Monday, January 31, 2011

Full-Body Workout

To quote April Halprin Wayland's wonderful Friday post about clutter-busting:

Before we get started, run over and read the dynamite interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith by Teaching Author Carmela Martino and enter our latest book give-away! Note that the deadline for entry is 11 pm (CST) Wednesday, February 2, 2011. Make sure you follow the rules by posting a comment at the bottom of that blog post and include your contact information. And you must have a USA mailing address.

Teaching Author Esther Hershenhorn kicked off our current topic with a great intro to 6 + 1 Trait Writing: Organization. Teaching Author JoAnn Early Macken followed with Getting Your Ducks in a Row. Teaching Author Mary Ann Rodman's It Just Looks Disorganized came next. All include practical and inspiring Writing Workouts, so check them out.

As the absolutely least organized of the Teaching Authors (the one who took my son to preschool on Friday when there was no school; the one who this week mailed our new church registration to my mom and a handmade card from my daughter to the church; the one who "ran" to amazon and purchased my copy of Clutter Busting as soon as I read April's post) -- it is my pleasure to tackle this topic last.

In fact, my college classes this week (when they haven't been canceled due to snow) have been learning about essay and paragraph organization.  Our text suggests the most obvious methods: chronological; spatial; most to least important or, conversely, least to most important.  We have also been stressing the use of appropriate transitions. 

To illustrate how writing instruction is similar across the grades, my daughter brought home the following exercise from kindergarten on Friday:

(She did not quite have time to finish, but you get the idea.)

It took me a long time to realize that, as a writer, I crave the structure that I lack in my real life.  Even as a kid, I loved the predictability of the series books that I read voraciously.  My favorite genre is the mystery.  If actual life is rarely neat and tidy, I want pretend life to be perfectly so!

The three-act screenplay format is widely applicable to nearly every form of fiction.  Extrapolating on this concept, I feel exceedingly comfortable with the teaser-plus-seven-acts format of Days of Our Lives, the predictable mid-break (Act 3) cliffhanger, the end-of-day "tags" (hooks), and all of the soapy norms for handling recap and flashbacks.  I also wrote Nancy Drews tailored to a very specific word count, structure, and, of course, the rules of Nancyland.

When it came time to write a novel of "my own," I decided to hang it on the structure of a science fair project report.  The big plus to this method was that the general plot trajectory was laid out for me from the outset.  Of course there were obvious drawbacks.  The book started to drag quite a bit in the 'methodology' section, and it wasn't until a brilliant critiquer suggested that I add interstitial chapters that it really began to come together.
Since I began writing MIND GAMES, I've sought out children's books written in 'nontraditional' (i.e., nonlinear formats): Walter Dean Myers (screenplay), Lauren Myracle (instant messages) Paul Fleischman's multi-POV wonders, novels in verse.  As ebooks and apps become increasingly popular, interactive elements will certainly become more widely used, as in the Choose-Your-Own adventure books that were beloved in my youth.

Picture book writers have both the structure and the stricture of the 32-page format.  Novelists have the privilege (and the curse) of a wide-open world of possibilities! --Jeanne Marie

Writing Workout

For the busy multitaskers among us, we must often choose between finding time to do a "writing workout" or a more traditional workout of the full-body sort.  I have devised a semi-solution to this dilemma by converting my workspace to look like this:

What changes can you make to the organization of your life to make your work easier, more dynamic, or more productive?  Please share!

Friday, January 28, 2011

Let's get Organized! Or not.

Hi there--and happy Poetry Friday!
Before we get started, run over and read the dynamite interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith by TeachingAuthor Carmela Martino and enter our latest book give-away!  Note that the deadline for entry is 11 pm (CST) Wednesday, February 2, 2011.  Make sure you follow the rules by posting a comment at the bottom of that blog post and include your contact information.  And you must have a USA mailing address.

TeachingAuthor Esther Hershenhorn kicked off our current topic with a great intro to 6 + 1 Trait Writing: OrganizationTeachingAuthor JoAnn Early Macken followed with Getting Your Ducks in a Row.  TeachingAuthor Mary Ann Rodman's It Just Looks Disorganized came next.  All include practical and inspiring Writing Workouts, so check them out.

Well...I can certainly relate to our topic of Organization as it relates to both writing and life.  For example, in my writing, 
Girl Coming in for a Landing, was essentially a shoebox full of poems all written in a teen voice when my editor at Knopf accepted it.  She literally spread the poems out on the floor of her office in New York while I spread them out on my floor in California and we talked about how best to tell this teen's story.  
Finally, we organized it around a school year divided into Autumn, Winter, Spring, with (roughly) an equal number of poems in each section.

I could analyze the organization of each of my books in this post.  But for me (unlike Mary Ann Rodman, who deliciously describes what she needs to research her books) it also comes down to decluttering my house and my office (especially the floor around my desk!) so that my mind is free to let each poem or the story tiptoe out.

I don't have much trouble getting rid of unused kitchen utensils and coffee mugs.  I'm happy to give old dresses to the Goodwill.  But paper paralyzes me.  

Or paper DID paralyze me, until I read Clutter Busting--Letting Go of What's Holding You Back.  

