Twit­ter, Insta­gram, or Tum­blr? What games do they play? Do they win? Do they cheat? What would their online profile say? Do they lie when they’re online, and if so, what about? How many peo­ple have “friend­ed” them? What kind of pho­tos do they post? What shop­ping out­lets or social caus­es have they “liked”? Do they spend hours a day online, or almost nev­er pop up? Do they mere­ly lurk, or com­ment on every­thing? The list of char­ac­ter-reveal­ing details could go on and on.

Just make sure to include one final ques­tion: Is character’s name Yvonne?

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In the Driver’s Seat

driver's seatTo be able to learn how to get some­where, I have to dri­ve the route myself. Rid­ing shot­gun doesn’t work if I’m try­ing to mem­o­rize the route; some­how the feel­ing of the nec­es­sary twists and turns has to seep up through the steer­ing wheel and into the pores of my hands for me to be able to reli­ably retain it. In oth­er words, I have to expe­ri­ence it as a dri­ver and not just as a pas­sen­ger.

I think that’s essen­tial­ly what writ­ers mean when they offer the mys­te­ri­ous writ­ing advice: “Show, don’t tell.” They’re advis­ing stu­dent writ­ers to put the read­er in the driver’s seat, to offer the read­er a deep lev­el of engage­ment with the expe­ri­ence of the sto­ry, rather than just tak­ing them along for the ride.

Here’s an exam­ple. If in my sto­ry I write, “It was an ear­ly spring rain,” I am sim­ply “telling” you about the weath­er and the sea­son. Here, how­ev­er, are two very dif­fer­ent ways of “show­ing” you a spring rain­fall:

Ver­sion one: “Plip. Plop. Ploop. Fat, wet drops tapped against the frozen brown cheeks of dor­mant Earth. Eas­ing itself awake, Earth let out a mighty yawn, scent­ing the air with a mem­o­ry of last autumn’s leaves.”

Ver­sion two: “Lulu shiv­ered as icy sliv­ers slashed her cheeks. It was time to push aside the mound of unmatched mit­tens and unearth the trusty umbrel­la that had shield­ed her from such attacks in the dis­tant past.”

Each ver­sion evokes a com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent mood. Nei­ther men­tions “rain” or “ear­ly spring,” yet they are implic­it. Which leads to a fun game that can help young writ­ers learn how to write in a more “show­ing” way: ask them to describe a scene with­out using the obvi­ous cue words. Ask them to write about a char­ac­ter who is angry with­out say­ing the word “angry” or any of the obvi­ous syn­onyms. Have them set a scene at night with­out using the words “night” or “dark.” Encour­age them to put the read­er inside the expe­ri­ence in a sur­pris­ing and unex­pect­ed way, rather than rely­ing on the obvi­ous short-cuts. (If you hap­pen to have the game Taboo, I use the game cards as a way to play “Show, Don’t Tell” with my writ­ing stu­dents.)

Writ­ing that “shows” evokes the sens­es, uses active verbs, draws on metaphor­i­cal lan­guage, and asks read­ers to engage more deeply—to put them­selves in the driver’s seat, and to let the sto­ry seep up through the paper into their pores.

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Blind Spots

I love the tex­ture of tree bark, but that isn’t why I took this pho­to. If you take Writing Road Trip | Blind Spots by Lisa Bullarda sec­ond and more scruti­nous look, you’ll see that this is a pic­ture of a well-cam­ou­flaged moth.

Some­times there’s more going on around us than our eyes take in. In dri­ving, they’re called blind spots: areas around the vehi­cle that the dri­ver can’t see with­out mak­ing a spe­cial effort.

Blind spots are a dri­ving dan­ger, but they can also be a read­ing plea­sure. Most (non-aca­d­e­m­ic) read­ers don’t real­ly care what tac­tics the writer has used to cre­ate the book; those read­ers focus on their own response— if they liked the book or not—and if the answer is a pos­i­tive one, it doesn’t real­ly mat­ter to them how the writer man­aged to accom­plish that affec­tion. In fact, over-think­ing the writer’s tech­niques might even spoil things some­what for the read­er, just as know­ing a magician’s tricks can spoil a mag­ic act.

I peri­od­i­cal­ly remind my students—and myself—that the point of learn­ing to become stronger writ­ers is not so that we can show off by per­form­ing a series of fan­cy writ­ers’ tricks. The point is to cre­ate the best mag­ic we can; mag­ic that awes and aston­ish­es the read­er. We want the tricks them­selves to be invis­i­ble to the casu­al read­ing eye. Learn­ing more writ­ing tricks gives a writer a greater reper­toire to draw on, but the point isn’t for the tricks to take over the writ­ing and call atten­tion to them­selves.

Some­times it’s the sim­plest mag­ic that cre­ates the best show.

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The Finish Line

I periodically remind my students—and myself—that the point of learning to become stronger writers is not so that we can show off by performing a series of fancy writers’ tricks. The point is to create the best magic we can; magic that awes and astonishes the reader.Noth­ing is a big­ger thrill for the young writ­ers I men­tor than what we have come to call their “pub­li­ca­tion par­ties.” For my reg­u­lar ses­sions with the three of them, I plan a mix of writ­ing warm-ups and short and long-term writ­ing projects. When the long-term projects are final­ly finished—often after months of draft­ing and revising—we invite their par­ents to a for­mal read­ing. Dur­ing our tougher ses­sions, when the kids are bored with revis­ing, look­ing ahead to this par­ty is a great incen­tive to keep them push­ing through this tough stage of writ­ing. Instead of giv­ing up and say­ing their work is “good enough,” they keep pol­ish­ing because they know that the pub­li­ca­tion par­ty is always so much fun. And it’s not just because we have piz­za or cup­cakes: they beam with pride as their fam­i­lies lis­ten to and cel­e­brate the writ­ing they’ve worked so hard on.

Any­one with kids has like­ly attend­ed a piano recital or the school play or a sport­ing event. But as the sis­ter to two hock­ey-play­ing broth­ers (back in a time when there weren’t girls’ teams), I can tell you that there are far few­er for­mal chances for young writ­ers to read their work out loud to an audience—to have their achieve­ment cel­e­brat­ed in a pub­lic forum. If you have young writ­ers at home, why not plan ahead for a pub­li­ca­tion par­ty of your own? Invite Grand­ma or the neigh­bors and make it a true event!

Or if you have a class­room, I’ve put togeth­er a Pin­ter­est board with many sug­ges­tions for cre­at­ing a writ­ing unit. It plays on the “cook­ing up a sto­ry” theme that I use through­out my book You Can Write a Sto­ry: A Sto­ry-Writ­ing Recipe for Kids, and my Pin­ter­est board includes ideas for an official pub­li­ca­tion par­ty. But you can also use the board to inspire you in brain­storm­ing ideas for total­ly dif­fer­ent writ­ing themes that you might use in your class­room or home.

Stick­ing with the process of revis­ing their work until it’s tru­ly pol­ished is a daunt­ing prospect for most young writ­ers. It’s not so dif­fer­ent than musi­cal kids play­ing scales over and over, or ath­let­ic kids doing end­less drills for their sport. Why not make the process of “rinse, repeat” more tol­er­a­ble for young writ­ers by pro­vid­ing a spec­tac­u­lar pub­li­ca­tion par­ty “fin­ish line” they can race towards?

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Signs, Signs, Everywhere There’s Signs

Danger signWhen I was a young teenag­er my fam­i­ly made a road trip from Min­neso­ta to Texas to vis­it my father’s par­ents. The long trip south most­ly fea­tured one kind of civ­il war: the end­less bick­er­ing of my two broth­ers and the male cousin who’d come along for the ride. For the trip back north, I staked out a hidey-hole in the far back of the sta­tion wag­on and crammed myself in amongst the lug­gage, still-wet-from-the-hotel-pool swim­suits, and snack foods.

It wasn’t that my fam­i­ly wasn’t con­cerned for my safe­ty, it was just that it didn’t occur to any­one that my new trav­el­ing berth might be unsafe. This was a time when seat­belts were con­sid­ered extra­ne­ous and “The Brady Bunch,” television’s mod­el fam­i­ly of the day, some­how crammed two par­ents, six kids, and a stout house­keep­er into one sta­tion wag­on with nary a qualm for high-impact crash sur­vival. So I curled up out of reach of the boys’ wrestling match­es and read a weighty nov­el about the actu­al U.S. Civ­il War called House Divid­ed. It was my first 1,000+ page book, and I was elat­ed that the war I was now immersed in was a war of words on paper and not the ongo­ing back­seat bat­tle.

Occa­sion­al­ly a truce was declared so that we could all play a road trip game. One favorite was when we each worked our way through the alpha­bet, in order, lim­it­ed to col­lect­ing only one let­ter per sign, in a race to see who could pass “z” first. If you weren’t par­tic­u­lar­ly watch­ful, wait­ing for a “q” or an “x” could take you halfway across a state.

As a fol­low-up to the road trip writ­ing activ­i­ty I sug­gest­ed in my last post, here’s a writ­ing vari­a­tion on that alpha­bet game we used to play. Have your young writ­ers col­lect inter­est­ing words from a series of bill­boards or signs they spy out the back­seat win­dow or while stretch­ing their legs dur­ing pit stops. Chal­lenge them to col­lect a spe­cif­ic word count, and encour­age them to watch for the most intrigu­ing, humor­ous, or muse-wor­thy words. When they’re done col­lect­ing words, ask them to cre­ate a poem out of their lan­guage sou­venirs.

The pho­to above is a sam­ple sign I found on my Writ­ing Road Trip trav­els; I’m sure as can be that there’s a fun­ny poem hid­den inside this lia­bil­i­ty warn­ing, just as there are count­less poems trapped in bill­boards along an inter­state near you.

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That’s How I Roll

Pretend wagon trainAs a kid I was the one who insti­gat­ed a lot of the fun. It might be play­ing pirates in the tree house, or cops and rob­bers in my mom’s parked sta­tion wag­on, or spies who wrote secret code in lemon juice (lat­er reveal­ing the mes­sage by hold­ing it over the toast­er). Often our make believe reflect­ed what­ev­er sec­tion of the library I hap­pened to be work­ing my way through at the time. So after I binge-read every pio­neer tale I could find, I cre­at­ed a new game for us called “wag­on train.” We’d stock my youngest brother’s lit­tle red wag­on with sup­plies and head out across the prairie, fac­ing dan­ger at every turn.

The Inter­net tells me that on a good day, a real wag­on train might have cov­ered fifteen miles in a day. Fam­i­ly road trips move along at a much brisker rate nowa­days. When peo­ple trav­eled fifteen miles a day, they couldn’t help but take note of even the small­est details of the jour­ney. When we’re rac­ing along an inter­state at sev­en­ty miles an hour, it’s much eas­i­er to miss all the pecu­liar and intrigu­ing sights along the way.

But quirky details are always there to be noticed if we only remind our­selves to adopt the right out­look. Here’s a sim­ple trav­el writ­ing game you can play with the kids you have packed into your “cov­ered wagon”—whether you are on a long dri­ve dur­ing the upcom­ing hol­i­days or just a trip around town. Give every­one their own small note­book and writ­ing uten­sil at the start of the trip. Tell them it’s their job to “col­lect” at least three unusu­al things dur­ing the course of the day; they don’t need to phys­i­cal­ly col­lect the items, sim­ply make note of them in their note­book (or take a pho­to with their cam­era). It can be any­thing that catch­es their atten­tion: a per­son, an ani­mal, a build­ing, a bizarre tourist attrac­tion. Then the next day in the car, tell the kids that it’s their job to write a sto­ry or a poem fea­tur­ing the three items they col­lect­ed the day before. Plus they need to col­lect three new items for the fol­low­ing day. Along with encour­ag­ing every­one to take note of their sur­round­ings as you trav­el, they’ll each end the trip with a unique memen­to.

