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I am unabashedly a Big Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford Fan.
Like our readers and my fellow TA’s, I shall sorely miss her
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?
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.
that the truth!” I sighed.
just so happens, speaking of soap operas, I am the Susan Lucci of Children’s Books.
know all about Middles.
Children’s Book Writing Quest had a Middle so vast, four American Presidents came
and went, and two were re-elections.
Beginning was terrific. It got me going.
Ending was even better than I’d – continually and creatively - imagined.
it through my Middle, though, proved my mettle.
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.
prove our mettle, as in strength of character and spirited determination.
courage, bravery, guts, grit, nerve, pluck,
resolve, valor, vigor and cojones.
our Heroes and Heroines must do we must do too.
We keep on keepin' on.
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!”
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
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.
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.
a whole lot of sand (and snow and mud) through the hourglass!
you, Jeanne Marie, for grounding me in the Real World these past four years. You kept me keeping on.
Fan Esther Hershenhorn
As Mary Ann mentioned on Monday, we're saying "farewell" to Jeanne Marie by linking back to one of our favorites of her 101 TeachingAuthor posts. And since today is Wednesday, I had the added task of choosing a favorite post that also lends itself to a Writing Workout. Turns out, that wasn't very hard. Last July, Jeanne Marie blogged about a picture book writing course she was taking. One of her assignments was to discuss the contents of her Writer's Toolbox. She shared an excerpt from her response to the assignment (which I encourage you to go back and read) and talked of the value of reflecting on one's own Writer's Toolbox.
For today's Wednesday Writing Workout
, I'd like to focus on the first tool/challenge Jeanne Marie mentioned:
"I think that one of the most challenging aspects of creating a rootable character is finding a way to make him/her likeable and flawed at the same time."
When I first read this, the term "rootable character" was new to me. I know now that it's simply a character the reader will want to root for. But creating one is not a simple task. In fact, it's something I'm struggling with in my current work-in-progress. Part of my challenge is that my story is set in 18th-century Milan, Italy, a time and place quite removed from my readers. How can I depict my character in a way that modern readers will understand her world well enough to empathize with and understand her feelings and choices?
One way is to find connections between me and my character that I can draw from. In a presentation to the Federation of Children's Book Groups last March
, Elizabeth Wein talked about how she found such connections while writing her award-winning historical novel Code Name Verity
(Disney-Hyperion) by looking for "modern parallels." But even if you're writing a contemporary story, whether fiction or nonfiction, it's not always easy to make your protagonist "rootable." Before trying the following workout, you may want to read these two articles on the topic: a post by Emilia Plater called "Radical Empathy: Creating a Compelling Flawed Character
" on the YA Highway blog
, and one by Alex Epstein for the 2012 Script Frenzy site
called "We Like Characters Because of Their Flaws, Not Their Virtues.
Writing Workout: Creating a Rootable Character
If you have a work-in-progress, consider your main character. Is he or she too perfect? If so, can you give the character a flaw that readers could relate to and understand? Or, on the flip side, have you created a character readers will dislike? If so, can you show why this character is this way?
As Carmela pointed out, it's only fitting that my final post should be a Wednesday Writing Workout, given my usual agony over finding appropriate material to share in this space.
My college semester begins on Monday, and I've been trolling the Internet for ideas to borrow and steal. My chief goal this year is to get students more invested in what they're writing. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I've been reading Debbie Macomber's Once Upon a Time: Discovering Your Forever Story
. I was struck by her observation that the prevalent themes in her writing were set in her life from early childhood. As a children's book writer, I can certainly say this is true for me. In fact, I often worry that I have only a few stories to tell, and it is a relief to hear from such a prolific writer that there is hope for me.
At a recent writers' conference, I heard bestselling author Sylvia Day tell the audience that the prevailing theme of everything that she writes is "survival." When she put it this way, I immediately know that mine is identity. Who am I? Where is my place in this world?
Here is an exercise
I found based on a George Ella Lyon poem titled "Where I'm From."
I think everything I might ever have to write about is touched upon somewhere in my responses. Try it and, if you're so inclined, share what you come up with. Happy writing! --Jeanne Marie
I've enjoyed reading my fellow Teaching Authors' current series of posts about turning "life into art." Of course, as Mary Ann indicates, nearly all of us get our ideas from some event we've experienced in life, even though some of us (not I) might be more inclined to use them in the context of a dystopian novel set on Mars in the year 3013.
I recently attended a writing conference where author Erica Bauermeister was the inspiring keynote speaker. She told us that her first manuscript was a memoir. It received positive feedback from editors but was not, ultimately, published because (to paraphrase) no one wants to read the non-dysfunctional real-life story of someone who's not famous. However, an editor asked her to pitch something else, and she ultimately embarked on a project that became two books: 500 Great Books for Women and Let's Hear It for the Girls: 375 Great Books for Readers 2-14. Reading hundreds of novels for those projects was a terrific education, Bauermeister says. However, by the time she had completed this gargantuan task, she was nearly 50 when she wrote her first novel -- which was promptly published and became a bestseller. She said that she is convinced that she was not ready to write fiction until she had done a certain amount of living -- in her case, raising children, moving to Italy -- and that bits of those stories were scattered throughout her fictional characters' lives.
I have done a ton of "living" in this last decade since marrying and having children. It has also, not coincidentally been the least productive writing decade of my life. Juggling three jobs and two kids is getting easier as they are now entering first and third grade (and I just sent them off a few mintues ago for day #1). I remember when we were at Vermont College and JoAnn Early Macken's children were young. The constant theme of her writing then was time (or the lack thereof). Ah, how I can relate!
And so I have determined that it's time to take back a little time for myself so that I can write about the experiences I've now had the privilege of seeing through my children's eyes. Instead of writing ABOUT writing, I'm going to just write.
This isn't exactly a "goodbye post" (for one thing, I have one more blog post to write), but more like a "see you soon." It has been great getting to know all of you through Teaching Authors over these past four years.
