Friday, July 31, 2020


       “You’re not reading that right!” said a new member of my critique group with dismay sprawled across her face. 
         It might have been me years ago when I first joined them. I was used to other writers silently reading five to ten pages of my fabulous, neatly typed and copied pages of my latest writing project 
       But over the years, I’ve learned there is no right way to read a manuscript. A person can only read what the writer has typed and submitted to the group. If they’ve typed a boring manuscript, the reader will read a boring manuscript. I’ve silently groaned while listening to my words that I thought were perfect.
Try it. During the reading, listen for overused words. Even your favorite, most active verb has a life span. Search for a replacement. Read other writers in your genre. Sometimes I type the paragraph or paragraphs that make my heart beat faster. The simple act of typing forces me to think more deeply about the words on the page.
       If a paragraph or a page makes your heart beat faster, read it aloud and focus on the “how”. Just how did the author bring magic to the page?

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks

Friday, July 24, 2020

Best Writing Tip Ever--or What I Learned from Wile. E. Coyote

     I don't know where I picked up this "best writing tip." It could've been in the Vermont College MFA Writing for Children program.  Or at one of the many, many writer's conferences I've attended over the years. Maybe it was in one of the dozens of "craft" books I've consumed. I'm sorry I can't credit this writing tip to anyone specific.  All I know is that isn't mine originally.

So here it is.

Stop writing.

I'm one of those people that can't get started when I sit down to write. I fiddle around. I read my mail. I play an online word game. Maybe two.  OK, maybe more than two. Then I go back to my document screen. Words have not magically appeared while I was trying to get started.

This blank screen (or if you're Old School, blank sheet of paper) stares at me. No, glares at me, in all it's blinding white glory. I can look at the previous paragraph or chapter and tell myself, "Look. You wrote this yesterday. See? This sounds pretty good. You can do it, Mary Ann."

The screen doesn't blink. Still blank.

I get a second (or third) cup of coffee.

Sometimes, with that next cup and a hour or so of spinning my wheels, I might squeeze out a couple of terrible sentences. I keep writing sentences, boards thrown randomly over a muddy patch of plot. The sentences, fuzzy and badly placed, will get me to dry ground. But after I regain solid footing...I have to go back and clean up that rickety word bridge. By that time, I can rearrange those boards into a recognizable narrative. If I don't clean up the mess it right then, I'll have the same problem months later when I revise. So it's writing, re-writing...then three hours are gone, and I have a paragraph.


Who has hours to waste with unproductive writing?

So here's what I do now.

I stop writing.

I don't write to the end of a scene or a chapter. I just stop. Stop in mid-chapter, paragraph or even sentence.


If I write until I run out of ideas, guess what? 99% of the time, when I next turn on the computer, I will still be out of ideas! It's like Wile E. Coyote running to the edge of a cliff, and realizing there is no bridge. Dead end.


...if I stop while I still have the end of the scene, or chapter firm in my head, I can begin the next time, knowing that the next words are already there .  No stalling, no hem-hawing around. The act of continuing what was already in my head, creates momentum.  The physics of writing--A writer in the act of writing will continue to write. Or--A writer at rest will continue to be at rest.  Or something like that. (Physics is not my strong suit.)

When I'm engaged in writing what I already know, most often, my subconscious is "building the bridge" ahead. So, unlike poor Coyote, when I get to the end of what I "know," I will discover that the road ahead has cleared...or a bridge has been built...or fill-in your own simile. And as you merrily make your way down to the road of your story, remember to stop. Stop before you get to the next dead end.

Don't fall off the cliff, like Wile E. Coyote.

It works for me. I hope it works for you, too.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020

Wednesday Writing Workout: The Little We Need for Happiness

I’m happy to report that yet one more unexpected Kodak Moment came my way this month, thanks to COVID-19: that of two long-ago high school friends who’d unintentionally socially distanced before it was in vogue, reconnecting gloriously via ZOOM’s technology.
And you, our Readers, get to reap the rewards.
My BFF from the 60’s – Jane Anne Staw, who will always be “Janie” to me - is a TeachingAuthor, too.

Jane has taught at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Stanford University and for over 20 years at The
University of California at Berkeley Extension, where she was named an Honored Instructor. Most recently, she’s taught for 12 years in the MFA Program in Writing at the University of San Francisco. She’s been a Bay Area Writing Coach for the past 15 years.

Did she and I know, all those years ago, when we worked on Lower Merion High School’s newspaper, the Merionite, or maybe even the school year book, The Enchiridion, that writing, teaching and writers would fill our days and hearts one day?
I cannot say.
But I do so love that we’re both Teaching Authors.

For sure, there were those few photo album moments as the years tumbled by, many captured photographically by Jane.  Shared First Mom experiences when we amazingly discovered each other in neighboring Chicago ‘burbs. Catch-up phone chats once thousands of miles separated us.  Treasured conversations at milestone years-apart high school reunions. Celebrations of each other’s publishing successes.

But no matter. Once Jane clicked on my Zoom invitation and she appeared on my laptop’s screen, we picked up right where we’d left off the last time we’d spoken… and we didn’t miss a beat.
Jane’s latest book is SMALL: The Little We Need for Happiness (Shanti Arts, 2017).
Once I hit “leave meeting,” I visited her blog based on SMALL, immediately subscribed and knew that her current posts were the stuff of a TeachingAuthors Wednesday Writing Workout.

For so many of us, again thanks to COVID-19, engaging our children and/or grandchildren in the learning process has become a part of our days, nights, and often, weekends.
Jane’s July 1 post on her Writing Workshop interactions with her two precious granddaughters both inform and inspire.

Thank you, Janie, for granting me permission to reprint your post as today's Wednesday Writing Workout!

Readers, Enjoy!

And let's keep looking for those – small - Unexpected Kodak Moments.

Esther Hershenhorn
I highly recommend Jane’s UNSTUCK (St. Martin’s Griffin) in case any of you are facing Writer’s Block.

. . . . . . . . . . . .


I began holding “Writing Workshops” with my granddaughters as soon as the Shelter-In-Place orders hit, and have continued this summer, though modified and less frequently. Last Wednesday, for example, we collaborated on writing a “graphic story” on the sidewalk in front of their house, each one of us successively adding a sentence to the plot, as well as drawing a chalk illustration for our sentences. The plot, as far as we got, went something like this: Two sisters were stuck inside the house. They didn’t like being stuck inside. But it was raining so they couldn’t go outside. They were bored. They had nothing they wanted to do inside the house. They were tired of all their puzzles and games.

In addition to the illustrations under each sentence, we created a border for every sidewalk square, framing each segment of the story and its illustration in colorful configurations of lines and curves. We had a lot of fun sitting on the warm concrete, thick pieces of pastel chalk in our hands, collaborating on the plot and the illustrations, the sun shining down on us, neighbors walking their dog, clearing a swath around us and smiling as they passed.

After about 45 minutes, the girls had had enough of sitting mostly still and concentrating, so I decided to shift activities and teach them something about small. I selected one of the flowering plants in their garden for us to admire. Once we had all discussed what made that particular plant beautiful, each of us picked a flower from that plant. “Look at that flower for a minute and notice one small detail you find lovely,” I told them.

“It looks like lace around the edges,” seven-year-old Poppy announced.
“I see a slightly darker blue line down the middle of each petal,” eight-and-a-half-year-old Amelie offered.
“Look at the tiny bulge where the stem begins,” Poppy offered.
“The back side of the petal is lighter than the front,” Amelie observed.
“You know,” Poppy exclaimed, “I thought the plant was beautiful, but each tiny flower is even more beautiful than the whole plant.”
“Yes, and there’s lots to discover about each tiny flower!” Amelie added.

Not only was this a lovely lesson in small, it was also an opportunity to bone up on my botany. I googled “Anatomy of a Flower” on my phone, and the three of us were soon comparing the pistils, antlers, sepals and filaments on the rose, fuschia, dogwood and salvia blossoms in the garden.

