Monday, October 5, 2015

Livin' La Vida Loca: I Love the Writing Life

I love writing for kids and working with them. But I have never (at least not as an adult) had any illusions that I could support myself working solely as a writer. This "Ah-Ha!" moment came during a banquet while I in library school, (as we called it back in the day.)

I was graduate assistant to the children's services specialist.  (Who knows where I'd be today if I assisted the specialists in government documents or cataloging?) He had put together an all-star children's literature symposium--Ellen Raskin, Ashley Bryant, Jean Fritz--award-winning authors and illustrators all. At the banquet, I was thrilled when my boss seated me next to the brilliant Ellen Raskin.  The year before, her Figgs & Phantoms had been named a Newbery Honor book.  Her own Newbery for The Westing Game would be three years in the future.

Always a big fan of Ms Raskin's funny, quirky books, I was thrilled to discover that the author was just like her books--funny, quirky and blunt. Too chicken to ask this Great Author anything more than to pass the salt, please, I listened as she answered the questions of our tablemates.  I learned that she had a daughter, was married to an editor at Scientific American and lived in a funny (quirky?) house on a private, gated street in Greenwich Village. Her studio on the top floor had a big skylight. (Odd the details the memory records.)

I was ready to chuck my previous career role model, Mary Tyler Moore, and move into Ellen Raskin's seemingly perfect life.  Then someone asked "that question" which really wasn't a question.

"So, you must be doing pretty well with your books," said a person whose name and gender is lost in time.

Ms Raskin's fork clinked against her plate."That depends on how you define 'pretty well'," she replied.

"I mean financially," the Person said blandly, with a smile that assumed Ellen would answer, "Oh yes, I am making buckets of money." Young, dumb me, assumed that would be the answer too.

Ms Raskin paused, as if calculating something in her head. "Well," she said. "I have ten books in print."

Wow! I thought. Ten books in print. She must be making a fortune. Three-story houses in Greenwich Village aren't cheap. The thought of anyone having ten books in print at the same time was simply mind-boggling.

But Ellen was still talking.  "...and last year I made..." and named a four digit figure. Even in 1976, it was a ridiculously low amount of money. Ten books and this is all she made?  She has a Newbery Honor book for crying out loud!

Long silence at our table. After a moment, Ellen laughed and made a comment about writers needing employed spouses. Dinner went on, but that conversation was a wake-up call for me. Now I knew what people meant went they said, "Don't quit your day job." And I didn't for a long, long time.

Quitting my day job was not my choice. My husband's company transferred him to Thailand, a country with notoriously tough labor laws. I became a full-time writer, whether I wanted to or not. I wrote ten and twelve hours a day.  I wrote and sold My Best Friend and Yankee Girl in those years.

Fast forward to today. I have written and published seven books, plus contributed to two YA short story anthologies. My Best Friend won both the Ezra Jack Keats and Charlotte Zolotow Awards, and is referenced in many children's literature textbooks. Yankee Girl was nominated for a dozen State Book Awards. I am extremely fortunate that all but one of these books is still in print. One, Jimmy's Stars, is only available as an e-book. For someone who is considered a mid-list author, someone who is not J.K Rowling or Suzanne Collins or Rick Riordan, I am doing really well.

Last year, my royalties were half of what my daughter makes as a part-time waitress at Golden Corral. My very best year, royalty-wise, equalled my teaching salary when I left to get married. That was 1990, and I taught in one of the poorest school systems in my state. My very best year, in real money terms, was a lot less than my best year teaching.

Luckily, I enjoy doing school visits and teaching. However, in the last couple of years, school budgets and curriculum have rarely accommodated author visits.  I pick up teaching/tutoring gigs here and there, mostly for homeschool groups. I've done freelance editing and worked as a private writing coach. My most reliable source of income is the Young Author's day camps I run each summer, with
weekend workshops during the school year.
One of my first school visits, Davis Elementary, Jackson, Ms 

    In the beginning, my non-royalty "author jobs" income equalled my royalties.  Now it surpasses it. I love working with these young writers. It's my dessert, after spending the rest of the year writing in solitude. I began with a single week camp. Now, ten years later, I  conduct writing camps for the Parks Department and local historical societies nearly every week from Memorial Day to the start of school.

Young authors at work! Roswell, Ga, summer 2013.
Sure, if I were still a school librarian, I'd be
making more money. I am super lucky to be married 25 years to my best friend, who has a good job and insurance.  If my income dried up to zero, we would not be out in the streets. But I have always been a working mom. I love what I do. I can't imagine ever retiring.

Don't forget to sign up for our latest Book Giveaway (click here) for info.  Don't miss out;  
the deadline is October 10.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, October 2, 2015

3 Tips to Making a Living as a Writer & a Funny Story About Making Money as a Poet

Howdy, Campers ~ and Happy Poetry Friday!  My poem's below, as is the link to today's Poetry Friday round-up.

The topic we TeachingAuthors are knocking around this time is Making a Living as a Writer.

Carmela starts us off with a TeachingAuthors' Book Giveaway of the 2016 CWIM which includes two of her articles, once of which is aptly titled, Making a Living as a Writer; Esther addresses the many ways she's made writing pay...and other pay-offs that result, and our Wednesday Writing Workout, written by former TeachingAuthor Laura Purdie Salas, is titled Is Writing on Assignment Right for You?

So--what are my 3 Tips to Make a Living as a Writer?

1) Write a Classic.
2) Find a Secondary Occupation which actually pays.
3) Define Making a Living

(Hmm...maybe Define Making a Living should come first.)

And now for a story about making money as a poet.

I've sold poems to anthologies, testing services and magazines.  Between 1995 and 2011 I sold 30 poems to Carus Publishing Company (publisher of Cricket Magazine and many others). I'm going to brag here because it still makes me proud: in 2003 they asked me to write a poem for a progressive story in honor of the 30th anniversary of Cricket.

At the time, they paid $3 per line.

In 1997 I asked John D. Allen, my all-time favorite editor, if I might possibly be given a raise.

John's response: "As for $4.00 per line...well, I'm afraid we can't do that. Our policy is to keep the same pay scale for all poems.  Sorry. I hope that's not too much of a problem."

Okay, I wrote. Could you give me a free subscription to Cricket? My son was then eight years old.

He replied: "I wish I could offer you an author discount or a subscription credit against your sales, but I'm told I can't. We don't give out much of any discounts besides the early renewal one you checked on your form.  And shifting author payments toward subscriptions would create some sort of accountant's nightmare around here. (Actually, that's all a lie. I was told I could offer you any sort of discount I wanted, as long as the difference came out of my salary. So I thought, Well, I could make April's life a little easier, and it wouldn't cost me much--probably just the price of the cinnamon Pop-Tarts I was planning to buy for an afternoon snack. But then, well, one thing led to another, and to make a long story short, the Pop-Tarts were delicious.)

I loved working with John.  I loved seeing my poems in BabyBug, Ladybug, Spider and Cricket. I surrendered.  Sort of.

In 1998, I responded to his suggestion that I cut a repeated stanza from a poem he'd accepted:

"I'm so glad you like the poem, "Music Critic"! I have enclosed the poem as it reads without the repetition and also another version to see if there might be some way we could keep the repetition in the poem.  Do the new repeats make it any clearer for your readers? If not, I'd be glad to omit the second stanza. I do like the repetition and will probably re-insert it if it gets published again...but I also trust your judgment for your readers.

My husband Gary, who is a CPA (deep into Tax Season as I write this) asked me to ask you if you were going to pay me for the invisible stanza."

Here is the poem John critiqued--without the repetition:

by April Halprin Wayland

This guy drags his drum set onto the sand
so that I have a front row seat
takes off his jeans jacket
snaps his wide red suspenders
and lets loose:

he is in his space
sun is on his face
gulls in the air
clouds in his hair
Go man, go! 
I clap against the shore,

rise up and give him a standing ovation 

published in Cricket Magazine December 1999
© 2015 by April Halprin Wayland. Used with permission of the author, who controls all rights

This poem was subsequently awarded SCBWI's 1999 Magazine Merit Award for Poetry. (You're right, John!  I take it all back!)

