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Winding Oak's Bookology Magazine

Tag Archives | Writing

Being Your Own Boss

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The Beauty of Joy Writing

If you dropped into Room 212 for a vis­it between 11:00 a.m. and 12:00 p.m. you might won­der what kind of “Writer’s Work­shop” was under­way. It’s not that you wouldn’t find evi­dence of writ­ing … the ques­tions raised might cen­ter on the gen­res of writ­ing you would be hard pressed to detect. No per­sua­sive essays. Not a sin­gle five-para­graph essay. Zero per­son­al nar­ra­tives.  And where are the friend­ly let­ters?

What you would dis­cov­er in Room 212 is a refresh­ing approach to Writer’s Work­shop that is intent on cul­ti­vat­ing JOY among the two dozen aspir­ing writ­ers spread around the room. What you would also dis­cov­er is a cel­e­bra­tion of indi­vid­u­al­i­ty, cre­ativ­i­ty, choice and voice …

An anniversary wish to an amazing school cook on 25 years of service

An anniver­sary wish to an amaz­ing school cook on 25 years of ser­vice

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An eclectic list of favorite bands

An eclec­tic list of favorite bands

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A sincere and well-thought out list of “Things I Hate”

A sin­cere and well-thought out list of “Things I Hate”

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a heartfelt note to a friend praising their virtues

a heart­felt note to a friend prais­ing their virtues

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Joy Write Ralph Fletcher

Ralph Fletcher’s lat­est con­tri­bu­tion to the world of teach­ing writ­ing, Joy Write, is one of the loveli­est approach­es to Writer’s Work­shop I’ve ever encoun­tered. It’s about set­ting aside the for­mal, com­mon core, stan­dards-based, often ener­gy-drain­ing ways we sti­fle kids in the Writer’s Work­shop. Instead, teach­ers are encour­aged to be inten­tion­al about cre­at­ing a “green­belt” space (an anal­o­gy relat­ed to com­mu­ni­ty plan­ning and land man­age­ment) that allows kids the free­dom to make writ­ing “per­son­al, pas­sion­ate, joy­ful, whim­si­cal, play­ful, infused with choice, humor, and voice” and best of all, “reflec­tive of the quirk­i­ness of child­hood.”

In addi­tion to extend­ing an abun­dance of ideas on what to do to dur­ing Writer’s Work­shop, Fletch­er cau­tions teach­ers on what NOT to do, such as cor­rect, grade, assess, quan­ti­fy pages or cri­tique messy hand­writ­ing.

If this peek into the Writer’s Work­shop in Room 212 leaves you won­der­ing just what the teacher could and should be doing to pro­mote the beau­ty of joy, you must get your hands on a copy of Joy Write, by Ralph Fletch­er, pub­lished by Heine­mann (down­load a free chap­ter of the book).

As my wise 3rd grade friend Will points out, “Joy Write means to write fre­aly. you don’t haft to write per­fect­ley. it doesn’t mat­ter now mat­ter what!”

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The Writer and the Refrigerator

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Isolation

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A Serious Question

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Revisions Part 5

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Swimming in a Sea of Ideas

Aimee Bissonette

Where do suc­cess­ful non­fic­tion writ­ers get their ideas? So many places! The top­ics a non­fic­tion writer can write about are lim­it­less. Sure, some ideas have been writ­ten about before, but non­fic­tion writ­ers take that as a chal­lenge. They ask what unusu­al angle they might take or if there is a dif­fer­ent (or bet­ter) for­mat in which to deliv­er the infor­ma­tion. Is there a way to add mys­tery or intrigue? Is there a lit­tle known fact beyond that’s not com­mon­ly known?

Yes, non­fic­tion top­ics are lim­it­less. Truth be told, though, it can be hard for non­fic­tion writ­ers to set­tle on a par­tic­u­lar idea even when they’re swim­ming in a sea of them. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly true for young writ­ers who are try­ing their hand at writ­ing non­fic­tion for the first time. Young writ­ers not only have to come up with engag­ing ideas, but they have to mas­ter a bevy of oth­er skills in their ear­ly writ­ing assign­ments: how to write a rough draft, choose rich words and phras­es, order events, use prop­er punc­tu­a­tion, and more.  Choos­ing a top­ic some­times only adds to the anguish.

So how can we help young writ­ers see that good non­fic­tion ideas are all around them? How can we help them dis­cov­er a top­ic that excites them and makes their writ­ing more enjoy­able? We need to teach them to do what oth­er non­fic­tion writ­ers do: dive deep!

Here are some suggestions—tried and true—from some­one who swims in that sea and is on the hunt for new ideas every day:

Expand your social net­work. Befriend peo­ple of dif­fer­ent ages, back­grounds, regions of the coun­try or pro­fes­sions. Talk to them about what inter­ests them and what is hap­pen­ing where they live. Friends and fam­i­ly mem­bers often have great sug­ges­tions for non­fic­tion top­ics based on things they’ve expe­ri­enced that you have not.

Miss Colfax's LightRead broad­ly. Read region­al news­pa­pers with sto­ries that have not bro­ken nation­al­ly or spe­cial­ized pub­li­ca­tions for peo­ple with spe­cif­ic inter­ests (e.g. dog mag­a­zines, trav­el mag­a­zines). Read about cur­rent and his­tor­i­cal events, oth­er coun­tries, music, books, food, cul­ture, and tra­di­tions.  I got the idea for Miss Colfax’s Light from a small excerpt I read in anoth­er book about women of the Great Lakes.  I wrote Aim for the Skies after read­ing Jer­rie Mock’s obit­u­ary in an Ohio news­pa­per.

North Woods GirlSpend time in nature. Do you know there are sci­en­tif­ic stud­ies that prove that our cre­ativ­i­ty is boost­ed when we spend time out­doors? It’s true. And when we get out­doors, we also see that nature pro­vides an end­less sup­ply of things to write about—like the ani­mals, plants, and chang­ing sea­sons depict­ed in my book North Woods Girl.  I have sev­er­al works in progress that focus on the nat­ur­al world—all of which are the result of hik­ing, canoe­ing, and tak­ing pho­tographs in the great out­doors. When I am stumped for ideas, I put on my walk­ing shoes and head out.

Talk with experts. Experts are chock-full of infor­ma­tion and most of them love to share it. Just ask! And if you are think­ing you don’t know any real experts, keep in mind there are “every­day experts” all around us who know about all sorts of things. Have you ever toured a fire sta­tion with a fire­fight­er? I have. And I learned lots of cool stuff when I did. For instance, did you know that fire­fight­ers have to use spe­cial wash­ers and dry­ers to clean their gear to remove car­cino­gens? Or that they have to hang their fire hoses after fight­ing fires so the hoses can dry out? (Which—fun fact—also means they need more than one set of hoses for their trucks!) Talk­ing to an expert helps you learn uncom­mon and inter­est­ing facts you can share in your non­fic­tion work.

Vis­it web­sites that report on fun facts and odd­i­ties. There are a num­ber of web­sites that spe­cial­ize in inves­ti­gat­ing and report­ing all sorts of fun facts—facts that make great non­fic­tion top­ics. Here are a few of my favorites:

Now I Know

Now I Know email newslet­ter (and web­site with archives) by Dan Lewis 

Curios­i­ty web­site    

Eurekalert! The Glob­al Source for Sci­ence News 

When read­ing mate­r­i­al on these sites, I try to keep an eye out for “tip of the ice­berg” frag­ments or “unturned stones.” There are always bits of unmined mate­r­i­al there—ideas that lie buried or hid­den under oth­er infor­ma­tion. That infor­ma­tion is per­fect for a non­fic­tion piece.

an idea you love

illus­tra­tion: bbtreesub­mis­sion | 123rf.com

Be sure to choose an idea you love.  Once you set­tle on an idea, the research and writ­ing begins. That takes time and energy—so don’t choose a top­ic you’re only mild­ly inter­est­ed in or your work might start to feel like just anoth­er assign­ment. You want the excite­ment you feel for your top­ic to show in your work. You want your read­ers to feel that excite­ment, too. The best way to do this is to choose a top­ic you tru­ly enjoy—perhaps one you always wished some­one else had writ­ten about so you could read it.

In her les­son plan “Call­ing all Non­fic­tion Writ­ers,” Mag­gie Knut­son sug­gests a num­ber of ques­tions teach­ers can ask stu­dents when select­ing non­fic­tion top­ics for their writ­ing. I’ve includ­ed a few of her pro­posed ques­tions below. You can find her whole les­son plan here.  Ques­tions like these help guide writ­ers, young and old, in their search for good non­fic­tion ideas. They help writ­ers choose ideas they care about—and that con­tributes to writ­ing suc­cess.

Calling All Nonfiction Writers

So tell your young writ­ers to put on their flip­pers, snorkels, and masks and dive in! Tell them to swim around in a big sea of ideas—one they’ve gen­er­at­ed them­selves using some of the sug­ges­tions above. They are sure to find one that is a good fit. Then, let the writ­ing begin.

Ques­tions for Stu­dents

Brain­storm a list of all the pos­si­ble top­ics about which you might write. Don’t judge them or exclude any­thing that pops into your mind.

  1. Think about each top­ic with your eyes closed. Notice how you feel. Does the top­ic excite you? Does your body get warm, cold, or feel some­thing else, such as ener­gized, heavy, sad, hap­py, or excit­ed? Do ideas begin to come to mind?
  2. Do a two-minute quick write on your topics—use notes, key­words, or bul­let points, not full sen­tences.
  3. Based on your quick write, choose the top­ic that most appeals to you.
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Summery

Peter Lourie

Peter Lourie

A well-known jour­nal­ist in a local bagel joint, after not see­ing me for a few weeks, would always greet me with, “Wel­come back, Pete.” It wasn’t because he knew where I’d been, but he knew I trav­eled a lot to write my children’s adven­ture books. Since I’d seen him last, I’d prob­a­bly been out climb­ing Aztec or Mayan tem­ples, pad­dling a riv­er, accom­pa­ny­ing biol­o­gists study­ing polar bears, whales, or man­a­tees. What I love about my job as a children’s adven­ture writer is research. I tell stu­dents, “to research is to explore.”