As we stood several feet apart, masks covering our mouths and noses, outstretched hands cradling petals and whole blooms, I realized that this moment of discovering nature’s infinite beauty had been brought to me—to the three of us–by Covid 19.
                                            # #  #

Friday, July 17, 2020

The Breakout Outline

This writing exercise – one I use in my classes -- is adapted from one of my favorite writing books, Writing the Breakout Novel Workbook by Donald Maass (2004). Sooner or later, every writer needs to use an outline to help weave together various literary components. This is especially true if there is a large cast of characters or a multi-layered plotline. Agents often request outlines before seeing the full manuscript. Publishers will require them if an option novel is proposed.

There is no magic number for how many pages an outline needs to be effective. As with everything else grounded in the creative, it depends upon your purpose. Many long-winded outlines can be just as useless as those not long enough. I like this outline template by Maass because it sharpens the focus of the narrative. Also, it works very well during the revision process, when you outline your draft to help add texture, sharpen the causal chain, and  highlight  the character’s outer and inner conflict.

Plot fundamentals. Write down the following.

1. Where is your novel set? Who is your main character, and what is his primary conflict or goal?

2. What does your protagonist’s most want and why?

3. What is your protagonist’s second plot layer?  What is your protagonist’s third plot layer?

5. What is the first subplot? What is the second subplot?

7. Who is the most important secondary (supporting) character, what is his primary conflict, and what does he most want?

8. Who is the novel’s antagonist, what is his primary conflict or goal, and what does he most want?

The Middle. Write down the following.
1. What are the five biggest steps toward the solution of the central conflict? In other words, what are the five turning points or events, including the story’s climax, that take place in the narrative?

2. What are the five most important steps toward, or away from, what your protagonist most wants? These steps are consequences of choices that the protagonist makes. This step helps identify the causal chain that creates the plot’s spine.

3. What are the three most important steps (each) toward, or away from, the resolution of your first and second subplot?

4. What are the three most important steps (each) toward, or away from, the resolution of the plot layers?

5. What are the three most important steps toward, and away from, the resolution of each main conflict facing your secondary characters and your antagonist?

Key Highlights. Write down the following.
1. Two moments of strong inner conflict.

2. Three larger-than-life actions.

3. Two moments frozen in time. (For example, Juliet laments over Romeo, as Romeo listens below. Their first kiss erases all the wrongs of the past and ignores all future conflicts. Another example: Eliot says good-bye to ET, and ET responds with a gesture, saying: I’ll be right here.)

4. Two measures of change.

Check out his book for the complete discussion on his outlining process!

-- Bobbi Miller

Friday, July 10, 2020

The Best Poetry Tip Lee Bennett Hopkins Ever Taught Me

Howdy, Campers, and Happy Poetry Friday! (my poem and the PF link are below)

Perhaps some of you really ARE camping right this very minute! Boy, that sure sounds good now: aromatic pines, refreshing dips in a clear lake, scent of wood smoke and that close-your-eyes crackling as you gather 'round to roast marshmallows and sing...ahhhhh.

This round, TeachingAuthors will each share a favorite piece of  writing advice.

Mine came from Lee Bennett Hopkins, who told me: 

Root out all unnecessary "the"s.

It's such a simple idea, yet it can change a poem profoundly.

Or at least clean it up.

(In the paragraph describing your camp-out above, I deleted four "the"s.)

by April Halprin Wayland

It's a simple word, really,
but you need it?

Watch deer tug a tree
for a banquet of greens...

he steers clear of each "the,"
but devours those leaves.

poem © 2020 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved

Or, as Laura Shovan just shared so succinctly in the comments below, "every word must earn its place in a poem."

So try Lee's tip...and then report back and tell me about it--I can't wait to hear!

Thank you, Ruth, for hosting a Poetry Friday party at 

posted with love by April Halprin Wayland and Eli, who is tuckered out after this morning's walk:
you can see Eli in the distance

writing poetry can be exhausting!

