Teachers Write 7/31/14 – Thursday Quick-Write

Good morning!  We’ve been writing together four weeks now, and maybe you’re looking back at some of your earlier pieces, thinking, “You know…I’d like to work on that some more.” Today’s Thursday Quick-Write is about revision, and it’s courtesy of guest author Kim Norman.

Kim has ten picture books in print, include TEN ON THE SLED, I KNOW A WEE PIGGY, and CROCODADDY.  In addition to writing, she maintains a website listing authors who visit schools, “Author School Visits by State.”


As a picture book writer, I have to make every word count. Sometimes it comes down to cutting individual words, one at a time, until the manuscript is as tight as New Year’s Spanx. One way to eliminate extra words is to give my verbs multiple tasks. Choosing strong, specific verbs means I don’t have to prop them up with manuscript-bloating adverbs.

Actually, “choosing” isn’t the right word, because that implies I choose perfect verbs for my first draft. I don’t. Any verb will do in a first draft, as long as I get the story down. But as I begin the revision process, one of the first things I look at is the verbs in my sentences. During school visits, I tell students, “I think of a verb as the engine of the sentence.” Like a powerful engine, a strong verb will take you a lot farther a lot faster. On that first revision, I’m looking for “hot rod” verbs to rev up my story.

To illustrate the power of hot rod verbs, I share a passage of text from Toni Buzzeo’s book, DAWDLE DUCKLING. (Used with Toni’s permission, of course!) The first line of Toni’s passage reads, “Past the marsh with cattails waving.” On the first PowerPoint slide, I offer a slight variation. I have replaced Toni’s hot rod verb with a bland, first-drafty sort of verb: “Past the marsh with cattails growing.” There’s nothing much happening with the word “growing.” And it’s a very poor word to ask an illustrator to show. You cannot SEE a plant growing. On the next slide, I have students choose from a list of alternative verbs: waving, blowing, nodding or whipping. I call on someone to choose one.

Regardless of which verb the student chooses, it’s already a better sentence, because each of those alternative verbs is capable of double-duty. Not only does “whipping” (for instance) add movement to the image–giving your illustrator something more dynamic to show–it also gives us a clue about the WEATHER. By changing ONE WORD we now know more about our setting.

In the second line, (where I have replaced Toni’s hot rod verb “paddles” with the less specific “swims”), students choose from this list of verbs: paddles, floats, glides, drifts or thrashes. If a student chooses “glides,” I ask: “When Mama Duck was ‘swimming,’ did we know how she was FEELING?” Nope. “But if Mama Duck is GLIDING… she’s just GLI-I-I-DING (I’m comically acting this out) how is she feeling?” Students realize that again, by swapping one verb for another, we have now given more information about Mama Duck’s calm state of mine. If “thrashing” was the chosen word, students comment that she is perhaps frightened by an approaching bear.

 So today, I’ll ask you to choose a passage of text from your own work. Take a look at your verbs and see if you can select stronger words capable of double-duty. Do you have a character “walking slowly?” Search for a word that not only allows you to strike out that extraneous adverb “slowly;” see if, instead, you can rev the engine of the sentence to hot rod status by choosing a single verb that tells us your character’s state of mind as he wanders/stomps/rambles. In other sections, tell us more about setting with double-duty verbs in descriptive sentences.

If you need inspiration, think of my husband’s 1970 Chevelle.


It’s noisy, but man, it’ll get you there FAST. The nice thing about revving up your writing? No worries about speeding tickets!

Note from Kate: If you’d like, share a bit of your revised text in the comments!

Teachers Write 7/30/14 – Q and A Wednesday

Welcome to another Q and A Wednesday!  Guest authors Kim Norman and Jody Feldman are here to answer your questions today.

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  It’s fine to ask a general question or to direct one directly to a specific guest author. Our published author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Guest authors – Even if today isn’t a day you specifically signed up to help out, feel free to answer any questions you’d like to talk about.  Just reply directly to the comment.

Note from Kate: I usually try to pop in for Q and A many Wednesdays, too, so I’ll be in and out.  Please be patient with me if you’re a first-time commenter – it may take a little while for me to approve your comment so it appears.

Got questions? Fire away!

Teachers Write 7/29/14 – Tuesday Quick-Write

I’m cheating a little….Today’s Tuesday Quick-Write is really the second part of our nonfiction double feature from guest author Lola Schaefer.

