Friday, September 30, 2011

The Earlybird Gets the Story

I love writing first drafts! I love that moment when a thought or phrase or word pops into my head, and I rush to scribble it down on one of the notebooks I keep in my pocket, my purse, or my desk. I love the anticipation, the exhilaration, the certainty that this one is surely a winner. My first drafts are spontaneous, joyful, enthusiastic, hopeful—everything I love about writing—and usually incomplete.

Once I get past that initial elation, every writing fear halts my forward motion. I am not going to elaborate on fears here, though. For heaven’s sake, they don’t need reinforcing! If I want to finish something—and I do!—I have to avoid my internal critic.

One life-saving method lets me sneak past the crushing criticism. I start my own writing first thing in the morning, in my pajamas, coffee close by, and I work before the critic wakes up and gets snarly. I am a morning person, but lucky for me, my critic sleeps in.

Here’s a morning person poem inspired by our older son and memories of my sisters and me when we were his age. It was published in Stories from Where We Live: The Great Lakes.

We Are the Early Risers

We are the early risers.
We are drawn to the water
like turtles in spring.
While the sleepyheads snuggle with pillows,
we are shucking off sneakers and socks
to tiptoe through sand dunes
and wade in the shallows
and watch dawn hatch from the waves.

Be sure to enter our Teaching Authors Book Giveaway featuring Guest Teaching Author Nikki Grimes and her new novel-in-poems, Planet Middle School.

Happy Poetry Friday! Today’s Roundup is at Read Write Believe.

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

In the beginning is the end...

Don't forget to check out our latest TeachingAuthor Interview and Nikki Grimes Book Giveaway.

In offering up T. S. Eliot’s words from his poem “East Coker” as my end-all/be-all comment re writing First Drafts, I’m risking the obvious.
But honestly?
Eliot’s words say it all, literally and - believe it or not, figuratively.
In the beginning is the end.”
It’s a Writer’s Sampler sentiment if ever there were one.

Author Harriette Robinet, a member of my very first Writers Group, shared essentially the same thought when she exhorted us weekly, wagging her index finger: “Just keep on writing 'til you get to The End!”

I’ve been writing First Drafts from beginning to THE END in various formats and genres since
1977.  (Really.)
Here’s what I recommend to keep you keepin’ on while (not 'til) you complete your First Draft.

• Fall in love with your characters before you ever put pen to paper or fingers to keyboard. Loving them makes abandoning them impossible.

• Keep a Writer’s Notebook handy to capture anything that could stop you from writing forward – i.e. a random thought, a nagging worry or concern, a sub-plot possibility, a fact that needs verifying.

• Speaking of writing forward, if the right word refuses retrieval, if a character name gives you pause, if you can’t conjure up the exact words your characters might speak, bracket the space on the page and summarize what’s missing, knowing you’ll return once you reach THE END, and keep on goin'!

• The above advice pertains to scenes, too. You know what needs to happen – the Who, the When and Where, the How – but your Muse is refusing to give it up. Bracket, summarize the scene with a title, and keep moving forward.

• And speaking of scenes, end your day’s or night’s writing by stopping in the middle of one. That way you can easily continue writing when you return to your manuscript, especially if you visualize that scene before you fall asleep.
• And speaking of bedtime, try this: state your nagging story question, then invite your brain to work on the answer while you’re catching 40 winks. Don’t open your eyelids in the morning until you hear/see/feel the answer.

• Immerse yourself fully in the story by re-reading a few pages from the previous day’s efforts. Don’t edit, mind you, even though it’s tempting because it feels so good. The goal’s to keep on writing to THE END.

• Sometimes give yourself permission to jump ahead in your story, if a down-the-road consequence or reaction makes itself known; other times note the future scene, by title, summary, time-line, in your Writer’s Notebook.
  • If stuck, substitute your Reader’s Hat for your Writer’s Chapeau. Ask yourself: what question is my reader asking here and now?
  • If still stuck, take your camera’s eye away from your character and focus on a sub-plot.
• Set yourself a reasonable, attainable goal for each writing stint: maybe 2 clean, clear pages;  or 1,000 words; perhaps a scene. Feeling good about yourself and your efforts helps return you to your laptop the next day. (Think: Pavlov!)

• Though tempted, DO NOT SHOW YOUR MANUSCRIPT PIECE-MEAL (i.e. Chapter by Chapter) TO YOUR WRITER’S GROUP. Why not?  You’ll likely then be re-writing, instead of writing forward. Offering an entire manuscript for a complete reading guarantees a thoughtful, comprehensive reading. Second best? Offer chapters that comprise an Act.

It goes without saying: reaching your First Draft’s conclusion deserves and warrants a backslap, applause and a glass of your favorite Chardonnay and/or a stop by your local Ben and Jerry’s.