Recent­ly I trav­eled to the very top of Nor­way, near Rus­sia, to learn what a 19th-cen­tu­ry polar explor­er felt when he returned from a har­row­ing three-year Arc­tic sojourn. I’ve been writ­ing a new adven­ture biog­ra­phy for Hen­ry Holt, my sec­ond in a series, after Jack Lon­don and the Klondike Gold Rush.  It’s a Shack­le­ton-sort of sto­ry before Shack­le­ton, a sto­ry few in this coun­try know any­thing about.

The Fram

Fridtjof Nansen’s ship The Fram with which he explored in the Arc­tic and Antarc­tic
(pho­to cred­it: Wiki­me­dia Com­mons)

In 1893 the Nor­we­gian zool­o­gist and polar explor­er Fridtjof Nansen sailed for the North Pole with a crew of 12 in a spe­cial ship he had built called the Fram (mean­ing “for­ward” in Nor­we­gian). His object was to col­lect valu­able sci­en­tif­ic data on the unknown Arc­tic and maybe to reach the North Pole, a feat unac­com­plished in 400 years of try­ing. Nansen had the crazy idea that if he could build a ship strong enough, with the right pro­por­tions to with­stand the forces of crush­ing ice, he could lock his ship into the Arc­tic ice pack above Siberia and just drift toward the pole. The ice would pick his boat up just like a cork. Trav­el­ing on an Arc­tic cur­rent at one or two miles a day (Arc­tic ice is in con­stant motion), he’d “float” for a num­ber of years (he had pro­vi­sions for five years) right up to the top of the world and over to the oth­er side near Green­land. 

Vet­er­an Arc­tic trav­el­ers thought he was crazy, that he would jeop­ar­dize his and his crew’s lives. It was obvi­ous­ly a fool’s mis­sion. Yet Nansen had already become famous for his dar­ing. In 1888 he was the first to cross Green­land on skis. Unlike Admi­ral Peary and oth­ers who attempt­ed the trek, Nansen trav­eled from the unin­hab­it­ed east­ern side of the ice cap to a town in the west, lat­er say­ing, “I demol­ish my bridges behind me, then there is no choice but to move for­ward.” After his Green­land suc­cess he set his com­pass for the region of the North Pole, where ships on pre­vi­ous expe­di­tions were inevitably crushed, all hands div­ing for lifeboats or trudg­ing on foot over ice back to Siberia, many dying along the way.

Vardø, the north­ern­most fish­ing port in Nor­way (pho­to cred­it: Peter Lourie)

Nev­er­the­less, Nansen and the Fram set out from Oslo in 1893, sailed the 1600 miles around the top of the coun­try to Vardø, the last lit­tle fish­ing port in Nor­way, and then hunt­ed for the pack ice above the Siber­ian coast to try out the Fram’s ice-wor­thi­ness.  When the ship was locked in for the first time, the whine and roar of ice scrap­ing against the hull sent shiv­ers of hor­ror into the men’s hearts.  But the Fram did what its ship­wright designed it to do.  With a super wide, thick hull, it was lift­ed right up on top of that dead­ly frozen mass, slip­ping “like an eel out of the embraces of the ice” as its builder said, and was car­ried creak­ing and moan­ing toward its goal.

After near­ly a year and a half trapped in ice, Nansen real­ized Fram would miss the pole by 300 miles. So he and fel­low crewmem­ber Hjal­mar Johansen pre­pared to make a dash for it. They took 28 sled dogs, three sleds, two small can­vas-cov­ered kayaks and 1500 lbs of food and sup­plies, and head­ed into the white world know­ing they’d nev­er find their ship again. They couldn’t bring enough food for the dogs, so they planned to feed the weak and fail­ing dogs to stronger dogs to keep them going. For 15 months the men dragged their sleds over pres­sure ridges and jum­bled blocks of ice.  They jumped the lanes of water that opened beneath them. They fell into the water so many times they walked with clothes like armors of ice. When they final­ly found land after five months, they sur­vived the long polar win­ter on wal­rus and polar bear meat in a crude hut hard­ly wide enough to sleep stretched out. 

When all their dogs had died, and they were reduced to their tiny, frag­ile kayaks about to pad­dle hun­dreds of miles of open water to Spits­ber­gen, Nansen heard the bark of a dog some­where on the edge of the ice. He scram­bled to inves­ti­gate. Amaz­ing­ly he saw the fig­ure of a man, who turned out to be anoth­er polar explor­er, a Brit named Fred­er­ick Jack­son, whom Nansen had actu­al­ly met in Lon­don years ago. 

Jack­son took the two men into this camp. They shaved and washed and ate well until Jackson’s sup­ply ship returned the Nor­we­gians to Vardø almost three years after leav­ing the small fish­ing vil­lage. A year lat­er Nansen penned a best­seller called Far­thest North, an account of one of the great­est polar adven­ture tales ever told. 

I need­ed to go to Vardø to under­stand Nansen’s feel­ings when he left Nor­way, and when he returned to Nor­way. So I rent­ed a car in Trom­sø, a beau­ti­ful city above the Arc­tic Cir­cle and drove across the top of the coun­try, a region called Finn­mark, prac­ti­cal­ly to Siberia. I drove through bound­ing rein­deer, around mas­sive fjords and past moun­tains aflame with yel­low birch trees to reach that town where the famous Nor­we­gian explor­er had bought his last sup­plies in July 1893, won­der­ing if he’d ever return.

When I pulled into Vardø, I found a gem of a fish­ing vil­lage, with Russ­ian sig­nage in the har­bor. Fish­er­man in small boats sort­ed through their night’s catch. The autumn Arc­tic Sea wind on my face helped me imag­ine Nansen and his small crew head­ing out to sea in 1893. I pic­tured the famous Nor­we­gian on the Fram gaz­ing back at the sleepy town, feel­ing this silent exit was just the right way to leave his beloved coun­try, no crowds and shouts of good luck and farewell. (He and his crew had been fet­ed for weeks in towns up and down the coast of Nor­way.) Now every­thing was silent.

The masts in the har­bor, the house-roofs, and chim­neys stood out against the cool morn­ing sky. Just then the sun broke through the mist and smiled over the shore—rugged, bare, and weath­er-worn in the hazy morn­ing, but still lovely—dotted here and there with tiny hous­es and boats, and all Nor­way lay behind it….”

Boats in the peace­ful har­bor at Vardø (pho­to cred­it: Peter Lourie)

I strolled around the vil­lage for a few hours to imag­ine the scene of Nansen’s and Johansen’s return after three ice-bound years. On that ear­ly June morn­ing in 1896, no one spot­ted Jackson’s sloop glid­ing into the peace­ful har­bor at Vardø. The two sur­vivors jumped ashore and raced to the tele­graph sta­tion. They stamped their feet on the ground to feel their native soil. They were laugh­ing and smil­ing. A fish­er­man walked by them star­ing at Johansen’s odd jack­et he’d made from a blan­ket back in their tiny stone hut, where for nine win­ter months they had lived like cave­men.

A cow in the Vardø street gazed at them. Just a few hours before the whole world would dis­cov­er they were still alive, before Nansen would become the most famous man in Europe, Nansen reached out to pet the cow because, as he said, it looked so “sum­mery.”

Truth is, I had to go to all the way to Vardø to under­stand what Nansen meant by the word “sum­mery.”

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The Coolest Fact

Reports about ani­mals are bor­ing, and they usu­al­ly go like this: Hon­ey­bees are insects. Hon­ey­bees eat nec­tar. Hon­ey­bees live in a hive. See? BORING!

What if we do a lit­tle research, find the most inter­est­ing facts about hon­ey­bees and use them in a sto­ry about one hon­ey­bee? Here is some­thing I learned while research­ing hon­ey­bees. They dance. Like real­ly dance.

Bee Dance illustration by Rick Chrustowski

Bee Dance, illus­tra­tion © Rick Chrus­tows­ki

Okay now we have some­thing to work with. Why do bees dance? Where do they dance? Which bees dance? We can answer all those ques­tions in the sto­ry.

When I work with kids on writ­ing their own nar­ra­tive non­fic­tion sto­ries about ani­mals, I send them a list of ques­tions to research and answer before I get to school. My favorite ques­tion on the list? What is the coolest most inter­est­ing fact you learned about your ani­mal?

Daddy Longlegs

Pho­to: Alexan­der Bon­dar | 123rf.com

One boy learned that Dad­dy Lon­glegs are the most poi­so­nous spi­ders on earth, but their mouths are too small to ever bite a human. Awe­some! A sto­ry start­ed form­ing in my mind as I learned that.

One girl learned that a whale can hold its breathe under­wa­ter for 30 min­utes! 30 minutes—wow! I can’t wait to read the sto­ry about that whale at the bot­tom of the ocean, swoosh­ing around in the dark­ness look­ing for food.

The most inter­est­ing fact about an ani­mal is a great ful­crum for a sto­ry.

My book Bee Dance took nine years to write. I know that sounds crazy. And it is. But I just couldn’t get the sto­ry right. First I wrote the text in rhyme. It was fine, but some of my rhymes felt forced.

Then I tried to make the top­ic more visu­al­ly inter­est­ing. The illus­tra­tions start­ed out in black and white, then moved to col­or after the scout bee tast­ed the nec­tar of a flower. It made it seem like the bee was trip­ping on psy­che­del­ic drugs! AND it com­plete­ly stepped on the cool fact of the bee dance itself. Feel­ing defeat­ed, I put the book in a draw­er.

After work­ing on sev­er­al oth­er books, I pulled out my old Bee Dance script and real­ized that it need­ed to be a straight­for­ward read about how the bee dance works. The fact that bees dance spe­cif­ic direc­tions to a food source, so all the oth­er bees know exact­ly where to find it, is such a cool fact on its own. It was enough to hold the whole sto­ry togeth­er.

So now, when writ­ing sto­ries with kids I tell them, focus on the coolest fact you learned. Let that guide your sto­ry.

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Sorry—I Mean Structure—Seems To Be the Hardest Word

There’s an old Elton John song titled, Sor­ry Seems to be the Hard­est Word. Well, I won­der if he’d mind if I changed the title to, Struc­ture Seems to be the Hard­est Word.

