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A blog with tips for people who teach writing to kids or who want to become writers themselves
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Here’s one of my deep, dark secrets: I’m a huge fan of the reality TV show “Finding Bigfoot.”
My fangirl status may worry you. But I find the show hilariously entertaining. And there’s a part of me that really wants to believe there are actual Bigfoots (bigfeet?) out there—just like when I visit a house with a cupboard under the stairs, I always hope that I’ll find a boy wizard too.
You may say I’m a dreamer.
But the best part of “Finding Bigfoot” is that it’s strangely comforting. The show rigidly adheres to their storytelling formula. My life is currently revolving around several things that are unknown, unpredictable, and stressful. I find it oddly restful to watch the “Finding Bigfoot” formula play out, show after show, with only slight variations. Even before the episode begins, I know that yet again, despite a close call—an unidentified howl, a shadowy figure, a rustling in the woods—the team will not be bringing Bigfoot home tonight. That is as it should be. Bigfoot belongs to the woods, not to some scientific lab somewhere. So for that hour, all is right with my world.
I created a story-writing formula for students for much the same reason: comfort. In my early school visits, I discovered that while there are many kids who love to write stories—which is the kind of kid that I was—there are also others who are terrified of the whole process. To them, the thought of a writing a story is as threatening as—well, as a hungry Bigfoot!
So I teach them a formula. Of course I want kids to bring themselves and their own creativity to their writing. But I find that with a trail to follow, most students can find their way to the other end of a story.
Where do we start? Basically, I have students choose a character (younger kids especially enjoy animal characters), a setting (real or imaginary) they’d like to visit, and an activity they enjoy (I discourage passive activities like computer games). Then I have them mix those three elements together, and brainstorm a list of things that could potentially go wrong with that mixture. A soccer game would be tough in outer space because of gravitational factors. A polar bear might struggle in Hawaii. A snake would have a hard time holding a paintbrush.
Then the story formula works this way:
Begin your story by introducing your character. Throw some kind of problem in the character’s path almost immediately.
For the story middle, show the character trying to solve the problem, but don’t let them succeed right away. Multiple failed attempts or introducing new problems will add tension to the story.
At the end, allow the character to solve the problem. Show the reader how life will be different now that the character has solved this problem, and how the character has grown through this experience.
With that trail to follow, writing a story doesn’t seem nearly so mysterious!
My mom is struggling with memory issues. It’s sad and scary and befuddling to watch. But there’s also a kind of intense creativity involved, as she works to find fresh new ways to convey what she wants to express because the old ways are no longer available.
One of the most intriguing aspects for me has been around names. Even when reminded, Mom often can’t retain given names for the new people she meets. But rather than just defaulting to no name at all, she makes up names for them. And here’s the odd thing: once she’s invented a new name, that one sticks in her brain. So I’ll listen to another story from her about “Deb,” all the while translating “Morgan” and pondering which name I think is a better fit for the person herself.
For me, the alternate name carries with it a whole new resonance. “A rose by any other name” is in fact not at all the same old rose. What part of Mom’s brain has imbued Morgan with a powerful “Deb-like” essence—so much so that that’s the name she can remember?
My belief in the power of a name carries over to my writing, too; for me, creating a character name has always been much more than just finding the right label or identifier. Names carry personality, history, and mood. Names are one-word poems. I often do tons of research to figure out which name is the best match for the individual I’m inventing; it matters that I get it right.
Guiding students through a similar naming process can be both a creative exercise and a fun way to bring research skills into the fiction-writing process. Ask students to brainstorm a list of possible character names, initially based on their personal preferences. Then have them dig into online resources (baby name sites are particularly helpful) to find facts to go along with each possible name. What does the name mean? What is its ethnic origin? What are possible nicknames? How popular was it both last year and one hundred years ago? What other names belong in the same “family”? If the story the student is writing is historical or tied to a specific geographic location, would that name be appropriate? Are there similar names that might be a better fit?
Once they have gathered these details, encourage students to consider not only which name they like the most, but which one best suits the essence of the character they have in mind. By the time they’ve completed the whole process, their character will have come alive for them and stepped forward to claim their true name.
Think about it—even if you knew nothing about cars, wouldn’t the mere names “Jaguar” and “Lincoln” be enough to convey some essence of the actual vehicles? If it works when naming a car, why not have your writing students try it too?
I’m sitting here at 1:00 in the morning almost a full week after the devastation at Sandy Hook Elementary, instant messaging with my sister-in-law about whether she should send my nephews to their high school in a few hours—to the school where there’s been a serious enough threat that law enforcement is involved. The automated call she received from the principal promised that her children would be safe if she did send them. It takes only a quick check on Google to see that parents all across the country are grappling with the same decision tonight.
It makes me feel helpless all over again. I’ve often felt helpless over the past week, yet I’m simultaneously driven to do something, even though it’s not at all clear to me what the right “something” is at the moment. Which is why I’m grateful to the Connecticut PTSA for offering some concrete suggestions for small ways we can offer comfort to the children of Newtown.
If you follow this link, you will see that one of the things they are asking children to do is to make and send snowflakes, no two alike. My suggestion is that students could personalize their snowflakes even more by writing short poems (perhaps haikus) on them. I’ve had young writers do this with dried autumn leaves and they come out beautifully.
