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1. Oh, the places I'll go... :)

Hi everyone! I've been getting a lot of questions about where I'll be this spring so I decided to put it all in one place. If you'll be at any of these events, please let me know! This is the most travel I've done for a book and I'm both very excited and very nervous. Friendly faces always welcome and appreciated.Thanks! xx

March 13-15
Tucson, AZ
Tucson Festival of Books

Scheduled events:
Story Interrupted: Moving In and Out of Time and Space in YA
Sat, Mar 14, 10:00 am - 11:00 am Education Room 353
Panelists: E. Lockhart, Jo Knowles, Andrew Smith; Moderator: Celeste Trimble

A Conversation with E. Lockhart and Jo Knowles
Interact with authors as they read aloud from their new books and answer questions
Sat, Mar 14, 12:00 pm - 12:30 pm Teen and Author Meeting Place (Seats 88)

Signing at Mostly Books, Booth #148 (Seats 1)
Sat, Mar 14, 1:30 pm - 2:00 pm

Workshop: Brave Beginnings — Find a Way into Your Story
Sat, Mar 14, 2:30 pm - 3:30 pm Education Room 349

March 20
Montpelier, VT
VCFA Novel Writing Workshop in Montpelier
(So excited to go back after missing for many years, and both my writing partners will be there!)

March 27
University of New Hampshire
NH Council of Teachers of English Spring Conference
Keynote Speaker (!)

April 3
Concord, NH
Gibsons Bookstore
6:30pm Talking writing with Jennifer Richard Jacobson!
Followed by a signing

April 11
Norwich, VT
Norwich Book Store
Panel of middle-grade and YA authors, including Tara Dairman and Adi Rule
(Still in planning stages, more deets to come!)

April 14-17
Austin, TX
Texas Library Association Annual Conference
Authors Area H-Q
(Schedule to come)

April 18-19
Los Angeles, CA
LA Times Festival of Books
(Schedule to Come)

April 19-21
Pasadena, CA
ABC Children's Institute, American Booksellers Association
Author Reception 5:30-7:00

April 24-26
Springfield, MA
NESCBWI Conference
10:55-11:45am Q&A--Ask me anything!
7:00-8:00pm Keynote (OMG!!!)

May 15
Rochester, NY
Rochester Teen Book Festival
Schedule to come but here is the schedule link: http://www.teenbookfestival.org/?pg=Schedule

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2. On fasting and feasting and trying to live a kinder life

I'm not super religious and have never observed Lent but I went to a great UU service last Sunday and the minister read a lovely and moving poem. She didn't have the source and I can't find anything online, so I'm sharing here, as printed in the Order of Service, and hoping that's OK. No matter your religion, I think this is worth pursuing for the good of us all. <3

Lent: A Call to Fast and Feast - Author Unknown

Fast from judging others; feast on Love dwelling in them
Fast from emphasis on differences; feast on the oneness of all
Fast from actions that pollute; feast on deeds that purify
Fast from from discontent; feast on gratitude
Fast from pessimism; feast on hope
Fast from worry; feast on trust
Fast from guilt; feat on complementing
Fast from stress; feast on self-care
Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness
Fast from selfishness; feast on compassion for others
Fast from apathy; feast on enthusiasm
Fast from being so busy; feast on peaceful stillness
Fast on being in control; feast on letting go

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3. A Special Valentine for Teachers!! &lt;3

Recently Lynda Mallaly Hunt reached out to authors with books coming out in the next month or so and asked if we'd like to take part in a giveaway for teachers! I love teachers. So I said YES. There are two giveaways going on, one for teachers looking to build their middle-grade libraries and one for teachers looking to build their YA libraries. So, if you are a teacher and would like to win a set of the books shown below, keep reading! :)

If you submit your name to this rafflecopter...

a Rafflecopter giveaway

...you could win 6 books to add to your collection. That's right. All SIX BOOKS just for your classroom! And they are brand new!

I've included links to the authors' Web sites and Twitter handles. You should check them out! Follow! Make friends! And we'd love it if you could help spread the word! If you're on Twitter, use the hashtag: #authorsloveteachers THANK YOU!!!! :-)

Sarah Darer Littman
Twitter: @sarahdarerlitt
Author site: Sarahdarerlittman.com

Lee Kelly - City of Savages cover -2
Lee Kelly
Twitter: @leeykelly
Author site: www.newwritecity.com/books

Alexis Bass
Twitter: @alexisbasswrite
Author site: www.alexisbassbooks.com

Nova Ren Suma
Twitter: @novaren
Author site: novaren.com

WhenReasonBreaks_Comp (2)-2
Cindy L. Rodriguez
Twitter: @RodriguezCindyL
Author site: cindylrodriguez.com

FingerFinalCover copy 2
Jo Knowles
Twitter: @JoKnowles
Author site: www.joknowles.com

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4. A rubric!!

Hi everyone,

If you thought my last post about judging writing contests was helpful, check out what this amazing writer did with the information! She made a rubric!! :)


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5. Some things I learned from being "judge-y" :-)

Hi everyone,

It's been a while since I posted here, and I have completely fallen down on the job for my Monday Morning Warm-Ups. Please forgive me! If you are ever looking for some prompts, you can always go to my Web site and check the resources page for some oldies but (hopefully) goodies: http://www.joknowles.com/Prompts.html

I came back today to share some thoughts I have about writing contests. It's very odd and awkward to be a "judge" when you've spent most of your writing career being the one in the other seat. So when I was asked to be a judge for several contests this year, I told myself I would try to use the experience to learn as much as I could and then share whatever that was with my writing friends.

Right away, I realized I was picking up on a lot of common mistakes (well, I hesitate to use that word but it's the best my tired brain can think of at the moment) when submitting first pages/chapters of their work. I decided to start taking notes on submissions, classifying them into groups. So below, you will see how, as I read, I would place subs into one of three categories: No, Maybe, Yes! and finally WINNERS. I can tell you that almost all of the no's were clear no's almost from the very first paragraph, though I continued to read the entire submission.

Note: These are comments come from more than one contest. Some are pictures books, some middle grade, some YA, and I didn't include ALL of my notes on every single one, especially various winners, in the interest of keeping this very anonymous.

Looking at them all again now, it's fascinating to me how similar my comments were for so many, even the ones I loved. Obviously what spoke to me most was work that had:
• strong voice
• active pace
• engaging plot
• meaningful dialogue
• rich description that grounded me in the time and place

I offer these notes in hopes that you can use them to look at your own opening pages and wonder if a judge like me, or an agent or editor, would say the same thing. I hope you find them helpful!



Comments on No's:

Entry 1
Lacks voice
Sounds too adult
Main character not believable and therefore hard to connect to

Entry 2
Great first line
Too much info dumping
No action
Too agenda filled?
No voice

Entry 3
Nice dialogue and description
No voice
Fantasy element added with no surprise (too easily accepted by main character)
No character development

Entry 4
Inconsistent storyline
Too much physical description that doesn't actually work-characters are too perfect
A bit far-fetched
Dialogue forced

Entry 5
Very disjointed and hard to follow
Voice is very distant
Plot is vague
Not sure what the conflict is

Entry 6
No real conflict
Not clear what's at stake for character
No character development or growth

Entry 7
The writing is good, but the pacing is really slow.
Didn't have anything to pull me in.

Entry 8
Story starts without any introduction of time/place/character
No clue where person is, how old
No setting established

Entry 9
Interesting subject matter but text not very engaging
Needs some conflict
Needs to feel more like a story

Entry 10
Not really a story but a scene.
Needs more.

Entry 11
Interesting story but REALLY slow
Lots of telling but the details don't actually help build the story

Entry 12
Narrator feels too removed from story
Slow pace
Lots of explaining/info dumping instead of letting back story flow more naturally
Has potential! But needs lots of work.