Struc­ture is a lot like voice; it needs to be present, yet it must be invis­i­ble and unforced. With­out it, the writ­ing may fall down just like a kindergartner’s block tow­er. My cur­rent non­fic­tion project has great mate­r­i­al with plen­ty of pri­ma­ry and sec­ondary sources for me to search, but that’s not enough. It needs a sol­id struc­ture to sup­port it, or it will tip over.

There are a few basic ques­tions I am ask­ing myself to uncov­er a struc­ture:

  • What is the sto­ry I want to tell?
  • How does this sto­ry move along chrono­log­i­cal­ly?
  • What are the themes in the sto­ry?
  • Why does this sto­ry mat­ter?

Bold Women of MedicineWith Bold Women of Med­i­cine: 21 Sto­ries of Astound­ing Dis­cov­er­ies, Dar­ing Surg­eries, and Heal­ing Break­throughs, Chica­go Review Press, 2017, the struc­ture and theme were inher­ent­ly in place. Themes of per­se­ver­ance and edu­ca­tion as well as hav­ing a good men­tor aid­ed the med­ical women in their suc­cess­ful careers. The nar­ra­tive made sense to me, prob­a­bly because I was writ­ing indi­vid­ual chrono­log­i­cal sto­ries about lives well-lived.

Recent­ly I dove into Draft No. 4: On the Writ­ing Process by John McPhee. He says, “The approach to struc­ture in fac­tu­al writ­ing is like return­ing from a gro­cery store with mate­ri­als you intend to cook for din­ner. You set them out on the kitchen counter, and what’s there is what you deal with, and all you deal with.”[1] One struc­ture he writes about is the ABC/D struc­ture, where he pits the sto­ries of three sim­i­lar peo­ple against some­one dis­sim­i­lar. And that fourth ele­ment the “D” appears through­out the whole sto­ry. By pro­fil­ing peo­ple in this way, he adds a new dimen­sion or con­flict to the piece. And accord­ing to McPhee, theme plays a larg­er role. Hmmm, okay so there’s one way to go.

One of my favorite works of adult non­fic­tion is The Immor­tal Life of Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks by Rebec­ca Skloot. If you’re not famil­iar with it, pick it up and read it soon. In this book Skloot tells the sto­ry of Hen­ri­et­ta Lacks, a poor African Amer­i­can woman strick­en with cer­vi­cal can­cer. As Lacks was being treat­ed in 1951, her cells were tak­en with­out her con­sent. Ulti­mate­ly, HeLa cells, as they have become known, have trans­formed med­i­cine as we know it today.

In struc­tur­ing her book, Skloot uses a braid­ed sto­ry structure—a dif­fer­ent approach from McPhee’s. Dur­ing her research, she dis­cov­ered count­less mov­ing parts to Henrietta’s sto­ry, and the ques­tion was how best to uni­fy them into a sin­gle nar­ra­tive. What she fig­ured out was to take all the impor­tant nar­ra­tives and weave them through like a braid, jump­ing back and forth in time. Sim­i­lar to the struc­ture of the nov­el Fried Green Toma­toes at the Whis­tle Stop Café by Fan­nie Flagg. And because Skloot’s research was embed­ded in the sto­ry, she includ­ed her sto­ry with Deb­o­rah, (Henrietta’s daugh­ter) as one of the strands. That cen­tral nar­ra­tive car­ries through the whole book.

Skloot used three dif­fer­ent col­ored index cards, one for each of the three cen­tral nar­ra­tives. She arranged them on a large table and moved them around in time. She intro­duced all three strands in the begin­ning, so the read­ers knew what to expect. What she fig­ured out was that she was spend­ing too much time on each nar­ra­tive and not jump­ing around in time fast enough, thus bog­ging down the sto­ry. As soon as she moved more quick­ly from nar­ra­tive to nar­ra­tive, the book began to take shape.

My non­fic­tion sto­ry takes place with­in sev­er­al months, so I don’t have the lux­u­ry of jump­ing back and forth between decades as Skloot was able to do. But, there are mul­ti­ple char­ac­ters: steam­boat cap­tains, Native Amer­i­cans, explor­ers, nat­u­ral­ists and botanists, and of course set­tlers and farm­ers all telling their own sto­ries. So per­haps I can braid these nar­ra­tives togeth­er.

Since only a few inter­act­ed dur­ing the his­tor­i­cal event and can­not be pit­ted against each oth­er direct­ly, I need a way to con­nect them. So back I go to John McPhee’s ABC/D struc­ture, and it dawns on me that all of my char­ac­ters con­front the Mis­sis­sip­pi Riv­er. Per­haps I should pit the sto­ry around the riv­er. A cen­tral nar­ra­tive to car­ry the read­er through the book. A eure­ka moment? I hope.

Final­ly, in reread­ing You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Com­plete Guide to Writ­ing Cre­ative Non­fic­tion From Mem­oir to Lit­er­ary Jour­nal­ism and Every­thing in Between by Lee Gutkind, I found an addi­tion­al way to look at struc­ture.

Gutkind writes about the Cre­ative Non­fic­tion Dance where you cre­ate a rhythm for the sto­ry:

So here’s the dance that is dia­grammed. The scene gets the read­er inter­est­ed, (okay I have many good scenes) and involved, so you can then pro­vide infor­ma­tion, non­fic­tion, to the read­er. (I have good infor­ma­tion as well.) But soon­er or lat­er, a read­er will get dis­tract­ed or over­loaded with infor­ma­tion, and you will lose him. But before you allow that to hap­pen you go back to the scene—or intro­duce a new scene—and reen­gage.[2]

It’s even bet­ter, he says, if you can embed infor­ma­tion in the scene then you can trav­el from scene to scene with­out stop­ping.

I may need a com­bi­na­tion of these struc­ture ideas, or maybe a dif­fer­ent struc­ture alto­geth­er, we shall see. Am I over­think­ing it? Prob­a­bly, but struc­ture, for sure, seems to be the hard­est word.

I won­der if Elton has any words of wis­dom for me.

________________________________

[1] McPhee, John. Draft No. 4 On the Writ­ing Process. New York: Far­rar, Strauss and Giroux, 2017, p. 20.

[2] Gutkind, Lee. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Com­plete Guide to Writ­ing Cre­ative Non­fic­tion From Mem­oir to Lit­er­ary Jour­nal­ism and Every­thing in Between. Boston: DiCapo Press, 2013, p. 139.

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Wandering Aimlessly

Pho­to by nyc­sjv at Morguefile.com

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

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

They seem…irritated,” I said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe even from the streets of New York.

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The Limo’s on the Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Backseat Drivers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Behind the Sign

I came down with the flu. After weeks of drag­ging myself to the com­put­er, I final­ly lis­tened to the doc­tor and let myself be sick. One after­noon I pulled out my old jour­nals. I haven’t kept a jour­nal in the last few years, instead a plan­ner dic­tates my days. My com­po­si­tion note­books are a mish­mash of thoughts, mem­o­ries, obser­va­tions, scrib­blings on books in progress, and notes from writer’s con­fer­ences. I’ve nev­er been a ded­i­cat­ed diary keep­er, but car­ry­ing around a hand­made jour­nal felt less like “being a writer” and more like stay­ing in touch with the world.

Candice Ransom's Journals

Back then, I didn’t fre­quent Star­bucks or muse­ums or uni­ver­si­ty libraries. My obser­va­tions were made in din­ers where the first course for the spe­cial is cole slaw with Saltines, in gen­er­al stores that car­ry week­ly news­pa­pers report­ing a man was shot and became dead, and along back roads where peo­ple live in aban­doned gas sta­tions. I cap­tured scenes like this:

In Good­will today, a moth­er and daugh­ter came in talk­ing six­ty to the minute. Nat­u­ral­ly I eaves­dropped. Moth­er: Look, they got Dale Earn­hart glass­es. Daugh­ter: No, I seen ‘em before. I remem­bered shop­ping trips with my moth­er and sis­ter, how we’d “find” stuff for each oth­er.

The daugh­ter was ahead of me in the check-out line. One of her items, a NASCAR throw, wasn’t priced. Her mother—a large woman in an ill-fit­ting dress—squeezed past me to stand behind her daugh­ter. “Par­don me, sweet­ie,” she said. The clerk allowed the NASCAR throw was $14.99. Too much, the daugh­ter said and paid for her oth­er things.

Her moth­er set down two glass­es, the Dale Earn­hart ones. She pulled two dol­lars fold­ed into tiny squares from her wal­let. I won­dered if she pur­chased the Earn­hart glass­es for her daugh­ter, know­ing she want­ed them but didn’t have enough mon­ey. She thanked me again for let­ting her cut in front. The women talked all the way out the door. I won­dered where they were head­ed next. I longed to go with them.

I know fam­i­lies like that. They’re every­where, but most of us liv­ing our busy, for­ward-focused lives don’t notice the mar­gin-dwellers. I see them because I once exist­ed on the periph­ery. Deep inside, I still do. Peo­ple at the ragged edge will give you their time and any­thing else, even if they can’t spare it. When they speak, in what Anne Tyler calls “pure metaphor,” I come home.

Read­ing my jour­nals made me won­der where I’ve been late­ly and why my recent work feels so … safe. I was once on track to tell the sto­ries of kids who have fall­en through the cracks. Not in a poor-me-we-live-in-a-trail­er-and-Dad­dy-chews-Red-Man way, but with dig­ni­ty and even humor. After sev­er­al failed attempts, I quit because I knew the sto­ries I want­ed to write would hard­ly be a top pick in an editor’s inbox.

Oct. 3, 2014: Some days—weeks—it feels as if I haven’t writ­ten a word. Not my words. I’m remind­ed how much I want to say, how lit­tle time I have to do it.

So I stopped keep­ing a jour­nal. Stopped dri­ving down back roads to get lost on pur­pose. Worse, I faced for­ward and ignored the edges where the love­ly, impor­tant things are.

No Outlet signI found advice from Jack Gantos’s open­ing speech at the 2014 SCBWI Mid-win­ter con­fer­ence. The slide on the screen showed the cov­er of his New­bery award-win­ner, Dead End in Norvelt, with the title writ­ten on a road sign and a boy stand­ing behind it.

Feb. 22: “Always go behind the sign,” Gan­tos said. “It’s where the real sto­ries are.” I already do that.