Lola is the author of some of my favorite non-fiction picture books, including JUST ONE BITE and LIFETIME, both from Chronicle Books. Today, she’s here with a lesson on nonfiction endings.

Nonfiction Endings that Satisfy and Give the Reader Something to Think About

This giant mini-lesson is divided into three parts for use with your students. Enjoy!


And in conclusion, trees give shade, exchange gases, stop erosion, and hold groundwater in the soil. EGADS! Let’s support students in writing strong nonfiction endings so we never see this kind of repetitive summary.


Avoid poor endings, especially those that insult the readers by restating what has been, hopefully, elaborated on in the body of the piece. Before you ask students to craft an ending or conclusion, introduce a few weak, or lazy, endings and post them in the room. Have your students identify why these endings are not effective. It is so much easier to be proactive and steer students away from poorly written endings rather than having to help them rewrite endings as part of the revision process.

Here are some examples of what you might present and discuss:

  1. That is all I know about how these islands form.
  2. Those are the reasons that we should like trees. Aren’t they great?
  3. Now you know some important facts about Benjamin Franklin.
  4. I bet you will never think about microbes in the same way.
  5. Conserving water is really important. Please do it.


Mini-lesson #2

What are the jobs of a strong nonfiction ending or conclusion?

            The ending needs to satisfy the reader and provide a sense of completion.

            It needs to leave the reader with some over-arching, or profound thought on the topic.

            It could catapult the reader into wanting to know more about the topic.

            It could pose a question to the reader that would continue his/her thinking or research.

            In some small way, the ending relates back to the lead?

Just like with leads, show your students that not all nonfiction endings or conclusions need be a 3-5 sentence paragraph. Sometimes that works well, but many times it becomes forced or artificial. It is better to examine, then write, endings that offer the reader 2-3 of the criteria stated above.

Study three or more mentor endings from published nonfiction with your students. Ask them,

“Would this give the reader a sense of satisfaction or completion? Does this ending make a big point, or pose a unique thought? Would you want to learn more about this topic or is there something else that you might still want to research? Do you see any similarities between this and the lead?”

Suggested mentor text:

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin – last five sentences on p. 236

Who Says Women Can’t Be Doctors? by Tanya Lee Stone – last five sentences

Living Sunlight by Molly Bang and Penny Chisholm – last four sentences

The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass – last page of the text

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart – last sentence of the text

How Big Were Dinosaurs by Lita Judge – last sentence of the text

Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin – last page of the text


Mini-lesson #3

Practice writing endings/conclusions with students on a topic they know well. Better yet, write endings for their practice leads. Encourage them to write at least two different endings (three is even better) and select the one they think is most effective. It is fun to partner the students and let them have a conversation about which of their endings is most suitable for an audience.

I need to interject here that when writing is crafted well, leads and endings complement one another. If you are able to read the leads and endings from some of the mentor text that I recommend, you and your students will notice how the two tie together in at least one way.

I always think of leads and endings as bookends. They are strong supports that often use similar language, phrases, or even a repeating sentence. This truly helps to tie up loose ends for the reader.

Of course, as teachers we need to model this process for them.

Since I wrote a variety of leads on the food web of the wetlands in yesterday’s mini-lesson, I will draft a few endings that might work for those.


From the tiniest mosquito to the largest alligator, life abounds in the wetlands. The more plants and animals, the more choices. When creatures have a wide selection, they try new foods. Because of this, the wetland food web is always transforming itself plant by animal.

With the proper respect and care from man, wetland animals will be able to search, stalk, and eat the food they need for many years to come. What can you do to insure that outcome?

As weather, pollution, and migration impact the wetlands, the food web undergoes a continual change. But those animals that nibble, slurp, and crunch will never run out of food if man works with nature to preserve these rich ecosystems. Their life is reliant on us, and ours on them.

For today’s practice, write two or more endings for your best lead from yesterday. If you’re just joining us, select a nonfiction topic that you know well. Visit yesterday’s mini-lesson and write 2-3 leads. Select your best one and then write 2-3 endings. Reread the jobs of a nonfiction ending, then craft those that you believe would satisfy readers, relate back to the lead in some small way, and offer an over-arching or big-picture thought.

I’ll return later today to post celebrations on your writing.

I hope these two mini-lessons gave you some food for thought, as well as a couple of solid strategies to share with your students.

So glad you visited.


Teachers Write 7/28/14 – Mini-Lesson Monday

Good morning – I hope everyone had  a great weekend! Ready to write?  You can check out Jo’s Monday Morning Warm-Up to get your fingers stretched.  And our mini-lesson is a double feature; we’ll be talking nonfiction today and tomorrow, specifically about beginnings and endings, with guest author Lola Schaefer.

Lola is the author of some of my favorite non-fiction picture books, including JUST ONE BITE and LIFETIME, both from Chronicle Books. (Fun fact: Lola and I both work with editor Melissa Manlove there, and we’ve both had the joy of having our books illustrated by Christopher Silas Neal.)

Nonfiction Leads That Pop on the Page and Lure Readers

This giant mini-lesson is divided into three parts for use with your students later on. Let’s begin!

I’m going to tell you everything I know about trees. UGH! As teachers we have all seen our fair share of these kinds of leads. How do we steer students away from this lazy writing? Easy. Be proactive.

Mini-lesson #1

First make a list of horrid nonfiction leads and post these in the classroom one by one. Allow students to tell you why THEY think they are poor leads. Once they scorn them and know that these are ineffective ways to begin a piece of nonfiction, they will not use ANY of them for the rest of the year. Promise.

Examples of Ineffective (or lazy) Leads to Post:

  1. Islands form in different ways. I will explain three.
  2. Do you like trees? I do. Let me tell you why.
  3. Ben Franklin did a lot of things. I’m going to tell you some of them.
  4. Microbes are tiny, yet they are important.
  5. All living creatures need water. Here is how we can conserve it.



What are the jobs of a strong nonfiction lead?

            The lead needs to introduce the topic.

            It needs to lure the reader into the rest of the writing.

            It needs Zip! By zip, I mean there must be a phrase or sentence that carries energy with   onomatopoeia, or an interesting detail, a thoughtful question, or even a unique viewpoint or voice.

Dispel the myth with your students that leads MUST be a paragraph of 3-5 sentences. Sometimes they are. But strong leads could be one sentence, two, or three in length. It’s much more important how the lead is crafted rather than its length. Make sure it fulfills the three goals stated above?

Select three mentor leads from published nonfiction and study these with students. Ask them,

“What’s the topic? Which group of words makes you want to read more? Which group of words or sentence adds zip?”

Suggested mentor text:

Bomb by Steve Sheinkin – the first paragraph

Who Says Women Can’t be Doctors? by Tanya Lee Stone – first three sentences

Living Sunlight by Molly Bang & Penny Chisholm – first page

The Secret World of Walter Anderson by Hester Bass – first page

Feathers: Not Just for Flying by Melissa Stewart – first page

How Big Were Dinosaurs? by Lita Judge – first two sentences

Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin – first page of the text


Mini-lesson #3

Practice writing leads with students on a topic they all know quite well. That might be simple machines or animals of the savanna. I always encourage students to write three different leads and decide which one they think is the strongest. They enjoy this mini-lesson and are surprised that sometimes their strongest lead is the first one they write, and other times it’s the last one. The more we model this process, the more confident they will be when crafting their own leads.

For instance, I might write these three leads for the topic of the food web of the wetlands.

From the tiniest mosquito to the largest alligator, wetland animals rely on plants and one another for their food. Who eats what and why?

What if we had to roam near our home for food? What would we eat? The animals of the wetlands are always searching, stalking, and eating their neighbors. How does this food web work and what can we learn from it?

Nibble. Slurp. Crunch. For thousands of years wetland animals have been eating food within a few feet of their homes. It’s an amazing story that shows how the balance of nature maintains itself despite continual change.

For your own practice, select a topic that you know your students study in school, or one of your own interest, and craft three leads. Decide which lead is your strongest and write why. Post your leads. If you want some suggestions for topics, here you go:

the sun         cells         Harriet Tubman       landforms         renewable energy       whales

I’ll pop back later today to leave celebrations on your posted leads.

Have fun!



*** Leads and Endings typically have a lot in common. Like bookends they support the rest of the text. For more on this, visit tomorrow’s mini-lesson on Endings.

Teachers Write 7/25/14 – Friday Feature with Kat Yeh

Happy Friday, everyone!  You’ll want to visit Gae’s blog for Friday Feedback today. Even if you’re not quite ready to share, it’s so interesting to see what others are sharing and how it’s being critiqued. Check it out; you’ll learn a lot.

We also have a Friday Feature today – “Letting It Go,” with guest author Kat Yeh.

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Kat  grew up reading, doodling, and scribbling in Westtown, Pennsylvania. She worked for many years in advertising and sports marketing — while writing for herself in the wee hours of the night. She currently lives on Long Island where she can see water everyday and explore all the bay and harbor beaches with her family. She is the author of children’s books YOU’RE LOVABLE TO ME, Random House Books for Young Readers (2009), THE MAGIC BRUSH: A STORY OF LOVE, FAMILY, AND CHINESE CHARACTERS, Walker Books for Young Readers (2011), and THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE, Little, Brown Books for Young Readers (coming January 2015!), and THE FRIEND SHIP, Disney-Hyperion (coming 2016)!

Letting It Go

When it comes to writing, like the song says: Let it go.

I admit that the first time I heard this song, I wept a little weep.

Letting go is a hard thing for me. And in writing, it means two particular things.


Let it go.

First of all, it means to put away all plans. All lessons. All outlines. All preconceived ideas. Actually allowing yourself to write without a goal or destination. Do not ask Do I need to begin with a scene that establishes my protagonist’s motive? No. Let it go. Allow yourself to play. It’s during this loose, unstructured time that you just may discover the little jewels that become the heart of your story.

When I first began writing what would become my middle grade novel, THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE, I knew very little about it. Okay. Honestly, I knew nothing about the story or my main character. Zero. All I knew was I wanted to write a book about food. And family. And probably love. I had no plot. I had no outline. All I had was an idea. Kinda. I thought that Twinkie Pie would be a fun recipe to open a novel with. I’d never had it. I had no idea what the actual recipe was, but I liked the sound of it. So, I opened up a big blank document and just — let it go. I made up a recipe. I wrote without agenda. No rules. No judgment. No expectations. Whatever came out was written down. I wrote and wrote and wrote. I wrote a whole lot of terrible stuff that made no sense and did not live to see another draft. But in the middle of all that letting go, I also wrote these few lines. Here they are pulled directly out of those messy first pages — misspellings and all:

“…this way, the cherry juice gets all soaked up by the twinkies and the creamy centers turn this beautiful shade of pinky-red – just like revlons cherrys in the snow lipstick. That was my mom’s favorite lipstick shade and the only one she’d ever wear. Why, if she walked into a drugstore and they were out of Cherries in the Snow, she walk right out and down the street to the next store and the next and the next.”

I remember this moment, because I stopped dead in my tracks.

Something had happened.


I went back and deleted “mom” and changed it to “Mama.”

And, suddenly, I had a voice.

I saw that I had written about my main character’s mother in the past tense. With a little wistfulness and longing and pride. When I look back, I realize that the entire plot and heart of this story that I love so dearly came from a moment of writing where I didn’t plan anything. I just let go and wrote. That one line led to everything else. I honestly don’t think it would have happened if I had had a plan.


Then next part of Letting It Go is harder for me.


Let it go.

It means letting go of the ironclad grip I keep on the many, many crossbars and dead bolts that guard the way to my heart. See — right there — how dramatic I am? This is the kind of thing I usually like to keep behind the locked door. Letting go of what’s inside. It’s a hard thing to do when you are a deeply private person. And I know the story is not actually my own story. And I am not any of the characters. Nor have I had their experiences. But, this book. Oh, this book is so me and so my heart. And I’m not really sure how to tell anyone else how to let that part of you go — but I can tell you what I do.

I take a deep brave breath. And then I take what I’ve written to places that scare me a little. I put it all there on the page for the world to see and let it go….

Feelings of Not Fitting In.

Wishing I could reinvent myself

Wishing for Impossible things

I let go of how I’m just a big cheesy crybaby in love with love.

I let go of the weird quirky humor that I never think anyone else will ever get.

I let go of how I’m probably Too Much and so everything I write will probably be Too Much, but that’s just the way it is.

I let it all go and it’s out there now.

And what I thought was going to be a few years of my life spent writing a novel about food and family and probably love became something more. It became a lesson in learning how to Let It Go. Everyone has their own personal door with their varying degrees of dead bolt needs. These are mine. I encourage you to open yours.


As I find myself currently working on my second novel, I realize that I have not completely Let It Go yet. The crossbars and dead bolts are still in place and my heart is still safe from all heart-hurting things. But I know it will happen. Maybe today. Maybe tomorrow. Because I do not want to write a safe book that shows nothing of my heart. I’m going to Let It Go. After I take another deep brave breath.

Any minute now.


Note from Kate: I love this post and am bookmarking it. Also, I think you should all watch this now. Happy Friday!

