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Viewing Blog: Writing Road Trip, Most Recent at Top
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A blog with tips for people who teach writing to kids or who want to become writers themselves
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1. Big Bob and The Magic Valentine’s Day Potato

Several years ago, a mysterious package arrived at our house on Valentine’s Day: a plain brown box addressed to our entire family with a return address “TMVDP.” The package weighed almost nothing. It weighed almost nothing because the box contained four lunchbox serving-size bags of potato chips. Nothing else. Or at least I thought there […]

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2. Three Wise Women

Today is the Feast of the Epiphany. More than just an end to the season of Christmas, Epiphany is a Christian celebration all its own commemorating the revelation of God the Son in the humanity of Jesus Christ. There are various traditions observed around the world, but the story of the magi who came from […]

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3. Hanukkah Bear

We celebrate Christmas at our house, but we live in a community in which many celebrate Hanukkah. As we light our Advent candles and string our Christmas lights, our Jewish friends and neighbors light the candles on their Hanukkah menorah and fry delicious potato latkes. Dear friends invite us to join them for one of […]

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4. Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree

Oh, wasn’t it grand to have a tree— Exactly like Mr. Willowby? My firstborn received Mr. Willowby’s Christmas Tree (by Robert Barry) from his best friend for Christmas 2001. I know this because their names are scrawled inside the front cover with the date. I probably could’ve narrowed it down to the right year, though. […]

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5. The Quest for the Perfect Thanksgiving Book

Each November I begin the search anew. I know what I’m looking for, and I really don’t think it’s too much to ask of a picture book: It must delve into the themes of generosity, abundance, gratitude. It should be beautiful. Compelling in its beauty, in fact. Ideally, I’d like it to celebrate our better […]

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6. Looking Both Ways

rattlesnake sign

rattlesnake signI grew up a bit unclear about what is considered acceptable risk.

My mom was an early adopter of the entire “don’t run with scissors” canon. And my dad regularly told us about his teenage antics blowing things up and catching rattlesnakes.

Finding the balancing point between taking risks and staying safe proved a little confusing for me.

It continues to be something I meet up with whenever I do classroom writing workshops. Some students jump into wild creativity without hearing a single warning rattle. Others stop to look both ways so often that they never successfully make it across the writing street.

The truth is that both approaches serve students well at different stages of the writing process. During the early brainstorming and drafting stages, it’s best to surge forward without overthinking the fact that a writing project can blow up in your face at any moment.  And especially during the later writing stages, students need to take the rules of writing into account. Yes, writers can and do break those rules. But it is best to do it with appropriate caution, only crossing that street if they have considered both ways and determined that their decision best serves their readers.

No wonder some young writers are confused! I’ve seen those who are unable to create early drafts because they’re so worried about breaking the writing rules. And I’ve seen those who are unable to take the appropriate care and concern with their work in the later stages, so that they can’t create something that translates for an audience.

Despite their risk-taking differences, my parents managed to create a harmonious household. Work to help your young writers see that they can bring a harmonious balance to their writing by learning to look both ways: there is a time for taking risks and a time for letting the rules rule.

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7. Comment on As Red as a Ferrari by Lisa Bullard

Thanks so much! I hope you enjoy the entire book, and that you’ll let me know if you do try the activity with your students!

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8. Comment on As Red as a Ferrari by gardenlearning

Reading Turn Left at the Cow right now! What great fun to read – I love the similes and this sounds like a great exercise to try with my students. Thanks for sharing!

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9. As Red as a Ferrari

Ferrari

FerrariI pick up a lot of fun trivia in the course of researching nonfiction books for young readers. For example: Did you know that the red paint associated with Ferrari cars is so celebrated that it was chosen to be launched on a spaceship headed for Mars? Which means that when we compare something to Ferrari Red, we’re not just talking about any old red. We’re talking about a particular, special, worthy-of-space red.

I did a school visit with a 5th grade classroom yesterday, and the teacher asked me to talk about using description in writing. Right away my mind went to two of my very favorite literary devices—similes (comparing two unlike things through a connective word such as “like” or “as”), and metaphors (an implicit comparison between two unlike things). My mind no doubt jumped to these writing devices because there’s just the tiniest outside chance that I tend to be “simile-happy” as an author. So I told students I was going to read the first chapter of my new mystery novel Turn Left at the Cow, and I asked them to listen in particular for figurative language.

I kick off my story with this simile, so right off the bat they heard one example: “There were so many dead bodies stuffed into Gram’s freezer chest that it was kind of like wandering through a cryonics lab. You know, one of those places where they turn rich old guys into Popsicles?”

Once we’d talked through the various other examples they picked up from my reading, I asked all of them to look around the room and choose one of their classmates’ shirts. Then I had them write a simile comparing the color (or some other aspect) of that shirt to something else. When they had their similes ready, I told them, they would get a chance to share them and make the other members of the class guess which shirt had been their original inspiration.

I was pleasantly surprised by how enthusiastically the students took to this simple exercise. They loved the guessing game aspect of it, and many of them wrote very clever similes.

I have to say, it all made me as happy as a clam!

 

 

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10. Stalling Out

stick shift

stick shiftMy dad tried valiantly to teach me how to drive a stick shift—beyond the point that any human being can be expected to try. Unfortunately, I am gifted with so little mechanical aptitude that it was not meant to be. But I remember the sounds of failure all too well: The awful grinding as I failed to shift gears at a stop sign. My father’s gasping intake of breath as he no doubt pondered the damage I was doing to his truck. The blast of the trucker’s horn behind me as we officially stalled out.

Stalling out in a writing project can be just as demoralizing. Fortunately, there’s a tool that’s served me well: the question “What if?”

I’ve talked about how handy “What if?” is before. It’s a great way to generate story ideas. It’s a must when I set out to revise.

It’s also a fantastic go-to when a writer has stalled. When I’m working with a classroom, we start with discussion and group activities—but then comes the time for them to put their heads down and write. I like to circulate during that time, peeking over shoulders to see what progress students are making. I’m not there to blast the trucker’s horn for those who have stalled out, but rather to take on the role of my patient father, who always somehow managed to talk me through the steps needed to get the car moving again.

I’m there to play “What if?” with them. I ask them to tell me what they know about their story so far, and then brainstorm a range of possible “What if?” directions their story could head next. After a few head shakings, there’s usually a breakthrough moment—a nod, a smile—and then their pencil races across the paper.

My bigger goal is, of course, to model for young writers how to use the “What if?” trick to get out of a writing stall for themselves. Unlike driving a stick shift, it’s a skill almost any student can learn!

 

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11. Winning the Road Race?

Turn Left at the CowWhen I work with dedicated young writers, there’s almost always a point where they ask how they can get published.

This is a tough question for me, because my instinct is to protect young people. And I know firsthand how much disappointment, rejection, and self-doubt often accompanies the quest for publication. Writing was honestly a lot more fun for me before I was focused on writing for publication.

The two things—the act of writing, and being published—are not the same thing. But in a society where we place so much emphasis on winning and financial success, it’s easy to get caught up in equating “getting published” with “winning the writing race.” With assuming there’s no value in writing something that doesn’t lead to an official “look what I did” product.

And trust me, I totally get the allure of seeing one’s name in print. Today, the box of author’s copies of my new book arrived. If past experience means anything, I will likely leave the box in my front entry for a few days (weeks?) so that each time I walk into my living room I feel that same buzz of excitement: it’s a book! A real, check-it-out-from-the-library book! And I wrote it!

So telling young writers that getting published doesn’t matter would be truly disingenuous of me. I just want to help them separate the quiet enticement of writing as an important form of self-expression from the admitted thrill of getting published.

Where does that leave me when I’m faced with the “how do I get published” question? I try really hard to make sure students understand what a joy the act of writing, in and of itself, is for me. I remind them that their family and friends, their most important audience, will treasure anything they write from their hearts.

And then for the persistent ones, I point to some of the places where young writers can submit their work to magazines, online journals, and contests. Here’s a list from NoodleTools of some of them.

The race might be tough, and winning isn’t everything—but running races we might never win is also a significant part of the human experience.

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12. No Lemons!

lemonAs kids, we loved testing future career possibilities by acting them out in nine-year-old fashion. We hid around corners from our younger siblings and recorded their conversations in secret spy notebooks. We mixed strange combinations of household ingredients in our mad scientist’s laboratory. And we solved countless mysteries involving our families and neighbors.

At some point I technically “grew up,” but fortunately for my life as a fiction writer, my own boundary between reality and fantasy has remained a little permeable.

One thing I remember with great fondness is creating secret messages. Sometimes we invented elaborate codes, or spoke in Pig Latin, but we also loved writing with invisible ink made out of lemon juice. There are easy instructions here if you’ve never tried it for yourself.

Just for fun, I came up with a couple of possibilities for using invisible ink to add some extra excitement to writing activities for your young writers. In car talk terms, I bet you’ll find that there are no “lemons” in this whole bunch!

Activity 1: Have your young writer(s) celebrate somebody special by drafting a poem for them. Then, in small letters on the bottom of a piece of white paper, have the writer use regular ink to write instructions about how to reveal an invisible ink message. Starting at the top of the same paper, have them “hide” their poem by writing it with invisible ink. They can then hide the paper itself somewhere that the special person will find it (and can go on to reveal the hidden poem).

Activity 2 (for two or more young writers): Have each young writer choose a secret word and write it in invisible ink on a piece of white paper. Then have the writers exchange papers so that nobody ends up with their own. They should reveal their secret word, and then write a poem or story prompted by it.

Activity 3 (for somewhat more advanced writers): Have each young writer challenge him or herself by creating a poem with two “layers.” The first layer is the original poem. The second layer should in some way expand on, challenge, or illuminate the meaning of the first layer. It might add additional information that changes the way the reader interprets the poem altogether. It might be a response from another voice who has read the first layer. Have them think creatively! Then, ask them to write the first layer on a piece of white paper using regular ink. Write the second layer using invisible ink.

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13. Comment on Wish You Were Here by Lisa Bullard

Pinterest is the most fun form of social media for me–I can get lost in there so easily!

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14. Comment on A Single Step by Lisa Bullard

Ditto!

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15. Comment on Wish You Were Here by heidigrosch

I hadn’t thought of using PinInterest this way… very clever…

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16. Comment on A Single Step by heidigrosch

AMEN (that’s my one word for this posting)

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17. Drive Them Forward

WarningOne of my treasured possessions is a handwritten manuscript for a mystery novel I wrote in fifth grade. I especially love the fact that my method of chapter construction was very straightforward: write to the bottom of the page, and end the chapter (no matter what’s actually happening in the story). Next page, start a new chapter.

I have to say, some things were so much simpler in fifth grade!

The truth is, finding the perfect way to end a chapter can be a pretty tough thing for even established writers. This was something I became especially conscious of when I wrote my middle grade novel Turn Left at the Cow. Since it’s a mystery, I of course wanted to create a lot of tension and suspense for my readers. But the truth is, you want to drive readers forward in any kind of story, mystery or not—to create in them the sense that they can’t bear to put down the book, even though a chapter has ended. Ideally, each chapter ending should be a cliffhanger that generates a kind of free-falling forward momentum.

So I knew I wanted to write chapter-ending cliffhangers—but that doesn’t mean it was always easy to figure out how to do it, chapter after chapter. And the young writers I’ve worked with usually find themselves equally challenged (those who aren’t aware of the simplicity of my own fifth-grade “end of page, end of chapter” tactic).

So I’ve listed some of the tactics I came up with for creating cliffhangers, for you to share with your young writers—along with some actual chapter-ending examples to demonstrate each tactic (taken from Turn Left at the Cow):

Tactic #1: Surprise the reader:
“I could have sworn it looked exactly like a head. A frozen human head.”

Tactic #2: Start the character off on a quest:
“‘Okay,’ I said, ‘I’m in. We’re looking for a trea­sure map. And my father’s bones. Where do we start?’”

Tactic #3: Place the character at physical risk:
“Do it or you’ll be sorry!”

Tactic #4: Use foreshadowing (a hint or warning of tough times to come):
“The loon suddenly cackled his crazy laugh again, and this creepy feeling spidered its way down the back of my neck. Even the local wildlife was messing with me.”

Tactic #5: Put the character in the middle of a key emotional realization:
“Every­thing suddenly shifted for me, like when you’re look­ing through a kaleidoscope and you give it one small turn and suddenly the colors fall into a whole new pat­tern you’ve never seen before.”

Tactic #6: Increase the stakes for your character:
“‘Trav, I think you better get over to your grandma’s house. There’s a sheriff’s car sitting in her driveway, and my little sister says the deputy was over here asking where you were.’”

In other words, drive readers forward by driving them a little crazy—crazy with absolutely needing to know what happens next!

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18. Driving Home the Point

golf ballWhen Nephew 3 was about half the height he is now, I took him to the children’s museum one day. He chose to spend a lengthy time at one particular exhibit that utilized golf balls. The balls were used in a wide variety of ways to display a number of key scientific principles—such as, what goes up must come down—which as the literate member of our team I could easily discern by reading the signs to myself. But despite Nephew 3’s lack of reading skills, he was still deeply engaged with the display, and I was pleased as punch that our fun day was turning out to be such an excellent (yet clandestine) learning opportunity. After all, doesn’t the best learning happen when the kid is having so much fun he doesn’t even realize that he’s learning something?

As we finally walked away, he looked up at me and said, “Lisa, I learned so much!”