When I fin­ished read­ing, I stacked the note­books, reluc­tant to put them back on the dusty shelf. If I did, I’d bury a trea­sure trove of sto­ries, sketch­es, places, names, scenes, and rare glimpses of my own true self. I moved them to the bed­room to dip into, hop­ing my dreams will urge me to record once more the soft cadence of for­got­ten voic­es.

I’m the only one stand­ing in the way. No one will beg me to tell the sto­ries I’ve already shot and declared dead with­out writ­ing a syl­la­ble, hear­ing an edi­tor say, No, I have seen this before. It’s up to me to find the edges, to unfold the tiny, tight squares of my con­fi­dence. To get lost on pur­pose and slip behind the sign. To see what I’m real­ly part of.

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A Science Rookie: Learning to Craft a Science Narrative When
You Know Next to Nothing about Science

Enter the fresh­man chem­istry tutor dressed in torn jeans and a flan­nel shirt. His job? To get me through entry lev­el chem­istry at Iowa State Uni­ver­si­ty. My first col­lege plan was to major in Hotel and Restau­rant Man­age­ment because my father owned a com­pa­ny that did busi­ness with these types of insti­tu­tions. So, what the heck, I didn’t know what else to study so I declared that my major way back in the fall of 1977.

ScienceNo one told me that since these kinds of insti­tu­tions serve food, I had to take cours­es in food and nutri­tion. And since food and nutri­tion were sci­ence based, I must take chem­istry. Three quar­ters of chem­istry! Ugh. Back to the tutor’s and my results; C+, and that was after a lot of hard work. My new major; jour­nal­ism and mass com­mu­ni­ca­tions, and forty years lat­er the stars have aligned. Sci­ence is draw­ing me in now.

Bold Women of MedicineWhen I wrote the pro­pos­al for Bold Women of Med­i­cine, it did not occur to me that I would have to write about sci­ence. Well … what did you think, Susan? Write about these coura­geous doc­tors, nurs­es, mid­wives, and phys­i­cal ther­a­pists, and there wouldn’t be any sci­ence? Oh, dear. I flashed back to fresh­man chem­istry and biol­o­gy, and sus­pect­ed I was in big trou­ble.

Along the way I dis­cov­ered that not hav­ing this knowl­edge was a good thing, and in my case, it almost helped me. I could write from a posi­tion of inno­cence and explain the women’s med­ical careers with­out a con­de­scend­ing tone to my read­ers: I was one of those read­ers.

Take for exam­ple one of the women in my book, Helen Taus­sig and her part in treat­ing the blue baby syn­drome. I bare­ly knew how the human heart worked when it was healthy, and now I’d have to explain how bril­liant med­ical researcher Mr. Vivien Thomas, and Drs. Taus­sig and Blalock, dis­cov­ered how to fix the defect. (Hint: Vivien Thomas prac­ticed on hun­dreds of dogs, the most famous of which is Anna, whose por­trait hangs at Johns Hop­kins Hos­pi­tal.)

heart doctorOff to the library I went to check out books on the human heart—first adult books, then books for chil­dren. I stud­ied the healthy heart and heart defect jar­gon and tried to explain it to myself first, and then write it down. For­tu­nate­ly, I have med­ical pro­fes­sion­als in my life so, after a few drafts, I had them read it to see if I had explained it cor­rect­ly and with­out intense med­ical lan­guage. Did you know the nor­mal child’s heart is about the size of their fist? I didn’t know that.

The tiny babies were not get­ting enough oxy­gen and in Dr. Taussig’s mind the fix seemed to be a sim­ple case of improved plumb­ing. The nar­ra­tive ten­sion was built right into the sto­ry. Specifics always work bet­ter so I wrote about the first oper­a­tion on one of the babies, lit­tle Eileen Sax­on, and lat­er anoth­er oper­a­tion on a six-year-old boy.

Dr. Catherine Hamlin

Dr. Cather­ine Ham­lin

In the pro­files of Dr. Cather­ine Ham­lin and Edna Adan Ismail, the sci­ence writ­ing was more chal­leng­ing know­ing my audi­ence was young adult (12 and up). Writ­ing about med­i­cine auto­mat­i­cal­ly lends itself to top­ics we don’t want to hear about—in this case, FGM (Female Gen­i­tal Muti­la­tion) and Obstet­ric Fis­tu­la. One young woman came to Dr. Ham­lin for help by walk­ing almost 280 miles. Ten years ear­li­er, because of a pro­longed labor, she had suf­fered two holes in her blad­der (an obstet­ric fis­tu­la) and lost all con­trol. At first Dr. Ham­lin did not know how to help her, but she talked to oth­er physi­cians and stud­ied up on pro­ce­dures. After the suc­cess­ful surgery, Dr. Ham­lin pre­sent­ed the young woman with a new dress in which to go home. The woman waved good-bye with hope and said “God will reward you for all you have done for me.” Pre­sent­ing the image of an opti­mistic woman with a new dress helps read­ers under­stand Dr. Hamlin’s impor­tant work.

Edna Adan Ismail

Edna Adan Ismail with a class of nurs­ing school grad­u­ates at Edna Adan Ismail hos­pi­tal.

As I wrote about sci­ence for the first time, I learned a few things along the way:

  • Every famous surgery or dis­cov­ery or treat­ment has a sto­ry. Find that sto­ry, find the human part of that sto­ry.
  • Char­ac­ter, set­ting, and the five sens­es can help sci­ence drib­ble into the sto­ry.
  • Keep your won­der and gross-out mind­set alive. Kids pos­sess this mind­set nat­u­ral­ly and many appre­ci­ate the guts (no pun intend­ed) of the details.
  • There are no stu­pid ques­tions when inter­view­ing experts. Be curi­ous, and if you can, expe­ri­ence the sci­ence first-hand.
  • Know that your audi­ence is smart, just inex­pe­ri­enced in the sub­ject.
  • Dou­ble (and triple) check your sci­ence writ­ing with the experts. The last thing you want to do is send out incor­rect infor­ma­tion.
Future bold women of medicine?

Future bold women of med­i­cine?

Because the women of med­i­cine were accom­plished, it was easy to assume they knew all the answers. They did not … but they were curi­ous and that curios­i­ty led them to answers. Sci­ence often comes up with neg­a­tive results, peo­ple just try­ing to under­stand how some­thing works. This doesn’t always make the news. Build­ing on these neg­a­tive results leads sci­en­tists to the flashy news and the suc­cess­es.

I built on my (lim­it­ed) knowl­edge, and learned right along with my audi­ence. I had a lot of false starts, not real­ly know­ing what I was writ­ing about. For­tu­nate­ly, for the patients, I nev­er had to actu­al­ly per­form the dif­fi­cult pro­ce­dures and surg­eries.

And to that chem­istry tutor in the flan­nel shirt, wher­ev­er you are: thanks for the help. I prob­a­bly did learn some­thing. Next up: seis­mol­o­gy. Know any good tutors?

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Poetry from Stones

Beach

[pho­to cred­it: Can­dice Ran­som]

Out­side my win­dow right now: bare trees, gray sky, a brown bird. No, let’s try again. Out­side my win­dow, the leaf­less sweet­gum shows a con­do of squir­rels’ nests, a dark blue rim on the hori­zon indi­cates wind mov­ing in, and a white-crowned spar­row scritch­es under the feed­ers. Bet­ter. Even in win­ter, espe­cial­ly in win­ter, we need to wake up our lazy brains, reach for names that might be hiber­nat­ing. 

Candice Ransom

[pho­to cred­it: Can­dice Ran­som]

In Novem­ber, I taught writ­ing work­shops at a school in a large­ly rur­al coun­ty. I was shocked to dis­cov­er most stu­dents couldn’t name objects in their bed­rooms, much less the sur­round­ing coun­try­side. With­out spe­cif­ic details, writ­ing is life­less. More impor­tant, if chil­dren can’t call up words, can’t dis­tin­guish between things, they will remain locked in win­try indif­fer­ence. Some blame falls on us.

Oxford Junior DictionaryA recent edi­tion of the Oxford Junior Dic­tio­nary swapped nature words for mod­ern terms. Out went acorn, wren, dan­de­lion, nec­tar, and otter. In went blog, bul­let-point, attach­ment, cha­t­room, and voice­mail. Updat­ing dic­tio­nar­ies isn’t new. And maybe cygnet isn’t as rel­e­vant as data­base, but it’s cer­tain­ly more musi­cal.  If we treat lan­guage like paper tow­els, it’s no won­der many kids can’t name com­mon back­yard birds.

When I was nine, my step­fa­ther taught me the names of the trees in our woods, par­tic­u­lar­ly the oaks. I learned to iden­ti­fy red, white, black, pin, post, and chest­nut oaks by their bark, leaves, and acorns. Label­ing trees, birds, and wild­flow­ers didn’t give me a sense of own­er­ship. Instead, I felt con­nect­ed to the plan­et. I longed to know the names of rocks, but they kept qui­et.

That same year we fourth graders were issued Thorndyke-Barnhart’s Junior Dic­tio­nary. I fell on mine like a duck on a June bug, enchant­ed by new words. My par­lor trick was spelling antidis­es­tab­lish­men­tar­i­an­ism, the longest word in the dic­tio­nary. Kids can Google the longest word in the Eng­lish lan­guage, but the expe­ri­ence isn’t the same as brows­ing through a big book of words. 

Emer­son wrote, “… the poet is the Namer, or Lan­guage-mak­er … The poets made all the words, nam­ing things after their appear­ance, some­times after their essence, and giv­ing to every one its own name and not another’s.” I believe young chil­dren are poets, assign­ing names and mak­ing up words to mark new dis­cov­er­ies. After they become teth­ered to tech­nol­o­gy, they par­rot words from com­mer­cials, pro­grams, and video games. That fresh lan­guage is lost.

The Lost Words: a Spell BookSo imag­ine my delight when I found a new book for chil­dren, The Lost Words: A Spell Book. British nature-writer Robert Mac­Far­lane paired with artist Jack­ie Mor­ris to res­cue 20 of the words snipped from the Oxford Junior Dic­tio­nary. Words like newt and king­fish­er are show­cased as “spells,” rather than straight def­i­n­i­tions. MacFarlane’s spells let the essence of the crea­ture sink deep, while Morris’s water­col­ors cre­ate their own mag­ic.