Teachers Write 7/24/14 – Thursday Quick-Write

Today’s Quick-Write is about feelings. (Go ahead…sing it…”Feelings…whoa whoa whoa FEEEEEEEELINGS…”  All set now? Okay.)

Today’s guest author wrote one of my favorite books I’ve read so far in 2014.

Varian Johnson lives in Texas, where he writes YA and MG novels. His latest, THE GREAT GREENE HEIST, is a page turner of a mystery, with a terrifically diverse cast of realistic middle school kids. I gushed more about it here. If you teach grades 5-8, you really need this one in your classroom library. And now…here’s Varian’s quick-write for today!

Thursday Quick-Write: Feelings without the “Feel”

I love emotional scenes in novels. Whether characters are happy or sad or in love or whatever, these scenes tell us so much about our characters’ wants and desires and dreams. However, the best scenes avoid telling us that the character “feels” a certain way and instead use context to show that emotion. From word choice to action to setting, we have a number of tools available to convey the emotional weight of a scene without relying on “I feel.”

Here’s a quick example:

Camilla huddled next to the main building, trying to hide from the early cold front that had brought low temperatures and windy skies. Stuffing her hands into her pockets, she watched as empty potato chip bags and wads of newspaper floated across the sidewalk, and resisted the urge to glance at her phone again.

Finally, the old red Ford pulled into the parking lot.

She marched across the empty schoolyard, her gaze on her tap shoes. She hadn’t bothered to change out of them. What was the point?

She yanked open the door and climbed into the cab. Her teeth rattled as she slammed the door shut behind her.

Her father reached over and placed his hand on her shoulder. “Camilla, I—”

“You’d said you’d be here.” She jerked away. “You promised.”

“I know. But we got busy. A guy came in at the last minute and—”

“It’s fine. Whatever.” She turned toward the window. “Just drive.”


For this quick write, try to write or revise a scene where characters are showing some type of emotion. But instead of stating that emotion, use everything else in the scene to convey how the characters feel.

Note from Kate: If you don’t have a work-in-progress, feel free to choose a scene from a favorite novel and rewrite the emotions using this strategy, or take a moment in history (George Washington crossing the Delaware, Rosa Parks sitting down on the bus) and write that using this technique. Feel free to share a snippet of your work in the comments!

Teachers Write 7/22/14 – Tuesday Quick-Write

Good morning! Is everybody ready to write? Guest author Jody Feldman joins us today for a prompt that will help you raise the stakes for your characters.

Jody blames her 7th grade English teacher (justly or not) for turning her away from writing, yet the world mysteriously led her back. Her middle grade novels—The Seventh Level and The Gollywhopper Games series (all from Greenwillow/HarperCollins)—have won a number of honors including the Georgia Children’s Book Award, the Grand Canyon Readers Award, and the Show-Me Best Book Award. She lives in St. Louis, Missouri or online at www.jodyfeldman.com and on Facebook (Jody Feldman Author) and Twitter (@jodyfeldman).


Upping the Stakes

If you’re in a position to teach or lead or otherwise speak with some measure of authority, wouldn’t you play to your strengths? Wouldn’t that be normal?

I suppose I’m not always normal.


With this Quick Write, I am playing to my weakness. Before you click this off and revisit a different exercise, let me explain.

I was lucky to be born into The Nice Family. Think June & Ward Cleaver, but with loads of personality and a little bit of bite. That translates this way: When I write stories, I care about my characters and don’t really want anything bad to happen to them which pretty much defeats the possibility of an exciting plot. And so I have spent much time thinking about how to up the stakes or otherwise get my characters into trouble.

Maybe you can deal out death and destruction (or worse, embarrassment) to any character in any situation, but I’ve needed to disassociate myself from my feelings for these imaginary people. With my plot in mind, I generate generic lists of what bad things can befall otherwise good beings. Usually they land in following categories (and I’ve added some bonus examples):

I Shouldn’t Have …

*borrowed her bicycle

*said that snarky comment

*opened his locker

*loosened the rung on the ladder

*eaten the last taco

*eaten the taco that fell on the floor

*given the taco that fell on the floor (which the dog sat on) to that girl




*Hammered finger instead of the nail

*Airbag broke nose


*Was tripped

*Was tripped which tore my best pants and bloodied my lip and got gum in my hair which is how I looked when I went on stage to ask 300 classmates to vote for me for Class President only after I grabbed my Sequoia tree report from my locker instead of my election speech



*The picnic got rained out

*The raccoon stole my backpack

*The snow storm left me stranded

*Lightning knocked out the electricity

*Lightning knocked out the electricity which caused a power surge that fried my mother board and left it impossible to access the 20-page report that’s due in 14 hours which is not only 50% of my grade but is half the project for my partner who’s the dreaded Connie L.


Other categories that have worked for me:

That Dirty, Double-Crossing #@%$^ (When antagonists do bad things)

I Didn’t Pull the Fire Alarm On Purpose, I Swear (When protagonists do bad things fully- or semi-unintentionally)

I Don’t Understand (Miscommunication, misinterpretation, and other mishaps)

The Truth (When s/he discovers a fact—emotional, familial, physical—about him/herself)


Just a couple more tips…

*Before you grasp onto your first idea, make sure there are no others that can better sync with character, plot and theme development.

*Escalation is often the key. When you layer your woes, when an unfortunate situation gets naturally worse, your story will be more effective than if you pile on several disjointed, anecdotal situations.

And now you can choose to:

A). Take a scene from your current WIP and edit it to further complicate your character’s life; or

B). Using a situation from the list above, afflict pain upon your own character or on a character borrowed from a favorite book.

I’ll be nosing around in hopes you’ll share any scenes or lists or thoughts. Have fun. And don’t get into too much trouble.


Note from Kate: Feel free to share some of those unfortunate situations in the comments today. This will be fun!

Teachers Write 7/23/14 – Q and A Wednesday

I’d like to suggest that we all take a minute to celebrate with a glass of lemonade and maybe some s’mores today. At the end of this week, we’ll be halfway through Teachers Write 2014, and you are all doing SUCH amazing things. I’ve loved learning with you so far, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of the summer!

Today is Q and A Wednesday, so fire up those questions. Guest authors David Lubar and Anne Marie Pace are here with answers!

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  It’s fine to ask a general question or to direct one directly to a specific guest author. Our published author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Guest authors – Even if today isn’t a day you specifically signed up to help out, feel free to answer any questions you’d like to talk about.  Just reply directly to the comment.

Note from Kate: I usually try to pop in for Q and A many Wednesdays, too, but I’m traveling this week.  Please be extra-patient with me if you’re a first-time commenter – it may take a little while for me to approve your comment so it appears.

Got questions? Fire away!

Teachers Write 7/21/14 – Mini-Lesson Monday

Good morning! Ready to start a new week? Visit Jo for your Monday Morning Warm-Up, and then come back here. Today, we’re going to talk about mistakes. 🙂

So far, we’ve been doing a lot of free writing here at Teachers Write summer camp, but eventually, we’ll all want to dive into revisions on one project or another.

Guest author David Lubar joins us for today’s Mini-Lesson Monday, “Fixing the Inevitable Mistakes.” David is an author and game designer. He’s published about twenty books for kids and young adults, including HIDDEN TALENTS and the  Weenies short story collections, which are super-popular with reluctant readers.

Fixing the Inevitable Mistakes

During school visits, I often tell students that whether I’m writing a book or programming a video game, I spend 90% of my time fixing my mistakes. Granted, the percentage is slightly lower for writing than programming, and writing mistakes have never caused a book to hang or crash, but it’s a basic truth of anything I do that I will make mistaks. We all make mistakes.

Some are specific to ourselves. In the heat of the first draft, I’ll often write “it’s” for “its,” though I know the difference. I use “a couple of” far too often. I’m sure you have your own pet mistakes. But then there are those mistakes we all make, the inevitable ones. I’d been planning to discuss several of them. That’s why I proposed the title, “Fixing the Inevitable Mistakes.” But as I started drafting this, I discovered that I’d made a pair of my own typical specific mistakes – getting over ambitions and forgetting my inherent laziness. (I also didn’t quite absorb the significance of the “mini” portion of the task. So, in brief (though it already appears too late for that to be true, highlighting another specific mistake in that I tend to get wordy and ramble off topic), we’ll look at just one inevitable mistake. But it’s a perfect one for this mini lesson.

First, consider the following excerpt from an early draft of my novel, Dunk. To put it in context, one character has just loaned some video tapes (yeah, it’s an old excerpt) to another character, to help him prepare for a performance that is several weeks away.

“Let me know when you’re done with those. I’ve got plenty more.” He walked out, closing the door behind him. “Remember, we’ve only got three weeks.”

