Friday, November 15, 2019

Connecting Lily Pads: The Messy Middle

To follow three outstanding posts by April, Bobbie, and Carmela on "messy middles"is a major challenge.  They've already covered so much but we all have our ways of slogging through those messy middles.

I am a meandering writer. First chapters are easy. You're setting the story up, introducing characters and conflict. Chapter two you do more of the same. In fact, you're cruising along until you hit that bog/swamp/deep dark forest (choose a metaphor) aka: the messy middle. You know the "heart of the story" (see April's post) but do you know the end of your story?

I don't mean you have the last chapter, dialog and all in your head (although you might...I write last chapters first...but that's a post for another time.) More importantly, do you know how your character has changed since chapter one? If you don't, you can't really pick your way through the bog/swamp/forest because you don't know where you're going. You are wandering through that messy, messy middle, that muddle of characters and incidents that you think will get you to the end.

 I used to write my way out of the middle. That's a good way to have a 600 page first draft of a 225 page novel. Even then, you might still feel that you haven't arrived where you wanted to go. Especially if you didn't know where you were going to begin with.

Organization has always been a big problem for me. Organization is so big, so overwhelming. Outlines have never worked for me. I was the student who wrote a term paper first, then went back and wrote the required outline. That doesn't work so well with fiction.

One of my mentors in the Vermont College MFA program, a writer known for extremely spare writing...not a wasted word anywhere...told me this. (Paraphrasing) Don't worry about the last scene or chapter. Think about how your character changes throughout the story. How is she different at the end? Build a bridge between the two things you the story begins...and how the character is at the end. Build a bridge, inch by inch through the unknown.

This is a variation on the answer to the question, "How do you eat an elephant?" Answer: "One bite at a time." This is not working from an outline. It's working from the question: "And then what happens?" What starts your character's journey to change? Then what happens? What happens because of that? Cause and effect, cause and effect. Getting your character into as much peril as possible without killing them. (Although in frustration, I've often thought of loading my characters into a car, and driving them off a cliff, Thelma-and-Louise-style. "And then they all died. The end!")

I don't write in sequence. I mentioned earlier that I write final chapters first. That gives me a "ballpark destination." Of course that chapter will be re-written, or even discarded over many drafts, but it gives me someplace to head. I am standing in the first couple of chapters, and I see where I want to wind up. But how do I get there?

A scene, and incident, a bit of conversation will come to mind...and I write that. I don't know exactly where it is in the bog/swamp/forest...but it's in there. I don't worry where. I write as much as I can around that incite...and then wait. Another bit will come to mind. I write that...and again, don't know where it comes in the character's journey. I keep doing this until I finish what I think of as a first draft. (No one else would think of it that way!)

Second, third, and who-knows-how-many-drafts--I sort out theses hopscotching scenes, written in no particular order. I arrange and rearrange them. Reading through them sometimes causes me to throw a few out, or consolidate, or to have a Big Revelation.

Once these scenes are in an order that makes sense, I begin bridging those scenes. What characters, information, emotional change needs to occur next? I think of this process as building connectors between a bunch of lily pads. They're all floating in the same pond, but I need to connect them to get to shore (the last chapter). Frogs can hop from pad to pad...but readers need connections to get from episode to episode.

This works for me because my mind doesn't work in a linear fashion. I have ADHD and problems with executive function (the part of your brain that plans and orders tasks.) My mind hops around, and I can't help it. So instead of fighting against it, I've harnessed it. I've written and published 10 books and two short stories working this way.

Does it work? Judge for yourself. This is how I wrote this post.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Tuesday, November 12, 2019

WWW: How to Write a Superlative Mask Poem Even Lincoln Would Be Proud Of

     Feast your eyes on today’s WWW creator Eileen Meyer (left) celebrating the launch of her newest book with fellow TeachingAuthor Carmela Martino (right) at Anderson’s Bookshop in Downers Grove, Illinois last week.

     There’s no hiding the fact or masking the truth.  Eileen’s THE SUPERLATIVE A. LINCOLN – POEMS ABOUT OUR 16TH PRESIDENT (Charlesbridge) is garnering superlative reviews.

     School Library Journal writes: “An excellent use of language and recognizable rhyme schemes make this title a wonderful teaching tool for the classroom. These well-researched poems hold readers’ attention and could encourage them to explore additional questions. ¬VERDICT A good example of how poetry can also inform. Highly recommended for elementary schools and public libraries.”

     Kirkus Review offers: “Telling Abraham Lincoln's story in poetry is a tall order, but Meyer pulls it off. 'Come read about a legend— / the greatest of the greats; / from a poor boy in the backwoods / to a president, first-rate.' The title of each celebratory poem offers a yearbook-style superlative about our 16th president: 'Best Wrestler,'  'Best Lumberjack,' 'Who's Tallest?' Each poem is accompanied by a brief paragraph providing context for the poem. The collection will make excellent reading aloud in the classroom, a few a day. A tip of the stovepipe hat for making a poetry biography so much fun.”

   Lucky us!  That above-mentioned stovepipe hat of Mr. Lincoln’s and the mask poem Eileen wrote about it happen to be the stuff of today’s Wednesday Writing Workout.

   And truly, lucky me.  I’ve watched Eileen grow as a picture book writer. publishing first WHO’S FASTER? ANIMALS ON THE MOVE (Mountain Press), then BALLPARK (Two Lions) and SWEET DREAMS, WILD ANIMALS: A STORY OF SLEEP (Mountain Press).  Her poetry has appeared in numerous children’s magazines.

      FYI: THE SUPERLATIVE A. LINCOLN is beautifully illustrated by David Szalay.  Each and every perfectly-crafted kid friendly poem offers a surprising glimpse into an American Hero most of us are mistakenly certain we know fully and is accompanied by an historical footnote.  Think: Distracted Farmer, Best Lumberjack, Least Favorite Nickname, Best Wrestler.  The book’s back matter offers a personal Author’s Note, a timeline of Abraham Lincoln’s life, resources for young Lincoln fans and an opportunity for readers to determine their superlative qualities and/or behaviors.

     Scroll down to Eileen’s WWW to learn how to write a superlative mask poem even Lincoln would be proud of, making sure you read to the end.
     Thank you, Eileen, for teaching us this poetic form.  And here's to your most successful book yet!
     Happiest Poet-ing Ever!

     Esther Hershenhorn

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


Have you ever wanted to let an object have its say? Or perhaps share the perspective and unique voice of a creature by writing from its point of view? If you’ve harbored any of these thoughts, writing a MASK POEM might be right up your alley. (Note: this exercise is addressed to writers, but teachers may utilize the same exercise in the classroom.)

Mask poems are defined as “a first-person observation, description, or opinion as told by an object or creature” according to the handbook from my first poetry teacher and fellow children’s author, Heidi Bee Roemer.  We just celebrated Halloween a few weeks ago—think of yourself wearing a mask: you are pretending to be something or someone else. Keep that idea in mind as you try your hand at drafting a mask poem.

In my just-released picture book, THE SUPERLATIVE A. LINCOLN: POEMS ABOUT OUR 16TH PRESIDENT, I had a lot of fun writing a mask poem from the point of view Lincoln’s iconic stovepipe hat. Why don’t you choose an object or creature for your mask poem?

Once I chose my subject, I began to think about what the stovepipe hat had to say . . . what was on its mind? I first thought about the hat’s functionality. Many people are not aware that Lincoln’s stovepipe hat served many purposes:

Lincoln used the interior of his hat to carry important letters, notes, and correspondence tucked into the band. (This habit harkens back to his New Salem days as postmaster when Lincoln took it upon himself to deliver mail to residents who hadn’t picked up mail at the post office.)
At times, Lincoln used the hat’s flat top as a writing surface.
And of course, our 16th president’s hat also protected him from inclement weather.

All in all, Lincoln’s stovepipe hat was a pretty handy accessory. But had it ever been recognized as such? What is distinctive about your object or creature? Make a list.

I decided to take the approach that the stovepipe hat was a bit put-off by other carrying devices, such as briefcases or knapsacks (devices that did exist in the mid 1800’s so I was historically accurate), because the hat could handle the function of transporting key documents by itself. That realization also gave me my tone for the poem. It was my “Aha!” moment … the hat was going to be a bit sassy. Frankly, Lincoln’s stovepipe hat had been feeling underestimated and underappreciated for well over a century— and the hat was finally going to have its due!
Now that you’ve made a list about your object or creature’s distinctive qualities or attributes, are there any clues to the message of your poem? And the tone?

The poem I wrote became one of my favorites in the collection. . . but before I share the poem, let me tell you a bit more about the book to provide better context. This will also shed light on the poem’s title.

This picture book celebrates superlatives, which most kids find fascinating. Young readers enjoy learning about who is the tallest, the first at something, or the best at accomplishing a particular milestone. Each story is told through poetry—there are nineteen poems in this 48-page picture book. For example, readers learn why Lincoln was the “Most Distracted Farmer” when he was a young man, that he was known as the “Best Wrestler” in the county, and had the “Most Surprising Friendship” with another famous icon.

Since this poem was about the stovepipe hat, but needed to be titled as a superlative – I came up with this: “Best Use of an Accessory” with a subtitle “Lincoln’s Stovepipe Hat Speaks Out.” With that poem title I was able to achieve a number of things—utilize a superlative form (“best use”) and identify the speaker (Lincoln’s stovepipe hat.) Additionally, the title says that the hat “speaks out”; phrasing that grabs the reader’s attention by stating that this usually silent hat has something important to say. Is there a title that comes to mind for your Mask Poem? (If you can’t think of one, don’t worry. Sometimes it’s easier to come up with a good title once the poem has been written.)

I created a word bank on my yellow pad and brainstormed words related to stovepipe hats, briefcases, and descriptors for how Lincoln used the hat. I used a simple rhyme scheme (ABCB) and wrote a first draft. Create a word bank list. Choose a rhyme scheme for your poem. Try your hand at a first draft.

After many revisions and input from the talented writers in my critique groups, VOILA, here is the finished poem:

Friday, November 8, 2019

Pixar To the Rescue!

We at Teaching Authors are looking at messy middles. I so enjoyed April's Messy, Perplexing Journey  There is no way I can follow the genius of that blog post (You should really read it!). So, instead, I offer one of my favorite checklists that I use when I am revising a story, especially shoring up the middle. You’ve no doubt seen these Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling. The article dates from 2013, and was originally tweeted by Emma Coats, Pixar’s Story Artist. There's twenty rules in all. And all of them are pretty handy at helping me get to the emotive core of the story, blending action and adventure with character-driven plots. Fiction is primarily an emotional exchange. The reader stays connected to the hero because she feels the story. The reader wants to see the character succeed, or at least wants to see what happens next. And, true enough, no one does that better than Pixar! I admit it, I cried when Nemo was found, when Wall-E fell in love, and when Coco hugged his grandfather. And I certainly believe toys come alive when no one is watching.

Here’s a sampling of Emma Coats' rules:

1. Trying for theme is important, but you won’t see what the story is actually about til you’re at the end of it. Now rewrite.

2. Once upon a time there was ___. Every day, ___. One day ___. Because of that, ___. Because of that, ___. Until finally ___.

3. What is your character good at, comfortable with? Throw the polar opposite at them. Challenge them. How do they deal?

4. When you’re stuck, make a list of what WOULDN’T happen next. Lots of times the material to get you unstuck will show up.

5. Pull apart the stories you like. What you like in them is a part of you; you’ve got to recognize it before you can use it.

6. Coincidences to get characters into trouble are great; coincidences to get them out of it are cheating.

And here's a Pixar exercise for the road:

Take the building blocks of a movie you dislike. How would you rearrange them into what you DO like?

Remember, "Adventure is out there!" (Russell, from UP)

Wishing you the spirit of adventure, too!

-- Bobbi Miller

Friday, November 1, 2019


Howdy, Campers ~ and Happy Poetry Friday! (PF link at the end)

The topic of this round is MESSY MIDDLES,  talking about what happens if the middle of a novel is sagging or the middle of another project just isn't working, etc. 