*  *  *

If you haven't already done so, enter our latest Book Giveaway of the 2016 Children's Writer's & Illustrators Market

Now, click over to today's Poetry Friday on my juicy little universe ~ thanks for hosting, Heidi!

posted with love by April Halprin Wayland, who just got home after a beautiful and challenging six mile hike in Malibu followed by an electric car adventure (long story)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Wednesday Writing Workout: The Cinderella Trifecta: Is Writing on Assignment Right for You?

Today, I'm happy to welcome back former TeachingAuthor Laura Purdie Salas with a guest Wednesday Writing Workout tailor-made for our current TeachingAuthors' series on how we each "Make a Living as a Writer." Laura was one of the authors I interviewed for my article of the same title that appears in the 2016 Children's Writer's & Illustrator's Market, edited by Chuck Sambuchino (Writer's Digest Books). If you haven't entered our drawing for a chance to win your own copy of the 2016 CWIM, be sure to do so here, AFTER you try Laura's eye-opening writing exercise below.

Wednesday Writing Workout:
The Cinderella Trifecta: Is Writing on Assignment Right for You?
by Laura Purdie Salas

Hey, it’s fun to be back here at TeachingAuthors I was honored to be interviewed for Carmela's terrific article in the 2016 Children’sWriter’s & Illustrator’s Market.

BookSpeak! - trade market
You know, I make my living as a writer, and I love writing the books I choose to write (my trade market books), like BookSpeak! Poems About Books and WaterCan Be…. But, so far, the books I’ve loved to write have not exactly brought in millions. Or enough to keep my family in groceries. That’s OK. They’re books I had to write, and I adore them. 

But, I do need to pay bills, and one of my major sources of income is writing on assignment. I write books and short passages for publishers who hire me to write very specific works for particular age groups and, sometimes, reading levels.
Water Can Be... - trade market
If this is something that sounds interesting to you, you might want to give this exercise a try. Even though the majority of writing I do on assignment is nonfiction, I also do some poetry and fiction that way, too. We’re going to use fiction here, so that you don’t get caught up in research and getting your facts right (which is, of course, extremely important in nonfiction books!). 

For this exercise, we’re going to use a story we likely already know, and we’re going to shape it in three different ways.

I would like you to use the tale of Cinderella as the basis for your short works. I’ll use The Three Little Pigs as an example for each one. Don’t be nervous! This is just to see IF you’re comfortable with this kind of writing and, if so, what age range might work best for you. Ready?

Part 1: Retell the complete tale Cinderella in 150 words, for 1st graders.

My example, based on The Three Little Pigs:

Once, there were three little pigs. They were brothers. One day, the pigs went out into the world. It was time to build their own homes. 

The first little pig built his home out of straw. The Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed and blew the house down. 

The second little pig built his home out of sticks. The Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed and blew the house down. 

The third little pig was a hard worker. He built a strong home out of bricks. The Big Bad Wolf huffed and puffed. But he could not blow it down.

The wolf was mad. And hungry. He came down the chimney to eat the pig. But the third little pig was also smart. He had built a fire in the fireplace. The wolf yelped in pain and ran away.

And the three little pigs lived happily ever after.

Colors of Fall - education market
Part 2: Retell Cinderella for 4th graders in 400 words, and emphasize narrative voice and theme.

My example is just the first couple of paragraphs (130 words) of such a passage, based on The Three Little Pigs. 

Once up a time, there were three little pigs. They were brothers, and two of the pigs were oh so lazy and not very intelligent! The third little pig, however, was not only a hard worker, but he was also very clever.

One day, it was time for the three little pigs to go out into the great wide world and build their own houses. The first two pigs did not want to put much effort into anything, so the first one built his house out of straw! The second built his house out of sticks! They should have known better. They had just finished when a big, bad wolf came along. This wolf was drooling and snarling and hungry. He thought a little pig sounded like a scrumptious treat.
Do you see the difference? Let’s try one more.