Poems, like snowflakes, are small things: fragile whispers on the air. But if the Connecticut PTSA can gather enough snowflakes, then together perhaps we can provide a blizzard of comfort to the children of Sandy Hook.
Whenever we get a large snowfall in Minnesota, I’m reminded of the time I was saved by a snow angel. It was Thanksgiving week, and we were being whomped with a massive blizzard. I was scheduled to work at a bookstore until 11:00 p.m., and by the time the boss said it was okay for me to leave, it was too late: my car got completely stuck in the middle of a city street. I was miles from home, it was well after dark, icy cold, and I was covered in snow up to the hem of my skirt. There wasn’t a person or a lit house in sight; everyone else was nestled snugly in their beds.
Those were pre-cell phone times. Knowing that if I left my car in the middle of the street it would become snowplow road kill—something my bookstore salary couldn’t afford—I was using the rarely-effective problem-solving method of “wringing my hands and moaning” when a figure appeared out of nowhere. One moment nobody was there, and the next a guy was setting a can of beer down on my snow-covered hood and shoveling out my wheels. He didn’t say a word. Once he had the underside of the car cleared, he motioned me into the front seat, and with him pushing, we managed to get my vehicle out of harm’s way to the side of the road. He waved off my offer of payment and disappeared into the storm (with his presumably now icy-cold beer in hand). I remembered that a friend of mine lived only a couple of blocks away, and I showed up unannounced on her doorstep at midnight to be welcomed with hot cocoa, dry clothes, and a pull-out sofa.
That episode is one of the times, for me, when the idea of a bigger force at work in my life seems not only possible, but probable. Both at the time and in my memory, my snow angel feels like a figure from far outside of everyday reality: popping up between snowflakes just in time to deal with my crisis, and then vanishing silently and completely. Besides, it’s somehow fitting that any angel of mine would be chugging beer out of a can rather than a headier celestial brew.
Some young writers (like some professionals) really struggle with writing at times, and my experience is that it’s important to tell them that this is a perfectly normal part of the creative act. Wrangling words onto paper requires us to face down challenges. The trick is to continue to push yourself out into the creative storm, into the places where your writing will get stuck—because where you get stuck is also the place you can grow. Or at least, the place where you can learn to accept miracles.
Writing well is hard. If you’re not challenging yourself as a writer, you can turn into writing road kill. Besides: angels need a reason to show up.
Since I am a self-employed person, the IRS asks me to keep a mileage log listing my business travel: where I went, how far away it was, the people I met with when I got there. So here’s an ironic confession from a writer: every time I sit down to try to write an end-of-the-year holiday letter—something that because of my profession, you might assume I could easily pull off in the most clever and delightful fashion—it instead comes out sounding a little bit like my mileage log for the year.
So I’m playing with the form. And along those lines, I decided to try something out with the group of young teenage girls I mentor as a writing group: I had them write year-end holiday letters for themselves, but in poetic form. I reminded them that we’ve talked about epistolary poems before, and encouraged them to remember the many other poetic tools and elements we’ve discussed: metaphor, alliteration, imagery, rhythm, wordplay, the sound quality of certain words.
Their resulting letter poems were engagingly successful, and each girl’s work was distinctively different. A couple of them chose to write in stanzas. One wrote in rhyme. Their tones varied from funny to retrospective.
And for at home, if you’re a “Santa family,” an option for younger kids would be to help them write their Santa letters using simple poetic elements.
Maybe I’ve finally discovered a way I can leave the mileage log in the car and craft a letter of my own that makes a more poetic imprint.
There’s a quote about sculpting, attributed to Michelangelo, that I often paraphrase for students when I’m talking about the art of revising:
“In every block of marble I see a statue as plain as though it stood before me, shaped and perfect in attitude and action. I have only to hew away the rough walls that imprison the lovely apparition to reveal it to the other eyes as mine see it.”
A first draft is often written in a kind of overdrive, with words spinning across the paper without thought to whether they all belong. That’s a valid drafting technique, but a writer can’t stop there (however much most students want to), because that first draft acts as a block of marble. It includes such an excess of words that they imprison the perfection inside. It is only by revising—hewing away the excess—that the essential story, poem, or essay is revealed.
Picture books are one of the best tools I’ve found for teaching the beauty of “less is more” in writing. They are fantastic writing examples even for students who are well past reading them on a regular basis—including middle school and high school writers. The compact packages make for a quick study, and the best are great examples of storytelling, poetic language, the clear but evocative delivery of information, and sensory images.
Some of my recent favorites that work well with older students include City Dog, Country Frog by Mo Willems, A Leaf Can Be by Laura Purdie Salas, and Chopsticks by Amy Krouse Rosenthal.
Read them, talk about them, and then encourage your students to take out the chisels and get to work!
One of my dad’s greatest satisfactions in life is identifying an alternate driving route. His eyes shine as he describes the intricate twists and turns that will lead me along whatever course is his newest discovery. He’ll urge me to change the path I am comfortable with even if it will only save me mere seconds, despite knowing that I still routinely get lost even after living in the same city for almost thirty years now.