The truth is, I would have made a hor­ri­ble pio­neer: I’m too big a fan of my crea­ture com­forts. I’m sure I’d like­ly have been vot­ed “first per­son we should eat if we get trapped by win­ter bliz­zards” by my fel­low pio­neers, because they would have grown so weary of my whin­ing about need­ing a show­er. But despite my inabil­i­ty to fit into those times, I rec­og­nize that trav­el­ing only fifteen miles a day has a huge advan­tage for a writer: you can nev­er for­got that the time spent get­ting there—not just what hap­pens after you arrive—is in itself the real adven­ture.

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Tuned in to Talk Radio

When I was a lit­tle girl and my Min­neso­ta grand­par­ents came to vis­it, we shared them around for sleep­ing pur­pos­es. One night I would share my dou­ble bed with Grand­ma, and the next night my broth­er and I would switch places, and I’d sleep on his top bunk while Grand­pa set­tled into the bot­tom bunk.

Grand­ma was a bit of a night owl like I am, so it was nev­er hard to keep her talk­ing. Grand­pa was raised a farm boy, and in his mind night­time was for sleep­ing. But I devised a clever sys­tem: if he paid the ran­som of telling me one sto­ry from his boy­hood, after that I’d stay qui­et and let him drift off.

http://bit.ly/wrttalkHis stories—about bot­tle-feed­ing the lit­tle black lamb, or the fight with his broth­er Hen­ry that end­ed with Grand­pa dump­ing an entire buck­et of cow-fresh milk over Henry’s head—are the ear­li­est tales in what has now become my exten­sive per­son­al col­lec­tion: I’ve been stock­pil­ing sto­ries from my “peeps” ever since.

One of the “ask the author” ques­tions kids present me with over and over again is, “Where do you get ideas for your sto­ries?” For me, a big part of the answer is, “through oth­er peo­ple.” I love hear­ing oth­er people’s stories—and what I find is that the more I’m will­ing to lis­ten, the more peo­ple will tell me. I’ve appar­ent­ly cul­ti­vat­ed my lis­ten­ing skills to such a degree that even strangers share deeply per­son­al accounts. In the inter­ests of pre­serv­ing friend­ships, I’ve tak­en to insert­ing a warn­ing label into my con­ver­sa­tions: “I’m a writer, you know. This is real­ly good stuff. Unless you swear me to secre­cy, I will use this.” Sur­pris­ing­ly few peo­ple take me up on that offer; the truth, I think, is that most peo­ple want their sto­ries to find a life out­side them­selves. If they don’t plan to write them out on their own, they’re delight­ed at the idea of some­one else writ­ing them down.

So I use their sto­ries, but I do main­tain some sense of dis­cre­tion: They are often heav­i­ly dis­guised, and the names have been changed to pro­tect the inno­cent.

Encour­age your young writ­ers to imag­ine they’re rid­ing though life while tuned into talk radio. For younger writ­ers, help­ing them to devel­op strong lis­ten­ing skills may be the key. For slight­ly old­er writ­ers, you might want to also dis­cuss issues around respect­ing pri­va­cy. And encour­age them to explore how real-life sto­ries work great as seed mate­r­i­al, but don’t always trans­late direct­ly into good fiction: Some­times the writer’s art is not in find­ing good mate­r­i­al, but in know­ing how much of it, and how best, to use it to tell a sto­ry that the world wants to hear.

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That Time I Drove the Karma Bus

All fresh­men at my col­lege had to wear bean­ies at the start of school. Besides the obvi­ous fash­ion quandary, the prob­lem was that stu­dents from the town’s rival col­lege glo­ried in steal­ing bean­ies.

And I knew if any of my upper class­mates caught me sans beanie, they had the pow­er to make me stand on a table in the cafe­te­ria and sing my high school fight song. It was a time of great per­son­al trep­i­da­tion.

Then one day a nice young man stopped and talked to me on cam­pus. Look at this, I thought to myself. I am in col­lege talk­ing to a nice col­lege boy. Col­lege is great! And then that nice col­lege boy grabbed my beanie and ran. Turns out he was a Mon­tague. I was a Capulet. Our romance was trag­i­cal­ly short-lived, but unlike Juli­et, I some­how sur­vived.

Many years after that, while putting my col­lege edu­ca­tion to good use as a pub­lish­ing employ­ee, I wan­dered down to the company’s sec­ond floor. A guy I didn’t know was vis­it­ing; we made polite intro­duc­tions, he got a fun­ny look on his face when I said my name—and he then con­fessed that he was the beanie-steal­ing Mon­tague (my name was help­ful­ly print­ed on my beanie’s name tag and he’d clear­ly nev­er for­got­ten it). He left, I moved on. The beanie did not haunt me. I nev­er thought about the beanie at all.

But sev­er­al years again after that, once I was pub­lished and had become eas­i­ly “google-able,” I got an email out of the blue. From the Mon­tague. He remind­ed me of our pre­vi­ous encoun­ters and told me he still had the beanie, but would like to send it back to me. And despite my protes­ta­tions that the beanie no longer played any part in my emo­tion­al health, it arrived in my mail­box a few days lat­er.

In a fol­low-up email, the Mon­tague also told me that his old­est daugh­ter was now a fresh­man in col­lege. I made an intu­itive leap: Was his move to make amends par­tial­ly moti­vat­ed by fear that he or his daugh­ter might be run over by the kar­ma bus? My beanie was no more than a bump in the road for me, but I spec­u­lat­ed that return­ing it to me twen­ty-six years lat­er was the out­ward sig­nal of a self-trans­for­ma­tion for the Mon­tague.