Entry 13
Too much telling/explaining rather than showing
Launches into fantasy too fast
Nice writing but feels too preachy
Author's "cause" too strong on page

Entry 14
Too preachy
Voice is too young
More message than story
Too simple

Entry 15
No character development
Setting/time not clear
No idea what's happening or who main character is
Too much action without context
Not clear who audience is—feels adult
No connection to characters

Entry 16
Voice doesn't reflect time period (feels too modern for time depicted)
Agenda too obvious on page
Nice writing but story needs to feel less forced

Entry 17
Has great potential!
Not sure this is YA given age of characters
Need to slow down pace and do more scene setting/character building

Entry 18
Nice writing
Captivating in some ways but not grounded in a familiar world and without stage setting, it's too confusing to follow or understand what's happening
Not really sure who the main character is or what her plight is

Entry 19
Writing is snappy and fresh but too much banter for too long—doesn't move the story forward
Dialogue is too light—doesn't reflect what's actually going on in a believable way

Entry 20
Too much dialogue that doesn't move story forward or provide secondary info.
Premise is interesting and has promise but tragedy made light of in a strange way—would be OK if it was clear why. Not really believable as is.

Entry 21
Good writing
Some really lovely phrases
Good dialogue
Story was a little hard to follow
Seemed to be a few inconsistencies in relationships
Slow beginning
Whose story is this?
Author withholding too much information

Entry 22
Well-trod ground
No real conflict

Entry 23
Chapters are too short and disconnected-nothing really seems to happen
Reads like a series of vignettes but the point of each isn't clear
Parents act in a way that doesn't make sense/not believable
Not sure what the point is
No clear conflict

Entry 24
Reads more like a summary than a story
Too much telling
Agenda on every page

Entry 25
Rhyming too forced
Powerful story but would be more effective in free verse or prose
Too bad because there is some really raw and powerful stuff here

Comments on Maybes:

Entry 1
Beautiful writing
Lovely scene/setting descriptions
Nice character development
Sweet characters, nice dialogue
No action until page 6
Lots of info dumping where there doesn't need to be
Agenda too visible on page

Entry 2
Very good writing but very slow pace
Story never really starts
Felt very distant from main character-didn't know enough

Entry 3
Like the pacing and introduction to the secret.
Compelling, but not a great voice.
Written in first person but feels more like a distant narrator, which isn't quite working.
Too much telling.

Entry 4
Great writing but concept doesn't actually work

Entry 5
Very nice writing
Flow is OK
Lack of any character/setting development before the big conflict happens

Entry 6
Great voice
Wonderful writing
Loses threads
Not good choice of 2nd person
Not good choice of format-doesn't work
Plot/time span moves too quickly-summary vs. story

Entry 7
The fiction sections are good but too preachy
The nonfiction sections disrupt the story
Good writing but the format doesn't work
Needs to be more engaging

Entry 8
Excellent writing
Snappy dialogue but goes on a bit without moving plot forward
Does a nice job with character development
Wish this was written in first not third

Entry 9
Very nice writing but the agenda is too present on the page. Gets in the way of the story

Entry 10
So much to love
Great voice, wonderful writing, but SO SLOW
20 pages in and still getting backstory
Nothing has happened

Entry 11
Good writing but a bit too repetitive
Starts at an odd place
Very intriguing though!

Entry 12
Very nice writing but too many props to help story along
Too much looking back instead of showing story unfold
Inconsistent voice

Comments on Yes! -- considered for win but in end didn't make it:

Entry 1
Really beautiful
Original voice
Nice pacing
A little agenda-y at end

Entry 2
Beautiful writing
Great storytelling voice
Rich details
Nice character development
Good dialogue
Tension, heart, longing—all nicely conveyed

Entry 3
Engaging tone
Care about main character
Great connection to prologue
Beautifully written
Perfect pacing and dialogue


Entry 1
Amazing voice!
Rich dialogue
Wonderful dialect
Strong female protagonist
ORIGINAL and ambitious story
Beautiful writing
Got lost in story and invested in character
Secondary characters very believable
Love the hint of adventure and danger
Perfect pacing

Entry 2
Excellent writing
Strong sense of place
Great character development from the first page
Fantastic dialogue
Powerful opening
Wonderful balance of tension/action/suspense
Rich descriptions that fit the scene and don't slow it down
Connected with and became invested in character's plight immediately

Entry 3
Lyrical, light, moving
So simple and beautiful
Perfect word choice with surprises that were a delight
Could see and feel every scene, sweet, but not too much so

Entry 4
Great storytelling
Perfect pacing
Nice balance moving story forward while still giving enough backstory and setting the scene/developing character
So original and engaging!


Soooo... what do you think? See some common threads in each category? I sure do! So, for your Monday Morning (really afternoon, sorry) Warm-Up: Go check out your opening pages and see what you think! Would your reader put you in a Yes! Or a Win? What can you do to take your work to the next level? Give it a try!

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6. Trying again to find peace and beauty in the depths of despair

Not long ago, I wrote this:

"After I posted my blueberry photo, I realized how crazy and selfish it is to post a photo of an especially large blueberry when there is so much horrific violence going on around the world. And close to home, learning of the tragic death of a woman who babysat for us when we were kids. I am thinking about all the people who are touched by grief every day. Every day there are horrors and tragedies. And every day there are things like the wonder of a blueberry you picked from a bush you've been nurturing for ten and a half years. And every day there are cats doing cute things. And baby photos posted by a proud new grandparent. Every day there is sadness. And every day there is joy. And every day there is love. And who gets what every day seems to be a cruel crapshoot. And I don't know what to do about that except try to remember it. And try to be more kind. So I am sorry about the blueberry. But I am also grateful for it. Maybe more so because it grows despite the sorrow."

Early Saturday morning, my cousin Josh went missing, and soon later, his body was found in the woods near his home. He took his own life after years of battling depression.

Growing up, my sister and I babysat for him and his two little brothers. We spent vacations together in Maine every summer. We spent Christmas and Thanksgiving and Easter together. But when he got older, his family moved away and we didn't see them for a long time. Long enough that we weren't close the way we used to be. In fact, we really didn't know each other at all.

Not long ago, he moved back to New England and I saw him last Christmas at my parents' house. He was quiet and reserved. I knew he'd had a hard life in our years apart. We didn't talk much. We were strangers linked by childhood memories. And I sensed he felt as uncomfortable and shy as I did, having let so many years go by without being in touch.

One day, not too long ago, he messaged me on Facebook and said he'd like to call and talk to me about writing a book. I put off replying because I felt like I didn't really know him, or what to say, and imagined how awkward it would be to talk to him over the phone. I told myself I would send an e-mail first, with tips to get him started, and then, if he had questions, we could talk. A few weeks later, I left him a note, "I owe you an e-mail and promise to be in touch soon!" Or some such. I was on deadline for school packets and told myself I didn't have time. And then I did have time but sort of forgot until I'd see him update his page with an inspirational quote, I would get mad at myself for not writing that e-mail yet. Just last week, I thought of some books I would recommend he read. Some good memoirs. Mentally, I made a list. And then I started to think of tips I could give him to help him get started. But I still didn't manage to write that e-mail.

And now he's gone.

For the rest of my life, I will always feel this aching regret that I didn't take the twenty minutes of effort that e-mail required to reach out. I will regret that I didn't try to get to know my cousin again. That I didn't know he was hurting. That I didn't do a single blessed thing.

Suicide isn't anyone's fault. I know that. But how we care about people and treat each other and reach out to each other is. And I'm ashamed.

On Saturday morning, I was sitting at a table with dear friends in Maine. We were about to start a weekend writing retreat. We were drinking coffee and laughing. And then my phone buzzed. "Call home immediately."

The ground shifted underneath me when my husband told me Josh had died.

A veil of grief and sadness and guilt and regret slid between me and the rest of the world. Nothing had changed on your side, but on my side, nothing will ever be the same. It's like looking at the world through some sort of gauze, as if I'm not a part of it anymore. On the other side, life goes on as usual, on mine, I can't seem to move.

My sister drove to Maine to come get me and bring me to her house so we could be with my parents, aunt and uncle. On the drive home, memories of losing my brother, wounds I thought healed, slowly reopened and all that pain wrapped around my heart. So much guilt. So many regrets. Why didn't I do this? Why didn't I say that? Why why why? Why. Why did he have to die?

Life isn't fair. This was the year to see the beauty in the world and I have seen a lot. But I have also seen misery. I have seen it and felt it deep in my bones. I feel it right now.

Every day, there are people who die and people who are born and people who love and people who hurt. And every day, we need to remember this.

Every day, we need to be more kind.

We need to reply to the e-mail we've been avoiding. To answer the phone. To make the coffee date with the needy friend. To walk the dog. To pat the cats. To make the bed. To breathe the air. To shower. To love. To live. Every. Day. But on days like this it is so, so hard.