See if you can spot the large problem with this scene. Find it? Basically, one character has continued talking after he closed the door. Unless it was a screen door, that just doesn’t work. Why did I make this mistake? Because I had an afterthought. Our brains don’t work in linear fashion. We think about things, build on them, expand our ideas, and discover ways to flesh ideas out. We write, for the most part, linearly. I might possibly have stopped and inserted the extra dialogue where it belonged, but in the heat of creation, I never even noticed that the last line of dialogue was out of sequence. I suspect the mistake survived at least one or two revision passes. (I’m an alumnus of the many-quick-passes school of haphazard revision.) Eventually, I spotted the mistake.

Here’s the thing. We all have afterthoughts. And they occur at nearly every level of writing. (I’m pretty sure my subconscious is constantly working on many aspects of my current work in progress.) Afterthoughts are inevitable. We add words to sentences. I walked out of the room quickly. The “quickly” occurred to me at the end. It could be moved. But, in this case, it would be better to replace the whole phrase. We add sentences to paragraphs, as we saw in the first example. We add paragraphs to chapters. And we add chapters to novels. (It’s even possible to add novels to series as an afterthought, but let’s not take things quite that far, today.) Just to show what a hot mess of unsequenced garbage a professional writer can spew in a first draft, here’s a paragraph that wanders all over the place:

Once the car left the parking lot, the girls started talking about college. Teri and Mom were planning a trip in a couple weeks to look at schools in PA and upstate NY. Our high school let juniors take four days off to check out colleges. Jennifer was a senior. She’d already narrowed her choices down to Bloomsburg or Pitt. Lana mentioned her plans. So did Vanessa.

And here’s how it looks after the various afterthoughts were reunited with their co-workers.

            Once the car left the parking lot, the girls started talking about college. Jennifer was a senior. She’d already narrowed her choices down to Bloomsburg or Pitt. Lana mentioned her plans. So did Vanessa. Teri and Mom were planning a trip in a couple weeks to look at schools in PA and upstate NY. Our high school let juniors take four days off to check out colleges.

It was only after writing the part about the school policy that I realized I should tell the plans of all the characters. But the fix was easy enough. The task is rarely difficult. Mostly, it’s just a matter of cutting and pasting. Sometimes, things need to be tweaked after they’re moved. And an afterthought might partially repeat previous information, so you might have to trim things a bit. The trick is to pay attention to what you wrote – not what you THOUGHT you wrote. Much of revision boils down to seeing what is actually on the page. And one of the ways to see what went wrong is to be aware of specific mistakes, such as leaving afterthoughts where they fall, as opposed to finding them their proper forever home. Like unintentional word repetition, or breaks in viewpoint, afterthoughts become much more visible when you put them on your mental checklist.


Note from Kate:  I had mixed feelings about running a piece about revision so early in the summer, but so many of you have shared your worries about your quick-write and first drafts (“It’s crummy!” “Everyone else is better at this!”) that I thought it would be good to see an author’s messy process and relax, knowing that all of our early drafts are rough ones.

There’s no need to get revising just yet, but I thought for today’s writing assignment, we could all do a short piece that I sometimes used with my middle school students as they were evaluating pieces, getting ready to revise.

Choose a piece of writing that you’ve done – something that’s not super-polished – maybe a draft of your work-in-progress or one of the Teachers Write prompts you did earlier this month, and answer this question:

If your writing could talk back to you, what would it say about its own strengths and weaknesses?

(My current work in progress had a little talk with me this morning. “My dear Kate,” it said, “I am so fat with  your meticulously researched details of 1850s Maryland that I am simply moving too slowly under the weight of all these historical riches. When you revise, you’ll need to put me on a bit of a diet, keeping the best and getting rid of the rest. Also, you forgot about weather. I need rain, some wind, and at least one decent thunderstorm. Everything will look different in the lightning at night.”

If you’d like to share your writing today, feel free to leave a paragraph or two in the comments!

All About Critique Groups (and a chance to connect!)

Some of you have been thinking you’d like to get together with other like-minded teacher-writers to form critique groups, and that’s a great idea. Let’s talk about how critique groups work…

(Please note: The thoughts below were originally posted on my blog as part of my critique-groups post for Teachers Write 2012. No need to reinvent the wheel, after all.)

A critique group is a small group of people (usually 2-6) who write and agree to read one another’s work from time to time and provide feedback with the purpose of helping one another improve. Critique groups can happen in person — if you live close to some other writers, you might agree to meet once a month at the local coffee shop for this — or online, in which case you’d exchange pages of writing via email or set up a system with folders in Yahoo Groups or something similar.