“That’s great!” I answered. “Tell me about what you learned.”

He contemplated a moment. “Well,” he finally said, “Mostly I had no idea there were so many things you could do with a golf ball!”

Here I was thinking that he was dwelling on the vast mysteries of the universe, and he was instead engrossed by the multi-functionality of sports equipment.

The joke really is on me, however, because actively exploring the mysteries of the universe always pays off for writers! Even when those mysteries lead us in unanticipated directions. Quirky facts serve as some of my favorite writing prompts. They can inspire characters, settings, conflicts, and even thematic materials for stories.

So what arenas do the kids in your life most enjoy exploring—animal life, history, pop culture? Arm your young writers with notebooks or digital cameras and take them to a museum, zoo, or nature park. Or spend an hour browsing the nonfiction sections of the library or bookstore for fact-filled books to take home. Identify child-friendly, informative websites they can browse. If you let kids engage with the mysteries of the universe on their own terms, those mysteries will sneak into their writing and enrich it in unexpected ways.

Since this all started with golf balls, allow me to “drive” home the point: figuring out the facts of the matter may lead a kid in a direction other than what you expect. But isn’t that exactly what imagination is all about?

 

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19. A Different Mode of Transport

egret at lakeWith an appreciative nod to J.K. Rowling, the only magic I need to apparate is to get a whiff of dampness.

That smell instantly transports me from wherever I am to my family’s lake cabin, a place I’ve visited since I was a baby. The smell of dampness plays up and down all of the most resonant notes on my emotional scale. Dampness is the smell of deeply belonging, of celebration, of the water-smoothed grief that settles in after someone has been absent from us for a very long time.

And along with dampness comes the other lake smells: grilled food, lake water, sunburned skin, campfires, wet dog, bug spray. In other words, a summer full of smells.

Scientists tell us that smell and memory (and therefore emotion) are intrinsically linked. And writers are often reminded to incorporate all five senses so that their writing is more evocative.

You can encourage your young writers to explore what the “nose knows” by asking them to write a smell-“scentric” list poem. List poems are a great form because they can be very simple for the very young writer, or can evolve to be a more sophisticated form for the more advanced writer.

  • Get your writers started by having them choose a favorite place that they know intimately.
  • Have them close their eyes for a few moments and “apparate” themselves to that place.
  • Then have them create a list of smells associated with their spot.
  • Have them turn their list into a list poem. If you’re not familiar with the form, here are a couple more extended explanations for very young writers and for somewhat older writers.

The act of writing a list poem may just transport your young writers somewhere magical!

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20. Fuel

dinosaurWhen I was a kid, I was given a huge boxful of books my mother and aunt had read when they were young. I loved the girls I met in those pages—Judy Bolton, Honey Bunch, Ruth Fielding, Maida Westabrook, Candy Kane, Jo March—even though (or perhaps because?) some of their lives felt like they were rooted in a dinosaur-distant past.

That box was like a wonderful archaeological dig, an amazing collection of dusty treasures for me to discover. Once I fell in love with a character, I wanted to follow as many of her adventures as I possibly could. So one of my biggest delights was the fact that the books came in series. It was deeply satisfying to pick up a not-yet-read book knowing that I would meet an old friend between the covers.

The problem was, not all the titles from each series were in the box. So, like a paleontologist, I had to use what I had on hand to try to reconstruct an overall picture of each series “skeleton” as a whole. Where there were missing sections, I used my imagination—and my growing sense of how writers structured stories, gained from my enthralled reading— to fill in the blanks.

In other words, I learned the most important things I’ve ever learned about writing from being a reader first.

The books your young writers read will all mix together to become part of their own primordial swamps. And what kids read can, like prehistoric creatures, transform into fuel—exactly the kind of fuel needed to power writing.

Encourage the kids in your life to dig into reading this summer. They have transformations waiting to happen.

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21. Blow up the Car

bombWhen I was a kid, my dad would lie down on his side on the couch to watch TV at night. He’d bend his knees so his legs formed a “V” shape, and then my brother and I would argue about who got to sit in the V while we watched with him.

We watched a lot of police shows featuring car chases that always ended in spectacular, explosion-inducing crashes; I think there was at least one per show. And my dad always shook his head and explained to us (drawing on his background as an insurance investigator) that in real life, cars don’t blow up nearly as often as they do on TV.

Recently, a friend and I attended a class at a car repair shop, one that was advertised especially for women who knew nothing about car maintenance. And after every topic we covered, one of the other women there would ask, “If I do that wrong, will my car blow up?” Everybody else laughed; for me, it brought back a lot of warm and fuzzy memories of that V and those nightly exploding cars from my childhood.

