Archive | Writing Road Trip

Road Scholar

Road Scholar by Lisa Bullard | Writing Road TripI once had an “aha” moment while giv­ing my nephew a ride on a beau­ti­ful sum­mer day. He was in that ear­ly stage of ado­les­cence: old enough to sit in the front seat, but young enough that rid­ing shot­gun was excit­ing. But dur­ing this ride, he was giv­ing off strange sig­nals. He twitched. He wig­gled. He squirmed. When we pulled up to a red light, I turned to look at him.

What’s the mat­ter, bud­dy?” I asked.

He returned my query with a long moment of silence — a sign that a kid of his age is torn between play­ing it cool and toss­ing the grenade to an adult.

Final­ly he burst out with it. “Lisa, my butt is on fire!”

My first reac­tion was con­fu­sion. Was this some new slang term I need­ed to look up on Urban Dic­tio­nary? No, the qua­ver in his voice told me he was being lit­er­al; for some rea­son, the kid had a broil­ing back end, and it was incit­ing ter­ror with­in him.

It took me way too long to fig­ure out what was going on: a) the kid had some­how man­aged to click on the seat heater but­ton with his knee, and more impor­tant­ly, b) he was con­vinced that his fiery behind was some hereto­fore unmen­tioned sign of the onset of puber­ty.

I reas­sured him that the fire lay hot in the car and not in him­self. But inter­nal­ly I was ping­ing with this reminder: for kids, life is a con­stant stream of unknowns. Adults remem­ber to warn young peo­ple about some of what’s com­ing (puber­ty means hair will grow in sur­pris­ing places!) — but for every heads-up, there’s some­thing else we grown-ups take so for grant­ed that we neglect to issue a cau­tion. It wasn’t unrea­son­able of my nephew to won­der if the adults in his life had for­got­ten to men­tion that one day, one of his pri­vate parts would start siz­zling, since every day of child­hood deliv­ers unex­pect­ed odd­i­ties. Grow­ing up is all about learn­ing to nav­i­gate with a GPS sys­tem that only func­tions spo­rad­i­cal­ly.

So as I come to the end of the Writ­ing Road Trip blog, I’m offer­ing my argu­ment for mak­ing sto­ry-writ­ing a key part of any child’s edu­ca­tion: it’s one of the best ways I know for kids to devel­op the skills they’ll need to nav­i­gate life’s sur­pris­es. Writ­ing fic­tion allows them to take life out for a test run, to wan­der down the roads not tak­en, to jour­ney into the por­tions of the map labeled “here be drag­ons.” Even bet­ter, what they learn on writ­ing road trips becomes a part of who they are. It makes them empa­thet­ic. It makes them prob­lem-solvers. It makes them sky’s‑the-limit dream­ers capa­ble of invent­ing both the next big thing and their own best futures.

Sto­ry­telling, like nav­i­gat­ing by the stars, is an ancient art. Teach­ing it to young peo­ple gives them a tool to find the path upon which the light shines the bright­est for each of them.


Rev Their Engines

Writing Road Trip | Rev Their Engines | Lisa BullardSome­times, despite cram­ming plen­ty of action and conflict into my writ­ing, it still falls flat. I want the words to leap off the page and grab read­ers by the throat, and instead they flop around gasp­ing for breath.

For­tu­nate­ly, there’s a straight­for­ward revi­sion trick that can reju­ve­nate such writ­ing: a verb check.

I start by going through the piece and under­lin­ing or high­light­ing every verb. Typ­i­cal­ly, two dif­fer­ent prob­lems reveal them­selves. First, I find the work is strewn with way too many func­tion­al-but-bor­ing “to be” verbs. Sec­ond, even in those cas­es where I’ve used more active choic­es, a pat­tern emerges: I’ve repeat­ed cer­tain verbs way too often, default­ing to them as if they were the over-eager stu­dent with her hand in the air after every ques­tion.

So I go back through the work, replac­ing the duds with more active, spe­cif­ic, and var­ied verbs, pack­ing pow­er into the writ­ing with every change.

It’s a sure trick for revving up your stu­dents’ writ­ing as well!


Where She Went

I love book spine poet­ry, and it’s a great way to get young writ­ers to engage with both books and poet­ry-writ­ing. Check out your own shelves and see what sto­ries emerge.