For the last several weeks I’ve been grappling with a family member’s medical issues, and that has forced me to “change routes” as well. I’ve been feeling a little lost as the regular patterns of my work and social life are disrupted. But it’s also caused me to notice and appreciate things I might otherwise overlook: bouncy Christmas songs on the long drive to the rehab center; my cat’s gentle snore as she waits for me to shut down the computer after a middle-of-the-night work session; the dandelion-fluff softness of my blanket when I finally curl into my nighttime nest.
So in that spirit of thankfulness for the little things that offer comfort, here’s a “list poem” activity for Thanksgiving. It will encourage your young writers to make sure to use all five senses in their work, which is a sure route to making their writing shine.
My fantasy on election day? A student mock election around children’s books. Kids would create campaigns on behalf of their favorite writers—or characters—complete with candidate posters and video-taped ads. Tiny “Vote Yes for Reading” and “Amend Your Vocabulary” signs would appear on every desk. Classroom newspapers would feature student-written book reports, author/character feature pieces, persuasive letters to the editor, and political cartoons. There would be impassioned debates, with students stepping in on behalf of the candidates (especially critical in the case of fictional beings).
And the winner would be? Everyone! Who could lose in a race like that?
For the past few weeks, my focus has been riveted on helping to care for a family member who is dealing with serious medical issues. It’s been stressful to have this large “life moment” disrupt my normal routine, but it also brings with it a certain kind of clarity. It’s kind of like driving at night on a country road, when the only thing you see clearly is what is illuminated by your headlight beams; you’re aware of the shadowy shapes of other objects flashing by along the roadside, but the illuminated area in front of you is what gets your primary attention.
Focus can be a handy platform for a writing exercise for young authors, too. I love collecting small, unusual objects, often from the natural world—interesting stones, seashells, a strangely lifelike stick—and I keep a basket of them on hand. For the purposes of this exercise, it’s best to choose objects that can stand up to handling. I place them in a grab bag and circulate through the room, allowing each student to choose one “surprise” object from the bag by touch alone.
Then I ask them to examine their object in minute detail. What does it feel like? Look like? Smell like? Can they hear the ocean whispering from inside the secret curves of their seashell? Does the lifelike stick “speak” to them? (Some of them, of course, can’t resist actually tasting their object, although I never explicitly encourage this.)
Using the sensory data they’ve collected, I then ask them to write a poem about their object. They can give the item a human voice and personality, or simply address it as an intriguing object; the goal is to stay intensely focused on that one thing until the poem that it has hidden inside begins to emerge.
The voices of even small things can speak loudly when, for whatever reason, they have become the center of our universe.
I’ve had a frightening week. A few days ago, I had my head down, working hard, when I heard a commotion outside. I got up to look out my front window and saw the SWAT team marching towards my house, carrying guns and wearing bullet-proof vests. Once the sound of the news helicopters alerted me to turn on the TV, I found out what was going on: there’d been a workplace shooting in my normally quiet neighborhood, and at first law enforcement thought the gunman might be on the loose.
Things are back to quiet here, but they’re not the same. There’s an almost tangible sorrow hanging in the air because of the lives lost. I can’t help but remember the care that our neighborhood UPS driver, one of those killed, always took to hide my packages from the winter weather (sometimes he hid them so well that I didn’t find them at first, either). The last package he delivered to me was something I’d greatly anticipated: the line edits for my novel. I’ve tied a brown ribbon on my railing in his honor.
I’m not the only one who waited fearfully until they announced it was safe to leave our homes again. I was talking to a neighbor yesterday, and she said that her five-year-old reassured her, during the time when we still thought there was active danger, by saying, “It’s okay, Mommy, I learned what to do in school. We just get down on the floor and hide.”
That breaks my heart.
Over this past week I’ve also been dealing with another series of mini-scares—and I want to make it clear, I recognize that these are on a radically smaller scale than the tragedy above. But for me they’ve been frightening events, nonetheless: mice have suddenly appeared in my house. I’m terrified of mice. It’s a fear that goes way beyond rational, housed in some deep primal corner of my brain, as evidenced by the fact that my response when I see one is the embarrassingly stereotypical duo of jumping up on the closest piece of furniture and shrieking.
My response, although way over-the-top, is a good reminder that fear isn’t always rational, but it’s always deeply felt. Sometimes the things we fear are based on horrible realities, and sometimes they’re just a mouse in the house. Wherever they fall on the spectrum, fear is still one of the biggest human emotions. And writing, I’ve learned, is one way that young people can effectively grapple with their own fears. Asking your students, “What is the thing that most scares you?” and then giving them the chance to journal about it, or to address a letter poem to that fearful thing, or to construct a plot where the character shares their fear, can lead to deeply powerful writing—as well as, sometimes, to a sense that they have some control over the fearful thing itself.
With sincere apologies to author Neil Gaiman for most likely horribly mangling his words, I remember once hearing him respond to an interviewer who asked why he wrote such frightening books for kids. He answered that kids are all too aware that there are monsters hiding under their beds, and it’s no use trying to convince them otherwise. So he tries to give them stories that acknowledge the monsters, but where kids still win out in the end.
Sometimes, maybe, we can also gain a little ground on our monsters by writing about them—just like I’ve done here.
When I was a kid growing up in the north woods of Minnesota, a group of my neighborhood friends had a “Chipmunk Fort.” It was constructed out of a pile of old fencing materials in my friend Paul’s back yard; each kid had their own “house” in the fort. We spent some time collecting pretty rocks and oddly shaped sticks and soft clumps of moss to decorate our houses. But the primary work of the Chipmunk Fort was to support our large community of striped squirrel neighbors by peeling acorns for them.
I don’t know if chipmunks appreciate such efforts or not, but the creatures are geniuses at stockpiling food for when times are scarce. In fact, if you look carefully at the photo, you’ll see that one of them has found his way into my dad’s container of birdseed; the critter spent the entire day stuffing his cheeks with the contents of the jug and carrying it home for winter provisions.
To me, stockpiling ideas has proven to be a great tactic. One of the most common questions young writers ask me is, “Where do your ideas come from?” The truth is, they come from everywhere, all around me. But they often show up when I can’t actually make use of them, and prove elusive when I’m sitting in front of my computer. I don’t keep a journal (a tactic that has worked well for many other writers); I’m too undisciplined to follow through on that regular practice. But I have learned to carry a writer’s notebook so I can stuff it full of the good bits when they spontaneously pop up. The notebook becomes an assortment of random musings, eavesdropped conversations, bizarre facts, and wonderful-to-say words. Then when I face one of my regular “writing winters,” those times when it seems impossible to come up with an interesting concept, I’ve got plenty of seeds stored away.
That notebook is a little like having an emergency car kit when you set off on a long winter’s drive. You may be blessed with good fortune and never need the emergency kit. But in case you do get stuck—whether in a snow bank or faced with a “writing emergency”—you’ll be awfully glad you’ve got it on hand. Why not encourage your young writers to take a similar precaution and keep a writer’s notebook of their own in their desk or backpack?
If you stop by my parents’ lake cabin and root around in their refrigerator for a snack, my advice is to proceed with caution. Appearances, as they say, are deceptive. You might open that take-out container and find yummy leftovers from the local café. But you’re just as likely to open a carton expecting a deli delectable, and instead—find live leeches. Fishing bait is best kept cool. If opening up a tub of wriggling leeches is likely to turn your stomach to the point that you aren’t so hungry after all, then you’ll just want to be more careful next time, right?
It’s often small details like this—what we call “local color”—that best serve a writer looking to make their story setting come alive for readers. For example, I put these deceptive bait containers to good use in my upcoming novel. My character from out of town—the kid who’s a true “fish out of water” in my rural Minnesota lake country setting—is beyond startled when what he thinks is his lunch starts squirming. I turn this bit of local color into a funny and revealing moment.
It’s often easier to learn to spot the telling details when we’re thinking about locations that are alien to us; the things that are surprising or unusual stand out when we’re not overly familiar with them. For example, for a different book I was researching birthday customs around the world and came across something called “fairy bread.” It’s basically buttered white bread triangles dipped in sprinkles (okay, I admit, even the use of the term “sprinkles” varies geographically, but that’s what I call them). It’s apparently a kid’s party favorite in Australia and it has a huge Facebook following. And if I ever write a story about a kid visiting Australia, I definitely want to work it in; nothing could provide more local color than all those sprinkles!
As your young writers work on their stories, ask them to try a simple brainstorming exercise. Have them write down five details (or ten, for older students), that they could include to evoke a sense of place and time in their stories. If they’re using a historical setting, or one that is geographically distant, they might have to do a little research to come up with accurate details. If they’re writing a fantasy, they might have to stretch their imaginations to invent details. And if they’re writing a story set in their own back yard, they might have to stretch their awareness, so that they really notice those things that they have come to take for granted.
After all, there are those who take live leeches in the refrigerator for granted—and those for whom this would be an unusual but telling detail.
All freshmen at my college had to wear beanies at the start of school. Besides the obvious fashion quandary, the problem was that students from the town’s rival college gloried in stealing beanies. And I knew if any of my upper classmates caught me sans beanie, they had the power to make me stand on a table in the cafeteria and sing my high school fight song. It was a time of great personal trepidation.
Then one day a nice young man stopped and talked to me on campus. Look at this, I thought to myself. I am in college talking to a nice college boy. College is great! And then that nice college boy grabbed my beanie and ran. Turns out he was a Montague. I was a Capulet. Our romance was tragically short-lived, but unlike Juliet, I somehow survived.
Many years after that, while putting my college education to good use as a publishing employee, I wandered down to the company’s second floor. A guy I didn’t know was visiting; we made polite introductions, he got a funny look on his face when I said my name—and he then confessed that he was the beanie-stealing Montague (my name was helpfully printed on my beanie’s nametag and he’d clearly never forgotten it). He left, I moved on. The beanie did not haunt me. I never thought about the beanie at all.
But several years again after that, once I was published and had become easily “google-able,” I got an email out of the blue. From the Montague. He reminded me of our previous encounters and told me he still had the beanie, but would like to send it back to me. And despite my protestations that the beanie no longer played any part in my emotional health, it arrived in my mailbox a few days later.
