Today I'm pleased to share with you a guest Wednesday Writing Workout on creating tension in fiction from award-winning author Maureen McQuerry. Before I tell you about Maureen, a quick reminder that it's not too late to enter for a chance to win a copy of the 2015 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market (CWIM) edited by Chuck Sambuchino and published by Writer's Digest Books. See the link at the end of today's post.
Now, about Maureen McQuerry: I was recently introduced to Maureen (via email) through a mutual friend. Her first YA novel, The Peculiars (Abrams/Amulet) was an ALA Best Book for Young Adult Readers 2013, Bank Street and Horn Book recommended book, and a winner of the Westchester Award. Her most recent novel Beyond the Door (Abrams/Amulet), has been named a Booklist top Ten Fantasy/SciFi for Youth. The second book in the series, The Telling Stone, releases May 2015. Maureen has taught writing to children and adults and loves giving author talks in schools and at conferences.
I'm hoping to meet Maureen in person when she visits Chicago in a few weeks. So far, she's scheduled to do a signing at The Book Stall in Winnetka on December 6 and one at The Magic Tree Bookstore in Oak Park on December 8. For more info, check out her website. You can also connect with her via Facebook and Twitter.
Before I share Maureen's WWW
on tension, here's a little about her newest novel, Beyond the Door:
Between his love of learning and his passion for Scrabble, Timothy James has always felt like an outsider. The only person who really understands him is his older sister, Sarah, and he’s also fairly certain nothing interesting will ever happen to him. But one dark spring night, everything changes.VOYA
A mystery of unparalleled proportions begins to unfold, revealing Timothy's role in an ancient prophecy and an age-old battle of Light against Dark. Together with Sarah and the school bully, Jessica, Timothy must embark on a quest to prevent the Dark from controlling the future—and changing the past. Can the trio work together in order to fight the ancient evil that threatens our world?
The first book in the Time Out of Time series, Beyond the Door, is a fast-paced adventure that combines Celtic myth, shapeshifters, and a secret code in a coming of age story.
described the novel as "jam-packed with twists and turns," a sure sign that Maureen knows a thing or two about creating tension. Here's her Wednesday Writing Workout
on the topic: Wednesday Writing Workout:The Stakes Should Always Be Death
by Maureen McQuerry
Story isn't about plot. It isn't about character or setting or a great idea. It's about how events change people. We keep reading because we want to find out how a character navigates all the struggles that come her way. In fact the most critical component in reader satisfaction is the protagonist's arc. And notice I used the word struggle, because struggle is what changes characters. It's what changes us.
Struggle implies conflict and tension. Tension keeps us turning the pages. But how do you add conflict and tension to a story without an explosion or battle scene on every page, maybe without explosions or battles in your book at all? Tension begins with the stakes. If you've ever been told your novel is too quiet, it may be that your stakes aren't high enough. The greater the stakes, the greater the risk, the greater the tension and the more pages turned.
What do I mean by stakes? Stakes are what your protagonist has on the line. In a dystopian world like Hunger Games
, the stakes are personal survival, survival of people you love, of a community, of the world. But not every story will or should be dystopian or apocalyptic. The stakes may be the risk of emotional death. In my MG novel Beyond the Door
, Timothy finds himself in physical danger, the type of danger that might result in death, but he fears failing to complete his challenge almost as much. He believes it's his one chance to prove himself in the eyes of his friends. His self-worth is on the line.
For the reader to be concerned, risk has to be real and the protagonists' motivation worthy. Worthy motivations involve noble concepts like: forgiveness, love, redemption, self-worth. For example, a character who wants a part in the school play engages us when the stakes are based on a motivation that is worthy. She wants a part in the play because she sees it as a way to connect with her estranged father who was once an actor, but has rejected her or because she's never once fit in anywhere, been bullied or is handicapped and it's her one chance to find a community. If she fails here, she may never try again. Hope and worry for the protagonist create tension.
- A good beginning question to ask is what are the stakes for my protagonist? What is at risk? What will die?
Because a story is about how events change characters, you must have a clear idea of your character's arcs. In Beyond the Door,
Timothy needed to evolve from an insecure observer to a confident leader.
- Ask: What is my protagonist like at the start of this adventure? What do I want her to be like at the end of the story?
- What will it take to get her there? What kind of gut-wrenching decisions, public humiliations, dark nights of the soul? What antagonists will she have to face?
- Does each turning point create change? That's what moving a story forward means.
Below are some considerations for assessing your story for tension.
Assessing the risk in your story:
- The risk of failure must be real and must be devastating—big consequences.
- Conflict must be external and internal—your protagonist must struggle in her mind and heart and with external forces.
- Tension must be relentless.
- A clear antagonist strengthens the conflict.
- The solution must require everything the protagonist has—the greater the risk, the more we worry.
- The solution should be inevitable, but surprising (Aristotle).
A few time honored techniques to increase tension, such as those below, will keep readers turning the pages.Techniques to increase tension:
- Increase the stakes—as mentioned above
- Withhold info from protagonist—mystery novels are a great example of how one missing piece of information can put your protagonist at risk.
- Introduce doubt—Who can she trust? Were her assumptions faulty?
- Limit time—the ticking clock.
- Give and take away—just as your protagonist has everything she needs, the bottom falls out.
Whatever struggles your character faces, remember they are the engines of transformation and tension is the fuel.
Writing Exercise Text © Maureen McQuerry 2014, All rights reserved.
Thanks for this, Maureen. I've already used your questions to assess (and up!) the level of risk in my current work-in-progress. Readers, if you try any of these techniques, let us know how they work for you.
Good luck to all, and happy writing!
The clock is ticking! If you haven't entered for a chance to win a copy of the 2015 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market (CWIM) yet, see the link at the end of this post. The giveaway ends on Friday!
We're hosting the 2015 CWIM giveaway this month to celebrate the publication of my article in it: "Writing for Boys (and other 'Reluctant Readers')." The article contains advice and insights from four award-winning authors known for writing books that appeal to reluctant readers: Matt de la Peña, Lenore Look, David Lubar, and Steve Sheinkin. Today, I'm pleased to share a guest Wednesday Writing Workout from one of those authors: Lenore Look!
Here's Lenore's bio, as it appears in the 2015 CWIM:
Lenore Look recently released the sixth book in her award-winning (and boy-friendly) Alvin Ho chapter book series: Alvin Ho: Allergic to the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, and Other Tourist Attractions
(Schwartz & Wade). She is also the author of the Ruby Lu
series (Atheneum) and several acclaimed picture books, including Henry’s First-Moon Birthday
(Simon & Schuster), Uncle Peter’s Amazing Chinese Wedding
(Atheneum), and, her newest, Brush of the Gods
(Random House), a historical fiction account of the life of Wu Daozi, China’s most famous painter. Lenore taught creative writing at Drew University and St. Elizabeth College in New Jersey, and frequently speaks in schools in the United States and Asia. She has also co-presented the Highlights Foundation workshop "Writing for Boys" with Bruce Coville and Rich Wallace. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, and blogs frequently at lenorelook.wordpress.com
I'm a big fan of Lenore's Alvin Ho books, which is why I approached her about participating in the CWIM article. I haven't read Alvin Ho: Allergic to the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, and Other Tourist Attractions
yet, so I'll share the blurb for it that appears on Indiebound
Here’s the sixth book in the beloved and hilarious Alvin Ho chapter book series, which has been compared to Diary of a Wimpy Kid and is perfect for both beginning and reluctant readers.