Here are some of my own efforts to show you how easy it can be.

Writing Road Trip | Book Spine Poetry - Where She Went | Lisa Bullard

Where She Went

Look­ing for Alas­ka
Chas­ing Ver­meer
Track­ing dad­dy down
Look­ing for Ali­bran­di
In search of Mock­ing­bird
Where the kiss­ing nev­er stops

Writing Road Trip | Book Spine Poetry - Where She Went | Lisa Bullard

Reality check

Real­i­ty check:
Don’t you know there’s a war on?

Writing Road Trip | Book Spine Poetry - Where She Went | Lisa Bullard

You Split

Just like that
As easy as falling off the face of the Earth
Down the rab­bit hole
Absolute­ly, pos­i­tive­ly not
Okay for now

Writing Road Trip | Book Spine Poetry - Where She Went | Lisa Bullard

The Sky is Every­where

The sky is every­where
I’ll be there

Check out this post by Travis Jonker for more infor­ma­tion about book spine poems. Need more inspi­ra­tion, check out the Book Spine Poem Gal­leries from 2011, 2013, and 2014.


Mile Marker

Writing Road Trip | Mile Marker | Lisa BullardNot too long ago, I had a fan­tas­tic time doing a week-long school vis­it at an ele­men­tary school in Ham Lake, Min­neso­ta. I hadn’t done a school vis­it for a while, and I’d for­got­ten about the ques­tions. Not the “how long have you been a writer?” or “what is your favorite book?” ques­tions — but the “no adult filter yet in place” ques­tions that stu­dents so casu­al­ly ask me on first meet­ing:

  • How much mon­ey do you make?
  • Are you mar­ried?
  • How old are you? (Now that I think about it, I got this ques­tion a lot more than usu­al this week. Note to self: get some rest!)

And then came one that was new to me: How much do you weigh? I admit, I was tak­en aback. I’m what you might actually call a “sub­stan­tial” per­son, so I can under­stand this boy’s curios­i­ty. But I’d nev­er had a stu­dent ask me that before. I explained that I was going to decline to answer because it was some­thing I’d rather keep pri­vate.

He nod­ded and grinned, unfazed by my refusal. “I weigh fifty pounds,” he said proud­ly.

I instant­ly real­ized that I had made a false assump­tion about the inten­tion of his ques­tion.  He wasn’t try­ing to probe into infor­ma­tion most adults would label out-of-bounds. He just want­ed to share the fact that he’d reached the fifty-pound mile mark­er him­self — big news for a kid his age — and had deter­mined that the polite thing to do was to ask me if I want­ed to share my weight before he took his turn.

It remind­ed me of two things:

  1. I love kids. That’s why I chose to write for them.
  2. Assump­tions” cause mis­un­der­stand­ings in life, but they can be a handy tool for writ­ers.

Here are just a few of the ways I’ve used “assump­tions” as a writer, so you can share them with your writ­ing stu­dents:

I chal­lenge assump­tions.  I often dis­cov­er I’ve fall­en into the trap of assum­ing cer­tain things must be true about my char­ac­ter, his or her moti­va­tions, what the antag­o­nist is real­ly up to, or what has to hap­pen next. When I shake things up and chal­lenge every assump­tion I have about the sto­ry, it grows more sur­pris­ing and intrigu­ing.

I have my char­ac­ters make assump­tions about oth­er char­ac­ters. As I repeat­ed over and over this week on my school vis­it, conflict is the thing that keeps read­ers turn­ing pages. And there’s noth­ing like mis­tak­en assump­tions to cause conflict between char­ac­ters.

I assume that there’s some­thing that I haven’t made clear in my ear­ly drafts.  It’s like­ly clear in my head, but not yet clear on paper. So I seek out trust­ed ear­ly read­ers. I tell them their job is to be hon­est with me about any­thing that con­fus­es them in the sto­ry, because I need to revise and fill those holes before a broad­er read­er­ship sees the piece.

That school vis­it helped me pass a mile mark­er: I was remind­ed of the impor­tance of assump­tions.