The char­ac­ters who move us as read­ers are those who have gone through some kind of relat­able trans­for­ma­tion. Expe­ri­enc­ing that trans­for­ma­tion is the thing that sticks to read­ers like emo­tion­al super­glue; it keeps them mulling over cer­tain sto­ries for weeks. But new writ­ers some­times for­get this crit­i­cal ele­ment. Chal­lenge your writ­ing stu­dents to track exact­ly how their main char­ac­ters have changed from the begin­nings to the end­ings of their sto­ries. If it’s not obvi­ous, they need to spend some time revis­ing.

Get them to focus on their char­ac­ter emo­tion­al arcs and you just might make Shake­spear­es out of them yet!

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Curves Ahead

I was thrilled when Teenage Nephew 1 grew old enough to mow my yard.

We nego­ti­at­ed a price and then head­ed out­side. I knew that at his house, his father was King of the Rid­ing Mow­er, so mow­ing was a com­plete­ly new skill to Teenage Nephew. So I care­ful­ly reviewed the basics with him: mow­er oper­a­tion, safe­ty issues, how he shouldn’t plow over my rose bush­es.

It nev­er occurred to me that I need­ed to teach him the con­cept of a straight line.

As I peeked out win­dows, mon­i­tor­ing progress and watch­ing for any trou­ble, I began to notice a strange pat­tern emerg­ing. Zigza­gs and curves of mowed grass dis­sect­ed clumps of uncut lawn. Some sec­tions remained untouched while he re-mowed oth­ers five or six times. Even in the thor­ough­ly mowed sec­tions, peri­od­ic “lawn mohawks” popped up across the land­scape. It was like a dis­or­ga­nized alien had land­ed to cre­ate Picas­so-esque crop cir­cles in my yard.

It even­tu­al­ly occurred to me that my nat­ur­al incli­na­tion towards order­li­ness and effi­cien­cy had in this case skipped a gen­er­a­tion, and I stopped the yard work long enough to do a li‚ttle les­son on mow­ing in a grid pa‚ttern.

But the image of those lawn mohawks are a fun­ny and use­ful reminder to me when I set out to teach young peo­ple writ­ing, too: not all stu­dent brains are hard­wired the same. When I remem­ber to peri­od­i­cal­ly mix up my approach— find­ing activ­i­ties that appeal to stu­dents who learn dif­fer­ent­ly than I do—I have more suc­cess engag­ing them in the act of writ­ing.

Teenage Nephew 1, for exam­ple, is the kind of kid who learns best when he can move or phys­i­cal­ly inter­act with some­thing. He would respond best to writ­ing activ­i­ties like those I describe in my posts “Col­lect­ing Sou­venirs” and “For­get­ting How to Dri­ve.” He’s also an incred­i­bly social per­son who would perk up as soon as a teacher intro­duced activ­i­ties such as the peer review I out­line in “You Be Thel­ma, I’ll Be Louise.”

Dif­fer­ent learn­ing styles might throw you some curves as a writ­ing teacher, but remem­ber: there are ways to write and teach around them.

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Don’t Let the Dinosaur Drive the Bus

DinosaurOne of my favorite stu­dent sto­ries fea­tured a char­ac­ter whose beloved pet was a hor­ri­bly behaved dinosaur—definitely on the T. rex rather than the Bar­ney end of the dinosaur social­iza­tion spec­trum. As the con­clu­sion of the sto­ry, the char­ac­ter says: “But it doesn’t mat­ter if my dinosaur is naughty all nine days a week. I love him any­way. Because he is my dinosaur.”

I’m moved by what that con­clu­sion says about the uncon­di­tion­al love that young writer was obvi­ous­ly receiv­ing from some­body impor­tant to him. But it’s also a great reminder that there are some basic sto­ry lines that rarely fail to pro­vide excel­lent start­ing points for strug­gling young writ­ers. Ask a young author, “What pet do you real­ly wish you could have, and can you think of how to turn that into a story?”—and most kids are on a roll.

In fact, the han­ker­ing for pets (even those less exot­ic than a dinosaur) has proved gold­en for estab­lished writ­ers too. From my pic­ture book­shelf alone I can pull out Peter Brown’s Chil­dren Make Ter­ri­ble Pets, Karen Kaufman’s I Wan­na Igua­na, Cath­leen Daly’s Pru­dence Wants a Pet (at one point poor Pru­dence has to set­tle for a branch), and David LaRochelle’s The Best Pet of All.

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Tripping with Mona Lisa

Mona Lisa by Leonardo DaVinciAfter my first book was pub­lished, one of my friends gave me a know­ing look and said, “I’ve figured out exact­ly what your sto­ry means.”

Not Enough Beds!I nod­ded wise­ly, two of us in on the same secret togeth­er, but truth­ful­ly? I was eager to hear what she had to say. Because in all the time I’d spent writ­ing, revis­ing, and talk­ing about the book to oth­er peo­ple, it had hon­est­ly nev­er occurred to me to ask myself what the sto­ry meant. In my mind, Not Enough Beds! was a sim­ple tale about too many rel­a­tives show­ing up for Christ­mas Eve, and the fun­ny places every­body finds to sleep when it turns out that—wait for it—there are not enough beds. I thought it was a fun­ny fam­i­ly alpha­bet book, not a com­men­tary on the human con­di­tion.

Which just goes to show how much writ­ers know about their own work! Appar­ent­ly, as my friend explained, the 224 words of my sto­ry are actu­al­ly a mov­ing tes­ta­ment to the fact that we’re all just going through life look­ing for where we belong in the world, and fam­i­ly are the peo­ple who make a place for us no mat­ter what.