Friday, June 26, 2020

MY Favorite Grab ‘N’ Go Writing Exercise: The Name Poem!

This month my fellow TeachingAuthor bloggers and I are putting forth our favorite Writing Exercises for you to grab and go.
April shared her new In One Word poetry form, Bobbi her favorite Writing Workshops, and Gwendolyn her practice of typing out favorite texts and/or passages,
Carmela advised us to try something new and Mary Ann reposted her Creative Eavesdropping exercise.
My favorite Writing Exercise is an Oldie-but-Goodie, too: The Name Poem.

I came upon this exercise serendipitously when my Holiday House editor Mary Cash requested I drop my character Howie Fingergut’s grade from Fifth to Fourth.
I of course said: “Of course!” 😊
But it was fifth graders I knew like the back of my hand. I’d never taught fourth graders.
It was a few weeks later, while seated in a Fourth Grade classroom at The Frances Parker School in Lincoln Park, that my eyes zeroed in on the Name Poems dotting the walls.
Name Poems?
Name Poems!
I could define my character Howie and his singular world view with but 5 adjectives! Why hadn’t I thought of this earlier?

Howie’s name poem not only helped me nail Howie. It helped me nail his heart and thus, what he was after.  Howie, it turns out, had longed to change his “I” word to “Important.”

I recommend my students and writers create Name Poems for their characters.
I don’t know why but this exercise always works.

What also works, though, is to create a Name Poem for yourself!
It’s a sure-fire way to see just where your story crosses paths with your character’s.
Katherine Paterson wrote that, when it comes to our characters, it’s simply “one heart in hiding…reaching out to another.”

Imagine my smile when I discovered just how much I had in common with Howard J. Fingerhut.

For the record, once you grab this exercise to define your character and/or yourself, choosing defining adjectives isn’t the only way to go. Think about verbs, nouns and even favorite expressions.

Thanks to Karen’s Got A Blog for hosting today’s Poetry Friday.

Happy Writer-Muscle-Building!

Esther Hershenhorn

Friday, June 19, 2020

Trying Something New: Syllable-Square IN ONE WORD Poem

Happy Poetry Friday! I share a link to this week's round-up at the end of this post, below the poem I wrote using a new form invented by my brilliant co-blogger, April Halprin Wayland! But first, I want to share another in our series of GRAB 'N GO WRITING EXERCISES.

When I first became interested in writing for young readers (many years ago!), I took a continuing education class on the topic at our local community college. I'd fallen in love with the picture books I was reading my young son and wanted to write some myself. I spent the first five weeks of the class working only on picture books. Then, as one of our last assignments, the instructor asked us to write in a different form or genre. I ended up writing the first chapter of a young adult novel. I was surprised by how much I enjoyed that assignment. I went on to finish a complete draft of the novel and applied to Vermont College MFA program with the intention of revising the novel for publication. That particular novel ended up in a drawer, but writing it helped me discover my novelist's voice and eventually led to the publication of my two novels.

So I want to give you the same exercise today: Try Something New! Write in a different form or genre than you're used to. If you're a picture book writer, perhaps try a short story or a chapter of a novel. If you're a novelist, you could try a picture book. But if that doesn't sound fun, then perhaps try a short story, or a different genre of novel. For example, if you typically write realistic, contemporary stories, you could try fantasy or historical. Whatever you decide, I'd love if you'd report back here on how the experience was for you.

My poem today is also the result of trying something new. April kicked off this series of GRAB 'N GO WRITING EXERCISES by introducing the IN ONE WORD poetry form she invented. Well, my poem today is in that form. As it happens, my current work-in-progress is a collection of poems in a variety of forms with connections to math. For example, I've written several Syllable- Square poems, where the number of syllables per line equals the number of lines. I first learned of this form from JoAnne Growney's Intersections–Poetry with Mathematics website. One of my favorite Syllable-Square poems is Growney's 5x5 "Counting the Women."