On their joint book tour through­out Eng­land, Mac­Far­lane and Mor­ris intro­duced chil­dren to words—and ani­mals. On her blog Mor­ris writes: “I was about to read the wren spell to a class of 32 six-year-olds when the book­sellers stopped me. ‘Ask the chil­dren if they know what a wren is, first, Jack­ie.’ I did. Not one child knew that a wren is a bird. So they had nev­er seen a wren, nor heard that sharp bright song. But now they know the name of it, the shape of it, so per­haps if one flits into sight they will see it, hear it, know it.”

The Lost Words makes me want to take chil­dren by the hand and tell them the names of the trees and birds and clouds that illus­trate our win­ter land­scape. By giv­ing kids spe­cif­ic names, they can then spin a thread from them­selves to the plan­et.

Ammonite

Ammonite [pho­to cred­it: Can­dice Ran­som]

Lan­guage is fos­sil poet­ry,” Emer­son con­tin­ues in his essay, “as the lime­stone of the con­ti­nent con­sists of infi­nite mass­es of the shells of ani­mal­cules, so lan­guage is made up of images, which now, in their sec­ondary use, have long ceased to remind us of their poet­ic ori­gin.”

Rock rasps, what are you?
I am Raven! Of the blue-black jack­et and the boxer’s swag­ger,
Stronger and old­er than peak and than boul­der, raps Raven in reply.

From The Lost Words

Let’s dig up lost words before they become buried beneath the rub­ble of STEM-wor­thy terms. Feel the shape of them, pol­ish their shells, let them shine.

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Signal Your Intentions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Forgetting How to Drive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Revisions Part IV

Page Break

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Stopping by the Diner

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

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

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

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

No, we haven’t stopped laugh­ing yet.

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

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

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

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

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True Story

Recent­ly I attend­ed a writer’s con­fer­ence main­ly to hear one speak­er. His award-win­ning books remind me that the very best writ­ing is found in children’s lit­er­a­ture. When he deliv­ered the keynote, I jot­ted down bits of his sparkling wis­dom.

At one point he said that we live in a bro­ken world, but one that’s also filled with beau­ty. My pen slowed. Some­thing about those words both­ered me. The crux of his speech was that as writ­ers for chil­dren, we are tasked to be hon­est and not with­hold the truth.

After the applause pat­tered away, the air in the ball­room seemed charged. Every­one was eager to march, unfurl­ing the ban­ner of truth for young read­ers! If we had been giv­en paper, we would have start­ed bril­liant, authen­tic nov­els on the spot.

The keynote’s mes­sage car­ried over into break-out ses­sions. Pan­elists admit­ted to crav­ing the truth when they were kids, things par­ents wouldn’t tell them. Par­tic­i­pants agreed. We should show kids the world as it real­ly is! The impli­ca­tion being that chil­dren lead­ing “nor­mal” lives should be aware of harsh­er real­i­ties and devel­op empa­thy. Kids liv­ing out­side the pale would find them­selves, maybe learn how to cope with their sit­u­a­tions.

I stopped tak­ing notes.

Here’s my truth: I was born into a bro­ken world. By age four, I’d expe­ri­enced scores of harsh­er real­i­ties. At sev­en, I learned the hard­est truth of all: that par­ents aren’t required to want or love their chil­dren. I spent most of my child­hood field­ing one real-world chal­lenge after the oth­er. I did not want to read about them, though few books fifty years ago explored issues of alco­holism, home­less­ness, and domes­tic vio­lence.

Christ­mas Day when I was 11 with my sis­ter and my cousins. I was already a writer at this age.

I read to escape, delv­ing into sto­ries where the character’s biggest chal­lenge was find­ing grandmother’s hid­den jew­els, as in The Secret of the Stone Griffins. Fluff? So what? In order to set the bar, I had to seek nor­mal and didn’t care if Dick-and-Jane fam­i­lies weren’t real. Even Mo, the alien girl in Hen­ry Winterfield’s Star Girl who’d tum­bled from her space­ship, lived a nor­mal life with her fam­i­ly on Asra, climb­ing trees on that far­away plan­et like I did on Earth.

In a fam­i­ly of non-read­ers, I broke free of the norm. Not only did I read con­stant­ly, but decid­ed to be a writer at an ear­ly age. I’d write the kind of books I loved, books where secrets involved buried trea­sure, not things I had to keep qui­et about; books where kids felt pro­tect­ed enough to embark on adven­tures.

My moth­er and step­fa­ther regard­ed me with odd respect, as if unsure what plan­et this kid had come from. So long as “sto­ry-writ­ing” didn’t inter­fere with school­work (it did), my moth­er excused me from chores. Only once did she declare read­ing mate­r­i­al inap­pro­pri­ate.

I was nine and fresh out of library books. I found a True Sto­ry mag­a­zine and was deep into sto­ry about an abused boy when my moth­er caught me. She thought I was learn­ing about sex. I was out­raged by the injus­tice: pun­ished for read­ing about a kid my age! Now I think about the irony.

Judy ScuppernongThen I grew up and wrote children’s books. Most of my fic­tion was light and humor­ous. Yet some brave writ­ers tack­led seri­ous sub­jects. My col­league Bren­da Seabrooke wrote a slen­der, ele­gant verse nov­el called Judy Scup­per­nong. This com­ing-of-age sto­ry touch­es on fam­i­ly secrets and alco­holism. The for­mat was per­fect for nav­i­gat­ing dif­fi­cult sub­jects.

I sat down and wrote a poem called “Nobody’s Child.” More fol­lowed, until I’d told my own sto­ry. My agent sub­mit­ted my book Nobody’s Child. One edi­tor asked me to rewrite it as a YA nov­el. “You’ve already done the hard part,” he said. He was wrong. Each time I revised (many times over the years), I had to crawl back into that dark place. Some peo­ple said that by telling my sto­ry, I’d be able to put it behind me. They were wrong. I nev­er will.

The truth is, I wrote Nobody’s Child to find answers. I already knew the what and the how. I want­ed to know why. But by then every­one involved was gone, tak­ing their rea­sons with them. If I were to fic­tion­al­ize my sto­ry to help anoth­er child in the same sit­u­a­tion, I couldn’t make the end­ing turn out any bet­ter.

In the fan­tasies and mys­ter­ies and books about ani­mals I read as a kid, I fig­ured out I’d prob­a­bly be okay. When I looked up from what­ev­er library book I was read­ing, or what­ev­er sto­ry I was writ­ing, I noticed the real world around me. Not all of it was bro­ken. There were woods and gar­dens and cats and birds and, yes, at last, peo­ple who cared about me.

Author Peter Altenberg said, “I nev­er expect­ed to hold the great mir­ror of truth up before the world; I dreamed only of being a lit­tle pock­et mir­ror …one that reflects small blem­ish­es, and some great beau­ties, when held close enough to the heart.”

Valiant children’s writ­ers will flash the great mir­ror of truth in bold­er works than mine. I’m con­tent to shine my lit­tle pock­et mir­ror at small truths, no big­ger than a starling’s sharp eye, from my heart to my reader’s.

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Big Surprise!

Lynne Jonell Page Break

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Biography: How to Decide
What Goes into the Soup Pot (and What Doesn’t)

It is cold up here in the north coun­try, so late­ly my thoughts have turned to cre­at­ing a steam­ing pot of soup. For soup, you have to hit the high­lights; the chick­en, onions, a car­rot or two. If you toss in too many ingre­di­ents, noth­ing will stand out and the result will be a mud­dled mess. You must also have a spe­cial ingre­di­ent. The quick taste that says, mmm, what is that? A dash of nut­meg? A spoon­ful of car­away seed?

Bold Women of MedicineWhen I wrote the short pro­files in Bold Women of Med­i­cine: 21 Sto­ries of Astound­ing Dis­cov­er­ies, Dar­ing Surg­eries, and Heal­ing Break­throughs, I real­ized they required a sim­i­lar focus. I need­ed the high­lights; birth, fam­i­ly, edu­ca­tion. The pro­files also need­ed that spe­cial some­thing to stand out.

Oth­er than bio­graph­i­cal assign­ments in school, I hadn’t writ­ten many biogra­phies. But often it is in the doing that we learn. When I researched and wrote my (look­ing for a home) pic­ture book biog­ra­phy Step by Step: The Sto­ry of Eliz­a­beth Kenny’s Fight to Treat Polio, I learned a few lessons.

I had been fas­ci­nat­ed by Sis­ter Ken­ny ever since my father’s stay at the Sis­ter Ken­ny Insti­tute after his stroke. Who was this brash woman who had found­ed the insti­tute famous in Min­neapo­lis? Not just Min­neapo­lis, for in fact, she was once vot­ed the most influ­en­tial woman in Amer­i­ca, beat­ing out Eleanor Roo­sevelt.

Research­ing and writ­ing the life of some­one famous can be daunt­ing. I didn’t have the space to write about every­thing in her life, and I didn’t want to bore young read­ers with unin­ter­est­ing facts.

The Min­neso­ta His­tor­i­cal Center’s Gale Fam­i­ly Library held her secrets in the form of let­ters, cards, and pho­tographs packed into box­es. See­ing Sis­ter Kenny’s hand­writ­ing helped me to imag­ine her sit­ting at a desk com­pos­ing a let­ter. The pho­tographs let me look into her simul­ta­ne­ous­ly kind and deter­mined eyes. It was an odd sense of the past, her past, com­ing to life. And yet, since she died in 1952, I knew more about her fate (and lega­cy) than she did.

Sis­ter Ken­ny even­tu­al­ly became the sam­ple chap­ter I includ­ed in my pro­pos­al for Bold Women of Med­i­cine. The Chica­go Review Press Women of Action Series intro­duces young adults to women and girls of courage and con­vic­tion.

As I sift­ed through these lives I won­dered, what spurred these women on to a life in med­i­cine?

With­in the frame­work of the women’s lives (birth, edu­ca­tion, career, and fam­i­ly), I began to see pat­terns lead­ing them to med­i­cine. My goal was to keep the sto­ry mov­ing for­ward.