Part 3: Retell Cinderella for 7th graders in 600 words from the point of view of a wicked stepsister. 

Here’s my example, just the first few paragraphs (111 words), from the point of view of the big bad wolf. It’s a little low on readability, actually, so I’d have to make sure to use longer paragraphs and sentences here and there and keep the reading level up a bit higher.

You can’t blame me for trying. Really, who would be ridiculous enough to think that some insubstantial straw or rickety old sticks would be tough enough to thwart my attempts to enter? Oh, you haven’t heard about my adventure? Well, let me explain…

I was just wandering along the boulevard one day, minding my own business.  Suddenly, I heard a clattering sound further down the avenue. Then I spied three little pigs, all hard at work constructing residences. At least, one of them was working diligently. That one was mixing mortar and placing bricks and building a proper, sturdy house--I despise that. But the other two were much more promising.

So, how do you feel? Did at least one of these three pieces feel somewhat natural to you? Did you enjoy the puzzle of trying to tell certain information in a very specific way—as dictated by someone else?

Y Is for Yowl! - education market
If the answer to at least one of the above is yes, then you might want to try writing on assignment, too. If you’re interested in learning about writing for the educational market, you can check out my book, Writing for the Educational Market: Informational Books for Kids. And Lisa Bullard, who was also interviewed in Carmela's article, and I offer critiquing/coaching services for children’s writers at We have worked with a number of writers who have subsequently broken into the educational market. We’d be happy to schedule a consultation to answer your questions or review your introductory packet. I also sometimes discuss educational writing in my eletter for writers, A Writer Can Be…

I’d love to hear in the Comments what your experience with this Wednesday Writing Workout was like. Was one part super-easy for you and another part impossible? Were they all equal? Is this a market you might be interested in pursuing? Inquiring minds want to know:>)

Laura Purdie Salas

P.S. from Carmela, if you haven't entered our giveaway yet, be sure to do so by Oct. 10. And, in case you missed it, Esther has a great post on the creative ways she's found to supplement her book royalty income.  

Monday, September 28, 2015

Pay, as in PAYoff$!

Carmela’s Friday post not only announced our Book Giveaway of the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market 2016 (Writer’s Digest), the details of which follow today’s post.  It also highlighted her CWIM 2016 article “Make a Living as a Writer,” thus beginning our TeachingAuthors conversation about how we writers earn our keep doing what we love.

Money.  That taboo $ubject we’re not $uppo$$ed to talk about.

Just Saturday, in a Small Session talk at the Chicago Writers Conference, I suggested writers keep their day jobs, especially if the job offers health insurance, and definitely if that health insurance includes dental coverage.
“There are all sorts of currencies in this world,” I tell my school visit questioners who always feel comfortable asking my income.  I tap my heart and smile.  “Money isn’t the only thing that keeps a person going.”

Which is not to say, I don’t get it – literally and figuratively! J

Like so many of my fellow children’s book creators, schools and libraries pay me to visit and speak.
Fortunately, though, my additional tools - I hold a B.S. in Elementary Education, ½ a Masters Degree in Curriculum Instruction and an Illinois Teaching Certificate, plus my additional experiences as both a classroom teacher and professional journalist have also paid off.   
Take, for example, the year 2000.
The two picture books I’d recently sold had respective publishing dates of 2002 and 2005.
What’s a children’s book writer to do - besides write and do school and library visits?
I, for one, said “YES!” to any opportunity that came my way.

·         I critiqued children’s book manuscripts, sharing everything I’d learned and offering everything I’d needed when learning my craft.

·         I wrote my first alphabet book ever – I IS FOR ILLINOIS, as well as the accompanying workbook – ILLINOIS FUN FACTS AND GAMES (GHB Publishing).

·         I used my research from previous books and stories, sold and unsold, to write critical reading test paragraphs and accompanying questions for Quarasan’s educational text book clients.