Alvin, an Asian American second grader who’s afraid of everything, is taking his fears to a whole new level—or should we say, continent. On a trip to introduce brand-new baby Ho to relatives in China, Alvin’s anxiety is at fever pitch. First there’s the harrowing 16-hour plane ride; then there’s a whole slew of cultural differences to contend with: eating lunch food for breakfast, kung fu lessons, and acupuncture treatment (yikes!). Not to mention the crowds that make it easy for a small boy to get lost.
From Lenore Look and New York Times bestselling illustrator LeUyen Pham comes a drop-dead-funny and touching series with a truly unforgettable character.
Sounds like a fun read! J
For today's WWW, Lenore shares a great exercise in beginnings.Wednesday Writing Workout:Finding the Best Beginning
by Lenore Look
When I worked as a newspaper reporter, the first thing I learned was how important the “lede
” or beginning of the story is. The first sentence is crucial. It’s called the “hook” because it snags your reader and reels them into your story. Without a strong hook, your reader will get away before you can tell them the five Ws and H – who, where, what, when, why and how.
When writing fiction, your hook is not just the best way to snag your reader, but it’s the place from which you will hang the rest of your story. It’s THAT important. For me, the beginning is the hardest part of the book to write. I’m faced with all my research, my characters, what I want to say, and a few ideas for scenes. It’s overwhelming. Where do I start? I pick something and have a go at it. It’s a mis-start, or a scrub, as they call it at NASA when a launch is aborted. I have many scrubs. When I find the spark that will finally launch my rocket, there’s more trouble. Often I will agonize over the first sentence for days, re-writing it, tweaking it, throwing it out, starting it over, again and again. But when I finally get it right, it’s blast-off! And the rest of the book seems to write itself.
Here’s my top-secret recipe for finding the strongest beginning, and I hope it helps you find yours.How to Find the Strongest Beginning to Any Piece of Writing.
Open your writer’s notebook.
Ask the following questions:
Who’s your character?
What’s your setting?
What does your character want?
What are the obstacles in her way?
Summarize the story you’re telling in one sentence.
Write your summary sentence in the center of a blank page.
Now surround your summary sentence with your answers to the questions from #3. Some people call this “clustering,” – if you draw circles around each of your sentences/ideas, it begins to look like a cluster of grapes. I don’t bother with the circles, instead I make lists, and surround my summary sentence with lists that answer the questions.
Add your research as they fit under the different questions in #3.
Eat some ice cream.
Stare at the sunset.
Call a friend.
It’s important to start the next part with fresh eyes.How to Find the Strongest Beginning, Part II
Look at your messy page(s).
Find the smallest, most simple detail that captures your entire story.
What you’re looking for is the KEY to your house. Keys are small. A small detail will open the door to the rest of the house, which is your story. All the rooms in your house are the different scenes that make up the story.
Study carefully the beginnings to books you like.
Using the detail you found in #2, and the inspiration you found from #4, write the most compelling beginning you can.
Let it lead you into the first room of your story.
Finish off the ice cream.
Stare at the sunset.
It may be the last sunset you see for a while.
Writing a book takes a long time.
Cry your eyes out. It’s only the beginning. You still have the middle and the end to tackle!
Writing Exercise Text © Lenore Look 2014, All rights reserved
Thanks, Lenore, for this terrific exercise! Readers, if any of you try today's WWW, do let us know how it works for you.
And don't forget to enter for a chance to win your own copy of the 2015 CWIM, where you'll be able to read additional helpful tips from Lenore. See my last blog post for details
. The giveaway ends October 31.
Today I'm pleased to share a Wednesday Writing Workout contributed by the inspiring and talented author Margo L. Dill.
I first met Margo some years ago at an SCBWI-Illinois writing conference. I believe she'd already sold her first novel, the middle-grade historical Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg
(White Mane Kids), but it hadn't been published yet. With today's post, we join Margo's blog tour celebrating the release of her second novel, Caught Between Two Curses
(Rocking Horse Publishing), a YA light paranormal romance novel about the Curse of the Billy Goat on the Chicago Cubs. Margo has two more books under contract--both picture books--one with High Hill Press and the other with Guardian Angel Publishing. Besides being a children's author, she is also a freelance editor with Editor 911: Your Projects Are My Emergency!
and she is part of the WOW! Women On Writing
e-zine's staff. There, she works as an editor, blogger, instructor, and social media manager. When she's not writing, editing, or teaching online, Margo loves to spend time with her husband, stepson, daughter, and crazy Boxer dog, Chester, in St. Louis, Missouri. You can learn more at Margo's website
Here's a summary of Caught Between Two Curses
Seventeen-year-old Julie Nigelson is cursed. So is her entire family. And it’s not just any-old-regular curse, either—it’s strangely connected to the famous “Curse of the Billy Goat” on the Chicago Cubs. Julie must figure out this mystery while her uncle lies in a coma and her entire love life is in ruins: her boyfriend Gus is pressuring her to have sex, while her best friend Matt is growing more attractive to her all the time. Somehow, Julie must figure out how to save her uncle, her family’s future, and her own love life—and time is running out!
As a die-hard Cubs fan, I'm really looking forward to reading Margo's new book. (I'm hoping the main character solves not only her problem, but the Cubs' curse too!)
And now, here's Margo's three-part Wednesday Writing Workout.Wednesday Writing Workout: Putting the Pieces Together
Writing a novel is like putting together a jigsaw puzzle with my daughter. I’ve been teaching her to do the edge pieces first and then fill in the middle. This reminds me of writing a novel because writers usually start with an idea, maybe a plot or an interesting character with a problem—in other words, our border. We build our foundation for a story by piecing together our ideas. But sometimes, that beginning border, even with a few pieces filled in the middle, is not finished or even sturdy. Here are exercises I use with my WOW! Women On Writing
novel students to add more pieces to their puzzle and come out with a strong, final product—a finished, publishable novel! (These can also be used with short stories and picture books.)
1. Create characters with internal and external problems.
The characters I remember best are the ones that struggled with both internal and external problems. What’s the problem your character has that he must overcome in the novel? Trying to raise money for a new bike? Figuring out how to deal with a sibling? Tired of moving around and always being the new kid at school? These are all external problems, and the ones that our plots are built on.
But your character also needs an internal problem! In Caught Between Two Curses
, Julie has to break two curses; but while she does this, she also struggles with her self-esteem and confidence as well as what love means. These are her internal struggles. While she rushes around to save her uncle, the events in the novel help her grow and work through her internal problems.
Just ask yourself these four questions either before you write your novel or even during revisions:
a. What is your main character’s internal struggle?
b. How does he or she solve it?
c. What is the external problem in the novel that affects the main character?
d. How does he or she solve it?
2. Brainstorm problems.
If you find yourself with a strong border for your novel—an exciting beginning and an ending that will leave readers talking for years, but you are stuck in the muddy middle, make a list of 10 problems that a person can have that’s the same age as your main character and in the same time period. For example, my novel’s main character is 17, lives in Chicago in present day. Problems she can have are: pressure to have sex, temptation to do drugs, failing classes, negative body image, disloyal friends, etc.
Once you have this list, are there any of these problems that you could turn into a subplot for either your main character or a minor character or sidekick? Subplots can often dry up the muddy middle and keep readers hiking to the end.
3. "Then what?"
The last exercise asks a simple question, “Then what?” Each time you answer, make the problem or situation worse for your main character. You don’t actually have to use all of these horrible situations in your book, but they may help you push your main character a little harder. Here’s an example:
Julie learns a curse is on her family.
The curse makes her uncle fall in a coma.