I wish everyone a wonderful school year and a happy, productive writing year, too! --Jeanne Marie
Also, don't forget--time is running out to enter our giveaway for a chance to win one of two copies of Esther's terrific new board book, Txtng Mama Txtng Baby. See her blog post for details.
My husband and I were introduced by a mutual acquaintance in 1996. She flew in from Yakima, Washington state from our wedding, and that was the last time we saw her before her husband's job took their family to Germany and then Australia.
This weekend, we were picking up our kids from a sleepover (yay) with my in-laws in western Maryland. My father-in-law wanted to have dinner at a local pizzeria, but my daughter voted instead for Ruby Tuesday. While there, my husband escorted my son to the restroom, and lo and behold... at a nearby table he found our matchmaker and family. They had just returned stateside and were living in a hotel in Virginia. They had driven to Ohio to buy furniture and had planned to stop in a different town on the way home but had missed the exit, and so... in a city that was neither theirs nor ours, in a restaurant where none of us had planned to be that night, our fates collided once more. It was with great pleasure that we were finally able to introduce our children to the woman responsible for their very existence. Ah, serendipity.
As a reader, I am most impatient about plot contrivances and coincidences. But the truth is, these are also a part of real life.
This week I have been reading the prolific Debbie Macomber's Once Upon a Time, which details her blueprint for both living life and writing about it. In the book, she mentions her hometown of Yakima, Washington and her childhood librarian, Miss Bunn. As a Beverly Cleary devotee, I know that Mrs. Clearly (formerly Miss Bunn) was once a children's librarian in Yakima. Could it possibly be? I turned to google, and sure enough -- uber-famous (and admittedly poor student) Beverly Cleary had, once upon a time, been the beloved librarian of uber-famous (and admittedly poor student) Debbie Macomber.
As teachers, librarians, and writers, these are the stories that we live for. Often the rewards of our vocation are intangible and far in the future. In the results-oriented world in which we live, it is important to remember that, ultimately, patience reigns triumphant. Thank goodness for the occasional grace of serendipity to let us know we are indeed on the right track. --Jeanne Marie
The Internet, as we all know, can be a giant vortex of time suckage. I have little willpower, it seems, and thus find it dangerously so. At the same time, I can't imagine how I ever functioned as a writer without it. Any national security agency or Internet giant personnel monitoring my search history might be alarmed by recent forays into the topics of murder plea bargains, drug dealer slang, and paramedic protocol for overdose, interpersed with "Thanksgiving party games" and "Schoolhouse Rock." Such an interesting life I lead...
While I am far from methodical about endeavors such as organizing, searching, schedule-making, etc., I have happened in my peripatetic Internet travels upon several useful business sites for freelance writers. Many of our faithful readers are probably already familiar with these, but for those who aren't:
Robert Kent's Middle Grade Ninja is invaluable for any writer seeking an editor, an agent, or plain old writing inspiration. Each week brings informative new interviews with agents, editors, and/or writers. I've gotten a lot of great reading recommendations here. The online "book club" is fun to follow, too.
Emma D. Dryden's drydenbks blog is full of great advice, but even better, if you friend her on facebook, she aggregates information from the best writing blogs and saves you the trouble of finding it yourself. Highly recommended!
For those interested in digital publishing and new technology, Jane Friedman is a cutting-edge source.
Finally, QueryTracker is a informational and organizational treasure trove -- part spreadsheet, part encyclopedia, part user review site and entirely free. If you haven't already tried it, check it out pronto.
Happy Internet travels! And may the time saved exceed your time spent on facebook and Words With Friends. --Jeanne Marie
Don't forget about our latest Teaching Authors Giveaway. Follow the instructions to enter for a chance to win a copy of Parched by Melanie Crowder. Good luck!
Last week, Mary Ann, Carmela, and April responded to an Ask the TeachingAuthors
question submitted by Joanna Cooke about the pros and cons of getting an MFA.
Here's my story...
The summer after I graduated from college, I moved to Los Angeles to be an unpaid intern on my favorite TV show, Days of Our Lives
. That summer, I remember watching the Democratic National Convention and the Olympics, eating scads of S'Mores with my awesome roommate, Gretchen, meeting tons of soap stars (both nice and not-so-nice), and attending my first national SCBWI conference in Marina del Rey. On the last day of my internship, when I'd already shipped my belongings home and signed up for a medical transcription course at the local community college, I was hired to be a lowly writers' assistant.
For four years, I made coffee, fetched lunches, made thousands (millions?) of copies, talked to brain surgeons, answered questions from fans and actors and writers alike. I also negotiated a four-day, ten hour/day work week so that I'd have a full day each week to actually write. I was hired to ghost write a Nancy Drew mystery and had the opportunity to work with the fabulous Olga Litowinsky. I sold a children's biography. And I slowly began to realize that I was never going to get a shot at writing for the show.
Ultimately, I decided that I'd given my soap writing dream a good go. I didn't have to live in Los Angeles to write children's books. It was time to go home.
In Maryland, I took a variety of part-time jobs. I wrote some articles and two more Nancy Drew novels. But the hard truth was, I was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of a top-tier college; yet I was in my late twenties, living with my parents, and working as a secretary (a job for which I was overqualified on paper but utterly underqualified in practice). While I was a published writer, I did not feel comfortable calling myself "a writer" -- or much else, for that matter.
Then one day I saw an ad in the monthly SCBWI bulletin for the low-residency MFA program at Vermont College. The program was in its infancy then. I'd never heard of it. But when I saw the list of faculty, I knew that I must apply. I was desperate for a jump start, direction, affirmation, anything!
Now, I fully realize what children's book writers typically earn in terms of salary. I was quite clear that it was unlikely that I'd ever recoup the money spent on my graduate education. I told myself it would be a spiritual investment.
I could not have imagined how truly magical my experience would be. During my second residency, I received an email (there was no cell phone reception, and only one pay phone on the whole floor) stating that Days
desperately needed a writers' assistant, and would I come back ASAP? I said only if I'd have a shot at writing, and they said fine. I found an apartment, flew home from Vermont, packed my things, and a week later I was back at work in L.A.