In a follow-up email, the Montague also told me that his oldest daughter was now a freshman in college. I made an intuitive leap: Was his move to make amends partially motivated by fear that he or his daughter might be run over by the karma bus? My beanie was no more than a bump in the road for me, but I speculated that returning it to me twenty-six years later was the outward signal of a self-transformation for the Montague.
The characters who move us as readers are those who have gone through some kind of relatable transformation. Experiencing that transformation is the thing that sticks to readers like emotional superglue; it keeps them mulling over certain stories for weeks. But new writers sometimes forget this critical element. Challenge your writing students to track exactly how their main characters have changed from the beginnings to the endings of their stories. If it’s not obvious, they need to spend some time revising.
Get them to focus on their character emotional arcs and you just might make Shakespeares out of them yet!
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.
When I was a little girl and my Minnesota grandparents came to visit, we shared them around for sleeping purposes. One night I would share my double bed with Grandma, and the next night my brother and I would switch places, and I’d sleep on his top bunk while Grandpa settled into the bottom bunk.
Grandma was a bit of a night owl like I am, so it was never hard to keep her talking. Grandpa was raised a farm boy, and in his mind nighttime was for sleeping. But I devised a clever system: if he paid the ransom of telling me one story from his boyhood, after that I’d stay quiet and let him drift off.
His stories—about bottle-feeding the little black lamb, or the fight with his brother Henry that ended with Grandpa dumping an entire bucket of cow-fresh milk over Henry’s head—are the earliest tales in what has now become my extensive personal collection: I’ve been stockpiling stories from my “peeps” ever since.
One of the “ask the author” questions kids present me with over and over again is, “Where do you get ideas for your stories?” For me, a big part of the answer is, “through other people.” I love hearing other people’s stories—and what I find is that the more I’m willing to listen, the more people will tell me. I’ve apparently cultivated my listening skills to such a degree that even strangers share deeply personal accounts. In the interests of preserving friendships, I’ve taken to inserting a warning label into my conversations: “I’m a writer, you know. This is really good stuff. Unless you swear me to secrecy, I will use this.” Surprisingly few people take me up on that offer; the truth, I think, is that most people want their stories to find a life outside themselves. If they don’t plan to write them out on their own, they’re delighted at the idea of someone else writing them down.
So I use their stories, but I do maintain some sense of discretion: They are often heavily disguised, and the names have been changed to protect the innocent.
Encourage your young writers to imagine they’re riding though life while tuned into talk radio. For younger writers, helping them to develop strong listening skills may be the key. For slightly older writers, you might want to also discuss issues around respecting privacy. And encourage them to explore how real-life stories work great as seed material, but don’t always translate directly into good fiction: Sometimes the writer’s art is not in finding good material, but in knowing how much of it, and how best, to use it to tell a story that the world wants to hear.
As a kid I was the one who instigated a lot of the fun. It might be playing pirates in the tree house, or cops and robbers in my mom’s parked station wagon, or spies who wrote secret code in lemon juice (later revealing the message by holding it over the toaster). Often our make believe reflected whatever section of the library I happened to be working my way through at the time. So after I binge-read every pioneer tale I could find, I created a new game for us called “wagon train.” We’d stock my youngest brother’s little red wagon with supplies and head out across the prairie, facing danger at every turn.
The Internet tells me that on a good day, a real wagon train might have covered fifteen miles in a day. Family road trips move along at a much brisker rate nowadays. When people traveled fifteen miles a day, they couldn’t help but take note of even the smallest details of the journey. When we’re racing along an interstate at seventy miles an hour, it’s much easier to miss all the peculiar and intriguing sights along the way.
But quirky details are always there to be noticed if we only remind ourselves to adopt the right outlook. Here’s a simple travel writing game you can play with the kids you have packed into your “covered wagon” if you’re road-tripping this summer. Give everyone their own small notebook and writing utensil at the start of the trip (a digital camera would add even more to the fun if that’s a possibility). Tell them it’s their job to “collect” at least three unusual things during the course of the day; they don’t need to physically collect the items, simply make note of them in their notebook (or take a photo with their camera). It can be anything that catches their attention: a person, an animal, a building, a bizarre tourist attraction. Then the next day in the car, tell the kids that it’s their job to write a story or a poem featuring the three items they collected the day before. Plus they need to collect three new items for the following day. Along with encouraging everyone to take note of their surroundings as you travel, they’ll each end the trip with a unique memento.
The truth is, I would have made a horrible pioneer: I’m too big a fan of my creature comforts. I’m sure I’d likely have been voted “first person we should eat if we get trapped by winter blizzards” by my fellow pioneers, because they would have grown so weary of my whining about needing a shower. But despite my inability to fit into those times, I recognize that traveling only fifteen miles a day has a huge advantage for a writer: you can never forgot that the time spent getting there—not just what happens after you arrive—is in itself the real adventure.
When I was a young teenager my family made a road trip from Minnesota to Texas to visit my father’s parents. The long trip south mostly featured one kind of civil war: the endless bickering of my two brothers and the male cousin who’d come along for the ride. For the trip back north, I staked out a hidey-hole in the far back of the station wagon and crammed myself in amongst luggage, still-wet-from-the-hotel-pool swimsuits, and snack foods.
It wasn’t that my family wasn’t concerned for my safety, it was just that it didn’t occur to anyone that my new traveling berth might be unsafe. This was a time when seatbelts were considered extraneous and “The Brady Bunch,” television’s model family of the day, somehow crammed two parents, six kids, and a stout housekeeper into one station wagon with nary a qualm for high-impact crash survival. So I curled up out of reach of the boys’ wrestling matches and read a weighty novel about the actual U.S. Civil War called House Divided. It was my first 1,000+ page book, and I was elated that the war I was now immersed in was a war of words on paper and not the ongoing backseat battle.
Occasionally a truce was declared so that we could all play a road trip game. One favorite was when we each worked our way through the alphabet, in order, limited to collecting only one letter per sign, in a race to see who could pass “z” first. If you weren’t particularly watchful, waiting for a “q” or an “x” could take you halfway across a state.
As a follow-up to the road trip writing activity I suggested in my last post, here’s a writing variation on that alphabet game we used to play. Have your young writers collect interesting words from a series of billboards or signs they spy out the backseat window or while stretching their legs during pit stops. Challenge them to collect a specific word count, and encourage them to watch for the most intriguing, humorous, or muse-worthy words. When they’re done collecting words, ask them to create a poem out of their language souvenirs.
The photo above is a sample sign I collected a couple of days ago; I’m sure as can be that there’s a funny poem hidden inside this liability warning, just as there are countless poems trapped in billboards along an interstate near you.
My mom has always been a huge worrier. But when I think back to my childhood summers, what stands out is not the safeguards she imposed, but the astonishing freedom we had. I remember long segments of time that belonged exclusively to the under-ten crowd: our moms shared the vague understanding that we were “outside,” but they had no clue exactly where in the big world of outside we were at any given moment. We might be in someone’s backyard, under the watchful eye of one of those moms, but we were just as likely to be off on some grand adventure.
One of my favorite adventures was “riding around the block,” although technically it was much more than just a block. Each side of the square that my friends and I traveled had a favorite element. The first side was three blocks of homes, complete with other kids we knew from the school bus. The second side’s best feature was the pond where we caught tadpoles by the bucketful when they were in season. The third side bordered a farmer’s fields, and we loved to play castle high atop his haymows. The fourth side always required a second wind to start: the corner was anchored by the haunted house, and everyone knew you had to bike past that as fast as you possibly could. Once we dared slow down, we scanned the ditch with eagle eyes, always convinced we would once again find mysterious drying bones as we had on a previous journey.
There are many reasons—some of them sad and scary—that kids today don’t all share those long hours of unsupervised freedom from adult governance. But writers know that this can make it tough to ramp up the very element that an exciting story requires: risk-taking and the resulting consequences. Adults who write for children have learned to create clever ways to get the grown-ups out of the story (hence the astonishing number of orphans that litter the literary landscape). That way, kids can get themselves into, and out of, the kind of interesting trouble that makes us want to keep reading. But young writers, often being raised themselves in an always-supervised childhood, sometimes struggle to place their characters at risk. Which means their stories stagnate while their characters sit around staying safe.
Safety, I am here to tell you, is the bane of good story-writing. If you notice this trend emerging, give your young writers permission to introduce risk and danger—physical, emotional, tangible—into their stories. Help them brainstorm ways to get rid of the character’s cell phone. Help them imagine how their character, while not necessarily a bad kid, might still find him or herself in the kind of predicament their parents wish they’d stay far away from. Encourage them to push their character out of the backyard, and out from under the watchful eyes of Mom, and set them loose on an adventure of their own.
Once in pre-GPS times, my mother and I took a road trip from Minnesota to Alabama. Aided only by maps, road signs, and my car compass, we arrived 1,000+ miles later without getting lost once. My family was astonished, which is not quite as insulting as it sounds given this fact: I am someone who, when you tell me to turn right, still has to look at my hands and think, “I write with my right hand, so that’s right.”
Enough said about our near-miraculous arrival in Alabama?
The problem was on our return trip, when my trusty car compass went wonky. Needless to say, when we eventually arrived back in Minnesota, I hurried to the dealership to get the compass fixed. In what has to go down as the strangest car repair in the history of car repairs, the mechanic drove, I rode shotgun, and we went to a nearby empty parking lot, where he proceeded to drive in tight circles as fast as he could, kind of like a NASCAR driver doing doughnuts to celebrate a win.
And somehow, it fixed my compass. A friend later tried to give me a scientific explanation that incorporated magnetic poles or some such, but never mind all that: all you need to know is that if your car compass is ever broken, you just have to head for the nearest parking lot and drive like a fourteen-year-old boy in a stolen car on an ice rink, and everything will turn out fine.
Having a step-by-step plan in place to accomplish a task, or a map to follow, often comes in handy. For young writers, I’ve found that one of the most helpful aids when they are struggling with plot is to apply the “rule of three.”