Usu­al­ly in my pieces here I talk about things that you can sug­gest to young writ­ers to give them an entrée point to more pow­er­ful writ­ing. This week, I’m sug­gest­ing some­thing that you might want to avoid sug­gest­ing: don’t put too much empha­sis on what their writ­ing means. Do we real­ly have to dis­sect the “enig­mat­ic smile” of the Mona Lisa? Some writ­ers may have a clear inten­tion for their mean­ing as they write; but just as often, based on the writ­ers I know, that isn’t the case. In fact, my friend and poet Lau­ra Pur­die Salas talks about just that in a guest blog.

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Georgia, Broadway, and Niagara — Cheese or Font?

So what’s the per­fect game for some­body who lives in a state with lots of dairy farms, spends a huge hunk of her time writ­ing or read­ing, and has been known to insert a but­ter head into a nov­el as a red her­ring? Why, it’s Cheese or Font, of course!

If you’ve nev­er played, please remem­ber to come back and finish read­ing after you’ve wan­dered here to check it out. Because along with being an enter­tain­ing time-waster, fonts can also be a fun tool for help­ing stu­dents explore the con­cept of char­ac­ter voice.

I’ve talked before about help­ing young writ­ers devel­op their writ­ing voic­es (most recent­ly in “Lost”). But along with the over­all voice of the writer who is cre­at­ing the piece, each char­ac­ter in a sto­ry must also have their own dis­tinct voice. Yet too often, all the char­ac­ters end up sound­ing exact­ly the same in stu­dent first drafts.

Some­times none of the voic­es sound the way that real peo­ple talk. They’re over­ly for­mal, like a text­book or legal doc­u­ment would sound if it stood up and start­ed declaim­ing. In those cas­es, I encour­age the stu­dents to do more eaves­drop­ping. Lis­ten­ing is a great tool for learn­ing the nuances of speak­ing. Anoth­er easy tip is to have stu­dents read all dia­logue out loud—they will quick­ly hear if it sounds too stilt­ed. Final­ly, remind stu­dents that dia­logue is one place where con­trac­tions are almost always preferred—most peo­ple default to con­trac­tions when talk­ing aloud, even though they’re frowned on in more for­mal writ­ing.

Oth­er times, the prob­lem is that the voic­es in a sto­ry draft sound like real speech, but also sound too much alike, or don’t match the char­ac­ters to whom the writer has assigned the voic­es. The ten-year-old rebel­lious boy char­ac­ter sounds exact­ly the same as the under­stand­ing great grand­ma whose home is infest­ed with lace doilies.

Here’s where font fun comes in. Next time your stu­dents have the chance to write on com­put­ers, ask them to write a scene where two or more char­ac­ters in their sto­ry are dis­cussing the story’s events. For each char­ac­ter, they should find the font that best rep­re­sents that character’s voice when writ­ing his or her dia­logue. For that rebel­lious ten-year-old? Maybe a font that looks like a child­ish scrawl with sharp edges. For the doily-lov­ing great grand­ma? How about a beau­ti­ful ital­ic script?

It’s a cheesy but effec­tive way to get stu­dents to tru­ly “hear” the voic­es of their char­ac­ters. Extra cred­it if you can tell me if Geor­gia, Broad­way, and Nia­gara are cheeses or fonts!

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Writing Under the Influence

Peri­od­i­cal­ly I tire of the finan­cial ups and downs of life as a work­ing writer, and I explore careers that might gen­er­ate a larg­er and more sta­ble income. One of the last times I pur­sued this notion I used an aid: a job-hunt­ing guide for cre­ative peo­ple. My under­stand­ing of the book was that it would steer me towards work that suits my artis­tic bent but also allows a life of com­fort and secu­ri­ty. I read the intro­duc­tion and filled out the self-inter­est tests. I iden­ti­fied my cre­ative “type” and eager­ly locat­ed that sec­tion, sure that a career that com­bined cre­ative ful­fill­ment and the abil­i­ty to pay the VISA bill with­out whim­per­ing was a mere page-turn away.

So—what two careers did the book encour­age me to pur­sue? 1) Pup­peteer, and 2) Mime.

Any pro­fes­sion­al mimes who read this, feel free to cor­rect me, but I’m guess­ing that you occa­sion­al­ly strug­gle with errat­ic and insuf­fi­cient income too.

But if the answer isn’t as easy as learn­ing how to climb an imag­i­nary rope, what will get me through those lean times when my income is unpre­dictable? I think it’s the fact that I was raised under the influ­ence of my prac­ti­cal and mon­ey-wise father. How­ev­er much mon­ey man­age­ment might not be my nat­ur­al apti­tude, repeat­ed expo­sure to his exam­ple allowed me to learn skills I like­ly would nev­er have oth­er­wise devel­oped.

Not every stu­dent in your class­room is going to have a nat­ur­al apti­tude for writ­ing. But plac­ing them under the influ­ence of amaz­ing writ­ers can go a long way towards teach­ing them skills they might nev­er have oth­er­wise devel­oped.

To me, this means more than just putting great books into their hands; it requires think­ing and talk­ing about books from a writer’s per­spec­tive. Here’s an exam­ple. When I’m strug­gling with plot­ting, I’ll choose to read a book that I’ve heard has a strong plot. As I read, I con­tin­ue to ask myself what tricks the writer is using to make the action of the sto­ry seem both sur­pris­ing and inevitable.

You can make a game of it to cre­ate this expe­ri­ence in your class­room. Stop the class at the end of each chap­ter and review what’s hap­pened so far in the sto­ry. Then ask stu­dents to antic­i­pate and write down what they think will be the key action in the next chap­ter (but have them keep their pre­dic­tions a secret). When that next chap­ter is fin­ished, stop again and ask stu­dents how many of them guessed correctly—and what they antic­i­pate for the fol­low­ing chap­ter.

I can almost guar­an­tee that after sev­er­al rounds of this, your stu­dents will bring stronger plot­ting skills to the next sto­ry they write. Read­ing like a writer inevitably leads to writ­ing under the influ­ence.