Actually, I'm lying. I hired the author and Clutter Buster extraordinaire Brooks Palmer to help me get out from under the paper clutter of my office first.  Then I discovered his book--which is gentle.  And gentle is what I need to be with myself, whether it's about the pile near my desk or the book I'm afraid to keep writing.x

I decided to ask Brooks how he organized his Clutter Busting book.

"I didn't know how to write a non-fiction book. But I felt the need to write my clutter busting book.  So I wrote it stream of consciousness.  I enjoyed the process.  But when people read what I wrote, it made very little sense to them.

So I used my clutter busting process on my book. I went through page by page and cut out anything that wasn't an encouragement for the reader to let go of their clutter.  At one point I printed up all the pages and spread them out on my living room floor.  I read the book thinking, "Is this serving the book or not?"  When I found clutter, I cut it out with scissors.

As I got rid of things that weren't serving the book, the book started to make sense.  I could have tried to organize what I originally wrote to make this happen.  But that would have kept in the things that weren't making it a strong book and it would have been bogged down with chaos.

As I got the book down to its bare essentials, I was able to start moving pieces around in a way that continued to serve the book.  By the time it got to a publisher, it had a strong impact because it just had the things that mattered.  Luckily the publisher assigned the book to an editor who continued the letting go process.  And then I got to do one last clutter busting of the book.

Essentially it was the chopping away of the clutter in the book that gave me the clarity to make it a powerful book."
Thank you, Brooks (his comic above reminds me not to stuff too many things into my life...or my books).  Now I see how I need to clutter bust my current novel.  Yikes--lots of decluttering ahead!  But at least I understand what my book needs LESS to be stronger.

And my office?  Now I hire Brooks once a year to keep me on track.


Are you stuck on a picture book, a short story or a poem?

Try this: cut out half the words.

Really.  Then tell us about it!

And finally, here's today's poem:

by April Halprin Wayland

this big shirt  
used to fit
but today I swim around in it—
out go all my give-away clothes

now my closet opens wide
it's easy to find the clothes inside
hangers dangle

this old idea
used to fit
but today I reconsider it—
out goes what I used to know 

now my life is opened wide
it's clean-swept, wind-blown...simplified—
it's easy to find the me inside

poem and drawings (c) 2011 April Halprin Wayland (except the comic by Brooks Palmer)

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Book Giveaway and Guest TeachingAuthor Interview with Cynthia Leitich Smith

I am interrupting our series on the second of the Six Traits of Writing to present an interview with guest TeachingAuthor Cynthia Leitich Smith. We're celebrating with her today because her most recent young adult novel, Blessed (Candlewick Press), was released just YESTERDAY. At the end of the interview you can watch the book trailer and then read about how to enter for a chance to win your own autographed copy. And be sure to check out the links I've included in the Blogosphere Buzz that follows the contest information.  

Blessed is a companion novel to the New York Times and Publishers Weekly bestsellers Eternal and Tantalize (also from Candlewick Press). Cynthia's award-winning books for younger children include Jingle Dancer, Indian Shoes, and Rain is Not My Indian Name (all from HarperCollins) and Holler Loudly (Dutton).

Cynthia has taught a number of writing workshops and is currently a member of the faculty at the Vermont College M.F.A. program in Writing for Children and Young Adults. Her amazing website was named one of the top 10 Writer Websites by Writer's Digest and an American Library Association (ALA) Great Website for Kids. Her Cynsations blog was listed among the top two read by the children's/YA publishing community in the SCBWI "To Market" column.

Now, without further ado, here is the interview:

Cynthia, how did you become a TeachingAuthor?
   Kathi Appelt drafted me. She's my original children's writing teacher, and I benefited greatly from taking private classes at her family ranch. From there, she asked me to guest speak at another event and then to join her in teaching a workshop. Over time, I began leading workshops, both for writing groups and out of my own home (for advanced/published participants) with my very cute husband and sometimes co-author, Greg Leitich Smith. In 2005, I joined the faculty of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

What's a common problem/question that your writing students have and how do you address it?
     Of late, I've been working with especially strong students. But for both beginners and the more advanced, I'd say that "talking heads"--long sessions of character dialogue without the speaker being physically grounded in the scene--are a common pitfall.
      Don't get me wrong. There's a time to let the dialogue flow without grounding or even attribution, such as in moments of high intensity when the reader knows the characters and their voices so well that anything more would be extraneous. But for the most part, it's helpful to be able to visualize our characters in a scene. Sometimes a beat is enough: She waved. He clenched his fist.
      Sometimes, by showing a character, say, cook a meal or fix a car, we reveal more about them in a way that informs the story to come.
      What I typically suggest to my students is to physically act out a scene. Literally step into the moment and movement(s). Or to perhaps sketch out a map of the town or bedroom, so that it's easier for them to mentally move their cast around and describe that on the page.

Would you share a favorite writing exercise for our readers?
      Write a scene from the point of view of the antagonist. (This often works best if the antagonist isn't a force of nature or Fate, but it can be surprisingly useful in cases of the latter, too--especially in terms of revealing theme.)

Your new book, Blessed, is the third in a series of paranormal novels that began with Tantalize.  Did you plan all along to write a series featuring these characters? If so, how did that affect your writing of Tantalize and Eternal?