It works like this. You create a character, someone the reader wants to get to know. Place them in a predicament, or thwart their deepest desire, or send them off on a dangerous quest: in other words, introduce conflict to the story. The character makes a first attempt to resolve that conflict, and fails. The character plans a second attempt. Suspense is heightened because of the first failure; will the character be able to succeed this time around? In fact, no—the second attempt fails as well. So the character digs deep. He or she gathers all of his or her resources, pulling in allies, calling on unsuspected parts of him or herself—and for the third attempt, finally succeeds!
Basically, this is a formula that helps young writers learn how to map out a basic structure for a story. Once they’ve absorbed the process, you can then encourage them to embellish and expand on the formula in countless creative ways; there are many different approaches to spinning a plot.
But I’ve found that in those early stages, if you don’t provide a map to follow so that they can make forward progress, some young writers end up simply spinning in circles.
Nothing is a bigger thrill for the young writers I mentor than what we have come to call their “publication parties.” For my regular sessions with the three of them, I plan a mix of writing warm-ups and short and long-term writing projects. When the long-term projects are finally finished—often after months of drafting and revising—we invite their parents to a formal reading. During our tougher sessions, when the kids are bored with revising, looking ahead to this party is a great incentive to keep them pushing through this tough stage of writing. Instead of giving up and saying their work is “good enough,” they keep polishing because they know that the publication party is always so much fun. And it’s not just because we have pizza or cupcakes: they beam with pride as their families listen to and celebrate the writing they’ve worked so hard on.
Anyone with kids has likely attended a piano recital or the school play or a sporting event. But as the sister to two hockey-playing brothers (back in a time when there weren’t girls’ teams), I can tell you that there are far fewer formal chances for young writers to read their work out loud to an audience—to have their achievement celebrated in a public forum. If you have young writers at home, why not plan ahead for a publication party of your own? Invite Grandma or the neighbors, and make it a true event!
Or if you have a classroom, I’ve put together a Pinterest board with many suggestions for creating a writing unit. It plays on the “cooking up a story” theme that I use throughout my book You Can Write a Story: A Story-Writing Recipe for Kids, and my Pinterest board includes ideas for an official publication party. But you can also use the board to inspire you in brainstorming ideas for totally different writing themes that you might use in your classroom or home.
Sticking with the process of revising their work until it’s truly polished is a daunting prospect for most young writers. It’s not so different than musical kids playing scales over and over, or athletic kids doing endless drills for their sport. Why not make the process of “rinse, repeat” more tolerable for young writers by providing a spectacular publication party “finish line” they can race towards?
I love the texture of tree bark, but that isn’t why I took this photo. If you take a second and more scrutinous look, you’ll see that this is actually a picture of a well-camouflaged moth.
Sometimes there’s more going on around us than our eyes take in. In driving, they’re called blind spots: areas around the vehicle that the driver can’t see without making a special effort.
Blind spots are a driving danger, but they can actually be a reading pleasure. Most (non-academic) readers don’t really care what tactics the writer has used to create the book; those readers focus on their own response— if they liked the book or not—and if the answer is a positive one, it doesn’t really matter to them how the writer managed to accomplish that affection. In fact, over-thinking the writer’s techniques might even spoil things somewhat for the reader, just as knowing a magician’s tricks can spoil a magic act.
I periodically remind my students—and myself—that the point of learning to become stronger writers is not so that we can show off by performing a series of fancy writers’ tricks. The point is to create the best magic we can; magic that awes and astonishes the reader. We want the tricks themselves to be invisible to the casual reading eye. Learning more writing tricks gives a writer a greater repertoire to draw on, but the point isn’t for the tricks to take over the writing and call attention to themselves.
Sometimes it’s the simplest magic that creates the best show.
I try to deliver regular advice you can use to aid and inspire your young writers, but this week I’m leaning on the wisdom of others.
This is advice I’ve found helpful those times it feels like my writing wheels are stuck in deep mud and spinning wildly and I’ll never gain traction again. Here, from a variety of astute advisors, are the best tactics for when you’re stuck as a writer:
“BIC” —children’s writer extraordinaire Jane Yolen
Explanation: Short for “Butt in Chair,” which means put your back end on a seating device, in front of the keyboard, or notebook and pencil, and write—whether you think you can do it today or not.
“Just Do It” —the Nike brand
Explanation: Ditto the above.
“Do… or do not. There is no try.” —Yoda, “The Empire Strikes Back”
Explanation: Yoda needs no paraphrasing.
“BIC” —Mutzi the cat
Explanation: Mutzi agrees with Jane Yolen. Find a chair. Settle your back end into it and do what you’ve set out to do (in Mutzi’s case, that’s taking a nap, but in my case, that’s writing).
If you do these things on a regular basis, you will be a writer. You might not always be a good writer. That’s okay. If you keep writing, you will get better. And then better than that.
Plant your back end and have at it—it’s amazing how much traction a person’s backside can gain.
To be able to learn how to get somewhere, I have to drive it myself. Riding shotgun doesn’t work if I’m trying to memorize the route; somehow the feeling of the necessary twists and turns has to seep up through the steering wheel and into the pores of my hands for me to be able to reliably recreate it.
In other words, I have to experience it as a driver and not just as a passenger.
I think that’s essentially what writers mean when they offer the mysterious writing advice: “Show, don’t tell.” They’re advising student writers to put the reader in the driver’s seat, to offer the reader a deep level of engagement with the experience of the story, rather than just taking them along for the ride.