But I know. For those of us living behind the veil of grief, we need to remember that it's OK to slide it to the side again and walk back through. That eventually, we will have to. Eventually, we must.

It's OK to enjoy a blueberry. It's OK to keep living our lives and seeing beauty, even in the depths of despair.

It's more than OK.

It's necessary.

So I'm going to force myself out of this room and go walk my dog now. I'm going to honor Josh's memory by seeing the beauty in every step. I'm going to breathe in the peace around us, and try to be grateful that that's what Josh finally has now.

Peace to you now, Josh. Rest in peace.

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7. Read Between The Lines

A big thanks to wordsrmylife for the very thoughtful review!


"One of this novel's great beauties is that the many different perspectives allow us to view one relationship--say the cheerleader who dates the closeted basketball star--from multiple perspectives. The reader, unlike the character, is able to understand how tricky and difficult a situation is for all involved."

Thank you Kathy!!

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8. Giving the best you've got :-)

Hello Teachers!

I just learned that this is our FINAL week? What?! How did that happen? Why did summer have go by so darn quickly?

Today's Lesson on Kate's blog is about revision (thanks, Erin Dionne!). So, I thought I'd tie my final warm-up to that as well.

You've learned a lot this summer about making words count. We've talked about how to use specific actions or descriptions to reveal something about your character in a way more powerful than an explanation would do. This morning, look through some of your writing and choose your FAVORITE of these sentences. Now revise it a bit more. Make it sing. Make every word count. Make it something your reader will want to read again just because of its precision. Make it something to inspire your reader to say to the person sitting next to him or her, "You've got to hear this."

You can do it!!! And I hope you'll share here. I'm in the mood to read out loud a lot today. :-)

Thanks for joining all of us for Teachers Write! I hope you'll try to keep writing a part of your daily routine, even as life gets busy. Have a wonderful school year! And thanks for all you do.



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9. What routines say about us

Good morning again, teachers!

We've rounded the bend into August. I hope you've all been productive and are having a great time putting your stories into the world.

Today, I want to talk about how your character's actions can give your character personality and depth. How your character moves, responds, and just generally functions throughout the day says a LOT about the kind of (hopefully unique) person he or she is. What kind of cereal does your character eat? Why? How does your character dress? Is there a lot of care put into it, or none at all? Is your character aware of labels? Is your character sarcastic? Grumpy? Quiet? Boisterous? How does your character interact with his or her parents? Siblings? Friends? Enemies? Teachers? Strangers? And how on earth do you get all this across in your writing?

Here's an idea. Write a scene showing your character waking up and getting ready for school in the morning. Look at the list above and see how much you can get across by SHOWING us how your character gets up, gets dressed, eats breakfast, and gets to school. Here are some more questions to consider:

Will your character be chipper when he or she wakes? Scared? Filled with dread? Excited?

What does his or her room look like? Is it messy or clean? Does it smell?

How will your character go about finding clothes and getting dressed? Will they be neatly hung in a closet or pulled from a heap on the floor?

Will your character eat breakfast? Why or why not? If so, what will it be? Will your character eat in silence or talk to family members? Or eat on the bus?

Will your character walk to school, ride the bus, get a ride, drive?

What do each of the answers say about who your character is and what he or she is going through? (Because each detail SHOULD say something about your character or else it shouldn't be there. Every word and every description need to earn their place on the page. They must have a purpose.) You see what I'm getting at. You can do a tremendous amount of worldbuilding and characterization in a simple scene like this.

How much can you tell us about your character's world without explaining it all, but showing it through dialog and action? Let's find out!

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10. Changing magic to power, inspired by Holly Black

Hello Teachers!!!! Today I'm going to cheat a tiny bit and share with you a post I wrote back on July 19, 2010, which I wrote after attending a lecture by Holly Black. Yes, the Holly Black. It was a lucky day! And since that day, I have been using what I learned to help my own students understand world building and why it's important no matter what your genre. I hope you'll give the exercise a try! :-) And THANK YOU, Holly, for inspiring me yet again. <3

Using world building techniques in realistic fiction via Holly Black
Original link: http://jbknowles.livejournal.com/382006.html

This Saturday I attended the Vermont College of Fine Arts Special Day on fantasy. Holly Black (blackholly) was the first speaker and I believe had everyone in that room aching to go home the minute she finished to tackle our projects and answer the insightful questions she proposed when creating a magic system.

Hold up.

Magic system?

I know. The theme was fantasy after all. And no, I'm not writing one.

But as I sat there listening to how Holly builds her brilliant plots, I realized all the questions she asks of magic can be directly asked about the underlying theme running through the microcosm each of our characters lives in (home, school, community).

Here's one example. Change the word "magic" to "power" when thinking about realistic fiction. (You can use another word, too, this is just the first example that came to me.)

1. Who has the magic?
2. What does it do?
3. How do you make it happen?
4. How is the user affected?
5. How is the world affected?
6. How are magic users grouped and perceived?

Let's try it, with some tweaks/notes:

1. Who has the power? (parent, relative, friend, teacher, bully—or the "who" could be a "thing" such as a disability, disease, economic situation, etc., which gives the illusion of having power)
2. What is it? (money, influence, abuse, manipulation, a secret, pain, threat of death, etc.)
3. How is it used? (physically, psychologically, emotionally, as a threat, etc.)
4. Why does the person use it? (to gain power, feel superior, survival, etc.)
5. How is the world/victim affected? (weakened, hurt, victimized, drawn inward, scared, etc.)
6. How are those in power (the bad guy/thing) grouped and perceived? The victims (our hero/main protagonist)?

Well, this is rough but you see what I mean. And you can see how having a clear understanding of the ins and outs are essential in developing plot and character no matter what you're writing. Even if they may seem obvious to you on the surface, going deeper you may discover a lot more. In fact I'm sure you will.

Holly went on to discuss in depth how to look closely to really understand the world you've created, and how important it is to understand all the costs of magic (to those who have it and don't), to understand the limits, and what the rules of the magic say about the world. And again, all of her points made me think deeply about the real worlds I've created for my own characters, grounded in the contemporary landscape we know, and what those say about the world, too.

Holly said, "How we set up our magic system reflects how we feel about the world... In writing fantasy, you're telling us what you think about the world." And aren't we doing that in everything we write? Fantastical or not? I love that. And I would add that it's not only what we feel, but what we believe we know. (I say believe, because sometimes, we end up being wrong. But part of that journey from saying things with such conviction, to opening your mind to other possibilities, to seeing the light in a place you once condemned to darkness, is how we make sure the world keeps changing.)

Finally, Holly noted well that when we write, we are in conversation with every book we've read. Every time we write we add to that conversation. She said it far more profoundly, but I love that notion. It's how we get better.

Well, I think I probably got this a bit jumbled but I loved the way Holly posed these questions and how they got me thinking more closely about the how's and why's of the dynamics within my own character's household, group of friends, etc., and what they mean more globally. Because there are different rules within each setting, and you do have to understand where they come from and why they stick in order to fully understand your character's motives, flaws, desires—and what they say about your character's world, as well as the one you—all of us—live in.

Don't you think?


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

Answer the questions above in relation to your own current work-in-progress.

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11. Maybe I was wrong...

Hello and welcome to Week #3 of Teachers Write! I hope you're all having a wonderful time writing and creating and thinking and learning. I know I have!

Today I want to talk about moments of clarity. Moments of realization. In real life, these can come like a slap to the forehead, or sometimes more deeply, like a fist to the heart. I'm going to give an example.

Last week, my son and I spent five days volunteering for Habitat for Humanity. We got up early, met with an incredibly inspiring group of people, received our goals for the day, and got to work. By the end of the day we'd be tired and sweaty, and extremely grimy. My job for most of the week was putting up vinyl siding which had been stored in a wet spot of ground that received little sun. Each strip was covered in mud, leaves, pine needles and a fair amount of slugs which I continuously stuck my fingers in. We'd sweep the siding off (there was no electricity or running water for a hose) cut it with what we lovingly called "snips" which had my hands bruised by the end of the week, and cross our fingers that we'd measured correctly and hung them true. Most of the time, our fearless leader would come around the corner, inspect our work, and have us start over. It was difficult, and frustrating, but we kept our sense of humor.