They can be made up of people who are at about the same level (beginners, folks revising first novels, etc.), people who write the same genre (YA, MG, picture books, nonfiction, etc.) or people who write different kinds of work but have an appreciation for what the others write, too.

Sometimes, critique groups operate on a schedule (each week, writers take turns sending maybe five pages for critique by the others) and sometimes they’re more informal (people share work when it’s done or when they need feedback, and others critique as they can. This is more common with experienced writers, I think, who tend to have deadlines and less predictable schedules.)

Sometimes, it takes a while to find the right critique group. People sometimes post new critique groups or openings in established ones at the SCBWI site or on Verla Kay’s discussion boards for children’s writers. Sometimes, you express interest in this, and someone else has filled the spot already or seems to be a better fit for that particular group. Do not take this personally or read anything into it at all. It happens. It happened to me numerous times when I was looking for a critique group, and if it happens to you, it doesn’t mean that you’re not a good writer or a nice person or anything else. It only means that your “just-right” critique group is still out there.  And sometimes, people join a critique group and then realize it’s not a good fit, so they drift away. All of this is part of the process, and it’s okay.

I’ve been in a bunch of critique groups over the years, all full of great people and talented writers. Some have been better fits than others, especially my current group with writers Loree Griffin Burns, Eric Luper, and Liza Martz.  Though we write different genres, we all appreciate one another’s work.  We run into each other at conferences & retreats sometimes, but our group operates mostly online (via Yahoo groups) and we don’t have a set schedule.  I also have a couple other good writers friends with whom I swap manuscripts sometimes.

Last summer, I wrote a pretty detailed piece on how to critique a friend’s writing for the Stenhouse Summer Blogstitute. It uses one of my editor’s revision letters as a mentor text for how to critique someone’s writing in a way that’s constructive and rigorous without making that person feel sad or frustrated or so angry they want to shove their crummy manuscript up your nose.  You should read that here. Go ahead…and then come back. I’m going to get a cup of coffee while you do that….

So…do you think you might like to be in a critique group?  I can’t create one for you…or tell you who to have coffee with, but I can provide a place for you to talk with other like-minded people who feel the same way and might want to connect with you to share work.

If you’d like to start a critique group where you live, or an online group, leave a comment here with the following information:

  • Your name
  • Where you are in your writing life: (beginner, long-time poet, working on 1st novel, agented nonfiction writer, etc.)
  • What you’re working on now or what you most want to write: (YA fantasy, MG mystery, picture book biographies, professional books, poetry, etc. Or you can say not sure – a little of everything.)
  • Where you live if you’re hoping for an in-person group, or just “Online” if you think connected via email will work out better.  Or share both if you’re open to either of those.

(Remember that in-person critique groups actually go someplace to meet and eat brownies and drink coffee once or twice a month, while online groups do all their critiquing and commenting via email or Google docs or something like that. Sometimes, they eat brownies while they do this, too, but it’s harder to share.)

If you’re intrigued by all this, but you’re not the kind of person who likes to start things, then you can just hang out and see if anyone posts a request for critique partners in your city, or if anyone who shares your passion for memoir is looking to form a group. If you see a comment from someone you’d like to chat with about forming a group, then reply to it and figure out how you’d like to continue the conversation (email, Facebook, etc.) to work out details.  Then I’d suggest you arrange to swap just a few pages of something for a sample critique, so that you can see how it works out and figure out if you’re compatible in this way. (You can read this piece I wrote for Stenhouse to get ideas on how to offer good feedback.)

Please don’t get stressed about this ,okay? If no one answers your request right way, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad writer or that you smell like onions or anything else. Give it some time, and if this doesn’t work to connect you with someone like-minded, we’ll find another way.

Once you’re connected with a maybe-critique-buddy, try it out. See how it goes. And understand that this is not a perfect science. Critique groups have fits and starts, growing pains, and bumps in the road, so it may take a few tries before you connect with someone who is the right match. It’s worth it, though. You’ll get great feedback on your writing,  you’ll learn a lot from critiquing your partners’ writing, and you’ll come away with some ideas that you can share in the classroom or library with kids who are trying to help one another improve their writing, too.

Ready  to round up some critique partners?  Fire away in the comments! Remember that the point is to find one another here and then trot off to email or Facebook or Google to talk amongst yourselves and decide how you want your group to work.  There’s a good number of authors planning to visit for Q and A Wednesday next week, so if you end up with more questions about critique buddies, be sure to ask for their thoughts.