Sis­ter Ken­ny (pho­to: State Library of Queens­land)

For exam­ple, Sis­ter Ken­ny real­ized suc­cess with one patient inflict­ed with cere­bral pal­sy, caus­ing paral­y­sis. She said, “Although my spe­cial life’s work had not yet real­ly begun, I always think of this peri­od as my start­ing point.” Dis­cov­er­ing each woman’s moti­va­tion helped me to cre­ate a tighter focus. In oth­er words, I lim­it­ed the ingre­di­ents I placed into my soup pot and at the same time found that spe­cial some­thing.

What fac­tors influ­enced Sis­ter Ken­ny to prac­tice med­i­cine? Was it an event, a per­son, or a need to be help­ful? I am a lin­ear thinker (some­times a hin­drance) but in this case, point A of a woman in medicine’s life often led to point B. Some­times I had to back­track much like you do when fol­low­ing a hik­ing trail, and often when I back­tracked I dis­cov­ered anoth­er, more intrigu­ing part of her sto­ry.

Research is a tricky beast no mat­ter what the sub­ject is, and the most dif­fi­cult part of research is know­ing when to quit. Not every­thing from your fridge must be a part of your din­ner.

I searched for anec­dotes that would inter­est a young read­er. What hap­pened in Sis­ter Kenny’s child­hood that shaped her inter­est in sci­ence? What char­ac­ter traits did she pos­sess that led to suc­cess or fail­ure? What impact did she have on his­to­ry? Pulitzer Prize win­ning writer David McCul­lough says, “I believe very strong­ly that the essence of writ­ing is to know your subject…to get beneath the sur­face. You have to know enough to know what to leave out.”

I read as much as I could on each woman, until I found the sto­ry and pat­tern with which to begin. Each of these women lived full lives, and in the cut­ting of some of their life events I strength­ened the fla­vors, high­light­ing their pow­ers of hope, edu­ca­tion, and per­se­ver­ance. And as I write this on a cold day, it’s time to pull out the pot and fig­ure out the best ingre­di­ents for my soup!

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Predictable Pattern

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Art and Words, Words and Art

Jun­gle Tales,” by J.J. Shan­non, 1895

Thir­ty years ago, I bought a poster of “Jun­gle Tales” by J.J. Shan­non (1895) at the Met in New York City. I took it to my favorite framer, but when it was ready, I was hor­ri­fied to see they’d cut off Met­ro­pol­i­tan Muse­um of Art, The Children’s Book­shop at the bot­tom, fram­ing just the image.  No one thought the words were impor­tant.  The framer ordered a new poster and framed it intact. “Jun­gle Tales” has been hang­ing over our den sofa ever since. I love the paint­ing, but I also love the place names. In my mind, the two can’t be separated—art and words, words and art.

Like most kids, I wrote sto­ries and drew pic­tures. I enjoyed words with illustrations—magazines with pho­tographs and car­toons, com­ic books, mid­dle grade fic­tion with inside line draw­ings. The expe­ri­ence was nev­er hurried—I pored over the images and made con­nec­tions between the art and the words. This was a world I nev­er want­ed to leave.

San­cho, the Hom­ing Steer, by Can­dice Sylvia Far­ris

I planned to be both a writer and an artist, but after high school I real­ized I’d need for­mal art train­ing. Col­lege of any kind was out of the ques­tion. I could teach myself to write and that was the path I chose.

Still, art remained a large part of my life. I watch children’s book illus­tra­tors work, envy­ing those who can draw and paint and see results at the end of the day. In a writ­ing ses­sion, I may pro­duce one decent sen­tence, if that. To improve my craft—a dai­ly strug­gle even after all these years—I start jour­nals, but fal­ter in the prac­tice. New projects seem wrenched from me. Words, words, where are the words?

Two years ago, I was asked to write a pic­ture book based on a char­ac­ter cre­at­ed by an illus­tra­tor. I agreed to try, though I was uncer­tain and ner­vous. I hadn’t writ­ten a pic­ture book in more than ten years. And I’d nev­er writ­ten a pic­ture book based on a char­ac­ter. The edi­tor sent me the illustrator’s sam­ple sketch­es. I stud­ied them, just as I’d once pored over the art in comics or mys­tery books. I pho­to­copied the sam­ples and car­ried them around with me.

pre­lim­i­nary sketch­es for Aman­da Pan­da Quits Kinder­garten

Instead of hav­ing to visu­al­ize a char­ac­ter in my head, the way I usu­al­ly wrote pic­ture books (or any­thing), I could see the pan­da girl and her range of emo­tions, and appre­ci­ate Chris­tine Grove’s sense of humor. I knew the kind of sto­ry this char­ac­ter need­ed. And I wrote it, Aman­da Pan­da Quits Kinder­garten (2017). When I was asked to write a sequel, the illus­tra­tions from the first book inspired me. Aman­da Pan­da and the Big­ger, Bet­ter Birth­day will be out next sum­mer.

Amanda Panda Quits KindergartenA few weeks ago, Chris­tine Grove sent me a new char­ac­ter. “What do you think?” she wrote. I print­ed out the char­ac­ter and car­ried it around with me. A month lat­er, I had a new sto­ry. Art came to my res­cue. It gave me the words I hadn’t been able to pull out of my head. 

I don’t know if this new sto­ry will become a pub­lished pic­ture book, but I’ve learned my les­son. Don’t stray from art again. I’ll col­lect mag­a­zine pho­tos, doo­dle, pho­to­copy books (Pin­ter­est doesn’t cut it for me), and paste the images into those fal­low jour­nals. Visu­als will help me find the words. Art and words, words and art.

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A Picture and a Thousand Words

As a reporter and edi­tor for decades, I often heard peo­ple accuse my col­leagues and me of “bias,” of hav­ing a par­tic­u­lar slant on a story—usually a point of view that the accuser dis­put­ed. It was a com­mon charge, espe­cial­ly if the issue was con­tro­ver­sial.

But in truth, reporters are no dif­fer­ent than any­one else. Every­one comes to a sub­ject with some kind of bias.  If you know what a cer­tain beach is like, then you are like­ly to asso­ciate oth­er beach­es with that expe­ri­ence; if you’ve nev­er been to the beach, then you can only imag­ine what the smells, the sand, or the sea is like.

If you are pro-can­dy, you will read about can­dy dif­fer­ent­ly than some­one who doesn’t like it.

When you write non­fic­tion, these dif­fer­ent read­er per­spec­tives mat­ter. If we want to be thought­ful about a sub­ject or apply those all-impor­tant crit­i­cal think­ing skills, it helps to acknowl­edge our nat­ur­al biases—not to judge, but sim­ply to under­stand that our expe­ri­ences affect how we see things.

Tommy: the Gun that Changed America (hardcover on the left, paperback on the right)When I speak to junior high stu­dents, I often hold up a copy of my book Tom­my: The Gun that Changed Amer­i­ca and ask them what they think it is about.

Why would I write this,” I go on, “and why, espe­cial­ly, for young peo­ple?” Then I might show them the paper­back ver­sion, which has the same title, of course, but no gun on the cov­er.  “What do you make of that?”

From there, we can actu­al­ly start talk­ing about guns—what role they play in our soci­ety, what makes them inter­est­ing to read­ers and how they gen­er­ate strong feelings—without hav­ing to debate the Sec­ond Amend­ment.

Because we live in such a visu­al world, I spend hours track­ing down the right pho­tos, car­toons, and doc­u­ments to help tell a sto­ry. And even if these images don’t make it into the book, they influ­ence my writ­ing by remind­ing me what the world looked like and how peo­ple felt in that time peri­od.

The images that do make it into my books can change the reader’s expe­ri­ence, chal­leng­ing the bias­es they bring to the sto­ry.

Bonnie Parker

Bon­nie Park­er (pho­to: Mis­souri State High­way Patrol)

Con­sid­er this pho­to of Bon­nie Park­er, a key image in my next book, Bon­nie and Clyde: The Mak­ing of a Leg­end, due out in August 2018. It’s a cru­cial pic­ture, the first time she became known to the pub­lic. What do you think about her when you see this? What do you think she’s like?

Now com­pare it to the glam­our shot below, tak­en just a few years before. Does it change your per­spec­tive at all?

Maybe one way to make stu­dent research and non­fic­tion more engag­ing is to con­sid­er our assump­tions and bias­es by bring­ing images into the process. Some ideas:

Bon­nie Park­er (from the col­lec­tions
of the Dal­las His­to­ry and Archives Divi­sion
of the Dal­las Pub­lic Library)

  • Ask stu­dents to make assump­tions about a book from the cov­er. Then com­pare to what the sto­ry is inside. Did their per­spec­tive change?
  • Pull out a sin­gle image and try to guess what it means to the sto­ry. Then, read that chap­ter (or pic­ture book) and test it.
  • Ask stu­dents to search for a pho­to sep­a­rate­ly from their research on a sub­ject. Did the pho­to enforce or change their point of view?

What oth­er ways can you address how a reader’s expe­ri­ences can impact under­stand­ing?

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Pickle Voice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Revision Letter

Lynn Jonell's Page Break

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The Sameness of Sheep

Once, when I dis­cussed my work-in-progress, mid­dle-grade nov­el with my agent, I told her the char­ac­ter was eleven. “Make her twelve,” she said. “But eleven-year-olds aren’t the same as twelve-year-olds,” I protest­ed. “Those are dif­fer­ent ages.” “Make her twelve,” she insist­ed. “The edi­tor will ask you to change it any­way.”

I didn’t fin­ish the book (don’t have that agent any­more, either). The age argu­ment took the wind out of my sails. I under­stood the reasoning—create old­er char­ac­ters to get the most bang for the mid­dle-grade buck by snar­ing younger read­ers. Bet­ter yet, stick the char­ac­ter in mid­dle school.

The true mid­dle-grade nov­el is for read­ers eight to twelve with some over­lap. Chap­ter books for sev­en- to ten-year-olds bisect the low­er end of mid­dle grade. “Tween” books, aimed at twelve- to four­teen-year-olds, strad­dle the gap between MG and YA. If my char­ac­ters are twelve, I hit the mid­dle grade and tween tar­get and every­body wins. Maybe not.

At our pub­lic library, I pulled more than a dozen new MG nov­els off the shelves. Opened each book, checked the age of the main char­ac­ter. Twelve. Twelve. Eleven! No, wait, turn­ing twelve in the next chap­ter. While the char­ac­ters and sto­ries were all dif­fer­ent, there was a sheep­like same­ness read­ing about twelve-year-olds.

