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Archive | Writing Road Trip

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.


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.


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?


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.


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.


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. 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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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!


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.


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.”


Wandering Aimlessly

Pho­to by nyc­sjv at

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.


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!


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.


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….


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.”



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.


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.


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.


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.


(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?


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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


On the Lam

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

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

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

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

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


What a Picture’s Worth


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

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

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

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

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


Traveling Like a Rock Star

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The place I go back to…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

alligatorWe’re stuck,” Air­boat Man said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Journeying Inside

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

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

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

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

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

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