Here’s an example. If in my story I write, “It was an early spring rain,” I am simply “telling” you about the weather and the season. Here, however, are two very different ways of “showing” you a spring rainfall:
Version one: “Plip. Plop. Ploop. Fat, wet drops tapped against the frozen brown cheeks of dormant Earth. Easing itself awake, Earth let out a mighty yawn, scenting the air with a memory of last autumn’s leaves.”
Version two: “Lulu shivered as icy slivers slashed her cheeks. It was time to push aside the mound of unmatched mittens and unearth the trusty umbrella that had shielded her from such attacks in the distant past.”
Each version evokes a completely different mood. Neither mentions “rain” or “early spring,” yet they are implicit. Which leads to a fun game that can help young writers learn how to write in a more “showing” way: ask them to describe a scene without using the obvious cue words. Ask them to write about a character who is angry without saying the word “angry” or any of the obvious synonyms. Have them set a scene at night without using the words “night” or “dark.” Encourage them to put the reader inside the experience in a surprising and unexpected way, rather than relying on the obvious short-cuts. (If you happen to have the game Taboo, I use the game cards as a way to play “Show, Don’t Tell” with my writing students.)
Writing that “shows” evokes the senses, uses active verbs, draws on metaphorical language, and asks readers to engage more deeply—to put themselves in the driver’s seat, and to let the story seep up through the paper into their pores.
A few months ago, Facebook—apparently having run out of snazzy gift ideas that said “thank you for using our services” in an understated yet pleasing way—gifted me instead with a social media doppelganger named Yvonne. The gift arrived in my email box in the form of thousands of extraneous notifications. I get notified any time one of Yvonne’s many (seemingly unstable and to me completely unknown) friends does anything they deem Facebook-worthy. I get notified any time there is a yard sale anywhere near Yvonne’s home, which happens to be approximately 1,000 miles away from where I live. I get notified with regular updates about Yvonne’s alma mater, a school whose mysterious insider jokes don’t translate well if you’ve never been near that campus in your life.
If you ever find yourself presented with the same thoughtful gift, let me just tell you that, short of the witness protection program, there is no easy way to drop a doppelganger. I have done everything Facebook’s “help” pages suggest to report and remedy the problem. Nothing has worked. This week so far I’ve gotten 594 updates on Yvonne. And for those of you in the area, I can report that the Hazel Green yard sale has girls’ winter clothes, sizes 5 and 6.
But just when I thought that no good could come out of the whole situation, I described it to a friend (in this case I’m using “friend” not in the Facebook sense but based on the traditional definition of “a person whom one actually knows, likes, and trusts”). And he said (yes, Steve Palmquist of Children’s Literature Network, I’m looking at you), “That could make a good book idea. Just throw in a zombie or two.”
Huh. You know what? It might make a pretty good book idea even without the zombies. But even better, it makes a really great character-building exercise for young writers of the age groups that are attuned to social media. I can vouch for the fact that a person can learn a staggering amount about a stranger merely by vicariously experiencing her Facebook presence. Why not turn things around and use social media as a tool to help your young writers figure out just who their character is?
Ask your young writers to imagine a social media profile for their main character. Do they use Pinterest or Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr? What games do they play? Do they win? Do they cheat? What would their online profile say? Do they lie when they’re online, and if so, what about? How many people have “friended” them? What kind of photos do they post? What shopping outlets or social causes have they “liked”? Do they spend hours a day online, or almost never pop up? Do they merely lurk, or comment on everything? The list of character-revealing details could go on and on.
Just make sure to include one final question: Is their name Yvonne?
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Something that has always stuck with me from pioneer tales is the images of the keepsakes and other non-mandatory items pioneer families often had to discard on the trail as the trip became harder and the oxen grew weary of pulling the overloaded wagons.
This is just one of the reasons on the very long list of why I would have made the world’s worst pioneer—I can’t pack for a weekend without schlepping along half my household goods. So in an effort towards saving some packing space, I have a cosmetics bag already stocked with travel-sized bottles of the essentials I know I’ll need for any road trip.
Recently I spent another fantastic day as one of the resident authors in the Alphabet Forest at the Minnesota State Fair. There, I focused on teaching my young visitors the essentials they’ll need for a writing road trip. Sure, there’s a wide array of elements that can make a story stronger. But sometimes it’s good to review the basics; drawing on just three easy-to-understand elements, I’ve watched thousands of kids create stories during my many years of school visits and working with young writers.
The three core story elements I focus on are character, setting, and conflict (a problem). At the State Fair, I set up the Story Wheel with examples of the characters, settings, and problems that a State Fair visitor might encounter—then the kids spin the wheel to collect a random mix of the three elements and incorporate them in their own stories.
I’ve also created a simple play-at-home version of the Story Wheel that kids can make from a paper plate—check for directions here. You can also download the Mystery Ingredients activity that I’ve shared; page 2 provides long lists of possible characters, settings, and problems that young writers could use for their own Story Wheels.
Focusing on these three basic elements (think of it as the travel-sized version of story writing) makes it possible for almost all students to create simple stories.