Julie’s grandma says her uncle will die before he is 35 if the curse isn’t broken.
He is 35 in less than 5 months.
She has no idea what to do to break the curse.
Using these writing exercises while you are piecing together your novel will give you a complete story in no time!
Today I'm happy to share a guest Wednesday Writing Workout from the amazing Kym Brunner, who is celebrating the release of not one, but TWO, novels this summer.
When I met Kym at an SCBWI-IL conference a few years back, I couldn't get over her enthusiasm and energy. I had no idea how she found time to write, given that she was a busy mom with a full-time teaching job (teaching middle-schoolers, no less!).
According to her bio, Kym's method of creating a manuscript is a four-step process: write, procrastinate, sleep, repeat. She's addicted to Tazo chai tea, going to the movies, and reality TV. When she's not reading or writing, Kym teaches seventh grade full time. She lives in Arlington Heights, Illinois with her family and two trusty writing companions, a pair of Shih Tzus named Sophie and Kahlua.
Kym's debut novel, Wanted: Dead or In Love (Merit Press), was released last month. Here's the intriguing synopsis:
Impulsive high school senior Monroe Baker is on probation for a recent crime, but strives to stay out of trouble by working as a flapper at her father's Roaring 20's dinner show theater. When she cuts herself on one of the spent bullets from her father's gangster memorabilia collection, she unwittingly awakens Bonnie Parker's spirit, who begins speaking to Monroe from inside her head.
Later that evening, Monroe shows the slugs to Jack, a boy she meets at a party. He unknowingly becomes infected by Clyde, who soon commits a crime using Jack's body. The teens learn that they have less than twenty-four hours to ditch the criminals or they'll share their bodies with the deadly outlaws indefinitely.
And here's the blurb for her second novel, One Smart Cookie
(Omnific Publishing), which came out July 15:Sixteen year old Sophie Dumbrowski, is an adorably inept teen living above her family-owned Polish bakery with her man-hungry mother and her spirit-conjuring grandmother, who together, are determined to find Sophie the perfect boyfriend.
But when Sophie meets two hot guys on the same day, she wonders if this a blessing or a curse. And is Sophie's inability to choose part of the reason the bakery business is failing miserably? The three generations of women need to use their heads, along with their hearts, to figure things out...before it's too late.
Today Kym shares a terrific Wednesday Writing Workout
Wednesday Writing Workout:
SHH! DIALOGUE SECRETS YOU DON’T WANT TO MISS!
by Kym Brunner
Quick! After a person’s appearance, what’s the first thing you notice when you meet someone? If you’re like most of us, it’s what comes out of their mouths. First impressions and all that. But when you read, you can’t see the characters, so your first impressions are made based on what the characters say, not how they look.
Simple concept, right? Not so simple to deliver.
SO…HOW DO YOU MAKE YOUR CHARACTER MAKE A GOOD FIRST IMPRESSION?
Give them something to say that’s:
1) Believable Dialogue
- Fits their personality
- Consistent, yet unexpected
- Short and natural
How do you know if it’s believable or not? Put on your walking shoes and get out your notebook! Head to the spot where the prototype of your character would go. Need to write teens talking together at lunch? Go to a fast-food restaurant near a high school. Want to know what couples say when they’re on a date? Head to a movie theater early and go see the latest romantic comedy. You get the idea.
***HINT: LISTEN AND TAKE GOOD NOTES. I promise you’ll forget the words and how they said them if you don’t.
23) Consistent, yet unexpected? Huh?
2) Dialogue that fits the character’s personality
There’s a famous writing cliché that says a reader should be able to read a line of dialogue and know who the character is without the identifying dialogue tag.
The key is being the character when you write his or her lines. Imagine YOU are the sensitive butcher who is very observant (seriously, picture yourself looking out of the eyes of the butcher with your hands on a raw steak) and then write his or her lines. Better yet, listen to a butcher talk to customers and/or interview one to ask his top three concerns about his job. You might be surprised to learn what those things are…and so might your reader.
***HINT: SWITCH INTO THE MINDS of all of your characters (even the minor ones) as you write to create words that only THEY would say.
Your job is to make sure your characters are real, that they speak the truth (or not, depending on who they are). In real life, characters might keep their thoughts to themselves. Not so in fiction. Characters that are pushed to the brink must speak out––to a best friend, to the cabbie, to the offending party, to the police.
Yes, we want dialogue to be authentic, but it IS a story and it does need to intrigue your readers. So let them speak their mind and propel the story ahead by providing interesting thoughts for your readers to mull over.
***HINT: TO KEEP PACING ON TRACK, use frequent dialogue to break up paragraphs of exposition.4) Short and Natural
Cut to the chase. No one likes listening to boring blowhards, so don’t let your characters be “one of those people.” Remember tuning out a boring teacher? That’s what didactic dialogue and info dumps feels like to your readers. Only include information that’s absolutely necessary for the story’s sake and skip the rest. You might need to know the backstory, but keep it to yourself.
***HINT: READ ALL DIALOGUE OUT LOUD. Change voices to the way you imagine the characters interacting and it’ll feel more “real.” If you’re bored with the conversation, so is your reader. If it doesn't sound the way a person really talks, cut it or revise it. Listen to real people and you’ll notice most of us talk in short sentences with breaks for others to add commentary.
So there you have it. Write dialogue that’s believable, fits the characters, necessary, and natural and your readers will come back for more!
Hopefully you’ll find authentic dialogue galore in Wanted: Dead or In Love
, which features two alternating POVs––one from Monroe (a modern-day teen who becomes possessed internally by the infamous Bonnie Parker), and the other from Clyde Barrow himself (who works hard to take over the body of Jack Hale, a teen male).
And if cultural humor is more your style, you’ll get a helping of Polish spirits along with a bounty of teen angst in One Smart Cookie
.Kym BrunnerThanks so much, Kym!
Readers, let us know if you try any of these techniques. Meanwhile, if you'd like to connect with Kym, you can do so via her website
, Facebook, Twitter
, and Goodreads
. And if you'd like a taste of Wanted: Dead or In Love
, here's the book trailer:
Happy writing (and reading!)
Today's Wednesday Writing Workout
comes to us courtesy of the talented Sherry Shahan
. Sherry and I first met virtually, when she joined the New Year/New Novel (NYNN) Yahoo group
I started back in 2009. I love the photo she sent for today's post--it personifies her willingness to do the tough research sometimes required for the stories she writes. As she says on her website
, she has:
"ridden on horseback into Africa’s Maasailand, hiked through a leech-infested rain forest in Australia, shivered inside a dogsled for the first part of the famed 1,049 mile Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Alaska, rode-the-foam on a long-board in Hawaii, and spun around dance floors in Havana, Cuba."
Her new young adult novel Skin and Bones
(A. Whitman) is a quirky story set in an eating disorder unit of a metropolitan hospital. The main character “Bones” is a male teen with anorexia. He falls desperately in love with an aspiring ballerina who becomes his next deadly addiction.
The novel was inspired by a short story Sherry wrote years ago, “Iris and Jim.” It appeared in print eight times worldwide. Her agent kept encouraging her to expand “Iris and Jim” into a novel. Easy for her to say!
* * *
Wednesday Writing Workout
Tell It Sideways
by Sherry Shahan
During the first draft of Skin and Bones
I stumbled over a number of unexpected obstacles. How could I give a character an idiosyncratic tone without sounding flippant? Eating disorders are serious
, and in too many instances, life-threatening.
Sometimes I sprinkled facts into farcical narration. Other times statistics emerged through dialogue between prominent characters—either in an argument or by using humor. Either way, creating quirky characters felt more organic when their traits were slipped in sideways instead of straight on.