As you can imagine, coming home to electricity, water, soap and (honestly) a toilet, was pretty nice. On one day, I went out to check our blueberry bushes and discovered several were ripe and ready to eat! Plus, they were HUGE. Beautiful, plump and oh so sweet. I took a photo of one and posted it on Facebook. Then, since I'd been away from electronics all day, I started to read headlines from the BBC, and catch up with friends' posts. And I realized that while I was off feeling so good about building this home and then celebrating the glory of a blueberry, horrifying events were happening. In that moment, I thought of that stupid blueberry photo and how insensitive and lost in my world I'd been. It was my punch to the heart moment.

Here's what I wrote on my Facebook wall:

"After I posted my blueberry photo, I realized how crazy and selfish it is to post a photo of an especially large blueberry when there is so much horrific violence going on around the world. And close to home, learning of the tragic death of a woman who babysat for us when we were kids. I am thinking about all the people who are touched by grief every day. Every day there are horrors and tragedies. And every day there are things like the wonder of a blueberry you picked from a bush you've been nurturing for ten and a half years. And every day there are cats doing cute things. And baby photos posted by a proud new grandparent. Every day there is sadness. And every day there is joy. And every day there is love. And who gets what every day seems to be a cruel crapshoot. And I don't know what to do about that except try to remember it. And try to be more kind. So I am sorry about the blueberry. But I am also grateful for it. Maybe more so because it grows despite the sorrow."

After that initial punch of guilt over the blueberry I realized that the world continues to spin no matter what happens on it. I have had my share of grief and I know what it feels like to not understand how this is so. There have been days in deep sorrow when I couldn't understand how people could keep going on with their daily lives, oblivious to the pain next door. But they do. We all do, eventually. And this, too, is another type of moment of clarity, or realization: That when faced with despair, we have a choice. We can feel the despair, and carry on trying to make the world a better place, or we can feel the despair and let it win.

The day after the blueberry incident, after feeling that despair and anger over all that senseless killing, I was filled with more determination than ever. I wasn't changing the world, but small acts of good work add up, and they do make the world a little better. I really believe that. I went back to that frustrating siding with a vengeance. I was determined to work harder. To make that house more beautiful. Liveable. Loveable. It fueled me. On the last day, we nailed the final piece of siding up. But the walls were still dirty-looking and it was hard to feel 100% proud. So another woman and I (she is a teacher!) filled a bucket with water from a nearby stream, got some rags, and washed every last strip until it looked new. We had to refill that darn bucket over and over because the water got muddy so fast. I fell in the stream up to my knee and had to spend half the day with one wet foot. It was gross and stinky but I didn't care. Because in the end, the siding did look just like new.

So what does all of this have to do with fiction? I would argue that this is how stories work. The protagonist makes a big realization, usually early on in the story, and it's what sets the story in motion. It's how quests begin. They hinge on a choice: give up or carry on and try to fix the problem. Fixing the problem, solving the mystery, trying to survive, whatever the situation, that's your story. And whatever it is that fuels your character to try, that's your characterization.

So what, specifically, is your character's big realization and what fuels him or her to try to make things better, or survive?

I started this entry talking about my work with that gross siding. And it seemed like kind of a drawn out story to get to my point. But I told it because of all the parallels I see in writing, and in particular revision. We almost never get it right the first time. We think we've measured correctly, or at least well enough, but when we step back and look, we can see it's a little off balance. So we take things down. We get help. We get feedback. we remeasure. We try again. We get dirty. We get frustrated. (Luckily there are no slugs!) But something in us doesn't let us give up. Something fuels us to keep going. And eventually, we get it right. Then we clean it up. And hopefully we feel good about it. Hopefully we feel proud. :-)

Today, I want you to think about your story, your protagonist, and what he or she is facing. Why is his or her story important to you? Why is this story worth telling? Try filling in the blanks:

This is a story about a _________________ who realizes/learns that _____________________________________________________ . So, he/she __________________
_____________________________________________________________________________________ .

This story is important to me because ______________________________________________ .


If you aren't working on a particular story, try writing to the prompt, "Maybe I was wrong..."

I hope you'll share what you come up with!

And as always, have fun. :-)


My son and I, working for Habitat for Humanity

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12. But underneath that...

Welcome to Week #2 of Teachers Write!

A few years ago I was on a panel with our own Kate Messner. We were sharing tips and techniques we use in workshops with kids, and Kate provided this simple yet brilliant worksheet she gives kids to help them pinpoint what their story is about.

Here it is:

Fill in the blanks...

This is a story about _______________________________________ .

But underneath that, it's a story about ________________________________ .

These two very basic and seemingly simple questions go straight to the heart of the book, don't they?

When I introduce these to my own students, I give Harry Potter as an example.

This is a story about a lonely boy being raised by a cruel aunt and uncle who discovers he's a wizard, and not only that, he must defeat an evil wizard in order to save the day.

But underneath that, it's a story about a boy who wants to be loved.

As you all know, these two themes run through the entire seven books of Harry Potter. But it's the second one that is what endears Harry to us. It is the deeper, more meaningful and emotional one, that brings us to tears. This underlying theme is a shadow moving through every chapter. It's the real thing that drives Harry forward.

I would argue that this is the case in every story. There's the overarching drive, and then there's the more emotional one. Think about the book you're currently reading, or one you've read recently and fill in the blanks above. See what I mean?

For your Monday Morning Warm-Up, try it with your own work-in-progress. Can you do it? Don't worry if you're struggling. Sometimes those questions are hard to answer early on. It's in revision that you really need to know, and start weaving the deeper thread through your work. But keep those two sentences near your workspace, ready to be filled in, or reread as reminders. This is the big want that will keep you on track as you move your story forward. Because naming that "underneath that" part of the equation is where you'll find the true heart of your book. As I said, it's OK if you don't know how to answer it yet. But soon, you will need to. It will be your anchor, and it will be the emotional arc of your story. The piece that allows you to add depth and meaning and heart to your work.

Since that panel with Kate, I've come up with additional fill-in-the-blank questions to help my students go even deeper into the heart of their books. Again, the questions are simple, yet the answers help lead students to the core of their journey, the real purpose.

Try these:

This is a story about a boy/girl who wants ___________________________________ .
But underneath that, it's about a boy/girl who really wants _______________________ .

This is a story about a boy who wants to defeat Voldemort.
But underneath that, it's a story about a boy who really wants to be loved.

This is a story about a boy/girl who needs ___________________________________ .
But underneath that, it's about a boy/girl who really needs _______________________ .

This is a story about a boy who needs to fulfill his destiny in order to survive.
But underneath that, it's about a boy who really needs to keep his friends and new-found family.

This is a story about a boy/girl who is afraid of ________________________________ .
But underneath that, it's about a boy/girl who is really afraid of ______________________ .

This is a story about a boy who is afraid of Lord Voldemort and the dark wizards who threaten to destroy Hogwarts and the Wizarding World.

But underneath that, it's a story about a boy who is really afraid of losing the world and people he loves.

I hope you all have fun with this warm-up. And feel free to share in the comments! I will be away working on helping to rebuild a home with Habitat for Humanity all week, but I will be back in the evenings to reply to your comments if you leave them. I'm looking forward to hearing what you come up with!


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13. Welcome Teachers! :)

Hi, everyone, and welcome to Teachers Write!!!!

This is such an exciting day. I love the thought of all you teachers all over the country writing together and putting your stories into the universe. It's a beautiful thing.

My role in Teachers Write is to provide a weekly writing prompt to all of you to help get you warmed up for the week. These prompts are meant to be fun, but also inspiring. I will try to help you think more deeply about your work: your intent, your stories, your characters. I hope you'll stop by each week to check in, try the prompts, and share how things are going!

To start you off, I want to ask you to think about finding the beauty in your work, no matter what your story is about. Why beauty? Every year, I choose a theme to try to live by, or live up to. It helps me stay grounded on hard days, and it helps remind me of the big picture when little things get me down. This year, my theme is "Finding Beauty". You can read more about what I mean by that here: http://jbknowles.livejournal.com/480410.html

Even in the grittiest, saddest, hardest stories we read (or live), there is almost always a glimmer of hope somewhere. It's what makes us read on, or live on. And that's the point. In fiction, this glimmer, this promise, is the heart of your story.