     I had hoped to write a series featuring the characters, if there was enough enthusiasm from readers and my publisher. But early on, I didn't count on it. So, I wrote Tantalize and Eternal the way I felt they needed to be written.
     Were there plot threads I desperately wanted to continue? Yes. Definitely.
     But if that didn't prove possible, I had brought both the internal and external arcs full circle, albeit with not quite as happy of endings as some might expect, given my particular optimistic take on life.
(Readers, if you'd like to read more about Blessed, see this page on Cynthia's website.)

You write a wide range of fiction, from picture books to short stories to young adult novels. Do you have any suggestions for teachers on how they might use one of your books in the classroom?
      For the Tantalize series, I would suggest reading the books and discussing them along with the classics to which they pay tribute: Bram Stoker's Dracula, Nathaniel Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," Charles Dicken's A Tale of Two Cities, Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery."

Would you share an interesting behind-the-scenes story about one of your novels?
      After selling my first book, Jingle Dancer (Morrow, 2000), I set to work on what would become my first novel, Rain is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001). It had a previous incarnation, set in Chicago, as a rather horrid thematically clunky manuscript called "Two Wings to Fly," which I'd finally deleted and decided to try again from the ground up (so to speak).
      I often think of myself as a "sense of place" writer, and this time I returned to my roots, setting the book in northeast Kansas where I spent most of my childhood, and drawing on memories of small towns around the greater Kansas City area. One of the three or so places that I drew on in creating the fictional town of Hannesburg, Kansas was my mother's hometown. I didn't use the particular geographic layout, with the exception of city hall, but a fair amount of local voice and flavor proved inspiring. Still, it's a big world, and I'd nodded to German-American towns in Michigan (where I'd attended law school), too. It never occurred to me that anyone would make the connection outside of perhaps my own family.
      I took the manuscript to an SCBWI conference in Illinois, back when the legendary Esther Hershenhorn (now one of the TeachingAuthors) was serving as regional advisor. I don't remember if we read pages or if an excerpt of mine was read. But I do remember another attendee rushing to me and exclaiming, "Is that such-and-such, Missouri? My husband's family lives there. It sounds dead on."
      I was flabbergasted. She was right.

Well, you must have done an exceptional job creating that town in your manuscript, Cynthia. Your readers will be pleased at the way your strong "sense of place" also comes through in the Tantalize series, which is set in Texas. 

Thanks so much for visiting with us today, Cynthia. And congratulations again on the release of Blessed

Readers, I invite you to watch the book's trailer below, and then enter our contest for a chance to win an autographed copy.

Now for the contest Entry Rules: to enter our drawing for an autographed copy of Cynthia Leitich Smith's Blessed:

   1. You must post a comment to today's blog post telling us why you'd like to win a copy of the book. (Will you keep it for yourself or give it as a gift to a young reader?)
   2. You must include contact information in your comment. If you are not a blogger, or your email address is not accessible from your online profile, you must provide a valid email address in your comment. Entries without contact information will be disqualified. Note: the TeachingAuthors cannot prevent spammers from accessing email addresses posted within comments, so feel free to disguise your address by spelling out portions, such as the [at] and [dot].
   3. You must post your comment by 11 pm (CST) Wednesday, February 2, 2011. (The winner will be announced on Thursday, February 3.) Note: Winners automatically grant us permission to post their names here on our TeachingAuthors website. 
   4. You must have a mailing address in the United States.

For more information on our winner selection/notification process, see our official giveaway guidelines.

Blogosphere Buzz
  • For more on the release of Blessed (including additional opportunities to win copies) check out this post on the Cynsations blog.
  • Many of us in the Kidlitosphere were disappointed when NBC's Today Show failed to interview this year's Newbery and Caldecott winners. I was quoted in a School Library Journal article about the Facebook campaign to get the interviews reinstated. If you're on Facebook, you can participate in the campaign here
  • Are you a picture book writer looking for a way to jump-start your writing? The training has already begun for the 2011 Picture Book Marathon, which starts Feb. 1. You can read about it here. And even if you're not participating in the marathon, check out their companion blog for some picture book-writing inspiration (By the way, they have the coolest logo.)
  • The Amelia Bloomer Project has posted their 2011 list of recommended feminist literature for birth through 18 on their blog, with their "top ten" list posted here.
  • The annual Kidlitosphere Comment Challenge wraps up today. A HUGE thank you to Lee Wind and Pam Coughlan for organizing this terrific event. I found some terrific new blogs to follow. And thank you to all the bloggers who posted here as part of the challenge. We're honored to have the TeachingAuthors logo as part of the Challenge masthead.  

Happy Writing!

Monday, January 24, 2011

It Just Looks Disorganized

     If you looked in my office, you might start dialing the number for the show Hoarders.  Disorganized as it may appear, everything in there relates directly to a writing project.

     A quick inventory would include: Gibson Girl prints, three nun dolls, turn-of-the-century textbooks, s 16 Magazines 1963-68,  The Searchlight Cookbook, copyright 1931 ("Spring Beauty Salad, anyone?), a 1940 edition of Hymnal for Christian Worship, a WWII vintage volume, Song and Service Book for Ship and Field; Army Navy (did the Marines and Coast Guard have their own editions? reproductions of old Sears & Roebuck catalogs, an actual mostly intact copy of the Sears Fall 1941 catalog, a Sherwin-Williams store display book, Colors and Rooms for Your Jet Age Home (very Mad Men!), floor plans for 1920's homes...and that's just the top layer. BTW, the source for 99% of this stuff was the online Goodwill auction site ( I got most of this for under five dollars.