For today's poem, I decided to use April's IN ONE WORD form to write a Syllable-Square. For this form, you choose a core word, and then each line of the poem must end with words made from the letters in the core word. I chose the word MATHEMATICS as my core word. According to the Wordmaker website, you can make 420 different words from the letters in MATHEMATICS! That was rather overwhelming. So I started to choose words from the list that most appealed to me. The word mismatch ended up being the key that unlocked the poem for me. I've included a bit more of the poem's backstory (as April calls it) below. I also share a great poetry writing app I recently discovered.

The poem's backstory: After writing the first line, poetry and math, I new my poem would be a 5x5 Syllable-Square. I played around until I had a decent first draft I liked, then shared it with my dear April, who gave me some helpful suggestions. As I revised, I realized I wanted to make the poem more "mathy" by including words with math connotations. That's when it occurred to me to incorporate perfect (as in perfect numbers) and powerful (as in raising to a power). I initially hyphenated power-ful to make the connection clearer, but decided the line looked cleaner without the hyphen. In case any of you aren't familiar with the term, the last word, STEAM, is an acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics. Finally, I wanted a title that also consisted of 5 syllables, to match the lines of the poem. I couldn't think of anything clever so I initially used the first line "Poetry and Math." But then I realized that the poem was the result of "Trying Something New," which happens to have five syllables! 😊 I'd love to know what you all think of the end result. In particular, would you hyphenate powerful?

Now for the poetry-writing resource I mentioned: Not long ago, I discovered a phone app with tools that help with poetry and songwriting: Lyric Notepad. It's available for both Android and iPhone. One of its great features is the line syllable counter--it's caught my counting errors numerous times. The app also highlights words that rhyme, though the "near rhyme" function doesn't work that well, in my opinion. If you use it, just be careful to save your work elsewhere, too. I've lost revisions to poems even after I've "saved" them in the app.

For more poetry, be sure to check out today's Poetry Friday round-up by Tricia at The Miss Rumphius Effect. And if you'd like to see videos of STEAM poetry, be sure to visit the STEAM Powered Poetry site.

Posted by Carmela

Friday, June 12, 2020

Turn Your Reading Passion Into Better Writing

Years ago, when I first decided I’d like to write books for children, I attended a program about Oklahoma history. One speaker mentioned Bass Reaves. Bass escaped from slavery in Texas, crossed the Red River arriving in Oklahoma Territory ready to begin a new life. He learned the lay of the land and survival techniques from Native Americans. Eventually, he became a United States Deputy Marshal under Hanging Judge Parker and always found the outlaws who dared to hide from him.

I fell in love with Bass. I quickly decided I was the perfect person to tell his amazing life. I even found an editor who was somewhat interested in my attempts to capture his story.

Then one day, the editor sent the email that broke my heart. She explained she would not be publishing my manuscript. I was devastated! My heart was broken. I don’t remember her exact words, but I read – there is a new Bass book and it’s so much better than your feeble attempts. I still feel the pain! I remember attending an American Library Association conference and there in the distance was BAD NEWS FOR OUTLAWAS – THE REMARKABLE LIFE OF BASS REEVES, DEPUTY U. S. MARSHAL, Written by  Vaunda Micheaux Nelson and Illustrated by R. Gregory Christie. Bass in all its glory. I quickly changed directions and walked down another aisle. It was such a painful moment in my writing life. I’m tearing up now as I think about it.

My husband thought my reaction was over the top. “Write something else,” was his remedy. The editor emailed, “Send me something else.” SOMETHING ELSE! I had nothing else. My writing life was over and it had just begun.
Well, it took time (years) but I recovered and I continued to write. Then one day I bought a copy of BAD NEWS FOR OUTLAWS. It’s fabulous! A page-turner! No wonder it received so many awards. It is a thousand times better than my feeble attempts.

Recently, I met Vaunda at a conference and told her my pitiful story. She hugged me and my world righted itself.
I also typed it and I could see, feel, and understand why I loved it and what made it successful. I began typing other books that moved my spirit.

