Friday, November 22, 2019

Is Your Middle Weighing You Down? Pump It UP

I find beginnings and endings fun to write. Usually, I know how I want to begin and how I’d like my manuscript to end. Middles however can be bothersome. A real pain. And I don’t think I’m alone with that problem.

Most of the time, slow middles are easy to spot-at least in the work of others. Have you ever read the flap copy of a library book, scanned the first chapter, and knew you had a winner in your hands? You rushed home planning to read it stretch out on the sofa with a glass of iced tea. This book was so hot, you would spend the night on the sofa until you read the last page.

Then, somewhere in the middle, the momentum slowed. The tension stretched into limp elastic. If it wasn’t for your caffeinated tea, you would go to bed. What happened? Are there times when your writing suffers from this dilemma? How do you know?

Author Barbara Lowell turns to her critique group for answers. “You have
completed your first draft and done some revision. But you hear from your critique partners or beta readers that the middle of your manuscript is sagging. You know that you need to keep your story moving forward. And now it’s stuck in the middle. What can you do?

Try cutting.  Cut anything that stops your story – unnecessary details, description, backstory, narrative, internal dialogue that will make the reader want to skip ahead. Every word in your manuscript needs to serve the story. It’s difficult to cut what you love, but if it has to be done to make your story work, then do it. To test this, put brackets around words, sentences, paragraphs, sections you think need cutting, and reread the manuscript out loud without them. A tighter story often solves the problem of a sagging middle.”

If not, what can you do to fix it? I’m a firm believer in the power of mentor texts. I love picture book biographies and I admire those who write them. As I read, I try to identify their “keep them reading” technique. Sometimes, it’s a question the author asks throughout the book. Keep reading to learn the answer.


Another book that used a similar technique is

by Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. She uses the refrain, Someday Is Now when Clara Luper’s
group of students start to plan sit-ins. The author switches to Someday Was Now
when they actually sit-in. What happened during  the sit-ins? Where the students hurt?
Readers will want to know the answers.

I asked author, Kim Ventrella how she handles middles in her novels.

“Oh the horror of the saggy middle. It’s almost as bad as the dreaded ’soggy bottom’ in British baking. So how do you avoid it? Of course, every story is different, but in general, it's around this time in the story when your character moves from simply reacting to external events to driving the action. If you get to the middle and your character is still being ping-ponged around by external forces, see how you can change that. Challenge your main character to make her own plans and take control of the action.”

Alice Faye Duncan uses another technique to keep readers engaged. “Before I begin a writing project, I often identify some symbol as my reoccurring motif. When the middle slumps, I brood over the many facets of my symbol and in due season, I find overlooked elements to support the middle. While writing A SONG FOR GWENDOLYN BROOKS, my reoccurring image was a flower. As the middle slogged along, it came to me that a bloom is a bud before maturation. This metaphor was just what I needed to precisely express the poet's development between childhood and her Pulitzer Prize writing career.”

As I read Alice’s comments, I immediately connected with them. I had a symbol at the beginning of a story, then I let it disappear and I was stuck. Now, I can see a way to pump up my middle. I challenge you to think about the above ideas. Try them with your writing projects.

Posted by Gwendolyn Hooks

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 bottompic.
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: