Friday, October 31, 2014

Audience, Revising, and Poetry Friday!

Today, I’m continuing our Teaching Authors series on whether to try to appeal to reluctant readers, or any particular type of reader, when we write. So far, we seem to agree that we should write what moves us and hope that it moves others, too. I’m going off on a few tangents to add some related thoughts.


I started writing for kids when our kids were little. I found inspiration while hanging out with kids on playgrounds, in school, and at soccer games. I kept our kids in mind as I wrote. When they grew out of picture book age, I lost them as audience but kept their younger selves in mind, along with their friends, my own younger self, and the children my sisters used to be. Maybe that’s why one editor kindly described my voice as “classic.” With school visits dwindling, perhaps I should spend more time at the playground.

When I worked as a managing editor for an educational publisher, a reading specialist assigned reading levels to all our books. We also assigned each one an interest level, which was intended to attract reluctant readers to subjects that might appeal to them even if did not correlate with the reading level. This category included many high-interest topics for boys: amazing sports feats, weird facts, adventure stories. How well did it work? I can’t say. I thought of it as just one more marketing tool.

My writing group is remarkable in many ways, but what applies to this topic is their ability to pick out words, phrases, and concepts that seem too adult for a poem or picture book manuscript. Yesterday, I sifted through my filing cabinet and recycled a paper grocery bag full of old drafts. I was struck by the number of gently worded rejection letters, several of which referenced this problem, especially in my poetry collections. Although we should not focus too much on audience when we write, we should pay attention when we revise. Maybe some of those old poems are worth taking another crack at with a young audience specifically in mind.

I’m revising a nonfiction manuscript that includes a lot of scientific information. I’m putting more complex details in sidebars. A few nights ago, out of curiosity, I separated the main text from the sidebars and checked the reading levels separately. (To do this in Microsoft Word, select the text you want to check. Then on the Review tab, click Spelling and Grammar.) I went through the main text and checked it sentence by sentence so I could revise the most difficult ones. I’m not saying that reading level is necessarily an indicator of text complexity, but it does contribute. I use this feature a lot when I write for educational publishers who specify a reading level. When a sentence is too high, I substitute simpler words, divide it into two sentences, or even cut it.

Here’s an example:
We piled into the car, rode to the library, and picked out our favorite books to read and share.


The revised version:
We piled into the car. Mom drove us to the library. Each of us checked out a stack of books. We read our own, and then we traded.


Notice that I added words and also varied the sentence structure.

It’s Poetry Friday! Here’s a poem I found yesterday when I cleaned out my files.

My Singular Garden 
My garden is a skinny one
with just the right amount of sun.
I planted one delphinium,
one violet, one trillium,
one rosebush,
one geranium,
one tulip,
one chrysanthemum.
I wish I could continuum,
but I have reached the maximum.

The Poetry Friday Roundup is at Teacher Dance. Enjoy!

Today is the last day for our 2015 Children's Writers and Illustrator's Market Book Giveaway! Enter here.

Finally, don’t forget to V O T E !

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Wednesday Writing Workout: Finding the Best Beginning, Courtesy of Lenore Look


Hi Everyone,
The clock is ticking! If you haven't entered for a chance to win a copy of the 2015 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market (CWIM) yet, see the link at the end of this post. The giveaway ends on Friday!

We're hosting the 2015 CWIM giveaway this month to celebrate the publication of my article in it: "Writing for Boys (and other 'Reluctant Readers')." The article contains advice and insights from four award-winning authors known for writing books that appeal to reluctant readers: Matt de la PeñaLenore LookDavid Lubar, and Steve Sheinkin. Today, I'm pleased to share a guest Wednesday Writing Workout from one of those authors: Lenore Look!


Here's Lenore's bio, as it appears in the 2015 CWIM:
Lenore Look recently released the sixth book in her award-winning (and boy-friendly) Alvin Ho chapter book series: Alvin Ho: Allergic to the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, and Other Tourist Attractions (Schwartz & Wade). She is also the author of the Ruby Lu series (Atheneum) and several acclaimed picture books, including Henry’s First-Moon Birthday (Simon & Schuster), Uncle Peter’s Amazing Chinese Wedding (Atheneum), and, her newest, Brush of the Gods (Random House), a historical fiction account of the life of Wu Daozi, China’s most famous painter. Lenore taught creative writing at Drew University and St. Elizabeth College in New Jersey, and frequently speaks in schools in the United States and Asia. She has also co-presented the Highlights Foundation workshop "Writing for Boys" with Bruce Coville and Rich Wallace. She lives in Hoboken, New Jersey, and blogs frequently at lenorelook.wordpress.com.

I'm a big fan of Lenore's Alvin Ho books, which is why I approached her about participating in the CWIM article. I haven't read Alvin Ho: Allergic to the Great Wall, the Forbidden Palace, and Other Tourist Attractions yet, so I'll share the blurb for it that appears on Indiebound:
Here’s the sixth book in the beloved and hilarious Alvin Ho chapter book series, which has been compared to Diary of a Wimpy Kid and is perfect for both beginning and reluctant readers. 
Alvin, an Asian American second grader who’s afraid of everything, is taking his fears to a whole new level—or should we say, continent. On a trip to introduce brand-new baby Ho to relatives in China, Alvin’s anxiety is at fever pitch. First there’s the harrowing 16-hour plane ride; then there’s a whole slew of cultural differences to contend with: eating lunch food for breakfast, kung fu lessons, and acupuncture treatment (yikes!). Not to mention the crowds that make it easy for a small boy to get lost.
From Lenore Look and New York Times bestselling illustrator LeUyen Pham comes a drop-dead-funny and touching series with a truly unforgettable character.
Sounds like a fun read! J

For today's WWW, Lenore shares a great exercise in beginnings.

Wednesday Writing Workout:
Finding the Best Beginning
by Lenore Look

When I worked as a newspaper reporter, the first thing I learned was how important the “lede” or beginning of the story is. The first sentence is crucial. It’s called the “hook” because it snags your reader and reels them into your story. Without a strong hook, your reader will get away before you can tell them the five Ws and H – who, where, what, when, why and how.

When writing fiction, your hook is not just the best way to snag your reader, but it’s the place from which you will hang the rest of your story. It’s THAT important. For me, the beginning is the hardest part of the book to write. I’m faced with all my research, my characters, what I want to say, and a few ideas for scenes. It’s overwhelming. Where do I start? I pick something and have a go at it. It’s a mis-start, or a scrub, as they call it at NASA when a launch is aborted. I have many scrubs. When I find the spark that will finally launch my rocket, there’s more trouble.  Often I will agonize over the first sentence for days, re-writing it, tweaking it, throwing it out, starting it over, again and again. But when I finally get it right, it’s blast-off! And the rest of the book seems to write itself.

Here’s my top-secret recipe for finding the strongest beginning, and I hope it helps you find yours.

How to Find the Strongest Beginning to Any Piece of Writing.
1. Sit down.
2. Open your writer’s notebook.
3. Ask the following questions:
            a. Who’s your character?
            b. What’s your setting?
            c. What does your character want?
            d. What are the obstacles in her way?
4. Summarize the story you’re telling in one sentence.
5. Write your summary sentence in the center of a blank page.
6. Now surround your summary sentence with your answers to the questions from #3. Some people call this “clustering,” – if you draw circles around each of your sentences/ideas, it begins to look like a cluster of grapes. I don’t bother with the circles, instead I make lists, and surround my summary sentence with lists that answer the questions.
7. Add your research as they fit under the different questions in #3.
8. Step away.
9. Eat some ice cream.
10. Stare at the sunset.
11. Call a friend.
12. It’s important to start the next part with fresh eyes.


How to Find the Strongest Beginning, Part II
1. Look at your messy page(s).
2. Find the smallest, most simple detail that captures your entire story.
3. What you’re looking for is the KEY to your house. Keys are small. A small detail will open the door to the rest of the house, which is your story. All the rooms in your house are the different scenes that make up the story.
4. Study carefully the beginnings to books you like.
5. Using the detail you found in #2, and the inspiration you found from #4, write the most compelling beginning you can.
6. Let it lead you into the first room of your story.
7. Finish off the ice cream.
8. Stare at the sunset.
9. It may be the last sunset you see for a while.
10. Writing a book takes a long time.
11. Cry.
12. Cry your eyes out. It’s only the beginning. You still have the middle and the end to tackle!


            Writing Exercise Text © Lenore Look 2014, All rights reserved

Thanks, Lenore, for this terrific exercise! Readers, if any of you try today's WWW, do let us know how it works for you.

And don't forget to enter for a chance to win your own copy of the 2015 CWIM, where you'll be able to read additional helpful tips from Lenore. See my last blog post for details. The giveaway ends October 31.

Happy Writing!
Carmela

Monday, October 27, 2014

Odd Girl Out


I was never a reluctant reader. I have to admit, I feared writing about this topic because it is something I know very little about. While my parents were not avid readers, they were willing to drive me to the library. When I was very young, I was confined to bed because of a long illness. I found solace in reading. I learned to read at a young age, and I read everything. I loved action/adventure stories. When I was finally healthy, I couldn’t run fast enough, all the time running about, creating my own adventures. And when I wasn’t running about, I was reading.

Ezra Jack Keat's APT 3
 I was the odd girl out in middle school. I was a nerd before it was cool to be a nerd. High school was a bit easier because it was small and private. The nuns didn’t take kindly if someone came to class without having read the assigned pages, or books as the case may be. So everyone read. No one liked the “or else.”

Of course, I didn’t have computers, iPhones or iPads or video games way back then. There was no Facebook or text talk. Ooo! I shudder to think how Sister Alice Marie might have reacted if I dared write into an essay, AFINIAFI (A friend in need is a friend indeed)!

Although, to be sure, nerds will be nerds, no matter which century, and kids will always be kids. A friend and I had learned Morse code, and then tapped out messages during class. Colonel Seese, the retired Army colonel who taught history, caught on. He was scarier than the nuns. While he approved of our ingenuity, we still had to serve detention.

  Those were different times. I have to wonder if there may be some connection between the gadgetry of today and reluctant readers. As much as these electronic gizmos can be an aid to our learning process, might they also be a deterrent? I wrote in my last post (here) about current studies that suggest old-fashion hand writing helps cognitive development, critical thinking skills, and reading skills. Connected to this is another important question, how does the new technology we use to read change the way we read? Are we still reading as thoroughly and attentively? As Jabr Ferris suggests (Scientific American, 2013), while studies are still ongoing, there seems to be a consensus that “modern screens and e-readers fail to adequately recreate certain tactile experiences of reading on paper that many people miss and, more importantly, prevent people from navigating long texts in an intuitive and satisfying way.”
 Where The Wild Things Are


 So could it be that one key to coaxing reluctant readers is to re-create that tactile and sensory experience?   

I have long been impressed by uber-teacher and Facebook friend Paul Hankins, who teaches English 11. He posts about his strategies that treat the senses and engages the reading process. His projects include using collage, which he calls remixes, to recreate covers of favorite books, including Ezra Jack Keat's APT 3 and Maurice Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are.



Halloween produces some of my favorite books. What better way for a tactile experience than skin shivers and tingling spines! So many books, but currently I am reading (again) Stephen Messer’s The Death of Yorik Mortwell (Random House/Yearling Edition, 2012), a mock-Gothic horror story inspired by Edward Gorey.

Another treat is Philippa Dowding’s Jake and the Giant Hand (Dundurn, 2014), all about weird stories gone wrong. 




As a writer, I take to heart the wisdom Carmela shared in her post: "If you want your writing to appeal to boys and other reluctant readers, don't try to target this particular audience. That's right, DON'T target them. Instead, write what moves, excites, or interests YOU." In my books (Big River's Daughter and Girls of Gettysburg), you can still find me running about, all the time running, and having the best adventures.


For more information, you might find this interesting: Jabr, Ferris. The Reading Brain in the Digital Age: The Science of Paper versus Screens. (Scientific American, April 2013)

Don't forget about the CWIM giveaway!

What do you think? Share some of your insights, experiences and strategies below!

Bobbi Miller

Friday, October 24, 2014

3 Leading Ways to Target Your Writing for Children--NOT!....and Poetry Friday!

.
Howdy, Campers!  Happy Poetry Friday!  Poem and link to Poetry Friday are below ~

Our topic this round is Do you try to appeal to reluctant readers, or any particular type of reader, when you write? 

Carmela's post addresses the topic of writing to reading levels thoroughly. She writes:"If you want your writing to appeal to boys and other reluctant readers, don't try to target this particular audience. That's right, DON'T target them. Instead, write what moves, excites, or interests YOU."

Mary Ann's post, agrees: "I write what I am passionate about. I write for my inner eleven-year-old. It's the best that I can do. It's all any of us can do."

As for me?

I titled this 3 Leading Ways to Target Your Writing for Children--NOT!  because I agree with Carmela and Mary Ann's conclusions.  Essentially, write with passion and you'll hit a bullseye.

from morguefile.com
Here are three thoughts hopefully slightly related to this topic:

1) I am a reluctant reader.  Always have been. Once I dive into a book, I'm swimming, but getting to the edge of the pool, dipping my toe in? Terrifying.  Every book.  Every time.

2) Many years ago, former bookseller, and book reviewer Janet Zarem was hired by my son's elementary school to talk to parents about reading.  She began by passing out a paragraph in and asking us what it said.  Okay, so let's try it.  I'd like you to read this paragraph and tell me what it says.  You have two minutes:

*see bottom of this post for attribution*

When we saw the paragraph, we were scared'r than a long-tail cat in a room full of rockin' chairs.**

Isn't that a powerful way to show someone the world from a new or challenged or reluctant reader's point of view?

3) That's how scared many of us feel about learning anything new.

For example, UCLA Extension's Writers' Program is in the process of changing how its instructors post course materials for our students.  We are moving from a platform called Blackboard to one called Canvas.

When I saw the first email about this, I rolled into a little ball.  I felt as outdated and useless as a screen door on a submarine.***

I see now that I went through the five stages of loss and grief, finally arriving at acceptance: Wow--it's done, it didn't take long, and I am truly invincible.
Tah-dah--I did it!
RELUCTANT
by April Halprin Wayland


New?
New?

Who are you talking to?

You’ll have to leave a message—
I think I have the flu.

It’s too bad that you saw me
I stick with tried and true.

If you want revolution,
I’ll leave it up to you.

Who?
Me?

You found me up this tree?

Just cut that sheet in two?
And paste it here with glue?
That’s all we have to do?

I’m standing on my head, now:
I see your point of view.

poem & drawing (c) April Halprin Wayland 2014
=====================

Don't forget to enter our latest book giveaway for a chance to win a copy of the 2015 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market (in which our very own Carmela Martino has an article!). See Carmela's post for all the details.

The giveaway ends Oct 31.

Poetry Friday is at Merely Day By Day ~ Thanks, Cathy!



poem & drawing (c) April Halprin Wayland 2014

posted by April Halprin Wayland, who thanks you in Greek for reading all the way to here.

*from: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odyssey
**from: http://charlottenewcomers.blogspot.com/2008/01/southern-expressions-uglier-than.html
***from: http://www.examiner.com/article/southern-isms-50-of-the-funniest-southern-expressions-and-colloquialisms

Monday, October 20, 2014

Hitting the Target Without Really Trying

     The question I am most asked by parents is "What is the reading level of your books?"

     I am currently teaching an adult class on writing for children.  The first question I am usually asked by those students is "How do you write at an appropriate reading difficulty for an age group?"

    Those questions are not as easy to answer as you might think.

     Carmela's Friday post stated that in reaching "reluctant readers" a writer should simply write whatever they are passionate about and the readers will follow.  I have most certainly found this to be true.

     When I first began writing, "targeting" a group, or writing with a specific grade level vocabulary never crossed my mind.  Thanks to years and years of working in children's library service, I have read thousands and thousands of children's books for all ages.  When I write, my brain goes into "child mode."  That's just the way I write, period.  My normal style involves short sentences and short paragraphs using simple words.

     I was not aware of my writing style, until my then elementary school-aged daughter introduced me to "Accelerated Reader."  This was the program her school used for "pleasure" reading. (I am not sure how pleasurable it was since it was required.)  Only books on the Accelerated Reader program were counted for the reading grade.  Books had point values, based on complexity of language and interest level.

    I was thrilled to learn that all my books were on the Accelerated Reader list, which increased the likelihood of their purchase by a school library. However, I was puzzled to learn that my middle grade books, Yankee Girl and Jimmy's Stars, were not being read by the fourth and fifth graders, my intended audience.

     The mystery was solved when one of my daughter's friends told me how much she liked Jimmy's Stars "even though it doesn't have many points."  A trip to the school library informed me that both of the books had a point value of 3.  For comparison, anything written by J.K. Rowling had a point value of upwards of 7.  That particular year, my daughter was supposed to read 7 points worth every six weeks.  How could I compete with Harry Potter?

     A little digging into the mysteries of Accelerated Reader yielded the information that while my middle grade books had a third grade reading level, their content was appropriate for upper fifth grade and sixth grade students.  Considering that the subjects of those books were Civil Rights Era Mississippi and the ravages of World War II, I thought that was a fair evaluation.

     Then parents began to ask me that troublesome reading level question.  This was often prefaced with something like, "My daughter is in second grade but she reads on a fourth grade level. She should be able to read your books, right?"

     I found myself in the strange position of talking down my own books. While the child in question would be able to read and recognize the words I had written, would they be able to understand the events in the book?  It had never occurred to me that a seven-year-old might read those books.  Tough things happen in them:  racial prejudice, death, violence.  Although I didn't "target" my writing, I didn't think anyone under ten would be reading them.  I started hedging my answers by telling parents they could buy the book but perhaps they should put it away until their child was older.  Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.  No matter what I said, some parents completely missed the fact that some "low reading level" material might contain concepts too mature or sophisticated for a first grader who was "a really good reader."

     What did I learn from this experience?  Did this cause me to become a cautious, self-censoring writer?  Do I now write in a more complex style?

     No.

     I write what I am passionate about.  I write for my inner eleven-year-old.  It's the best that I can do.  It's all any of us can do.

     Don't forget to enter our latest book giveaway for a chance to win a copy of the 2015 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market.  See Carmela's post for details.

     The giveaway ends Oct 31.

     Best of luck,  Mary Ann

Friday, October 17, 2014

Reaching Reluctant Readers, Poetry Friday, and a CWIM Giveaway!


Happy Poetry Friday, Everyone! Today I'll be sharing a fun, "spooky" poem by David L. Harrison. But first I'll tell you about my latest publication, an article in the 2015 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (Writer’s Digest Books), edited by Chuck Sambuchino. Then, at the end of this post, you'll find instructions for how to enter to win your very own copy of the 2015 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market!


If you're not familiar with the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market (also known as the CWIM), here's an excerpt from the book's blurb.
"If you write or illustrate for young readers with the hope of getting published, the '2015 Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market' is the trusted resource you need. Now in its 27th edition, 'CWIM' is the definitive publishing guide for anyone who seeks to write or illustrate for kids and young adults. Inside you'll find more than 500 listings for children's book markets (publishers, agents, magazines, and more)--including a point of contact, how to properly submit your work, and what categories each market accepts." 
In addition to the market listing, the CWIM includes great articles, interviews, and success stories. This year's edition features my interview roundup article, "Writing for Boys (and other 'Reluctant Readers')." The piece contains advice and insights from four award-winning authors known for writing books that appeal to reluctant readers: Matt de la Peña, Lenore Look, David Lubar, and Steve Sheinkin

Although  these authors write a wide variety of books, and everything from picture books to young adult novels, there was one bit of advice they all agreed on: If you want your writing to appeal to boys and other reluctant readers, don't try to target this particular audience. That's right, DON'T target them. Instead, write what moves, excites, or interests YOU. Then, "revise it over and over until it hums," as Matt de la Peña said. All four of the authors shared additional, specific advice on how to reach reluctant readers, especially boys. So be sure to enter our giveaway below for a chance to win your own copy of the CWIM!  

In researching "Writing for Boys (and other 'Reluctant Readers')," I discovered some very discouraging statistics about boys and reading. Not only do girls, on average, score higher on reading tests than boys, but the gender gap is widening. Fortunately, the news isn't all dire. As Jon Scieszka, the first National Ambassador of Young People's Literature and founder of Guys Read points out on the GuysRead website
". . . the good news is that research also shows that boys will read—if they are given reading that interests them."
Poetry can be a great way to hook boys (and other reluctant readers), especially if it's short, funny, and/or focuses on boy-friendly topics, such as sports, adventure, animals, and the supernatural. You'll find some wonderful books that fit this bill on the GuysRead list of poetry books. I also recommend just about anything written by David L. Harrison. His book Bugs: Poems about Creeping Things (Wordsong), illustrated by Rob Shepperson, is chock-full of poems with lots of boy-appeal. Here's one example: 

              cicada ghosts

              Haunted skins
              cling
              emptily
              to the rough bark
             of the hackberry
             tree,

             and farther up
             where I can't 
             see,
             ghosts are 
             buzzing 
             eerily:
             zz-zz-zz-zz
             zeeeeee!

          © David L. Harrison, all rights reserved

If you'd like to see the wonderful illustration that accompanies this poem in Bugs: Poems about Creeping Things, visit this page on David's blog (after you enter our drawing below!). Also, David is celebrating the fifth anniversary of his Word of the Month ("W.O.M.") poetry challenge.  This month he's hoping for 100 poets to share poems inspired by this month's word: "spree."  Adults who'd like to participate may post their poems here. Young poets may post their poems here.

For additional resources on poetry and reluctant readers, see the Poetry Foundation article "Against Slogging: Engaging Poetry in the Classroomon" and the WBEZ piece, "Writing Poetry Improves Reluctant Readers." If you're a parent or teacher, you may also be interested in Literacy Connects compilation of activities to use with reluctant reader

Finally, before you head over to check out these resources or the other great poems in this week's Poetry Friday round-up at Today's Little Ditty, you'll want to enter to win your own copy of the 2015 Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market. You can do that via the Rafflecopter widget at the end of this post. You may enter via 1, 2, or all 3 options. For option 2, "Leave a Blog Post Comment," you must share a comment to TODAY'S blog post and include your name!
(If you prefer, you may submit your comment via email to: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com. )

The giveaway ends on Oct. 31. 

Good luck and happy writing!
Carmela

P.S. If you've never entered a Rafflecopter giveaway, here's info on how to enter a Rafflecopter giveaway and the difference between signing in with Facebook vs. with an email address. Email subscribers: if you received this post via email, you can click on the Rafflecopter link at the end of this message to access the entry form.


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Wednesday, October 15, 2014

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.”

Monday, October 13, 2014

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 recent discovery, 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