·         I put my story-telling to use creating formulaic generic under-400-word stories for children to personalize and reproduce when visiting the Sears Family Portrait website.   

·         I reviewed children’s books for the new monthly, dads magazine.

·         I served as an editorial consultant for Childcraft’s HOW AND WHY LIBRARY's STORIES TO SHARE, working on themed stories about Heroes.

·         I sold my middle grade novel THE CONFE$$ION$ AND $ECRET$ OF HOWARD J. FINGERHUT to Holiday House!

To my surprise, while each of the above efforts paid me, they also paid off in $urpri$ing ways.

    Early critique clients showed me the need to create original teaching documents I use with the writers I coach.  One client in particular recommended me to the Newberry Library, another to the University of Chicago’s Writer’s Studio - two institutions where I still teach today.

·             Assessing the successful workings of themed fiction and nonfiction so they could work together as a whole sharpened my editorial eye.

·             Reviewing opportunities showed me ways to keep my finger on the pulse of consumers and my Children’s Book World marketplace.

·             Educational writing kept my readers, their abilities and interests on my radar.

·             I automatically return to one almost-impossible-to-write mini-story – “A Dino-mite Dinosaur Time” – every time I think I can’t do something.  (The assignment had been “dinosaurs camping out!”)

·            Writing LITTLE ILLINOIS and S IS FOR STORY for Sleeping Bear Press was like going home again.

And each of the above efforts continues to pay off, not only for me the writer, the teacher, the presenter, the TeachingAuthor, but for my readers, my students and the writers I coach and care for.

One of my Heroines, Marian Dane Bauer, speaks of writers cobbling together a living – from writing, teaching, lecturing, whatever.   

IMHO: that requisite cobbling often leads to unexpected riche$.

Speaking of which, don’t forget to enter our Book Giveaway to win a copy of The Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market 2016!

Here’s to happy cobbling!

Esther Hershenhorn

Friday, September 25, 2015

2016 CWIM Giveaway Celebrating TWO! New Articles, Plus a Poem Excerpt for Poetry Friday

I'm back!
Carmela here. I've been on a blogging break for much of this year, busy working on other projects, both personal and professional. (I have continued behind-the-scenes as our TeachingAuthors blog administrator, though, so I haven't been completely out of touch.) Today, I'm back to celebrate the publication of two of my articles in the just-released 2016 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market (also known as the CWIM) edited by Chuck Sambuchino (Writer's Digest Books).

At the end of this post, you'll have the opportunity to enter for a chance to win your very own copy of the 2016 CWIM (courtesy of Writer's Digest Books)!

Since today is Poetry Friday, I'll also be sharing a poem--an excerpt from Barney Saltzberg's new picture book Inside this Book (Are Three Books), published by Abrams Appleseed. One of my articles in the 2016 CWIM is an interview with Barney, who is an amazing author, illustrator, singer, and songwriter. More about him and his new book below.

First, I'd like to talk a little about my other article in the 2016 CWIM: "Make a Living as a Writer."
[My original title was "Making a Living Writing, Even If You’re Not a Bestselling Author" but I guess that was too long. :-) ]

For "Make a Living as a Writer," I invited four traditionally published trade book authors who are also successful freelancers to share their experiences and advice regarding ways to supplement book royalty income. The four authors included my fellow TeachingAuthor, JoAnn Early Macken, former TeachingAuthor, Laura Purdie Salas, author and writing coach, Lisa Bullard, and scientist-turned-children's author, Vijaya Bodach. The article includes their tips on landing work-for-hire assignments, balancing work-for-hire with other career goals, and preparing submission packages for educational publishers.

The four authors also shared specific resources for finding supplemental income, including:
Over the next few weeks, my fellow TeachingAuthors will continue the conversation on this topic by sharing their own advice related to finding supplemental income. And Laura Purdie Salas will return to post a special Guest Wednesday Writing Workout on September 30, called "Is Writing on Assignment Right for You?" If this topic is of interest to you, be sure to enter our giveaway so you can read more about how to "Make a Living as a Writer." 