The day that Marion Dane Bauer called to tell me that my novel had won the Houghton Mifflin Award was the same day that I learned I would get a scriptwriting contract on Days
The year that Houghton Mifflin accepted my novel for publication was the year my now-husband and I started dating, and the year it was published, we got engaged.
To say that Vermont College changed my life would be like saying having kids changed my life. I truly was a different person when I graduated.
Not to say that it was all perfect and wonderful. Juggling the program with a full-time job was often exhausting. I had one difficult semester where I did not really "click" with my advisor. I had to take a semester off because my job did not allow four weeks of vacation in the same year. I was diagnosed with thyroid cancer during my last semester -- had surgery, radiation, moved back to Maryland, and yes, still graduated!
Some unexpected benefits: When my daughter comes home from school gushing over a book by Phyllis Root or Carolyn Crimi or Susan Fletcher, I get to say, 'I know her!' And nearly a decade later, I am still in touch almost daily with my classmates.
I also remember the MFA being touted as a "terminal degree" that would allow one to teach at the college level. Being a total introvert, I didn't think I would ever pursue this course, but ta-da, here I am. And now, yes, I can definitely say I've earned back my monetary investment.
Nowadays, there are other MFA programs as well as options for great instruction -- McDaniel College's online certificate program (highly recommended), UCLA Extension, and Mediabistro.com courses, for example. But to this day, I crave the monthly deadline pressure and the immediate feedback of a large, knowledgeable, supportive writing community.
For anyone looking for a fresh start, a jump start, or a new beginning, the MFA could be for you.
L'Shana Tova -- Happy New Year! -- Jeanne Marie
This past week, the Teaching Authors have been visiting the subject of best practices when it comes to our writing schedules. Anyone looking to this post for tips on how to lead a productive and/or well-organized writing life had best look elsewhere. If you'd like to make yourself feel better about your own work habits... read on.
I am an unabashed night owl. My dad says that I was born in California four decades ago and never quite got my body clock on EST. My most productive writing time (even when I lived in California, I must admit) has always happened between the hours of 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. However, when I got married, I began waking with my husband at 5:30 a.m. Our children are also early risers. Bye-bye productive writing time. Some nights I will try to take a brief nap at my kids' bedtime and then get up and work. More often than not, given the busy-ness of our days, I wind up sleeping straight through.
My day job is a writing job, so there's always the matter of getting my paid work done first. Typically I get up, get the kids ready, and drive the morning carpool before I get down to business. On a good day, I will then spend half an hour on the elliptical with a book (or at least a few Days of Our Lives outlines -- there's always soap reading to get out of the way). Then I plop my laptop in my lap, snuggle with the puppy, and start writing -- or at least make a stab at it.
My current job function is "scriptwriter," and I usually write one complete script each week. (Every few weeks, there will be two.) I have seven days to complete the week's assignment(s), so if I write and edit an act per day in a typical week, I'm in fine shape. In practice, I usually spend at least a day reading and a day at the end of the process on editing and polishing. We write from detailed outlines, and some scripts go much more quickly than others. Also, if I could force myself to ditch my habit of Internet surfing every time I get stuck (approximately every five minutes), I would add an additional two hours of productive time to each day.
Afternoons are for kids' activities and homework. This semester I also teach three mornings of the week, as well as one evening. Besides the scriptwriting, I have to squeeze in time for lesson planning and, of course, grading essays (for example, 40 this weekend). Every other Sunday night I also remember in the nick of time (at least so far) that I have a blog post to write.
Now, scriptwriting is by far the least onerous and time-consuming paid writing job I've had in a decade. But it has been so long since I've made my own writing a regular practice, I am having a hard time finding my groove again. While in theory I think it would be better to work for an hour every day, I seem to do much better with larger chunks less frequently. I had a vacation week a few weeks ago and did pound out lots of pages. That felt good. But it's like exercise -- the feel-good result is only so motivating in comparison to the difficulty and discomfort of the undertaking.
A fellow scriptwriter told me that she spends four hours every week working in a quiet room with a friend who's studying. I have noticed that I am much more productive when someone in the room can see how much I'm goofing off. :) I do think Carmela's on to something with her writing buddy idea. Now I just need to find mine! -- Jeanne Marie
Don't forget to enter our Guest Teaching Author Book Giveaway to win an autographed copy of FORGET ME NOT by the fabulous Carolee Dean.
This week's reading recommendations:
Patrick (grade K): anything Fly Guy by Tedd Arnold
Kate (grade 2): The Bell Bandit by Jacqueline Davies
me: Capture the Flag by Kate Messner
Sherman Alexie's recent Writer's Digest blog entry has been getting a lot of love on facebook this week. My personal favorite from his list is #5, but I am here to talk about item #4 -- that dreaded eight-letter word, research.
I teach college English composition, and many of my students are loath to use any resource besides google; to visit the library, to open a book, to take a note, to thoughtfully examine both sides of the issue, and certainly to develop more than the most cursory familiarity with a proposed topic before beginning to write about it.
We all live in an age where research has become exponentially easier than it has ever been. When I began working as a writers' assistant at Days of Our Lives, our office was Internet-free. If I needed information about crime, I called the Burbank PD; if I needed to know about brain surgery, I actually bothered a neurosurgeon at USC. My bookshelf remains stocked with resources such as the writers' friendly guide to poisons and committing the perfect murder. However, I have not used these in a very long time, as now the information is literally at my fingertips.
Nowadays it is so easy to take a shortcut -- to avoid talking to real-live person when it is truly necessary to talk to a real-live person. Through the years, I have learned that research is not my forte or really my interest. I have also gotten used to approaching it from a soap-writer angle -- yes, it is incredibly unlikely, but is there a one-in-a-billion chance that it could happen? Great, we'll do it!
I pretty much only write contemporary fiction (partly due to my incorporating-research aversion), but I haven't been able to avoid the exercise entirely. Lately I've made use of the virtual Walters Art Gallery, codebreaking websites, and Google Maps. In the past, I've ridden roller coasters at Hershey Park and taken ice skating lessons to put myself in Nancy Drew's shoes. My favorite type of research, though, comes from reading fiction (back to Alexie's item #4) and seeing how other writers have approached similar material or particular writing challenges.