    In case you couldn't guess, I was once a librarian. I am now an ex-librarian who writes historical fiction.  I also live in an area where library funds are nil, the collections meager, and interlibrary loan fees astronomical. So I maintain my own research library.  I always have three books in my head; the one I am writing, and the next two I have planned. The WWII stuff was for Jimmy's Stars, the nun dolls and hymnals for my current project, and the 60's items for a possible sequel to Yankee Girl. (I said possible!)

    I am something of a chicken in writing historical fiction. So far, I haven't written anything that takes place before the 1880's because I can't find primary sources that old on Shop Goodwill, and previous to that, my family was an illiterate crew so there are no family letters or documents to rely on. (Hence, Karen Cushman will have no competition from me...chuckle, chuckle.)

     It takes me a year minimum to research my books.  Step one is to find a calendar for the year(s) of the story. (You can find these on line using the search term "perpetual calendar"  That calendar is taped to the lid of my laptop, so I can instantly see which day of the week was Christmas, or any other holiday or historical event.

      So once I have my calendar, I start researching and writing in the dates that are important to my story.  My calendar for Jimmy's Stars, in addition to marking off the usual holidays as the dates for certain battles and the day in which they became news in the United States. There was usually quite a gap, due to time zones and wartime censorship. What day did the movie The Sullivans open? (For anything you need to know about every movie ever made, is a life saver. It's also good for settling movie arguments!)  What days did certain items become rationed?  Filling out my calendar is always step one.

     I also need maps. I usually fictionalize a real neighborhood, in a real town. The Macken Street Hill neighborhood of Jimmy's Stars is based on the place my mother's family lived during WWII, West View. Macken Street Hill was fictional but Pittsburgh is not. I needed old streetcar schedules, maps of "downtown" and where the department stores and theaters were. 

At some point you have to name your characters. I have stacks of 'what-to-name-the-baby" books (which I have learned not to read in public at my age!) There are several websites that can tell you the most popular baby names for any given year, back to 1880. The book I am working on right now takes place in 1925, which means that most of the characters were born between 1907 and 1917. There are

     Next I think about dialog. What sort of slang was used, or words that are no longer part of our vocabulary, or have changed meanings?  I was lucky with Jimmy's Stars; both of my parents were still alive while I was writing it, and their speech still reeked of 1943. I grew up hearing such expressions as
"malarkey," "That's just banana oil," and "She's some sad apple." To complicate things, Jimmy took place in Pittsburgh, which has it's own distinct dialect, "Pittsburghese." And yes there are Pittsburghese dictionaries online! To me, the most important elements in historical fiction are how your characters think and speak. Nothing drives me crazier than to read a book that takes place during WWII, with characters using anachronisms (i.e.nerd) or words that have changed meaning.

     Last, and the one that takes the longest (and drives me the craziest) are The Daily Details. What sort of food did they eat.  Even as recently as the 1930's, citrus fruit was a rare treat, due to growing and shipping methods, What were the radio/TV stations and their schedules? What did their homes look like? How were they furnished.? How did the characters dress. What sort of make-up or perfume or patent medicine did they use?  This is where those old Sears catalogs come into play. Originally, Sears was meant as a mail order catalog for those who lived far from anything other than a general store. Up until the 1950s, the Sears catalog sold nearly everything; corsets,tractor parts, bedroom furniture, "smoking jackets," acne remedies, perfume, and my personal favorite, a book in the 1922 catalog coyly titled Advice and Instruction for the Married (and you knew they didn't mean a recipe for "Spring Beauty Salad!) The first Sears & Roebuck catalog was published in 1894, which may explain my hesitation to write about anything before that time. I would be one sad apple without my "Wishbooks" to give me the tiniest details of life in that year.

    After a year or more of research (and I am writing or editing another book at the same time) I start to write. and no matter how thoroughly you think you may have done your homework, something always
comes up that stops you in your tracks. In my current book, I have puzzled over how a town in 1925
with a contaminated water source obtain clean water (I'm talking raw sewage here, so just boiling it wouldn't do the trick). I wrote around that detail, but it was one I would eventually have to address. I stewed over that rotten water for over a year when a casual conversation with a former student pointed me in the right direction.

     Now you might write contemporary fiction. This does not excuse you from doing your homework.  At least half of my research questions are ones you need to answer for yourself before writing one word of your book.  Most of the problems you might have in writing, is in writing too soon, before you know your characters and the setting. A question I always ask a student who is stuck is this: Tell me about this character's bedroom. Now that bedroom may never appear in the story, but they tell you an awful lot about the character. Usually my answers are "I never thought about it" or "Hunh?" I tell them that when they can describe that bedroom from the posters on the wall to the clothes he throws in the closet instead of hanging them up, they are then ready to write.