Even if you're not looking for ways to supplement your writing income, you'll want your own copy of the 2016 CWIM for my interview with the amazing Barney Saltzberg, along with all the other helpful articles, interviews, and market information!

Barney Saltzberg, for those of you who may not know, is the author and/or illustrator of over FIFTY books. Back in January, April wrote a great post in honor of Beautiful Oops! Day, a day inspired by Barney's wonderful book, Beautiful Oops! (Workman Publishing). Since then, Barney has published three more books: The first two books in a new board book series from Workman Publishing, Redbird: Colors, Colors Everywhere and Redbird: Friends Come in Different Sizes, and the picture book Inside this Book (Are Three Books), published by Abrams Appleseed. Here's a brief description of Inside this Book:
"Inside This Book is a tribute to self-publishing in its most pure and endearing form. Three siblings create three books of their own using blank paper that they bind together (in descending sizes to match birth order). One sibling's work inspires the next, and so on, with each book's text and art mirroring the distinct interests and abilities of its creator. Upon completion of their works, the siblings put one book inside the other, creating a new book to be read and shared by all.
The second sibling in the book is named Fiona. She is "an artist and a poet," so her "book" is filled with poetry. In honor of Poetry Friday, here's an excerpt from Fiona's section of  Inside this Book.

            from Inside this Book, Too, by Fiona
            . . .  Can you tell I love to rhyme?
            I play with words all the time.
            I write a poem every day.
            My new favorite is “Who Wants to Play?” . . . 

 © Barney Saltzberg, used with permission, all rights reserved 

I've kept this excerpt short to inspire you to get Barney's book for yourself. After you've read it, you'll understand why the School Library Journal review of Inside this Book said:
 "Readers may well be empowered to write their very own stories or books." 
Be sure to check out today's Poetry Friday roundup over at the Poetry for Children blog AFTER you enter our giveaway drawing.

And now, for our giveaway info:

Use the Rafflecopter widget below to enter to win your own copy of the 2016 Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market , You may enter via 1, 2, or all 3 options.
If you choose option 2, you MUST leave a comment on TODAY'S blog post. If your name isn't part of your comment "identity," please include it in your comment for verification purposes!

(If you prefer, you may submit your comment via email to: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com.)

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.

The giveaway ends October 10 and is open to U.S. residents only.

Good luck and happy writing!

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.
a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, September 21, 2015

Happy Punctuation Day!

One of the most important punctuation marks goes about quietly, doing its job without any notice or fanfare. It’s also the oldest of all punctuation marks, dating back to ancient Greece. It’s used a thousand times in every book. As Noah Lukeman (A Dash of Style: The Art and Mastery of Punctuation, 2006) suggests, “…it alone can make or break a work.”  What is it?

The paragraph break! 

Once upon a time, reading was hard work. There was no punctuation, no white-space, no lower case letters. There was nothing to indicate when one thought ended and the next one began.

Pilcrow symbol. Source at Image:Pilcrow.svg    

The pilcrow was the first punctuation mark. The word originated from the Greek paragraphos, (para=beside and graphos=to write). This led to the Old French, paragraph. This evolved into pelagraphe, and then to pelegreffe. Middle English transformed it into pylcrafte, and finally to pilcrow

Around 200 AD, paragraphs were very loosely understood as a change in topic, speaker, or stanza. But there was no consistency in these markings. Initially, some used the letter K, for Kaput, which is Latin for head. By the 12th century, scribes began using C, for Capitulum, Latin for little head or chapter. This C evolved because of inconsistencies in handwriting. By late medieval time, the pilcrow was a very elaborate decoration in bright red ink inserted in between shapeless paragraphs.

Villanova, Rudimenta Grammaticæ. Published 1500 in Valencia (Spain).. Licensed under Public Domain

As printing technology improved, and whitespace was deemed valuable in the reading process, pilcrows were dropped down to indicate a new line. Eventually the pilcrows were abandoned, and the paragraph indent was born. It wasn’t until the mid-1800s that a standard method was devised to help organize paragraphs. Alexander Bain introduced the modern paragraph in 1866, defining it as a single unit of thought, and stressing the importance of an explicit topic sentence.

