Friday, October 22, 2021

I Got Dem Ol' Kozmic (Creative) Blues Again, Mama ( with apologies to Janis Joplin) by Mary Ann Rodman

If I could turn the last two years into music, it would be the bluesy wail of Janis Joplin. Pain, bewilderment,'s all there. The whole country has been in a funk for five years, regardless of political persuasion. Already teetering on edge, the pandemic sent many of us into a downward spiral that affected every aspect of our lives. That included our ability to create, to lose ourselves in writing. 

 When the lockdown appeared to be nothing more than an extended "snow day," I thought, "Oh boy! Cleared calendar! I'm going to finish that first (or second or final) draft. Start a new picture book! Maybe two picture books! All this solitude." And some people actually did. I'm sure they did. I wasn't one of them. Each time I opened my laptop, my brain turned to sludge. My thoughts slogged along as if through ankle-deep mud. As for new ideas...I could hear the wind whistle though my vacant brain. Maybe once a month, a tiny thought would flitter through. I'd chase it down to my notebook, ...a desiccated micro-thought. My notebook from 2020 has such entries as "dead butterflies" "dog walk" and "garbage trucks." No notes scribbled around them. Just blank space where a chain of continued thought should have been, but wasn't. 

We say that writing is a "solitary" occupation, and it is. But "solitary" doesn't mean writing in a hermetically sealed bubble. Sure, some of the great works of literature were written by hermits and prisoners: Thomas Merton, O. Henry, Nelson Mandela, Defoe, Thoreau, Malcolm X, Emily Dickinson. I am no Emily Dickinson. I need more than my own brain (and in Dickinson's case) a pretty amazing garden, to get my creative motor running. What do I need? I need music. Normally, I have music playing all day, the genre changing according to what I am writing. (My family got burned out on the Beatles and Motown while I was writing Yankee Girl and Benny Goodman and Doris Day during Jimmy's Stars.) However, my husband moved his "office' to the kitchen table where he is on Zoom or conference calls hours a day. I need my writing buddies. Sure, we Zoom, and email and Facebook and every other way of connecting remotely...except you never really feel connected.(And that's why it's called "connecting remotely.") 

Maybe it's the lack of spontaneity. Natural conversation is not like a ping-pong game. You talk, then I talk. No interrupting or laughing while talking. Conversational chaos ensues if you do. The conversation devolves to a series of "I'm sorry, you talk first." "No, you talk first." I also don't hear that well...and Facetime/Zoom doesn't have closed captioning. I can attend writing conferences and workshops virtually. But watching a screen for a couple of hours, after which you might run a load of laundry or walk the dog, is no replacement for schmoozing with friends over a glass of wine. 

I miss teaching kids. They are always my best inspiration. This has been the second summer in a row without a Young Writer's camp, the high point of my year. Shoot, I miss kids, period! There's no one shooting hoops in my cul-de-sac, or riding bikes down my steep front yard. (I never thought I'd miss kids tearing up the turf!) No kids chasing after the Mr. Softee truck. No teens hanging out at night, sitting on their cars. 

Most of all, I miss encounters with complete strangers. Some of my best ideas come from standing in the checkout line at Target, eavesdropping on random conversation. Noticing the nametags of the store employees...then scooting into the bathroom to scribble down future character names like "Santa Fay" and "Fouzia." I didn't set foot in Target for 10 months. When I did, I charged through the store as if I were on Supermarket Sweep, trying to get in and out as fast as possible. I even went through self-check to avoid the line of "complete strangers." 

My post was supposed to be about "playing" as a writer. What I've just written is a lament that most of my "toys" have been taken away. Until I get at least some of them back, writing will continue to be a slog through my barren imagination. This empty and sometimes angry life can't last forever. Some day the world will be different. Not the world as it was March 2020, but a better, kinder, more thoughtful world. A world in which creativity will once again flourish. Or so I hope. There is a great scene in a The Simpson sepisode,where television has disappeared from the world. To the strains of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony, children stagger outside, blinking and rubbing their eyes. They then engage in Boomer era activities; hopscotch and jump rope, playing pirate in a tree house. Riding homemade scooters. Sandlot baseball and marbles. (Simpson's creator Matt Groening is three weeks older than me, both of us born in the middle of the Boomer years.) I imagine that some day, Janis' blues will be replaced by Beethoven, as we stagger from our homes, into the sunlight, rubbing our eyes. Meanwhile, I slog on. 

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, October 15, 2021

My Kind of Play

Another MFA class begins, and once again I’m deep diving into story structures. I have to admit, this is my kind of play. And, it so happens, I came across a new book that is my perfect cup of tea.

Considered “a master class in novel writing,” Story Engineering,  by Larry Brooks (Writer’s Digest Books, 2011), takes a deep dive into story architecture. As Brooks offers, “…in their execution, stories are every bit as engineering driven as they are artistic in nature.” In other words, the technicality (or criticality) of the story is as fundamental as the creative.

Exploring the ongoing debate of pantsing (otherwise called organic writing) vs. plotting, Brooks offers that both strategies serve the same function: to find the heart of the story, the one that begs to be told. Pantzing tends to take the scenic route, going through revision after revision (after revision) to eventually and hopefully find that essence of story. As such, pantzing tends to be inefficient, as the writer stumbles  through various drafts that too often miss the mark.  What if there was a way to identify the core elements before  you dive into the deep end?

 Brooks calls these elements the six core competencies. Concept. Character. Theme. Story Structure. Scene Execution. Voice.  These are the essential ingredients to a successful story. 

Every creative cook understands that the “most delicious of ingredients require blending and cooking – stirring, whipping, baking, boiling, frying, and sometimes, marinating – before they qualify as edible…” It is the delicious sum of these ingredients that turns your story into a “literary feast.”