Often when we start writing we give our characters a big conflict. Even in picture books, the theme is to try fail, try fail, try fail, succeed! What's the beauty there? The willingness to keep trying after each failure. The beauty is hope.

The beauty in our work is why we write in the first place. It's why the story called to us. It could be triumph, it could be love, it could be survival. Joy. Discovery. Truth. Understanding. Forgiveness.

Many of you are beginning your stories today, so you may not even know exactly what you'll be writing about, or where your character's journey will lead. But you can still think about the themes that are important to you, and how underneath that, lies something beautiful. It's where the heart is, or will be, pumping life into your story.

Today, I ask you to consider the work you plan on doing this summer for Teachers Write. First, think about the over-arching story. Then, think about why this story is important to you. What's calling you to write this particular one? What do you think the beauty of it will be?

I hope you'll share in the comments. But I also know that sometimes, these are the things we want to keep close to our hearts. (And if that's the case, I hope you'll just say hi.) But do keep it, either way. And revisit what you've written as you write your story, and especially when you get stuck, as an important reminder of why you are doing this, and why you must keep going.

Good luck everyone! And next week, we'll get to more specific exercises/prompts as you dig deep into your stories. I can't wait!!!!



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14. Who do you write for?

The past four days have been nonstop smiling, hugging, note-taking, speech-giving, workshop attending, bad-food binging, wine drinking, late night talking, friend-making, lack-of-sleeping awesomeness.

Usually I document absolutely everything with photos but somehow I got almost none! So I will have to try very hard to plant these memories firmly in my heart. I don't think it will be hard.

Thursday started with dinner in Stowe, VT (which I'd somehow never been to) at an amazing restaurant called The Phoenix with members of the DCF committee. I had the best veggie burger I've ever eaten and met some fascinating people. Great conversation about books and art and kids and nature. Wow.

I was also given the news that the keynote speaker for the conference had a flight cancellation so I would be the keynote speaker instead. *gulp* But I must admit it was the most uplifting, rewarding experience. I've never felt so truly connected to an audience as I did that morning. I talked about books that change us, books that save us, and the role teachers and librarians have in connecting that special book to that child in need. I was that child. And I am so grateful I had the opportunity to talk to a roomful of teachers and librarians who are the ones who bridge the reader and book. It was a real gift to be able to thank them, and encourage them.

Here is a photo of me with Grace Greene as the audience gave my first ever standing ovation. What a moment. I don't think our faces are reflecting the awe and gratitude I was feeling. But it may just be because my friend Cindy was trying to take the photo with my phone :-)

photo 3

Thank you Grace, for inviting me to speak at this special conference. It was an honor.

Directly after that talk, I was in a break-out session to keep the discussion going and it was both intimate and eye-opening. There may have been some tears. What a wonderful audience.

After that, we had lunch and then it was time to listen to Gary Schmidt! I love his books so much and his talk was very powerful. I'm really glad I got to be there to hear it!

I signed lots and lots of books, which is always a thrill. One woman couldn't decide who to have me sign her book to. Martha finally won. :-)

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Then, it was time to head to Springfield, MA for the NESCBWI conference. Cindy Faughnan and I drove through the mountains, coming upon rainbow after rainbow. It was the perfect way to close a magical day.

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We met Tamra Smith and Sharon Darrow in Hartland, VT and continued our journey to Springfield. Sadly we were so late I missed the faculty dinner so we went out seeking a restaurant and it took so long to get back we missed the cocktail party, too! Boo! But it was lovely to have some quiet time together.

Saturday morning, I got to sit with long-time writing partners Cindy Faughnan and Debbi Michiko Florence. This was our first conference together, even though we have been working together for, oh, close to ten years? :-)


We listened to Peter Reynolds talk about the power of a single dot. But more importantly, the power of a teacher's encouragement to trust that you are just as special as anyone else. That your dot, your words, _you_ matter. It was a continuation of the theme that began back in Stowe, and it filled my heart with hope for those kids who need to hear that message most.

At lunch, I had the honor to present Tamara Ellis Smith with the first of two Marguerite (Peggy) Davol scholarships. What a joy! Then, I accepted the Crystal Kite Award for SEE YOU AT HARRY'S. Also, obviously a big joy. A big honor. A huge moment. In my acceptance speech, I talked about how there were times when I thought Harry's was just too hard to write. And how it was friends (including Peggy) at an NESCBWI conference years ago who gave me the courage to keep trying. I also talked about how last year, a friend was having similar feelings about her own work, and how we also encouraged her to not give up. Well, she didn't, and she just got her first book deal! :-) I extend that message to all of you, feeling doubt about whether you can do this thing. You can. It will be hard. And it will probably require you to work extremely hard. But if you are willing, you can do it. You CAN!


Saturday night proved to all of us that this conference can feel just a wee bit too big and overwhelming, as we realized just how impossible it was to find each other and try to meet for dinner and then find those we couldn't earlier to meet to visit and chat at night. Yikes! There were so many people at this conference I meant to see and catch up with but I simply never did. Usually we at least spy each other walking through the halls but boy there were just so many people it became impossible. I love that this conference has grown, that so many people are pursuing their dreams of telling their stories. But I also wish I could have been in about ten places at the same time, so that I hadn't missed catching up with so many dear friends.

On Sunday morning, Laurel Snyder talked about who we write for, and how to filter out the voices and advice that stifle our creativity. My favorite quote: "You can't write for everybody because everybody isn't a person." I have been thinking about that a lot.

Then I got to give a workshop on "Brave Beginnings" and encourage people to rethink the beginnings of their works-in progress. I realize now this workshop could have easily been 2 hours long instead of 1. But I hope people were inspired by the blank page and could see how sometimes not looking at what's already there can be liberating and help them find the beginning that works just right.

Driving home with friends, it was awfully quiet. I think we all had our own thoughts swirling around in our hearts. The friends we reconnected with. The people we met for the first time. The advice we received. The food we regretted eating. But mostly, that question about who we write for, and who we want to reach, and why, and how we can, and what might happen if we do.

Thank you to all the volunteers who make this conference possible. There is a reason it keeps growing, and it's because you all make it so wonderful.


Think about what Laurel said about how you can't write for everybody because everybody isn't a person. Think about it really carefully. And now think about who we _DO_ write for? Think about who _YOU_ write for. Who do you imagine reader your words? Who do you want to, most specifically? Write a letter to that person and explain why. Why do you want him/her to hear your story? Why him/her most of all? What do you want this special reader to know? To hear? To feel? Then, if you're still feeling brave, share!

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15. School visits, nerves, grattitude, and a Monday Morning Warm-Up :-)

Recently I had a very special school visit. It was at the school where my sister is the school librarian!

photo 3

I've seen how my sister prepares for author visits so I was pretty excited to get the Mrs. Finnegan treatment ;-)

photo 2

photo 1

Steph really prepares the kids for a visit, and she and the kids put a lot of care into making the place feel welcoming:

photo 5

(Look at the Fred poster! All the kids wanted to know more about FRED!)

Steph said when she put up the sign, all the kids went nuts because they thought the author who wrote "the pigeon books" was coming :-)

photo 5

I had the extra bonus of visiting during literacy week, so the kids were ALL ABOUT READING that day.

photo 1

The first thing I saw when I entered the school was this: The kids were taking a reading relay challenge and there was always someone reading in the tub--students, teachers, even the principal!

photo 4

All the teachers had decorated their doors with book themes. It was fun to see so many friends' books on these doors!

photo 4

I met with two groups of 7th and 8th graders who read See You At Harry's. It was "Lunch with an Author" and all I could think of was Dear Mr. Henshaw when Leigh has lunch with Mrs. Badger. :-)

photo 3

Here's one of the thoughtful groups of students I talked with:
photo 2

I had such a fun time, and it was wonderful to see my sister with all her sweet students.

On my way out, I couldn't resist taking a turn in the tub... with my sister, of course. :-)


Yesterday, I posted on Facebook about how nervous I get before a speaking event. I worry days ahead of time that something will go wrong. The media equipment won't work. I'll forget my speech. The kids won't like me. But so far *knocks wood* none of those things has happened. (At least I hope not!)

I have been so incredibly lucky to be able to visit schools and talk with kids and share our love of books. It is a rare and moving opportunity that is worth every nervous feeling.

Thanks Steph, and all the kids at Holderness Central School, for making the day so special!