I challenge you to type a favorite book or even a page or two of a longer work. What makes you cry, smile, or laugh out loud? Why was it hard or easy to put down? What made you decide it would have a place of honor on your bookshelf?

Think about your responses. You might discover a technique that will lead to stronger writing.

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks

Friday, June 5, 2020

Creative Eavesdropping

Young Writers at work!
It's not officially summer, but teachers count the seasons by the school year. Normally, summer "begins" for on the last day of school. For a lot of us, that was early we've been in "summer" for going on three months already!  I'm calling the time since Memorial Day, "second summer." Then on June 21, there is "real summer."

Teaching Authors posts Writing Workouts on Wednesdays but we figure everyone is blurry-eyed and Zoomhausted.  Some of you may be desperately exhausted looking for a ready-to-go writing exercise for yourself or your students. Hence we are offering you Grab 'N' Go Writing Exercises.

This past week has been emotionally draining.  So in the interest of retaining my sanity, I'm offering a "Classic Workout." In other words, I've posted this exercise before. However, since it was in 2013, and it's just the exercise and not the original post I'm re-using, hopefully it will be useful. I first learned of this exercise, in a slightly different format (intended for adult writers) in a workshop led by Louise Hawes. (Thanks, Louise for the inspiration!) This is great for kids who "can't think of anything to write about"...and worn-out adult authors whose brains need a jumpstart.

I call it "Non-Sequiturs." My students call it "That Eavesdropping Thing."

I am an inveterate eavesdropper. I started as a kid, listening through heating grates and the old drinking-glass-to-the-wall trick. I graduated to picking out bits of oddball conversation overheard in public places...buses, check out lines, restaurants. It never fails to amaze me, the things that people will talk about...loudly! public. Maybe they feel invisible in crowds of people. I'm glad they do. It has provided me with endless writing inspiration. 

Here are a few "classics" from my list...

"...and then he carried my grandmother's table out in the yard and burned it." (Overheard in a really long check-out line at Old Navy.

"I like Sprite better than Coke, because it's clear, you can see what's in it. I don't trust Coke. You can't see what's in it because it's all dark and stuff." (Heard on a commuter train, from a woman who then claimed she worked for Coca Cola.)

"Life ain't no Swiss picnic." (Don't remember where that came from!)

"I need a present for a girl I don't like very much." (Two teen girls in a jewelry store.)

The possibilities are endless.

So, randomly pick two quotes. When I'm doing this with students, I ask them to write down two quotes...which they have been asked to bring to class...on separate slips of paper. I tell them they can only use one sentence...not an entire conversation. They should not identify the speaker in any way. Just the quote. Then each student draws two slips.

Take the two random quotes, and somehow connect them in a scene. You write without any thought of this becoming part of a longer work.  You are only writing a scene.

For this exercise, a scene includes:

Characters--when I use this with students, I insist that there are at least two named characters. I ask the students to imagine what kind of character would say this? Adult or kid? Talking animal or mythical creature?  

Setting--where does the scene take place? Outer space? A school bus? Soccer practice? In a fantasy world. (Don't get me started on building fantasy worlds...that's another post.)

Of course, in actual writing, scenes include a lot more stuff...but we're doing away with all that for the moment. We're just getting your writing motor running.  For kids who can never think of something to write, this exercise frees them up a lot. You just have two characters and two sentences. I do tell my young writers that their scene needs to be a full page (handwritten) minimum, that includes other conversation and action. And it has to make sense. The non-sequiturs cannot continue to be non-sequiturs in the context of the scene. The sentences are a seed...grow your scene around them.

Often, this exercise grows into a story for the students. The first time I did this exercise in the aforementioned writer's workshop, it became the nucleus for my book, Jimmy's Stars. Other times, the characters have jumped from the exercise into a story that had nothing to do with the original scene. It's one of those "writing magic" things. 
Available on Kindle!

So time to get that writing motor running!