Story engineering is that recipe that brings these ingredients together in a cohesive , satisfying dish. It differs from formulaic writing in that the process of story engineering serves to bring clarity to your story, but you bring the art. A pinch of this, a dash of that, stirred not shaken, and you make the story your own.

Brooks’ detailed explorations into each of these competencies decode the abstract. He provides a practical model that gives writers a profound new understanding of story structure that is accessible, and doable. One of my favorite passages in his definition of story:

“A story has many moods. It has good days and bad days. It must be nurtured and cared for lest it deteriorate. And it has a personality and an essence that defines how it is perceived. Just like human brings.”

As Books explains, a body cannot function without a heart. So it is with stories. These certain competencies support  the heart of the story. To continue with the analogy of cooking, if an essential ingredient is missing, or soured, the resulting dish leaves behind a bad taste.

Brooks is quick to admit that a writer can have all the right ingredients, perfectly stirred, and it turns out bland. Or, to put it another way, it’s possible to assemble in perfect order that perfect body. But without that creative spark, there is no life. Think Frankenstein’s monster. 

Now that we’re all hungry, I highly recommend this book. 

 May you create the perfect feast!

--Bobbi Miller

Friday, October 8, 2021

Play Deprivation During The Pandemic


TADA...The winner of our giveaway of What the Cluck?  is Dorothy W.

14 years ago, I wrote this statement as part of my education philosophy.

“I believe in the power of play (think of anyone you know who has lost their passion for life and they’ve probably forgotten how to play.)

I believe in learning through wonder, exploration, and discovery (think of anyone you know who is a lifelong learner, and they’re probably driven by wonder, exploration, and discovery rather than thinking of learning as a task that must be completed.)” 

Indeed, play has always been a driving force in my life as a teacher and a writer.  As I reflect on my journey through education, I realize that I am not the stereotype.  I did not come to teaching because I thought I could change the world. I was not particularly fond of children.  I did not feel like I had ideas to impart on young minds. I realize that I am drawn to teaching 5-year-olds because I love to play.  I am Peter Pan and the students that frolic and romp  along with me are the “lost boys (and girls)”  

I have spent the past 30+ years avoiding growing up.  Instead, I arrive each day to the spontaneous joy, enchantment, and wonder of those who are experts at playing.  Don’t get me wrong, it is hard work to preserve this quality and protect it against those who might squelch it. 

This year I have watched as my students have struggled to find their footing.  I’ve noticed that it is taking longer.  They are less mature than years past and I wonder how the pandemic has affected their opportunities to play. 

 I imagine that the impact has been great.  

They came into the shutdowns when they were 3 ½.  Just when play with their peers was becoming prominent.  

I have noticed a lag.  

Much of our day is spent playing together. There is much healing to be done and I believe in the power of play.  

Recently, I find that I too have been deprived of opportunities to play for the past 19 months. There are few, if any gatherings.  Many of my friends are not venturing out spontaneously. I have attended countless meetings, conferences, and workshops on Zoom.  I spend many more hours than I ever have, in my apartment with the television keeping me company.   I have forgotten how it feels to wander aimlessly in lands unknown.   

With this loss of adventure, my creativity has waned noticeably.   Days go by and I am resisting sitting down to write.  Ideas are blocked,  a big, giant void. The joy is just not there. As I write this, it is taking me great effort to hear the words to put on the page.  It’s painful.

I wonder, why am I struggling to write? Where has my creativity gone, and will it return? Why does the sun shine a little less brightly? Why are my senses dulled?  

And then it dawns on me.  I have ceased to play as an artist.  I have stopped answering the call of spontaneity, wonder, and curiosity. I have ceased to explore and discover. 

Where is my passion? Is this my new normal? Is this what the pandemic has left in its wake? Can I pull this back from the brink and restore my imagination?  Is it me?  Are there others around me? Are there others out in the world? Are we experiencing a collective lull? Will we recover and heal? 

Yes, I believe we will. I’m hopeful that the opportunities of joy and delight will return and bring creativity back with them. For those of us whose inspiration has been affected by play deprivation, I believe that eventually we will find the power of play…again.

Posted by Zeena M. Pliska

Author of :

Hello, Little One: A Monarch Butterfly Story Illustrated by Fiona Halliday  Page Street Kids

Egyptian Lullaby Illustrated by Hatem Aly Roaring Brook Press (coming Winter 2023)

For more info about me click here


Friday, October 1, 2021

Playing with Poetry Snowballs

Happy Poetry Friday! Today, I kick off a new series on the topic of PLAY and share a related poem. It's also the last day of our current giveaway, so if you haven't entered yet, be sure to check out the link at the end of this post.

When we TeachingAuthors were discussing our next topic, April Halprin Wayland suggested "something light, such as, how we each play with words." The idea felt perfect, especially because I'd recently read the following Tweet from Nir Eyal:

 Personally, I have been doing a lot of playing lately--with poetry!

Photo by Jasmin Schreiber on Unsplash
Back in December of 2020
, I'd shared:

"one of the things I'm looking forward to in 2021 is becoming even more steeped in poetry, both reading and writing it."

I'm happy to say that I followed through on that intention. I've been not only reading and writing more poetry, but submitting it for publication, too. I'm thrilled to announce that several of my poems have been accepted and will be coming out in two new anthologies. I can't share the details yet, but will provide them when I'm able. 

One way that I've been playing with poetry is by writing in new-to-me forms, particularly math-based ones, such as pi-ku, Fib poems, and Etherees. I recently learned about snowball poems, developed by the OULIPO. If you aren't familiar with the organization, here's a description of OULIPO from

"Although poetry and mathematics often seem to be incompatible areas of study, the philosophy of OULIPO seeks to connect them. Founded in 1960 by French mathematician Francois de Lionnais and writer Raymond Queneau, Ouvroir de Litterature Potentielle (OULIPO), or Workshop of Potential Literature, investigates the possibilities of verse written under a system of structural constraints. Lionnais and Quenuau believed in the profound potential of a poem produced within a framework or formula and that, if done in a playful posture, the outcomes could be endless."