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Take the Next Turn

A while back, a big hunk of con­crete cracked off of the front edge of a step lead­ing to my ter­raced yard. I knew that it was too cold for any kind of con­crete repair to hold, but I want­ed to mark the poten­tial haz­ard so that peo­ple would notice it despite the snow and ice that are still a risk here in March. So I set a con­crete block over the hole, and then I adorned it with a blaze orange hat. Until I can get it fixed, you’re not like­ly to miss the prob­lem and hurt your­self.

I thought it was a prac­ti­cal tem­po­rary solu­tion. It wasn’t until my neigh­bors and our mail car­ri­er pro­vid­ed com­men­tary that I real­ized it might also be viewed as a lit­tle wacky. And I’ll just add that this isn’t the first time my untrained approach to home main­te­nance has caused more sea­soned handy peo­ple to laugh out loud.

One of the rea­sons I love work­ing with kid writ­ers is that they don’t yet have a pre-pro­grammed set of writ­ing fix­es; the go-to solu­tions that more sea­soned writ­ers habit­u­al­ly fall back on aren’t yet built-in for them. If a stu­dent writer doesn’t know how to patch the big crack in their sto­ry, they throw in some­thing wacky. Or they take words and phras­es that a grown-up might take for grant­ed, and set them on their ears. Some­times this turns out to be fun­ny, but it can also be fresh and excit­ing.

One of my all-time favorites is a scene where a stu­dent writer had her main char­ac­ter suc­cess­ful­ly cross­ing a riv­er only to be con­front­ed by a threat­en­ing “herd of tur­tles.” “Herd” is not the prop­er col­lec­tive word for tur­tles; it should be “bale.” But I would argue that “herd of tur­tles” cre­ates a great visu­al for the read­er and it’s a lot more fun to read. To me, this is a case where wacky wins out.

As a writ­ing warm-up, why not ask your stu­dents to cre­ate a fresh new spin on a tired old way of say­ing some­thing? Brain­storm com­mon idioms with your class­room (use a Google search for a starter list if you’d like), and then ask stu­dents to invent new pos­si­bil­i­ties that paint more vivid pic­tures or fall more trip­ping­ly off their tongues.

In oth­er words, ask them to turn a “turn of phrase.”

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Wandering Aimlessly

Pho­to by nyc­sjv at Morguefile.com

When I worked as a pub­lish­ing pro­fes­sion­al, I got to vis­it New York twice a year as part of my job. I loved it: the peo­ple, the pace, the movie-set land­scapes. So I gawked. I mean­dered. I stopped and stared up at the sky­scrap­ers. I was a stranger in a strange land.

All that seemed to make New York­ers unhap­py.  Final­ly a kind mag­a­zine edi­tor explained to me what was going on.

They seem…irritated,” I said.

He looked me up and down and shook his head.  “You’re walk­ing slow­ly, right?  You’re stop­ping to look at things? They’re not mad, they’re in a hur­ry.”

Then he leaned way for­ward and whis­pered so no one else could hear.  “Trust me.  I’m from Michi­gan. They can tell you’re a Mid­west­ern­er, and you’re in their way.”

I did fine in New York once I learned to stay out of the way. But here’s the thing: I would nev­er want to shut down that “coun­try yokel in the big city” side of myself, because in many ways, it’s my sin­gle most valu­able trait as a writer. Noth­ing has come in more use­ful than my plea­sure at wan­der­ing aimlessly—whether it’s through city streets or a long con­ver­sa­tion or the Internet—the whole time col­lect­ing the shiny bits of life as if I were a mag­pie.

Some­times I pick up somebody’s life sto­ry. Some­times I col­lect triv­ia. Some­times it’s an odd expres­sion.  They pile up in my crow’s nest of a brain, and then seem­ing­ly out of nowhere, pop up and insert them­selves into my writ­ing. They sug­gest sto­ries. They com­bine and mutate in strange and won­der­ful ways.

So despite the fact that it’s prob­a­bly the most com­mon ques­tion young writ­ers ask me, I’m always a lit­tle sur­prised when I hear, “Where do you get your ideas?” Ideas are every­where, I tell them: you just have to wan­der and gawk long enough to notice them.

As a brain­storm­ing activ­i­ty for your stu­dent writ­ers, I encour­age you to offer them mean­der­ing time.  Take a nature walk. Go to the media cen­ter and tell them to grab nonfic­tion books on any top­ics that catch their fan­cy. Allow them to browse Inter­net sites from muse­ums or zoos. Ask them to bring in three curi­ous facts about their own family’s his­to­ry.

Infor­ma­tion I dis­cov­ered while research­ing one of my nonfic­tion titles, about the walk­ing catfish, turned out to pro­vide the entire the­mat­ic basis for my mys­tery nov­el. You real­ly nev­er do know where a great sto­ry idea might come from.

Maybe even from the streets of New York.

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The Limo’s on the Way

I’ve found there’s an alarm­ing­ly close cor­re­la­tion between the top­sy-turvy emo­tions of a high school crush and a writer’s feel­ings dur­ing the process of sub­mit­ting a man­u­script to pub­lish­ers.

As the writer wait­ing for an answer from The Per­fect Pub­lish­er, you go through the same hope­ful highs and “why doesn’t any­one love me?” lows. The man­u­script that just last week looked pret­ty darn good has some­how overnight devel­oped a hideous zit. Rejec­tions begin arriv­ing, and you dri­ve your fam­i­ly crazy with your obses­sive spec­u­la­tion about whether The One will ever call.

For the past few years I’ve been work­ing on a man­u­script that’s a whole new kind of writ­ing for me, and more recent­ly I’ve been liv­ing all of these emo­tions through­out the sub­mis­sion process. One night in a restau­rant, I actu­al­ly found myself wail­ing to my good and patient friends, “All I want is for some­body to ask me to the prom!”

Guess what? The limo’s arrived! I had plen­ty of time to buy the right dress, but in Fall 2013 the limo appeared to take me and my mid­dle grade mys­tery nov­el to the Big Dance.

