Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Oh, what to do about our Writer’s Fears?

When it comes to writing, my fears are your fears.
And Mary Ann’s, it turns out.
And Carmela’s, too.
And April’s and Jean Marie’s and likely JoAnn’s.

WHAT IF I do set out to write my story?

What if…
…I really can’t write this book?
…I really can’t tell this story?
…my storyline’s been done already at least a thousand times?
…my characters lack life?
…not one reader will care?
…and neither will my editor?
…I really can’t write period?!

What if…
each and every English teacher who taught me K through 12 had reason to not even suggest I someday pursue writing?

I mean,
Just who exactly do I think I am anyway? 
Lois Lowry?  Maybe Karen Hesse? 

Since I began writing for children in earnest, not once have I come to a work-in-progress when all of the above fears didn’t whistle, wink and wave.
And now they’re doing so again, noticeably and often, since I declared my Fall return to my abandoned middle grade novel in verse.
My character Lissy Lev has made herself known, loudly: my heart and my head are big enough, she tells me, to accommodate her story, along with those of the writers I  teach and coach.
Give her but one hour a day, she promises, and she and I will be on our way.

This particular story’s time-on-task bests Mary Ann’s current work-in-progress by about 12 years.
I first came at it in the early 90’s, writing the story as an early chapter book.
It’s undergone various iterations, formats, settings, time-lines and all sorts of sub-plots while I circled its heart.
My Writer’s Fears tried, with each and every passing, to rise on their haunches and turn me back.

Fortunately, I kept on; I knew to do what my fellow TeachingAuthors do.
I educated myself – on craft, format, genre, setting.
I hung with talented, caring writers.
I conferenced and submitted and studied my rejections.

This time, though,
after so many years of not writing fiction,
I could feel those Fears whistling Dixie.

last week I did what I recommend my writers and students do.
(What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.)

I remained quiet, re-reading each and every successive draft with its accompanying notes, from 1991 through to 2007.

Then I sat still, remembering the Moment I truly connected with my character, when author Amy Timberlake asked an audience of writers, “What book would you be writing if you knew you had time to write but one?”

Next I studied the words Lissy Lev wrote in 2004, to introduce me to my fellow Paris Retreaters.  I repeated her reasons why I must tell her story.

I also spent time paging through Louisa May Alcott’s Diary, Letters and Journals as Lissy does throughout my novel.

Finally, I paid attention to all the Universe was delivering.

In last Saturday’s Chicago Tribune, one of my favorite columnists, Mary Schmich, quoted Steve Jobs’ now-famous Stanford speech:  Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose.”

Sunday’s Chicago Tribune included an interview with the remarkable Chicagoan Sue Duncan whose eponymous after-school center has immeasurably helped thousands of children: “You do what you can with the time you’ve got.”

Monday’s Chicago Tribune paid tribute to yet another one of my favorite writers, author Susan Fromberg Schaeffer, on the sad occasion of her early death.  Her husband remarked, “She would spend years on a book, distilling it, and when she sat down to write, she said it was like watching a movie.  It was all there.  It came out fully formed.”

Yesterday, through Publisher’s Lunch, I linked to another favorite’s – Ann Patchett’s – book, What Now? and read how she “learned to transfer the contents of her heart onto a piece of paper.”

When it comes to what to do with those Writer’s Fears, I finally realized:
the question isn’t, What if I do write?, its blanks begging to be filled.

The question is truly, What if I don’t?

Louisa May Alcott said it all:
“I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my own ship.”

Happy sailing!

Esther Hershenhorn

Monday, August 29, 2011

Fear and Loathing and the Voices in Your Head

Today is the first day of school in these parts.  Thanks to Irene, my husband has a day-long reprieve.  But my kids have to go.  "No fair!" said my rising first grader, who has grown increasingly nervous with the approach of dawn.  She is a gregarious kid given to making new 'BFFs' in five minutes, and she is utterly petrified that she will not make new friends in her new school.

Self-doubt has a healthy function, no question.  As writers, we need to be well attuned to our inner critics.  Writing is revising, after all.  But how to sift out the invaluable inner critic from the confidence-wrecking, totally counterproductive one?  That is the trick.

My college students are typically very reluctant revisers.  We talk extensively about how to determine whether feedback is valid and which feedback to accept; after all this, I still have to practically arm wrestle them to the ground to get them to make any significant revisions at all. 

Novice and aspiring fiction writers often have this issue.  For those a little further along in the process, the opposite may be true.  We revise and hone and cut and toss, and we have a hard time declaring the work 'finished.'  I have another problem, too.  I will start thinking, 'Maybe this is a bad premise.  Maybe this is too similar to [x] or maybe I'm trying to do too much here.'  And, lacking outside feedback, I persuade myself to give up on the whole enterprise.  After all, pushing oneself to finish multiple complete projects that may (likely) never see the light of day is a very self-punishing enterprise! 

I remember reading that Joyce Carol Oates wrote multiple drafts and shoved them cheerfully into a drawer until she finally determined that she was ready and practiced enough to be a real writer.  Good for her, but most of us are not so clear-eyed about our own work. 

Once upon a time, I thought that when I got published, I would be officially an 'author.'  I thought that this accomplishment would keep future manuscripts out of the slush pile, that it would make getting published again easier, and that it would surely motivate me to keep going.  None of these assumptions has proven true. 

I have also discovered a new writing fear -- now that I have published ONE book of my own (which was, once upon a time, my prevailing goal), maybe I've lost the desire to keep doing this.  Maybe I've run out of (or will soon run out of) things I want to say! 

When I have time to focus hard on reading and writing my own material, I know in my heart that I will never lose that hunger.  But life does get in the way.  And slogging through alone is no way to do it.  So:
Find a mentor, find a critique group, find an agent, find someone to help you through! 

This is not as easy as it sounds.  A place to feel comfortable, members who 'get' your work -- who will give you constructive feedback, but not too much and not too little -- this is almost as huge an undertaking as writing the darned project.  Finding groups through SCBWI or a class is often the best way to get started.  My summer class at McDaniel was filled with like-minded writers, but we have slacked off this summer as the class has ended. 

I asked our teacher, the wonderful Jill Santopolo, how often her house publishes manuscripts out of the slush pile.  She was very honest and said maybe one to two manuscripts per year.  YIKES!  While one hates to think that getting published is sort of about who you know... it's sort of about who you know.  Once you've cultivated a relationship with a particular editor, then you have an 'in.'  Once you have an agent -- then you have a big 'in.'  Going to conferences, meeting people, taking classes -- it's important to the work, and it's important to getting the work read where it needs to be.

What I discovered this summer in my class is that I need feedback at the very beginning.  I need input about my premise and the bones of my plot.  I work better if I write an outline.  Once I know where I'm going, I'm off.  I think that outlining might be my personal trick, because my inner critic gets a lot quieter once I have a firm plan in place.  Check in with me in a year, and I'll let you know whether I finally have a draft. :)    --Jeanne Marie

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Announcing the Winner of Our How to Survive Middle School Book Giveaway

Congratulations to Margo Dill, the winner of our latest Teaching Authors book giveaway! Margo will receive an autographed paperback copy of Donna Gephart's book How to Survive Middle School. We hope you enjoy your book, Margo! Thanks again to Donna (read her interview here), thanks to everyone who entered the contest, and watch for more book giveaways coming up!

Friday, August 26, 2011

A New Poetic Form for Poetry Friday...And How To Sucker Punch Your Fear of Writing

Howdy, Campers!

Happy Poetry Friday--and thanks, Irene Latham, for hosting today's poetry round-up!

Before you read today's post, be sure to check out JoAnn's interview with Donna Gephart last Friday. You'll want to enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of Donna's acclaimed (and funny!) novel, How to Survive Middle School.  The entry deadline is tonight, August 26th at 11 p.m. Central Standard Time.
The topic rumbling around TeachingAuthors lately is, What Are Your Writing Fears and What Do You Do About Them?

Fears? Who me?

The voices in my head...courtesy
After petting the head of this still, small voice and sliding it a warm saucer of milk, what do I do (I mean, after barreling into my closet and shutting the door)?  I get someone to whip me into submission.

Er...what I meant to say is that I respond well to deadlines.  (We've
written about deadlines before...)

Because for me, it's simple: the key is to report in to someone.  It works with what and how much I eat and it works with what and when I write. This does NOT mean that I don't feel the fear every single solitary time I have to sit down and write.  I do.  It just means that I SIT DOWN (eventually).  It means that I put, as author Jane Yolen so poetically words it, my BIC--my butt in the chair.

So who do I report to?  My critique group, which meets every other week and keeps me writing fiction, and my fellow author and best friend, who expects my new poem in his email in-box every day before the stroke of midnight.  Gulp.
Yep--every blue ribbon, thunder-storming, curtain-raising, rat-infested, drool-worthy, wrong-side-of-the-tracks, downtown day since April 1, 2010. (Many of these words come from the book, Better Than Great by Arthur Plotnik, which I ran out and bought after it was recommended by fellow blogger Esther Hershenhorn in her recent post.)

And some days it all pays off!  Look what I came up with when I walked through the fear and wrote my poem (and sent it off before midnight) on August 18!
I'm so excited!  I came up with a new form of poetry: a Lingo.
Here's the definition of a Lingo (sorry it's so long and detailed): A Lingo is poem based on the lexicon of a particular field of interest. Period.

It's interesting that fellow blogger Carmela Martino included this graphic in Wednesday's post--I think she must be a psychic...

...just look at the topic of today's Lingo!

I was in a hurry to write a poem last week and said to my husband, "Let me just run upstairs and knock out a poem."  The words "knock out a poem" buzzed in my head as I began to write, and so, after studying several dictionaries of boxing terms
, I wrote the following Lingo poem:
by April Halprin Wayland

There's a big purse tonight—a lot at stake,

I bob and weave in the ring,
baiting, provoking it, daring it,
showboating with a bolo punch.

I move in close, looking for the right words,

the right combination,
wanting to knock it out quick
suddenly I'm lost, I'm no-wheres-ville,
I'm on the ropes, trapped,
in a dangerous situation.

I move away, try to take a break
but this thing is after me,
below the belt dirty fighting,
punching, elbowing,
headbutting, hitting my face with uppercuts,
ribs with hooks, forearm in my throat

and I'm just pawing at it, too timid—
it bashes my nose, slices near my eye,
blood streams down,
ref calls for a break,
my corner man cleans me off,
patches me up,

sends me out again.

A low blow, a rabbit punch, 
I do the peek-a-boo,
gloves high in front of my face,
then feint left
and it opens up so I counter punch,
landing a straight right,
a Sunday punch

and it's down,

down for the count,
it's kissing the canvas
a KO.

Poem's done.
2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved

Now it's your turn!  

1) Email a friend and tell her to expect a poem from you before midnight tonight.  

2) Then turn off the fear and get into the play mode.  

3) Think of some galaxy of interest--maybe a world you know nothing about--horse racers, quilters, auto mechanics, saxophone players, or antique bottle collectors.  Then, Google something like, "antique bottle collector glossary" and VIOLA!  (In fact, here's a directory of all sorts of collectibles glossaries.)

4) Look through the glossary and pull out the most interesting words.

5) Lay out all those fabulous words as if someone had just given you a thousand Legos ®.
photo courtesy Emily Neal--who's sorting a windfall of Legos® with happy kids
6) Play with these words!  Discover a poem!  Rewrite it.  

7) Send this rough draft to your email buddy because you promised you would.

7) Let it marinate overnight or over a few days. Read it to your cat.   Polish it.

8) Send your Lingo to in our comments section--I'd love to see what world you've wandered into and how your Lingo turned out!

"Yet somehow, we write; and most of the time, we like what we write. The dark place seems less dark when we get there. It was only the journey that was fearful." Susan Shaughnessy

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fighting Fear

Before you read today's post, be sure to check out JoAnn's interview with Donna Gephart last Friday. You'll want to enter for a chance to win an autographed copy of Donna's acclaimed (and funny!) novel, How to Survive Middle School. Entry deadline is Friday.

On Monday, Mary Ann kicked off a new TeachingAuthors topic: Writing Fears. This topic struck a particularly strong chord in me because my current work-in-progress has instilled more fears than any other writing project I've tackled. I hope that by sharing a few of my fears, and how I combated then, I can help some of you struggling with similar issues. 

I've blogged about my current work-in-progress (WIP) before: it's a young adult novel set in 18th-century Milan, inspired by the lives of two women of that time and place. When I decided to tackle this topic, my greatest fear was What if I'm no good at writing historical fiction? While young readers consider my novel Rosa, Sola historical (it's set in the 1970s), I don't. After all, I lived through and can recall much from that era. But the 1730s? Could I really do justice to a novel set over 200 years before I was born, and in a city I've only briefly visited? I was determined to at least try.

I fought my fear by educating myself in the genre. To do so:
  • I read books on writing historical fiction, such as The Art and Craft of Writing Historical Fiction by James Alexander Thom and Writing Historical Fiction by Rhona Martin. And even though my novel isn't a mystery, I read How to Writer Killer Historical Mysteries by Kathy Lynn Emerson.
  • I also read and studied all sorts of historical fiction written for adults and teens. I tried to focus on books set in the same time and place as my novel. That turned out to be more challenging than I expected. I have yet to find any set in 18th-century Milan. (If you know of any, do let me know!) So I branched out to books set close to that time period, not only in Italy, but also France and Germany. The YA titles I read included The Vanishing Point by Louise Hawes, Hidden Voices by Pat Lowery Collins, In Mozart's Shadow by Carolyn Meyer and The Musician's Daughter by Susanne Dunlap.
  • I joined the Historical Novel Society's Yahoo group for readers and writers of historical fiction. Thanks to that list, I learned that the society's North American conference was being held in Schaumburg, Illinois in 2009. (Yes, that's right, it was in June, 2009. Over two years ago! I feel as though I've been working on this novel forever.) I attended that conference. What an experience! I learned from and was inspired by several highly acclaimed historical writers.
These activities helped calm the worry "What if I'm no good at writing historical fiction?" But at the same time, a new fear cropped up: "What if I don't get the details right?" I feel a great sense of responsibility writing historical fiction: I want to paint an authentic picture of what life was like in that time and place. To quell that fear, I felt I had to Research, Research, Research! This included:
  • Researching the lives of the two women who inspired the novel 
  • Reading history books describing their life and times
  • Reading primary documents from the time period. (Not easy to do with my rudimentary knowledge of Italian!)
  • Researching specific aspects of daily life, such as food, clothing, and social customs
  • Contacting subject matter experts regarding questions I couldn't find answers to elsewhere
Through this research I found an account of an intriguing event that happened in Milan in 1739 that I ended up including as a scene in my novel. That was quite exciting! However, the research was also a great form of procrastination. That created a new fear: "Would I ever finish the novel?" This past June, I blogged about how I overcame that fear with the help of my "Writing Buddy."

These tactics actually worked. Those of you who are my Facebook friends know that I've been working on the final revisions to my WIP. As of today, I consider the draft done! I plan to print it out and set it aside for a bit. After a final read-through, I'll start submitting it. Then I'll have to face two more fears that have haunted me through this entire project: "What if no one wants to publish it?" "What if I've invested all this time and energy for nothing?" The only way I know to address these fears is to send the manuscript out and then turn around and start the next project. Wish me luck!

The other TeachingAuthors will continue to address this topic in upcoming posts. What about you? What are some of your writing fears? How do you fight them?

Happy Writing!

Monday, August 22, 2011

"We have met the enemy and he is us:" Writing Fears

     When another member of Teaching Authors suggested the topic "greatest writing fears," I responded enthusiastically. Perhaps a bit too enthusiastically, since I was chosen to introduce this topic.

    My title is from the late, great Walt Kelly comic strip Pogo.  A devoted reader of the daily comics, I didn't always catch Kelly's political allusions, but that one quote sums up my life as a writer. I am my own worst enemy.

    I have no inner monitor that tells me whether or not my writing stinks.  For instance, My Best Friend was written in two hours to cheer up my four-year-old daughter. At the time I was writing Yankee Girl, a middle grade semi-autobiographical book, which was much more in my comfort zone. The mere thought of writing something as sparse as a picture book, scared the stuffing out of me. I consider picture book writers geniuses. I feel the same way about poets.

    I never intended anyone but my daughter to ever hear My Best Friend . . .and her reaction was "Can you read Thunder Cake (by Patricia Polacco, her current favorite book) again?" I probably would have erased the whole file if I hadn't ruptured a couple of discs that same week. Since I couldn't sit or stand for longer than five minutes without collapsing, Yankee Girl went on hiatus.

   I was in the Vermont College MFA program at the time, and I had less than a month to submit a new piece of work for the next residency. I knew between surgery and keeping my daughter in check while flat on my back, there was no way I would be able to write anything else. Feeling like a huge fraud, I sent Vermont My Best Friend as my workshop piece.

   My workshop wasn't all that choked up over Friend either, except for the facilitator, Eric Kimmel.  The consensus of the group was that I was a novelist and I should stay a novelist. Eric was the dissenting opinion.  He liked it. A lot. Enough to tell me I should submit it somewhere. Since at that point I had been in the program a year and no one had so much as hinted that anything I had written worth sending anywhere, I jumped right on Eric's suggestion.

   Seventeen rejections later, I was beginning to think that my workshop knew more than the award-winning Eric Kimmel.   I worked my way alphabetically through Children's Writers and Illustrators Marketplace as my submission bible. I got to Viking, before I was offered a contract. (Side bar:  A year later, two more publishers that I had forgotten about, also rejected MBF.)  

    Still, I had no illusions of becoming the next Kevin Henkes, and went back to work on Yankee Girl. My Best Friend was a one-time fluke. Even after it won both the Ezra Jack Keats and Zolotow Awards (for most promising new picture book writer and best picture book text), I still thought it was a fluke. Not that I didn't keep writing picture books, usually when I was sick and tired of Yankee Girl which took five years.  (Elephants have shorter gestation periods than my novels.) Then Yankee Girl was rejected. Obviously, I only thought I was a writer.

    Luckily, Yankee Girl was picked up by the next publisher that read it. It was nominated for nine state book awards, was on the ALA Notables nomination list, named a best book by NCSS, and a VOYA "Top Shelf" middle grade fiction. Maybe I was a writer.

    I blitzed through a second novel. I took it to an SCBWI retreat for an editor's critique. I had an icky feeling that it was a piece of junk. The editor, who used much nicer words, basically said the same thing. Back to square one. Those two published books were just flukey luck.

   Still, writing is a compulsion, even when I think I am writing birdcage liner material. So I wrote on. Then I remembered the first book I finished....twenty five years ago. It was equally awful, but I had done so much research that I kept my hard copy (written with a daisy wheel printer on tractor feedpaper...that's how old it was). Who knew when I might want to write a book about World War II? I cringed as I re-read it all those years later, (still terrible) but as I read, the characters and story rearranged themselves, like a word scramble puzzle. The very raw components of a different book were there. The research was already done, and I ripped out Jimmy's Stars in less than 18 months. My editor set a new record for accepting a book....three weeks, and right before Christmas at that.

   At this moment my publishing stats are two novels, one anthology short story, four picture books (plus two more under contract).

  What am I writing?  A book that I have worked on since 2002. That's right. Nine years. While I wrote and sold all those other books, I was researching, and noodling around with this one. Earlier in this post I said I thought poets were geniuses because they say so much with so little (like picture book writers). Remember that second novel that racked up a rotten critique? That one was written in three different voices. It really didn't work, but I learned a lot by writing it.

   So again, what is my current project? A verse novel in three voices. Am I pushing the envelope or just kidding myself?  I always say you can't force a size seven foot in a size six shoe, and you can't force a book to be something it isn't. (One incarnation of Jimmy's Stars was a picture book where the main character was a dying Christmas tree. Really!) This current book couldn't be written in just didn't work. I bored myself writing it. It couldn't be told from just one POV...the scope of the story required a minimum of three voices (and that's what I'm sticking with--three characters who are siblings).

  I am working with the world's most encouraging critique group. On their confidence (not mine!) I have been able to almost finish a first draft this summer. I am developing a gut feeling about which poems work and which don't. (I still don't have a gut feeling as to whether the book works as a whole.)

   But then there are always editors to tell me that.

   So what's my greatest writing fear? That I rely too much about what others say or don't say about my writing. That I can only sporadically tell when I am writing myself into a cul-de-sac. Maybe the "gut feeling" thing is something you have to develop over time, like going to the gym to get those six-pack abs. On the other hand, I have been writing my entire life, so just when, if ever, is this going to happen?
Maybe never. Big fear.

   Don't forget our latest autographed book giveaway, Donna Gephart's How to Survive Middle School. Click here for details. (This title alone makes me want to wail "Where was this when I was in middle school?")

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, August 19, 2011

Book Giveaway and Guest Teaching Author Interview with Donna Gephart

The Teaching Authors are pleased to present an interview with Guest Teaching Author Donna Gephart.

To celebrate Donna's appearance on our blog, we're giving away an autographed paperback copy of her book How to Survive Middle School. To enter the drawing, see the instructions at the end of this post.

Donna’s newest novel, Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, about a girl who will do anything to get on the TV quiz show Jeopardy!, comes out in March 2012 from Delacorte Press. How to Survive Middle School, her second novel, garnered starred reviews from Kirkus and School Library Journal. Her debut novel, As If Being 12-3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President!, won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. In addition to having homeschooled her son, Donna speaks at schools, libraries, book festivals, and conferences across the country.

How did you become a Teaching Author?

My degree was in secondary education from Penn State University. While I loved working with the students, I knew I wanted to be a writer. Combining writing novels for young people with school visits seems to be the best of both worlds for me. I love speaking to students and giving writing workshops for young people. 

What's a common problem your students have, and how do you address it?

One of the hardest things for students seems to be how to revise their writing. Most young people wish their first draft were also their final draft. Thanks to the amazing author/teacher Kate Messner, there's now a solution to that problem: Kate's awesome new book, Real Revision: Authors' Strategies to Share with Student Writers. The inspiration and information in this book helps teachers guide young writers through the revision process. 

Can you share a story about a funny writing or speaking experience?

The funniest thing that ever happened during one of my talks was this: When I was giving a workshop about writing humor at the Erma Bombeck Humor Writer's Workshop in Dayton, OH, a crew from the CBS TV show Sunday Morning was filming a segment about Erma Bombeck. During my workshop, I offer an exercise that involves writing about your most embarrassing experiences. I assure participants that their experiences will not be shared. I tell them to cover their papers and let them know that their responses are for their eyes only. As soon as workshop participants began writing their most embarrassing experiences, a TV crew came into the room and trained their cameras on the writers and what they were writing. Talk about embarrassing! At least it was a humor writing workshop, so we all got a good laugh about it. And that particular segment did not find its way onto TV -- thank goodness!

Your first novel, As If Being 12-3/4 Isn’t Bad Enough, My Mother Is Running for President!, won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award. What advice would you give to writers who would like to write funny books?

I give a workshop about writing humor and have written about it for the Children's Writer's and Illustrator's Market. My two best bits of advice are to mine your embarrassment and to tell the truth -- not in a non-fiction way, but to tell the emotional truth that will resonate with young readers.

How can teachers use your books in the classroom?

My latest book, Olivia Bean, Trivia Queen, contains more than 100 bits of trivia, so teachers could use it to create Jeopardy!-style games for whatever subject they are teaching or share the trivia in the book. 

How to Survive Middle School landed on a lot of school reading lists this summer because it can open a discussion about bullying and about finding oneself and discovering one's passions. The main character survives difficult circumstances through his talent and sense of humor. The book can also be a springboard for students to create their own videos -- book trailers, talkshows, etc. The main character also uses "Top 6-1/2 Lists" during his talk shows. Students can create 6-1/2 lists about a variety of topics. And I include a recipe in the back of the book that can be made by students or teachers. 

The main character in As If Being 12-3/4 Isn't Bad Enough, My Mother is Running for President! is a spelling bee champ, so a mock spelling bee in the classroom can be a fun tie-in activity. In the back of the book, I share a resource guide for learning more about politics.  There are some fun sites for students of all ages. And, of course, a recipe for lemon squares, which is significant in the novel.

Would you share a favorite writing exercise for our readers?

To learn the power of using nouns and strong verbs, I create a Mad Lib style fill-in-the-blanks where students shout out ideas for the missing nouns and verbs. At the end, I read the hilarious story the students have created by providing interesting nouns and strong verbs.

For creating characters, I have students fill out a questionnaire about their characters, including age, family relationships, passions, dislikes, school information, and what the character might be hiding in his or her closet. Then I have students put their characters into hot water by making the characters face the things they most want to avoid.

* * * 

Thank you, Donna!

Readers, you can also view a singing hamster book trailer for How to Survive Middle School.

Before entering our contest, please read our Book Giveaway Guidelines. Then, for a chance to win an autographed paperback copy of How to Survive Middle School, answer this question: Now that you're past those middle school years, what piece of advice would you give to a young person who wants to know the best way to survive middle school? You can either post a comment to today's blog post or email your comment 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, August 26, 2011 (Central Standard Time). The winner will be chosen in a random drawing and announced by 11 p.m., Saturday, August 27, 2011.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011


If you read Carmela’s June 29 up-close-and-personal interview with TeachingAuthor Deborah Halverson, today’s post, listing ten reasons why I heartily recommend Deborah's newest book, WRITING YOUNG ADULT FICTION FOR DUMMIES (Wiley Publishing, 2011), should come as little surprise.
Deborah wears a variety of Children’s Book World hats – Novelist, Author, Former Editor with Harcourt Children’s Books, Independent Book Editor and Founder of DearEditor, a writers’ advice website, and she obviously donned each one to write this easy-to-understand, comprehensive, hands-on text.  Her stated goal in writing the book was to give writers of young adult fiction the tools they need to tell their good stories well.  Boy, oh, boy, did she succeed.

 So, here are my 10 reasons why I heartily recommend Deborah’s book.
(For the record, I could have listed at least 10 more.)

 (1)   Deborah knows her subject matter from the inside out; she lives and breathes its content.  Her editorial and experiential insights take the information to a new level.

 (2)   The text’s/story’s satisfying narrative arc takes the writer from getting ready to write YA fiction to mastering marketing.

(3)  Deborah first grounds the writer in the body of YA literature and its targeted audience before addressing the needs of the story and the telling.

(4)  She includes managing one’s muse before presenting the writing process and key elements of narrative.

(5)  Due consideration is given “the almighty hook.”  The exercise offered on page 71 will be useful to all writers, no matter the format.

 (6)  Speaking of all writers, Deborah’s gems and pearls of wisdom, especially concerning characterization and plot, are not limited to only YA writers.

 (7)  Modeling true Show, Don’t Tell, the text includes concrete examples of key points being taught.

 (8) Author interviews (of some of my favorite YA authors, I might add, including Kathi Appelt and Deb Wiles) underscore, on a more personal level, the insights shared throughout the book.

 (9)  While readers’ questions are anticipated throughout and thoughtfully answered, side-bars further amplify points raised in the text.

(10) The Writing Exercises and Tips are – to quote from my last post’s recommended book – plenitudinous and wallopingly-fresh. 

 Should you not believe me, here’s a free printable cheat sheet

 Comprehensive.  Thorough.  Clearly-written.  Insightful.  Those are but a few adjectives that describe this guidebook.

 Read through the text, from Chapter 1, Part 1, (The Lowdown on YA Fiction/Getting Ready to Write Young Adult Fiction) to Chapter 18, Part V (Ten Ways to Make the Most of a Conference/The Part of Tens).
Or, simply page through the book, randomly picking and choosing – a Tip, an Exercise, an Interview, a Teaching Point.

Either way works.
Either way will make you smarter.
Either way you’ll be on your way to writing young adult fiction.


 Esther Hershenhorn

Monday, August 15, 2011

Writing as a Reader

I have spent my whole writing "career" (so to speak) writing the books that I wanted to read as a kid.  As the years have gone by, I'm mostly still writing for the eight-year-old I used to be... thirty-odd years ago. 

Now my six-year-old daughter is gaining the maturity to enjoy the books that first lit the creative spark inside of me.  This is a huge and exciting development in my writing life (and hers, too, I'm sure).  I've had plenty of kids give me feedback on my work, but these were not kids who lived with me, kids I knew nearly as well as I know myself.  My nearest audience is no longer a hypothetical "kids out there"; nor, more importantly, is it a younger me.  It is someone who does not dwell inside my head, someone who was actually born in our current century.

More than anything, watching my daughter this summer has re-reminded me of the power that we as writers hold in our fingertips.  A few weeks ago, she returned from a play date, having viewed a commercial for the movie DIARY OF A WIMPY KID.  Two hours later, she started to shake and cry. "The cheese part scared me!" she sobbed.

Weeks later, she can conjure up tears at the most subtle reminder of cheese, commercials, movies, diaries... Someday perhaps she will be a Method Actor.  Today, she is my tender, sensitive girl, who will laugh, who will cry, who will remember a clever turn of phrase from something she read eons ago.

Kids, we all know, are not little grown-ups.  Their reactions are anything but predictable.  Yesterday she said to me, "Does R.L. Stine write things that scare kids?  I hate R.L. Stine!"  (As though she knew him personally.)  In five years, she will probably adore R.L. Stine.  But right now, my daughter is a living and vivid reminder of the awesomeness of the task we set for ourselves as those who write for children.  Wow, what an opportunity.  Wow, what a responsibility. --Jeanne Marie

Friday, August 12, 2011

A Play Doh Poem for Poetry Friday (and a Play Doh writing exercise, too)

Howdy, Campers!  Happy Poetry Friday!
Poetry Friday is hosted by Karen Edmisten this week.
Thank you, Karen!

I was fiddling around with dactyls and double dactyls this week.  A dactyl contains three syllables: one stressed followed by two unstressed (/ - - ). So, for example, the word marmalade (MAR-ma-lade), which we say with a stress on the first syllable, is a dactylic word.  The phrase, "Talk to me!" is also a dactyl.

The rhythm of a dactyl makes you want to dance.  It's light and suits playful topics.

Dactyls remind me of pterodactyls.  But that's not where I went.  Instead, I took out a handy can of Play Doh and opened it. WOWZA!
photo from Morgue Files

I read a bit about Play Doh's inventor and history and then, in honor of National Play Doh Day, (September 18th), I wrote this poem:

by April Halprin Wayland

Play Doh, invented by Joseph McVicker,
is putty that's squishy and spongy and soft
and supple and yielding and malleable colors--
its bouquet bewitches, it lingers, it wafts

across much of our planet--
over two billion sold!
There's even a fragrance (and who wouldn't want it?)
a perfume in honor (it's fifty years old!)

The recipe's classified--
water and flour, and a sprinkling of salt?
I can fiddle with Play Doh for hour after hour
and if I'm not writing, it's McVicker's fault!

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

For today's WRITING WORKOUT, let's think out of the box.

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?

OCTOBER 2021 UPDATE: When teaching this exercise Virtually, I tell students the week before to bring a paper plate and 2 different colors of the smallest cans available of Play-Doh, the popular soft clay for children. It doesn't matter what color.

They can purchase it or use ANY kind of pliable clay they have...or make their own. Here's a 3-minute video on how to make your own (minus the wonderful Play-Doh smell):

In the class on rewriting, I take them through the grand slog of publishing NEW YEAR AT THE PIER

And once they're completely depressed, they take out their Play-Doh.

PLAY-DOH exercise part 1:

1)  Each student has two colors of Play-Doh and a paper plate.

2)  Working silently (most choose to mute), each makes a character. It can be a child, an animal, a fantasy character, a tree...whatever.

3)  Each takes a photo of her character. 

Then I talk about rewriting MORE THAN ENOUGH, with which I had a completely different experience from rewriting NEW YEAR AT THE PIER.

PLAYDOH exercise part 2:
1) Each student shows us their character.

2) I move them into BREAKOUT ROOMS (2 people per room).  Each person in turn becomes the other's editor, suggesting one "edit" of the character (such as adding clothing onto the hippo or turning the horse into a dragon...or something super simple, like adding polka dots).

3) Tell them to take a photo of their character after the edit.

4) Back in class, we share how our characters changed and discuss how it felt to be edited. Was it difficult? Did they resist it or feel defensive? Did it make their work better? Different? 

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 drawing (c) 2011 April Halprin Wayland, all rights reserved

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Photos as Story-Starters: Another Back-to-School Writing Activity

We've been doing a series of posts with ideas and references for back-to-school writing activities for teachers. I hope that writers are finding these ideas useful too. If you're a writer, I encourage you to try the Writing Workout at the end of today's post.

Jeanne Marie kicked off this series with a Writing Workout that asks students to describe (among other things) what a character is wearing. I've used a variation of this exercise with my adult writing students, asking them to write specifically about a character's shoes. Students are often surprised by how something so mundane as a character's shoes can provide insights into the character's personality, and even plot ideas.

Thanks to Esther's post, I'm looking forward to picking up a copy of Better than Great by Arthur Plotnik, and trying out her splendiferous Writing Workout with my students.

JoAnn's post last Friday reminded me of the importance of encouraging my students. And whether you write poetry or teach it (or both) you'll want to check out the book she discussed, Seeing the Blue Between, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko.

Finally, on Monday, Mary Ann shared an alternative to the dreaded "What I did over summer vacation" assignment. She has her students write about something "they know a lot about," in other words, something based on personal experience. Today's Writing Workout is similar in that it also asks students (and those of you who are writers) to write about an event you personally experienced. But in this case, students use a photograph as a story-starter.

The inspiration for this exercise came from reading Lois Lowry's Looking Back: A Book of Memories.  Here's a description of Lowry's book:
"People are constantly asking two-time Newbery Medalist Lois Lowry where she gets her ideas. In this fascinating memoir, Lowry answers this question, through recollections of childhood friends and pictures and memories that explore her rich family history. She recounts the pivotal moments that inspired her writing, describing how they magically turned into fiction along the complicated passageway called life. Lowry fans, as well as anyone interested in understanding the process of writing fiction, will benefit from this poignant trip through the past and the present of a remarkable writer."
See the following Writing Workout for ideas on how to use Lowry's book to inspire your students' (or your own) writing.

Writing Workout:
Using a Photo as a Story-Starter

Note: The following exercise is for use with young writers. I've used it successfully with grades 3-8. If you're a writer, see below for information on adapting this for your own work.
  1. Before introducing Lowry's book, I ask students to bring in a photograph of themselves with at least one other member of their family. (I define "family" to include extended family, such as cousins, aunts, uncles, etc., as well as family pets.) The photo should be of an event or special occasion or vacation and not a posed family portrait. If students like, they can bring in an extra photo so they can later choose which one to use for the assignment.
  2. The day of the assignment, I introduce the topic of writing from memories, or "memoir writing." Then I present Lowry's book, Looking Back. We discuss some of Lowry's fiction books, and I explain that, unlike her fiction, Looking Back is about events that actually happened. However, some of those events inspired Lowry's other writing.
  3. I page through, Looking Back, showing the class how each photo is followed by a memoir about the depicted event. Then I read a sample memoir. For grades 3-5, I typically use the memoir associated with a 1940 photo of Lowry's older sister reading The Gingerbread Man to her. 
  4. Now it's time for students to write their own memoirs using the photos they've brought to class. I ask them to "tell the story behind their photo," being sure to answer the 5Ws: Who is in the picture? Where are they? What are they doing? When did the event take place? Why were you together (for what occasion or event)? I also ask the students to answer the "H" question: How were you feeling?
  5. I emphasize that the memoir should not be a list of answers to the above questions. Instead, it should read like a true story with a beginning, middle, and end. This may take several drafts to accomplish. One of the things I ask students to do as they revise is to try to create an intriguing opening that will make readers want to read on. And every story should have an appropriate title.  
  6. After completing the assignment, students are usually excited to read their stories and show the class their photos. While this exercise can be used any time during the school year, I like to assign it early on because it helps me learn a little about the students and their families.
If you're a writer, I suggest you read Lowry's Looking Back for inspiration before you try the above assignment. Then, consider taking the assignment a step further by using some aspect of your photo-inspired memoir in a fictional story.

Do let me know how this exercise works for you and/or your students.
Happy writing!

Monday, August 8, 2011

Revving Up to Write or Curing Brain Freeze

     When I was a student back in the last century, there were three things you could count on happening the first day of school;  somebody would throw up, the PA system issued a stream of incomprehensible directives ("First lunch students will eat during second lunch...").  While my teacher figured out the intricacies of her Delaney Book seating chart, there would be our first assignment on the chalkboard, right under "Hello, my name is Mrs. (Fill in the Blank). 99 per cent of the time it was "What I Did on My Summer Vacation." Sometimes this was followed by the threat "Spelling and punctuation count. Must be at least 250 words."

      This assignment was so predictable that after second grade, I started wrting the essay in advance, so I could read a library book instead. The kids who went to the Wisconsin Dells or some place truly exotic like Disneyland had no problem. Kids who stayed home and spent the summer running through the lawn sprinkler or worse, in summer school, (the equivalent of a stint in Sing Sing) stared at their three ring binders, and sweated bullets.  Five minutes into the school year, and the threat of next year's summer school was already nipping at their heels.

     Somewhere between my school days and my daughter's, the "What I Did..." essay had gone the way of the dodo bird. Instead, every morning, she was expected to write in a "journal" for five to ten minutes, using a writing prompt on the white board. I am not a fan of writing prompts. It's hard to come up with a hundred and eighty or so age-appropriate writing prompts, year after year. The kids knew that what they wrote didn't matter, just that they wrote something. Their grade came from the teaching flipping through the journals looking for blank pages or suspiciously short essays.

    Whoever came up with the journal idea had good intentions. Being able to write English fluently is always a handy skill. Unfortunately, journals turn an awful lot of kids off. I wouldn't be a writer today if I had been expected to write on a narrowly defined topic, first thing in the morning. Every morning. By middle school, these journals were used in every class (except P.E.). Six or seven prompts a day would give me brain freeze.

     OK teachers, I am going to give you a writer's workout that will cause you to roll your eyes, gnash your teeth, and call me nasty names (hopefully, not in front of your class.) And yes, it will take more time (in the beginning). Ready?  Let's rev up that creative part of the brain that has probably lain dormant all summer.

Writer's Workout

(This is adapted from Writing Workshop: The Essential Guide by Ralph Fletcher and JoAnn Portalupi.)

   Equipment needed:  Teacher:  A timer, a small legal pad, and writing instrument. Students; the same,minus the timer.

    Plan plenty of time for this exercise; the more students you have, the more time you'll need. Don't plan on multitasking. Your students will need your full attention.

    First, share a couple of your own (short) ancedotes. This serves several purposes. One, students seem more open to learning if they know a little something about you. Something interesting to them.  For instance, second graders are probably not going to care that you like gardening, have two grandchildren and your cat got stuck in a tree last week.

   They may be interested that your grandmother helped you plant your first vegetable garden (and you hated picking worms off the tomatoes).  Or that one of your grandchildren plays hockey and the other wants to be a beekeeper.  As for the cat in the tree (and this is from personal experience), you can't coax them down with their favorite food (they can't smell from that far away), and that a hook-and-ladder truck is useless if the tree is in a fenced yard.

   Now, tell the students to write something "they know a lot about." The only restrictions are they can't use the topics you just used; and it can't be a synopsis of a book, TV show or movie. This is not a made up story; this is a story about something that happened to you, or something you know a lot about.

    Partner each student and give them each a minute to tell the other what they are going to write about.
(I love my old-fashioned egg can't argue with a loud "ping"!) Announce that you will have
a "writer's conference" with each of them, preferably in a comfortable, private environment, like a "reader's corner."  You will need your timer (keep it short. You'll need the extra time for those suffering from Brain Freeze.)Those who seem to be on the right track should be given a quick thumbs up and sent on their way.

    If this is new territory for you, you might want to have a cheat sheet of potential topics.  Teachers get Brain Freeze, too! Now on to those stuck in Popsicle mode.

  The conversation might go something like this. Student reluctantly shows you blank or nearly blank paper. You: Courtney, it looks like you're having a little trouble thinking of something to write about. Let's think together (I have a personal dislike of the term "brainstorm")

Here are some topics you might have on your cheat sheet.

Who is your favorite relative? Why?

Have you ever had to move? How did that feel? Did you have to leave a best friend? How did that feel?

Do you play a sport? Do you like it? Or do you play because all your other friends play? Who is your favorite team or player? Why?

If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be? Why?

If you could meet any person in the world (living or dead) who would it be? Why? What would you ask them? What you want to share with them?

Do you (play an instrument, chess, computer games, go to dance class or gymnastics) You need to be specific, because I have discovered that a lot of kids do not know the meaning of  "hobby" or "pastime".
Asking "what do you do for fun?" may result in some-stories-that-should-not-be-shared!

Are you the oldest, youngest, middle, or only child in your family? What's good about that? What's not so good about that?

Do you have a pet? If you could have one, what would you pick and why?

Do you collect stuff? How did you decide on this item to collect?

(These are just examples. I would prepare as many as there are students. You can never have too many back up questions.)

    Hopefully, the student will respond to at least one or more of your suggestions. When they do, write the cue word ("soccer", "Lady Gaga", "Madagascar") on your small legal pad.  Hopefully, your little Popsicle has shown interest in at least three topics. When you get to three or four, give them your small sheet and send the student back to consider their choices. (Small legal notepads are less intimidating than the full-sized ones.

    Points to emphasize: no one has to "share" if they don't want to (once things get rolling, usually everybody wants to share). Don't worry about spelling and punctuation. That's what revision is for
(and that's another topic.)

    Not only does this exercise take away the pressure of committing words to paper (graphophobia--I looked it up) but you and your students will know a little more about each other than they did an hour ago.

By the way, it costs way more than you want to know to retrieve a cat from a thirty foot pine tree.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, August 5, 2011

Encouraging Words

With fall classes starting at the end of the month, I’ve been thinking about structures and schedules and teaching plans. I’m excited about teaching two new classes, "Writing Poetry for Children and Young Adults" at Mount Mary College and "Writing a Children’s Picture Book" at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Continuing Education.

One of the books I’ve reread in preparation for teaching reinforces my belief that a large part—maybe the most important aspect—of teaching creative writing is providing encouragement. Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets, compiled by Paul B. Janeczko, includes letters and poems from poets who not only write for children but also encourage them, give them specific tips about writing, and understand the roadblocks along the way.

Wondering what to write about? Alice Schertle says, “I used to think that poems could be found only in 'big' subjects like beauty, wonder, birth, death, love. Now I like to find the poems that lurk in unexpected places—on a slice of pepperoni pizza, perhaps, or floating down the gutter after a rain. I once found a pretty good poem in the ear of my cat. Oddly enough, I sometimes find the big subjects lurking somewhere within the little unexpected poems.”

How to begin? Marilyn Singer’s advice: “Observe everyone and everything around you. Learn all kinds of things, especially words. The more words you know, the better you can find the best ones to use when you write a poem. Sing and listen to music. Poetry is as much about rhythm as it is about words. Know that there is more than one way to see, hear, say, and imagine anything. Find what is new in every person, animal, place, thing, and, especially, in yourself. Then, sit down and write!”

Karla Kuskin calls writing “kind of a conversation with myself. It is also a way of keeping myself company. As I write, my thoughts get clearer.” According to Lillian Morrison, “Keeping your eyes and ears and heart open as you write, little by little, you get to see better, hear better, and know and understand more about yourself and the world around you.” Janet S. Wong agrees: “Part of being a poet is being willing to put yourself out there, to open up.”

On persistence, George Ella Lyon says, “Writing is practice, not something you just do in a burst of energy now and then. Most people know if you want to be on the swim team, you don’t jump in the water for the first time at tryouts. And, if you make the team, you don’t swim only at meets. No, you practice, practice, practice. It’s the same thing if you want to sing with a band or play in a chess tournament. Working at your dream becomes part of your every day life.”

Other poets offer suggestions for reading, revising, and revealing true feelings. Seeing the Blue Between: Advice and Inspiration for Young Poets contains practical advice and encouragement for young poets and also welcome reminders for those of us who sometimes need a nudge to get back to work!

Today's Poetry Friday Roundup is at A Year of Literacy Coaching

JoAnn Early Macken