      Now if you will excuse me, I am logging on to Maybe they'll have a copy of Advice and Instruction for the Married for auction today.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman


Writer's Workout

Friday, January 21, 2011

Getting Your Ducks in a Row

Esther’s comprehensive January 19 post covered many of the organization methods available to writers. She identified comparison-contrast, deductive logic, point-by-point analysis, development of a central theme, and chronological history of an event. My trusty old Handbook of Technical Writing adds even more methods: sequential, increasing-order-of-importance, decreasing-order-of-importance, division-and-classification, spatial, specific-to-general, general-to-specific, and cause-and-effect.

“A logical method of development,” it says, “satisfies the reader’s need for a controlling shape and structure for your subject.”

But how do you choose which method to use? That decision can depend on several factors, including your subject, your audience, and the purpose of your writing. Are you writing fiction, nonfiction, or poetry? For babies, children, or young adults? To inform, to entertain, or to persuade? Each answer helps determine the appropriate structure.

Many stories are organized in chronological order: this happened, then this, then this. What if you want to create suspense? You might withhold a critical piece of information and reveal it later.

Most of my picture books rely on rhythm and rhyme to help move the stories along. In each case, an editor helped me shape a story by creating a flow through time. Cats on Judy and Sing-Along Song both span a day in the life of the main character. Waiting Out the Storm takes place over the length of a conversation between a mother and daughter before and during a thunderstorm. My newest book Baby Says, “Moo!” (March 2011) follows Baby through a shopping trip, to the countryside, and finally to a picnic destination. It’s both sequential and cumulative—the trickiest structure I’ve ever played with. Reordering segments to create a more logical progression of events required a thorough rethinking of both structure and language—my kind of fun!

Nonfiction topics can demand a specific organization method. Flip, Float, Fly: Seeds on the Move began as a list of seeds that moved about in a variety of interesting ways, such as by wind, water, or animal carriers. After I recognized the categories of travel methods, I used them to assemble the seeds into logical groups.

Many of the nonfiction series books I wrote for beginning readers cover the life cycle of one animal from birth to death. A nonfiction picture book manuscript I’m currently submitting, Whirling Birds: Chimney Swifts Circle through Summer, describes an eventful summer in the life of one of my favorite birds.

Gary Paulsen: Voice of Adventure and Survival is a biography of the author of Hatchet and other exciting books for children. Its structure is also chronological, and its young adult audience determined the age-appropriate content. A picture book biography, however, might include only a significant portion of a subject’s life or the incidents that show one aspect of that life.

Write a Poem Step by Step, another manuscript I’m submitting now, is based on the poetry writing workshops I’ve been presenting for nearly fifteen years. It requires a sequential approach because each step builds on the previous one. Poems written by students in my workshops illustrate each step in the process.

Whatever you write, consider your topic, your audience, and your objective to find the most logical way to organize your writing and satisfy your reader. That will help you get your ducks in a row!

Writing Workout

Graphic organizers can help you find the best way to arrange your ideas. Here are some sites with free printable examples. Give them a try!

Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Education Place

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

6 + 1 Trait Writing: Organization

This is the second January our TeachingAuthors posts address 6 + 1 Trait Writing.
Last January we focused on the first trait, Ideas, each of us sharing the generation of a particular work.
This January we focus on Organization.

Brainstorming this post, though, I wondered, “Are all of our readers familiar with 6 + 1 Trait Writing?”
Many of our readers are classroom teachers, reading our posts to help them grow writers; many, however, are first-and-foremost writers, specifically children’s book writers.
6 + 1 Trait Writing – or Six Traits Writing as it’s often called - may mean little, if anything.

So, I’ll organize my post as most writers would organize their work – i.e. structure its movement forward and create its shape, then begin by grounding my readers in this singular Language Arts approach.

Essentially, the Six Traits approach offers an analytical model for assessing and teaching writing based on six identifiable key qualities of strong writing:

• IDEAS, the main message;

• ORGANIZATION, the internal structure of the piece;

• VOICE, the personal tone and flavor of the author's message;

• WORD CHOICE, the vocabulary a writer chooses to convey meaning;

• SENTENCE FLUENCY, the rhythm and flow of the language;

• CONVENTIONS, the mechanical correctness;

• PRESENTATION, how the writing actually looks on the page.

I like the Six Traits connection children’s book author and teacher Anastasia Suen shares on her website:

“I like to teach with the six traits because this is how I write! I start with ideas, and then I organize them. Once I have a plan, I begin to write. I say things the way I want to say them, with my voice. I choose words and make the sentences flow. Then I clean it up by focusing on the conventions (grammar, punctuation and spelling). I work in this order, so that ideas come first and conventions are last.”

Ruth Culham is the SixTraits Guru.                                           
I’ll be sitting at her feet soon, learning-learning-learning, at the upcoming February CCIRA Conference (Colorado Council International Reading Association) in Denver – and – March Illinois Reading Council Conference in Springfield.
Dr. Culham was formerly the Unit Manager of the Assessment Program at Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory in Portland, Oregon.
Many educators I know turn to Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory Education for resources, lesson plans and books.

Aurora, Illinois first-grade teacher and national literacy consultant Dr. Maria Walter authored a series of articles in Book Links that showcase picture books representative of strong trait writing.
Scholastic published Maria’s book Literature Is Back! Using the Best Books to Teach Readers and Writers Across Genres in 2007.