It wor­ries me. Pub­lish­ers con­tribute to push­ing ele­men­tary school chil­dren as quick­ly as pos­si­ble into mid­dle school. Where are the mid­dle-grade books about a ten-year-old char­ac­ter? An eight-year-old char­ac­ter? Ah, now we’ve backed into chap­ter book ter­ri­to­ry.

Charlotte's WebSup­pos­ed­ly, kids pre­fer to “read up” in age. This assumes that, say, fifth graders want to know what to expect when they’re in eighth grade. (Lord help them.) Read­ing about a char­ac­ter who is two or three years old­er might gen­er­ate anx­i­ety in some read­ers. And they may dis­dain short­er, sim­pler chap­ter books.

In the past, before pub­lish­er and book­store clas­si­fi­ca­tions, age wasn’t much of an issue. Wilbur is the main char­ac­ter in Charlotte’s Web, although the book opens with Fern sav­ing him. Fern is eight, a fact men­tioned on the first page. Does any­one care what grade Fern is in once he lands in Zuckerman’s rich­ly-depict­ed barn­yard?

The Year of Billy MillerMore recent­ly, Kevin Henkes broke the “age” bar­ri­er with his ter­rif­ic mid­dle grade nov­el, The Year of Bil­ly Miller (2013). Fuse 8’s Bet­sy Bird com­pared it to Bev­er­ly Cleary’s Ramona books. Bil­ly is sev­en and start­ing sec­ond grade, a char­ac­ter nor­mal­ly found in a briskly-writ­ten, low­er-end chap­ter book. Yet Bil­ly Miller clocks in at a grand 240 pages. Bird prais­es Henkes, “[He] could have … upped his hero’s age to nine or ten or even eleven. He didn’t. He made Bil­ly a sec­ond grad­er because that’s what Bil­ly is. His mind is that of a sec­ond grad­er … To false­ly age him would be to make a huge mis­take.”

Tru and NelleAuthor G. Neri took on a big­ger chal­lenge. In Tru & Nelle (2016), the char­ac­ters are sev­en and six. This hefty MG explores the child­hood friend­ship between Tru­man Capote and Harp­er Lee. Neri chose fic­tion rather than biog­ra­phy because, as he states in his author’s note, “[This] sto­ry was born from real life.” He didn’t shy away from writ­ing a lengthy, lay­ered book about a first and sec­ond grad­er.

We need more books fea­tur­ing eight-, nine-, ten-year-old char­ac­ters that are true mid­dle grade nov­els and not chap­ter books. Chil­dren grow up too fast. Let them linger in the “mid­dle” stage, find them­selves in books with char­ac­ters their own age.

Let them enjoy the cycle of sea­sons, “the pas­sage of swal­lows, the near­ness of rats, the same­ness of sheep.” Soon enough, they’ll race away from the barn­yard and into mid­dle school.

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A Vehicle for Change

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

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

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

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

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Roadblocks

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Why Young Writers Need an Authentic Audience

bored writerFor me, writ­ing non­fic­tion is a fun adven­ture. A game to play. A puz­zle to solve. A chal­lenge to over­come.

But many stu­dents don’t feel the same way. Accord­ing to them, research is bor­ing. Mak­ing a writ­ing plan is a waste of time. And revi­sion is more than frus­trat­ing. It’s down­right painful.

Why do young writ­ers have a point of view that’s so com­plete­ly dif­fer­ent from mine? While there’s prob­a­bly no sin­gle answer to this ques­tion, one thing that’s miss­ing for young writ­ers is an authen­tic audi­ence.

When I begin writ­ing, I know exact­ly who my audi­ence is—kids, of course, but also the adults who put the books in the hands of chil­dren. I’m excit­ed to share infor­ma­tion with my audi­ence, and I hope they’ll find it as fas­ci­nat­ing as I do.

I know peo­ple are read­ing my books because I see reviews online and in jour­nals. Even­tu­al­ly, I see sales fig­ures. Kids respond by send­ing me let­ters, by ask­ing prob­ing ques­tions at school vis­its and, some­times, by drag­ging their par­ents to book sign­ings. Teach­ers and librar­i­ans respond via social media and by invit­ing me to their schools and con­fer­ences.

These respons­es are dif­fer­ent from the ones I get from my cri­tique group and edi­tors. Sure, they read my work too, but it’s their job to find fault with it. While I appre­ci­ate and depend on their feed­back, it’s far less reward­ing than the reac­tions I get from my true audi­ence, my authen­tic audi­ence.

Stu­dents often don’t have an authen­tic audi­ence. Their teacher is like my edi­tor. And if peer cri­tiquing or bud­dy edit­ing is part of their writ­ing process, those class­mates are like my cri­tique group.

How can we give young writ­ers the kind of expe­ri­ences pro­fes­sion­al writ­ers have when they write for and get respons­es from an authen­tic audi­ence? Here are a cou­ple of ideas:

  1. Share writ­ing with younger stu­dents. Encour­age the younger stu­dents to respond with writ­ing of their own or by draw­ing pic­tures or mak­ing an audio or video record­ing.
  1. Cre­ate a class blog and encour­age stu­dents in oth­er class­es and/or par­ents to read the posts and leave meaty com­ments.

If you have oth­er sug­ges­tions, please share them in the com­ments below or via social media. I know there are lots of ways we can cre­ate an authen­tic audi­ence for our stu­dents.

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Shifting Gears

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

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

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

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

And they say that size doesn’t mat­ter.

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

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

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

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Skinny Dip with Patti Lapp

Patti Lapp

A ded­i­cat­ed edu­ca­tor in Penn­syl­va­nia, we invit­ed Pat­ti Lapp to answer our twen­ty Skin­ny Dip ques­tions.  

Who was your favorite teacher in grades K-7 and why?

Mr. Jor­dan was my favorite teacher who taught 7th grade. He was fun­ny and straight­for­ward; all of us stu­dents respect­ed him, and he cer­tain­ly kept every­one in line. I attend­ed a Catholic school, and he was unique in that set­ting.

When did you first start read­ing books?

My mom read to me when I was very young, and because of her ded­i­ca­tion, I could read inde­pen­dent­ly when I entered kinder­garten. I have been read­ing vora­cious­ly since.

Your favorite day­dream?

I day­dream of hav­ing time to write!

Din­ner par­ty at your favorite restau­rant with peo­ple liv­ing or dead: where is it and who’s on the guest list?

The din­ner par­ty would be at Sog­gy Dol­lar in Jost Van Dyke, BVI. The guest list would include: Jesus, of course! This choice is cliché, but how inter­est­ing would this din­ner con­ver­sa­tion be with Him?! At this din­ner, I would also invite Mary Mag­da­lene, Stephen Hawk­ing, David Bohm, Albert Ein­stein, Gregg Braden, Niko­la Tes­la, Edgar Cayce, Nos­tradamus, Shirley MacLaine, Nel­son Man­dela, Charles Dick­ens, Maya Angelou, Avi, Vig­go Mortensen, Paul McCart­ney, and my father and grand­fa­ther, both deceased.

A Tale of Two CitiesAll-time favorite book?

A Tale of Two Cities—bril­liant plot­line, indeli­ble char­ac­ters, and a notable begin­ning and end!

Favorite break­fast or lunch as a kid?

My mom made the best French toast. The key is a lot of cin­na­mon.

What’s your least favorite chore?

Get­ting ready the night before for the next day’s work.

What’s your favorite part of start­ing a new project?

Inspi­ra­tion.

Bare­foot? Socks? Shoes? How would we most often find you at home?

Bare­foot or socks—season depen­dent.

When are you your most cre­ative?

Sit­ting alone in the qui­et dark at night, decom­press­ing before bed­time.

Your best mem­o­ry of your school library?

When in ele­men­tary school, my best mem­o­ry is of the Nan­cy Drew mys­tery sto­ries that I bor­rowed every week. Now, as a teacher, my best mem­o­ries are dis­cussing nov­els with the many librar­i­ans that we have had over the years. They read a lot; so do I.

Favorite fla­vor of ice cream?

Cher­ry Gar­cia.

Purgatory Ridge William Kent KruegerBook on your bed­side table right now?

William Kent Krueger’s Pur­ga­to­ry Ridge, the third nov­el in his Cork O’Connor murder/mystery series of cur­rent­ly 16 books. I got hooked on his bril­liant sto­ry, Ordi­nary Grace, a stand­alone nov­el. He writes beau­ti­ful­ly.

What’s your hid­den tal­ent?

I can weave.

jacksYour favorite toy as a child …

Jacks—Any­one remem­ber that game?

Best inven­tion in the last 200 years?

Clean water and indoor plumb­ing and the print­ing press and the elec­tric light.

Favorite artist? Why?

I love Van Gogh because of his tex­tured brush strokes, col­or, and cre­ativ­i­ty.

Which is worse: spi­ders or snakes?

Snakes are the worst. I do not kill spi­ders because they will con­sume most of the insects in our homes. If they are big and hairy, they pack their bags and leave—in a cup—to move out­side.

vegetablesWhat’s your best con­tri­bu­tion to tak­ing care of the envi­ron­ment?

I am a veg­e­tar­i­an. It takes 15 pounds of feed to gen­er­ate 1 pound of meat; hence, more peo­ple in the world can be fed when peo­ple con­sume a veg­e­tar­i­an diet. Addi­tion­al­ly, ani­mals are saved, many that would be raised in inhu­mane con­di­tions, many that would be treat­ed inhu­mane­ly.

Why do you feel hope­ful for humankind?

Ideas are humans’ most valu­able resource. If we con­tin­ue to invest in inno­va­tion and research that make our plan­et health­i­er and improve the qual­i­ty of life for the glob­al com­mu­ni­ty, we have hope. As a very sim­ple exam­ple, look at the fair­ly new aware­ness of GMOs in our food. With aware­ness, comes demand. With demand, comes change—and human­i­ty clear­ly needs to con­tin­ue to make pio­neer­ing and pos­i­tive changes.