I can't offer much advice or examples of this except to say that I'm always in the middle of quiet terror. Can anyone relate?

So...let's talk about the messiness of writing a poem.

Here's how this poem four steps (I've left out many of the middle attempts):

1. Looking for an idea. 

I started with a first line: I am musing about music.

by April Halprin Wayland

I am musing about music.
I am lost.
I cannot find my feet.
They are sinking in sand.
There is no topic.
There is not
There is just sinking
no thinking
no help
no hope
no nothing
until a little bird.
Just a word.
Just a chirpy word.
One chirpy word.
I look up
from this hole
from sand in my hair
sand on my cheeks
sand on my hands
sand from the beach
sand into next week
at a sandpiper
at her slender needle beak
I wait for her to speak.
another chirpy word
which I find thrilling
I'm twirling in this hole
a sort of reverse drilling
I'm spinning out this hole
scattering the sand
spraying it
playing it
this poem sucks
2. Research. 

I looked up the word music:

From Greek mousikē, any art presided over by the Muses

Read more:'music'#ixzz1G3YuxcOS

The word music comes from the Greek mousikê (tekhnê) by way of the Latin musica. It is ultimately derived from mousa, the Greek word for muse. In ancient Greece, the word mousike was used to mean any of the arts or sciences governed by the Muses. Later, in Rome, ars musica embraced poetry as well as instrument-oriented music. Read more:

...and wrote this:

This is a mushroom
This is my brain.
This fat white bumpershoot


I am the piano
I am the violin
I am a stupid poem
3. What's at the heart of this idea? 
drawing by April Halprin Wayland

I broke away from everything above and thought about what I was feeling inside:

by April Halprin Wayland 
Today I know
how that boy at the back desk feels
when his teacher tells him to write a poem.
He blinks blankly.
He isn't writing while all around him pencils fly.
He scratches his left eye
A storm cloud brews about his head.
His brows grow knotty.
When all around him ideas sprout
this boy at the back
is locked out.
I rewrote it and sent it off to my friend Bruce, who has been sailing around the world with his wife for over 13 years. Regular readers know that he and I send each other a poem a day. We've been doing it since April 2010.

4. Let let it cook. 

That was in March 2011. Today I searched my poems tagged WRITERS' BLOCK, found this poem (which has been cooking for quite awhile), and took another stab at it:

by April Halprin Wayland

While all around him ideas begin,
he picks the scab on his freckled chin.

While all around him pencils fly,
his brows grow knotty, mystified.

While all around him windows open,
He closes his eyes hoping, hoping.

Ideas take root and poems sprout,
but the boy in the back?

That boy's locked out.

Rewrites count as a day's poem in our rule book, so I'm sending this one off.
Thanks to Tabatha for hosting this week's Poetry Friday at The Opposite of Indifference!

posted by April Halprin Wayland with lots of love and the help of (in order of appearance) Gin, Eli, and Penny...who are sacked out after helping to edit this:

Friday, October 25, 2019

2 Tips for Bridging the Middle Plus 2 Book Suggestions

Today I have the honor of kicking off our next TeachingAuthors topic: "Messy Middles." But before I get to my post, I want to congratulate the winner of our latest TeachingAuthors giveaway:


Carl will soon be receiving an autographed copy of Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons: An Enslaved Woman Fights For Freedom by my fellow TeachingAuthor, Gwendolyn Hooks. Our thanks to all who entered. Be sure to stay tuned--we'll have one more giveaway before the year ends. 

Now, for today's topic: It recently occurred to me that, while we've discussed story beginnings and the inspiration for them, we've never devoted a series to discussing middles. The reason? It's not an easy topic to address.

I'm currently teaching a writing class at College of DuPage called "Beginnings, Middles, and Ends," which is named for the book by Nancy Kress that we use as our class text. In the text, Kress herself has difficulty providing a precise definition for what we mean by the middle of a story.  She describes it in part as follows (italicized in the text):
"The middle of a story develops the story’s implicit promise by dramatizing incidents that increase conflict, reveal character, and put in place all the various forces that will collide at the story’s climax."
She goes on to say:
"In other words, the middle is a bridge—sometimes a long, winding bridge, sometimes a short, direct one. At one end of the bridge, the story's beginning introduces characters, conflict and (sometimes) symbols. Then in the middle, these same characters, conflicts, and (sometimes) symbols move across the bridge . . . . Some people change during their journey across the bridge; some don’t. Conflicts deepen. People become more emotional. The stakes may rise. By the time the characters reach the other end of the bridge, the forces determining their behavior are clear. At the far end of the bridge, these same forces will collide (the story’s climax)."
Image by Free-Photos from Pixabay
Building that bridge can be a tricky process, especially if you're a pantser like me. (As I explained in this post, pantsers are writers who don't plot a novel in advance, but instead write by the "seat of their pants." The opposite of a pantser is a plotter--a writer who creates an outline or some sort of road map before actually writing the story.) 

While middles can cause problems for picture book and short story writers, too, the two tips I'm sharing today are probably most useful for novelists.

1. Feel free to write your story out of sequence.

When I was working on the middle of my first novel, Rosa, Sola, I got stuck. I didn't know what should happen next. After banging my head against a wall for a few days, I realized that I DID know what needed to happen a few chapters ahead, near the end of the novel. So I wrote that future scene next. I then created a patchwork of scenes to fill the gap--working on each scene as it occurred to me rather than in the story's chronological order. This seems such an obvious solution now, but when I share it with my writing students it often has the same AHA! effect it had on me at the time.

Image by sewingdirectory from Pixabay
 2. If your story takes a wrong turn, becomes boring to you, or you lose energy for it, reread it from the beginning and stop at the last scene where you're still interested/engaged in the story. 

I ran into this problem while writing Playing by Heart. I got to a point in the middle of the novel where I couldn't move forward. I realized it was because I didn't like the story anymore. When I reread the draft, I discovered that my protagonist, Emilia, had made a choice that was out of character, and that had sent her on a detour that made no sense. After I cut that out-of-character scene and all that followed, I was able to get the story got back on course.

My two book suggestions if you're having middle troubles: 

As you might guess, I recommend Kress's Beginnings, Middles, and Ends to writers struggling with middles. In addition to helpful tips and concrete examples, the book includes practical exercises to use on your own projects. The book is from Writer's Digest Books' Elements of Fiction Writing series and was initially published in 1993. Even though the publisher re-released it in paperback in 2011,  some of the content is a bit dated, but overall I think it's still a valuable tool for addressing issues not only with middles, but beginnings and ends, too.

By the way, if Kress's book sounds familiar, it may be because I included it on a list of twelve writing craft books I recommended in a post several years ago.

James Scott Bell was the author of not one, but two books on that list. My second suggestion for those dealing with middle issues is another of his craft books: Write Your Novel From The Middle: A New Approach for Plotters, Pantsers and Everyone in Between. I heard Bell speak at a writing conference about the approach he takes in this book, and it sounds like an intriguing one. I have to confess, I haven't tried it yet myself, but several authors I know have found the book helpful. If you've read Bell's book, please share your response to it in the comments. And if you have any suggestions for coping with messy middles, do let us know!

Don't forget to check out this week's Poetry Friday roundup hosted by Karen Edmisten.

Remember to always Write with Joy!

Friday, October 18, 2019

BRAVE THE PAGE: Any Writer’s Fuel – Young or Not - for NaNoWriMo and/or Simply Writing a Novel!

I know, I know. I can read the small print.  NaNoWriMo’s BRAVE THE PAGE’s subtitle clearly reads: “A Young Writer’s Guide to Telling Epic Stories.”

And if indeed, you are an elementary, middle school or high school writer planning to participate in NaNoWriMo in 13 days, or if you teach and/or work with and/or encourage such young writers planning to do the same, this book will not only guide and get you and/or your NaNoWriMo participants to the November 30 Finish Line; it ensures you’ll all keep keeping on in the 12 months that follow - revising, editing, submitting, connecting.
I offer an enthusiastic Thumbs Up to the authors, Rebecca Stern and Grant Faulkner, for delivering on their promise.
BRAVE THE PAGE (Viking, 2019) is a must-have/must-read book for any Young Writer planning to experience NaNoWriMo.

But here’s the thing. 
BRAVE THE PAGE succeeds so well at informing, inspiring and encouraging young novelists, it’s a must-have/must-read resource for writers of any age, of any kind of story, NaNoWriMo-engaged or not.
I’m raising all five hand digits to wildly High-Five each author twice!
BRAVE THE PAGE proves the truth that when an adult needs to learn and understand a particular subject matter, say, how to write a story, he or she should begin by reading a relevant children’s book. 😊

So, a few FYI Facts concerning NoWriMo, pronounced na-noh-rye-mo, the annual, Internet-based “creative writing project” that has taken place every November since 1999.

The goal for each participant: to write a 50,000 word manuscript. Writers, called “Wrimos,” intentionally focus on quantity vs. quality so they’ll have a first draft from which to work in subsequent revisions. 
The NaNoWriMo website offers resources, encouragement, tips and connections to a supportive community of writers.  Twenty-one Wrimos participated in 1999.  Today NaNoWriMo boasts 798,162 active novelists and 367,913 completed novels.

NaNoWriMo’s Young Writers Program offers a bounty of resources for the under-18 young writers and the K-12 educators who encourage them. For instance, writers can use an on-site writing space, Young Novelist Workbooks and Novel Notes for brainstorming, character sketching, research, etc. There’s also Camp NaNoWriMo. And young writers can indeed alter their word count – 1,000 words a day or even 20,000.

BRAVE THE PAGE is the latest offering from the Young Writers Program.  The NaNoWriMo-experienced authors know first-hand the writing process, the elements of story, a writer’s inner story and journey plus a whole host of tools that concretely instruct and guide. As important, they know their audience of young writers and how best to reach (and teach) them.

The Table of Contents scaffolds the content perfectly:

An introduction in which award-winning author Jason Reynolds likens writing a story to the experience of moving – “Pack, load, journey, unload, unpack. That’s a novel.” - plus a warm and grounding welcome to NaNoWriMo and its participants.
Part 2 GET SET
Part 3: WRITE!
Part 4: NOW WHAT?

The meaty, timely issues and questions presented within each of the four parts are truly those of any writer, young or once-young.

Where do ideas come from?
What kinds of writers are there?
How does one create a writing routine?
How does one plan a story?
How best to recruit characters and plot a plot and build a story’s world?
How best to begin?
What can be done when doubts and fears appear?
Oh, and what about what follows when the end is reached? How to edit and revise? How can writers keep writing?

All of the above, and then some, are answered and addressed by (1) several of today’s beloved children’s book authors (John Green, Marissa Meyer, Jennifer Niven, Daniel Jose Older, Danielle Page, Celia C. Perez, Scott Westerfield), especially in their affirming Pep Talks, (2) by numerous NaNoWriMo-experienced young writers and (3) via referenced children’s books familiar to all.  For instance,

From a Pep Talk by Marissa Meyer as to how to begin, “Write down the things you already love about your story. Or, start a list of what you like in other novels. Brainstorm challenges your  protagonist could encounter. Create a story playlist. Visualize success.”

“Set your word-count goal to something a bit longer than any story you’ve ever written before, but don’t overreach….Remember, you can always change your word-count goal halfway through story. – Simon, age 11

On Third Person Narrators: “The narrator tells us the thoughts, feelings and actions of one or more character, using the pronouns he, she, and they. Number the Stars, by Lois Lory, is an example of a book told in the third person.

Fortunately, the authors included the Dare Machine, “a magical machine” of sorts from the Young Writers Program website that puts forth prompts, tips and exercises.  In Part 1, the Dare Machine helps the writer begin; in Part 2, it helps the writer develop characters, create settings and figure out a plot.  In Part 3, it helps the writer move the story forward.  Part 3 also breaks the month down, and thus the writing – into weeks 1 through 4.  And again, it does so purposefully and concretely.