To ensure we’re all on the same page for the posts that follow, here’s Northwest Regional Education’s definition of Organization:

“Organization is the internal structure of a piece of writing, the thread of central meaning, the pattern and sequence, so long as it fits the central idea. Organizational structure can be based on comparison-contrast, deductive logic, point-by-point analysis, development of a central theme, chronological history of an event, or any of a dozen other identifiable patterns. When the organization is strong, the piece begins meaningfully and creates in the writer a sense of anticipation that is, ultimately, systematically fulfilled. Events proceed logically; information is given to the reader in the right doses at the right times so that the reader never loses interest. Connections are strong, which is another way of saying that bridges from one idea to the next hold up. The piece closes with a sense of resolution, tying up loose ends, bringing things to a satisfying closure, answering important questions while still leaving the reader something to think about.”

I look forward to learning how my fellow TeachingAuthors come at organizing their stories, with hopes readers will comment as to how they do the same.

Esther Hershenhorn

Writing Workout

Writing Workout

I began my career writing picture books, a singular art form if ever there was. It wasn’t until I wrote my first novel, however, that I truly understood how a picture book worked, how the format demands the essence of a story. A picture book offers - in 14 to 15 double-page spreads -the bare bones of a story. The 14 to 15 chapters of a middle grade novel? Why, those chapters total a fleshed-out picture book story!

Choose a favorite novel. Summarize each chapter in one or two sentences, focusing on the character, his actions and re-actions. Note the question each chapter leaves the reader asking. Note the plot structure – episodic, circular, scenes that build to a climax? How might the novel play out as a picture book? How might you tell the story to accommodate the format, ordering those chapter summaries within double-page spreads?

Now choose a favorite picture book. Summarize each double-page spread, again focusing on the character, his actions and re-actions. Note the pacing, the tension, the page-turn. Determine the plot structure. How might the picture book become a novel? Which scenes need to be rendered more fully, expanded and amplified, to give heft to the storyline? Which characters would assume a greater role?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Be the Change

"I wish I were famous," my 5-year-old daughter announced yesterday.  When I asked why, she explained reasonably, "Because then everyone would like me." 

Her enthusiasm seemed undampened when I explained that it didn't quite work that way.  I then asked her if she knew how to get famous, and she said, "Yes. You find what you're talented at and then work really hard to get good at it."  Followed immediately by, "I know what my talent is.  Hula hooping.  I'm working on being a great hula hooper." 

Wary of pinning all my hopes and dreams for her on her hula hooping future, I explained to Kate that there is one other way to become famous that has nothing to do with talent.  And that's just to be the best, kindest, most generous, most honorable, most principled person one can be.  I reminded her that we are celebrating Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s birthday this weekend, and that he was famous for standing up for what was right and for helping other people. 

As writers, we have the opportunity to reach many people with our words.  As we all know, words matter deeply.  Words can wound, and words can inspire.  To aspiration and inspiration! --Jeanne Marie

Writing Workout
My college students write a research essay at the end of each semester.  The assignment I give asks them to contemplate the following question: "How do you plan to leave your mark on the world?"  I find this question an excellent jumping-off point for a research essay because it requires them to 1) write about something that matters to them 2) to contemplate a specific plan for both writing and living. 

This question is really the one I ask myself before I write anything.  I also like to ask my students on their other assignments, "Why are you writing this essay?"  If the answer is, "for a grade," I can pretty much guarantee that it won't be a very good one. :)

Friday, January 14, 2011

My Tribe (s) ~ And Happy Poetry Friday!

Happy Poetry Friday!   Today's poem and something to get you going in the new year are both below.

To kick off today's post I wanted to share a favorite quote. Years ago, author Betsy Byars spoke at the SCBWI's national conference and said: “Betsy, there’s a woman in Kansas writing the same book you are, and she’s not sitting on the couch watching Roadrunner cartoons.
My Doberman/German Shepherd pup, Eli on his couch.  Yes, his couch. Don't ask.

How do you get off that couch?  That's basically the question TeachingAuthors is exploring this week: “What keeps you going? How do we overcome disappointment, distractions, rejection, etc.?”

So...what keeps me going?  My tribe.

I have lots of tribes, of course—my little triangle of a family, my wider family, my folk music friends, my hiking gang, my politically active friends and more.

But as a writer? My tribes are my writing friends, my critique group, the classmates in my current writing class, and my blogmates, who always, always inspire me.

I mean, who would not be inspired by this week's discussion?

I sooo relate when JoAnn Early Macken talks about how “writing becomes an obligation, even drudgery.  I have to drag myself to the page, and it's much easier to find something else to do that seems more urgent.”  
Here's one thing that draws me away from my writing--can you relate?
JoAnn's post, in which she talks about writing every morning on her loveseat, reminded me of the Flannery O’Connor quote, “Every morning between 9 and 12, I go to my room and sit before a piece of paper.  Many times, I just sit for three hours with no ideas coming to me.  But, I know one thing.  If an idea does come between 9 and 12, I’m there ready for it.” 

Esther Hershenhorn talks about sending herself “encouraging greetings via snail mail and email.”

I send myself encouraging texts!  I like Dante's quote, “The Infinite Goodness has such wide arms that it takes whatever turns to it.”   So every day I send a commitment to my writer friend Adell Shay (and sometimes my writing buddy Rebecca Gold).  I text them that I am letting go of the product.  I say I am turning my book over to the “loving arms of the infinite universe.”