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The Book Box

For a fic­tion work­shop, I asked par­tic­i­pants to bring in child­hood books that influ­enced them to become a writer. Nat­u­ral­ly, I did the assign­ment myself. Choos­ing the books was easy, but they felt insub­stan­tial in my hands, vin­tage hard­backs that lacked the heft of, say, the last Har­ry Pot­ter. When it came my turn to talk, I fig­ured I’d stam­mer excus­es for their shab­by, old-fash­ioned, stamped jack­ets. (“Well, this is the way library books looked in the fifties.”)

I want­ed to tuck my beloved books in a box to keep them safe, like baby robins fall­en out of a nest. Real­ly, what is a book, but ideas, adven­tures, peo­ple, and places pro­tect­ed by card­board, shaped like a box? I car­ried this notion with me on a trip to Michael’s, where I found a stur­dy box with a jig­saw of lit­tle box­es stacked under the front flap. I knew just what I’d do with this prize: show­case my favorite books in an assem­blage. 

The Book Box

At FedEx Office, I col­or pho­to­copied the book cov­ers, reduced them sev­er­al sizes, then dashed through A.C. Moore’s minia­ture sec­tion to col­lect tiny endowed objects. Next, I hap­pi­ly sort­ed through my scrap­book and ephemera stash for just-right win­dow dress­ing. I glued on paper, adding the objects. Pic­tures and trin­kets were pret­ty, but not enough. The box need­ed words to set the stories—and their meaning—free.

Home for a BunnyI typed quotes and notes into strips fold­ed accor­dion-style. Mar­garet Wise Brown’s Home for a Bun­ny gen­tly remind­ed me that once I had lived “under a rock, under a stone.” Like the bun­ny, I had no home of my own until I was five. This was my first book, my first expe­ri­ence in iden­ti­fy­ing with a char­ac­ter.

The title of Trix­ie Belden and the Secret of the Man­sion con­tained “secret” and “man­sion,” words that made my heart thump. Trix­ie lived in the coun­try like me, and had to work in the gar­den, like I did. Trix­ie stum­bled into mys­ter­ies and I did, too, when I furi­ous­ly scrib­bled who­dun­nits in fourth grade. Just like that, I became a writer.

Diamond in the WindowThe Dia­mond in the Win­dow opens with a quote from Emer­son: “On him the light of star and moon / Shall fall with pur­er radi­ance down … / Him Nature giveth for defense / His for­mi­da­ble inno­cence; / The mount­ing up, the shells, the sea, / All spheres, all stones, his helpers be …” At eleven, I skipped those words, but I didn’t ignore the small lessons from Emer­son and Thore­au sprin­kled through­out this fan­ta­sy / adven­ture / fam­i­ly / mys­tery sto­ry. This book changed my life.

I had to be mar­ried on Valentine’s Day, after the “Bride of Snow” chap­ter (and I was one, too, in three feet of snow!). Our pow­der room has a Hen­ry Thore­au theme and we have a gaz­ing globe (“The crys­tal sphere of thought”) in our back yard, like the Hall fam­i­ly.

Gazing Globe

With some thought and imag­i­na­tion, a book box can be a tan­gi­ble book report. Sup­plies required: a cig­ar box, con­struc­tion paper, glue, and a favorite book. A box cov­ered in red con­struc­tion paper could rep­re­sent Wilbur’s barn. A lid could repli­cate the map of Hun­dred Acre Wood. Or Mr. Lemoncello’s library.

Mak­ing my book box helped me slow down and think about what my favorite books meant to me. How Dia­mond in the Win­dow led me to the works of Thore­au and Emer­son, inspired me to look up from the print­ed page and tru­ly see the great sphere of our world.  

I still fill my pock­ets with rocks, pick up shells at the beach, and stare at the stars. I won­der if the rocks were bro­ken off from ancient glac­i­ers, and what hap­pened to the sea crea­tures inside the shells. The shells and rocks stay in jars and box­es. The stars can­not be con­tained, thank­ful­ly.

Book Box Interior

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License Plate 007

Writing Road Trip: License Plate 007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Next Exit: Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Swerving Over the Line

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

Pho­to by Car­ol M. High­smith

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Watch Where You’re Going

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Driving in the Dark

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

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

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

What was I miss­ing?

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

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

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

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I Know It’s Weird

Lynne Jonell Page Break

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Tunnel Vision

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

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

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

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

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

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

What hap­pens out­side the tun­nel, stays out­side the tun­nel.

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I Need a Grant

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Just Another Roadside Abstraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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A Paralyzing Lethargy

Lynne Jonell Page Break

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Racing to Catch a Plane

Photo By Nino Andonis

Pho­to By Nino Ando­nis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Creekfinding with author Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Jacqueline Briggs Martin

Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin

A stew­ard­ship for our one and only Earth are an abid­ing con­cern for many of our planet’s inhab­i­tants. When an author finds an oppor­tu­ni­ty to share with the world of read­ers her own pas­sion for con­serv­ing our ecosys­tems, the book Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry is cre­at­ed. We hope you’ll find inspi­ra­tion for your own explo­ration and con­ser­va­tion in this inter­view with Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin. Don’t miss read­ing the book … it’s a trea­sure.

Do you remem­ber when you first had the idea to write this sto­ry?

I had been want­i­ng to col­lab­o­rate on a sto­ry with Clau­dia because I love her art so much. So, I was noodling about what we might do. On Novem­ber 30, 2011, the Cedar Rapids Gazette pub­lished a sto­ry on Mike Osterholm’s creek restora­tion project. As soon as I read it I knew that was the sto­ry I want­ed to tell and I hoped Clau­dia would want to do the illus­tra­tions.

Have you met Dr. Michael Oster­holm? How did that meet­ing add to your sto­ry?

Short­ly after read­ing the arti­cle I con­tact­ed the reporter, Orlan Love. He said I should talk with Mike and gave me his email address. I emailed him. With­in a half hour I received an answer, “Call me. Mike.” That was the first of many con­ver­sa­tions. About a month after that con­ver­sa­tion my hus­band and I drove to North­field, Min­neso­ta to St. Olaf Col­lege where Mike was giv­ing a talk on creek restora­tion.

The Creekfinding team

Dr. Michael Oster­holm, Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin,
and Clau­dia McGe­hee, the Creek­find­ing team

Have you vis­it­ed Brook Creek?

I have now vis­it­ed Brook Creek. When I was writ­ing the sto­ry, I read many arti­cles about Mike’s restora­tion project and watched sev­er­al videos. I vis­it­ed Brook Creek in my imag­i­na­tion.

Your word choic­es are often evoca­tive in a way anoth­er word would not be.

Years lat­er, a man named Mike
bought that field and the hill­side.
Mike want­ed to grow a prairie in
the old corn­field,
to part­ner with the sun and soil,
grow tall grass­es and flow­ers.

The word “part­ner” evokes a sense of work­ing with the land, as though the land were a con­scious enti­ty. Do words like this come nat­u­ral­ly from your mind or do you find your­self hunt­ing for them? 

Author Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin get­ting to know Brook Creek

Mike had told me a sto­ry about the oak savan­nah that he also restored: once they cleaned out the weed trees so sun­light could get down to the for­est floor, seeds ger­mi­nat­ed that had been wait­ing for a hun­dred years. It just seemed like he was part­ner­ing with the earth. And that word came to me as I was think­ing about his work on the prairie.

There are rib­bons of text woven into the illus­tra­tions, often high­light­ing a fac­tu­al state­ment. Were these state­ments an orig­i­nal part of your man­u­script?

The state­ments were orig­i­nal­ly just side­bars. It was Claudia’s deci­sion to include them on a blade of grass or a rip­ple in the trout stream and I love the way the infor­ma­tion looks and works. It’s there if read­ers want to find it, but it’s unob­tru­sive if they just want to read the text.

illus­tra­tion from Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry
by Jacque­line Brig­gs Mar­tin, illus­trat­ed by and copy­right Clau­dia McGe­hee

Did you dis­cuss the illus­tra­tions for the book with Clau­dia McGe­hee, the illus­tra­tor?

Clau­dia lives only 19 miles from me so we talked togeth­er with an Iowa geol­o­gist about the Drift­less. Clau­dia showed me her ear­ly sketch­es (and I loved them). And I went to her house to see her lat­er sketch­es arranged on her din­ing room table. Once I saw them I real­ized I need­ed to do some editing—so that was a great part about work­ing so close­ly. We even removed a side­bar or two that were just get­ting in the way of the sto­ry.

CreekfindingThere are a num­ber of joy­ful words in this book, “laugh­ter” and “chuck­le.” Why did you choose these words?

The sound of water has always been joy­ous to me. When I was grow­ing up there was a sea­son­al “stream,” maybe a ditch, across the street from our house. I loved wait­ing next to that stream for the school­bus. Also, this is a joy­ful sto­ry of restora­tion. There is also a hint of anthro­po­mor­phiz­ing in the notion of “part­ner­ing” with the earth. I guess in my head it seemed as if the nat­ur­al world can be a part­ner maybe it can also have or express joy.

In recent years, you’ve been work­ing on books about peo­ple who are chang­ing our world. Will Allen, Alice Waters, Dr. Michael Oster­holm, and your newest book about Chef Roy Choi. Are these sto­ries you feel com­pelled to tell? 

I do. I love these sto­ries of peo­ple who act out of pas­sion (and that goes back to Wil­son Bent­ley), do what they must do to make our world whole—restore creeks, grow good food in school yards or urban lots, serve good food in food deserts. I think I do this for myself, to remind myself that, though we have many prob­lems in our world, many things to be wor­ried about, there are peo­ple who are work­ing out of love and con­vic­tion to make a bet­ter world for all.

As a writer, how do you see your role in cre­at­ing a bet­ter world?

I want to write books that chil­dren will car­ry with them for the rest of their lives. I will nev­er know if I suc­ceed. But if one of my sto­ries remained with chil­dren as part of “the fur­ni­ture of their minds” I would feel good. I hope chil­dren will mix that mem­o­ry with what­ev­er else they have stored up and do some­thing for this world that I can­not even imag­ine.

Don’t miss the com­pan­ion inter­view with illus­tra­tor Clau­dia McGe­hee or the Book­storm for Creek­find­ing: A True Sto­ry offer­ing com­pan­ion books and web­sites for fur­ther explo­ration or incor­po­ra­tion into les­son plans.

The restored Brook Creek

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Destination

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Convincing Details!

Lynne Jonell Page Break

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Guess What’s in My Glove Compartment?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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