Then, and only then, print out a hard copy of your First Draft, tuck it away in a drawer, experience (normal) withdrawal, miss every single High and Low you experienced writing your story; then, after, say, 3 or 4 weeks, dust both you and your First Draft off. Now that you know the story your characters needed to live, breathe and tell you, begin again, telling that story to your readers.

I promise you: this time around, your end will be in your beginning, which likely will start some 3 chapters in. :)

Esther Hershenhorn
Never, I repeat, NEVER! discard your First Draft. In fact, be sure to make time during your revisions to re-visit it and re-read it quietly. Everyone and everything that brought you to the story will be waving “Hey!” and showing off their gold.

Cross-stitch these bon mots for further encouragement:

"More powerful than the will to win is the courage to begin."
                         - Source unknown
“Great is the art of beginning, but greater is the art of ending.”
                     - Henry Wadsworth Longfellow 
“In every phenomenon, the beginning remains always the most notable moment.”
                         - Thomas Carlyle.
A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.”
                              - Lao-Tzu
“There will come a time when you believe everything is finished. That will be the beginning.”
                            - Louis L’Amour

Monday, September 26, 2011

First Draft Fears

I am the perfect TA to kick off our series on "quieting the internal critic" because I am, as I believe I have mentioned, a serial starter.  I dig in to the first draft, I write a few chapters, and then... I give up the ghost.

The reasons for this quirk of mine are many and varied, and I have spent much time analyzing them in order to work on specific solutions.  Here's what I've got so far:

1. Plot and concept

Plotting has always been a weakness of mine.  As I start writing, I often have a specific concern in mind -- perhaps I'm trying to do too much; or too little; or the external plot is not as interesting as the internal plot.  More problematic (and often the case lately) -- by the time I get a novel from concept to page, someone else has already had the same idea.  And in a relatively high-concept project (especially when the other writer is famous and you are not), this situation is death. 

1. Find a trusted critiquer!

I have mostly implemented this solution by taking classes -- which is a very expensive way to find someone to look at my pages and give me the confidence I need that I have a decent concept that merits completion.  Better solution: Find a great and dedicated critique group! (I'm working on it.)

I have discovered that if I get helpful feedback as to the direction of my manuscript from the very outset, I am all fired up to start writing and keep going.


2. I have an ingrained tendency to read, re-read, tweak and re-tweak the beginning pages/chapters.  Either these turn out to be much more polished than later chapters; or the later chapters never get written, period. 

2. Keep going!  Don't go back!  If I have revision ideas as I go along, I learned that what I need to do is write myself a note and continue.  Part of my problem is that, due to the start-and-stop nature of my writing life, I often have to spend far too much time rereading what I've written -- to get myself back "into" the mood of novel.  This step (and wasted time) would not be necessary if I would simply...

3. Write every day!  Or at least every week!

(I'm working on it.)

4. I get stuck.  My novel has a knotty problem, or I get tired of what I'm writing, and I am tempted to give up.

4. Read!  Always Read!  Keep reading good work -- and don't let it intimidate you.  Be inspired.

Check out our latest Teaching Authors Interview/Book Giveaway for some true writing inspiration from the great Nikki Grimes.

Go forth and write fruitfully! --Jeanne Marie

Friday, September 23, 2011

Book Giveaway! Guest Teaching Author & Poet extraordinaire, Nikki Grimes!

Howdy, Campers--Happy Poetry Friday!

Teaching Authors is pleased to welcome New York Times bestselling author and Guest Teaching Author, Nikki Grimes.  
Nikki is the recipient of the 2006 NCTE Award for Excellence in Poetry for Children. Her distinguished works include ALA Notable book, What is Goodbye?, the novels Jazmin’s Notebook, Dark Sons, and The Road to Paris (Coretta Scott King Author Honor Books). Creator of the popular Meet Danitra Brown books, Nikki lives in Corona, California. [California rules!]

Nikki's accumulated more honors, and has written more books and more articles than we have space to list, but it's too interesting not to mention that she's also a performing artist, a fine artist, a fiber artist, a jeweler and she says, she's a Jane-of-all-Trades.

I've known Nikki for a long time and have always been moved by her unfailing generosity.   Today, she's offering our readers the chance to win an autographed copy of her wonderful novel-in-poems, Planet Middle Schoolfrom Bloomsbury USA, hot off the press Sept. 13th! To enter the drawing, see the instructions at the very-very-very end of this post.
This slender book tells the story of a young tomboy, confused and blooming, in her own true voice.

From the flap copy
For twelve years, Joylin Johnson's life has been just fine, thank you very much. A game of basketball with the boys—especially her friend Jake—was all it took to put a smile on her face. Baggy jeans, T-shirt, and hair in a ponytail were easy choices. Then suddenly the world seemed to turn upside down, and everything changed at once. Her best girl friend is now flirting with her best guy friend. Her clothes seem all wrong. Jake is acting weird, and basketball isn't the same. And worst of all, there is this guy, Santiago, who appears from . . . where? What lengths will Joy go to—and whom will she become—to attract his attention?
In short poems that perfectly capture the crazy feelings of adolescence and first crushes, award-winning author Nikki Grimes has crafted a delightful, often hilarious, heart-tugging story.
Congratulations on the publication of your gazillionth book, Nikki!  Tell us how you became a TeachingAuthor.
Nikki Grimes: I don't think of myself as a Teaching/Author, so I'm not quite sure how to answer that.  My first teaching experience was in college, as a T.A., and I hadn't yet published a book, though I had published in literary journals, magazines, and a few anthologies, at that point.

You may not think of yourself as a Teaching Author, but every time you do a school event or speak to teachers you certainly are.  I urge you to acknowledge the teacher within! Besides, your first teaching experience was as a T.A, which stands for Teaching Author, duh!

As further proof that you are, indeed, a TeachingAuthor, what's a common problem/question students have and how do you address it?
Nikki Grimes: I'm frequently asked how one can know when a story is finished.  My answer: I know my story is done when I find myself making changes that are no longer improvements.

Would you share a favorite writing exercise for our readers?
Nikki Grimes: Poetry benefits from the full engagement of the senses. To that end, I offer an exercise in word play:
  • Choose one of the following words:  Bell  Shower  Bullet  Blanket  Pen
  • Now, close your eyes and consider the object that word represents. 
  • Does that word have a shape? A sound?  Does it have a color?  What does it do, or what can you do with it? Does it have a taste?  How does it feel?
  • Answer each question that applies to the word you have chosen.  Write a simple, single sentence responding to each question.
  • Once you've assembled all your answers, arrange the information into a poem.  For example: I once chose the word Ball. 
It is round, rubber.
It bounces.
It makes a smacking sound.
I can throw, hold, or catch it.
It feels smooth.

From this basic description, I formed a small story-poem.

Ball is a round, rubber word.
It fits inside my palm.
I play with it outside,
bounce it on the sidewalk.
When it hits the ground,
it makes a smacking sound.
My cupped hand waits for it
to come back home.

It always help to model this exercise for students.  Additionally, as a tool for relaxation, consider playing soft music in the background as students work.

What one piece of advice do you have for teachers?
Nikki Grimes: Rhyme seems to be everyone's default, when it comes to poetry.  I never allow the use of it during my workshops.  Focus instead on metaphor and simile.    Emphasize the idea of painting a picture with words.  That is a truer understanding of the heart of poetry, I think. If students grasp the use of metaphor and simile, all of their writing will be greatly enhanced.

Share a meaninful book signing story with us.
Nikki Grimes: My most memorable signing was at my first major literary conference.  I was scheduled to sign for one hour, following my presentation.  However, by the time the signing was to commence, none of the booksellers in the exhibit hall had any of my titles left for my audience to purchase.  A few actually bought anthologies that included my work, just so they could bring something to me to sign.  As a result, I sat there at that table, drumming my fingers, anxiously waiting for someone, anyone, to step forward with a book for me to sign.  It was very embarrassing.  Oh, and did I mention?   I was seated next to JANE YOLEN, who had a line out the door!

Nowadays, whenever I sit next to a new author, and I see them looking longingly at the line in front of my signing table, I tell them that story so they can relax a little.  "It will get better," I tell them. And, once they've heard my story, they believe it.

Thank you so much for stopping by, Nikki--and good luck to all our readers who enter to win Planet Middle School (see below to enter)!

Watch this two minute video of Nikki on Teen Read Week:

If you can't get enough Nikki, read the Teacher's Guide to Planet Middle School, catch the trailer for her new novel A GIRL NAMED MISTER, check out her blog, NIKKI SOUNDS OFF, and follow her on Facebook!
This week, Poetry Friday is hosted
by Anastasia Suen, at Picture Book of the Day ~
Thanks for hosting, Anastasia!
Happy PF!

Before entering our contest, please read our Book Giveaway Guidelines. Then, for a chance to win an autographed paperback copy of Planet Middle School, answer the following question:  Why do you want to win this book?

And--SURPRISE!--we're offering a bonus for this giveaway: if you answer one additional question, you'll get an extra entry in this contest--woo-woo!  The bonus question is: What would you like to read more of at (or is there something we've never offered that you'd like to see here)? 