There are endless ways to introduce a character, such as telling the reader about personality:
"Mrs. Freeman could never be brought to admit herself wrong on any point." — Flannery O'Connor, "Good Country People."
Or by detailing a character’s appearance:
"The baker wore a white apron that looked like a smock. Straps cut under his arms, went around in back and then to the front again, where they were secured under his heavy waist ." —Raymond Carver "A Small, Good Thing"
The art of creating fully realized characters is often a challenge to new writers of fiction. As a longtime teacher I’ve noticed:
1.) Writers who use short cuts, such a clichés, which produce cardboard or stereotypical characters.
2.) Writers who stubbornly pattern the main character after themselves in a way that’s unrealistic.
3.) Writers who are so involved in working out a complicated plot that their characters don’t receive enough attention.
In Skin and Bones I let readers get to know my characters though humorous dialogue. This technique works best when characters have opposing viewpoints.
Consider the following scene. (Note: Lard is a compulsive over-eater; Bones is anorexic.)
“I’ll never buy food shot up with hormones when I own a restaurant,” Lard said. “Chicken nuggets sound healthy enough, but they have more than three dozen ingredients—not a lot of chicken in a nugget.”
Bones put on rubber gloves in case he’d have to touch something with calories. “Can’t we talk about something else?”
“That’s the wrong attitude, man. Don’t you want to get over this shit?”
“Not at this particular moment, since it’s almost lunch and my jaw still hurts from breakfast.”
Lard shook his head. “I’m glad I don’t live inside your skin.”
“It’d be a little crowded.”
Exercise #1: Choose a scene from a work-in-progress where a new character is introduced. (Or choose one from an existing novel.) Write a paragraph about the character without using physical descriptions. Repeat for a secondary character.
Exercise #2: Give each character a strong opinion about a subject. Do Nice Girls Really Finish Last? Should Fried Food Come With a Warning? Make sure your characters have opposing positions. Next, write a paragraph from each person’s viewpoint.
Exercise #3: Using the differing viewpoints, compose a scene with humorous dialogue. Try not to be funny just for humor’s sake. See if you can weave in a piece
of factual information (Lard’s stats. about Chicken Nuggets), along with a unique character trait (Bones wearing gloves to keep from absorbing calories through his skin.)
I hope these exercises help you think about characterization in a less conventional way. Thanks for letting me stop by!
Sherrywww.SherryShahan.comThank you, Sherry, for this terrific Wednesday Writing Workout!
Readers, if you give these exercises a try, do let us know how they work for you.
Today we have an extra-special Wednesday Writing Workout, provided by the terrific teacher and amazing author, Kathi Appelt!
In case you're not familiar with Kathi's work, she is the author of the Newbery-honor winner and National Book Award Finalist The Underneath, as well as the highly acclaimed novel Keeper, and many picture books. She is a member of the faculty at Vermont College’s Master of Fine Arts program and occasionally teaches creative writing at Texas A&M University. Kathi has two grown children and lives in Texas with her husband.
We invited Kathi to be our guest today to celebrate last week's release of her new middle-grade novel, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. (What a gorgeous cover!) The book has already garnered starred reviews from Booklist, Kirkus, PublishersWeekly, and School Library Journal. That's right--FOUR starred reviews! Several reviewers have referred to this novel, set in a Texas swamp and filled with a great cast of characters (including humans and critters), as a "rollicking tale." Here's a brief description:
Twelve-year-old Chap Brayburn, ancient Sugar Man, and his raccoon-brother Swamp Scouts Bingo and J'miah try to save Bayou Tourterelle from feral pigs Clydine and Buzzie, greedy Sunny Boy Beaucoup, and world-class alligator wrestler and would-be land developer Jaeger Stitch.
I can't wait to read it!
If you'd like to know more about Kathi and her work, check out her website
. And be sure to read through to the end of this post, where I ask Kathi about the connections between today's Writing Workout
and The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp.
Kathi Appelt's Wednesday Writing Workout
I’m often asked where I get my ideas, and one day while
doodling at my desk, it occurred to me that most of my stories start with
something I’ve found in the letter P, particularly People, Places and
Pets. Those three are the most Popular
when it comes to digging into my idea file.
The more I thought about it, the more I realized that the
letter P, which looks rather like a half-eaten Popsicle on the Page, is chock
full of idea generators.
Here are a few besides the three I mentioned above:
Well, the list goes on and on, but you get my drift. As an exercise, then, choose one of the “Big
Three” (People, Places, Pets), and then write a story using at least one of the
other P’s on the list.
Example: People and
Present might lead to a story about the time my step-mother gave my sister a
pair of boots that had the stars and stripes on them. They were uglier than ugly and my sister was
heartbroken. But she also didn’t want to
hurt my step-mother’s feelings, so she wore them anyways. It was a true predicament.
Place and Props might lead to a poem about my kitchen window and the
hummingbird feeder that I keep in the tree just outside it.
Final example: Pets
and Puddle could be the perfect setting for a story about a kitten who tries to
leap a big puddle OR a puppy who leaves a puddle on the kitchen floor.
There aren’t any hard and fast rules here.
So, take those P’s and stir them up, whirl them (as my
friend Liz Garton Scanlon
see what happens. I’ll bet something
Phantastic shows up.
Definitely place comes to mind. When I was in college, I lived in deep, swampy East Texas where I encountered all sorts of wildlife, including the poisonous sort. And of course PIES! Pies are central to the story. Then there are the pricker vines, the pine trees, and the paisanos.
So, lots of P's.
Well, Readers, I hope you're inspired to whirl a few P's of your own. If so, please let us know what you Produce
As Carmela pointed out, it's only fitting that my final post should be a Wednesday Writing Workout, given my usual agony over finding appropriate material to share in this space.
My college semester begins on Monday, and I've been trolling the Internet for ideas to borrow and steal. My chief goal this year is to get students more invested in what they're writing. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been reading Debbie Macomber's Once Upon a Time: Discovering Your Forever Story
. I was struck by her observation that the prevalent themes in her writing were set in her life from early childhood. As a children's book writer, I can certainly say this is true for me. In fact, I often worry that I have only a few stories to tell, and it is a relief to hear from such a prolific writer that there is hope for me.
At a recent writers' conference, I heard bestselling author Sylvia Day tell the audience that the prevailing theme of everything that she writes is "survival." When she put it this way, I immediately know that mine is identity. Who am I? Where is my place in this world?
Here is an exercise
I found based on a George Ella Lyon poem titled "Where I'm From."
I think everything I might ever have to write about is touched upon somewhere in my responses. Try it and, if you're so inclined, share what you come up with. Happy writing! --Jeanne Marie
It's not Saint Patrick's Day, but we're lucky, lucky, lucky to open our doors and welcome Guest TeachingAuthor Barbara Krasner, who offers us a dynamite Wednesday Writing Workout for the New Year.
|As long as we're feeling lucky, enter our latest book giveaway!|
Details at the end...
Here's a bit about Barbara: In the fall of 2014, her picture book, Goldie Takes a Stand! A Tale of Young Golda Meir,
will be published by Kar-Ben
, the Jewish imprint of Lerner Publishing Group.
In addition, she's written four nonfiction books (including Discovering Your Jewish Ancestors
) and more than 200 articles for adults and children that have appeared in Highlights for Children, Cobblestone, Calliope
, and Babaganewz
She holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from the Vermont College of Fine Arts,
an MBA in Marketing from Rutgers University
, and blogs at The Whole Megillah
/The Writer’s Resource for Jewish-themed Children’s Books.
Barbara is currently on the Sydney Taylor Book Award
Her short fiction and poetry have appeared in Poetica
, Jewish Women’s Literary Annual
, Mused-BellaOnline Literary Review, Jewishfiction.net,
in the Paterson Literary Review
; she was a semi-finalist in the 2013 Pablo Neruda Prize for Poetry in the upcoming Nimrod International Journal
Barbara is definitely a TeachingAuthor,
teaching creative writing in the English department of William Paterson University
and a workshop, Writing Jewish-themed Children’s Books
at the Highlights Foundation
You see what I mean when I say we're lucky
to have her come by today? WOWZA!
And now, here's Barbara with the Writing Workout
she's cooked up for us!
Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, comes early this year and I’m glad. It gives me the opportunity to reflect on the past year and think about the coming year even before the leaves fall. I’m giving you a Rosh Hashanah challenge in three parts.
Part One: Rosh Hashanah, literally translated as head of the year, is a perfect time to think about the beginning of your manuscript. How many times do we hear that if we can’t grab the agent/editor/reader within just a few seconds, he or she will just move on to something else?
Ask yourself the following questions:
• Do you have a compelling title?
• Does your first line grab the reader? (My all-time favorites are from M.T. Anderson, “The woods were silent except for the screaming,” and from Kate DiCamillo, “My name is Opal Buloni, and last summer my daddy, the preacher, sent me to the store for a box of macaroni-and-cheese, some white rice, and two tomatoes and I came back with a dog.”)
• Have you presented the main character on the first page?
• Have you presented the problem within the first page, the first chapter?
These questions apply to fiction and nonfiction alike.
What are your first lines?
Part Two: The Rosh Hashanah holiday includes a practice called Tashlich, casting off our sins. The practice is exemplified in April Halprin Wayland’s New Year at the Pier (Dial, 2009) and the mother-daughter team of Susan Schnur and Anna Schnur-Fishman’s Tashlich at Turtle Rock (Kar-Ben, 2010). My question to you: What writing sins will you cast off this year?
When I think about this for myself, I think about:
• I will cast off my lack of organization – I will organize all those papers into folders with easy-to-read tabs and file the folders
• I will cast off watching reality TV (TCM movies only) – I need more time to write
• I will cast off working on a gazillion projects at once – I will focus on one genre at a time, and right now, that’s poetry, and okay, picture books
• I will cast off reading several books at once – I commit to reading a book fully before moving on to another.
You get the idea. What will you cast off?
Part Three: Here’s a prompt you can write to: Recall a Rosh Hashanah (or New Year) scene from your childhood and write about it. Who was there? Where were you? What action and dialogue took place?
Thank you so much for your three-part Rosh Hashanah writing challenge, Barbara, and shana tovah
Before you head off to write about a memorable New Year, be sure to enter for a chance to win a copy of Lisa Morlock's terrific rhyming picture book, Track that Scat!
(Sleeping Bear Press).
posted by April Halprin Wayland
As Mary Ann mentioned on Monday, we're saying "farewell" to Jeanne Marie by linking back to one of our favorites of her 101 TeachingAuthor posts. And since today is Wednesday, I had the added task of choosing a favorite post that also lends itself to a Writing Workout. Turns out, that wasn't very hard. Last July, Jeanne Marie blogged about a picture book writing course she was taking. One of her assignments was to discuss the contents of her Writer's Toolbox. She shared an excerpt from her response to the assignment (which I encourage you to go back and read) and talked of the value of reflecting on one's own Writer's Toolbox.
For today's Wednesday Writing Workout
, I'd like to focus on the first tool/challenge Jeanne Marie mentioned:
"I think that one of the most challenging aspects of creating a rootable character is finding a way to make him/her likeable and flawed at the same time."
When I first read this, the term "rootable character" was new to me. I know now that it's simply a character the reader will want to root for. But creating one is not a simple task. In fact, it's something I'm struggling with in my current work-in-progress. Part of my challenge is that my story is set in 18th-century Milan, Italy, a time and place quite removed from my readers. How can I depict my character in a way that modern readers will understand her world well enough to empathize with and understand her feelings and choices?
One way is to find connections between me and my character that I can draw from. In a presentation to the Federation of Children's Book Groups last March
, Elizabeth Wein talked about how she found such connections while writing her award-winning historical novel Code Name Verity
(Disney-Hyperion) by looking for "modern parallels." But even if you're writing a contemporary story, whether fiction or nonfiction, it's not always easy to make your protagonist "rootable." Before trying the following workout, you may want to read these two articles on the topic: a post by Emilia Plater called "Radical Empathy: Creating a Compelling Flawed Character
" on the YA Highway blog
, and one by Alex Epstein for the 2012 Script Frenzy site
called "We Like Characters Because of Their Flaws, Not Their Virtues.
Writing Workout: Creating a Rootable Character
If you have a work-in-progress, consider your main character. Is he or she too perfect? If so, can you give the character a flaw that readers could relate to and understand? Or, on the flip side, have you created a character readers will dislike? If so, can you show why this character is this way?
Happy hot and glorious summer! I'm loving this hotter-than-usual Southern California summer: lying on hot cement by the pool in a wet bathing suit, barefeet, no sleeves, long days, bright mornings, driving with all the windows down, sleeping with all the windows open, taking Eli to the dog park early because he's black and brown and otherwise he gets too hot to romp like a pony, cold drinks with just the right kind of crunchy ice...I can go on listing all the things I love about summer.
Speaking of lists, we have a winner of Sylvia Vardell
's book, THE POETRY BOOK OF LISTS
! If you were on vacation, Sylvia was our Mystery Guest Author on August 3rd.
It was very exciting. And so is announcing the winner, who is...dum-dah-dah-dum...Carl Scott! Yay, Carl!
And now onto the topic we TeachingAuthors have been discussing:
GETTING THROUGH TIMES OF DROUGHT
OR HOW I FILL THE WRITING WELL.
(Sorry...I didn't mean to shout.)
Mary Ann posted
about finding at least three things to write in her journal each day that trigger her curiosity. Carmela posted
that she replenishes her writer's well by taking herself on an artist playdate. And Carmela tells us about her friend, Leanne Pankuch,
who writes a page a day.
My contribution is the following poem, inspired by our topic.
by April Halprin Wayland
we've been through Hard Times.
The Long Drought.
Dry? Oh my.
We place our plates upside down,
glasses bottom side up,
so the winds won't blast dust into 'em.
Our typewriters go thirsty on parched parchment.
We've got scrawny stories—or none at all.
We hear that on the outskirts of Amarillo,
crows built a nest from barbed wire—
the only thing they could scavenge
from burned-out fields.
Those birds made a nest
from barbed wire?
Well, Sir, then so can we.
And then: we'll crow.
poem © 2012 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.
WRITING WORKOUT: Vitamins
11 Comments on We Have A Winner! And We Have A Writer's Drought Poem for Poetry Friday!, last added: 8/19/2012
Meteorologically-speaking, 2012 will go down in
the Record Books as The Year of the Drought.
And metaphorically-speaking, as this series of
TeachingAuthors posts affirms, writers too face droughts at some point in their
But Bridget Doyle’s article in the August 18
Chicago Tribune last week emboldened me, the “Non-stop Finder of Life’s Silver
Linings,” (according to my Six-word Memoir), to
share my seemingly-simple prescription for
anyone suffering the pain and heartache of Writer’s Drought.
The Tribune headline reads GARDENS THRIVING IN DROUGHT – JUST ADD WATER
Wolan, of Arlington Heights, harvests tomatoes from her garden plot. Green
beans are also “doing fabulous,” she says, and she has a bumper crop of basil.
“We couldn’t control the sunlight or heat this year, but we could control the
water,” she says. (Stacey Wescott, Chicago Tribune)
My Rx for writers wishing to thrive during their particular droughts?
Maybe not that
Great American Novel you know lives inside of you; maybe not that poetry collection you b
This summer I wrote a research-heavy, fiction/nonfiction mashup of a book with a very short deadline. Its style and content required input from book teams at two companies on separate continents and lots of hurried revisions. During this time I also planned and planted extensive landscaping, revised a couple of picture books, led a writing workshop, tried to keep our newly-seeded lawn (and that landscaping!) alive during the drought, walked the dog every day, returned to a hobby (quilting and fabric arts) after too many years away, and–
I'll stop there, because it's simply LIFE. You know how it goes. But because this summer felt especially crazy for me, my well of creativity is currently running on empty. It happens to all of us at times, and I've enjoyed learning how my fellow TAs tackle the problem. Amazing how we all find different ways to refill.
What works best for me is reading.
Writing excellence inspires me, refilling my well like nothing else can. Mystery. Humor. Biography. Historical fiction. Books for kids. Books for adults. Doesn't matter, as long as it's great writing. Lucky for me, I recently stumbled across Alan Bradley's Flavia de Luce mysteries, which are tripping my creative trigger, big time. He's a fabulous writer overall, but one thing I've particularly appreciated is his mastery of the simile. Here are a few examples:
"The voice – a woman's – cut through the shop like a falling icicle."
"She was staring at me through her lenses like a birdwatcher who has unexpectedly come upon the rare spotted crake."
"I could almost follow her thoughts as the piano's notes went flying past my ears like birds from a forest fire."
Ideally, a simile provides insight into your character and/or makes a reader see something in a new, very specific, way. An effective simile should be distinct, delightful, unexpected. I don't know about you, but reading the ones above makes me want to write snappier similes myself. I also know that when I feel ready to begin the middle grade novel now lodged in my head, my writing is going to benefit enormously from having read Mr. Bradley's work.
This one's easy and fun. Below are ten clichéd similes. Brainstorm fresh alternatives. If you can make them voice-specific to a character from your current work in progress, so much the better.
eat like a pig
fight like cats and dogs
sleep like a log
work like a dog
dry as a bone
black as night
hard as a rock
busy as a bee
cold as ice
quiet as a mouse
(in a nod to Mary Ann's post on sound
, this is the sound of shuffling through all the entry names on strips of paper in a pail with my eyes closed and then pulling one out) Irene Latham
! How appropriate for Poetry Friday—congratulations, poet Irene!
Life is what happens to you / While you're busy making other plans,
John Lennon wrote in his song Beautiful Boy.
I have been working on the election for more than a year and have put my 14-year-old-novel-that-scares-the-dickens-out-of-me aside. You know the one--the one that's supposed to be in bookstores everywhere by now. At least that was the plan.
Every day my stomach twinges; I wonder if I'll ever finish it. If I'm capable of finishing it.
Don't try to force anything. Let life be a deep let-go.
See God opening millions of flowers every day without forcing the buds
~ Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh
by April Halprin Wayland
"Come in," I say to my almost-book.
But it stays outside,
in a halo of porch light.
It will not take off its coat or paisley rain boots,
though I offer it a place on the couch
and a cup of hot tea.
It seems comfortable out there,
dripping off the roof.
So I go about my days, my nights,
researching, running, writing.
Wrestling with wildlife.
Every now and then I tilt my head
to look out the window
at my almost-book on the wooden porch.
It's out there still,
in no hurry,
surrounded by the fragrance of tuberose.
poem (c) 2012 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.
Writing Workout: Wrestling with Demons
In the poem above, I told an embarrassing truth that haunts me.
It's October...nearly Halloween.
I dare you to do the same.
And remember to write with joy.
Howdy, Campers! Happy Poetry Friday!
All five of my fellow bloggers have weighed in on research and now it's my turn. Jeanne Marie talks about research avoidance
, Esther walks us through the research behind three of her books
, Jill is adamantly in favor of research
("put a sock in it," she tells us if our inner voice downplays its importance), Mary Ann argues the importance of research like a lawyer fighting for her client's life
, and Carmela gives us a terrific trio of research resources
Since I seem to be confessing sins lately
, I'll get this out of the way fast: does anyone else ever get scared because you know that deep, down, you're really a fraud? Here are two worries in the whispery-thicket of my mind, keeping me from that research phone call or email:
- What do you mean, call the zoo and ask the herpetologist my question? Who am I?!?!? I'm nobody!
- How can I interview a group of seventh grade girls? What if this never gets published? They'll feel betrayed!
I can't tell you how many books I've done copious research for, most of that research saved on my computer. I've interviewed rock and mineral experts
, my 91-year-old Uncle Davie about flying bombers in WWII and pitching sparkling strands of tin foil out of the fuselage to mess up enemy radar.
This is my favorite photo of Uncle Davie, taken when he was 85.
I've emailed middle school girls and their mothers about body image, I've researched compulsive overeating
, snakes, floods, tashlich
, Passover food, Hawaiian hikes, foods that have holes in them (Swiss cheese, olives, bagels, dried apple rings, red and green bell peppers, pineapple rings, bundt cake and cherry lifesavers for dessert.) and so much more
Research, for me, comes down to the beauty of finding that one defining detail.
In researching Girl Coming in for a Landing,
I spent a day at Magruder Middle School
in Torrance, CA on the first day of school.
Throughout the day I was allowed to interview individual students in each grade about how they prepared for the first day, how scared they were, etc.
Here is the pair of poems that made the book:
BACK TO SCHOOL
I worried about where the rooms were
and all those kids.
I didn't know
what kind of binder to buy (three ring?)
or how much lunch money to bring.
Last year I got my hair cut the day before school started.
It was way too short that first day.
And last year I didn't know if I should buy new jeans
or if my comfortable overalls would be dorky…
or even if anyone cared.
Last year I wasn't sure what time to set my alarm.
I was scared.
* * * * * * *
BACK TO SCHOOL
I've got the perfect organizer
with pockets for every subject (except PE).
I ironed my lavender shirt three days ago
and laid everything out last night.
I set the alarm for six forty-five:
I got my hair cut two weeks ago
so that it is exactly the right length today.
I have Mr. C for science
Mr. Barton from Tennessee for language arts
and Ms. Konigsberg
Last year I worried: Who was I? What did I know?
I put on glitter ChapStick and go!
poems (c) 2012 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.
So...besides the alternating inner turmoil and confidence the kids expressed, what was that one defining detail I discovered that day?
Who knew? It didn't exist when I went to school. How would I know about that? And of course, that's precisely the point--I wouldn't.
Writing Workout: The Devil is in the Details
Here's today's assignment:
1) Choose a topic you're working on or pull one out of the sky: cats, schools in Croatia, comic strips, how to grow asparagus--it doesn't matter.
2) Now, give yourself a reasonable amount of time to research it--30 minutes? A day? Two months? It depends on the project--you decide.
3) Google it, email a friend who knows the field, go to your local dog park and talk to owners, ask to speak with the woman who runs your school district's vegetable garden program.
4) Your goal is to find one killer detail. Something that sparks you, as glitter ChapStick ignited me.
5) Now, write a poem or start a picture book with this detail in mind.
Write, my children, write! And remember to breathe. And to remember to write with joy!
drawing (c) 2012 April Halprin Wayland.