While writing my first snowball, or boule de neige, as the OULIPO call it, I definitely tried to keep a "playful posture." Here's what I came up with:

Background photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

This snowball poem is an example of one that grows, which is called a boule de neige de longueur. Such poems should resemble a right triangle. The text I've quoted in my poem is taken from this page. There, you can read more about the various types and shapes of snowball poems.

As I worked on this poem, I realized I have written snowballs before, in the form of nonets and Etherees. So technically, this isn't really my first snowball poem, though it's the first containing twelve lines. 😀

I'm wondering how many of you are familiar with snowball poems. Have you ever written one? Do let me know in the comments. I also wonder: Is there a name for a poem that describes the form it's written in? I think there should be.

You can check out more poetry at this week's Poetry Friday roundup hosted by Catherine Flynn at Reading to the Core. Before heading over there, though, don't forget to enter our current giveaway if you haven't already done so. Details are at the end of Esther's Student Success Story interview with Gwen Neiman Levy about the release of her debut picture book, What the Cluck?

Happy writing!

Friday, September 24, 2021

Gwen Neiman Levy’s Student/Writer Success Story + Book Giveaway!

 Oh, how Time flies when we’re realizing our Dreams!

You first met Gwen Neiman Levy, the star of today’s Student Success Story, here, in my March, 2020 post, when I lauded her determination for pursuing her Dream to write and publish a picture book about 2 BFFFs – 2 Best Feathered Friends Forever.

The true story of two unlikely friends, a Duck and a Turkey, had been living inside her head, her heart and her computer for more years than she could count.

Fast-forward 2 ½ years to today’s post celebrating the September release of Gwen’s timely picture book What the Cluck? (SimonSawyerPublishers), beautifully illustrated by Anna Curry.

Gwen knew: she was publishing this story!  There was truly no stopping her!

Throughout the time Gwen and I worked together, first in class, then next independently, her steadfastness to her Dream, no matter the obstacles, kept me leaping and keepin’ on.

I’m certain reading her Writer’s story will inspire you to do the same.

As for the story she wrote and published? Just enter our Book Giveaway at the end of this post to win your very own copy of What the Cluck?

Though it might sound tongue-in-cheek, I applaud Gwen’s pluck pursuing her Dream to publish a story about two feathered friends.

We all know how stultifying it is to begin at Step One in pursuit of any endeavor, artistic or not.

Yet Gwen continued forward, first learning her craft, honing her craft, fine-tuning her story, readying her story for readers, only to then need to learn  - as well as - conquer the ins and out of independent book publishing.

Again, and fortunately, there was truly no stopping her.

Take heart from Gwen’s story, as well as that of Myles’ and Sophie’s.  Then be sure to enter our Book Giveaway of Gwen’s debut picture book What the Cluck?

Oh, and thanks to our former TeachingAuthor Laura Purdie Salas for hosting today’s Poetry Friday at Small Readers for Brighter Days.  

Happy Dream Pursuing!

Esther Hershenhorn

. . . . . . . . . .

Readers will be happy to learn: there's a REAL Sophie and Myles! Please share how this story came to be.

The inspiration for What the Cluck? began with my fascination watching a friendship grow between a duck and a turkey on a small farm in Sawyer, Michigan.  My children and I visited the farm on weekends so they could come to know life on the farm.  Isobella, Myles and Sophie are the names of my beloved grandchildren.

Why do you think this "unlikely friendship" story is especially relevant today?

What the Cluck? tells a story about inclusion, acceptance, befriending those who are different - all necessary mind-sets for today's children in a world filled with uncertainty and prejudices.  I personally know that lessons of inclusion can begin at an early age.  Rogers and Hammerstein wrote "South Pacific" in 1949.  Both the song "You Have to Be Carefully Taught" and the musical received scrutiny for addressing the subject of relationships between difference races and ethnic groups.  I was 10 years old when I first heard the song. I am now 82 and certainly not enough progress has been made in the last 72 years.  However, we must not lose hope.  I know we will have peace and harmony some day.

YOU are new to writing for children. Yet you chose one of the most challenging formats to master - the Picture Book. What were some of your biggest challenges in telling this story to young readers?

When I began seriously working on the story that had sat unfinished in my computer for several years, I knew absolutely not one single thing about the world of authors, illustrators, publishers, book designers, website designers, public relations - and - writing.  All I knew was: I needed help!

Then...Esther Hershenhorn came into my life! I took her one-night-only class at the University of Chicago's Graham School's Writer's Studio and realized I'd found the person to help me finish my story.

Once the manuscript was ready for publication, I faced the challenge of putting together a team to help me independently publish the book.  When Anna finished her illustrations, TLC Book Design helped me put the book together so it was ready for printing.

Though a picture book is 50% words + 50% illustrations, the two elements miraculously total 150%. Please share how you discovered Anna Curry and how you worked with her as she brought Myles and Sophie and your story to the page.

Midway through the process I decided to change illustrators. I spent hours on the computer surfing the net. I must have looked at the portfolios of a thousand illustrators.  Finally, I narrowed my choice to two, then decided on Anna, who is represented by Shannon and Associates in New York.

Anna grew up on a farm in northern England and still resides on a farm.  She was the perfect illustrator to capture the essence and spirit of my characters.  She does not computer-generate her images.  All of her work is original and hand painted.  Each character is unique and expressive.

The long distance between us created delays and many emails suggesting additions and corrections.  But we worked well together, sharing ZOOM calls with my TLC team.

The final paintings are just wonderful.  They bring life to my words.

You worked non-stop, 24/7 to realize your Dream of bringing What the Cluck? to the hands and hearts of readers.  What Joys have you experienced, both expected and unexpected?

I feel such joy because I made my Dream come true! I published my children's book! Being 82 was a challenge. I needed to learn additional computer skills to communicate with my team members.  But I did it!