You can either post your comments to today's blog post or email comments to teachingauthors at gmail dot com with "Contest" in the subject line. To qualify, your entry must be posted or received by 11 p.m. Friday, September 30, 2011 (Central Standard Time). The winner will be chosen in a random drawing and announced by 11 p.m., Saturday, October 1, 2011

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

The Teacher as Student: Studying Climactic Scenes

Last year at this time, I wrote a post that began:
I love learning. If I had unlimited resources, I'd be a full-time student for the rest of my life. Instead, I'm a teacher, which is the next best thing.
In that post, I talked about how I study craft books regularly, looking for ways to help both me and my students grow as writers. This fall, I've gone one step further--I'm actually sitting in a classroom again as a student! I'm attending a 4-part workshop called "The Climax or Breaking Point in Short Stories and Novels" presented by Fred Shafer at Off Campus Writer's Workshop (OCWW). I have to drive an hour and a half in rush hour traffic to get to OCWW, but it's worth it for a class with Fred. He is an amazing and inspiring teacher. In the first two sessions, he's already given me several ideas for how I can make the climax of my historical young adult novel more powerful. So even though I've already sent the manuscript out, I'm revising it again. (As Mary Ann discussed on Monday, I wish there were a "never mind" command that would allow me to retrieve my emailed manuscript.)

One of the things I really appreciate about Fred is that even though he doesn't specifically teach "writing for children and teens," he has a tremendous respect for stories for children. He says in a recent online interview:
"There are many things that all writers can learn from books written for children, because of the close contact those books share with fables, fairy tales, and stories told to listeners.  Too often, writers for adult audiences lose track of the basic spirit and force of storytelling.  By reading stories for children, they can renew their awareness of the rhythms of plot and the power and beauty of narrative sentences."
Fred's respect for children's literature comes through in his workshops. He frequently uses examples from stories for children to elaborate on the points he makes. The books he's drawn from for his current Climax workshop include two of Eve Bunting's picture books: The Train to Somewhere, illustrated by Ronald Himler (Sandpiper) and Little Bear's Little Boat, illustrated by Nancy Carpenter (Clarion); Patricia Polacco's The Junkyard Wonders (Philomel); City Dog, Country Frog by Jon J Muth, illustrated by Mo Willems (Hyperion); and the young adult short story "Gettin' Even" from You Don't Even Know Me: Stories and Poems about Boys by Sarah G. Flake (Hyperion). If you're looking for examples of effective climactic scenes and you're unable to attend Fred's class, I recommend you study these books.

Now excuse me while I go back to revising my novel's climax.

Happy writing (and studying)!

Monday, September 19, 2011

Winding Up Revision or Are You Finished or Just Done?

      Wow.  There is nothing like batting clean up on a subject that my fellow TA's have covered so thoroughly. What better way to finish this series on revision than to answer the question "How do you know when you are finished with this manuscript?"
     Notice I didn't ask "How do I know if I am done with this story?" To me, finished and done are two different things. "Finished" is when you have taken the advice offered by my fellow TA's on revision.  When you have written the best possible story....wait two weeks and see if you still feel the same way. If so, it's time to send your baby out into the publishing world.
    "Done" is when you are so sick of writing this story (for the third or fifteenth or 115th time) that you want to pile all your characters into a car, and send them off a cliff, Thelma and Louise-style. ("And then they all died. The end.")  This is not sign that you are finished. means you need a break.  Work on something else. When I am feeling "done" on a long project, I research another book (I am always researching the next book, while writing the current one), or mess around with a picture book I have on the back burner. (There's always a picture book on my back burners....several actually; it's a big stove!)
    Writing a book is sort of like building a house. (It's not exactly like building a house;  I never outline or make a blueprint.)  I know the style of house I want, how many rooms and the general floor plan. When I first began writing, I never revised. I figured the accomplishment of completing 300 pages deserved to be shared immediately with the writing world.
    Wrong, wrong, wrong!  You know that feeling of wanting to stick your hand in the mailbox to grab back your envelope (or wishing there were a "never mind" command on your computer to retrieve an email before it is delivered?) That's a hint that maybe your house isn't finished. OK, you know your house isn't finished. As soon as you can't unsend your work, you will realize the literary equivalent of a house with no back door. Or a second floor, but no stairs to reach it. You were so happy to be done (with a first, or maybe even a second or third draft) you didn't see those "tiny" flaws. When you are tempted to fire off your done manuscript, wait a week. Read it again. Does it still feel finished?                        
     Probably not. (How did you manage to not notice that you left a disconnected toilet in the kitchen? Or that you have three extra rooms that you don't remember why they are there?)
     On the other hand, sometimes you really are finished, but you are still twiddling around with your story. You are nitpicking over unimportant details that really don't matter.  Is it super super important that your character's best friend is named Megan or Morgan? (Sometimes it is important...but deep down you know if it is or not.) It's like changing the position of pictures on a wall. If it looks good over the fireplace and behind the are twiddling.  You are scared. You are afraid to let go.
      Let go.  If you really are down to switching minor details around, then changing them back,  you are finished.  Send it off.
     Then one of two things will happen. Rejection or acceptance.
     We all deal with it differently with rejection. I find that Ben & Jerry's current flavor is my coping mechanism (I didn't say it was a good one.) Hopefully, you all have in place a rejection plan that doesn't involve calories, money or something illegal.
     And then there is the acceptance letter/phone call/email. (Out of ten book sales, seven of them have been sent to me by email, three by phone and zero by snail mail.  You will get a formal printed letter after the emal/phone call.)  Jump up and down. Tell everyone you know. Celebrate.  Then wait.  Sooner or later your editor will send you a letter the size of War and Peace.  It's a revision letter.  There will be one.
      I promise.
Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, September 16, 2011

Revising a Poem

Revision has been on my mind a lot lately. So has poetry. I'm teaching a course at Mount Mary College on writing poetry for children and young adults, and I'm also the guest speaker for the current Institute of Children's Literature Guest Speaker Workshop, "Poetry from the Poet's Side." I went to bed last night not knowing how I would address the topic for today's post. This morning, I decided to put some of my advice into a draft of a poem about the process of revising a poem.

*     *     *

Revising a Poem

First, the big picture:
Does it fit in a snapshot
or require a three-hour movie?

Are the images clear?
Do they support the poem
like a tripod holds up a camera?

Look at language.
Does it whir where it should snap?

Alliteration sometimes strengthens
but sounds silly in an endless stream.

Onomatopoeia? Click! Does its job.

Does the rhythm match the tone?

Make sure your rhyme
rhymes every time.

Do not repeat repeat repeat unnecessary words.

Try not to say
in a roundabout way
what one word or two
could do.

Use a line break for a

Does the poem show
what you want it to show?
Is it fully developed?
Does it show how you care?
Ask a reader you trust.

Then share.

*     *     *

I will consider my own advice as I revise this. I hope it helps you, too!

Today's Poetry Friday roundup is at The Poem Farm. Enjoy!

JoAnn Early Macken

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

A Five-Star Revision Tip and Tool!

     R is for revision
           You see your draft anew.
       A second chance,
          to make tales dance.
               Lucky, lucky you!

Ironically, almost 2 years to the day the above poem appeared in my Sleeping Bear Press book S is for Story: A Writer’s Alphabet, I need to revise the second word in the third line so it reads….
                …another chance.

The revision process demands more than two passes to get the story, the telling and the language right.
In fact, way more.
The Good News is, as shared in the Robert Cormier quote that appears at the bottom of S is for Story’s R page,
“The beautiful part of writing is that you don’t have to get it right the first time, unlike, say, a brain surgeon.”

To celebrate IRA’s “Revision Week,” my fellow TeachingAuthors and I are offering up helpful insights, resources, tools and books gleaned from our at least 120 years total experience writing for children.

Here’s my offering, a five-star revision tip and tool if ever there was one:  before you’re ready to write your very last revised draft, write the book review you wish to receive, then keep it nearby to reread often, stuck or not. 

For the record, it helps to read reviews of similar, comparable books to the one you’re writing – in genre, in format, in subject matter, in time or setting, in style, before you write your own review.  It also helps to read several reviews of those similar, comparable books as expressed in different review journals.

If you’re writing for children, the most notable print review journals, available at your local library, online or by subscription, include the American Library Association’s Booklist, The Bulletin of the Center of Children’s Books, School Library JournalPublishers Weekly, Kirkus and The Horn Book.  Each review journal has its own style, its own set of elements on which the reviewer focuses.

[FYI: reading all of the above journals helped me learn my craft – as well as - the stellar body of children’s literature and my Children’s Book World residents and players.]

No matter the journal in which the review appears,
  • note the one-sentence description that summarizes the book for the reader – the what’s-it-all-about-anyway statement;
  • study the brief outline of the plot, usually accomplished in 5 or so sentences that usually include the story’s major turning points;
  • focus on the theme and its connection to the storyline;
  • pay attention to critical comments concerning elements of narrative – i.e. characterization, voice, plot, etc., as well as the story’s craft and the writer’s talents;
  • consider the selection of and reference to comparable, similar titles;
  • read and reread the reviewer’s opinion as to the book’s value and its likely impact on readers.
What I love about this tool? 
Writing the one-sentence summary and multi-sentence synopsis requires my mastery of the story’s action.
The critical comments force me to assess how I crafted (1) the key elements of narrative and (2) my use of language.
Citing comparable books shows me how I want my book to distinguish itself from the others on the shelf.
Best of all?  Most of all?
Writing the review I wish my book to receive helps me remember why my book grabbed my heart in the first place, the reasons that kept me going no matter the revisions necessary, what I so want my book to do for my readers. 
I stay atop my story’s physical and emotional plotlines, but also tuned in to my own writer’s vested heart.

Though non-fiction, here’s the review I kept on my desk top while writing the last draft of S is for Story:
"Hershenhorn’s thoughtful and spirited telling of this abecedarian
journey through a Writer’s Life and Process is certain to inform, inspire and
ready young writers, not to mention once-young writers who remain
young-at-heart.  A joyous celebration of the all-important Reader-Writer
Connection, the rhymed verse for younger readers and the accompanying
side-bar narrative for older readers serve as mini-lessons to keep writers
writing.  Peeks inside a writer’s life, the inclusion of Writer’s Tips and the
appearance on each double-page spread of treasured authors’ meaningful
quotes multiply each lettered entry’s value and enjoyment.  Pullen’s 
singular, imaginative illustrations successfully offer a narrative all their own
while underscoring how lucky writers are to write.  Re-title this Writer’s
Alphabet “S is for Stellar.” 

I’m happy to share  the boxed Booklist review, written by Gillian Engberg – to prove the revision tool proved five-star indeed.

"Among sleeping Bear’s growing collection of themed abecedarian titles for middle-graders, this engaging, instructive introduction to writing stands out. The concepts paired with each letter cover elements of story (plot, characters); technique (revision, journaling); and basic practices for fostering creativity (observe). Short poems; clear, enthusiastic explanations; tips; and quotes from well-known children’s authors appear on each page, and a “P.S.” includes more interesting facts. The large color illustrations, featuring sometimes oddly proportioned figures, don’t shine as brightly as the warm, substantive text, which both teachers and students will return to repeatedly for reference and inspiration.” —Gillian Engberg, Booklist (Boxed review)

Looking for elements of a good book review? Try the folks at Scholastic (How to Write a Book Review by Rodman Philbrick).

Finally, Kathleen Horning’s revised and updated From Cover to Cover (HarperCollins) is considered the definitive guide to reading, reviewing and critically evaluating children’s books since its original publication in 1997.

      See your draft with new eyes.
Another chance to make tales dance.
      Lucky, lucky you!

Happy Revising!

Esther Hershenhorn

Note from Carmela, added 9/25/11: Esther's post is mentioned in the September YA Lit Carnival. You can see the carnival here.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Notes on Revision

My husband and I met, in a roundabout way, through our church choir.  He played guitar; I played flute. Then, in fairy tale fashion... we fell in love, got married, had kids... and suddenly one of us had to spend most of Mass in the vestibule with a screamer.  Choir became a fond memory, as have many other creative pursuits in these first exhausting years of parenting.

Yesterday we decided to join a community band.  My husband broke out his trumpet, we left the kids with his sainted sister, and off we went.  It was fun.  It was terrifying.  Because you know what?  When you make music... once you play a wrong note... it's out there, and everyone's heard it, and there's no way to take it back.  I played a lot of wrong notes yesterday.  I will practice.  It will get better.  (I hope.)

But I am reminded once again of the uniquely wonderful ability we have as writers to make something exactly as we want it BEFORE it goes out into the great, wide world.  How many times have we said or done something that we wish we had not, that we desperately wish we could take back?  When we write, that need  not EVER happen.  As someone with chronic foot-in-mouth disease, I believe this ability may be one of the very best gifts that the writing life has to offer.

It is therefore quite interesting to me that my writing students tend to be extremely resistant to the concept, let alone the practice, of revision.  I have been experimenting, in my disorganized way, for several semesters in ways to coax my students to take revision seriously.  Writing textbooks typically cover the following obvious points:
1) DEFINING revision is critical.  Our text compares the art of global revising to that of sentence-level editing.  (We write definition essays and comparison essays over the course of the semester, so we are also practicing useful skills here.)
2) Providing EXAMPLES of effective revision is also crucial.  Some writing texts do a fairly good job on this front, though actual student writing makes the best example. 

When all this is said and done, students theoretically have the tools to understand what's expected of them.  However, I typically find the effects to be negligible.

In kindergarten, my daughter learned to answer really insightful questions about the fiction she was reading:
Who are the characters?
What is the setting?
What is the main problem?
How is it solved?

I swear that if I could so simply boil down and answer all of these questions in my own writing, I would have it made!

This semester, in an attempt to make peer review more useful for my college students, I found a rubric that asked very specific questions, which I was able to tweak to suit the purposes of the assignment. What is this paper about?  What is the main point?  How is it organized?  What evidence is included that does not seem to serve the thesis statement?  Where could the author SHOW more and tell less?  Where is more evidence needed?

I also learned that many students equate a 'rough draft' with a scribbled-out version of their papers that, when typed nearly verbatim, magically becomes a 'final essay.'  In the past I have been wary of interfering with the all-important "process," but for the first time this semester, I required students to type their rough drafts.  If this means that two iterations must pass before a single draft is turned in, then fine.  All the better.

