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Viewing: Blog Posts Tagged with: Esther Hershenhorn, Most Recent at Top [Help]
Results 1 - 25 of 113
1. S is for Story, True or Not

I join my fellow bloggers in welcoming award-winning nonfiction writer Carla Killough McClafferty to TeachingAuthors.com.

I write this post enormously grateful for how smart each fellow blogger has made me these past two weeks thanks to her posts that addressed the telling of our stories, whether true or not.

As I read Mary Ann’s, April’s, Bobbi’s and JoAnn’s posts, all I could think about was the tiny blue Post-It Note I’d affixed long ago to my first desk-top computer: “It’s the STORY, stupid!”

We are, as Kendall Haven wrote, story animals; we are, as Lisa Cron tells us, wired for story.

This truth both grabbed and guided me while writing – forgive the coincidence – S IS FOR STORY: A WRITER’S ALPHABET (Sleeping Bear Press).
I’d originally titled this abecedarian book W IS FOR WRITING.  Brainstorming with my CPS Alcott School fifth graders helped me choose writing-associated words to represent the letters A through Z.  But even once I fine-tuned those choices to ensure they totally embraced the writing information I needed and wanted to share, I knew those twenty-six words in no way told a story.

And they needed to, if I was to pull in readers and keep them turning the pages.

My fifth-grader Alberto said it best.  “You should change the title,” he boldly advised me.  “W IS FOR WRITING sounds like a textbook.  I’d never want to buy it.  But if you call it “W IS FOR WRITER,” he added, “I’ll think you wrote a book about me.”

Alberto wanted hard facts, inspiration and encouragement.  But most of all, he wanted – and expected – a story about writers with which he could connect.

So here’s what I did to tell that story:

(1)   First I thought about my take-away, what I wanted my reader thinking when he closed the book – i.e. writers are readers!  

(2)   Next I thought about what I wanted my reader thinking while he was reading my descriptive and explanatory poems and sidebars – i.e. young writers and award-winning authors share the very same writing process!

(3)  I then made sure the true facts I chose to include - about children’s books, about children’s book authors, about the writing process– served as concrete details that supported my story's take-away’s.

(4)  Finally, I did my best to create a narrative arc, addressing the reader while moving him from the all-encompassing people, they and their in the beginning alphabet pages….


to the inclusive we,us and our in the middle pages


 to the focused you and your in the final pages.
  

Thanks to Alberto, my twenty-six letters told a story - of a writer's life and process, A through Z.

Happy STORY-telling!

Esther Hershenhorn

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2. YAY! for lucky accidents!


The Celebrate Oops! initiative we TeachingAuthors are currently exploring in our February posts celebrates both Barney Saltzberg’s picture book BEAUTIFUL OOPS! – and – the Teachable Moments accidents fortunately bring us.

I had such a fortunate Teachable Moment while brainstorming my picture book FANCY THAT with my Holiday House Editor Mary Cash.
I knew the setting – Berks County, Pennsylvania; I knew the time – 1841; and I knew my story’s Hero – young Pippin Biddle, orphaned without warning, the son of a limner - an itinerant portrait painter.

Mary agreed with me that such a picture book would be ripe with historical and arts curriculum connections.

My sketchy plotline was just that – i.e. sketchy: accompanied by his dog Biscuit, (whom I pictured to be lap-size), Pip would travel the Pennsylvania/New York area through the first 3 seasons of the year unsuccessfully earning his keep painting people’s portraits, returning at Thanksgiving with an empty purse and heart.

“But why would young readers care about such a boy on such a journey?” I asked my editor. 

“Well,” Mary began, “could he have a few sisters who needed Pip to earn his keep?” she asked.
Orphans, Mary shared, can be lovely in a story.
“And, maybe,” she suggested, “Pip’s dog could be part of the resolution?”
And then she paused, her gaze meeting mine.
“You know, Christmas books do so much better than Thankgiving titles,” she commented.  “What if Pip returned at Christmas?”

Driven to tell this singular story, I back-burnered Mary’s 3 delicious suggestions with an open mind, even though I’m a nice Jewish girl from West Philadelphia and writing a Christmas picture book was not in my wheelhouse, as they say.

But guess what?

Fast forward to the stacks of the Wilmette Public Library, one week later, when I discovered (1) there wasno Thanksgiving to celebrate in the U.S. in 1841 and (2) few Americans celebrated Christmas at that time!

OOPS!
And OOPS²… except...the German immigrants, who’d just happened to settle in Berks County in central Pennsylvania, had brought along their Christmas tradition of making evergreen wreaths and decorating their fir trees!

So,
while Pip’s dog Biscuit gathers the greenery of each season, and Pip paints his portrait to send home to his Poor House-ensconced sisters Emma, Lyddie and Martha,

 


before too long,
Pip’s sisters themselves, inspired by Pip’s portraits, create a livelihood that builds them their home


and Pip discovers his hidden talent.

 
Fancy that!

Lucky Pip and his sisters! Lucky me and my readers!

And all quite by accident.

Esther Hershenhorn

P.S.
Jennifer T won the SKIN AND BONES giveaway!

P.P.S.
A writer with whom I corresponded this past week shared the following Dalai Lama quote benath her name.  I thought it relevant.

 "Remember that not getting what you want is sometimes a wonderful stroke of luck." 

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3. WWW: Creating AUTHENTIC Characters


Meet my fellow Chicago children’s book author, the lovely and talented Claudia Guadalupe Martinez who so generously agreed to share today’s Wednesday Writing Workout in celebration of the release of her second Cinco Puntos Press book, the YA novel PIG PARK.

As her biography notes, Claudia grew up in a close family in Segundo Barrio in El Paso, Texas.  Reading the Spanish subtitles of old westerns for her father, she soon learned that letters form words. By six she knew she wanted to grow up to create stories.  Her father, who died when she was eleven, encouraged her to dream big and write many books. 

Cinco Puntos Press is located in El Paso, Texas, “a fact that informs every book that we publish,” publisher John Byrd shared.  Along with others championing diversity in children’s books today, he considers PIG PARK and Claudia’s debut award-winning novel THE SMELL OF OLD LADY PERFUME to be worthy examples of the kinds of books the Cooperative Children’s Book Center and WeNeedDiverseBooks encourage and seek.

“Claudia,” Byrd wrote, “has a clear fronterizovoice: innocent, shy, witty, full of border culture and understanding.  She used that voice well in THE SMELL OF OLD LADY PERFURME, earning herself a great deal of attention with readers, teachers and librarians looking for new and talented writers coming up out of the Hispanic community. That voice has matured in PIG PARK, still shy and clear, but now feisty as well and full of opinions as she chronicles the summer that fifteen-year-old Masi Burciaga and her neighbors came together to save Pig Park.”

 

I so appreciate Claudia’s willingness to share her insights and expertise on creating authentic characters with our TeachingAuthors readers and writers.

Enjoy! Enjoy!

Esther Hershenhorn

P.S.
To enter our latest giveaway, a copy of CHILDREN'S WRITER'S AND ILLUSTRATOR'S MARKET 2015, check Carmela's Friday post.

                                              *  * * * * * * * * * * * *


 Wednesday Writing Workout: Creating Authentic Characters
The face of America is ever-changing.  “Minority” children are set to become the “majority” by the end of this decade, and are already such among babies under the age of one.  Yet, among the children's book titles published, approximately only ten percent are by or about racially or ethnically diverse populations each year--according to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center (CCBC) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

This conversation isn’t new, but the mainstream is taking note, thanks to the success of the recent  WeNeedDiverseBooks campaign.  I am more frequently asked for advice on writing diversity, specifically when it comes to authenticity.  In such instances, I refer my fellow writers to author Mitali Perkins' tips for writing diversity.  Mitali lectures widely on the topic.

When it comes to authenticity in racial identity, she advises writers to ask, "How and why does the author define race?”   She suggests writers consider the following:

“When race is explicit in a book, ask yourself and your students what would have been lost if a character’s race hadn’t been defined by the writer. Why did the author choose to define race?”  The reason should be to establish something for the character, and not just to follow a trend or be politically correct.  I, for example, wrote about young Chicana in THE SMELL OF OLD LADY PERFUME because I pulled from my own experiences growing up in a Texas border town.  The Latino kids in PIG PARK were loosely based on my experiences in Chicago.

Alternatively, writers can ask, “Why didn’t he or she let us know the race of the characters?”  If no explicit race is mentioned, will this cause readers to default to white characters, or do other cues establish diverse identity?  Physical appearance, language, names, food can all be used to designate diversity.

While Mitali’s advice focuses on race, authors can apply it to creating authenticity for various other forms of identity.  The point is to start thinking about how genuine the attempt at integration is.

To figure out what this might mean for you, whether writing inside or outside your experience, try this exercise.

Write a character biography based on his/her racial/ethnic identity.  Answer the following questions:
                                                                      
When and how did he/she become aware of his/her identity?

What role has the specific identity played in his/her life?
                                                                    
How does it affect his/her social activities?

How does it affect his/her school activities?

In what ways does the character benefit from this identity? In what ways doesn’t the character benefit?
                                                         
How does the specific identity affect your story?

Variation: Write a biography based on another form of diverse identity (religious, sexual orientation, ability, etc.).

 
We live in a complex world where identity is both assigned and assumed.  Authentic diversity isn’t casual or happenstance, but something that we as writers must develop as carefully as all other aspects of our story.

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4. Of Words and Spirit...


Words and spirit were the stuff of my favorite books this year,
beginning with Jen Bryant’s and Melissa Sweet’s already award-winning and multiply-starred picture book THE RIGHT WORD – ROGET AND HIS THESAURUS (Eerdmans Books, 2014).
This story of how Dr. Peter Roget came to create a Thesaurus has been lauded for its lyrical text and brilliantly-detailed reader-friendly illustrations. I laud it for its celebration and love of words, its accessible story-telling of a one-of-a-kind long-ago individual hell bent on listing each and every one, its brilliant use of synonyms and downright gorgeousness.  Just as every writer needs a Roget’s Thesaurus by his side, those of us who love words and good storytelling need THE RIGHT WORD on our bookshelf.
Peter Roget remarks in the story “how wonderful it was to find just the right word!”
My very sentiments.

Mark Repo’s THE BOOK OF AWAKENING (Conari Press, 2011) sits on my bedside table for daily reading.
I love its subtitle: Having the Life You Want by Being Present to the Life You Have.
A philosopher-poet and author, Repo wrote this book when “freshly on the other side of cancer.”
He chose to exchange his life of words, he wrote, for a life of spirit.
Each day’s entry offers a parable or a tradition, a quote or an insight, a poem or verse, followed by Repo’s beautifully-written comments and a related meditative exercise.
Admittedly I don’t always do the exercises but instead journal about the eye-opening, heart-opening truths.
Today’s December 15 entry opens with the truth, “The sun doesn’t stop shining because people are blind.”
Repo then offers examples from the lives of Goya and Melville and closes with these words:
“No one can really know what you are called to or what you are capable of but you.  Even if no one sees or understands, you are irreplaceable.”

Ariel Sabar’s MY FATHER’S PARADISE is a book of words and spirit.
Subtitled A SON’S SEARCH FOR HIS FAMILY’S PAST, journalist Sabar tells the story of his father Yona, a distinguished professor and author of the only dictionary of the language of Jesus, Aramaic.  Aramaic was the language Yona's Jewish family spoke in the remote Kurdish village of Zakho in northeast Iraq.  Mostly illiterate, Yona’s people lived harmoniously with their Muslim and Christian neighbors, considering themselves descendants of the Lost Tribes of Israel.  Part memoir, part history, part linguistic primer, part geography, at its core is the author’s story of reconnecting with a father he’d disparaged for his differentness.  As the book’s cover states, it is “a son’s epic journey back to his father’s lost homeland.”
The writing is superb, as in National Book Critics Circle Award Winner for Autobiography, allowing me to live inside this so unfamiliar story, no matter the locale, no matter the time period. 
“I am the keeper of my family’s stories," Sabar wrote. "I am the guardian of its honor.  I am the defender of its traditions.  As the first-born son of a Kurdish father, these, they tell me, are my duties.  And yet even before my birth I resisted.”
Sabar’s page-turning telling had the writer in me breathless, not to mention, envious. 

Finally, I consider Jacqueline Woodson’s BROWN GIRL DREAMING  (Nancy Paulsen/Penguin, 2014) a book of words and spirit too.
Recently named a National Book Award Winner, the novel in verse tells the story of Woodson’s childhood in the Jim Crow 60’s and 70’s and her longing to become a writer.
I read the book from cover to cover in one sitting, then promptly returned to the first page and began again.
Just the way Beverly Cleary took me back to West Philadelphia at age 9 with the mention of Ramona’s pink plastic raincoat, Jacqueline Woodson pierced my little girl’s longing to be a writer.

    "You’re a writer, Ms. Vivo says,
    her gray eyes bright behind
    thin wire frames.  Her smile bigger than anything
    so I smile back, happy to hear these words
    from a teacher’s mouth."

 May the above books gift you as they’ve gifted me this year.

 Merry! Happy! Cheers for the New Year!

 Esther Hershenhorn

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5. WWW: Demystifying Setting

I meet the Best People doing what I do –
for example Chicago writer, colleague, fellow teacher and SCBWI kin Barbara Gregorich who authors fiction and nonfiction for adults and children in a variety of formats on a variety of subjects.

Barbara's titles include more than 150 educational activity books, a score of School Zone Start to Read and Read and Think books, two Houghton early readers – Walter Buys a Pig in a Poke and Other Stories and Walter Paints Himself into a Corner and Other Stories, She’s On First, Jack and Larryand her most recent book, Guide to Writing the Mystery Novel: Lots of Examples, Plus Dead Bodies (Create Space, 2014), which Midwest Book Review called “an accessible primer for writers of all skill and experienced levels.”
You can read a sample chapter of Guide here.
To celebrate Barbara’s newest book, I invited her to share a Wednesday Writing Workout and lucky us – she agreed!

Scroll down to read, enjoy and try Barbara’s exercises that demystify the all-important narrative element SETTING.

Thanks, Barbara, for so generously sharing your smarts!

Esther Hershenhorn

                                                         . . . . . . . . . .

Give Me Place, Lots of Place

Two summers ago I taught a week-long course on novel writing to 25 students: the youngest was fifteen, the oldest eighty-five. On our last day of class, three students read the first three pages of their novels-in-progress to all of us. All three novels were fantasy: two had human characters, one did not. Even now I remember those three stories vividly. Through skill, serendipity, or maybe even through my teaching, each of the students offered a piece in which the sense of place was palpable, and I’m convinced that one of the reasons I remember these three stories, their characters and conflicts, was because the settings were so well depicted.

One of the three was set in a dungeon, and the writer (the 15-year-old) was able to make us feel the environment. The prison cell was dank: we felt the chill and the damp. We saw the gray-green moss clinging to the wet stone walls. The bars were thick, rusty, and unbendable. We felt their tormenting power just as we felt the cold sea air that entered at will, just as we recoiled at the thin, gray, tasteless gruel delivered through the food slot each morning.

In fiction, place isn’t just something for the reader to experience vicariously — though it is partly that. Place is the world the characters live in, and it helps shape these characters. Put your characters in a different setting, and they will behave differently.

A writer who can create lifelike places through a few carefully chosen words that appeal to the senses is also well on the road to creating empathetic characters. When we see how place affects a fictional character we empathize, probably because we realize how real-life places affect us — isolated windowless work environments; cluttered, dog-hair-covered, stale-food-smelling cars; un-shoveled, foot-high hummocks of ice on city sidewalks; the welcome coolness of wet sand just below the scorching top layer on a summer day.

Place, as I explain to my students, should never be depicted in such a way that it  seems more important than the characters within that place. No description for description’s sake. Setting lets readers enter the world the characters live in and helps readers understand where the story is taking place. More than that, the more palpable the place, the better readers can see how setting influences character and how character modifies setting. In the dungeon story, for example, the place limited what the prisoner could do, but the prisoner also had an impact on the setting: he nurtured a small plant inside the cell, and he moved one of the stone blocks to where he could stand on it to look out the high, barred window.

Here are some exercises I gave my 15-to-85-year-old students.

Perhaps these, or modifications thereof, will inspire your and/or your students to think about the importance of place in fiction, and how setting and character shine light on one another.

Keep the Character, Change the Place
Ask students to take an existing story and change the setting completely. Have them rewrite the first two or three pages of the story with the new setting. Then compare the two stories: how does the character change? What is it that setting does to character?

Comfortable Place or Not?
Do your students tend to place their characters in places where the characters are comfortable? Say a dancer in the dance studio, or a great basketball player on the court? Or do they place their characters outside the comfort zone? Say a boy who has never, ever helped in the kitchen suddenly finds himself obligated to work in one to help his best friend. You might ask students to write a
comfort-setting story first, and then rewrite it as an outside-the-comfort-zone story. It’s instructive to note how happy or sad setting can make characters feel, how good or bad, how confident or unconfident.

Same Place, Different Characters
Yet another approach to place is to have students write a two-different-POVs story, first from Character A’s POV, then from Character B’s. Both characters are in the same place at the same time. But are their reactions the same? How does setting impact each character? My experience has been that when students are asked to treat the setting as more than background information, they excel at bringing places to life and at showing how characters function in a particular setting.

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6. Happy Driving!

We TeachingAuthors have been posting about our intended plotlines for 2015.
I so appreciate my fellow bloggers’ insights and their willingness to share their experiences, smarts and intentions for this coming year.

Like JoAnn, I’ve been walking a dog too this past week - my GrandDoggieDaughter Maggie, in the soul-freeing coatless-bootless-hatless-gloveless-scarfless clime of warm and sunny mountain-surrounded Phoenix.
I’ve been thinking on what I need/want/wish to share in this post and it is this: when it comes to plotlines, the character’s in the driver’s seat.

It took me forever - as in countless rejected manuscripts showcasing countless puppet-like characters - to understand this truth.
And not just as it applies to the plotline of a story I’m writing…but also to the writer’s plotline I’m living every day.
I need to know my character’s need/want/wish … and I need to know mine.
Otherwise neither of us can act, re-act, grow and triumph as we drive the twists and turns of our stories’ highways.
Digging deep within – my characters and myself - reveals the answer, always.

Fortunately, we’re but 19 days into our new year.
So as I work on my own writer’s story, I’m digging away, hoping to uncover my need/want/wish, helped by the following three insights I came upon the first week of January.

Marketing guru Seth Godin’s January 1 post – “USED TO BE” – set off non-stop sparks in my mind and heart.
The phrase “used to be,” it turns out, connotes neither failure nor obsolescence.  Instead, it signals bravery and progress.
“If you were brave enough to leap,” Godin posited, “who would you choose to 'used to be'?”
Hmmmmm…..I pondered.
The possibilities intrigued me.
 
In her January 4 Chicago Tribune column, writer Heidi Stevens suggested we skip declaring New Year’s resolutions and instead write a mission statement.
A mission statement, she wrote, “was less about what she should tackle and more about the shape she wanted her life to take.”
I liked that insight.  What struck me most was her own mission statement: to focus on what she knows to be true.
Hmmmmm….I pondered further.
More possibilities to consider.
 
Finally, Stevens’ fellow Chicago Tribune writer Mary Schmich shared an idea in her January 7 column that April Halprin Wayland echoed in her January 9 post:  choose one word to live by in the coming year.
Having to select that one word that would guide your new year was akin to “being dropped inside a Super Target,” Schmich wrote, “and asked to pick one object, and only one, that you would carry with you for the next 12 months.”
Once again, I pondered intriguing possibilities.
Embrace?  Flow?  Risk? Grow?  Leap?  Simply, be?
 
What and who I used to be.  My mission statement.  My one word for the coming year.
I believe knowing all of the above will help me finally nail my need/want/wish for 2015.
Just like that, I’ll be traveling my plotline, both hands on the wheel, eyes open and focused. 

Happy Driving to our TeachingAuthors’ readers!

Esther Hershenhorn

P.S.
Saturday, January 24, from noon to 4 pm (in respective time zones) is the first-ever National Readathon Day, a nation-wide reading session that allows you to promote reading while pledging and fundraising to support the National Book Foundation. Think of it like “a walk-a-thon charity drive, only you’re turning pages instead of walking laps.”

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7. Wednesday Writing Workout: Mining for Nuggets of Gold in Those Stories You Left Behind


Please welcome back Tamera Will Wissinger, author of the 2014 ALSC Notable GONE FISHING (HHM), and help us celebrate her secondbook, the picture book THIS OLD BAND (Sky Pony Press) which released June 3.

Tamara is one of my fellow TA Carmela Martino’s many Student Success Stories.
But I’m happy to report: she’s one of my long-ago Ragdale Picture Book Workshop students too. J
Though she now lives in Vero Beach, Florida, I will always consider her my SCBWI-Illinois kin.

As recent posts noted, most writers’ drawers are crammed full with manuscripts that somehow haven’t found the light of day.
So Tamera’s WWW is more than timely, helping us mine the gold in those left-behind stories.

 
THIS OLD BAND features a ragtag band of cowboys counting and hollering from ten to one, making music with their jugs, combs, boots and whatever else they can find.
In its upcoming July 2014 review, School Library Journal  commended THIS OLD BAND for the “clever use of alliteration and rhyme, as well as laugh-out-loud funny tongue-twisters, that complement the singsong nature of the story, making the book ideal for both story-times and one-on-one sharing.”

Thanks, Tamera, for sharing your book and your know-how!

As always, I'm cheering you on!

Esther Hershenhorn

                                                       * * * * * * *

Mining for Nuggets of Gold in Stories Left Behind

Do you have any stories or poems that you’ve trunked, shelved, iced, buried, torpedoed, or locked in the vault? Work that was once your reason for showing up to write every day, but then at some point stopped being fun or interesting enough to continue? I do. Each piece’s end comes differently – sometimes I move on after barely starting, and other times I write through the end only to find that it didn’t turn out the way that I had intended. After the huge investments of time and energy, it can be disappointing, even heartbreaking.
My first picture book, THIS OLD BAND, has its genesis in in the demise of another rhyming concept book that will probably never be published because I’m not sure I’ll ever figure out how to write it. While I was creating it, though, in my mind it had such potential, such flair! There was going to be a duel! I wrote two (what I thought were) really terrific opening stanzas:
West, out near the great divide
Where bison roam and ranchers ride

Above the town of Twisted Pine,
Lived number one through number nine.

I outlined the rest of the story. I knew where I wanted this poem-story to go and I wrote and rewrote, but it didn’t go where I had planned and eventually I had to concede. I placed the manuscript in a drawer and moved on to something else.
Over the months and years, though, the heart of that story kept tugging at me. I loved that western setting, the idea of cowboys and cowgirls, the bison, the numbers. I had already acknowledged that the story didn’t work as it was, but I began to think in “what ifs” and “maybes”:
  • What if I kept the southwest setting and the element of counting?
  • Maybe these characters didn’t want to duel. What if I didn’t make them?
  • What if, instead, the main characters were cowboy/cowgirl friends who played simple instruments and made silly noises? Maybe they could perform as a band.
  • What if I threw out those “terrific” stanzas that were getting me nowhere and chose an entirely different rhythm and rhyme pattern?
Sifting through that old manuscript to mine those nuggets of gold was fun. Leaving behind the rest of the pieces that hadn't worked felt liberating. Equally satisfying was starting anew with my gold pieces of setting, characters, action, and new rhyme and rhythm. I began to uncover a different looking and sounding story that eventually became This Old Band. 

I believe that every shelved story or poem has valuable nuggets to mine if we’re willing to push past the gate of sorrow and frustration to search for them. Here are ideas for ways to approach a buried manuscript:
  • Which one speaks most loudly to your heart and your brain? Maybe that’s the one to consider first.
  • Do you need to actually read it to know what’s in there that is of value to you? Maybe there’s a gem of a conflict that you know by heart. Or a setting that is exceptional. Maybe it’s a secondary character – or an endearing character trait. With poetry it could be any detail that you found particularly charming. Maybe it’s a wonderful metaphor, a delightful image, or a single rhyming couplet.
  • If you do reread the manuscript – after all this time is it more clear to you what was working and what wasn’t? Go in and grab those nuggets that work; they are gold, and they are yours!
  • Consider what you have – it may not seem like much at first, but no story or poem does in the beginning.
  • Based on what you have, allow yourself to wonder. Say “maybe”…ask “what if?” Follow your beacons of gold and see where they lead you.
 I wish you good luck as you consider mining for your own gold nuggets. Maybe your real story is just waiting to be unearthed.

Tamera Will Wissinger

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8. The AUTHOR I'm Still Reading…

What have I been reading, and in some cases re-reading, these delicious summer days in Chicago?
Anything written by Dani Shapiro!

I hope that name rings a bell.                                                           
I declared her book STILL WRITING: THE PERILS AND PLEASURES OF WRITING a must-have for every writer’s shelf in my June 2 post.


Part memoir, part meditation on the creative process, part advice on craft, Dani Shapiro’s words enabled, empowered and equipped me to return to my writing and keep on keepin’ on.
In sharing those words weekly with my summer Newberry Library Writing Workshop students, I watched them do the same.

I knew instantly from her confession early on in STILL WRITING that I wanted and needed to read Dani Shapiro’s body of work, both fiction and nonfiction.

My words are my pickax, and with them I chip away at the rough surface of whatever it is I still need to know.”

I began with SLOW MOTION: A MEMOIR OF A LIFE RESCUED BY TRAGEDY, Dani Shapiro’s honest, heartfelt telling of her true story, “a life turned around – not by miracles or happy endings, but by unexpected personal catastrophe.”

Next I read DEVOTION: A MEMOIR, the story of her ongoing three-tiered inner journey to discover what makes a life meaningful.

The novel FAMILY HISTORY followed.  Living up to its flap copy, it was indeed a “stunning and brutally honest novel about one family’s harrowing recovery from devastation.”  Rachel Jensen’s story of the family crisis brought about by her adolescent daughter’s pain grabbed me from the get-go and wouldn’t let go.

I can say the same about BLACK & WHITE’s Clara Brodeur and her story which explores the stuff and limits of the mother-daughter relationship.

All of the books mentioned, whether memoir or fiction, totally absorbed me. I adore reading stories about families, about creative souls, about the human condition.  I worried.  I cared. Each book spoke to me - the mother, grandmother and former wife, the daughter and sister, the human being, but also, the writer and teacher.  Each book was literally un-put-downable.  Dani Shapiro writes elegantly, truthfully, her camera lens focused on only what’s important to the characters and their internal and external actions.  Her superb craft in seamlessly weaving important back story details into the forward-moving story is to be envied, as well as studied.  

And study it I did, because that’s how I learned my craft long ago, when I knew zippo about how to write for children: I read the bodies of work of Charlotte Zolotow and James Marshall and MarjorieWeinman Sharmat, when I longed to write picture books, of Betsy Byars and Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Lois Lowry, when I longed to write a novel.  I read them first as a reader, second as a writer.  And I spent time learning their writer’s stories too.

I now subscribe to Dani Shapiro’s blog  - which is how I first discovered STILL WRITING, thanks to Carmela’s  Facebook sharing of Bruce Black’s April 18 sharing of the blog post “On the Long Haul” on his blog Wordswimmer.   

Fortunately, the summer’s not over and neither is my reading. Dani Shapiro’s novels PICTURING THE WRECK, FUGITIVE BLUE and PLAYING WITH FIRE are currently on hold for me at my local Chicago Public Library branch.
 
I clipped these words by Barbara Kingsolver from my Sunday Chicago Tribune.

“I learned to write by reading the kind of books I wished I’d written.”

How true, how true.
 
Happy (Summer) Reading - and - Writing!

Esther Hershenhorn

P.S.
If you’re in the Los Angeles area and want to write picture books, check out my fellow TeachingAuthor April Halprin Wayland’s upcoming class – Writing Picture Books for Children. It's Wednesday nights from August 6 through September 10.

 

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9. Tools of the Trade


Fortunately, when it comes to the act of physically writing, I have MANY tools at my disposal.

For example, and gratefully, my iPhone.

Should my laptop refuse to reboot due to a software problem and require a 4-day repair visit to my local Best Buy's Geek Squad the Sunday before my Monday TeachingAuthors post is due, no problemo!

I simply create an email addressing the topic, request my TA administrator Carmela post it for me, along with an evidentiary photo, and remain grateful for the many and varied Tools of my Trade...as well as for Carmela. ☺️

Esther's laptop on Geek Squad counter
So, here are a few of the salient points I fully intended to post in the traditional manner via my laptop had it successfully rebooted this morning:

(1) To date my writing tools have included #2 pencils, pens of all sorts, manual and electric typewriters, a word processor, stack and laptop computers and one trusty iPhone.

(2) Thinking on this topic, examining my modus operandi when writing creatively, I surprisingly realized my multi-sensory learning style that enables me to READ must also be executed when I WRITE!

Note: Picture here the Five Senses Chart I'd planned to share.

Using my penmanship that combines both printing and cursive, because my 6th grade teacher Miss Peterson allowed us to choose and I couldn't decide, I write by hand in notebooks, on legal pads, on sticky notes, on napkins, on match books and menus and torn newspaper items when I am rolling out and exploring a story idea.

When I'm ready to roll everything up, though, and begin an actual story draft?
I'm seated at my laptop, ready to keyboard.

(3) In my Google search to learn more about multi-sensory learners, one link led to another and there I was learning all about BIC Fight for Your Write -www.bicfightforyourwrite.com.
BIC is on a mission to save handwriting.
Clicking on the Facts page at this website, I read that handwriting engages 14 different abilities, one if which is Inner Expressive Language.
No surprise there, at least for me.
Long live the Writer's Notebook!
Visit the website to learn more and maybe even sign the petition.

Hopefully my laptop and I will be back in business by Friday.
(Siddharta  promised.)
Meanwhile, I have my iPhone ....and should that require service, my Seven-year Pen.



Happy Writing, no matter your chosen tool!

Esther Hershenhorn
P.S.
Don't forget to enter our Book Giveaway!

P.S.S. from Carmela: I couldn't resist leaving in Esther's signature line from her email, just as she sent it:

iPhone compozed - sry 4 eny typoze=

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10. WWW: Finding Your Voice


Today’s Wednesday Writing Workout comes to us courtesy of my fellow Newberry Library writing instructor, Chicago author and memoirist Carol LaChapelle.

When it comes to teaching Memoir Writing, Carol is “it”!
And so is her book, FINDING YOUR VOICE AND TELLING YOUR STORIES: 167 WAYS TO TELL YOUR LIFE STORIES (Marion Street Press).

Carol believes each life contains the makings of a memoir.

In FINDING YOUR VOICE, she shares writing tools, tricks of the trade, exercises and prompts to help any writer access and explore memories and turn them into stories. 

Carol also includes contributions from real students who have been using her methods to show readers how productive the writing exercises can be.

You can read Carol’s most recent essays in Next Avenue  and in American Magazine.

Carol invites TeachingAuthors readers to visit her blog  ForBoomersandBeyonders - Dispatches From the(New) Middle Ages and/or to “friend” her on Facebook.

You can email her directly for information about her online writing workshops at Madmoon55@aol.com

Thank you, Carol, for sharing one of your 167 ways for our TeachingAuthors readers to find their voice and tell their stories.

Enjoy! Enjoy!

Esther Hershenhorn

 

Finding Your Voice

In addition to writing and teaching workshops, I also consult with private clients on their various writing projects.  Recently, one of them, a woman in her late 70s who is writing a series of family stories, sent me a remembrance of her beloved grandmother to read and critique. 

In the piece, Joan writes about her many experiences with her grandmother from when she was a young girl.  As I read it, I realized that I didn’t really understand what was so special about “Gram,” though I knew Joan felt there were many things, else why commit this woman to paper?

And so after marking up the draft—mostly with questions—I summed up my comments at the end, including suggestions for the next revision, then sent it back to Joan along with this note.        

 I definitely like this idea for a family story; it’s important for future generations to know the people who went before them.

 I hope my notes, especially on the last page, will help in your revision. The major thing when starting to revise is to list for yourself those 2-4 most important characteristics/personality traits of your grandmother, as you experienced them.

 You don’t necessarily have to then list these traits in the actual revision, but you want the story—the specific experiences/details/scenes—to illustrate those. In other words, here’s the evidence that supports why you believe Gram is someone worth writing about.

I also referred Joan to my book, particularly Chapter Two, “Four Really Helpful Writing Techniques.”  The fourth technique, the Character Sketch, describes how I came to write one particular memory of a high school teacher, including the process by which that memory emerged on the blank page.  

I felt this might be helpful to Joan as she attempted to more specifically capture what was essential about her grandmother.

Following is that technique, which I have copied directly from my book’s initial manuscript.  I hope it will serve as a good reminder for all of us—new and practicing writers alike—when we come to write about the very special people in our own lives.

 4.  Character Sketch:  When you use the character sketch technique, you do more than simply describe someone physically.  That’s important of course as s/he will come more alive on the page the better that you—and your intended reader—can see what that person looks like, sounds like, moves like.

But a character sketch becomes more interesting when you add the person’s relevant personality traits and significant biographical information.

 For instance, if I were to do a character sketch of one of my favorite high school teachers, I’d include her height (short), athletic skill (she was our phys ed teacher), and coloring (her small, olive-dark face).  I’d also mention how young she was, and how demanding she was of us.  I’d describe how she looked while bouncing down the school halls (even when not wearing tennis shoes), gesticulating wildly alongside her friend and colleague, a much taller, paler, and mellower teacher.  Oh, and I guess I would mention that she was a nun who dressed in the black and white habit of her religious community—both in the gym and out.

I’d include relevant biographical information—a matter of keen interest among her former students, especially her decision to leave the convent after 20 years, marry a much younger man, sail around the world with him for a year, then return home and open a pizza parlor.

As I sit here now and write about the former Sister Joseph, more images of her come to mind, each small detail leading to another, and another, and then finally to a specific scene:
 
It is 1958 and our girls volleyball team has gathered in the gym after school for volleyball practice.  As we fumble our way around the court, Sr. Joe paces up and down the sidelines, barking orders at us, her black veil tied behind her back with a fat rubber band, the dour nun shoes exchanged for bright white tennies.  Her diminishing patience at our ineptitude now exhausted, she charges onto the court and to the spike position of my team.  Pushing aside Loretta, our best player, she yells “Set me up!” to the quaking girl next to her.  The rest of us stand there still as stones, and watch as Sr. Joe rises like some fiery rocket and hammers that ball over the net.

 Coda

Not long after my book was published in July 2008, I received a very surprising email from one of its readers.  Here’s how it begins:

Dear Ms. LaChapelle,
I am the "much younger man" to whom you refer on page 33 of your new book who married your former volleyball coach. I want to tell you that I (and she) nearly fell on the floor reading that recollection. While some of the details were slightly off, the essence of Sr. Joseph was right on.

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11. It's International Dot Day!


It’s International Dot Day!


Inspired by Peter H. Reynold’s picture book the dot (Candlewick Press, September 15, 2009), the event, like the book itself, celebrates creativity, courage and collaboration, encouraging each of us to make our mark and see where it takes us.

If you don’t know Reynolds’ book,
run, don’t walk, to your local library to check it out (literally and figuratively), then to your local bookstore to make it your own.
I promise you: the story of a caring teacher who dares her doubting student Vashti to trust her own abilities and bravely “make her mark” speaks volumes to all of us, no matter our age, no matter our role.
My very well-worn copy has seen five years of readings.
It’s my go-to book to launch school workshops, writing classes and presentations.
It’s my recommended Rx/gift combo to anyone setting out to mine his own treasure.

FYI: at last count, 1,677,200 human beings from 79 countries around the world have already registered to celebrate International Dot Day.
Why not join them?
The more the merrier.

You can start by downloading the free EducatorsHandbook.
For inspiration, view the videos to learn how others celebrate the date.
Stop by the The Celebri-dots blog to read about the works of some famous creative souls, many of whom are children’s book authors.
And visit TheDot Gallery to see what’s been created so far.

And stay connected with Dot Day participants.
Connect the dots via
the Dot Day Facebook page,
Twitter
(use the hashtags #DotDay, #Makeyourmark)
SKYPINGopportunities
and Pinterest.

Really and truly, there is no excuse NOT to be celebrating International Dot Day, not just today but all year long.

I found my own participation in International Dot Day – i.e. creating this post, nothing less than delicious and had planned to sign off by RE-using the above Mason Dots to spell out my name, perhaps even on the dotted line.

Since that is no longer possible, and I bet you know why, I offer up the following, courtesy of Mr. Samuel F. B. Morse.

                                       -- .- -.- . / -.-- --- ..- .-. / -- .- .-. -.-
(Click here, input the above, hit TRANSLATE, then PLAY to listen!)

Enjoy! Enjoy! Vashti and I are cheering you on!
Esther Hershenhorn

P.S.
I was surprised to learn how few green and yellow dots there are in your typical box of Mason Dots.

P.P.S.
Don't forget to enter our Rafflecopter Book Giveway to win a copy of Barbara Krasner's picture book biography of Golda Meir GOLDIE TAKES A STAND! GOLDA MEIR'S FIRST CRUSADE.


 



 

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12. WWW: Make Your (Punctuation) Mark!


Its National Punctuation Day?
It’s National Punctuation Day.
I mean it’s NATIONAL PUNCTUATION DAY!

(Of course, only a writer could so enthuse for such a day.)
As writer Russell Baker aptly put it, When speaking aloud, you punctuate constantly – with body language.  Your listener hears commas, dashes, question marks, exclamation points, quotation marks as you shout, whisper, pause, wave your arms, roll your eyes, wrinkle your brow.  In writing, punctuation plays the role of body language.  It helps readers hear the way you want to be heard.

How might I celebrate,”  you ask, “what National Punctuation Day founder Jeff Rubin calls a celebration of the lowly comma, correctly used quotation marks, and other proper uses of periods, semicolons, and the very-mysterious ellipsis?
WellI recommend the following actions: first visit the website Jeff Rubin created; admire each and every pictured punctuation mark and give it its proper due; next take this test to check your command of commas/apostrophes; laugh heartily while you read Lynne Truss’ EATS, SHOOTS & LEAVES (Why, Commas Really Do Make a Difference); and finally, consider completing my Wednesday Writing Workout which offers writers a chance to re-purpose the 14 standard marks of punctuation in English grammar to create original emoticons all their own. [See below.]

Enjoy!

Esther Hershenhorn
P.S.
While doing All Things Punctuation, don’t forget to celebrate your inner exclamation mark! J

P.P.S.
And for sure, don’t forget to enter our Book Giveaway to win a copy of Barbara Krasner’s picture book biography of Golda Meir - GOLDIE TAKES A STAND: GOLDA MEIR’S FIRST CRUSADE.
The deadline is September 26.

                                                  * * * * * * * * * *

Those Emotive Punctuation Marks!

I M J 2 B writing about emoticons – punctuation marks RE-purposed to instantly connote an emotion when communicating electronically.

Think:  little sideways smiley faces.  :)

I learned all about them when creating my baby board book TXTNG MAMA TXTNG BABY which just celebrated its first anniversary.

[FYI: it’s now available at Joan Cusick’s JUDY MAXWELL HOMEand numerous copies will be raffled off at Northwestern University’s November 1 Community Baby Shower.]
The word “emoticon” blends “emotion” and “icon.”  An emoticon allows for a quick expression of feeling when the communication is electronic.

How might YOU (!) combine and re-arrange any and all of the 14 marks of punctuation  below to create an original emoticon?

 ?    !     .   ,   “ ”   -   _  [  ]   ( )    /  :   ;

Feel free to use keyboard letters, spacing options and numbers too.  Turn them upside down and sideways!
Think outside the []. J

Play.
Experiment.

In other words, have fun!

Think, too, of any and all emotions/situations – Joy, Distress, Anger, Confusion, e.g.
If you need inspiration, click here to see more examples.
And be sure to share them with our TeachingAuthors readers so we can use them to help them catch on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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13. A Resource Discovery: NAMING THE WORLD!


How fitting that today, the 522nd anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ discovery of the New World, I share with you my recently-discovered resource, thanks to my writer Bridget Conway of Camden, Maine – NAMING THE WORLD (and other EXERCISES for the CREATIVE WRITER), edited by Bret Anthony Johnston (Random House, 2007).

Johnston writes in his introduction that “much of the writer’s work must be – can only be – accomplished by doggedly venturing into territories unknown, by risking failure with every word.  His purpose in gathering writing exercises from well-respected authors was “to create an environment in which each writer feels invited and prepared to take such risks.”

Like all discoveries, this collection of focused and insightful writing exercises widened my eyes, raised my eyebrows and had my brain whirling in record time.

Indeed, Betsy Lerner, author of another favorite resource of mine – THE FOREST FOR THE TREES: AN EDITOR’S ADVICE TO WRITERS (Riverhead, 2000) describes NAMING THE WORLD as “the equivalent of a master class in writing by some of the best writers/teachers around.”

What I especially like about NAMING THE WORLD is Johnston’s organization:  8 sections, 7 of which focus on a key element of fiction.  Each section begins with relevant perceptive quotes by well-known writers, then offers an overview of the particular element. Chosen authors’ understandable, doable exercises follow, exercises designed to “demystify the common and complex mechanisms by which the specific element operates.”  

Getting Started exercises and Daily Warm-ups bookend the sections which focus on:

       ·       Character

·         Point of view and tone

·         Plot and narrative

·         Dialogue and voice

·         Descriptive language and setting

·         Revision

I loved reading how some of my favorite authors, including Joyce Carol Oates, Elizabeth Strout, Elizabeth McCracken and Richard Bausch hone their craft.

I also loved discovering authors heretofore unknown to me.
Be sure to check back on Wednesday for Paul Lisicky’s exercise on the rhythm of language.
(His award-winning book THE BURNING HOUSE is currently on reserve at my Chicago Public Library.)


I’m happy to report my Newberry Library Picture Book Writing Workshop students this semester are also enjoying the exercises, completing one per week.

Explorers such as Columbus looked to the stars to help find their way.  With that thought in mind, I hereby declare NAMING THE STARS stellar, as in *-worthy.  The collection of exercises is certain to help writers discover their stories and how best to tell them.

In celebration of Signor Columbus’ 1492 New World landing, Happy Discovering!
 
Esther Hershenhorn

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14. WWW: All About Rhythm


As promised, I’m sharing a most original WWW I came upon while reading NAMING THE WORLD, the collection of writing exercises gathered by Bret Anthony Johnston (Random House, 2007) I reviewed in Monday’s post

The author, Paul Lisicky, titled the exercise “All About Rhythm.”  
It appears in the section “Descriptive Language and Setting.”

Lisicky writes about finding a rhythm that matches the meaning of our story's drama – not a distracting rhythm but one that is crucial, that makes our fiction sing.

He began by quoting Virgina Woolf.

“Style is a very simple matter; it is all about rhythm.  Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words….Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words.  A sight, an emotion creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it.”

How can we bring a poet’s central tools to our own work, he wondered, “and be more deeply aware of pauses, sentence length, stops, even alliteration and assonance in the prose we read and write,”  all the while opening ourselves to our own rhythms?

Enjoy! Enjoy!

Esther Hershenhorn

                                        * * * * * * * * * * 

Paul Lisicky’s ALL ABOUT RHYTHM

“Take a paragraph by a writer whose work has been important to you. 

Type it out once.

Then type it again.

Once you’ve done that, substitute your own noun for each noun, your own verb for each verb.

Replace all the adjectives and adverbs.

Play with it for a few days.

Then do another version.


If you’re lucky you might have the beginnings of a story.

Or, at the least, a more intimate sense of that writer’s rhythms.”

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15. Babies and Toddlers and Txtng, O My!


              :)  TXTNG  :(

Did you know
that long ago
the Greeks gave us our vowels –
our A and E and I and O
and Y (that sometimes) howls?
Yay! :)

But…
OMG!
How :( I M
2 c what txtng’s wrought!
When now I tweet
words short n sweet
I X the vowels Greeks brought!

                   * * * * *
How nice 2 B 2day’s TeachingAuthors contributor  to Poetry Friday.
10 Q April Halprin Wayland and CarmelaMartino and Jill Esbaum, our group blog’s “usual” Poetry Friday posters, for allowing me to take this Friday slot and thus continue the celebration of Sleeping Bear Press’ release of my new baby board book soon to arrive in stores everywhere, TXTNG MAMA TXTNG BABY.

FYI: Our week-long celebration includes a Book Giveaway of TWO signed copies of this perfect baby gift of a book.  Click HERE for the details and be sure to enter by next Tuesday, August 13.

I wrote in Monday’s post how my grandson inspired TXTNG MAMA TXTNG BABY whilst he was in utero.  My Baby Antennae had been (understandably) working overtime.  All I saw – everywhere I looked – were Mamas thumbing their hand-held devices and nearby, babies finger-swiping the same.
                                                    
     Texting Mamas…
     Texting Babies…
     What’s up with THAT? I wondered.

To answer the above question, and the millions that followed, I spent a whole lot of time (cer10ly longer than my grandson’s gestation!) researching Texting and Technology as well as their impact on Babies and Toddlers.

I needed to know:  just what is text?”
There were definitions aplenty but linguist David Crystal’s TXTNGThe Gr8 Db8 (Oxford University, 2009) allowed the writer in me to understand this language – and – its features, several of which I shared in my Wednesday Writing Workout.
And is texting really killing writing?
There were opinions aplenty.
Fortunately, I came upon Columbia University linguist Dr. John McWhorter’s TED Talk – “Txtng is killing language. JK!!”
McWhorter considers texting “a whole new way of writing,” fingered speech that allows us to write the way we speak, an expansion of a young person’s linguistic repertoire.
Noting texting’s loose structure, McWhorter remarks, “No one thinks about capital letters or punctuation when one texts, but then again, do you think about those things when you talk?”
Click HERE to listen to Dr. McWhorter's TED Talk. Enjoy and learn!

I needed to explore and experience 2day’s Babies’ and Toddlers’ Techy-Techy World, the Digital World in which these smallest of humans live and breath and laugh and learn, not to mention, swipe and tap and thumb.
Every day brought A New Something with A New Action, A New Opportunity, a New Possibility for digital natives, both parent and child.
Hanna Rosin’s comprehensive article “The Touch-Screen Generation” in the April 2013 issue of THE ATLANTIC magazine grounded, informed and enlightened me. 
Click HERE to check it out for yourself, making sure you leave time for the Readers Comments.

Finally, I needed to read and understand the research.

Dr. Marie Donovan and Dr. Roxanne Owen of DePaul University’s College of Education connected me to the Fred Rogers Center for early learning and media at St. Vincent College.
I explored the website, read the studies and findings
and understood instantly the requisite human touch Touch Technology demands when it comes to babies and toddlers and technology.
Click HERE to read their newest posting on imaginary play with technology.

I M still on the hunt for anything and everything that is remotely related to babies, toddlers, texting and technology.
I clip, I cut-and-paste, I purchase, I stockpile.
Wednesday, the Chicago Tribune brought news of smart watches.
Later that afternoon, I discovered the BabyBook Onesie at Northwestern Memorial Hospital’s Zen and Now Gift Shop.

Who knows WHAT might juice my Writer’s Muse next week, next month, next year?

4 now, I M Byond :) I was able 2 use this newest of languages 2 cr8 TXTNG MAMA TXTNG BABY and bring my grandson’s Digital World to the ultimate hand-held device: the baby board book.

10 Q for letting me share.

 And Happy Poetry Friday!

 Esther Hershenhorn
 


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16. Real Life Fiction


     I am a thoroughly unimaginative writer. I had this pointed out to me by a second grader (!!), during the Q & A part of a school visit.

     "Where so you get your ideas" is always a favorite question.  This particular day I was explaining the origins of My Best Friend and First Grade Stinks (my daughter, Lily), Yankee Girl (my own childhood) and Jimmy's Stars, (my mother's family).  When I finished another little hand waved from the back of the pack,


    "So you just write about your own family?" said the student.

     I had to take a beat before I answered "yes."

     It had never occurred to me before,  All of my stories up to that point did have their origins in family stories,  I come from a family of storytellers, and I grew up always looking for stories of my own to add to the family collection.

     Since then, I have broadened my scope a little.  A Tree for Emmy is based on Lily's best and oldest friend.  The Roller Coaster Kid came from the father of my next-door-neighbor.  I am currently working on a short story based on two of Lily's friends,  But try as I may, my stories always seem to begin with a character or situation that I have encountered in my own life.

 However, starting off with something that happened in "real life" does not mean that I am merely narrating an actual occurrence.  Life is not so tidy as fiction. Life does not have opening scenes, exposition, a climax and a denouement.  Sometimes live does have those elements, but it also has a lot of extraneous stuff as well.  Fiction has filters.  Fiction has to be shaped.

    Yankee Girl is the book that hews closest to the events of my life.  The first draft was around 400 pages.  I included every detail and incident that happened when I moved to Mississippi as a fifth grader.  While I wrestled to get this sprawling mess into something that resembled a story, I learned a cardinal rule of fiction writing:  Just because something happened, doesn't mean it is important to the story.  For example, your Irish setter may have been in the room when you had a monumental fight with your best friend.  You may have been wearing a pink sweatshirt and matching high tops.  Unless your dog plays an active part in the scene (she jumps on your friend to break up the fight) or what you wear is essential to the character,  these are details that can be cut. They clutter your story.

     Or, as one of my mentors at Vermont College told me over and over, "Because it "really happened that way" is not a good enough reason to include it in your story.

     She usually followed this admonition with "How does (this detail, character, plot point) move the story along?"  The answer was usually "It doesn't."  And another page of perfectly good but pointless prose would disappear into the "Delete and Save" file.

   I have yet to write a story beginning with a character totally imaginary. I have edged a bit away from the side of the pool, venturing deeper into the wholly fictional end of writing. My current work-in-progress is based on an event that happened to someone my daughter knows.  She doesn't know him well, or any of the details of what "really" happened.  It doesn't matter.  My mind is creating characters, envisioning scenes and hearing conversations.  All of this from the offhand remark "Mom, there's this guy at school who..."

    To celebrate the arrival of Esther's new book, TXTNG MAMA, in the warehouse, we are extending our giveaway of the book through August 20, 2013. Click  here.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman




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17. Listen Up and Share a (Real Life) Story!


I love how good ol’ Serendipity works.

There I was,                                                                                         
roaming my terrific City of Chicago on a gorgeous August Saturday,
wondering what I could write today to meaningfully follow my colleagues’ posts about Real Life sparking fiction,
when what do I come upon,
in the northeast corner of the Chicago Cultural Center,
but the StoryCorps Chicago StoryBooth!

StoryCorps is THE perfect vehicle to help us turn Real Life stories into well-told,
worth-listening-to-and-sharing NON-fiction,
and thus the PERFECT subject to punctuate our past weeks' discussion.
 
FYI: StoryCorps is the independent national nonprofit oral history organization whose mission is “to provide people of all backgrounds and beliefs with the opportunity to record, share and preserve the stories of our lives.”
I love its tag line: “Every voice matters.”

Since it began in 2003, StoryCorps has collected and archived more than 45,000 interviews with nearly 90,000 participants.  Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share; the CD is preserved at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress.

Millions listen to weekly broadcasts of these conversations on NPR’s Morning Edition, on Listening pages, in podcasts and via books and animation.

The StoryBooth is here to stay in Chicago for the next three years, if not longer.  The box-like structure is actually a compact recording studio hooked up with a soundboard, a small table with two chairs, two microphones and the requisite box of tissues.


Thanks to StoryCorps’ partnership with the Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events, the Chicago Public Media and Chicago Public Radio station WBEZ, anyone has the opportunity to record a 40-minute conversation with a loved one. 

For years, I’ve shared this little-known national storytelling organization with teachers, librarians, young writers and especially their families.

 StoryCorps’ National Day of Listening is celebrated the day after Thanksgiving.  This year, come November 29, everyone is invited to use a smart phone, tablet, computer or tape recorder to record an interview with a loved one.
Do-It-Yourself Instruction Guidelines are free and easy to follow.
As for what questions to ask – on the day after Thanksgiving or on any day you’re wanting to learn another person’s story, check out this printer-friendly version of Great Questions to Ask.

It’s StoryCorps’ Story Questions – and Question Generator - that first grabbed my writing teacher’s eye.
The Story Questions gift Family Literacy Night participants - or -   First-Day-of-School Classmate Interviewers - or - even New Student/New Teacher/New Principle Biographers - with easy-to-understand opportunities to enrich their storytelling.

Even better, they also gift any fictive writer wanting and needing to know his characters more fully.
Back Story is everything when it comes to knowing our characters – fictive or real.
IMHO: the StoryCorps questions also make for rich additions to Jeanne Marie’s WWW – “Where I’m From…” exercise.

So,
do visit WBEZ’s StoryCorps Chicago StoryBooth  if you get the chance - or - simply stop by the StoryCorps website and spend time listening, learning, reading and questioning.

And, stay tuned!
Maybe one of these days I’ll invite my fellow Chicago Teaching Author Carmela Martino to meet me at the Chicago Cultural Center so we can record our TeachingAuthors.com story?  :)

Esther Hershenhorn

P.S.
Don’t forget to enter our Book Giveaway to win a copy of Sonya Sones’ newest novel in verse To Be Perfectly Honest.

Click HERE for the Details.

 

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18. Mushing Through the Days (and Middles) of our Lives


I am unabashedly a Big Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford Fan.
Like our readers and my fellow TA’s, I shall sorely miss her Monday posts.

 
Who else but Jeanne Marie could spend her days telling the sentimental soap opera saga of the rootable Hortons – “Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives!” - while grounding our TeachingAuthors readers in the Truthful Realities of her Every-Day’s-a-Balancing-Act Writer’s Life?

No wonder my Favorite Jeanne Marie post is “The Middle,” with her March 15, 2010 “Job Description” a close second.

“In life,” Jeanne Marie wrote in her January 2 New Year’s post in 2012, “it occurs to me that we tend to focus a tremendous amount of our energy and attention on beginnings and endings -- the weddings and the funerals, as it were.  But it's the vast middle that comprises the bulk of our existence.  Likewise, in writing, we start with an idea -- a character, a situation, a premise.  Usually we know where we want to start and where we want to go.  But it's the getting there that makes the story, breaks the story, or too often stops us from finishing the story.  After the sexy thrill of the beginning fades, we must still live there, in the treacherous middle, for a very long time before we can ever type THE END.
“Ain’t that the truth!” I sighed.

It just so happens, speaking of soap operas, I am the Susan Lucci of Children’s Books.
I know all about Middles.
My Children’s Book Writing Quest had a Middle so vast, four American Presidents came and went, and two were re-elections.

My Beginning was terrific.  It got me going.
My Ending was even better than I’d – continually and creatively - imagined.
Making it through my Middle, though, proved my mettle.

Because that’s what Middles do, be they the sagging centers of the stories we write or the seemingly never-ending mid-sections of the writer’s story we’re living.
They prove our mettle, as in strength of character and spirited determination.
Think courage, bravery, guts, grit, nerve, pluck, resolve, valor, vigor and cojones.
Everything our Heroes and Heroines must do we must do too.
We keep on keepin' on.

At the end of Jeanne Marie’s post, she shared her writing mantra – “Slow and steady,” giving me another opportunity to shout “Ain’t that the truth!”


As luck would have it, while thinking about Middles and today’s post, I received my daily email from marketing guru Seth Godin.  It was titled “The Red Lantern.”  Thank you to my writer, Dr. Carol Swartz of UNC Charlotte, for connecting me to this brilliant blog and thank you, Seth Godin, for gifting me with the perfect ending to my Jeanne Marie tribute.

The Red Lantern Award is presented to the Iditarod musher who makes it through that grueling event's middle and finishes... last.  Godin put forth that this type of award should be offered more often, for all sorts of endeavors - school projects, performances, competitions. 

This year, the Red Lantern Award was presented to rookie musher Christine Roalofs on March 17.  She and her team made it to Nome from Willow in 13 days, 22 hours, 36 minutes and 8 seconds.
That’s a whole lot of sand (and snow and mud) through the hourglass!

Thank you, Jeanne Marie, for grounding me in the Real World these past four years.  You kept me keeping on.

Onward and mush!

Your Fan Esther Hershenhorn

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19. Read a Book. Stop a Bully.


Meet 11-year-old Jack.
He’s funny. He’s inventive. He has a rich and loving family that includes his very busy Mum, his rather odd Nana, his sort-of-stepdad Rob and his sister Samantha.   
He likes everything most boys his age do, whether they live in the U.S. or Australia: going to school, learning, hanging out with his friends.
How perfect his Life would be if only his classmate George Hamel vanished!
Alas, a lame joke on Jack’s part led to George calling him a “Butt head.” Once the whole school joined in, Jack’s school days spelled D-A-N-G-E-R.

Jack shares his plight in the award-winning I AM JACK, a rite-of-passage children’s book in Australia lauded as “accessible and hilarious…an absolute must.” Published in the U.S. by KaneMiller in 2012, School Library Journal called I AM JACK “a solid addition to the growing collection of books about bullying.”
Jack’s first engagingly-told novel was adapted into a successfully-touring play in Australia and will begin its U.S. run in 2014.
His second and third novels include ALWAYS JACK (which deals with cancer in families) and SUPER JACK (which deals with blended families.)

Now meet Jack’s creator, Susanne Gervay, the award-winning, Order of Australia for Literature author whom I proudly call friend, colleague and SCBWI Kin. (Susanne serves as the Regional Advisor for SCBWI’s Eastern Australia and New ZealandChapter.)

Jack, it turns out, was based on Susanne’s real-life son Jack.

“When I discovered that Jack was being bullied, I fulfilled my Jack's worst nightmare. Yes, I went up to the school. Yes, he was scared. Yes, the school acted. Yes, the bully was called up.
It took six months for things to really change. Eventually my Jack worked through the bullying with the support of family, friends, the school. By the end he felt good about himself, had great friends, loved his school, did his school work, played soccer and learnt that society can be a fair place.”

Susanne shared with me an email that followed her recent school visit to a multicultural state school, the Bankstown Public School in Sydney.  Here’s what Akila in 5p posted on the class blog:

 
“At first if someone calls you names like Bumhead (poor Jack) it's funny, the next time it's just nothing, a million times feels like ok you can stop now and a jillion times equals AHHHHHH I had enough!" Remember what Susanne Gervay said. Teasing is not bullying. Bullying affects you in a different way. It makes you scared. We can help stop bullying in many ways! You've got to give a helping hand and help someone else in trouble. And remember George Hamel? Well I remember Susanne saying that he had supporters which can happen here too. Bullying can happen at anytime and anywhere. If you're bullied then tell somebody. Your family and friends are there to love and help you so appreciate that!”
Exploring the website for National Bullying Prevention Month, sponsored by Pacer, I was taken with the Pacer Center tag – “Champions for Children with Disabilities.”
“Disables,” I said to myself. “That’s what bullying – in any form, does.  It DIS-ables the victim.”
But as Jack says in the KaneMiller book sticker that introduces this post,
reading stops a bully.
Reading EN-ables – the victim, the aggressor, the observer – to take action.
Or at least it can and should, with the right book.

I applaud MaryAnn and April for sharing their vulnerability so honestly in last week’s posts, and in the books and poems they write.
I applaud Susanne Gervay for doing the same in I AM JACK.

Marian Dane Bauer spoke the Truth in WHAT’S YOUR STORY?: we need to put our own stories in the stories we write if they’re ever to resound in our readers’ hearts, if they're ever to enable them to do what needs doing.

Now,
go read a book and stop a bully!

Esther Hershenhorn

P.S.
Don’t forget! The October 9 deadline looms for our Book Giveaway of Alexis O’Neill’s newest book The Kite That Bridged Two Nations.
 

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20. My (NON) Writing Ritual: For Times When I'm Lost


So,
I’m here to report:
there are those times when even though I’ve ritualistically readied myself to write, I am unable to move forward with my story.


I lose my way somehow.
My fingers freeze.
My North Star is elsewhere playing Hide-and-Seek.

The Good News, however?
Like that wondrous woman who lives inside our cars’ or devices’ GPS,
the one who expertly and melodically repositions our course when we turn left instead of right or bypass our designated Exit or come to a grinding halt at the wrong destination,
I know how to RECALCULATE!

Here’s my 3-Step Easy Ritual for finding my way back.

#1
I take myself away from my writing space, sit still and quietly re-read the encouraging hope-filled greeting cards I’ve mailed myself the past 37 years (!) while out-and-about on my Writer’s Journey.



#2
Next I re-read and think on the inspirational quotes I’ve tucked away inside my treasured Hansel and Gretl box.


#3Finally I empty my beautiful one-of-a-kind carpet bag of its contents - the notes, letters and Thank You’s I’ve received, and read my way through, savoring the words,

especiallyand always those penned long-ago by my fellow TeachingAuthor Carmela Martino when I sold, at long last, my very first picture book.


Before I know it,
I’ve recalibrated my compass, refueled my heart and found my way home to my keyboard and story.


Happy Writing – and – Recalculating (if and when needed)!

Esther Hershenhorn

P.S.
The above Rx is a true-blue twofer; the 3-step ritual helps me REBOOT too!

P.P.S.
Let’s hear it for that hard-working second-chance prefix RE! Where would we be without it?

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21. Happy Blogi-VERSE-ary!!!!!


Hip (to the 5th power) Hooray!
It’s our Blogiversary!!!!!
Our TeachingAuthors group blog has been teaching authors since April of 2009!

To celebrate the occasion, we’re celebrating you!  Enter our Raffle drawing to win one of FIVE Blogiversary Book Bundles – each bundle a set of five books hand-selected by a TeachingAuthor that includes at least one autographed TeachingAuthor book.  Check the end of this post for details.

But wait!
It’s also our Blogi-VERSE-ary, so smartly re-named by our reader Mary Lee of A Year of Reading, because we six TeachingAuthors chose to celebrate the occasion by reciting our favorite poem in honor of Poetry Month.

I suggested the idea once I read about the Poetry Foundation’s current Favorite Poem Project: Chicago which grew out of former Poet Laureate Robert Pinsky’s national Favorite Poem Project – Americans Saying Poems They Love which celebrates poetry as a vocal art. 

Poetry Foundation President Robert Polito shared in his project description that “a favorite poem can be a talisman or mantra, a clue, landmark or guiding star and dwells deep down in our psyches.”

Thank you for your interest in the Favorite Poem Project: Chicago. Check this page regularly to view the six videos in the series which will be release twice each week starting on Monday, April 14.Hana Bajramovic
"The Order of Key West" by Wallace Stevens
Naomi Beckwith
"The Children of the Poor" by Gwendolyn Brooks
Mayor Rahm Emanuel
"Chicago" by Carl Sandburg
Thank you for your interest in the Favorite Poem Project: Chicago. Check this page regularly to view the six videos in the series which will be release twice each week starting on Monday, April 14.Hana Bajramovic
"The Order of Key West" by Wallace Stevens
Naomi Beckwith
"The Children of the Poor" by Gwendolyn Brooks
Mayor Rahm Emanuel
"Chicago" by Carl
FYI: the Poetry Foundation, located in beautiful downtown Chicago, is an amazing resource – for writers and readers, for teachers, of course, but really-and-truly, for anyone human.
To plan a (highly-recommended) visit, click here.
To explore the children’s poetry resources, click here. 
Students can find recitation tips and look for poems here.
Teachers can learn all about Poetry Out Loud in the classroom by clicking here.
So you’re never without a poem nearby, click here to download the Poetry App.

The poem I chose to recite via SoundCloud (and – fingers-crossed – successfully uploaded to today’s post so you can hear it) is Robert Louis Stevenson’s MY SHADOW.

The poem dwells deep, deep, deep in my psyche, placed there by my mean-spirited third grade teacher Miss Atmore at Philadelphia’s Overbrook Elementary.  (Think every gruesome teacher Raoul Dahl created, to the max (!), down to the spit that sprayed the air when she’d lean in close to admonish a mistake.)

In between Halloween and Thanksgiving of that third grade year, each of us was to choose, memorize and then recite before the class eight lines of a poem.  I instantly knew the poem I’d choose.  I treasured my copy of A CHILD’S GARDEN OFVERSES.  How could I not choose my favorite poem, My Shadow? I loved the poem’s sing-song rhythms; I loved its playfulness. I even recall jumping rope while I recited the poem, practicing, practicing, practicing.  I so wanted to get it right.  Standing before my classmates in the front of my classroom, beside Miss Atmore seated dispassionately at her desk, demanded Courage and Moxie, both of which I lacked.


"My poem is My Shadow,” I bravely began, and Miss Atmore stopped me, cold, mid-sentence.
“Po-em is a two-syllable word, child!” she shouted. “How many times must I tell you all that?!  Now raise your head, start again and this time, for goodness sake, speak the words correctly!”
The rhythm of the lines ran away (probably scared); I mispronounced "India" as "Indian." All I could do was stare at the two shiny pennies that adorned my new brown loafers. 
But that failed recitation serves as a landmark. Thanks to Miss Atmore, I knew then and there that when – I – grew up to be a teacher someday, everything that Miss Atmore was, I would spend my lifetime making sure I wasn't.                                (IIllustration by Ted Rand)                                                                                                                                                                                                       
Ironically, when I was first trying my hand at writing for children, I wrote a poem entitled “P-O-E-M is a Two-syllable Word.” In time the title became a line in the first poem I ever sold, to Ebony Jr. magazine.  I’ve searched high-and-low for my copy so I might share the poem, but alas, no luck.  Even today, I can’t speak the word “poem” without enunciating clearly its two two-letter syllables.


           My Shadow by Robert Louis Stevenson
I have a little shadow that goes in and out with me,
And what can be the use of him is more than I can see.
He is very, very like me from the heels up to the head.
And I see him jump before me, when I jump into my bed.

The funniest thing about him is the way he likes to grow –
Not at all like proper children, which is always very slow;
For he sometimes shoots up taller like an india-rubber ball,
And he sometimes goes so little that there’s none of him at all.

He hasn’t got a notion of how children ought to play,
And can only make a fool of me in every sort of way.
He stays so close behind me, he’s a coward you can see;
I’d think shame to stick to nursie as that shadow sticks to me!

One morning, very early, before the sun was up,
I rose and found the shining dew on every buttercup;
But my lazy little shadow, like an arrant sleepy-head,
Had stayed at home behind me and was fast asleep in bed.

[Note: If you're receiving this post via email, here's the link to the Sound Cloud reading of Robert Louis Stevenson's My Shadow by Esther Hershenhorn ]


             * * * * * * * *
I offer at least five bundles of thanks to you, our readers, for embracing our blog, and to my fellow TeachingAuthors too – Jill Esbaum, JoAnn Early Macken, Carmela Martino, Laura Purdie Salas, April Halprin Wayland and currently in absentia but always in my heart, Mary Ann Rodman and Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford, for embracing me.

I did indeed find that long-ago missing Moxie and each of you makes sure I maximize it bi-monthly.

Here’s to a month of poetic celebrations!

 Oh, and don’t forget to enter our BlogiversaryRaffle to win one of FIVE Blogiversary Book Bundles. 

Good Luck!

Esther Hershenhorn

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22. A Writer's Potpourri of Clippings


I confess: I clip articles almost daily from printed newspapers and magazines delivered to my address.
(Home-delivered newspapers?  How about THAT for dating myself?!) 
Article-clipping is a Family Thing.
My mother clipped.  My sister still clips. 
My nieces and cousins do too.
Recipes. Advice columns.  Interviews.  Book reviews.  Movie write-ups.  Funny cartoons.  Touching quotes. 
Oh, and death notices and marriage announcements.
In other words, anything and everything that when sent says, “I saw this and I thought of you!”
I and my family’s current generation of women use – with great optimism, the U.S. Mails to share our clippings. 
The younger generation sends link-bearing emails or attached scans.
For obvious reasons, many of the articles my family sends on to me pertain to writing, children's books and authors.  Those clippings have a pile all their own, a pile I, the Happy Clipper add to often.  I call it My Writer’s Pile and it’s totally separate from my Story Ideas Pile.
Sometimes when I’m clipping an article, or truthfully, unevenly tearing out a section of a page, I have no idea WHY. 
The piece or item simply spoke to me and I think, “I bet I could use this someday.”
Sometimes, though, I know the recipient instantly– a fellow writer, a former student, a school class I’m about to visit, or even my TeachingAuthors readers.
Thinking Spring, I titled this post “A Writer's Potpourri of Clippings."
In checking the correct spelling and definitions, however – “a mixture of flowers, herbs, and spices that is usually kept in a jar and used for scent” and “a miscellaneous collection,” my eyes slipped down the page to discover the word’s 1749 origin – the French words -  pot pourri” for “rotten pot.”
Which got me thinking…
I often liken the writing process and that of growing a story (as well as a career) to the process inherent in maintaining a compost pile and its clippings.
Maybe magic of sorts is going on within My Writer’s Pile and I don’t even know it!
Toss the following three clippings into your Writer’s (Compost) Pile and see what happens.

FLORAL NAMES FOR BABIES
HAS BECOME A BLOSSOMING TREND
By Nara Schoenberg, Tribune Newspapers – March 4, 2014
 “Plant-based baby names for girls overall are on the rise, and 10 previously low-profile botanicals – Lily, Violet, Willow, Hazel, Ivy, Olive, Dahlia, Juniper and Azalea – have risen rapidly.
 These 10 fast-rising names were given to a total of 19,500 baby girls in 2012 – more babies than received the No. 3 girls’ name, Isabella (18,900), according to data from the Social Security Administration."
I sent the original of this article to Cousin Jane in New Jersey whose first-born granddaughter is named Violet – after - I scanned and filed the article on my computer’s Hard Drive.
FYI: apparently there’s no parallel botanical trend in naming boys although the nature name “Canyon” has had recent traction (No. 1,462).
Naming characters is any writer’s job!
(Photo courtesy of Morgue File/mirabbi249-37-0)

WRITTEN IN INK
An eclectic blog uncovers the tales behind strangers’ tattoos
By Lauren Morrow, O Magazine - April, 2013
I loved reading about and visiting illustrator Wendy MacNaughton’s and writer Isaac Fitzgerald’s blog Pen & Ink which reveals “the often hilarious, sometimes poignant stories behind these permanent remnants of our fleeting opinions, passions, and phases.”
Apparently I wasn’t alone.
This Fall Bloomsbury USA releases the two bloggers’ book PEN & INK: TATTOOS AND THE STORIES BEHIND THEM.
I haven’t used the idea or passed it on – ’til now.
Don’t you wonder sometimes, when you see an inked dolphin peeking out above a neighbor’s collar, “Why a dolphin?”
Or just what tattoo you might choose, if you haven’t already, and you want to break loose?
A character’s tattoos are a great way to come at knowing your Hero and knowing your Villain.

MIXED-MEDIA MAVENS
Artists’ book celebrates the
freedom and craft of art journaling
By Heather Schroering, Tribune Newspapers – April 20, 2014
Another two-partner idea – this time by Jenny Heid and Aaron Nieradka: scrapbooking with more layers and textures.                                                                      
Another blog: Everyday Is a Holiday.
And another book: MIXED MEDIA MASTERPIECES WITH JENNY & AARON (Page Street).
When speaking to Young Authors, I advocate Journaling every chance I get.
I liked the fun idea this article suggested of adding Ephemera – such as handwritten letters, maps, vintage photos, fabric, movie and concert tickets, old game pieces, you-name-it.
I bet kids would like it too!
And instantly they’d SEE the value of concrete details.
I also think it’s yet another way for writers, young and old, to come at knowing their characters – and that’s why I scanned this article and emailed it to two of my writers.
For the record, and though a Luddite at heart,
I do actually read newspapers, journals and magazines online daily and find myself more and more (sigh) cutting-and-pasting, copying and/or scanning and emailing myself links to fascinating articles.
I hate to waste an interesting idea!
Esther Hershenhorn

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23. Kate Hannigan's Story-Building Recipe: Today's Wednesday Writing Workout


Today’s Wednesday Writing Workout on how to turn an idea into a satisfying story was cooked up by Chicago debut novelist Kate Hannigan.  The timing is perfect: Kate’s CUPCAKE COUSINS(Disney-Hyperion) releases this Friday, May 9, with an official 2:30 pm cupcakes-included launch at 57th Street Books in Hyde Park in Chicago, if anyone’s in the area (1301 E. 57th St.) J

Kate also blogs at Author Of, interviewing fellow authors of books for young readers of all ages.

Illustrated by Brooke Boynton Hughes, CUPCAKE COUSINS tells the story of almost-10-year-old cousins Willow and Delia who have been asked to be flower girls and wear bright pink dresses for their aunt’s upcoming wedding.  But the cousins would much rather don white aprons and be flour girls, whipping up some culinary magic to share with their entire family.  Scrumptious recipes for whoopee pies, peach pancakes and other tasty treats are included.

Kate’s next release is in April 2015: THE DETECTIVE’S ASSISTANT (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers), an historical fiction middle grade novel.

Kate also co-authored with Karen Duncan the community service book THE GOOD FUN! BOOK(Blue Marlin) which offers 12 months of parties kids can throw to help their communities and the world.

Thanks to Kate, for sharing her writer’s recipe for story-building with our TeachingAuthors readers. Her tips are write-on!
 
Finally I can say, what I knew I'd say some day,
having had the honor of working with Kate on earlier manuscripts:
 
Hurrah! Hooray! 
Kate's on her way!
 
Esther Hershenhorn
 
                                                        . . . . . . . . . . .
 
Kate Hannigan’s WWW

A hot mess.

Whenever I’m just starting out with an idea, but it’s got no shape or clear direction, I call it a hot mess. It’s a bubbling stew of characters and plot twists and good intentions. But it’s definitely not a story yet.

So how do we take a hot mess of a book idea and turn it into an actual manuscript?

Lots of writers have ideas and techniques that work: You can find sites that offer up tools for outlining or worksheets or even fancy methods with clever names. But you also might benefit from a simpler, broad-based sketch. You’ll know what works best for you as you try them out.

I have a few exercises that help me move from brain hiccups to first drafts, and I’ll share them here. They involve distilling ideas to their essence, literally sketching out the story arcs with little arrows and rainbow curves, and old-school outlining.

When I came up with the idea for Cupcake Cousins, I was driving on the highway between Chicago and Western Michigan, where the book is set, and letting my mind wander. But it wasn’t until I had quiet time to put pencil to paper that I could begin to see an actual story take shape.

You’ll hear plenty of naysayers who distrust the notion of outlining. “It’s too confining,” they complain. “I like to let my characters take me wherever they’re going,” they declare. Sure, but remember that those are the kind of people who run with scissors, who leave the house without a hat and eat high-cholesterol dinners.

Let ’em partake in such risky behavior. Because as they’re enjoying the wind-in-the-hair rush of chasing their unruly characters, you’ll be too busy getting yours lovelies from Point A to Point Z to pay them any notice. And before long, you’ll have a solid first draft of a manuscript while they’re still lost on a literary back road.

I’m a Type A person trapped in a Type B body, so you won’t hear me advocating for a rigid outlining regimen. But I will say that distilling, sketching, and outlining saved me and my stories. And I won’t begin a project without first coming up with the wire hanger on which to hang my story.

Here’s a simple three-part exercise I do when I want to get my middle-grade story started, moving from hot mess of an idea to tangible first draft in hand.

1. Start with one sentence. Distill your book into one simple sentence. Two cousins are tired of being treated like babies, so they try to prove themselves through amazing feats of baking. This helps you focus in on the essence of your book. And simple language can be repeated: imagine your potential book editor walking down the hall to another cubicle and pitching your one-sentence summary to her neighbor.

2. Sketch out your story arcs. Seriously, grab a paper and pencil and start drawing curvy arcs. What does your main character learn over the long journey of your book? She starts out at Point A as what kind of person? And where is she at the story’s end? What about sub-characters? What do they want? How are they changed?

If you’re a visual learner like me, you might benefit from seeing the way these story arcs rise and fall. And if you are setting up a lot of story threads, these sketches can help you make sure when and where you’re going to tie them off.

3. Flesh out your idea with an outline. Going from one-sentence summary to 30,000-word novel is an overwhelming notion. If you’re like me, you might get completely flummoxed at this point and bail on your project entirely. Don’t. Instead, create a simple outline of the book.

And start by giving yourself some parameters, like word count. Early middle-grade books tend to hit about the same length. Let’s say you’re shooting for 28,000 words. Divide that total over 10 chapters, and you’re looking at writing 2, 800 words for each chapter. That’s a manageable target, right? Now you have a daily writing goal.

But what do you want to say? Before you begin doing the writing, you have to do some heavy lifting – think of it as arranging the furniture. What are the 10 touch points you want to hit on in your book? Build your outline by writing down a quick one- or two-sentence summary of what needs to happen in each chapter as you move from the story’s beginning to end.

Chapter 1: Willow stares at the ugly flower girl dress and determines she won’t wear it for the wedding. She and Delia can’t wait to get into the kitchen so they can cook their way out of these dreadful gowns.

Chapter 2: Cat the new caterer appears in the kitchen, and she’s intimidating. But Willow and Delia aren’t convinced Cat knows how to make things as good as they do, so they “fix” her lemonade. The results are disastrous.

And so on.

Be flexible. Say you decide your chapters are too long for the pace you’re setting. So instead of 10 chapters of roughly 2,800 words each, you’re going to write about 20 chapters with 1,400 words per chapter and zip right along.

Go back to your original outline and divide each chapter idea in half:

Chapter 1: Willow stares at hideous pink dress and determines she won’t wear it for the wedding. Family heads off for vacation in Michigan with Willow feeling frustrated.

Chapter 2: Willow and Delia meet up, extended family too. Aunt Rosie is crazy for the pink dresses while Willow and Delia are plotting NOT to wear them. They race off to the kitchen together, where they believe their true talents can flourish.

Chapter 3: Inside the kitchen. The girls hear the screen door open, and they meet the new caterer, Cat. She poses a threat to their plan for cooking their way out of the ugly dresses.
 
            Chapter 4: The cousins tinker with Cat’s lemonade to disastrous results, getting    
            them off on the wrong foot with her and ousted from her kitchen.

And so on.

Outline as roadmap. Creating a reliable, functional outline doesn’t have to lock you in. There is still the freedom to let your creative voice take you places. But it does help you stay focused on your destination. While we might enjoy a Sunday drive in the country, we eventually need to get to where we’re going, right? Let the outline serve as your roadmap.

Flesh out your ideas even more with each pass. As you refine your outline, flesh out the ideas for each chapter in greater and greater detail, making sure to pace out the tension and conflict as you go. With each pass, your outline details should grow from just a few sentences into a few longer paragraphs.

Almost writing itself. When it comes time to sit down and begin writing your manuscript, you’ll might be surprised how clearly focused your story is. The book could almost right itself! Okay, that’s not true, but you are in good shape because of your outline. You can see where your action peaks and where you provide the reader a rest. You can see where you’ve laid in turning points and tension, and where you’ve set up and then resolved the conflict.

Outline into manuscript. As you keep refining your outline and begin the writing process that makes the chapters hang together, you’ll see your great idea transform into a real story. And that story will soon take the shape of a solid, working draft.

And from there, you can just imagine the book it will soon become. You’re off and running! But not with scissors; you’re too smart for that.

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24. A MUST Book for Every Writer's Bookshelf!


I’ve been chomping at the bit while I awaited my scheduled posting time, that’s how eager I am to share Dani Shapiro’s STILL WRITING: THE PERILS AND PLEASURES OF A CREATIVE LIFE (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2013) with our TeachingAuthors readers.

How did I ever miss this book when it released last November!
It’s a MUST book for every writer’s bookshelf that beautifully delivers the front flap copy’s promise: “Shapiro offers a gift to writers everywhere: an elegant guide of hard-won wisdom and encouragement for staying the course.”

Part personal memoir, part meditation on the artistic process and part advice on craft gleaned from a twenty-year writing and teaching career, STILL WRITING inspires, encourages, informs and delights, and much like a children’s book, leaves the writer with hope.

When it comes to writing, Dani Shapiro bares both the good and the not-so-good.  As a result, I closed the book and was once again reminded that – at least when it comes to my writing, I am normal.

I’m NOT alone. I’m not the odd-woman out.  I’m not the only one struggling here.

Much like Anne LaMott did in her BIRD BY BIRD instructions on writing and on life, Dani Shaprio gave me permission to do what I cannot not do, i.e. write.

I like how Shapiro divided the book and the creative process into Beginnings, Middles and Ends. Her insightful and instructive bon mots within each section never fail to speak the truth whether addressing topics such as Riding the Wave, our Inner Censor, a Corner (start small) or Building the Boat, Courage, Rhythm and Distance or Exposure, Risk, Tribe and Envy.

My three favorite quotes from STILL WRITING?

“The only reason to be a writer is because you have to.”

My words are my pickax, and with them I chip away at the rough surface of whatever it is I still need to know.”

And, finally, these words Shapiro shared about approaching her Writing Workshops, which had the writing teacher inside of me weeping:

“We – this ragtag group of ten or twelve – are going to become a single organism. A collective unconscious.  We are going to set aside our petty concerns and focus, instead, on the sentences in front of us.  We will train our best selves – our empathic understanding, our optimism, our critical eye – to understand what each of us is trying to do.  We are going to laugh, possibly cry, argue, roll our eyes.  But we’re going to do it with respect, and even with love.”

I can’t wait to begin each of my Summer Newberry Library Workshop sessions with relevant readings from this life-affirming/writer-affirming book. 

As an aside, I openly confess: I have a writer’s crush on Dani Shapiro.

I’m taken with her smarts, her raw courage, her honesty, her talent, and most of all, her generosity in sharing all she’s come to live and know first-hand, as a writer, as a teacher, as a daughter, as a wife, as a mother, as a friend, all in the service of keeping her writers keeping on.

I’ve now read her poignant, beautifully-written memoir SLOW MOTION: A Memoir of a Life Rescued by Tragedy.                                                                                                                         
Her memoir DEVOTION: A Memoir and the novel FAMILY HISTORY top my book pile.

I’ve also sent on links to Dani Shapiro’s blog to several of my students and writers.

"There is only this moment,” Shapiro writes, “when we put pen to page.”
STILL WRITING will help you do just that.

Enjoy! And do share your thoughts once you lose yourself as I did in Shapiro’s book and writing.
Esther Hershenhorn


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25. Seeing the Light vs. Seeing the Light of Day

Kudos and Thanks to my courageously-honest fellow TeachingAuthors JoAnn, Carmela and Laura - and to our TeachingAuthors readers as well - for sharing their understandable publishing and marketability concerns once they begin writing a story.
My filing cabinet too overflows with as-yet-sold manuscripts.

The adjective as-yet-sold speaks volumes about my optimism and Faith.
I’ve always believed that my Writer’s Story – and any story in which I’ve invested – would eventually bring that “inevitable yet surprising satisfactory resolution” required of all stories.
I truly am the Susan Lucci of Children’s Books. 
I fortunately have what editor Ted Solotoroff once called endurability, as referenced in Dani Shapiro’s STILL WRITING: THE PERILS AND PLEASURES OF A CREATIVE LIFE.

I write stories that grab my heart and won’t let go.  Period.  
I write them one at a time, for however long it takes, in between teaching and coaching and speaking since I bring home the bacon, ’til each is ready for editorial submission.
I also revise them, again, and then again, for however long it takes, ’til each is ready for yet another editorial submission.
Prolific I am not. 

Do I creatively envision the manuscript as a published book while  I write and revise, listing likely publishers when I come upon them?
Of course.
Do I imagine an editor’s offer or a stellar review or the look of surprise on a Doubting Thomas’ face.
You bet.
And when Reality arrives, when my story still fails to see the light of day?
I tuck it away...for another day.

In other words, for whatever reasons, sane, sound or not, once I’m invested in a story and begin writing, I keep on going, no matter the current market place.  Period.

                                                                   (Morgue Files/lightfoot)

I first wrote my first published picture book THERE GOES LOWELL’S PARTY! some ten years earlier as an easy-to-read titled CALLING 'ROUND ABOUT THE RAIN.  I couldn’t give up on either Lowell or the Vance Randolph Ozark tales I’d studied in college.

I wrote and revised THE CONFE$$ION$ AND $ECRET$ OF HOWARD J. FINGERHUT for at least 7 editors over 12 years before Holiday House published it. I believed in Howie and his story whole-heartedly.

A year came and went while an agent worked unsuccessfully to place my newest baby board book TXTNG MAMA TXTNG BABY with a publisher.  I withdrew the book and lo and behold, my Sleeping Bear Press editor phoned to tell me of their new ownership and yes, they were looking for a first-time baby book!

Times change; markets change; publishers’ needs change; editorial staffs change.

My filing cabinets hold three of my favorite picture books: LOOP-DE-LOOP LEO, about a little boy who’s afraid to go out-and-about on his nursery school teacher’s looped rope; SING A SONG OF YITZY, about a little boy who longs to travel with his Papa’s Klezmer band; and my first book ever, CATCH A PATCH OF FOG, about a little boy who always has a piece of him hanging out when he plays Hide-and-Seek. Wouldn’t a patch of fog be the perfect solution?

The Truth is: I found my own courage writing Leo’s story; I learned each of us has a song to sing writing Yitzy’s tale; and my fog catcher’s wondering proved to be mine: Maybe I was someone worth finding?

In other words, writing my stories helped and helps me see the light.  Period. 
And those Aha! Moments sustain me and keep me keeping on.
I’ve always known: the right story at the right time helps the reader discover, uncover, recover his own story.
My writing has taught me: the same is true for the writer too.
Each of my stories, whether sold or not, has proved to be for me the right story at the right time.

Maybe, like Laura, I’ll soon consider epublishing, or better yet, independently publishing one or two of my tucked-away stories.  I’ve helped several of my writers successfully do both. 
I know that like JoAnn, I can’t help but return to several  of my much-loved unsold picture book texts and restructure them, reshape them, turn them on their sides, to see if there’s a better story-telling way to draw editorial interest.
Like Carmela, I’ll always keep my eyes and ears open for homes for my stories.

Meanwhile, I’ll continue to share my unsold manuscripts and their publishing histories with my students, so they can see the light, and Cubs Fan that I am, keep believing in my stories.

Yet another perspective (minus Morgue Files photos of filing cabinets and light bulbs I couldn't upload!)

Esther Hershenhorn

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