The fortunate reality is, when we’re writing fiction, we get to make things up—and one of the things we get away with is to create a whole lot more explosions than might happen in real life. As I explain to kids when I’m talking with them about hooking their readers and keeping them hooked, you want to set off explosions in your character’s life. Things should regularly blow up, as a way of increasing the tension and suspense level for the reader. Of course, explosions can be emotional instead of actually physical: the shattering of a relationship, the blow up of someone’s self-confidence, the implosion of a dream. The key is to bring conflict into the story. If there’s no action or conflict, at some point the reader will stop caring.

Worst case scenario? The reader might put down the story and go turn on the TV instead—to see if something is blowing up there.

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22. A Single Step

clay“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Lao-tzu, Chinese philosopher

I’m not one of those writers who have words tumbling out of them like a rain-fed waterfall. I’ve always envied them, but I’m not one of them. So it made sense for me to focus on picture books and short nonfiction titles for the first part of my writing career: being a slow writer with a compact style tends to work well for those books.

But every time I did school visits with older students, they asked me why I didn’t write something for them. I came up with this great theory to share with them, all about how some authors are great at “writing long,” like artists who start with a huge block of marble and then face the challenge of trying to chisel down to the core story. While other authors—like me—are good at “writing short,” artists who start with a small amount of clay and then face the challenge of building up their creations.

In other words, I told students that because it was challenging to do otherwise, I was better off sticking with writing the kinds of books that felt comfortable for me.

But one of the great things about kids is that they don’t easily tolerate the ridiculous excuses adults make. Which means that some of the best writing advice I ever received came from a 5th-grade boy. After I offered my elaborate explanation (excuse), he sighed, rolled his eyes big-time, and said (in a “how stupid are you?” tone), “Then just write a bunch of short things and stick them all together!”

Huh, I thought, the kid has a point. I think they call them chapters.

And I gave myself permission to write a novel. Yes, it took me over three years to finish writing it. Yes, there were many times when I was gritting my way through it not just chapter-by-chapter, but word-by-word. Yes, it will have taken an additional four years for it to go from “finished” manuscript to a published book I can hold in my hands in October. But writing the first word of that particular story was the single step that began one of my most thrilling writing journeys.

I meet kids at every school visit who don’t believe they have it in them to write anything worthwhile, whether long or short. If you find those kids in your classroom, too, please teach them what that 5th-grader taught me: all you need to do is to start with one word.

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23. Possible Detours

mimesOnce, in one of my (not uncommon) moments of thinking that I could no longer handle the financial uncertainty of the children’s book writing life, I read a book that purported to match creative people to potential career pursuits. I read the advice, filled out the quizzes, and finally received my assigned “type.” With great anticipation I turned to the section at the back of the book where possible career paths were listed by type. I expected to be told I should train to become a lawyer or an ad exec, something with a perhaps-somewhat-more predictable income stream than my own.

But here are the career options I was strongly encouraged to pursue:

  • Puppeteer
  • Mime

With apologies to all the highly paid mimes of the world, I couldn’t help but feel discouraged at this advice (almost the way one might feel if one were trapped inside a glass box).

I was recently reminded of these possible detours on my life’s path when some writer friends shared “Non-Teaching Jobs Twitter Recommends for Writers” (I have already added “criminal mastermind” and “dolphin” to my own bucket list). And all of this popped into my head again at a school visit yesterday, when a student asked me the question I am almost always asked: “How much money do you make?”

The truthful-but-vague answer, as I explain whenever I am asked, is that while a few children’s book writers do get rich, most of us do not. I try to describe to the students some of the other advantages I find in the writing life, but I know that’s not what most of them remember. I worry that those of them who want to grow up to be puppeteers or mimes or even dolphins will give up their dreams too early after they hear my honest response.

So if you have a young writer in your life, go ahead and tell them the truth: most likely, they won’t get rich.  But on my behalf, I hope you’ll also let them know that there’s a lot to be said for loving your work. In having the chance to make an impact on the lives of young people who know you only through your stories. In defining yourself not by how much money you make, but by the richness of your experiences.

Tell them that living their dream may be tough, but that there is more than one kind of payoff in life.

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24. Comment on A Single Step by Lisa Bullard

Go for it! The first one might take awhile, but I think you’ll love facing a whole different kind of writing challenge!

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25. Comment on A Single Step by Laura Purdie Salas

Great advice, Lisa. Novels terrify me, but I’m at least thinking about chapter books:>)

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