     For instance, concerning that Inner Editor who resides inside all writers,

     “Close your eyes and picture that person.
       Now draw that person.
       Not take that picture and throw it a going-away part!
      Then put that picture somewhere out of sight until you finish your draft.”

BRAVE THE PAGE provides a Writer’s Lair, a safe place to assess progress, and that all-important Rear View Mirror to assist with reflection.

And finally, I especially love how BRAVE THE PAGE encourages writers to find a mentor – a favorite book – that’s available 24-7, for free.

No matter our age, each of us has a story worth telling…and the right to tell it.  But that blank page can be oh, so scary when we’re gathering the courage to tell our stories to the world, especially if we’re new to the writing process.

Thank goodness all storytellers now have BRAVE THE PAGE to guide their writing.

And, thanks to Jama's Alphabet Soup for hosting today's Poetry Friday.  BRAVE THE PAGE  is certain to serve up a whole lot of  delicious food for thought.

Happy story-telling to writers of all ages!

Esther Hershenhorn
Be sure to enter our Book Giveaway for Gwendolyn Hooks’ ONA JUDGE OUTWITS THE WASHINGTONS

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Wednesday Writing Workout: How to Fantastically Capture Your Historical Novel's Spirit in Four Easy Steps!

In 87 lifetimes I could never come to know the terrific and talented writers from all walks of life my teaching and coaching continue to bring me.
Teachers and librarians, of course.  Journalists. Booksellers.  Performance artists.  Actors and actresses.  Doctors. Lawyers. A tribal chief!  Environmentalists.  Venture capitalists. Activists. Politicians.  Entrepreneurs.  Inventors.  Technological wizards.  Cartoonists. Fine artists.  Print makers. Graphic designers.  A cosmetologist. And oh, several members of the clergy, including a Franciscan monk.
But never had I worked with a tried-and-true Egyptologist, especially one who was scaffolding her time-travel middle grade series on the Armarna Period whilst featuring a biracial boy from Chicago’s South Side!
Lucky me. 😊
And, now lucky you, because that Egyptologist is none other than Malayna Evans, the debut author of JAGGER JONES & THE MUMMY’S ANKH (Month9Books) and the generous creator of today’s Wednesday Writing Workout.
If Malayna learned anything as she wrote – and rewrote – Book One in her series, it was how to fantastically capture the spirit of an historical period in the telling of a story.

And what a story!
“Jagger Jones is a whiz kid from Chicago's South Side. Ask him anything about Ancient Egypt, and Jagger can fill hours describing all that he knows. But when he and his precocious little sister Aria fall more than three thousand years back in time to the court of Amarna, Egypt, Jagger discovers a truth that rocks his world: books don't teach you everything there is to know. Mummies, pyramids, and cool hieroglyphics make awesome movie props, but the ancient court of Amarna is full of over-sized scorpions, magical amulets, and evil deities determined to scare unwanted visitors away. If Jagger and Aria are to return safely home, they must find nine soul-infested gemstones, defeat an evil general, save the royal family, and figure out how to rescue themselves! Armed only with Jagger's knowledge of history and a few modern objects mined from his pockets and Aria's sparkly purse, the siblings have exactly one week to solve supernatural riddles and rescue the royal family. If they can pull it off, Jagger Jones just might return to Chicago a hero.”

A Utah native, Malayna now lives in Oak Park, Illinois.  She earned MA degrees in Greek and Roman history and the history of the ancient Near East before earning her Ph.D. in Egyptian history from the University of Chicago.  Along the way she created two children – whom she considers her real accomplishment – and started a marketing company she still runs today.  She’s represented by Liza Fleissig of the Liza Royce Agency and blogs with fellow debut children’s book creators at On the Scene in 19.

Malayna indeed succeeded in capturing the spirit of the Armarna Period in this heart-stopping time-travel adventure, but she also infused a whole lot of her own singular positive Spirit – with a deserved capital “S” – into the telling, and IMHO – that’s why JAGGER JONES & THE MUMMY’S ANKH truly succeeds.

Thank you, Malayna, for sharing your writing adventure as well as your story and your smarts with our TeachingAuthors readers!

I wish you - and our readers, too - ankh, wedja, seneb.

Happy Spirit Capturing!

Esther Hershenhorn
Don't forget to enter our Book Giveaway of Gwendolyn Hooks' ONA JUDGE OUTWITS THE WASHINGTONS!

. . . . . .


One thing I learned during the many years it took me to earn my Ph.D. in ancient Egyptian history, was how to be pedantic. So when my nine-year-old son suggested I write a book about a biracial kid like him lost in ancient Egypt, I brought my full knowledge of the ancient world to the task. And I ended up with … a snoozer!

No, really. It was dull, dreary, boring! There might be a middle grade reader out there somewhere who would have found my esoteric theories on Amarna Period genealogy thoughtful. But let’s be honest, probably not.

Fortunately, in addition to knowing how to be pedantic, I’ve also learned how to take advice. So when TeachingAuthors' own Esther Hershenhorn suggested I highlight all the history in my book yellow, then edit some of the unnecessary bits out, well, let’s just say version one might as well have been printed on yellow paper.

In the end, that first manuscript landed in the trashcan and very little of it survives in the book’s final form. Don’t get me wrong: there’s still an awful lot of history in the series. The magic spells are based on real spells, most of the people are historically attested, the places and setting details are real, and the artifacts, which are the heart of my story, can be found in museums across the globe. Even the plot was influenced by real upheavals of the time, as well as a specific tomb I’m partial to. History was the scaffolding I hung my story on.

But rather than lose myself in small historical details, on my second attempt, I focused on the fantasy, the story, and the spirit of ancient Egypt. Okay yeah, spirit is a pretty loose concept. So what do I mean by it? Well, I mean I tried to capture the vibe of ancient Egypt in big and small and, above all, well-integrated ways.

To capture the spirit in a big way, I needed a theme that would resonate authentically with an ancient Egyptian worldview. And I wanted something big, something like … the meaning of life itself. So I turned to an old blessing: ankh, wedja, seneb, which means (may you have) life, prosperity and health. Book one of the three book series tackles ancient notions of life, contrasting them with modern notions. That’s a wordy way to say I took the old boy-saves-princess storyline and aligned it with the spirit of ancient Egypt. So it’s not the princess’s life Jagger must save, but her afterlife. (Cue spooky music here.) Meanwhile, our South Side Chicago heroes are fighting for their own survival. (Books two and three similarly juxtapose ancient and modern notions of prosperity and health respectively.)

I also crafted a series of fantastical challenges based on things your average ancient Egyptian might have had nightmares about. Then, I amped those scary things up to fantasy level. So, for example, throughout the series, my brother-sister duo face over-sized scorpions, an obstinate sphinx, a mummy army, angry baboons, animated temple statues, a gravity-defying Nile, and the ultimate bad guy, an evil sun god. Every time I threw a problem at my main characters, I worked to ensure it was tethered to ancient beliefs. And then I let my characters combine ancient artifacts and magic with modern objects, Jagger’s book smarts, and Aria’s street smarts to problem solve.

On a micro level, I captured the spirit by weaving in various aspects of daily life that strike me as uniquely ancient Egyptian. Some of this was as easy as having my American kids learn to play a popular board game or sleep on the wooden headrests ancient Egyptians used as pillows. But I wanted to dig deeper. I wanted to incorporate aspects of ancient life that could really trigger the senses.

Anyone who has spent as much time studying ancient Egypt as I have will tell you it must have been a very smelly place. Yes, the world is fully of smelly places. But one senses the ancient Egyptians took their smells extra seriously. Scents show up in texts, poetry, and images. Pictures of women with lumps on their heads, for example, are believed to portray scented wax hats that would melt throughout the hot day and keep the wearer smelling yummy.

Unlike Jagger and his little sister Aria, I can’t travel back to the place and time that fascinates me so much and enjoy the sounds and smells. But as a storyteller, I can assign smells I associate with ancient Egypt to magic spells cast by my magician characters. As an historian, I’m pretty sure you can’t ward off giant crocodiles with gum from a little girl's purse and the scent of lotus blossoms, which is exactly why I eventually let Storyteller Malayna take the wheel.

You ready to try integrating history into your story? Okay, let’s do this.

1. First, get out your favorite highlighters and pens. Try reading through your WIP, highlighting all the bits of history in one color. If those bits are unnecessary for your story, underline them as well. Now take the fabulous Coco Chanel’s advice and “take one thing off" and lose most of the bits that are both highlighted and underlined. Consider limiting the number of unnecessary historical details to something like three or four sentences per chapter, max.

Good start. But what to do about all that highlighted history that is necessary? Well, here are a few exercises that might help you better integrate those bits.

2. Think about your story’s theme. Now think about the period in time your story is set in. How would a person in that time-frame think about the theme? Are you sure the theme would resonate for your characters the same way it does for you? If not, there might be an opportunity to level up there.
3. Make a long list of artifacts from the period. Think about how they functioned, either in reality, or, if your story is fantasy, in theory. Can any of those artifacts help propel your plot forward? Employing objects in challenges, solutions, and plot twists can be a fun way to merge the history with the plot.
4. Finally, make a list of things people from your period would fear on the left side of a wall or oversized paper. On the right side, write out the challenges your characters face. Are the things on the right side also on the left? If not, consider choosing challenges that are more authentic to the period by throwing some left-side terrors in your protagonist’s path.

In the end, the thing I’m most proud of with this book is the integration of real history into an over-the-top, fantastical hero tale. My greatest hope for the series is that readers will get lost in the adventure … and barely notice all the history they soak up on the way.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Book Giveaway and Release of my book, ONA JUDGE Outwits the Washingtons - An Enslaved Woman Fights for Freedom

One of the most exciting days in an author’s life is Book Release Day! It’s a time for parties with your critique group, friends, museum staff, librarians, and family. Those are the ones who helped you along the way. They gave you space to write, read your first attempts, answered your research requests and encouraged you to keep writing.

Then your author copies arrive in your mailbox.

Hurrah! Its book release fun time!
(See below for details of how to enter our giveaway to win your own autographed copy!)

Capstone Editions released Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons – An Enslaved Woman Fights For Freedom just in time for the Oklahoma Technology Association-Encyclomedia Conference. I introduced Ona to the world of teachers and librarians. Some knew Ona’s story, others did not. I never tire of sharing her with the world. She is a wonderful example of someone determined to live life on her own terms.

A new fan at EncycloMedia.
Ona was born on George Washington’s Mount Vernon plantation. Her mother was enslaved and her father was a white indentured servant from England. When Washington was elected president, Ona was one of the enslaved people who accompanied the family to New York and later to Philadelphia. She was Martha’s personal servant and attended to her needs at home and also accompanied her on visits to friends like Abigail Adams. Ona was allowed a small amount of freedom to explore Philadelphia on her own.

Why would she want to be free? She had more freedom than most Black people. She was allowed to run errands on her own, attend the circus, and was given a small amount of money to buy presents for her family on Mount Vernon. But it was not enough for Ona and she ran away. 

She was soon recognized in her new hometown of Portsmouth, Massachusetts and President Washington sent people to return her to Mount Vernon. Ona refused.  Despite several attempts, the Washingtons never succeed. Her life wasn't  easy. She was always considered a runaway. But Ona was firm. She would decide how to live her life.

Illustrator Simone Agoussoye & Author Gwendolyn Hooks at ALA
Sometimes as I write, I find myself stuck. I can’t find the perfect combination of words. They refuse to flow. During some of those moments, I wondered if I was doing justice to Ona’s story. Am I the person to write it? 

It certainly required a lot of research. I couldn’t have done it without the librarians on the other end of Ask A Librarian on the Library of Congress website. Mary V. Thompson, a Research Historian at the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington never seemed to tire of my constant emails.  

To relax during some of my dark moments, my sister and I took the Heartland Flyer from Oklahoma City to Fort Worth to visit my daughter. Then we hopped on the Texas Eagle to Longview, Texas to visit our niece. I love reading on the train, looking out the window, and thinking.

We took a side trip to the Tyler Museum of Art. The paper exhibit began to clear my head. Amazing creativity! 

During another of my down moments, my son called. He is a Marine pilot and had just returned from a six-month deployment. He always calls when his plane lands and he's home again. He said, “I’m  “Portsmouth, New Hampshire.” I got so excited and upbeat.  It was a sign. His phone call unleashed my writing spirit. It said – Get back to your computer. Young readers need to know this brave young lady.

I listened to my spirit and ONA JUDGE OUTWITS THE WASHINGTONS-AN ENSLAVED WOMAN FIGHTS FOR FREEDOM is now out in the world.

"The attention-grabbing text and unique illustrations will make this a welcome addition for all history collections." - School Library Journal

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks. Please leave comments.

Carmela here to share the details of how you can win your own autographed copy of Ona Judge Outwits the Washingtons: An Enslaved Woman Fights For Freedom (Capstone Editions).

To enter our drawing, use the Rafflecopter widget below. You may enter via 1, 2, or all 3 options.

If you choose option 2, you MUST leave a comment on TODAY'S blog post or on our TeachingAuthors Facebook page. If you haven't already "liked" our Facebook page, please do so today!

In your comment, we'd love if you would share either the title of a picture book biography you'd like to recommend or the name of a person who would make a good subject for a picture book biography.

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

Note: if you submit your comments via email or Facebook, YOU MUST STILL ENTER THE DRAWING VIA THE WIDGET BELOW. The giveaway ends October 18, 2019 and is open to U.S. residents only.

P.S. If you've never entered a Rafflecopter giveaway, here's info on how to enter a Rafflecopter giveaway and the difference between signing in with Facebook vs. with an email address.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Monday, October 7, 2019

Congrats to our Giveaway Winners and Another Book Giveaway

Congratulations to the winners of our Student Success Story giveaway of the middle-grade novel  Essie Rose’s Revelation Summer:

Linda M. and Kathleen D!

And a BIG thank you to all of you who participated in the giveaway. A reminder: be sure to watch your inboxes after you enter one of our giveaways! One of the winners first chosen by Rafflecopter never replied to our email notice, so we had to pick an alternate winner.

If you didn't win, stay tuned. We'll be offering another giveaway here soon.

Meanwhile, I'm currently running a book giveaway to celebrate the second anniversary of my young-adult novel Playing by Heart. I invite you to head over to my website to enter to win one of TWO autographed copies.

Remember to always Write with Joy!

Friday, October 4, 2019

My Well is Dry

  Note: I have written about this topic years ago, but this is a new post

The calendar says it's fall...not that you'd notice here in Atlanta. We've had over 90 consecutive days of temperatures over 90. Even if there's no noticeable change in the scenery or weather, it's a different season. So the question is...what did I accomplish this summer?

Two answers: not much and quite a lot.

The "not much" is my own writing. I did writing exercises with my Young Authors at Writing Camp this summer (three sessions of a week each.) Odd ball, random three to five pages of characters, situations, conflicts that MIGHT turn into something some day...or not.  But I keep those notebooks for future inspiration.
My inspiration--Young Writers at work

I'm tired. There's a lot of ongoing family stuff that just zaps my creativity.  My campers always inspire me...but as soon as I get home, I'm just tired. Beating myself up wasn't inspiring me. Reminding myself of all the times I've "powered through" didn't help.

Then I remembered something one of my Vermont College MFA mentors told me.

"Sometimes, Mary Ann, the 'well' is dry. It's going to happen. A well doesn't fill by staring into it. You have to go away for awhile, and stop thinking about it. Go back and check every now and then. And one day, you'll discover it HAS filled...and you'll be ready to write again."

So I stopped fretting about. I wrote in my journal and didn't tell myself this is drivel. No self judging. I read a LOT. New kids books, especially picture books. Memoirs, biographies, history...the stories of real life have always been more compelling to me than fiction. So it was a surprise when I found myself reading "women's fiction." I'm not sure what to call this's like "chick lit" only the protagonist are all "late middle agers."

This total aberration in reading habits began when I read an article about how difficult it was for the screenwriter of Where Did You Go, Bernadette? to adapt the book for screen. I'd read Bernadette years ago when it first came out. Yeah, I thought. That would be tough. The whole book is told from multiple viewpoints through texts, emails and letters...almost none of them from the main character, Bernadette. I re-read the book to see how I might've turned this into a movie script. (I never did see the movie, BTW.)

This lead to reading another book by the same author ...told in two POV's...very different. Easier to adapt to a visual medium.

Then I fell down the cyber rabbit hole.

At the end of most E-books, there is a section of "if-you-liked-this-book-you-might-like-this" books. You can read sample chapters before you buy. Most of these books have terrific opening chapters. So I'd read on.  For the first time since grad school, I was reading critically.  I don't know why it is easier for me to critique "adult" books. Maybe because I don't write them. Maybe because reading children's books intimidates me. But these "middle-aged-chick-lit" books enable me to see plot holes, convenient circumstances, half-baked characters (along with the fully realized ones), endings that satisfy...or don't. I could identify what it was that made me want to read to the end, even while finding flaws. What was driving the story?

With all this reading, I can feel the water level rising in my well. My journal entries are often observations of what I'm reading. I am thinking like a writer again, which is different from thinking about writing. I'm not pushing the process. I'll know when it's time to start working on those works that are currently in a state of suspended animation.

I know when I drop that bucket down, it will come up full.

The seasons will have changed.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, September 27, 2019

For Empathy's Sake, Read History

I’ve noted before, Monica excels at taking a moment in history, oftentimes a forgotten moment, and fashioning a story that is both compelling and informative. Her books showcase inventors, artists,  and revolutionaries of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. A master at writing about history, Monica’s books demonstrate that history is more than dates. History is people, too. In the best of historical fiction, as with any story, a child becomes a hero who gains power over her situation, a theme that contemporary readers appreciate.

This time, I celebrate Monica’s newest books.

Ruby’s Hope tells the story behind Dorothea Lange’s famous “Migrant Mother” photograph, with illustrations by Sarah Dvojack. In this a compassionate story set during the Great Depression, Ruby’s family faces desperate times when the drought forces the family to pack up their car and move to California. Ruby struggles to hold onto her hope.  They join others in migrant camps, working fields in exchange for food. Then Dorothea Lange arrives to document the extreme poverty of the migrant workers, and the world learns of their plight.  The book reflects important themes of keeping hope in the face of hardship.

“Historical fiction helps young readers develop a feeling for a living past, illustrating the continuity of life,” says Karen Cushman, another master writer of historical fiction. Historical fiction, “like all good history, demonstrates how history is made up of the decisions and actions of individuals and that the future will be made up of our decisions and actions.”

History teaches young readers what it’s like to walk in another’s shoes.  Stories are the closest thing we have to “walking around in someone else’s skin.” They make us more human. Stories allow a child to navigate complex emotions, looking at diverse perspectives, and learning to leverage relationships for collaboration and progress.

Reading teaches young readers empathy.

Exploring similar themes, Monica's exquisite book, Aunt Pearl is a powerful and poignant story that brings a welcomed sensitivity to themes of homelessness and family, beautifully illustrated by the incomparable Irene Luxbacher. As with life itself, the book doesn’t offer answers to a challenging question. As the narrative implies, sometimes some things can’t be fixed. But everyone deserves second chances, understanding and acceptance, and everyone deserves love. And hope.

Building an understanding of what others are feeling, how our own actions impact others is a valuable life skill. Learning to empathize helps to build a sense of security and stronger relationships with others. It encourages tolerance and acceptance of others. And in so doing, it reduces the likelihood of bullying.

And while studies suggest there are different strategies in teaching empathy, such as talking about feelings, one of the best ways of all to help children develop a sense of empathy is by reading books. Children (and adults) learn to associate feelings and actions with their favorite characters. Remember when Atticus Finch, said to Scout , “You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view … until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

-- Bobbi Miller

Friday, September 20, 2019

Thank you, Lee Bennett Hopkins

Howdy, Campers, and Happy Poetry Friday! My poem, the link to our current book giveaway, and the PF link are all below.

Our current Book Giveaway, which ends September 25th, is for a copy of Deanie Yasner's debut middle grade novel, Essie Rose's RevelationTo enter, go to Esther's latest Student Success Story.

We lost a great one in August—"passionate educator and prolific children's poet and anthologist,* Lee Bennett Hopkins.  

Towards the end of August, Amy Ludwig VanDerwater offered her blog, The Poetry Farm, as a space to honor Lee, who died on August 8th. We at TeachingAuthors are celebrating Lee today.

I first met Lee about 35 years ago through my teacher, poet Myra Cohn Livingston, who was one of Lee's good friends. Over the years, Lee's praise, his honest--and at times, blunt--editorial notes, and the hand he held out to me to write my own books and to write poems for his anthologies, changed my life. Thank you, Lee.

Lee Bennett Hopkins ~ photo by Charles J Egita 

One of Lee's suggestions that I hear every time I write a poem or teach poetry, is: consider each time you use "the" and "a;" can you delete them It's amazing how intimate a poem can become without them.

Here is the cover of his anthology, SURPRISES (Harper and Row, 1984), which was the first I CAN READ poetry book.

And here is "Last Laugh," from that collection, one of my favorite LBH poems. (Keep in mind that in an I CAN READ book, there could only be 36 characters per line, including punctuation and spaces.)

by Lee Bennett Hopkins

They all laughed when I told them
I wanted to be

A woman in space
Floating so free.

But they won't laugh at me
When they finally see
My feet up on Mars
And my face on TV.

Thank you, Lee.

Fellow TeachingAuthor Esther Herschenhorn writes: "Lee's Pass the Poetry, Please! remains my go-to book on poetry for children - re the poems, the reading, the writing."

"He shared what he called his signature poem, "Good Books, Good Times!" in the Afterword of the 1998 Third Edition of this book. He created this poem in 1985 when he was chosen the Children's Book Council's National Book Week Poet. I love the poem. I also love the book's dedication - "To my Poet-friends who make it all possible.'" Click here for the full poem.

In 2009, when Sylvia Vardell and Janet Wong asked me to write a poem to be included in their anthology honoring Lee for winning the 2009 NCTE Excellence in Children's Poetry award, I was scared. 
What could I contribute that others wouldn't?  I thought about Lee--what did I really know about him?  I knew that he loved Sondheim. I knew that his mailing address included the word "cove" in it. I pictured a cabin next to a quiet lake. Then I thought about the art of being an anthologist. What must it entail? Gathering, collecting, arranging.  

Although an early draft was from a poem's point of view, I'm glad that this is the version that was published:
for LBH 
by April Halprin Wayland

Walking along the shore at sunset in sandals,
you bend to collect the right rock, the best twig,
the perfect poem.

Washing them in a blue enamel bowl,
you turn on Mozart low,
barefoot in your kitchen by the cove.

Sitting on your heels on the wooden porch,
you position, then reposition each piece.
Here?  Here?

Stomping inside, slamming the door,
you turn on Sondheim

At sunrise in your slippers,
you come out on the porch
to shuffle them again.

Suddenly seeing it:
sequence, order, symmetry—

poem © 2019 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved

How I imagine an anthologist works...
collecting, rearranging, creating unity.
photo by April Halprin Wayland

Hark! One more of Lee's anthologies is coming soon!  According to *Publishers Weekly obituary, "His most recently completed work, I Remember: Poems and Pictures of Heritage, features poems from award-winning, diverse authors paired with artwork from illustrators of similar backgrounds, providing portraits of growing up in America. It will be published by Lee & Low in October."

Lee Bennett Hopkins expanded the world of poetry for children. 

Thank you, Lee.

To find out more about him, start with Renee Latulippe's 2013 interview of him at No Water River.

And don’t forget to enter our latest Book Giveaway: win a copy of Deanie Yasner's Essie Rose’s Revelation Summer!  Details here.

Thank you, wonderful Linda B, for hosting at TeacherDance today!

posted with love by April Halprin Wayland with help from Eli, Penny and Gin (Penny and Gin are short-term rentals)