From what I understand, it is fairly common for writers to get mired in the research phase of a story, to use the library or the Internet as an escape from the harder work of filling a blank page with words. I am perhaps that unique soul who suffers from perhaps an oxymoronic-sounding problem: I can avoid with the best of them, yet I still seem never to do quite enough (or quite the right) research.
In short, I definitely think Alexie has a point. And I am eager to see what the historical fiction, sci-fi, and non-fiction writers among us have to say on this subject as the week goes on.
Also... Don't forget to enter our Guest Teaching Author Book Giveaway to win an autographed copy of Who’s Faster? Animals on the Move by Eileen Meyer.
Have a great week, and happy writing! --Jeanne Marie
I have used this space many times to lament the fact that I am a writer on an island -- critique group-less, feedback-less, buddy-less. But as I'm sure most of us know, one thing worse than having no input is having input that sends us astray.
We've all been there, right? We've seen critique groups whose members are too intense, too lax, too hoggish; they are too vague; they are too nitpicky; they don't "get" your stuff, or you don't get theirs. They have more time to devote to their writing than you do, or perhaps they have less. They live too far away; they meet too frequently or infrequently.
Even worse is the damning critique experience: the editor at a conference who treats you like a clueless newbie; the teacher who gives you a bad grade for trying something a little different. My friend, an actress, says at least when someone is critiquing your writing, he or she is not critiquing YOU. But still, when we write, we are exposing our souls to the world. And our writer psyches must be treated with care. (The cardinal rule of critiquing -- always start and end with something specific and positive to say!)
With my community college students, I introduce a vocabulary word in each class. The first word we discuss is "subjective." I want them to understand that as a teacher, the worst thing I could ever do would be to crush their creativity or confidence. In a required class, many students do not come to learn, and they do not care to revise. For those who do, individual feedback is the most important component of our coursework. But students must learn that I am not the final authority; they have to be the chief arbiters of what is right for their work and what is not.
When it comes to peer review, some student writers are terrific critiquers. On the other hand, some do not take the job seriously. Some are just dead wrong. As a teacher, I may often myself be dead wrong. Thus I try to approach first draft revision on a mostly global level. I find myself constantly asking my students, "Why did you choose to write about this topic?" The answer is often the key to a successful essay.
In TV writing, we are advised to distill our pitch into a one-sentence "log line." Fiction writers should be able to do the same. In expository writing, of course, this summary is called the thesis statement.
My classes are currently working on research essays and developing working theses for an essay that is supposed to propose a solution to a societal problem. One of my students, a Navy veteran, read his to the class this week: "Military body armor is responsible for a vast number of injuries to personnel." I found this quite a startling statement. In search of more detail and a proposed solution, I probed further. HOW was military body armor inadequate? My student stated that in fact, it was overly adequate; that many soldiers who would have died in previous wars were surviving attacks with grievous, lifelong injuries. "So," I asked, "Are you saying it would be better if they died?" He looked me in the eye and said, "Sometimes." It was easier to talk about body armor, of course, than it was to talk about traumatic brain injury and PTSD.
I asked him what he proposed as the solution, and he said more drone strikes and less hand-to-hand combat. In short, his essay was not really about body armor at all. What he really wanted to say was, "Please send fewer men and women into harm's way."
As writers, we often lose sight of the main thread of our story; as critiquers, we often get hung up on details that should be dealt with later. A good first draft critique is about distilling a story to its essence -- nothing more, nothing less. --Jeanne Marie
I come from a family of hyperorganized people. My mom makes lists of the lists she plans to make. My dad once had me file years' worth of my grandmother's utility bills by date -- on the .00001% chance that we might need to refer to one of them someday. After years of such an upbringing, I vowed never to be an iota more organized than I needed to be. The upshot has been that I am usually slightly (okay, often more than slightly) less so.
I write things on the calendar, but I neglect to look at the calendar. I often find myself scrambling for childcare because of a forgotten teacher work day; sometimes I confess that I avoid looking ahead because I just don't want to know what terrible scheduling conflict awaits.
There are the planned interruptions to one's writerly day: teaching, laundry, oil changes, dance class, piano lessons, date nights with my husband.There are the unplanned ones: parent in the hospital, dead battery, kid with the flu or a broken shoe or a forgotten lunch or a snow delay that happens to coincide with a class I am teaching that is not, of course, likewise delayed.
One of my greatest assets as a teacher, if I do say so myself, is my flexibility. It is also one of my greatest failings. I know what I need to accomplish in a given week: Get my kids to school and wherever they need to be -- fed, clothed, reasonably clean; make it to class with some semblance of preparedness; grade papers in a relatively timely fashion; and turn in my script so that I can receive a paycheck. There are many other things that I aspire to do; but sadly, I am fairly satisfied to accomplish the bare minimum.
Needless to say, I do not have a writing schedule; but I do have daily goals in order to be able to churn out a 6500-word script (or two) each week. If I have a week laden with commitments or a difficult show or an unexpected roadblock, I know what will fall by the wayside so that my writing work gets done:
#1 My own writing
#3 Housework/laundry/dishes (and my standards are very low already)
Perhaps my priorities need adjustment, but it is what it is. Apart from the neglect of items #1-4 (above), I think my system works fairly well for me right now. If I planned to be locked into a particular schedule, given the daily interruptions in my life, I suspect I might have a nervous breakdown. For example, I have had a productive writing week but have not yet gotten around to trying Carmela's awesome timer trick. But that's okay, right? There's always next week. -- Jeanne Marie
Unlike the other TAs, I don't think I have a "favorite" craft book per se. I have dozens that I have found quite helpful at particular times for particular purposes. Recently most of my reading has focused on that thorny area of plotting, particularly internal vs. external plot. Some texts that have been esepcially useful:
20 Master Plots and How To Build Them by Ronald Tobias
The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master by Martha Alderson
Steal This Plot: A Writer's Guide to Story Structure and Plagiarism by June Noble and William Noble
I want to mention another book in this vein that may not exactly qualify as a craft book but that I have been reading with great interest.
Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Bestsellers, by James W. Hall, provides an academic's literary analysis of 12 common qualities of 12 top-selling (adult) novels, from To Kill a Mockingbird to Gone with the Wind to The Godfather.
Whether or not one is intentionally setting out to write a "commercial" novel, this is an informative and fasciating book. Some of Hall's conclusions are certainly subject to debate, but I think I will always view popular literature (and perhaps my own ideas) through a different lens now that I've read this book. --Jeanne Marie
Analyze your favorite children's novel to see how it conforms (or doesn't) to the criteria identified by James W. Hall in Hit Lit: Cracking the Code of the Twentieth Century's Bestsellers
(see my Monday post
). These features include:
- A page-turning "high concept."
- A controversial issue of the day.
- A setting against the backdrop of an important time or place in history.
- A main character ejected from his/her childhood home/country/Promised Land (e.g., Tara).
- High information about a topic the reader likely knows little about (nuclear subs, the Holy Grail).
- A secret society
- City mouse vs. Country mouse
- Grappling with one's concept of a higher power
- The American Dream (or nightmare)
- Rebels, misfits, loners -- characters who feel out of place among their peers
- Broken families
We can probably discount feature #12 -- sex -- when examining most books is this genre. :)
To be honest, most novels that I can think of aimed at kids over the age of 8 or 9 seem to meet at least half of these criteria. Numbers 10 and 11 seem almost universal.
What do you think? --Jeanne Marie
This week we continue to celebrate our Fourth Blogiversary (the official date is today!) with our giveaway extravaganza.
From Carmela's Friday post
Today, I'm thrilled to announce an extra-special giveaway in honor of our FOURTH BLOGIVERSARY. To show our appreciation to our blog readers AND to one of our favorite independent booksellers, we'll be giving away FOUR $25 gift certificates to Anderson's Bookshops! And, as a bonus, Anderson's is generously offering our winners a 20% discount, which will help defray the shipping costs if you're unable to redeem your gift certificate in person.
If you haven't already done so, hop on over and read the rest of her post
for entry details as well as more information about our blog, Anderson's, and a terrific bonus poem from our very own April (who's also celebrating a birthday this week).
In follow-up to our ode to D.E.A.R. and Beverly Cleary, we Teaching Authors are discussing the great independent bookstores that play such a crucial role in getting the right books into the hands of the right readers. I will never forget my first visit to the Tattered Cover
in Denver. I was on a business trip, and I got no other business done on that day. [I owe a debt of gratitude to my patient boss, Stan Cohen.]
Here in exurban Maryland, we have nothing like the Tattered Cover or Anderson's. Washington has the great Politics and Prose
, but my visits to DC with kids at this point in life typically involve the Air and Space Museum, the National Mall, and a stroller.
If you ask me, the coolest and most accessible independent bookstore in my neck of the woods is Turn the Page Bookstore
, owned by the husband of local (and international) celebrity Nora Roberts. Roberts lives in rural Washington County and has singlehandedly turned the tiny town of Boonsboro into a Destination (with a capital D). Visitors from around the country flock to the bookstore for signings by a variety of authors and may stay overnight in Roberts's nearby bed and breakfast, stop by her gift shop, or have a meal at her son's taphouse.
In my job as an adjunct instructor at Hagerstown Community College, I am fortunate to be a part of the advisory committee for this summer's Nora Roberts Writing Institute
. Before a recent meeting at Dan's Taphouse, I slipped into Turn the Page for some speed shopping. Unlike the sprawling Tattered Cover, it's a tiny space, with a nook devoted to children's books, a coffee bar featuring a local roaster's brews, and a terrific assortment of popular fiction, with the literary book club du month selections shelved beside the "beach reads."
As someone who writes in what may certainly be considered marginalized genres (soap operas and children's books), I greatly appreciated the equalizing effect of this shelving method. As a child, I fell in love with reading because it was fun and transformative. There is much good writing in popular fiction, and I love the idea of celebrating the books people read because they want
to rather than the ones they feel they have
to. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, Nora Roberts.
The end of the semester is nigh in the higher education realm (can we have a collective cheer?). As my classes approach the dreaded research essay, we spend a fair amount of time discussing the importance of using pathos, logos, and ethos in concert in persuasive writing. [I would argue that the same precept applies to writing fiction.]
I like to give my students an exercise to practice these techniques, using a subject with which they are already well acquainted. I ask them to write me a letter (another important skill for this generation of digital natives) describing what they feel their final semester grade should be. While their information needs to be fact-based (logos), students who may not be strong expository writers are often expert at applying these persuasive strategies. [On the other hand, last semester I had several students who tried to appeal to my sense of ethos with the contention that it was my duty to give every student at least a B. If their rhetorical purpose was to persuade me to grade more leniently, they achieved quite the opposite, as I subsequently took great care to explain.]
I find that self-evaluative assignments tend to be quite valuable for students and for me, too. Those students who chafe at the strictures of an expository writing class often respond positively to an assignment that allows them an unaccustomed measure of creativity. I suspect I get a fair amount of fiction in these responses, as well. :)
Happy end of semester, one and all! And, if you haven't done so already, don't forget to enter our Fourth Blogiversary Gift Card Giveaway
for a chance to win some great summer reading material!
-- Jeanne Marie
In the Ford household, we've celebrated three birthdays, one First Communion, and Mother's Day (happy, happy!) all within the last month. Heaven forbid we should rest on our laurels, so let's keep the party going with Children's Book Week
In our next series of posts, the Teaching Authors are planning to share titles of beloved childhood books that have sadly been lost to the ages (loaned, tossed, or otherwise lost). This is a timely topic for me, as my newly minted eight-year-old asked me last week for new reading suggestions. We trekked together to the attic, where my childhood books are stored. As an Army brat with at least 25 moves under my belt, I possess very few relics of my childhood -- toys, treasures, clothes, memorabilia. But books, I was smart enough to schlep and save.
I've got Charlie Brown's Super Book of Questions and Answers
and the complete Bobbsey Twins (which, alas, I do not feel I can share with my daughter today, what with Dinah and Sam and Flossie, her father's "little fat fairy" (goodness!)). However,I pulled together a pile of about 12 books, old and new, that I think she will love. I also did a quick and painful assessment of what I thought I had that I do not:
The Moffatts series by Eleanor Estes
Figgs and Phantoms
and The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues
by Ellen Raskin
Most of the All-of-A-Kind family series
Anything by E.B. White (!)
And, for when my daughter is older:
Waiting for Johnny Miracle
by Alice Bach
A House Like a Lotus
by Madeleine L'Engle
I am thankful that old and/or out-of-print books are now typically available on the Internet, though I suspect some of these will be hard to find. I plan to get these books into my daughter's hands or die trying.
Happy Children's Book Week (and month and year) to all! And if you haven't already done so, it's not too late to enter our Blogiversary Contest
to win one of four gift certificates to Anderson's Bookstore. Happy Book Buying to All! --Jeanne Marie
Happy summer vacation to those of you who have already begun! My college students have finished their semester, but my husband and kids have two weeks to slog through. We are currently in major countdown mode, and my little bookworm has piles of library books all over the house in earnest preparation for lots of reading time.
I tried to sucker Kate into writing a "guest post" today to give some insight into the mind of an 8-year-old who loves to read (and write), but she was not so inclined. She did tell me, after much consideration, that she reads to "find out what happens next." While she talks to us primarily about snippets of scenes or dialogue or characters (Allie Finkle's BFF has come up often recently in real-life analogy), it's the plot that gets her to turn the pages. She added that the chapter titles often entice her to keep reading. I was somewhat surprised to hear this tidbit, but then I remembered her methodology for writing stories of her own. She scrawls out chapter titles and then writes content to bear them out in fulfillment of a nebulous plan that she somehow manages to bring to fruition. I suppose this is her personal method of outlining. [Kate also says that she likes to write stories because "you can write whatever you want instead of having to write what your teacher tells you."]
The topic of outlining reminds me of a graphic I've seen floating around on facebook recently, showing handwritten outlines of famous authors' works:
(I'm sure many of you have seen this, yes?)
I outline in narrative form (akin to a screenplay treatment), so I was intrigued by the depth and complexity of this spreadsheet format. I was particularly interested in JK Rowling's outline, and google helped me find this analysis:
Wow! She not only relates each main even to each subplot, but she knows the day on the week that it happened. As well she should. As well I should! It seems I have a lot of work cut out for me and, thank goodness, finally some time to do it.
Wishing a happy, relaxing, and productive summer to all! I am about to dive into a friend's WIP and give myself a major dose of inspiration. And, in the spirit of "reading is writing," don't forget to enter our latest giveaway contest to win a copy of This Journal Belongs to Ratchet by Nancy J. Cavanaugh. I can't wait to read this one, myself. :) -- Jeanne Marie
Returning to my recent obsession with outlining
, I would like to offer a cool exercise
from author Alicia Rasley that allows you to lay out the key points of your novel in a mere thirty minutes. It covers many basics that I typically consider for months and collects disparate pieces of information in one place. [I suspect that this would be a great exercise to complete in preparation for NaNoWriMo.] The timer aspect is also compelling in that it requires you to figure out all of the broad strokes in short order before you are tempted to sit down and try to fill in the details.
I particularly appreciate the fact that this exercise focuses on making the main character likeable and helps you figure out where to begin telling your story. While I have not yet tried this particular approach to the outline, it also seems that it would be extremely helpful in determining how external and internal conflict intersect (a particular difficulty of mine).
If you try this technique, please let me know how it works out for you. Look for me to do the same. Happy outlining! --Jeanne Marie
I have spent the last few weeks in a major funk -- the kind that makes me feel sorry for everyone who has to live with me, deal with me, talk to me. After a weekend in which I learned of the deaths of my friend's dad, Carmela's mother-in-law, and my parents' dear dog, Riley, writing a thanku
would seem like a really timely exercise. However, this morning... I'm coming up dry.
I tried to get my kids to do the work for me. Kate pouted. Patrick said, "I'll do it. I'm thankful for... everything. And rainbows."
Kate, her arms folded, scowling, finally acknowledged, "I'm grateful for Grandma and Pap. Family. Food. Can I be done now?"
Perhaps my cheerful attitude is contagious.
I remember reading a tweet from the late children's writer Bridget Zinn a few days before she died. She was desperately ill when she wrote, "Sunshine and a good book. Perfect."
Hugs; wonderful friends; dog kisses; the knees in my back when my kid is snuggling with me at night; a husband who loves me no matter how difficult I am; sadness, because it makes us appreciate happiness all the more; good health; God; love; life.
Thanks to all of you reading this who are blessings in my life. --Jeanne Marie
As JoAnn and Esther have posted this week, we are celebrating the holidays with memories of first books and a tribute to FirstBook.
My mom grew up in a bookless home. She told me that one day her father did some janitorial work at a school and splurged on a steeply discounted set of Dick and Jane. These were then the only books in her house. No wonder she did not grow up a reader! My dad, on the other hand, was raised in a family of voracious readers. My grandmother always had a thick book in hand -- Maeve Binchy, Rosamunde Pilcher, Danielle Steele. For my grandfather, it was Max Brand and Louis L'Amour. [When he got Alzheimer's, he could reread the complete set and be surprised every time.] My dad reads widely -- right now he is on a Stephen Hunter and Lee Child kick, but he can do a book a day, so he's pretty much read it all.
Pop fiction is our thing (clearly), and I was initially going to blog about the first book I remember reading -- it was a Bobbsey Twins book and it was a Christmas gift from my grandparents (dad's side, of course) the year I was six. My mom discovered the joy of reading when she read me that book aloud, so I think it was a momentous experience for us both.