Driving a Compact

Writing Road Trip | Driving a Compact | Lisa BullardIn my town, par­al­lel park­ing was known as the “skill most like­ly to rat­tle” new dri­ving can­di­dates and ulti­mate­ly cause them to flunk their on-road dri­ving test.

Luck­i­ly for me, I was assigned a gigan­tic pick­up truck the day we prac­ticed par­al­lel park­ing in the stu­dent lot for Driver’s Ed class. By the time class was over, I could have wedged the Titan­ic between ice­bergs and come out safe­ly on the oth­er side (as long as the ice­bergs had high­ly vis­i­ble orange safe­ty cones stick­ing up out of the water). Learn­ing to “dri­ve big” served me very well; despite my com­plete lack of spa­tial sense or mechan­i­cal abil­i­ty, I passed my dri­ving test with flying col­ors.

In writ­ing, I actu­al­ly think the reverse might be true: gain­ing some ear­ly skills with a com­pact vehi­cle will serve stu­dents beau­ti­ful­ly when they move on to test out oth­er rides. Despite their often com­pact size, which makes poems look more approach­able to hes­i­tant stu­dent writ­ers (and of course you don’t have to tell them that “approach­able” doesn’t trans­late to “easy”), learn­ing the ele­ments that go into a strong poem will strength­en almost any oth­er kind of writ­ing stu­dents do.

Here are a few of the things that I think poems teach best:

  • Just a few words, as long as they are the right few, can be enough to con­vey a strong emo­tion or expe­ri­ence. While revis­ing, always look for ways you can cut out any excess so that the words you leave behind rise up from the page and grab the read­er by the throat.
  • Read­ing is a sen­so­ry activ­i­ty; engage the read­er by engag­ing all five sens­es.
  • Good writ­ing has music to it; play with your lan­guage until the words beat out a rhythm or sing a song for your read­er.
  • Make the read­er pay atten­tion; find an unex­pect­ed or sur­pris­ing way to talk about some­thing too famil­iar or over­looked.

I’ve talked before about how Mag­net­ic Poet­ry can turn writ­ing into an actu­al tac­tile activ­i­ty that engages even the most reluc­tant young poets. Hand around cook­ie sheets and let the writ­ing begin! And if you don’t already have Mag­net­ic Poet­ry kits, there’s a way stu­dents can cre­ate their own Mag­net­ic Poet­ry words (you can buy mag­net­ic tape or pre-cut busi­ness-card sized mag­nets at office sup­ply and craft stores). Or why not cre­ate over-sized words so stu­dents can turn the sides of your classroom’s file cab­i­nets into poems as well?

Nation­al Poet­ry Month begins in just a few days, and poets will be shar­ing all sorts of writ­ing tips and tricks online; keep your eyes open for all the fan­tas­tic hints and activ­i­ties that “writ­ing com­pact” will bring.


On the Trail of …

Here’s one of my deep, dark secrets: I’m a huge fan of the real­i­ty TV show “Find­ing Finding BigfootBig­foot.”

My fan­girl sta­tus may wor­ry you. But I find the show hilar­i­ous­ly enter­tain­ing. And there’s a part of me that real­ly wants to believe there are actu­al Big­foots (Bigfeet?) out there — just like when I vis­it a house with a cup­board under the stairs, I always hope that I’ll find a boy  wiz­ard too.

You may say I’m a dream­er.

But the best part of “Find­ing Big­foot” is that it’s strange­ly com­fort­ing. The show rigid­ly adheres to their sto­ry-telling for­mu­la. My life is cur­rent­ly revolv­ing around sev­er­al things that are unknown, unpre­dictable, and stress­ful. I find it odd­ly rest­ful to watch the “Find­ing Big­foot” for­mu­la play out, show after show, with only slight vari­a­tions. Even before the episode begins, I know that yet again, despite a close call — an uniden­ti­fied howl, a shad­owy figure, a rustling in the woods — the team will not be bring­ing Big­foot home tonight. That is as it should be. Big­foot belongs to the woods, not to some sci­en­tif­ic lab some­where. So for that hour, all is right with my world.

I cre­at­ed a sto­ry-writ­ing for­mu­la for stu­dents for much the same rea­son: com­fort. In my ear­ly school vis­its, I dis­cov­ered that while there are many kids who love to write sto­ries — which is the kind of kid that I was — there are also oth­ers who are ter­ri­fied of the whole process. To them, the thought of a writ­ing a sto­ry is as threat­en­ing as — well, as a hun­gry Big­foot!