If you use this drawing, please give credit. Thank you!
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Blog: Teaching Authors
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Howdy, Campers ~ Happy Poetry Friday!
...and if it's at Jama's it's sure to be tasty!
For my last post of 2012, I'm going to break from our series on publishing opportunities (see Esther's
last two posts
and Carmela's post,
with more to come!)...
I've been thinking about my family and our, well, interesting
year (especially the part about my husband dying of a heart attack and being brought back
and now being completely and miraculously fine); about hard times and hope, about sunrises, candles, glowing kitchen windows at night, and about the dark of winter and the glint of winter sunlight.
WINTER SOLSTICE: GIRL TALKING TO THE SUN
by April Halprin Wayland
On a hard day's chill,
when my heart stands still,
Sun, oh, Sun, where do you disappear?
Then Sun answers me,
Look around, little girl, I am here, I am here.
© 2012 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved
I am Jewish; I just recently learned that the fifth night of Hanukkah
(which can be spelled many ways
) is the first night in which there are more flames than darkness, more candles lit than unlit, and represents the triumph of light over darkness.
I love that.
Okay...ready for today's writing workout, Campers?
WRITING WORKOUT: A Light in the Darkness
1) Take a cozy moment to scribble ten ideas triggered by the phrase, "a light in the darkness" or by the 1:06 minute video above. Jot down memories, images,
or the name of someone in particular who helped light your way in a dark time.
2) Consider imitating the rhyme scheme of the poem above:
3) Or write a 100-word story.
3) Or write forget #2 and #3 and write the poem or story you were meant to write today.
4) Write like a little kid who is so jumpy-excited to get a piece of paper and a pencil she can barely sit still. Give that little kid a chance; let's see what gift she creates for you this holiday season!
And speaking of gifts, don't forget to enter to win a gift for yourself or for some lucky teacher in your life: an autographed copy of JoAnn Early Macken's, Write a Poem Step by Step. I have her book and it's terrific! See JoAnn's guest post for details.
Not actually in Southern California where I live,
but in Phoenix, several years ago.
Still, a pretty note of light and hope
with which to end the year...
Happy Holidays One and All!
Happy New Year, Everyone!
I hope you're all rested and refreshed and ready to plunge ahead into 2013.
While on our winter blogging break, we TeachingAuthors were busy working behind-the-scenes, planning a new weekly feature. If you're a regular reader of this blog, you know we often include Writing Workouts with our posts. As it says in our sidebar: "We invite classroom teachers to use these writing exercises with their students, and adult writers to try them on their own." Many of you have told us that you especially appreciate and look forward to our Writing Workouts. So we've decided to pull them out of our regular posts and create a separate feature: the Wednesday Writing Workout!
As you can see, we've added some text but kept our former Writing Workout
image--a set of barbells and a ribbon with a medal. The logo represents how everyone who works out with us is a winner!
While continuing with our regular posts on Mondays and Fridays, we'll devote Wednesdays to Wednesday Writing Workout
s. Each WWW
will be written by one of the TeachingAuthors
or, as is the case today, by a Mystery Guest TeachingAuthor
To introduce the new feature and celebrate a new year, we're also having a Book Giveaway
! Every writer and writing teacher will want a copy of our giveaway book on his/her reference/inspiration shelf: Keep Calm and Query On: Notes on Writing (and Living) with Hope
(Divertir Publishing). And the book happens to be written by today's Mystery Guest TeachingAuthor
I'll share our Mystery Guest TeachingAuthor's
bio before giving you his Writing Workout
. See if you can guess the author's identity before I reveal it below. (No fair looking up the MGTA's
books online before that!)
has the kind of resume our readers love: A former teacher of grades 7 through 12 and a writer of children’s fiction, he’s the editor of the forthcoming book for teens and tweens, Break These Rules
(Chicago Press). He co-edited Burned In: Fueling the Fire to Teach
(Teachers College Press) and Dedicated to the People of Darfur: Writings on Fear, Risk, and Hope
(Rutgers University Press). Teachers College Press also published his latest book for teachers, A Call to Creativity: Writing, Reading, and Inspiring Students in an Age of Standardization
Does this bio sound familiar? That's because Esther reviewed Keep Calm and Query On back in October
. She gave the book a big Thumbs Up
Before I reveal the identity of our Mystery Guest TeachingAuthor,
here's his TERRIFIC Wednesday Writing Workout:
Give Logic a Lollipop:
I am one of those people who believes that we’re all still children, really. Whether we’re 32 or 64 or 96, there’s something innate in us that stubbornly refuses to grow up no matter how much coffee we drink (in my case, a lot), how much we worry about paying bills, or how professional we look in our formal attire. The kid-like parts of us are often covered by layer after layer of logic. While the growth of logic is hugely beneficial to things like paying our bills, walking out of the house with matching socks and a straight tie or proper dress, and generally being responsible, an area that is bleached of vitality by our intense focus on forcing everything to make sense is our writing life.
This Wednesday Writing Workout
, then, asks us to momentarily allow logic to sit by himself on the far bench, way over on the other side of the room. Give Logic a lollipop and the latest Time magazine, and then sneak off to your writing desk and try something illogical to fuel those writing muscles.
1. Visualize your favorite film actor or actress.
2. Close your eyes, and continue visualizing that person, and then reach out—literally!—your hand and shake their hand, up and down. Then smile knowingly (eyes still closed) like you and your favorite film star are sharing some inside joke even though you haven’t spoken any words yet. You’re that tight.
3. Open your mouth (literally!) and speak the very first words that come to mind.
4. Now open your eyes, pick up your pen or open up a Word document on your computer and write your name, then a colon, then the words you’ve just said.
5. Then write the actor’s / actress’s name, a colon, and his / her response.
6. Continue writing your ‘scene’ with dialogue that emerges organically and no matter how seemingly ridiculous it is, just follow the exercise through.
7. Every once in a while, try to insert a small note on the setting—the weather outside, what you’re eating (lollipops?), what noises occur in the background, and anything else that creates the mood of your conversation.
8. Try to continue this scene for at least two pages. This is a perfect opportunity to work our writing muscles by putting ourselves into a situation that allows the kid-like part of us to trump the adult part of us.
So often, as writers, we can think in terms of productivity and progress. And these are both great things in the life of a writer. Hey, who doesn’t want to add a few more pages to that novel, or bang out a few more notes for that picture book? But sometimes, persistent focus on productivity and progress have the side effect of hiding us from the kid-like parts of our writer selves, that are concerned—almost entirely—with joy, engagement, emotion, quirks, and creativity.
My seven-year-old nephew loves writing stories. When I talk with him about what he’s writing, he doesn’t give me the latest page count or the stats on which publishers have checked out his work yet. Even while I sometimes focus too much on those things, I try to shake my head and heart to return to what matters: the creation itself. The sheer beauty, hilarity, pain, joy, and love of it. And this process must, by definition, involve flights of fancy and the decision to leave logic a little lonely at times.
Today, for your Wednesday Writing Workout
, craft this scene and let the kid in you lead the way. I promise you’ll discover pearls that—if nothing else—will make you laugh, and possibly even provide a kernel for a louder pop later.
* * *
What a wonderful Wednesday Writing Workout to inaugurate our new feature! And now, finally, it's time for the big reveal. Today's Mystery Guest TeachingAuthor is (drum roll please):
Special thanks to Luke for helping to launch our new feature! Readers, if you'd like to know more about Luke, see his website
. I also encourage you to check out his blog, Intersections: One Writer's Journey Through Parenting, Living Abroad, Faith, Publishing, and Social Justice
As I mentioned above, Luke is the author of Keep Calm and Query On: Notes on Writing (and Living) with Hope
(Divertir Publishing). If you read Esther's review
, you're going to want to enter our drawing for a chance to win your very own copy.
To enter our drawing, you must follow the TeachingAuthors
blog. (If you’re not already a follower, you can sign up now in our sidebar
to subscribe to our posts via email, Google Friend Connect, or Facebook Network blogs.)
You may enter the contest one of two ways:
1) by posting a comment below OR
2) by sending an email to teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com with "Book Giveaway" in the subject line.
Whichever way you enter, you MUST:
1) Just for fun, tell us whether you guessed Luke's identity before the big reveal. We'd also love your feedback on his Writing Workout
and/or what you think of our new Wednesday Writing Workout
2) give us your first and last name, AND
3) tell us how you follow us (via email, Google Friend Connect, or Facebook Network blogs) .
4) If you enter via a comment, you MUST
include a valid email address (formatted this way: youremail [at] gmail [dot] com) in your comment.
This contest is open only to followers who can provide a mailing address in the United States. Incomplete entries will be discarded. The entry deadline is 11 p.m. (CST) next Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013
. We'll announce the winner on Friday, Jan. 11. Good luck!
Happy writing, and happy 2013!
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Howdy Campers! Welcome to...
My mother says that everyone remembers the trees of their childhood.
I recently attended the annual FOCAL
(Friends of Children and Literature) Luncheon hosted by the Los Angeles Public Library Children's Literature Department. Each year, FOCAL gives an award to an outstanding children's book with California content. This year's award deservedly went to my friend Joanne Rocklin
for her wonderful book, One Day and One Amazing Morning on Orange Street
Joanne's acceptance speech was thoroughly Joanne:
full of enthusiasm, aware of her audience, bursting with love.
Each detail of this inspired centerpiece references her book.
Joanne's memories of her beloved orange trees inspired my poem that day (I write a poem a day
); I thought perhaps a memory of a tree in your life might inspire you, too.
I wrote about our Meyer Lemon tree and how incredibly generous it is. See for yourself:
I want to share my lemon tree poem with you...but here's my dilemma: dozens of my poems have been published in poetry anthologies...but recent contracts specify that poems can never have been published--even on a blog. ACK!
by April Halprin Wayland
I sit under this tree
to sit under this tree.
Not to win anything.
Just me and tree.
If the wind happens to drop
a sweet plum in my lap, though,
I would never say no
to a plum.
poem © 2013 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved
Now it's your turn.
1) Close your eyes. Think of a tree from your childhood...or any tree of significance to you.
2) List details of that tree that cover all five senses, or write snippets of your memories of the tree.
3) Or you may want to simply plunge in, and see what memories sprout from your pen or keyboard.
4) Consider putting your poem (or was it a story that emerged?) into a form
5) Consider sending your poem to someone who would remember that tree.
6) Leave a comment about this exercise. :-)
poem and lemon tree photo © 2013 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved
Mystery Guest Wednesday Writing Workout: Five
Tips for Tightening Your Manuscript
Today’s Wednesday Writing Workout comes to you courtesy of
an award-winning author whose talent, pluck and love define her. Her titles include the tween novels Julia’s Kitchen
and Jemma Hartman, Camper Extraordinaire (both
Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Her newest book, The Yuckiest, Stinkiest Best Valentine Ever (Dial), tells the story
of Leon who’s hopelessly in love with Zoey Maloney. But the valentine he
creates for her wants nothing to do with Leon’s mushy sentiments. The valentine
thinks this holiday is all about candy, and he runs away rather than suffer the
embarrassment of saying "I love you." As Leon follows the valentine
through town, boys, girls, and teens join the chase and chime in on their
perspectives of love until finally, the conflict comes to a heart-pounding,
sweaty-palm conclusion in of all places – a candy shop. Our Mystery Guest lives in Deerfield,
Illinois, sharing her days, nights and writing time with her husband and three
Have you identified our Mystery Guest Author
yet? She’s a true Student Success Story!
The Wednesday Writing Workout: Five Tips for Tightening Your Manuscript
Once you’ve finished your manuscript and revised
the story so that the characters are authentic, the setting comes to life, and
the plot makes sense and is filled with tension, before you submit it to an
editor or agent, you should turn to the writing itself and see how you can make
it tighter and more effective. Here are a few tricks I’ve learned over the
years. Give them a try:
Circle all your verbs. Make sure each one
is powerful and specific. Then delete as many adverbs as possible. If you’ve
chosen the best verbs, you won’t need them anyway.
Look for rhetorical questions in your
manuscript and delete them. Chances are you don’t need them and they’re slowing
your story down. In the rare event that you do need them, change the question
to a direct sentence. And in the even rarer case that you absolutely must have
a rhetorical question, keep it. Just be conscious about it.
Watch out for word echoes. Don’t use the
same word more than once on the same page or even on consecutive pages.
Read the first and last sentence of each
chapter and make sure you are varying them and starting and finishing with a
Find twenty words to cut on each page. I
promise, you won’t miss them.
Why bother with all this cutting and tightening?
Simply put, it makes for a better reading experience, and that’s the whole
So, in the wild chance you didn’t identify Brenda Ferber, click here to read my last week’s January
14 Student Success Story Interview with this award-winning author.
Click here to learn more about her newest book –
The Yuckiest, Stinkiest Best Valentine
And, finally, congratulations, Karen Casale of Connecticut,
this week's TeachingAuthor Book Giveaway Winner! You won an autographed copy of Brenda’s
Thank you, Brenda, from the bottoms
of our TeachingAuthors’ hearts, for sharing yourself, your Writing Life, a copy
of your book – and – today’s Wednesday Writing Workout with our TeachingAuthors readers, writers and teachers.
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Anybody who has been in one of my workshops knows what a fanatic I am for the one-sentence synopsis. If you don't know what I'm talking about, take a look at the title page of (almost) any book for kids. See the sentence that sums up the entire story? Not much to it, is there? Should be easy to write one, then, right? Um...
Sometimes called an elevator pitch – because if you find yourself in an elevator with an editor and s/he asks what you're working on, you don't want to ramble on like a doofus (she said from experience) – the one-sentence synopsis is also an excellent tool for keeping your story on track during the writing process.
Oh, how many times my stories – especially my rhyming stories – go off in a direction I hadn't intended. When a story veers out of control, I know it's time to back up the truck and ask myself one simple question:
What is this story really about?
Crafting a one-sentence synopsis has saved my bacon time and again. It cuts to the heart of the story, clarifies your main character's motivation, and illuminates the path from a story's beginning to its end.
So give it a try. Write a one-sentence synopsis for your work in progress.
1. Your main character's name.
2. What it is s/he is struggling with.
3. What's at stake for your MC (if not readily apparent).
4. What s/he does to reach her goal or overcome the problem (if needed).
Here's an example from one of my 2014 books, I Am Cow, Hear Me Moo!
Nadine, a braggy cow, gets into hilarious trouble when, to save face, she's forced to lead her friends on a nighttime hike through the spooky woods.
That probably isn't what will be on the finished book's title page, but it's my
one-sentence synopsis of this story. It pretty much tells you everything you need to know in deciding whether to read it or replace it on the shelf.
If you care to, go ahead and put your synopsis into the comment section, I'd love to see what you're working on.
Good luck! And don't forget to enter our giveaway for a chance to win Tamera Wissinger's Gone Fishin'
. Hurry! Today's the last day.