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

I am very sorry I haven't updated my blog in such a long time! I hope those of you looking for prompts remembered to hit the tag link to find some! I always have a lot on my web site. :-)

For today's prompt, I want you to explore how you convey emotion on the page. I think this is one of the most challenging things my students struggle with. How do YOU convey emotion and show not tell? Writ a scene, share your thoughts. I'd love to have a conversation about this! <3

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16. Finish Every Day

Yesterday on Facebook, I included the phrase, "Life is beautiful" in an update.

As soon as I posted it, I thought about the people who might be hurting that day and see it, and disagree. Who might see it, and resent me. Or just feel sad.

So I almost deleted it. But then I didn't. Because life _is_ beautiful, thank god or spirit of life, or whoever it is that made it so. Without some hope for beauty, without a glimpse now and then, or a reminder to be on the lookout for it, what would be the point?

I am aware that life can be as ugly as it is beautiful.

On the ugly days, you might not want to hear about the joys of a baby's smile. Or the precious off-kilter wag of a puppy's tail.

Every cute photo on Facebook may feel like a dagger to your heart.

On the ugly days, when your world has come to a screeching halt, it may seem impossible to you that it's still spinning perfectly for everyone else. That everyone else just goes on living, sharing recycled jokes, unaware (but you are convinced it's because they don't care), that you are hurting inside.

The unfairness of it makes you want to scream. Look at me! I need you.

When life is beautiful, you might not want to hear about the stomach flu your friend's son has, or about the dying twenty-year-old cat of some acquaintance on Facebook you're not even sure how you know.

You care, but not in the way you should. Because the world is spinning perfectly that day, and you do not want to be pulled off the ride one more time.

Other times, you have a life is beautiful moment, and you say so. Like I did. But then you are filled with guilt, because you know someone is going to read that phrase, someone who is having an ugly day, and feel that dagger. And you worry this time you are the one who pressed it into someone's undeserving heart.

I am aware that _you_ is me.

And what I'm learning over and over again is that life, whether ugly or beautiful, is a gift. What we do with it is a choice.

Yesterday at church our minster read from a letter Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote to his daughter while she was away at school. It's called "Finish Every Day." I'll share part of it here:

To-morrow is a new day;
you shall begin it well and serenely,
and with too high a spirit
to be cumbered with your old nonsense.
It is too dear, with its hopes and invitations,
to waste a moment on the rotten yesterdays.

I like this very much. To think that, cliché as it is, tomorrow _is_ a new day. What an easy promise that is. Maybe it will be beautiful. Maybe it will be a little ugly. But I will try to begin it well.

I will try to remember my New Year's theme to live a beautiful life. To love that cat I don't know. The smiling baby. The puppy's tail. The puking child. The suffering friend. Even the one who drives me crazy.

It is all too dear to waste on my own rotten yesterdays.

Today, I am writing with my long-time writing partners _in person_ for the first time in maybe a year. Today, is a gift day and I'm so grateful to begin it well.



Monday Morning Warm-Up:

What can you do to begin the day well?

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17. Trusting the process... and your friends

Last week I finally "finished" the rough draft of a middle grade/tween novel I was supposed to finish last November. I mentioned last week how much I've been struggling with this one, mainly due to constant interruptions as well as, admittedly, using those as an excuse not to work on it. But now there is a draft. There is a beginning (of sorts), a very murky middle that goes on and on and on, and there is an end (of sorts). There is conflict and there is resolution. But... and it is so hard to admit this... there isn't enough heart. There isn't enough life. There isn't enough structure. And there isn't enough plot. There are some funny moments and some sad moments but overall, what I have is a massive collection of scenes all loosely tied together that tell a weak story at best.

I know what this means.

I'm afraid of what this means.

I have to start over on a blank page.

When I admitted this to my husband and writing partners, they were like, "Well, yeah. You've done that with all your books."

And I was like? "Wait, what?" And then I remembered that was true. I seem to be good at blocking the memory of this step out.

"This is your process."

That's what they tell me, reassuringly. And then they say, "You can do it."

Sometimes I think one of the most valuable aspects of this life is to have friends who believe in me when I don't. I can't imagine what I would do without them telling me I can do something I've stopped believing I can do.

Thank you Cindy, Debbi and Peter for believing in me, especially on the days when it seems too hard. It reminds me of how silly that is, really, to say about writing.

Writing is only as hard as you make it.

It might seem hard because I'm afraid. Or feeling tired. Or overwhelmed. Or not sure which way to go. It might seem hard because I'm unsure of myself. Or like it's a waste of time. Or even because I'm just plan lazy. But it's never too hard. That's me saying that because I don't want to do it. And there are certainly plenty of legitimate reasons for that. But those reasons are about me, not about the writing.

Writing is a choice. It's also a privilege. And when I remember that, the mountain seems a little less steep.

I can do it.

And so can you.


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

Think about the power of the phrase, "You can do it." How can you use that in your own life, in encouraging yourself and others, and how could you use it in your fiction? Is it something you might need to whisper in your main character's ear? Something he or she needs to convince someone else of? Start a scene with dialogue beginning "You can do it" and see what happens...

And speaking of "you can do it", here's my progress so far :-)


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18. Maybe You Could Do More

Some of you know, the past few years I have been trying to be "a runner." Or jogger. Or, probably most accurately a plodder. Each year, I add a mile to my yearly goal and attempt it on my birthday in September.

My challenge: I live on a twisty, hilly dirt, and once winter sets in, it can be very difficult to run on, especially when we get a very snowy winter like the one we've had this year. The road narrows, it's icy, and it's really just not safe to walk on, much less run. In fact the last time I went for a walk I had a very graceless wipe-out.

But we've had a few warm days and the snow banks have receded and it looks like the ice is mostly gone. So today, it's time to get back out there. Last September, I was able to run 6 (very slow) miles. But I'm afraid after a few months of not running at all, I'm back to square one. This happened last year, too. It's a bummer.

But last week, in a moment of inspiration (and perhaps delusion), I downloaded the training schedule for the Couch to Half Marathon plan. I meant to do the Couch to 10K plan, but for "some reason" I clicked on the half marathon link instead. My goal is only to run 7 miles. But there's this little dreamer inside me that says, Maybe you could do more...

So it is 6:52 a.m. as I write this and the training schedule is staring at me with a photo of this very fit lady at the top running like the wind and even though I know I will never look like her, with my frumpy body and my slow shuffle, somehow I'm still inspired to try. Today is the day.

On a parallel line here, I have been in a bit of a writing slump. Specifically, with a book that was technically or maybe just theoretically due back in November. That was the date we chose for the contract but I have been silently hoping no one else will remember.

Because I still haven't managed to finish the very rough first draft.

Last year I took on a teaching position and I also began doing more speaking engagements and traveling to more conferences and I had revisions come in for another novel and... all this meant I kept getting interrupted. Every time I tried to get back into my work-in-progress I felt I'd slipped more and more behind.

Like my running, the days I could finally get out there I felt I'd lost so much I could barely make progress. It was getting more and more frustrating and stressful. Eventually it began to feel hopeless. Eventually I more or less stopped.

But that's not really an option, is it? To give up your goal, your dream, just because it seems too hard?

No way.

On Friday, I had finished my school visit duties for the week. I finished an essay I'd committed to. I was done with all my student packets. I had a full day to write. It was like looking at a flat, ice-free road on a perfect-weather day and just standing there thinking, This is probably going to hurt, but you've gotta start somewhere.

Sometimes, opening my file, or putting on my sneakers, is actually the hardest part of getting back to the task at hand. It's the final commitment to starting again. Starting from what feels like the bottom of a very steep hill. So I told myself:

Just write one sentence. It can be terrible.

So I wrote one terrible sentence.

And then I told myself:

Maybe you could do more.

So I tried.

And soon I'd written 500 words. And maybe not all of them were so terrible. I felt myself finally stepping back into the story.

Today, I will write 1,000 words.

I'm also going to find my running shoes, buried under piles of winter boots and mismatched winter clothes at the bottom of the closet. My instructions say to jog 30 seconds, then walk 60 seconds. Repeat until you've gone 2 miles. It doesn't sound so hard, when you break it up like that.

One sentence. 30 seconds. It's possible.

I know a lot of you struggle too, so I wanted to put this little phrase in your head this morning, just like it lodged itself in mine.

Maybe you could do more.

I'm pretty sure you can.


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

Write to the prompt: "Maybe I could do more..."

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19. The Bond Writers Have

This year I started teaching in the MFA program at SNHU. It's a low-residency program that meets twice a year in person for several days of critiques, workshops, readings and community building. Between the residencies, I work as a mentor to five students. This month was my first winter residency at the fancy Mountain View Grand in New Hampshire. It's beautiful. Also cold. And I think because of the weather, a lot of people stayed inside. What happened this winter that I didn't see happening over the summer was this "coming together," even when nothing was scheduled. Students pulled up chairs and couches making circles to talk, share challenges in their work, and then impromptu readings. I was "caught" in one of those.

Photo by Franella Smith, a student in the program

Now normally I do not like to read in public. At the faculty reading, when faculty read to the student body, I get so nervous I make myself sick. But sitting around with students in this casual circle, I felt a part of something special. First, I was honored to be allowed in. Second, I felt that since the students were being brave and reading raw work to one another, I wanted to be a part of it. So when Kip, shown, said, "How about you, Jo?" I said yes. Because I wanted to. I really wanted to be a part of this special thing I was witnessing. This bonding of writers. This circle of trust they had created.

I think we writers are bonded by our deep longing to be heard. To tell our stories. I can sit at a table with writers and instantly know that if nothing else, we share that one thing. That one giant thing that makes us look at the world a little differently. Sometimes a little more tenderly than it deserves. And sometimes a little more cruelly. But we are always looking, interpreting, seeing the story there, or _a_ story anyway, whether it's true or not.

I feel I have been given a huge gift by being accepted into this community of storytellers. And I guess I just needed to thank the universe, and in particular a certain friend who suggested I apply for the job (thank you, Robin!!) and the generous person who hired me (thank you, Diane!!), for helping me find my way here.


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

Share a story about a time you bonded with another writer(s) or shared a special "we are writers" moment.

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20. Finding Beauty: A Theme and a Challenge for 2014

As some of you know, every year I choose a theme in January to help me keep on track (sane) the coming year. You may notice today is January 6 and that I haven't posted on this blog in a very long time. My theme should probably be something along the lines of Slow down. Be less busy. Take time to reflect here.


I don't actually know if that's the reason I haven't posted yet. I think the reason I haven't posted yet is that I have been happily (or at least determinedly) living my life--a theme I still hold dear to my heart which I chose for 2013. (You can read that entry here: http://jbknowles.livejournal.com/468705.html)

Confession: As I just wrote that, I literally had to ask myself: Wait. Is it 2014 now? Or is it 2013? I really don't know what year it is? How is this possible??? And then, dear reader, I actually just clicked on my calendar to be sure. I don't know what this says about my frazzled brain. It has been a very busy year I guess. I've been doing a lot of living.

The deeper truth though, is I have been waiting for true, fresh inspiration. And that hasn't happened.

I have been patiently waiting for a theme that can inspire me and carry me through a year of living a better life for myself, for others, and our ever-increasingly fragile planet. How do I put that into a short and meaningful phrase? Nothing felt quite right.

Two nights ago, at the SNHU graduation, I was sitting among the faculty in the front row, feeling kind of out of place and proud at the same time. Dressed in my robe, holding a speech for my student in my hand, sandwiched between two remarkable writers, I kept thinking, How can I be here? Should I be here? Do I really belong among all of these incredibly smart and talented people? And then I told myself, well, you ARE. So enjoy it. Someone thinks you belong here, why can't you? Live your life! Remember?

Then Mark Sundeen, the author of The Man Who Quit Money and other brilliant things (http://marksundeen.com/) took the stage. Mark is a brilliantly funny and poignant writer. When you talk to him, the beauty and kindness of his soul dances out of every pore. He grins in a wicked way, and yet it's a kind wickedness, if you know what I mean. Mark is the kind of person who looks back at you, not through.

Mark's commencement speech began with a lot of humor about how little money we all make doing this thing we love, but in the end, he delivered 4 pieces of advice. It all resonated strongly, but it was the last that truly spoke to my heart.

With Mark's permission, I share a bit of it here:

Live a beautiful life, and design it with your full heart.

Of equal importance to my dream of being a writer is my dream of living a life of intention and autonomy... Ultimately, I am a writer because I'm in search of the truth, of some sort of enlightenment, and I realized early in life that for me, there was no truth to be found sitting in a cubicle juggling numbers or entering data or selling useless products to gullible people, where I felt my efforts were creating the exact same crummy world I wanted to condemn and transcend through my writing. I couldn't do that because then everything I wrote about truth and nobility and the wonder of the human spirit would be a fraud. So for me living simply isn't just about slumming it, it's about living nobly, about the self-determination allowing myself to spend my life pursuing what I love—maybe one day this is writing for 6 hours, another day it's skiing in the middle of the afternoon, another day it's reading manuscripts from students, another it's harvesting vegetables and cooking them. To me that is freedom. I want my life to be a thing of beauty. And I encourage you to invest the same vision, intention, craft, imagination, poetry, and form that you put into your book—put it into the living of your life every day.

While his entire speech was inspiring, the big moment for me was this sentence:

I want my life to be a thing of beauty.

What a goal. What a dream. And yet… does it really have to be so hard? What is beauty? Where is beauty?

The gift is being able to answer the first question honestly and the second willfully and with brave determination, even in the darkest times.

Beauty is everywhere. It can be found in the harshest corners of a broken heart. There is beauty in life as well as death. In a love remembered. In a struggle survived. Searching for beauty in the ugly, in the seemingly hopeless, in sadness, that's what hope is. That's what living is. That's how you live a beautiful life.

Yesterday, I ventured out for a walk in the cold. I'm at the SNHU MFA Winter Residency in Northern New Hampshire and the temperature with the wind kicking up was bitter. But Mark's words were bouncing around in my chest and the hotel we're all staying in, while beautiful, felt as though it were shrinking around me and I needed the air and the sky, their beauty, no matter how biting they might be.

The first thing I came across as I stepped out was a somewhat tacky ice-sculpture of a train. It just seemed so out of place up here in the mountains. I would have preferred something more reflective of the quiet beautiful space we're in. But as I stepped closer, I saw that the train had windows. And the frames had this beautiful detail. And when I stepped even closer, I saw that through those windows was this view:



Beauty in the ugly.

I moved on. I knew there was a farm nearby but wasn't quite sure where. The wind picked up and I heard some children yelling in delight. I followed the sound and discovered two children flying down a tiny hill on tubes. There was a man who works at the hotel giving them big pushes with a pole and it struck me as so funny that here at this fancy resort, even sledding you get some assistance. "You can't do this where you live in California!" he called to them. And they said, "In California, we don't own snow pants!" There was so much delight in their voices. So much joy. So much beauty. Even if the privilege of it all felt a tad phony to me. Their joy was real. And it was beautiful.

I followed the path and saw a sign for the farm. The road was snow-covered and still so new that it was that pure kind of walk where your footprints alone are the only signs of someone having stepped there before.

I came across a pair of donkeys who let me scratch their foreheads. They seemed contentedly bored. Bored and beautiful.


Next was the hotel's barn full of a nice sampling of sheep and goats and lamas and all the cute farmyard stage animals you'd expect to see, but it was more of a petting zoon than anything else and there was something so strange about being there by myself, no staff people around because what crazy resort person would be visiting the farm in such sub-zero weather? Well, I was. And it was the absence of anyone else that made that moment so absurdly beautiful. The animals just looked at me and then ignored me. I didn't have food. I was of no use. So they let me watch as they meandered around one another. Seemingly confused about what their purpose really was on a day like that.


Honestly their indifference to me made me laugh. And then I saw this other pair, set apart from the rest. Facing each other as if it say, I only have eyes for you.


And that was beautiful, too.

Next I decided to follow a trail freshly groomed for cross-country skiers. But again, no one was skiing on a day like that. So I had the path to myself. It was eerily quiet. But something told me to keep walking. So I did. And found this tree. And I wondered, what stories could it tell?


In the summer, this tree is in the center of a golf course. Perfectly mowed and groomed in it's artificial beauty. But now, winter, nature, had covered up all the falseness with an honest blanket of white. And that was beautiful all by itself.

Last night, I went to a faculty reading and each reading was painful and hard and told of grief and despair. But underneath that, almost as if it couldn't be helped, was hope. My heart was at once rung out and then filled up. The words were both ugly and beautiful. Crushing and uplifting. They were ultimately about survival. About figuring out how to keep living even in the darkest times. That these women, these mentors, shared their stories so wholly and raw and honestly, was beautiful too. (Thank you Katie Towler, Amy Irvine McHarg, Leslie Jamison--you are beautiful inside and out)

This is how I want to live my life. To see the beautiful and how it can trump the ugly almost every time. It's believing in that, it's the constant searching for it, that I want to remember to do every day.

Yes. I want to live a beautiful life and, as Mark puts it, design it with a full heart. This is how I want to share my life.

Keep finding the beauty. It's so easy most of the time. And even when it's hard, to know that it's possible makes all the difference.

I want to find beauty in all the people I know and meet. I want to find it in objects. I want to find it on the dirty streets. In seemingly impossible situations. In moments of frustration and doubt.

Can I do it? Maybe not always. But I think it's a goal worth aiming for. I challenge you to do the same.


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

Write about something beautiful.

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21. Have you been to the fourth dimension?

Last week was a special one for me.

First, Vermont Public Radio aired the book group meeting I had with the wonderful kids at the Burnham Memorial Library in Colchester, VT. It was part of a series called Dorothy's List. This is the state book award list which students read from and then vote for their favorite at the end of the year.

You can see photos and listen to the event here:


One of my favorites (shared with me by a parent):


Second, my local paper ran a story about me! It was so kind and thoughtfully written, though everyone goofed on me about the photo. :-) The intern they assigned the photo to got a little excited about having my computer cast a glow on me, which was sweet. But in the end, I couldn't help making the comparison...

Screen Shot 2013-12-06 at 4.25.20 PM

:-) Anyway, it was a real treat to hear from local friends who'd read the article, especially those who didn't know a lot about me or my writing or my story.

You can read the article, called "A Writers Path to Understanding," here:


I'm not one to get paid a lot of attention to, and I'm not one to feel very comfortable when it happens, but these two events were so special and I am very, very grateful. Talking to kids about stories and writing and life has turned out to be the most rewarding and meaningful aspect of my writing life. To get the opportunity is a true honor.


Monday Morning Warm-Up:

A colleague of mine wrote a thought-provoking post about writing at the SNHU page: "What is Literary Writing, and Why it Matters in the Matrix," by Amy Irvine McHarg. You can read the full entry here:


I love this excerpt:

"It may sound like Star Trek stuff, but the fourth dimension is the place we want to access in poetry and prose. When we write deeply enough, there is an opening, that takes us below the horizontal plane, the surface of the ego, into the creative unconscious. It is here, where the rich textures and nuances happen, the place where writing becomes not just a craft but an act of grace."

Do you know what she's talking about? Have you been there? My challenge for you today is to explore your own interpretation of this fourth dimension Amy describes. Where is that place for you? For your story? Take a minute to close your eyes, slow your breathing, and open your mind to the core place of your story. Then open your mind's eye and look around. Feel. Breathe again. What do you discover?

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22. Apparently, I love a challenge

Recently I made an important discovery: I LOVE a group challenge!

For years I hosted JoNoWriMo+1.5, in which we all set goals and checked in to keep accountable. Do you know how many books I finished/revised thanks to this challenge? A lot. And I know many of you did, too. :-)

Then I signed up for the Couch to 5K challenge, and managed to get my sedentary butt moving and moving and moving! It was a miracle. And the great thing was, a bunch of my friends joined me and many of us ran farther than we have our whole lives. What an amazing feeling!

It seems I stick to my goals when I join something like this, which requires me to share my progress in public, but also to cheer on people who are going through the same thing with me! I guess I don't like doing this stuff alone. I love to encourage my friends to reach their goals as much as I love to meet them myself. There's something so special about doing something good for you TOGETHER. Know what I mean?

Recently, I did the 30-Day Plank Challenge. I printed out the schedule and put it on my refrigerator. Every day when I completed the task, I got to scribble it out and it felt SO GOOD to do that. :-) I also checked in with friends both on Facebook and Twitter and several of us managed to complete it. Yay!

My writing partners and I check in with each other every day and share our word-count or revision goals and cheer each on until we reach them. I know if it weren't for checking in with my friends on many of these days, I would accomplish nothing. Instead, we work together and make a ton of progress.

Do I rely too much on others to help me stick to my goals? Maybe. But I love not being alone. I love feeling like my success feeds their success, just as much as theirs feeds mine.

Now that I know how well this all works for me, I've made my own challenge for December. I've posted it below in case you'd like to join me. If this seems too easy or too challenging, you can tweak it to fit your own needs. In fact, this is your Monday-Morning Warm-Up! I've added my writing goals as well, and I encourage you to do the same. :)

I hope you'll join me!!


1. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups
2. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups, run at least 1 mile; write 500 words
3. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups; write 500 words
4. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups, run at least 1 mile; write 500 words
5. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups; write 500 words
6. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups, run at least 1 mile; write 500 words
7. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups
8. 2 min plank, 10 sit-ups, 5 pushups
9. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups, run at least 1.5 miles; write 1,000 words
10. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups; write 1,000 words
11. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups, run at least 1.5 miles; write 1,000 words
12. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups; write 1,000 words
13. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups, run at least 1.5 miles; write 1,000 words
14. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups
15. 2.30 min plank, 15 sit-ups, 7 pushups
16. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups, run at least 2 miles; write 1,000 words
17. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups,; write 1,000 words
18. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups, run at least 2 miles; write 1,000 words
19. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups,; write 1,000 words
20. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups, run at least 2 miles; write 1,000 words
21. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups,
22. 3 min plank, 20 sit-ups, 10 pushups,
23. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups, run at least 2.5 miles; write 1,000 words
24. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups; write 1,000 words
25. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups, run at least 2.5 miles
26. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups; write 500 words
27. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups, run at least 2.5 miles; write 500 words
28. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups
29. 3 min plank, 25 sit-ups, 13 pushups
30. 3 min plank, 30 sit-ups, 15 pushups, run at least 3 miles; write 500 words
31. 3 min plank, 30 sit-ups, 15 pushups; write 500 words

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23. Why you write back :-)

"Dear Mrs. Knowles,
I cannot believe it at all, you actually wrote back! Oh my gosh! As soon as I saw the notification I ran all over my house with adrenaline running through my body screaming Oh my GOSH!"

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24. Underneath, it's really about...

Hi everyone!

Your Monday Morning Warm-Up can be found at Inside A Dog, where I'm still the author in residence. :-) I really love this one!



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25. What else can you do?

Yesterday I heard a piece of an interview with Kathleen Turner on NPR. She was on to promote her new musical and when I turned on the radio, she was specifically talking to the interviewer about how she had done a lot of film acting, but now she was doing stage. And the interviewer said something along the lines of what a successful film career Turner had had, and why would she leave it all? Wasn't it risky? And Turner said something like, of course doing something different is risky. But the biggest risk of not trying something new is that you'll never know what else you can do.

I've been mulling that over a lot. Thinking about my own comfort zone and how much I dislike stepping out of it. How scary it is, and certainly how risky it feels. And yet time after time when I force myself to try something new, I learn something really important about myself and the world. Sometimes, it's true, I learn that I'm not very good at something. But I've also learned something more important than that. I've learned that people are lenient. That kids don't mind if you stumble on a few words when you're trying out a new presentation, or in a recent case, speaking off the cuff for the first time. I've learned that falling doesn't hurt as much as I think it will, and I don't have to look graceful getting back up. I just... have to get back up. I've also learned that I can do a lot of things I didn't think I ever could. And that has been well worth the risk.

Monday Morning Warm-Up:

Think about something you've wanted to do or try but haven't because you've been afraid you'd fail at it. Write a scene about a character attempting this thing and what happens when they fail at it. Now rewrite the scene and what happens when they succeed. Be sure to really get inside your character's head. Harness your own fear. Use your imagination to come up with realistic emotions for your worst-case and best-case scenarios. What happens? Does the worst-case turn into humor? Did it really turn out not to be so bad after all? How about the best-case? I hope this exercise will encourage you to try for real. :-)

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