Get­ting pub­lished is great; there’s no way I’ll pre­tend to you it isn’t. I’ve had a whole week of flow­ers and cup­cakes, and this isn’t even my first dance! But the pur­suit of get­ting pub­lished can also be tougher and more hum­bling than new writ­ers imag­ine. So when kids approach me with that hope­ful gleam in their eye and ask, “How do I get my sto­ry pub­lished?” I always feel a lit­tle ping of pro­tec­tive wor­ry for them.

Then I work hard to instill in them a love of writ­ing for the sake of writ­ing, not just for the joy of see­ing their name on the cov­er of a book.

And then I remem­ber that hav­ing an audi­ence for my work mat­ters to me, too, and I come up with ways for stu­dents to share their writ­ing. After all, part of the urge to see one’s name on a book cov­er is the fact that on the oth­er side of the writ­ing see­saw, there’s a read­er who will find you—and your words—remarkable.

I’ll be describ­ing the impor­tance of giv­ing stu­dents a chance to share their work out loud in an upcom­ing post titled “Dri­ven to Write Bett‚er.” But there are also prac­ti­cal ways to allow stu­dents to “pub­lish” their work. You can find afford­able blank books in edu­ca­tion­al sup­ply stores and online. You can have stu­dents choose for them­selves the role of either “writer” or “illus­tra­tor,” and then pair them off to cre­ate their own pic­ture books togeth­er. One school I vis­it­ed arranged for old­er stu­dents to pair off with first-graders, and then the old­er kids inter­viewed the younger stu­dents about their per­son­al pref­er­ences and cre­at­ed a book designed espe­cial­ly for them.

When the hard work of writ­ing is done, everybody’s ready to dance!

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Backseat Drivers

Some of the best advice you can give stu­dent writ­ers is also some of the eas­i­est for them to car­ry through on: to write bet­ter, they should read bet­ter.

Read bet­ter, as in: Read more. Read wide­ly. Read out­side their usu­al read­ing “type.” Read care­ful­ly. Read for fun.

Read first for sto­ry, and then read as back­seat writ­ers.

I’ll warn you that there is a risk in “back­seat writ­ing,” in sec­ond-guess­ing the author’s deci­sions with­out first allow­ing our­selves to savor their sto­ry. If we read only to ana­lyze every deci­sion the author made, it can strip all the plea­sure out of the read­ing expe­ri­ence. So I encour­age stu­dents to put the sto­ry first, sim­ply ask­ing them­selves if the book worked for them on the most ele­men­tary lev­el: did the act of read­ing it bring them a pay­off of some kind? Did read­ing the book give them an adren­a­line rush or warm fuzzy feel­ings or make them cry or fall in love? Did it cause them to exam­ine their world in a whole new way, or illu­mi­nate some­thing about their life?

If the answer to any of those ques­tions is yes, then after savor­ing for a while, I chal­lenge them to think as a back­seat writer. What tricks do they think the author used to accom­plish those reac­tions? Are they tricks they could try in their own writ­ing? How would the sto­ry be dif­fer­ent if the writer had made dif­fer­ent choic­es? Changed point of view? Used a dif­fer­ent set­ting? Giv­en the char­ac­ter a dif­fer­ent moti­va­tion? Point­ed the plot in a dif­fer­ent direc­tion?

It’s that time of year when “best of the year” book lists and children’s and young adult book awards are dis­sect­ed and debat­ed and detailed on blogs far and wide. In oth­er words, it’s the per­fect time to eas­i­ly steer your young writ­ers towards a whole year full of great read­ing. Ask them to pick up books—any good books will do—and then read them like back­seat writ­ers.

Before they know it, they’ll be teach­ing them­selves how to dri­ve.

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Signal Your Intentions

turn signalIt wasn’t so unusu­al that my teenage nephews were send­ing me sig­nals that trans­lat­ed to: “Will you take us to the store right now so we can spend these Christ­mas gift cards from Grand­ma?”

What was new this year was that they also want­ed to do the dri­ving. Brand-new per­mits in their pock­ets, I agreed to let one twin dri­ve us there, and the oth­er dri­ve us home. And one of the things that most struck me was how care­ful they were to use their turn sig­nals, even with no oth­er cars for seem­ing­ly miles around.

It made me real­ize that as a sea­soned dri­ver I am some­times a lit­tle lax about using my blinker—but that sig­nal­ing one’s inten­tions is a real­ly good habit to devel­op in stu­dent writ­ers as well as in stu­dent dri­vers.

When kick­ing off a sto­ry, or titling it, send­ing the read­er a sig­nal about what to expect promis­es them a pay­off. For exam­ple: “Hey, read­er, do you love fan­ta­sy? Do you see how in Chap­ter One I’ve snuck in this bizarre detail? It’s a lit­tle hint that the world of this book is going to hold a lot more sur­pris­es than the every­day ‘real’ world that you’re used to.”

Fore­shad­ow­ing is anoth­er effec­tive use of sig­nal­ing: a shad­ow (metaphor­i­cal or not) falling across the character’s sun­ny day can send a li‚ttle shiv­er down the spine of a read­er as they antic­i­pate that as-yet-uniden­ti­fied trou­ble is com­ing.

And when I review the work of writ­ers at all stages and ages, one of the most com­mon things I see is that there are obvi­ous holes in the infor­ma­tion pre­sent­ed to the read­er. Not inten­tion­al holes, meant to build ten­sion. But unin­ten­tion­al holes, because the writer has things clear in their own head and doesn’t see that the read­er isn’t being told enough. This is why peer review can be so valu­able a part of your classroom’s writ­ing process. You don’t even need to ask stu­dents to offer each oth­er full-fledged cri­tiques; sim­ply encour­age them to ask each oth­er ques­tions about their sto­ries, and to point out where they are con­fused in their read­ing. These are great sig­nals to the writer about where they might have unin­ten­tion­al­ly left holes in their sto­ry.