My official day job title is now "editor." My daughter looked over my shoulder recently and said, "The setnences start with capital letters and have periods at the end.  Everything looks good."  She's not so far off.  I have been through the grueling process of having a book edited, copy edited, re-edited -- and this after approximately 126 drafts before it ever reached the editor's hands.  On a soap opera, we typically finalize seven hour-long scripts per week.  I realize that I am asking my students to spend more time on individual papers than we are able to spend on scripts that are watched by 3 million viewers.  No wonder they resist! 

Nonetheless, tomorrow I will be seeing the fruits of my new peer review methodology.  I'll be back with an update.  And if anyone has a foolproof strategy for encouraging revision, please do share. -- Jeanne Marie

Friday, September 9, 2011

Revision! A LINGO poem! Poetry Friday! and a Play Doh exercise!

Howdy, Campers!  Happy Poetry Friday!
Poetry Friday is hosted by Secrets and Sharing Soda this week. (The direct link to the roundup is here.)
Thank you, Katie!

Our topic this week is REVISION, inspired by The International Reading Association (IRA)'s "Revision Week"--September 5-9, 2011.  Visit the IRA's Engage: Teacher to Teacher Blog this week to read/hear comments about revision from several well-known children's authors, including Cynthia Lord and Kate Messner.

We've written LOTS of posts on revision, because, of course, we're always revising.  ALWAYS.  Also, ALL WAYS.  

Oy.  Sometimes it feels as if an editor is asking me to kill my first born.  Ever feel that way to you?
This is me, off to revise:

Actually, sometimes revising is my favorite part.  I mean, at least I have the bones of the story or poem--now I just have to...have to...have DO something with those bones!

I thought I'd write a LINGO poem on editing and revising.  A Lingo is a brand new poetic form!  It's also fun to write.  See my last post.

The terms in bold are from this glossary of copyediting terms.  I chose the juiciest ones to play with and here's the result:

by April Halprin Wayland

The guy was a legend.
He grew up rough, an orphan
he wore ragged right shoes,
cooked his meals on a boilerplate.

You shoulda seen his face.
I don't wanna justify nutin', but the dingbat had it coming.
When I finally found him in the gutter
it was a clean kill—he was dead copy.

They did it Chicago style
with a backslash
using a dagger.  
Or a bullet.  

Or maybe it was a flush and hang—hard to tell.
I tried to clean up the crime scene,
tried to redline it,
tried to flag someone down.

Finally I made an em dash for the door.
I don't have proof, mind you, 
but it looks like it coulda been 
a serial comma.

For today's WRITING WORKOUTI'm reprising an exercise on revising which was at the end of a post that ran in August, when you were on vacation. 

You'll need:
  • twice as many small cans of Play Doh as you have students
  • plastic forks, knives and spoons
  • writing materials
1) Let each student choose one can of their favorite color Play Doh...then scatter other cans on everyone's desk so they can share.  Make plastic forks, knives and spoons available, too.
2) Give them five minutes (or more) to make a person, animal or other creature.
3) If there's time, let everyone walk around the class to look at each creation.
4) Now tell each student to move to the next desk and make one radical change in the figure there.
5) Have them return to their desks and let the class walk around again, looking at the changes.
6) Discuss.  How did it feel when someone changed your art?  Do you like what it looks like now?  Which do you like better?

In one of the classes I teach through UCLA Extension Writers Program, most of my adult students are surprised that they like the changed creature best.  One woman admitted that she liked the changes...but also missed her own creation and felt slightly violated.

Yes...that's exactly how I feel when an editor or my critique group wants to edit (gasp!) my work.  Hurt, resentful, violated.  Sometimes, if I sit with the suggestions, I end up liking them.  I can see how it can take a village to create a vision bigger than my own.  Sometimes, though, I reject the changes.

If you'd like to make this more of a writing exercise, you can have your students write a story or poem during the process.  You might decide to have them write as soon as they've made their creature, before it is changed.  If you have time, you can also have them write after the changes--either about the changed creature or about how they feel now that it's different.

So--dive into Play Doh!  Let your room fill with its delicious perfume!
And remember to write with joy!

poem and drawings (c) 2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Revision Week, Random Acts of Publicity, and Blogosphere Buzz

The International Reading Association (IRA) has declared Sept. 5-9, 2011 to be "Revision Week." Visit the IRA's Engage: Teacher to Teacher Blog this week to read/hear comments about revision from several well-known children's authors, including Cynthia Lord and Kate Messner.

Classroom teachers often tell me that one of their greatest challenges is helping students understand that a first draft is only the first step in the writing process. And many adult writers also dread the "R" word: Revision. Yet, as Kate Messner says today on the Engage: Teacher to Teacher Blog: “Revision is where writing really happens.”
(In the audio interview, Messner also talks about making time to write while working full-time and raising a family.)

One of the best ways I've found to help writers of all ages appreciate the benefit (and necessity) of revision is a bit of "show and tell." I "show" the drafts of my novel Rosa, Sola with all the post-it notes from my editor and I "tell" about how that feedback helped me polish that story. You can see some photos of one of my drafts and read a bit about that process in this post from last year.

For both young students and adult writers, it's often difficult to look at our own work objectively. Below is a revised version of the Writing Workout I shared last year. (Yes, even blog posts and writing exercises get better with revision!) The Workout is intended as a way to help trick ourselves into reading our work as though it were written by someone else.     

Speaking of revision, the next session of my Craft & Critique Workshop, which is held in Oak Brook, IL, begins on Tuesday, Sept. 27. That class is ALL about revision. For more information, see my website. If you don't live in the Chicago area and are looking for some feedback on your writing, check out the Blogosphere Buzz below for help finding a critique partner.

In addition to Revision Week, this is the third annual Random Acts of Publicity week, a chance to celebrate and publicize the work of our fellow authors. I'd like to take this opportunity to remind you that THREE of the TeachingAuthors have new books out this year. If you're new to our blog, please read these posts to learn all about them: JoAnn Early Macken's Baby Says "Moo!", Mary Ann Rodman's Camp K-9, and Esther Hershenhorn's Little Illinois.

I'd also like to celebrate a wonderful new nonfiction book by my friend, April Pulley Sayre: Rah, Rah, Radishes! A Vegetable Chant. This book is a fun way to introduce children to the beauty and wonder of vegetables. (And maybe even get them to eat a few!) Click the photo below to learn more:
April Sayre’s Book Rah, Rah, Radishes: A Vegetable Chant

Blogosphere Buzz
  • If you're looking to connect with a fellow writer to get feedback on your manuscript, check out agent Mary Kole's "Critique Connection" post on her blog.
  • There's a brand new Carnival of YA literature site, courtesy of Sally Apokedak. The TeachingAuthors have a link on the inaugural roundup, which you can read here.
  • A member of my critique group sent me a link to an interesting blog post by an Australian writer on Whither the Children's Book? Some good food for thought.   

Writing Workout:
Revision=Re-seeing (Revised edition!)

To gain perspective on a manuscript, it helps to let it "cool off" by putting it away and not looking at if for awhile. After you or your students have completed what you believe is a polished draft of a piece of writing, try the following:
  1. If the work is on a computer, print it out in a font you don't typically use. For example, if you usually print in Times New Roman, try an Arial or Verdana font, and maybe change the font size to slightly smaller or larger, too. If you're working with students who have written something by hand, have them type up and print out their work. If possible, print the draft on colored paper. I picked this suggestion up form Newbery-winning author Sharon Creech, who blogs about it here and includes photos of her drafts.)
  2. Put the work aside for awhile, preferably, at least a month.  No matter how tempted you are, do NOT look at the manuscript at all during this time.
  3. While the work is "cooling," keep reading and writing. Read the kinds of things you like to write and/or books about the craft of writing. At the same time, start a new writing project, brainstorm future writing topics, or write daily in a journal, even if for only a minute. (See April's post about this.) This step is VERY important--you want to continue your growth as a writer while your story cools.
  4. At the end of the month, pull out your "cooled" draft. When you read it, pretend it was written by someone else. What do you like about the piece? What don't you like about it? What would make it better?
Happy writing (and revising)!

Friday, September 2, 2011

Recycling Fear

When I got up this morning, I couldn’t find my notebook. The current one—the one I’ve been writing in for the past week or so—the one with the two drafts of today's post that I thought I’d touch up and post first thing.

It wasn’t in either of its two usual spots—the desk or the computer table—so I started a more intensive search. Did I bring it downstairs? Leave it next to the bed? Forget it on the porch?

What if someone else found it? What if I couldn’t recreate the post I’d planned? What if that notebook contained the best words I’d ever written, a brilliant masterpiece that would never see daylight, let alone publication, if I couldn’t find it?


I took the dog out and watered the poor droopy plants in the yard. Nobody stole the notebook, I told myself. My husband has never bothered my stuff, and our sons are both back in college. It had to be somewhere I’d left it.

Of course, I found it almost in plain sight. Then I counted 17 more spiral notebooks in the room and another 19 in a box in the closet.

What am I saving them for? I keep thinking someday I’ll go back and reread them to find the nuggets of inspiration. But I did that once, and it only discouraged me.

My notebooks are not only writing journals, they’re also Morning Pages. I don’t just write stories and poems in them. I try out writing exercises, I make lists, and I do a lot of agonizing. If anyone else ever read them, they’d think of me as a ranting, raving worrywart.

Now those notebooks are weighing me down, holding me back. Once, long ago, I recycled 35 of them, and it's time to do that again. I need to clear some empty space, not hang another albatross around my neck. Besides, any truly good idea will come back to me, right?

I hope so.

JoAnn Early Macken