I realize now that if you have an idea and you are determined to develop it, your age doesn't matter.  You can do it!  It takes patience, concentration, research, finances and the love for what you are creating, whatever that art form.

I've received unexpected joy from my family's and friends' compliments and support.  When they say they are proud of me and my accomplishment, I tell them I am proud of me too!

And now that I know how to write a picture book and publish it independently, I am ready to write and publish Book Number Two!

. . . . . . . 

YAY! It's time to enter our Book Giveaway drawing! Use the Rafflecopter widget below.  You may enter via 1, 2, or all 3 options. (Note: if the widget doesn't appear, click on the link at the end of this post that says "a Rafflecopter giveaway" to enter)

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!

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 RAFFLECOPTER BELOW.  The giveaway ends October 1, 2021 and is open to US. Residents only.

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.

Good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Friday, September 17, 2021


Dear Campers, my poem and the link to Poetry Friday are below.

I am veering from our topic this round (which is: writing spaces/places—talking about our physical writing space and/or how we’re motivating ourselves to write) to share sad news. 

Recently I learned a new word: felix culpa (FAY/FEE-liks KOOL/KUHL-pah). It means "An error or disaster that has fortunate consequences." 

Still, it knocked me for a loop when, on August 30, 2021, the following floated into my inbox (an excerpt):

We are sorrow-filled to share this announcement with you: Bookology and Fresh Bookology will no longer be published. It has been a project of our heart since 2014 but a change in life circumstances has brought us to face the reality that we can no longer commit over 40 volunteer hours each week to publishing the magazine and the weekly newsletter. We must, instead, focus our attentions on Winding Oak, our "day jobs."

My all-time favorite children's literature ezine, Bookology, which I urged all my students to subscribe to, published by Vicki and Steve Palmquist, has passed away

I am bereft.

photo credit: Arwan Sutanto

Vicki and Steve have had to make this difficult decision partly because Steve is dealing with a serious medical issue. 

GoFundMe page has been created by author and editor Lisa Bullard, who titles it, "Seeing Steve Palmquist Through Tough Times." On it she writes:

If you’ve read this far, you may already know what I know: few people have been as instrumental as the Palmquists in building bridges between the people who create children’s books and the advocates who place those books in front of kids. For the past three decades, the Palmquists have worked tirelessly to create innovative programs and organizations that promote literacy. Bookology, Children’s Literature Network, Books for Breakfast, the Alphabet Forest—these are just a few of the initiatives in which they’ve played instrumental roles and to which they’ve devoted countless volunteer hours.

Steve and Vicki have made an impact on the careers of hundreds of children’s book authors and illustrators, everyone from newcomers to some of the biggest names in the field. As one of the many writers who has benefitted from their wisdom, generosity, and hard work, I’m so grateful to them—not only for what they’ve done for my career, but for everything they’ve done to put books into the hands of young readers.

Steve and Vicki are happiest when they’re shining the spotlight on others.

I urge you to read Candice Ransom's final column in Bookology titled Listening for Stories...a sample of the beautiful, hilarious, inspiring, gripping, mind-exploding stories and events that swam into subscribers' inboxes each week for seven years...for free.


It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a possibility of BLUE SKIES ahead!

Albuquerque, NM 2006 


You may be aware that we have ceased publication of Bookology and Fresh Bookology in order to focus on Winding Oak work (see “medical expenses”). However, one of our clients had the great idea to send out occasional newsletters to that faithful mailing list (self-selected children’s literature professionals and enthusiasts) to announce our clients’ new books, share event news, and do book giveaways. We will be announcing this to those subscribers shortly so if you’re interested, contact us and we’ll provide you with the opportunities and costs for promoting your book(s) in this way. 

Fantastic news!

Here's today's poem:

by April Halprin Wayland

There will be no casket—just a link,

and had you asked it,

it would think you were asking for the moon.

“It’s just,” you protest, “you are leaving us too soon.”

In the fall of 2016, the Palmquists had to end the publication of another marvelous ezine, Quercus, for which we paid just $20 per year.

I was dumbstuck. 

I sent them the following:

Subject: ...but how will I...face the sun......or find a way through this book...without Quercus???

Dear Vicki and Steve,

Thank you. 

For creating a marvel.


For clearing space 

for the good stuff.


For writing and fighting 

for rights, 

for mirrors, 

for sunlight, 

for windows.


Thank you for putting 

so much 

into such a small box 

which made opening email 

a blessing.


With love, respect, admiration ~

and for the knowledge 

that your continued reinvention 

will be gifts to all of us.

I am learning that many crises in my life or in our world may, in the long run, turn out to be blessings. Bless you, Vicki and Steve!  

Steve & Vicki Palmquist, founders of Winding Oak.

And thank you, Denise, at Dare to Care for hosting Poetry Friday!

posted with sadness and hope by April Halprin Wayland (and a little help from our 9-month-old tortoises, Meredith & Derek)

Friday, September 10, 2021

Writing Spaces: Wherever You Go, There You Are!

 Last week, Bobbi took a global view of "writing space," with a great list of writing resources.   I am a more literal creature; this week I'll talk about physical writing spaces.

When I decided I was a writer at age7, I knew I'd need a private place, where no one could interrupt me, or look over my shoulder to correct my grammar or spelling. (My mom was big on "corrections." Even then, I knew "corrections" while writing a first draft, messed with your creative flow.) 

In a two bedroom, less-than-800-square-foot-house, the only truly private place was our one bathroom. I used the wooden top of the clothes hamper for a desk, and the toilet lid as a chair. I was set! Unless, of course, someone else had a dire need to "use the office."

If I wasn't writing in the bathroom, I was writing during class, when I was supposed to be listening to a teacher. This is how I learned to tune out voices. It didn't do much for my grades, but it was great training for the future, when I had to write under less-than-optimal circumstances. (More about that later.) 