Flip­ping that blink­er on is so easy—I find myself doing it much more often now that I’ve seen the stu­dent dri­vers in action.

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Forgetting How to Drive

Writing Road Trip | Forgetting How to DriveYou always hear it around the time of the first fall snow­storm in Min­neso­ta: “It’s like peo­ple have for­got­ten how to dri­ve!” It refers to the fact that even dri­vers who are diehard Minnesotans—as evi­denced by the Min­neso­ta Vikings flags fly­ing from their pick­up antennas—don’t seem to have the tini­est clue how to dri­ve on snow-packed roads. It’s as if they’ve nev­er seen win­ter before.

I guess we just get spoiled dur­ing the oth­er six months of the year, when the dri­ving is “easy.”

I find that writ­ing can be like that, too. No mat­ter how many years I’ve flown the “writer” flag from my anten­na, there are times when the writ­ing comes easy, and times when it feels like I’ve “for­got­ten how to write.”

It’s true for me as a long­time writer, and I’ve found it’s true for young writ­ers who are just start­ing out as well. So what can help to steer a writer out of a cre­ative sea­son that’s fore­cast­ing bliz­zard con­di­tions? Some­times a sim­ple writ­ing warm-up can melt the cre­ative brain-freeze!

I’ve shared sev­er­al writ­ing warm-ups that work well for stu­dents and class­rooms in past posts; you might want to check some of them out. Anoth­er of my favorites helps jump­start the writ­ing process by putting actu­al words into the hands of young writ­ers. It’s super-sim­ple and fun: I share out words from Mag­net­ic Poet­ry Kits, hand around old cook­ie sheets, and ask stu­dents to “cook up” a poem to warm things up. I’ll often remind them about some of the poet­ry-writ­ing basics that we’ve cov­ered in past ses­sions (this varies based on the age of the stu­dents, but might include con­cepts such as using all five sens­es, allit­er­a­tion, fig­u­ra­tive lan­guage, and pay­ing atten­tion to the sound of the words).

Hav­ing preprint­ed words in hand, added to the sim­ple fun of play­ing with mag­nets, works as a kind of anti-freeze. Before you know it, the writ­ing fore­cast is for clear and sun­ny.

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Stopping by the Diner

Writing Road Trip by Lisa Bullard | Stopping by the DinerMy dad has a pas­sion­ate hatred of olives on, in, or even in the gen­er­al vicin­i­ty of his food. He’s con­vinced their mere pres­ence con­t­a­m­i­nates any­thing else on his plate. So when he eats at his favorite small-town din­er, he’s always care­ful to tell the serv­er that he wants his din­ner sal­ad with­out the black olives they usu­al­ly include. Except this time the brand-new teenage serv­er plopped it down in front of him com­plete with a gen­er­ous help­ing of his much-loathed food.

I’m sor­ry,” he said, “I asked for the sal­ad with­out olives.”

She thought a moment, said, “No prob­lem,” reached out to scoop the olives out with her bare hand, and walked away hold­ing them.

Here are the answers to the three ques­tions you’re now ask­ing: No, he didn’t eat the sal­ad.

No, we haven’t stopped laugh­ing yet.

No, he didn’t call over the man­ag­er to rat her out. But the next time he went in, he pulled aside one of the more sea­soned servers and asked her to make sure the young woman under­stood there might be a dif­fer­ent way to han­dle the sit­u­a­tion.

There are dif­fer­ent ways to han­dle a writ­ing revi­sion as well. Revi­sion is the least favorite part of the writ­ing process for most young writ­ers. So hav­ing dif­fer­ent approach­es on hand is a good way to keep stu­dents com­ing back to this all-impor­tant process.

The com­mon approach is to sim­ply work one’s way through the first draft, mak­ing cor­rec­tions and tak­ing out the “olives” as you go. But this isn’t always the best tac­tic. Some sea­soned writ­ers rec­om­mend that for a sec­ond draft, you go back and start fresh, rather than mere­ly fix what’s already on paper. It sounds counter-intuitive—don’t you lose what was good about the orig­i­nal, along with what wasn’t work­ing? But the truth is, this more rad­i­cal approach can give young writ­ers per­mis­sion to “col­or out­side the lines” of their orig­i­nal drafts. Hav­ing writt‚en the first draft still informs the new ver­sion in an impor­tant way, but it doesn’t lim­it it. Some­times this approach can ele­vate the writ­ing to a whole new lev­el.

As my dad might say, once his food has been touched by olives (not to men­tion some­one else’s fingers), he sim­ply can’t eat it. The only answer is to start with a whole new sal­ad.

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Pickle Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Vehicle for Change

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

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

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

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

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Shifting Gears

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

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

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

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

And they say that size doesn’t mat­ter.

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

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

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

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License Plate 007

Writing Road Trip: License Plate 007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next Exit: Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Swerving Over the Line

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

Pho­to by Car­ol M. High­smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Watch Where You’re Going

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Driving in the Dark

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

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

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

What was I miss­ing?

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

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

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

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Tunnel Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

What hap­pens out­side the tun­nel, stays out­side the tun­nel.

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Just Another Roadside Abstraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Racing to Catch a Plane

Photo By Nino Andonis

Pho­to By Nino Ando­nis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Destination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Guess What’s in My Glove Compartment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Seeing the Signs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Anti-Tailgating Measures

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

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

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

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

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

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(E)motion Sickness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Focus Your Trip

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

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

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

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

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

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To Each Maker, Their Model

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

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

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

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

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

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Writing around Roadblocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Driving Miss Daisy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Traveling Back Through Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Drive-by

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

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

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

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

…the burg­ers being cooked on a large bar­be­cue grill.

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

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

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

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

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

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Fitting in with the Locals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Driving After Dark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Driver’s Ed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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