So I teach them a for­mu­la. Of course I want kids to bring them­selves and their own cre­ativ­i­ty to their writ­ing. But I find that with a trail to fol­low, most stu­dents can find their way to the oth­er end of a sto­ry.

Where do we start? Basi­cal­ly, I have stu­dents choose a char­ac­ter (younger kids espe­cial­ly enjoy ani­mal char­ac­ters), a set­ting (real or imag­i­nary) they’d like to vis­it, and an activ­i­ty they enjoy (I dis­cour­age pas­sive activ­i­ties like com­put­er games). Then I have them mix those three ele­ments togeth­er, and brain­storm a list of things that could poten­tial­ly go wrong with that mix­ture. A soc­cer game would be tough in out­er space because of grav­i­ta­tion­al fac­tors. A polar bear might strug­gle in Hawaii. A snake would have a hard time hold­ing a paint­brush.

Then the sto­ry for­mu­la works this way:

Begin your sto­ry by intro­duc­ing your char­ac­ter. Throw some kind of prob­lem in the character’s path almost imme­di­ate­ly.

For the sto­ry mid­dle, show the char­ac­ter try­ing to solve the prob­lem, but don’t let them suc­ceed right away. Mul­ti­ple failed attempts or intro­duc­ing new prob­lems will add ten­sion to the sto­ry.

At the end, allow the char­ac­ter to solve the prob­lem. Show the read­er how life will be dif­fer­ent now that the char­ac­ter has solved this prob­lem, and how the char­ac­ter has grown through this expe­ri­ence.

With that trail to fol­low, writ­ing a sto­ry doesn’t seem near­ly so mys­te­ri­ous!


Lincoln or Jaguar?

Close up of different cars in a row. Source: Adobe StockBefore my mom passed, she strug­gled with mem­o­ry issues. It was sad and scary and befud­dling to watch. But there’s also a kind of intense cre­ativ­i­ty involved, as she works to find fresh new ways to con­vey what she wants to express because the old ways are no longer avail­able.

One of the most intrigu­ing aspects for me has been around names. Even when remind­ed, Mom often can’t retain giv­en names for the new peo­ple she meets. But rather than just default­ing to no name at all, she makes up names for them. And here’s the odd thing: once she’s invent­ed a new name, that one sticks in her brain. So I’ll lis­ten to anoth­er sto­ry from her about “Deb,” all the while trans­lat­ing “Mor­gan” and pon­der­ing which name I think is a bet­ter fit for the per­son her­self.

For me, the alter­nate name car­ries with it a whole new res­o­nance.  “A rose by any oth­er name” is in fact not at all the same old rose. What part of Mom’s brain has imbued Mor­gan with a pow­er­ful “Deb-like” essence — so much so that that’s the name she can remem­ber?

My belief in the pow­er of a name car­ries over to my writ­ing, too; for me, cre­at­ing a char­ac­ter name has always been much more than just find­ing the right label or iden­ti­fi­er. Names car­ry per­son­al­i­ty, his­to­ry, and mood. Names are one-word poems. I often do tons of research to figure out which name is the best match for the indi­vid­ual I’m invent­ing; it mat­ters that I get it right.

Guid­ing stu­dents through a sim­i­lar nam­ing process can be both a cre­ative exer­cise and a fun way to bring research skills into the fiction-writ­ing process. Ask stu­dents to brain­storm a list of pos­si­ble char­ac­ter names, ini­tial­ly based on their per­son­al pref­er­ences. Then have them dig into online resources (baby name sites are par­tic­u­lar­ly help­ful) to find facts to go along with each pos­si­ble name. What does the name mean? What is its eth­nic ori­gin? What are pos­si­ble nick­names? How pop­u­lar was it both last year and one hun­dred years ago? What oth­er names belong in the same “fam­i­ly”? If the sto­ry the stu­dent is writ­ing is his­tor­i­cal or tied to a spe­cif­ic geo­graph­ic loca­tion, would that name be appro­pri­ate? Are there sim­i­lar names that might be a bet­ter fit?

Once they have gath­ered these details, encour­age stu­dents to con­sid­er not only which name they like the most, but which one best suits the essence of the char­ac­ter they have in mind. By the time they’ve com­plet­ed the whole process, their char­ac­ter will have come alive for them and stepped for­ward to claim their true name.

Think about it — even if you knew noth­ing about cars, wouldn’t the mere names “Jaguar” and “Lin­coln” be enough to con­vey some essence of the actu­al vehi­cles? If it works when nam­ing a car, why not have your writ­ing stu­dents try it too?


Looking Both Ways

I Caution road signgrew up a bit unclear about what is con­sid­ered accept­able risk.

My mom was an ear­ly adopter of the entire “don’t run with scis­sors” canon. And my dad reg­u­lar­ly told us about his teenage antics blow­ing things up and catch­ing rat­tlesnakes.

Find­ing the bal­anc­ing point between tak­ing risks and stay­ing safe proved a lit­tle con­fus­ing for me.

It con­tin­ues to be some­thing I meet up with when­ev­er I do class­room writ­ing work­shops. Some stu­dents jump into wild cre­ativ­i­ty with­out hear­ing a sin­gle warn­ing rat­tle. Oth­ers stop to look both ways so often that they nev­er suc­cess­ful­ly make it across the writ­ing street.

The truth is that both approach­es serve stu­dents well at dif­fer­ent stages of the writ­ing process. Dur­ing the ear­ly brain­storm­ing and draft­ing stages, it’s best to surge for­ward with­out over­think­ing the fact that a writ­ing project can blow up in your face at any moment. And espe­cial­ly dur­ing the lat­er writ­ing stages, stu­dents need to take the rules of writ­ing into account. Yes, writ­ers can and do break those rules. But it is best to do it with appro­pri­ate cau­tion, only cross­ing that street if they have con­sid­ered both ways and deter­mined that their deci­sion best serves their read­ers.

No won­der some young writ­ers are con­fused! I’ve seen those who are unable to cre­ate ear­ly drafts because they’re so wor­ried about break­ing the writ­ing rules. And I’ve seen those who are unable to take the appro­pri­ate care and con­cern with their work in the lat­er stages, so that they can’t cre­ate some­thing that trans­lates for an audi­ence.

Despite their risk-tak­ing dif­fer­ences, my par­ents man­aged to cre­ate a har­mo­nious house­hold. Work to help your young writ­ers see that they can bring a har­mo­nious bal­ance to their writ­ing by learn­ing to look both ways: there is a time for tak­ing risks and a time for let­ting the rules rule.


Writing Road Kill

source: Adobe Stock #157415101

source: Adobe Stock #157415101

When­ev­er we get a large snow­fall in Min­neso­ta, I’m remind­ed of the time I was saved by a snow angel. We were being whomped with a mas­sive bliz­zard and I was sched­uled to work at a book­store until 11:00 p.m. By the time the boss said it was okay for me to leave, it was too late: my car got com­plete­ly stuck in the mid­dle of a city street. I was miles from home, it was well after dark, freez­ing­ly cold, and I was cov­ered in snow up to the hem of my skirt. There wasn’t a per­son or a lit house in sight; every­one else was nes­tled snug­ly in their beds.

Those were pre-cell phone times. Know­ing that if I left my car in the mid­dle of the street it would become snow­plow road kill — some­thing my book­store salary couldn’t afford — I was using the rarely-effec­tive prob­lem-solv­ing method of “wring­ing my hands and moan­ing” when a figure appeared out of nowhere. One moment nobody was there, and the next a guy was set­ting a can of beer down on my snow-cov­ered hood and shov­el­ing out my wheels. He didn’t say a word. Once he had the under­side of the car cleared, he motioned me into the front seat, and with him push­ing, we man­aged to get my vehi­cle out of harm’s way to the side of the road. He waved off my offer of pay­ment and dis­ap­peared into the storm (with his pre­sum­ably now ice-cold beer in hand). I remem­bered that a friend of mine lived only a cou­ple of blocks away, and I showed up unan­nounced on her doorstep at mid­night to be wel­comed with hot cocoa, dry clothes, and a pull-out sofa.

That episode is one of the times, for me, when the idea of a big­ger force at work in my life seems not only pos­si­ble, but prob­a­ble. Both at the time and in my mem­o­ry, my snow angel feels like a figure from far out­side of every­day real­i­ty: pop­ping up between snowflakes just in time to deal with my cri­sis, and then van­ish­ing silent­ly and com­plete­ly. Besides, it’s some­how fit­ting that any angel of mine would be chug­ging beer out of a can rather than a head­ier celes­tial brew.

Some young writ­ers (like some pro­fes­sion­als) real­ly strug­gle with writ­ing at times, and my expe­ri­ence is that it’s impor­tant to tell them that this is a per­fect­ly nor­mal part of the cre­ative act. Wran­gling words onto paper requires us to face down chal­lenges. The trick is to con­tin­ue to push your­self out into the cre­ative storm, into the places where your writ­ing will get stuck — because where you get stuck is also the place you can grow. Or at least, the place where you can learn to accept mir­a­cles.

Writ­ing well is hard. If you’re not chal­leng­ing your­self as a writer, you can turn into writ­ing road kill. Besides: angels need a rea­son to show up.


Mileage Log

Mileage Log

source: Adobe Stock (2094321)

Since I am a self-employed per­son, the IRS asks me to keep a mileage log list­ing my busi­ness trav­el: where I went, how far away it was, the peo­ple I met with when I got there. So here’s an iron­ic con­fes­sion from a writer: every time I sit down to try to write an end-of-the-year hol­i­day let­ter — some­thing that because of my pro­fes­sion, you might assume I could eas­i­ly pull off in the most clever and delight­ful fash­ion — it instead comes out sound­ing a lit­tle bit like my mileage log for the year.

So I’m play­ing with the form. And along those lines, I decid­ed to try some­thing out with a group of young teenage girls I had men­tored as a writ­ing group: I had them write year-end hol­i­day let­ters for them­selves, but in poet­ic form. I remind­ed them that we’ve talked about epis­to­lary poems before, and encour­aged them to remem­ber the many oth­er poet­ic tools and ele­ments we’ve dis­cussed: metaphor, allit­er­a­tion, imagery, rhythm, word­play, the sound qual­i­ty of cer­tain words.

Their result­ing let­ter poems were engag­ing­ly suc­cess­ful, and each girl’s work was dis­tinc­tive­ly dif­fer­ent. A cou­ple of them chose to write in stan­zas. One wrote in rhyme. Their tones var­ied from fun­ny to ret­ro­spec­tive.

And for at home, if you’re a “San­ta fam­i­ly,” an option for younger kids would be to help them write their San­ta let­ters using sim­ple poet­ic ele­ments.

Maybe I’ve final­ly dis­cov­ered a way I can leave the mileage log in the car and craft a let­ter of my own that makes a more poet­ic imprint.



StatueThere’s a quote about sculpt­ing, attrib­uted to Michelan­ge­lo, that I often para­phrase for stu­dents when I’m talk­ing about the art of revis­ing:

In every block of mar­ble I see a stat­ue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and per­fect in atti­tude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the love­ly appari­tion to reveal it to the oth­er eyes as mine see it.

A first draft is often writ­ten in a kind of over­drive, with words spin­ning across the paper with­out thought to whether they all belong. That’s a valid draft­ing tech­nique, but a writer can’t stop there (how­ev­er much most stu­dents want to), because that first draft acts as a block of mar­ble. It includes such an excess of words that they imprison the per­fec­tion inside. It is only by revis­ing — hew­ing away the excess — that the essen­tial sto­ry, poem, or essay is revealed.

Pic­ture books are one of the best tools I’ve found for teach­ing the beau­ty of “less is more” in writ­ing. They are fan­tas­tic writ­ing exam­ples even for stu­dents who are well past read­ing them on a reg­u­lar basis — includ­ing mid­dle school and high school writ­ers. The com­pact pack­ages make for a quick study, and the best are great exam­ples of sto­ry­telling, poet­ic lan­guage, the clear but evoca­tive deliv­ery of infor­ma­tion, and sen­so­ry images.

Some of my past favorites that work well with old­er stu­dents include City Dog, Coun­try Frog by Mo Willems, A Leaf Can Be by Lau­ra Pur­die Salas, and Chop­sticks by Amy Krouse Rosen­thal.

Read them, talk about them, and then encour­age your stu­dents to take out the chis­els and get to work!


Winning the Road Race?

When I work with ded­i­cat­ed young writ­ers, there’s almost always a point where they ask how they can get pub­lished.

This is a tough ques­tion for me, because my instinct is to pro­tect young peo­ple. And I know first­hand how much dis­ap­point­ment, rejec­tion, and self-doubt often accom­pa­nies the quest for pub­li­ca­tion. Writ­ing was hon­est­ly a lot more fun for me before I was focused on writ­ing for pub­li­ca­tion.

Pre-Teen Writer. Source: ©Drobot Dean - Adobe StockThe two things — the act of writ­ing, and being pub­lished — are not the same thing. But in a soci­ety where we place so much empha­sis on win­ning and finan­cial suc­cess, it’s easy to get caught up in equat­ing “get­ting pub­lished” with “win­ning the writ­ing race.” With assum­ing there’s no val­ue in writ­ing some­thing that doesn’t lead to an official “look what I did” prod­uct.

And trust me, I total­ly get the allure of see­ing one’s name in print. It’s the same each time a box of author’s copies of a new book arrive. If past expe­ri­ence means any­thing, I will like­ly leave the box in my front entry for a few days (weeks?) so that each time I walk into my liv­ing room I feel that same buzz of excite­ment: it’s a book! A real, check-it-out-from- the-library book! And I wrote it!

So telling young writ­ers that get­ting pub­lished doesn’t matt‚er would be tru­ly disin­gen­u­ous of me. I just want to help them sep­a­rate the qui­et entice­ment of writ­ing as an impor­tant form of self-expres­sion from the admit­ted thrill of get­ting pub­lished.

Where does that leave me when I’m faced with the “how do I get pub­lished” ques­tion? I try real­ly hard to make sure stu­dents under­stand what a joy the act of writ­ing, in and of itself, is for me. I remind them that their fam­i­ly and friends, their most impor­tant audi­ence, will trea­sure any­thing they write from their hearts.

And then for the per­sis­tent ones, I point to some of the places where young writ­ers can sub­mit their work to mag­a­zines, online jour­nals, and con­tests. Here’s a fair­ly com­pre­hen­sive list of con­tests and sub­mis­sion des­ti­na­tions from New Pages.

The race might be tough, and win­ning isn’t every­thing — but run­ning races we might nev­er win is also a sig­nif­i­cant part of the human expe­ri­ence.


Riding Around the Block

Writing Road Trip by Lisa Bullard | Riding Around the BlockMy mom was a huge wor­ri­er. But when I think back to my child­hood sum­mers, what stands out is not the safe­guards she imposed, but the aston­ish­ing free­dom we had. I remem­ber long seg­ments of time that belonged exclu­sive­ly to the under-ten crowd: our moms shared the vague under­stand­ing that we were “out­side,” but they had no clue exact­ly where in the big world of out­side we were at any giv­en moment. We might be in someone’s back­yard, under the watch­ful eye of one of those moms, but we were just as like­ly to be off on some grand adven­ture.

One of my favorite adven­tures was “rid­ing around the block,” although tech­ni­cal­ly it was much more than just a block. Each side of the square that my friends and I trav­eled had a favorite ele­ment. The first side was three blocks of homes, com­plete with oth­er kids we knew from the school bus. The sec­ond side’s best fea­ture was the pond where we caught tad­poles by the buck­et­full when they were in sea­son. The third side bor­dered a farmer’s fields, and we loved to play cas­tle high atop his hay­mows. The fourth side always required a sec­ond wind to start: the cor­ner was anchored by the haunt­ed house, and every­one knew you had to bike past that as fast as you pos­si­bly could. Once we dared slow down, we scanned the ditch with eagle eyes, always con­vinced we would once again find mys­te­ri­ous dry­ing bones as we had on a pre­vi­ous jour­ney.

There are many rea­sons — some of them sad and scary — that kids today don’t all share those long hours of unsu­per­vised free­dom from adult gov­er­nance. But writ­ers know that this can make it tough to ramp up the very ele­ment that an excit­ing sto­ry requires: risk-tak­ing and the result­ing con­se­quences. Adults who write for chil­dren have learned to cre­ate clever ways to get the grown-ups out of the sto­ry (hence the aston­ish­ing num­ber of orphans that lit­ter the lit­er­ary land­scape). That way, kids can get them­selves into, and out of, the kind of inter­est­ing trou­ble that makes us want to keep read­ing. But young writ­ers, often being raised them­selves in an always-super­vised child­hood, some­times strug­gle to place their char­ac­ters at risk. Which means their sto­ries stag­nate while their char­ac­ters sit around stay­ing safe.

Safe­ty, I am here to tell you, is the bane of good sto­ry-writ­ing. If you notice this trend emerg­ing, give your young writ­ers per­mis­sion to intro­duce risk and dan­ger — phys­i­cal, emo­tion­al, tan­gi­ble — into their sto­ries. Help them brain­storm ways to get rid of the character’s cell phone. Help them imag­ine how their char­ac­ter, while not nec­es­sar­i­ly a bad kid, might still find him or her­self in the kind of predica­ment their par­ents wish they’d stay far away from. Encour­age them to push their char­ac­ter out of the back­yard, and out from under the watch­ful eyes of Mom, and set them loose on an adven­ture of their own.



Some­thing that has always stuck with me from pio­neer tales is the images of the keep­sakes and oth­er non-manda­to­ry items pio­neer fam­i­lies often had to dis­card on the trail as the trip became hard­er and the oxen grew weary of pulling the over­loaded wag­ons.

This is just one of the rea­sons on the very long list of why I would have made the world’s worst pio­neer — I can’t pack for a week­end with­out schlep­ping along half my house­hold goods. So in an effort towards sav­ing some pack­ing space, I have a cos­met­ics bag already stocked with trav­el-sized bot­tles of the essen­tials I know I’ll need for any road trip.

story-wheel-fair-lettersOn the note of being stocked with the essen­tials, I was remind­ed of a fan­tas­tic day I spent as one of the res­i­dent authors in the Alpha­bet For­est at the Min­neso­ta State Fair. I was­n’t there this year (anoth­er record atten­dance year!), but I love sup­port­ing this won­der­ful lit­er­a­cy-dis­guised-as-play area at the State Fair. Each day, a guest author or illus­tra­tor is fea­tured. Dur­ing my turn, I focused on teach­ing young vis­i­tors the essen­tials need­ed for a writ­ing road trip. Sure, there’s a wide array of ele­ments that can make a sto­ry stronger. But some­times it’s good to review the basics; draw­ing on just three easy-to-under­stand ele­ments, I’ve watched thou­sands of kids cre­ate sto­ries dur­ing my many years of school vis­its and work­ing with young writ­ers.

TState Fair Story Wheelhe three core sto­ry ele­ments I focus on are char­ac­ter, set­ting, and conflict (a prob­lem). At the State Fair, I set up the Sto­ry Wheel with exam­ples of the char­ac­ters, set­tings, and prob­lems that a State Fair vis­i­tor might encounter — then the kids spin the wheel to col­lect a ran­dom mix of the three ele­ments and incor­po­rate them in their own sto­ries.

I’ve also cre­at­ed a sim­ple play-at-home ver­sion of the Sto­ry Wheel that kids can make from a paper plate — check for direc­tions here. You can also down­load the Mys­tery Ingre­di­ents activ­i­ty that I’ve shared; page 2 pro­vides long lists of pos­si­ble char­ac­ters, set­tings, and prob­lems that young writ­ers could use for their own Sto­ry Wheels.

Focus­ing on these three basic ele­ments (think of it as the trav­el-sized ver­sion of sto­ry writ­ing) makes it pos­si­ble for almost all stu­dents to cre­ate sim­ple sto­ries.


Possible Detours

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

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

  • Pup­peteer
  • Mime

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

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

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

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

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


Wish You Were Here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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

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


Watching for the Brown Truck

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

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

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

That breaks my heart.

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

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

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

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

UPS driver cookie


Emergency Car Kit

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

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

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

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


Fake ID

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

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

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

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

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

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


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.

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

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

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

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


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 Morguefile.com

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

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

They seem…irritated,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe even from the streets of New York.


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.”