Home from college, writing in my bedroom

As an adult, I've been lucky to always have a space for my desk. Sometimes I used the living room (when I lived alone in a dinky apartment), sometimes the "guest bedroom." (We don't have a lot of guests). 

However, my best and favorite office was the guest room in our 15th floor Bangkok apartment. I didn't adapt well to living abroad, and I used the space to escape reality. In that room, I could live completely in the world I was writing. I put up my inspiration/mood booster wall...magazine covers of my personal heroes--not always writers--cards from friends, reminders of life-before-Bangkok, snapshots (remember those?) and assorted stuff that kept me happy and focused. If I needed a break, there was a tiny utility balcony with a terrific view of the city. I wrote My Best Friend (my first sale) and the first draft of Yankee Girl in that room.

Once we moved back to the States, life changed, as it does when you have a growing child. My daughter was ready for kindergarten, and my husband's work contract wouldn't end for another two years. Lily and I moved in with my parents in Mississippi, God bless them.  My dad generously shared his office and computer with me. At that point, I was mostly revising. The creative juices just didn't get flowing under the portrait of a grumpy-looking Martin Luther that dominated the small room. Still, I sold My Best Friend while there. (Treasured memory: My dad going to the liquor store at 10 am to buy celebratory champagne, which we drank right then and there.)

Now, we live the Atlanta 'burbs, where we've been for twenty years. My original office was the FROG (Finished Room Over Garage). The previous owner of the house had specific notions of decor. The FROG came with navy and white wallpaper, printed with ships' blueprints, window shades resembling nautical flags and a ceiling fan painted with nautical stripes. Even with bookcases covering the walls, the visual noise was audible. Therefore, I wasn't awfully upset when I came home from a week of school visits in Colorado to discover my office had been moved to the living room and my daughter had taken over the FROG. (And painted the blueprint wallpaper Pepto-Bismol pink.) 

By that time, I wasn't spending much time in my office. The living room only had one window, and it was mostly blocked by shrubbery. Even without the shrubbery, the view was my neighbor's driveway. The desk and bookcase and even my Inspiration Wall had been shoehorned in...barely. The piano stayed in the room because there was just no other place to put it. If you ever run across the CD of First Grade Stinks, I filmed the intro in that space. 

I wasn't working in my office...because my daughter kept me running. Between school and over 30 hours per week at the skating rink, I was never home. I scribbled in notebooks as I waited in the carpool line. I took my laptop to the rink. ( invention ever!) I wrote in the snack bar/lobby as little boys played street hockey around me. I shared table space with skate moms and screaming babies and teens talking on the phone. I wrote and revised Jimmy's Stars as my daughter and her skating buddies squabbled over my head. (Nothing louder than fifth graders in a snit!) "Not paying attention" in third grade had paid off!

For some reason, though, I've never been able to use a laptop in a crowded coffee shop, or on a plane or even an airport waiting area. I can write with pen and paper. (Once, stuck without on a trans-Pacific flight without a notebook, I wrote on unused air sickness bags and cocktail napkins.) But with a laptop, I feel conspicuous, that I'm taking up too much space.  I have no problem in room, the lobby, whatever. As long as I can move my elbows, and stare into space without bothering anyone, I'm good.

In the end "writing space" isn't so much the location of my desk and laptop. It's about diving head first into my fictional world, and staying there. All hell can break loose around you, but you aren't there. You are safe away, in the world you've created.

Posted by Mary Ann Rodman

Friday, September 3, 2021

Writing Spaces: Getting Back to Basics


In my blog post, Connections Deja Vu!, I highlighted several online classes, webinars and websites that I’ve enjoyed as a means of staying connected through the long months of the pandemics, exploring various elements of the craft and business of writing.

As you may remember, I teach for the MFA Program at SNHU, working primarily with students who are finishing their creative thesis projects. Over the years, I have gathered quite a collection of articles and handouts that target some basic writing concepts that are often overlooked in workshops. This past year, I’ve enjoyed getting back to  these basics, finetuning my “writing space.”

You might be interested in a few of these handouts I've used in my classes:

Narrative Structure

Backstory and Exposition: 4 Key Tactics. Susan DeFreitas, contributing writer at Jane Friedman’s blog, explores effective strategies in inserting backstory into your narrative, explaining, “Landing your novel opening can be tricky. On the one hand, you need to get the reader sucked into the present moment of the story as it’s unfolding; on the other hand, there’s a lot you need to explain about the past, which is precisely the sort of thing that puts readers to sleep…This info is generally known as backstory (essential information about the characters’ past) and exposition (essential information about the context of the story). Getting it right is one of the biggest challenges you’ll face with your novel.”

Narrate vs. Dramatize. Alex Donne’s excellent video explains the difference between narrating and dramatizing (show vs. tell), and how you can fix these issues during the revision. Revision is when the magic happens!

Filter Words and Phrases to Avoid in Writing Fiction. Anne R. Allen created an excellent handout that  provides a list of writing filters, with practical examples of how to replace them. As she states,  “All words exist for a reason. Use them wisely to create engaging narrative.”

Purple Prose and the Word Surgeon’s Scalpel. Tom Bentley at Writer UnBoxed elaborates on how these filter words rob your narrative of its vigor. Bentley offers excellent examples and explanations, reminding writers to “Keep in mind that when you clean up your writing, you’re not scrubbing it of the voice that makes it distinct and delightful. You’re clearing your throat so that voice sings out strong and true.”

(Related to Narrative Structure) Dialogue

How to Format Dialogue Dax MacGregor offers nice illustrations on how to format dialogue, stating “Whether you are writing a short story, full novel or anything in between, the way you format dialogue is the same.”

The MasterClass in How to Format Dialogue in Your Short Story and Novel. The MasterClass staff put together this excellent handout, stating, “Whether you’re working on a novel or short story, writing dialogue can be a challenge. If you’re concerned about how to punctuate dialogue or how to format your quotation marks, fear not; the rules of dialogue in fiction and nonfiction can be mastered by following a few simple rules.

Active vs Passive Characters

How Can We Make Our Characters More Proactive?  Jami Gold’s excellent handout details how a character needs agency in their story, stating “In other words, passive and reactive characters—those without agency—go with the flow, make no decisions, and don’t affect the story because they’re always one step behind. In contrast, proactive/active characters make the story what it is.”

On Passive Characters. Mary Cole of Good Story Company explains, “It's hard for readers to engage with a passive character, especially in the protagonist role.”

Five Ways to Tell If You Have A Passive Protagonist (And If You Do, How To Fix Them). Jimena I. Novaro’s excellent discussion offers a study into passive characters, comparing two beloved novels to illustrate her points, stating “ To illustrate these five places where you can identify a passive protagonist, I’m going to use two books that I love. They’re both good books, but one has the unfortunate flaw of having a passive protagonist, while the other has an awesome, active protagonist. The examples for a passive protagonist are from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire by J. K. Rowling; the examples for an active protagonist are from Sabriel by Garth Nix.”

Finding the Emotional Core.Related to creating active characters is taking advantage of a character’s emotional core. Jo Eberhardt on Writer UnBoxed explores strategies on how to create authentic characters that readers care about, stating, “Create a character who feels deep emotions, and invite the reader to join them on their journey. It creates a bond that can never be broken between your character and your reader — one that will still exist decades into the future.”

Mentor Texts

In which I look at Doctor Who to study how to create complex characters, using backstory to reveal the emotive arc. Adventures in Time and Space and Writing.  As I explained, “ {T}here is much to learn from the Doctor about writing the epic adventure. As the Doctor tells his companion, and in so doing reminding everyone, through those Tardis doors, stepping into story,  “… we might see anything. We could find new worlds, terrifying monsters, impossible things. And if you come with me... nothing will ever be the same again!

The Do’s and Don’ts of Storytelling According to Marvel.  K.M. Weiland offers this fascinating exploration into Marvel Movies as mentor texts, in which she “gleaned all kinds of interesting writing insights—which I highlight, movie by movie, in this series of blog posts.”

Plot Structures

On Pacing: Faster than the Speed of Thought. Donald Maass at Writers UnBoxed explains, “Plot pace is generally what people mean.  Keep things moving.  Get to the next event.  Don’t meander around, cut to the chase.  Get to the meat and quickly move on.  It’s as if story is a double-speed march, or ought to be…As we know, however, story is not always about moving events along rapidly.” 

Good Transitions: A Guide to Cementing Stories Together.  Amanda Mascarelle illustrates the process of creating strong transitions that move the story forward, stating, “Most writers learned in elementary school that a good story requires a compelling beginning, middle, and end. But how does one make the pieces fit neatly together? From my tattered memory of grade school, my teachers skipped that part. Or maybe I was home with the chicken pox the day we learned about transitions—the words and phrases, often subtly deployed, that give stories shape and tug readers from idea to idea.”

Mastering Scene Transitions. Beth Hill of The Editor’s Blog discusses how to create effective scene transitions, explaining, “A scene transition takes characters and readers to a new location, a new time, or a new point of view. Transitions can also be used to show a character’s change in heart or frame of mind.”

(Related to Plot) Causal Chains

Why Your Story Needs a Causal Chain. Matthew Retino at The Writing Cooperative demonstrates how – and why – causal chains support the plot, stating, “…chains are fundamental to most forms of fiction…This is especially true if your story has a tragic structure. The sense of inevitability, of one event leading inexorably to another, increases the sense of drama and impending doom.”

What a Coincidence: 7 Clever Strategies for Harnessing Coincidences in Fiction. Steven James at Writers Digest University, offers advice on causality, offering strategies to avoid the dreaded coincidence, stating, “Well-timed coincidences can catapult a story forward, but a poorly planned one can bring your readers to a dead stop. Use these 7 strategies to harness the power of this storytelling tool while steering clear of common missteps.”

(Related to Plot) Chapter Building

How To Organize A Chapter. Nathan Bransford explores strategies to create chapters that move the plot forward, explaining “Too many writers treat their chapters like tanks of gas. They take off without really knowing where they’re going, drive around aimlessly until they run out of fuel, sputter to a stop, and then they start the next chapter after someone takes pity on them and tows them somewhere new.” Of particular interest, he offers a very nice discussion on creating cliffhangers that engage readers, stating , “The key to crafting a great cliffhanger is to construct the climax of a chapter so that its resolution opens up even bigger questions. Think about the fate of Dumbledore in the Harry Potter novels, Han Solo being frozen in carbonite in Star Wars, or “Who shot J.R.” on Dallas.”

How to Structure Chapters of Your Novel: 8 Tips for Writing Chapters. In this very interesting discussion, MasterClass explains eight strategies that help writers create reader-friendly chapters, explaining,   “Chapters are the vessels of story structure, organizing the  plot points of the larger work and allowing the reader to take a break and absorb what they’ve learned. A short story can be read in one sitting, but a novel is usually broken up into accessible parts, forming a book that can be easily revisited whenever the moment arises. Structuring chapters in a way that keeps readers immersed in the story is essential to novel-writing.”

And finally, congratulations to Merysa R for winning our giveaway!

-- Bobbi Miller

Friday, August 27, 2021

Tricube Poem and Giveaway Reminder

Happy Poetry Friday! Today I share my first completed Tricube poem. Today is also the last day to enter for a chance to win Lisa Sukenic’s debut middle-grade novel in verse, Miles from Motown (Fitzroy Books). You'll find a link to the giveaway at the end of this post.

Last month, I happened to read Yvona Fast's Wonder of Words post about tricube poems. Since I've been focused on math-based poetry forms lately, I was immediately intrigued.  Yvona credits poet and children’s author Matt Forrest Essenwine for introducing her to tricubes. Here's Matt's description of the form from his blog:

"The tricube is fairly simple in structure, as it is based on mathematics: there are 3 syllables per line, 3 lines per stanza, and 3 stanzas per poem. (multiply a number by itself three times = cubed!) Unlike math, however, a tricube is greater than the sum of its parts, as word economy is paramount, much like haiku, senryu, and tanka."

While the rules for this haiku-inspired form seem simple enough, actually writing one was more challenging than I expected. Inspired by observations on a recent walk, I wrote the following:

Photo credit: Elizabeth Prata on

After sharing his first tricube in an earlier post, Matt said, "... although I like this little poem of mine, I’m still not sure it’s the best version of itself." I could say the same of mine. But I'd love to know what you all think of it. 

And when you're done here, don't forget to read Esther's interview with Lisa Sukenic, and enter to win a copy of her new verse novel, Miles from Motown. Also, be sure to check out this week's Poetry Friday roundup by Elisabeth Norton at Unexpected Intersections

Happy writing!

Friday, August 20, 2021

Lisa Sukenic’s Student/Writer Success Story + Book Giveaway!

 Oh, how my teacher’s and Writing Coach’s heart kvells* today, August 20, as I share my former student and writer Lisa Sukenic’s Success Story with TeachingAuthors readers.

Tomorrow Saturday, Lisa’s middle grade novel in verse Miles from Motown (Fitzroy Books) officially enters the World!

Participate in our Book Giveaway at the end of this post and you can win a copy.

Register HERE and you can attend via Crowdcast this Sunday’s 6 pm (CDT) Book Launch sponsored by Women and Children First of Chicago’s Andersonville.


Lisa has traveled an indeterminate number of miles on her Children’s Book Writer’s Journey.  What I do know is that when she and I – and her character Georgia Johnson - first connected in my Novel Workshop at the University of Chicago’s Graham School’s Writer’s Studio in 2015, she’d already traveled far. I knew in my teacher’s heart: even though Lisa had quite the distance to go in readying Georgia’s story for Readers, she’d keep keepin’ on. 

Georgia's story is quite the story.


About to move in June, 1967, from her beloved Detroit neighborhood to an unfamiliar suburb on the outskirts of the city, she decides to lie. She uses her Aunt Birdie’s Detroit address as her own to qualify for the Essay Contest for Detroit sixth graders only. With her older brother deployed to Vietnam, and her family worried about when - or if - he’ll make it home, Georgia tries to settle into her new life. But she misses the old: her friend Ceci, the cracks in the sidewalk that used to catch her skates, the hide-and-seek tree, and the deli on the corner. She wonders if she’ll ever make new friends or feel like she belongs. To make matters worse, she must also find a way to intercept the Contest finalist announcement that will be mailed to Aunt Birdie’s mailbox before her family uncovers her deception. By the end of summer, Georgia discovers her own resiliency in the face of upheaval and the power of truth when lies ring hollow.

Gwendolyn Brooks, the judge for the story’s Essay Contest whom Georgia adoringly admires, would surely approve.  So will middle grade readers familiar with moving, overwhelmed by New Everything while seeking agency in their own lives. So will readers who know the guilt that comes with lying.

 As you read Lisa’s answers to my questions, you’ll learn: Lisa designed her very own DoItYourself MFA in Writing for Children Program! Lucky me to have been included. We began working one-on-one once my workshop ended in 2015 – re-visioning, reshaping, refining, ’til Miles to Motown was ready to win Regal Publishing’s and Fitzroy Books’ The Kraken Book Prize in 2019 and its offer of publication. 

Booklist’s review in the current August issue has only increased my heart’s rejoicing.

"Sukenic’s verse is compact and lively, telling Georgia’s first-person story with sparkle and verve.  She evokes detailed images with her carefully chosen words and captures Georgia’s story perfectly.

Thank you, Lisa, for sharing both your inspirational Success Story, the story behind Miles from Motown and your DIY MFA Program with our Readers!

And thank you, Carol, for hosting today’s Poetry Friday at The Apples in my Orchard.

Happy Keep’ Keepin’ On, no matter the miles!

Esther Hershenhorn

 . . . . .

Miles from Motown was always your title…and although the point of view character, camera focus, subplots and telling (poetry vs. prose) changed through the years and numerous revisions, the heart of this story remained the same. I think of Katherine Paterson’s definition of character: “One heart in hiding reaching out to another.” How did you remain true to the story’s heart and wherein lies your heart?

The seeds of the story came from my memories and experiences growing up in the suburbs of Detroit. My grandparents lived and worked in Detroit. Going back and forth between Detroit and Southfield set a map in my mind for the setting and situations of the story. Even though the physical distance was small, the divisions between the communities and cultures were large. I used the reference of miles to dive into distance being vast in her heart when leaving her Detroit to an unfamiliar neighborhood. I grew up during this time period and wanted to paint a picture of this era with the internal and external conflicts that weighed on Georgia and her family when they relocated to the suburbs. Although this is a work of fiction, my childhood friendships and relationships played a role in the creation of the foundation for Miles from Motown.

Your very own Do It Yourself (DIY) MFA in Writing for Children Program serves as an excellent model for children’s book creators, or any writer, for that matter. You grabbed opportunities and saw possibilities everywhere to learn your craft, revise and ready your novel and connect with the children’s book community and fellow writers.  How did this approach best serve you and Miles from Motown and which elements were absolutely necessary?

These experiences were vital to my development as a published author:

·       The University of Chicago Graham School Certificate in Poetry program is where I began formalizing my poetry skills, studying with Alice George and Dina Elenbogen. They taught me form and to be a more objective poet, to read and model from famous poets. This also prepared me for prepublication and critique.

 ·       The A Room of Her Own Foundation Retreat held at the Georgia O’Keefe Ranch in Abiquiu, New Mexico gave me too many gifts to list by being around so many talented women writers who helped me create my writing community.  I was fortunate to be selected to attend in 2009, 2011, 2013, and 2015. In 2015, I had the privilege of working with Cynthia Leitich-Smith. 