I honestly don't think I was read to as a toddler. I don't remember being exposed to picture books at all until I got to school. But as I think about it, there was one in our house. The year I was five, my mom and I read it over, and over, and over. It was called Peppermint
, about a kitten that lived in a candy store. All of Peppermint's candy-named siblings were quickly adopted, but nobody wanted poor, skinny, dusty Peppermint. Of course Peppermint found a home in the end. I just had to google the author of the book and discovered many threads of grown-ups looking for a copy of the book that they read so many times and loved so fondly. Copies are retailing in the area of $50/apiece.
My first pet was thus a black molly fish named (you guessed it) Peppermint. However, after reading Peppermint
, I desperately wanted a pet that I could actually pet. When I was in sixth grade, we finally put the fish behind us and became a dog family. This weekend, we Fords will do the same as we welcome a pup named Molly to our family. This Christmas my daughter is the same age that I was when I unwrapped that fateful Bobbsey Twins book. Together we have just begun discovering the joys of Ramona.
Our house is overrun by books. However, millions of children live in homes without books.
But FirstBook is trying to change that by providing books to children in need.
How can you help us help these millions of children eager to own their very own books?
Simply post one comment on our blog from now through December 31. Tell us about your first book, your child’s or grandchild’s first book, why books are important, why children should own their own books.
You can help us spread the word.
You can even make your own FirstBook Donation.
For every comment we receive (one per person, please, and spam doesn’t count), we’ll dona
After the flurry of exciting awards-related activity this week, I know many of us are looking forward to (variously) the Superbowl, the Academy Awards, Valentine's Day... I, in my third week of classes, am already looking forward to Spring Break. January/February/March is a long stretch for teachers and students alike, yes?
I've had a particularly rocky start to the semester with campus construction and new computer systems, locked doors and snow and, oh, getting stranded on the wrong coast one Monday morning. I had to give extra credit to the student who could magically make my projector light up. (What will I ever do if he is absent?)
In Week 1, I gave my typical spiel -- "Now that you have mastered the five-paragraph essay format, you are going to have a little more freedom to try new things, to build on the structure you've learned but to break the rules a bit." Typically, I have many students who balk at the idea that an essay does NOT (gasp) have to be five paragraphs long. Many also have incredible difficulty with the notion that the introductory paragraph, the body paragraphs, and the concluding paragraph of an essay should NOT actually repeat the same thought three times.
One of my rule-loving students (of whom I am already quite fond) raised her hand this week and said, "Since we're doing everything differently from everything I've been taught... what about contractions?"
We are, mind you, writing a narrative essay based on personal experience. We have already talked about audience and tone. I said, 'This is an informal essay. Of course you may use contractions.' Students were shocked. 'We were taught never, ever to use contractions.' 'We were SCORNED for using contractions.' I asked them to raise their hands if they were told never, under any circumstance, to use a contraction. Fully 90% of students did so.
Goodness gracious. Contractions are the least of the problems I typically see in student writing. I understand that we are trying to prepare students for a wide variety of writing tasks in life: literary analyses, drug trial reviews, briefs, summaries, business memos, nursing intake notes, police reports, textbooks, articles, novels. Encouraging students to assess the genre and the necessary conventions is the FIRST thing we should be teaching.
And so I wonder about the "rules" that are being drummed into students in high school and developmental writing courses. I remember wondering the same as a student. If I am supposed to be writing in clear and complete sentences, why does Faulker get to write a five-and-a-half-page run-on? And why can I understand only every third sentence of the jargon-stuffed journal article that I must read for my psychology class?
While most of us can agree on the general precepts of 'good writing,' the first and best rule is... there are no rules!
find your voice
find your truth
be true to your voice
-- Jeanne Marie
After nearly ten years with my bachelorette car (an adorable two-door Cabrio convertible), we regrettably parted company when kid #1 began throwing up with every ride and kid #2 needed to be turned upside down to be hoisted over his sister and dropped into his rear-facing seat. So I have my 'Mommy' vehicle.
I am a very bad driver, and I always had a notion that in a smaller car, I was less likely to hit anything (even if more likely to be crushed on impact). Now I have a minivan -- but please humor me and call it a micro-minivan. It is a Mazda5. It is really not all that big, but it does handle the carpooling duties. (Though I must admit, it was always handy to be able to say, 'No, honey, you may not have Olivia over for a play date because, gosh, she won't fit in the car...') I have also hit two mailboxes this year and replaced my passenger mirror, yes, twice. In short, if you see a blue Mazda5 in the environs of Frederick, Maryland... you might want to change lanes.
As a consequence of this major life change, I find myself on the Mazda email list... and, strangely -- given that I am teaching author and parent of two little ones -- this is the only reason I know that Read Across America week is fast approaching. Brought to you by The Lorax... and Mazda.
I do have a deep appreciation for my Mazda, don't get me wrong. And I write for a soap opera. Clearly, I have nothing against commercialism. In fact, I think we writers and publishers would do well to embrace it whenever we can. Go, Mazda!
And Go, Scholastic, which is having a book fair at my daughter's school this week. I have been secretly shopping for myself from my kids' fliers all year long. (My daughter, who is afraid of everything -- most especially books with scary covers -- was quite traumatized by my recent purchase of a book called Deadly.) While I love supporting local booksellers and of course I patronize the library regularly, who can resist all those shiny new books? I can't.
My daughter brought just home a list of the books she wants, to which I have quietly added the books I think she will love if only she will open them. (How many Rainbow Magic books are there? Does anyone know? Now that my son is daily proclaiming that he is a fairy, I think we're ready to move on.)
The marketing people at Scholastic are geniuses! Yes, we have bought our fair share of cupcake recipe books and cute little erasers, but they are also getting great books into kids' homes -- and very affordably, I might add. Like Mazda, Scholastic also gives back to the schools, which earn many classroom books in return for purchases made. This is an awesome thing. And any author who's been fortunate enough to have a Scholastic Book Club book knows that the royalties can be prodigious.
Sadly, one of my daughter's schoolmates died this week after a long illness. When her teacher talked to the children about what they wanted to do in his memory, the verdict was unaminous -- at the book fair, they will buy books in Peter's memory. And every child who opens those books through all the years will be touched by Peter's life. God Bless them all. --Jeanne Marie
As we consider our fond retrospective in honor of JoAnn, the post I choose to share is about the day that forever makes me think of her.
JoAnn is perhaps the hardest-working writer I know. Simply reading her to-do lists leaves me exhausted. Among the 'read, write, revise, organize,' there's always: shoveling snow for a neighbor or cleaning up litter in the park or marching at a rally with her equally hard-working sons and husband. All of this is accomplished with good cheer and a sunny, 'Wish me luck.'
JoAnn doesn't need luck. She's got guts and gumption. Further, she always takes time to stop and smell the flowers -- literally, and usually with the dog's leash in hand.
At Vermont College, I remember trekking around campus with JoAnn in that first glorious summer. I said to her one day, 'I don't know why I keep wanting to call you Judy.' She replied, 'Well, I do have an identical twin named Judy.' At the time, I was working on Mind Games, which has semi-psychic identical twins among its cast of characters. It was one of those providential moments that made me feel both lucky and inspired.
So, in honor of JoAnn, let us March Forth into spring with big plans, big motivation, and big smiles. We are lucky to know you, JoAnn! --Jeanne Marie
It's that time of year... Today I turned in my syllabus for the fall semester. Oh, summer, I miss you already.
Of course we've all been engrossed in the Olympics this week, cheering for Michael Phelps (hometown boy), Gabby Douglas, and all the rest. Looking at track, at gymnastics, at swimming, it occurs to me -- you can be a breast stroke specialist and so-so in the free; outstanding on the vault and a little shaky on the beam. Like "sport," writing involves a HUGE compendium of skill sets that need to come together in a rather miraculous way to make even a passable final product.
Like athletes, writers have coaches (editors) and fans; we also need to put in our time (thousands of hours) and sweat. Unlike athletes, we have more than one chance on the big stage to get it right. Hallelujah. This is great news! Yet trying to convince my students that editing is not only important but a gift remains one of my biggest teaching hurdles.
This week I've worn my article-writer hat; my scriptwriter hat; my picture book writer hat. I just signed up for a romance writing class this fall, so we'll see whether I have a romance writer hat in my closet. However, my teacher hat is rather new and stiff still. I find that one of the greatest challenges in college comp is teaching students global skills and grammar skills; research skills and sentence-level editing. Some students have had many of these skills since they were very young; others don't know where to put periods or apostrophes. However, some who struggle with grammar are still among my strongest writers on a global level. And how do you differentiate instruction for students you see for a whopping two-and-a-half hours per week? Whew!
I have spent the last week contemplating last year's syllabus -- what worked and what didn't? What do I want to keep, tweak, revamp, delete? One exercise that was fairly effective last year involved introductions and conclusions. Many introductory comp students have had the five-paragraph essay format effectively drilled into their heads. They think they are required to write an introduction that concludes with a three-point thesis; that the introductory sentence of each of the next three paragraphs should repeat one third of the thesis statement; and that the concluding paragraph should begin with a restatement of the thesis statement, going on to summarize all that has come before.
Many students are shocked when I suggest that it is not good practice to say the same thing three times; in fact, many are shocked by the mere notion that they can write more than or fewer than five pargraphs in one essay. We spend much of the semester working toward the notion that the five-paragraph format is a template that can be molded to a variety of shapes, forms, and purposes.
Our textbooks concentrate on suggestions for making introductions and conclusions more interesting: start with dialogue; start with a story; start with an interesting fact. In the final paragraph, end with a story; bring your reader back to the beginning; offer a tip or a suggestion; look toward the future.
Many students nonetheless are resistant to these ideas and continue to write summary-type paragraphs that add zero interest to their papers. So we tried this writing workout:
Rewrite your introduction once, and then do it again. Use two different techniques (anecdote, interesti
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This was my summer of quasi-leisure. Of time, of opportunity, of pleasures large and small. I had all the best plans to make my writerly best of it. On first glance, I failed miserably.
As I have often lamented, since I've had kids, my writing time has been severely limited. Yes, I write every day, and I love what I do; but I have little time to devote to my own projects and even less willpower and discipline. I am not a journal-keeper or a Morning Pages type of gal; however, I never used to need prodding to make time to write. Sometimes I wonder: Have I lost the drive? Have I run out of things to say? Or I am I just in limbo, socking away ideas until a more fruitful time in my life comes again?
Last year, I had a 70-80 hour/week day job. At the beginning of this summer, I had a blessed change in work duties and now toil a more humane 40 hours (sometimes even less). The two college classes I was teaching ended in May. The time-consuming twice-a-day trek between preschool and elementary school (in opposite directions, of course) was also on hiatus for a full two months. My husband was even home to pitch in with the dishes and laundry. [I have an awesome husband!]
I promised myself that this summer I would write like the wind. In fact, I took a picture book writing class, and I did write. I dusted off my novel and made a little bit of progress. The truth is, I could have made much more. But instead, I played. I went to the pool with the kids. Watched them skate and flip and play. Took them to baseball games, to amusement parks, to DC. Spent time with my husband. Loved every minute of this magical summer.
I will add that it helps to have that every-so-often extrinsic motivator that life sends to remind you that yes, you really are a writer. This is how I started by summer vacation:
Yes, I am one of 22 writers on the team and yes, I had to pay for my own statue, but hey -- it's cool.
Unlike me, my daughter spent a lot of time writing for pleasure this summer. I paged through her journal this morning and was struck by the common thread in each entry. "Today is going to be a great day." "Today was the best day ever." "I can't wait to ___." "I love ____!"
Takeaway lesson? You need time to BE in order to be inspired. Take time to soak in and enjoy and live. And I hope I'm not feeding myself a line so that I don't feel guilty. Actually, I refuse to feel guilty. If I never write another word again (unlikely), this summer was worth every minute.
Today my husband and I return to teaching. I have three sections this semester, at two different colleges, with two different textbooks. Back to the carpool, to chorus, piano lessons, homework, the regular old grind. But I start the school year well refreshed and with, I hope, an attitude of good cheer. Wishing a great school year to all of the teachers and students out there! --Jeanne Marie