Just as a period divides sentences, a paragraph divides groups of sentences. But as the period is often hailed as the backbone of punctuation, the paragraph break is largely ignored.

The primary purpose of a paragraph is to define a theme, but there are no standard rules that dictate how that process plays out. Paragraphs tend to be organic, subject to the writer’s idiosyncrasies.

Some of us have quite a few idiosyncrasies. <See what I did there?

In a perfect world, a paragraph has a beginning, the main point stated in an explicit topic sentence. It has a middle, in which the writer elaborates on this one main point. And it has an ending, which wraps the entire package in a neat bow.

But the world isn’t perfect. Sometimes the writer places the topic sentence as the last line of a paragraph, playing “gotcha” like a punchline of a joke. Sometimes the topic sentence is a mere whisper, implied in the action. And then there’s the prankster, who places the topic sentence in the middle of a paragraph. Blink and you miss it.

Further complicating the process, there is no designated length that defines a paragraph. I have some students who insist that a paragraph be five sentences, even when the concept is so complex, it demands more explanation. They call this being succinct, but when I ask them for clarification, it takes them several minutes to explain one sentence. I remind them, succinct does not mean short. Succinct means precise. Meanwhile, some students go to the opposite extreme. They turn in five-page essays that are three – and sometimes less -- very long paragraphs. Their ideas trample over each other, undistinguished from each another, in one stampeding brain dump. Both of these writer types reflect a common issue: they don’t understand, and therefore are not connected to, their own ideas. As Lukeman states, messy breaks reveal messy thinking.

The long and short of it (and all puns intended), paragraphs affect pacing, showing the reader how to approach the text. This is especially true in fiction. Short paragraphs tend to be action-oriented, focusing on moving the plot forward. Long paragraphs slow the action down, and tend to be reflective, either setting the stage for the next chase or revealing character. Too many short paragraphs strung together can wear the reader out. Too many long paragraphs put him to sleep.

So what do I do?

I begin with the basics. I tell my students, first, do your thinking. While everyone is entitled to an opinion, not every opinion is equally weighted. In fact, some are distorted, misinformed, and downright wrong. Next, organize your thinking. Only then can you write it down.  I provide a fixed pattern that the beginning writer can easily manage: 1. Write an explicit topic sentence; 2. Elaborate, in which you explain what you mean by this point, and why is it important; 3. Validate, in which you use evidence to prove that your observations are valid;  4. Illustrate, in which you demonstrate with examples how your observations can be applied in real world time. I compare beginning writers to beginning musicians. Musicians need to learn the notes and play the scales -- over and over and over -- in order to master them. Once they master these notes, only then can they play around, making their own music, and writing their own symphony.

But first, they have to learn the basics.

What do you think?

Bobbi Miller

Friday, September 18, 2015

Oh, What a View!

We're back from a brief camping trip in Wildcat Mountain State Park, where we hiked along nearly empty trails hoping for a glimpse of the Kickapoo River,

looked down on vultures soaring over the valley,

and rested and read in a secluded campsite. 

At night, we stared up at a skyful of stars, warmed by a cozy campfire.

Every once in awhile, I remember the advice I give to students:
  • Walk. The regular motion helps ideas flow.
  • Read. Take time to appreciate the sounds of the words as well as the meaning.
  • Slow down and pay attention. A change in scenery (especially outdoors) can bring inspiration.
Works for me, too!

This week's Poetry Friday Roundup is at Today's Little Ditty.  

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

WWW: Dear Protagonist/Dear Antagonist

How appropriate that while we TeachingAuthors share epistles to our Teen Selves these two weeks, invited Guest Author Angela Cerrito’s WWW focuses on letter writing!

Angela is my treasured SCBWI kin. We first met in 2004 at the SCBWI Winter Conference in New York; she’d (deservedly) won the Kimberly Colen Memorial Grant which funded research in Warsaw, Poland that led to her recently published middle grade novel THE SAFEST LIE (Holiday House). That research included interviews with the novel’s inspiration, Irena Sendler, the Catholic social worker and spy who rescued more than twenty-five hundred children from the Warsaw ghetto, as well as readings of testimonies from many of those children held in the archives of the Jewish Historical Institute.

This powerful historical novel tells the story of nine-year-old Anna Bauman who in 1940 is smuggled out of the Warsaw ghetto and struggles to both hide and hold onto her Jewish identity.  Her journey brings to the page the sacrifices endured, the dangers faced and the heroism shown by the children rescued, their parents and their saviors. It illuminates yet another tragedy of the Holocaust: rescued children who lost not only their loved ones, but their very identities and Jewish heritage.

Anna is a truly unforgettable character. Her first person narrative falters not once. This novel’s craft is noteworthy.  Just enough reader-appropriate concrete details and dialogue allow the young reader to live inside this long-ago ugly world, yet like Anna, miraculously take heart and hope.  Anna's attempts to retain her identity will make for meaningful connections and reflective discussions.

The Kirkus reviewer wrote that “Cerrito effectively evokes the fears, struggles, and sheer terror these children faced through her protagonist's first-person account, which allows readers into her private thoughts. Anna's three years in hiding encompass much of what these saved children experienced... and readers are left to ponder what the future might hold for this brave girl. Balancing honesty and age-appropriateness, Cerrito crafts an authentic, moving portrait.”

The School Library Journal  reviewer commented that “Anna's present-tense narrative voice is vivid, and readers will connect with her from the start. From the moment she recommends her friends for scarce vaccinations to her inquiries about a baby she helped rescue years ago, she demonstrates her loyalty. Fans of Lois Lowry's NUMBER THE STARS or Kimberly Brubaker Bradley's THE WAR THAT SAVED MY LIFE are likely to enjoy reading this book next. VERDICT: a suspenseful and informative choice for historical fiction fans.”

You can read an excerpt here
An Educator’s Guide is also available. 

Angela currently serves as SCBWI’S Assistant International Adviser and is co-organizer of SCBWI’s Bologna Children’s Book Fair.

She’s also the author of the compellingly told THE END OF THE LINE (Holiday House).

Thank you, Angela, for sharing your writer’s expertise today. I am beyond delighted to introduce you to our readers.


Esther Hershenhorn

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Dear Protagonist/Dear Antagonist

In THE SAFEST LIE, the main character reflects on three letters sent by her grandmother from the Łodz ghetto.
Letters are a powerful way to record history and convey ideas. A particular advantage is that the letter writer can record his or her thoughts without interruption.
Below is a two-part writing exercise that can be used with students from the moment they have identified a protagonist and antagonist or at any time during the writing and revising process.

Have your protagonist write a letter to the antagonist.
IMPORTANT! This is a letter that will never be delivered. Allow the protagonist to get all of his or her feelings into the letter-  every grievance, every gripe, and be sure to include as much detail as possible. [Don’t reveal Step 2 until students have completed Step 1]

Discussion points after Step 1:
How did it feel to write that letter?
Did you learn anything new about your protagonist? About the antagonist?
How would your protagonist feel if the letter were actually delivered?
How would the antagonist react?

We are about to find out….

Very unexpectedly, the letter was delivered to the antagonist who read it, reacted and wrote back.
Now, write the letter your antagonist would write to the protagonist after reading the letter in Step 1.

Discussion points:
How did if feel writing from the antagonist’s point of view?
Did you learn anything new about the antagonist? About the protagonist?
What did you learn about their conflict?
Will this change anything in your plot as you revise the story?


Use the premise above to:
(1) write emails between the protagonist / antagonist
(2) create audio recordings / video recordings of messages acting as the protagonist / antagonist.

Note: Is the story set in the future? If so, use the message system the characters would use (i.e. brain chip messages, laser portals, inter-space pod transmissions, optic output devices) or whatever fits your story.

Additionally, rather than use your own story, use these protagonist/antagonist writing exercises with a recent book you’ve read.