·       Being part of the virtual Haiku Room helped me work on my daily writing practice and led to my first publishing contract for 13 Haikus in Everyday Haiku published in 2014. 

·       Juliet Bond’s 2014 Story Studio program “Writing Children’s Literature in a Year” is where the roots of Miles from Motown began in prose and later that year turned into poetry.

·       Esther Hershenhorn’s 2015 “Writing the Middle Grade and Young Adult Novel: through the University of Chicago Graham School helped me learn the elements of writing a novel as did her subsequent classes at Chicago’s Newberry Library. 

·       I worked with Esther as my Writing Coach for 4 years, from 2015-2019, to complete Miles from Motown. Her mentorship and belief in Georgia, me and the story led to the eventual offer to publish my novel in verse.            

·       SCBWI-Illinois’ free Networks offered support, programming and continued learning - especially Jane Hertenstein’s Chicago Network, Kate Hannigan’s Hyde Park Network and Anny Rusk’s North Suburban Network.

·       SCBWI-Illinois’ Prairie Writer’s and Illustrator’s Day, Many Voices Competition, Spring Thaw event and the SCBWI Midwest Conference offered submission opportunities along with the learning. I eventually was named a finalist in the Many Voices Competition and also the winner of the 2016 Prairie Writer’s and Illustrator’s Day Manuscript Event.

 ·       I attended orientation events through Hamline’s admission for their MFA for Children and Young Adults. I was able to participate in Sarah Aronson’s March retreat at Vermont College of Fine Arts for Children and Highlights workshops. At every turn, I was soaking in as much as possible regarding craft, and really listening to authors as well.

·       I read, read, read, and still do! I am the Co-Chairperson of the Global Reading Challenge for 4th grade at the University of Chicago Laboratory School which requires me to review diverse middle grade fiction every summer for our book selection.  I typically read 20-30 books each summer to share with the selection committee.

When we worked together, I often began by reciting E.B. White’s wise, wise words: “Writers are revisers.” How did the revision process help you find your way into Georgia’s heart and winnow out her story for a middle grade novel-in-verse?

Being a poet was a blessing and a curse. The danger of being a poet who has never written a novel is the high probability that you will spend a lot of time micromanaging at the word and stanza level.  As a poet, the novel in verse format immediately goes close to the emotional arc and a lot can be conveyed with very few words. The very first draft was in prose and the subsequent revisions in verse, prose, and then finally verse. Having written it over again in prose allowed me to identify the plot points. I had created a gigantic timeline on mural paper in my bedroom. This continual visual reminder allowed me to see if a character was not showing up a lot.  It helped with the pacing, too, but honestly, some of the best changes were made through discussion with Esther and having that AHA! moment during brainstorming. On several occasions after our meetings, I found myself pulling off of Lakeshore Drive at a park to jot something down when a connection had finally clicked or an amazing line had to be written immediately before I would forget.

Many of the poems seemed to pour out of me and I often felt that I was channeling Georgia when writing. I also played a bit with form, creating list poems about how to lose a friend, which allowed me to discover a different voice than Georgia’s typically more lyrical poetry. The deeper the problems became, the more that Georgia grew as a person. I began to really know how she would respond and how deeply she felt her sadness about her brother Ty being in Vietnam, her confusion about why they moved, and her loss of her best friend and changing friendships and the guilt that she places on herself with the poetry entry deception.

Past and present University of Chicago Laboratory School students and parents treasure you as a dedicated and creative teacher, so now you truly can declare yourself a dyed-in-the-wool true-blue TEACHINGAuthor. 😊 How would you like middle grade teachers to share Georgia and Miles from Motown with their students?

Thank you very much for this immense compliment and for having faith in me. I am currently working on my Teachers Guide and it will soon be available for download HEREMiles from Motown lends itself to a broad curriculum, such as:

Poetry study and Novels in Verse study

History/Timelines (Gwendolyn Brooks, Dudley Randall, Muhammad Ali, the Vietnam War)

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Curriculum

Social Emotional Issues (identity, bullying, loss, transitions, and self-advocacy)

Pop culture and Music of the 1960’s

Like all creatives, we work hard at visualizing our Success.  As you and Georgia ready for the world and your Readers, what are you most looking forward to? Which visualizations do you hope come true?

I am most looking forward to reading this book with my fourth-grade students in book groups, during our novel in verse study in spring and having in-depth discussions about the time period and all of the themes that the book lends itself to. We use a lot of historical novels in verse in this category and I think mine will be a perfect addition to Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai and Becoming Muhammad Ali by James Patterson and Kwame Alexander. I am excited and shocked to have mine be on the list next to these legendary authors. The best thing and what I am looking forward to the most is seeing my students read my book as a “real” book and seeing it in our library at school.

Miles from Motown is but your first published children’s book, the first of many.  What work-in-progress now claims your heart?

My work in progress Mississippi Flyway tells the story of 14-year old Zoey from Chicago who wants to forget about her parents’ divorce and have things go back to normal. Zoey had planned to spend her winter break with her best friend, Sage in Florida, sketching birds and preparing her portfolio to get accepted to the high school art school with Sage. With the divorce agreement finalized, Zoey and her eleven-year old brother Eli have to spend all of their vacation time up in Honor, Michigan, population 300, at the Loon Lake Inn Bed and Breakfast with their dad and his new husband. Zoey’s feelings about Honor begin to change when she meets Dakota who lives at the Deadstream General Store. Will Zoey be forced to choose between her best friend and her new friend? When Zoey finds the mysterious sketches with the initials GF, she becomes obsessed with finding the artist. Maybe living in Northern Michigan might not be as bad as she thought. As the summer ends, she may have to choose between her best friend and the opportunity of a lifetime?

                                                                           # # # 

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