Letting go of the product and Mary Ann Rodman's post both remind me of this poignant poem by author Kate Messner about how some of us may be feeling after the ALA Awards were announced on Monday (the poem was brought to my attention by Greg Pincus).

In her post this week, Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford says that sharing is the key for her.  She says,“the paycheck is not really a motivating factor."

Amen to that!  When I was in the corporate world, I may have been frustrated by the petty politics, I may have spent Sundays in my office, I may have ached from those damned high heels, but at least I had that paycheck.

I have learned that I need a paycheck in this life, too.  For awhile I paid myself seven dollars worth of living flowers from the local nursery every Friday. It may not seem like much but, boy! I felt valued.

Carmela Martino's post talks about relating to other writers' struggles...which made me think of this blog post by agent Mary Kole on dealing with rejection (also brought to my attention by the most amazing Mr. Pincus).

Carmela also talked about setting DEADLINES.  Yes, yes, YES—deadlines are powerful for me, too!  
The thing is, deadlines--commitments of any kind--are fine...IF I say them aloud to someone in my tribe.  But...if I say, "no more peanut butter today" just to myself, well, here's what happened yesterday:
Never fear!  Today's Writing Workout is all about working with someone in your tribe.

Here's what to do:
1) Grab a buddy from your writing tribe.
2) Both of you write three commitments for the coming week.  Don't set yourself up to fail.  Don't commit to writing a novel in a week.  Start out easy and see what you can realistically accomplish in seven days.
3) Set a deadline.
4) Select a "salary" you will pay yourself.  The important thing is to pay yourself every week whether you've completed all three commitments or not.  Don't business execs get paid even when they've had an unproductive week? It happens.  This is not about whipping yourself.  This is encouraging yourself.  Put the whip away and take the paycheck.
5) Read your commitments to each other.
4) Check in with each other at the end of the week.

For example: I commit to meditating 20 minutes once a week, writing for three hours this week, and being in bed by 10 pm at least two days of the week.  My due date is Thursday at 8 pm.  On Friday, I will pay myself seven dollars worth of flowers for my garden.  Now it's your turn:

My Commitment to Me

I commit to:

My due date is:
My salary is:
Don't forget to call your writing buddy at the end of the week to check in! 

And finally, here's today's poem--about my tribe.

by April Halprin Wayland

My boots are wearing thin.
Their soles have little soul.
The wind has stung my skin.
My goals are all black holes.

I tilt my bottle, sip.
Why bother on this trip?
I drink the final drop.
I stop.

There's gravel in my shoe.
I want to turn around.
Those voices...are they true?
I sit and write them down.

just around the bend?
Could that be...a face?
Yes—I pick up my pace!

A member of my band!
You stretch your steadfast hand.
I made it—thanks to you.
Look back: wow—what a view!

A wonderful teacher can inspire me and move me forward--what about you?  Who in your tribe moves you forward?  Let us know!
Poem, drawings and photos (c) by April Halprin Wayland

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

What Keeps YOU Going?

Congratulations to all the winners of this year's American Library Association (ALA) Media Awards in children's and young adult literature. If you haven't seen the list yet, visit the ALA press release. And see below for more Blogosphere Buzz.

We've kicked off the new year with a series of posts answering the two-part question: "What keeps you going? And how do you overcome disappointment, distraction, rejection, etc.?” The question was inspired, in part, by an encouraging guest blog post by award-winning author Laurie Halse Anderson on the Debutante Ball blog. Anderon's post, called "Triaging Rejection Pain," contains helpful, specific advice on handling rejection.

My problem lately hasn't been rejection. Instead, I'm struggling to finish revisions on a historical young adult novel I started in January 2009. That's right--2009! Just writing that date makes me cringe. This is the same novel I blogged about in November, the one that I worked on for my pseudo-NaNoWriMo project. For this novel, my answer to the question "What keeps you going?" is a Deadline.  Writing "on spec," as Jeanne Marie called it, is difficult for me, especially when the project requires as much research as this one does. (Did I mention that the novel is based on the life of an 18th-century Italian composer, and I don't read Italian very well?)

When I was pursuing my MFA in writing at Vermont College, the monthly deadlines kept me on task. I was more productive in those two years than I have ever been, either before or since. I miss those deadlines. I also miss having someone I'm accountable to.

I used the artificial deadline of "write a book in a month" to motivate me to create the first draft of the novel back in January 2009. After meeting that deadline, though, I kept procrastinating on revising the draft. So I created another deadline via my recent pseudo-NaNoWriMo project. During those 7 weeks, I made significant progress. While I fell short of my 70,000-word goal, I did get to 60,885 words. That was on December 14. I haven't added one word since.

Sure, I can blame the holidays. But it's now the middle of the second work week of the new year and I haven't so much as looked at the manuscript. Instead, I took on the huge project of cleaning and reorganizing my office. Now don't get me wrong--my office was sorely in need of reorganization, and I'm pleased with the progress I've made. (Believe it or not, I'm still not done.) But the cleaning could have waited. Or I could have cleaned just enough to have a usable writing surface again and saved the major overhaul for later. Why didn't I? I was procrastinating. In other words, I was blocked. There, I've said it. I was blocked.

How could I be blocked now, when I'm so close to the end? After thinking about it, I realized there were two underlying reasons. First, I felt guilt (and shame) for falling short of my goal of reaching 70,000 by December 15--a goal I'd announced not only here, but also on my Facebook page. I felt like a failure. Unlike Esther, our resident PMA cheerleader, I chose to ignore how far I have come. Instead of beating myself up, I could have celebrated the fact that in seven weeks I'd added 28,303 words, almost doubling my word count.
The second reason for my block was fear (as it so often is). I'm terrified that after investing so much time and effort into this novel, no one will want to publish it. If only I could follow Mary Ann's example and lock my worries in a closet. :-)

The good news is that admitting all this to myself has helped dissolve my block. So, my answer to the question "What keeps you going?" is more than simply having deadlines. It includes taking a step back to figure out the reason(s) why I get stuck when I do.

Another thing that helps me: knowing I'm not the only one in my situation. I recently read an interview in The Writer with A. Manette Ansay, author of the adult novel, Good Things I Wish You, a historical novel based on the life of the 19th-century composer and pianist Clara Schumann. I was encouraged to read that it took Ansay 8 years to find a structure that worked for her novel. While I certainly hope my novel doesn't take me that long, I'm relieved to read about another writer's success following a similar struggle.

Now I'm excited again about returning to the manuscript and making my way to the end of my story. I'm looking forward to tasting that joy JoAnn talked about in her post. Until I'm done, the rest of my office reorganization will have to wait. :-)
So what keeps YOU going? Please post a comment sharing how you deal with disappointment, distraction, rejection, etc.    
Blogosphere Buzz
  • Looking for more ideas on how to stay motivated by focusing on the positive? Read Carol Grannick's column in the current SCBWI-Illinois Prairie Wind. Or better still, work through Carol's "self-directed resilience workshop" on her blog, The Irrepressible Writer.
  • If you'd like to have more joy and happiness in your life, or you need help following through on your New Year's resolutions, check out The Happiness Project's 2011 Happiness Challenge.  You don't have to actually register--just click on the link that says "Videos for the Year of Happiness Challenge."
  • It's not too late to participate in the annual Blog Comment Challenge. This is a great way to discover new Kidlit blogs and also to help others notice your blog. For details, see the MotherReader blog.
  • Shy about writing blog comments? Read Nathan Bransford's advice on how to write a good comment.
Happy writing!

Monday, January 10, 2011

The Bubble

   What keeps me going?

    Until I managed to sell a book, sheer tenacity. I knew the odds of selling a book were roughly the same as dating George Clooney, but I hung in there anyway. The day I got that magic phone call telling me I had actually sold a book, I truly felt that I could die a happy woman with the receiver in my hand (phones still had receivers). "Selling a book" was number one on my bucket list.

    But I did not drop dead on my parent's kitchen floor. I realized I didn't have a second item on my bucket list. So I did what I do best.

    Worry. I could write a whole blog on worry, but in this case let's narrow it done to one worry. I didn't want to let down an editor who took a chance on a newbie author. I am professional worrier. I have very little ability to judge my own work, so the easy road was to assume it was awful and worry. Which does not lead to actually producing work. Kicking and screaming, I locked my Worries into a closet, and then lost the key. Every now and then I can still hear them in there, but they are muffled, and apparently have lost the energy to kick.

    Most of the time I feel like The Bubble Boy on Seinfeld.  It's just me and that blank computer screen, all alone, floating around in space. ("In space, no one can hear you scream.")  It's a relief when the editor enters my bubble.  I have someone who will encourage, nudge or just plain say "this doesn't work." However, 99% of the time, it's just me and my Mac and the Bubble. It's easy to forget that eventually (hopefully) someone besides a bunch of adults at my publishers will read what I write. If I only had a bleacher full of my readers sitting in my office (which would half to be a lot bigger than it is now!) chanting "Go Ms Rodman, go. Finish that book before I have children on my own! W-R-I-T-E.
Write it, Rodman!"

    Since my office is crowded enough, I have a "bleacher wall" across from my desk. These are pictures of my readers, taken at school visits and book fairs. There is the girl who loved Yankee Girl so much, she made me a CD of all the Beatles songs in the book. The adult bloggers who made the WWII ration-restricted recipes from Jimmy's Stars.  The grandmother who came to a reading of  A Tree for Emmy, and shared her memories of when the streets of our town were lined with these pink blossomed trees.

     I am no rock star writer.  I'm not recognized in the supermarket or pursued in malls. I'm not J.K. Rowling who is rumored to be richer than the Queen of England. I am not Lemony Snicket whose local appearance required the fire department to keep the number of nine-year-olds in Barnes and Noble under the legal limit, admitting them one at a time as another happy reader exited. It might be nice to be a rock star writer, for a little while (although I could put up with the royalty checks forever!)

     What I lack in fame, fortune and Important Awards, I make up for with readers who care.  Readers who care what happens to my characters, care whether there is a sequel to Yankee Girl (not so far, but it's a possibility), who want to know "where the stories come from." Readers for whom my characters are real.

    The students, teachers, librarians and parents---that's who keep me moving forward.
The readers who are outside my bubble, urging me upward and onward.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman