Teachers Write 7.20.15 Mini-Lesson Monday with Guest Author Anne Nesbet

Happy Monday, Teachers Write campers – and welcome to our third week of writing together. It’s hard to believe that we’re halfway through summer camp, isn’t it? Today, you can head to Jo’s blog for your Monday Morning Warm-Up…and then come back here for Mini-Lesson Monday with guest author Anne Nesbet. 


Anne writes novels for middle-grade readers and also teaches. Her first two books are set in a magical version of Paris and are called THE CABINET OF EARTHS (HarperCollins 2012) and A BOX OF GARGOYLES (HarperCollins 2013). She’s also written THE WRINKLED CROWN (HarperCollins 2015) and CLOUD & WALLFISH, a historical spy-vs-spy story set in East Berlin in 1989, coming from Candlewick in 2016. Anne lives near San Francisco with her husband, several daughters, and one irrepressible dog. Here’s her lesson for today:

Getting into Characters’ Heads: Some Sneaky (and Wonderful) Narrative Strategies

We build new worlds in our stories, and the richer the details of those worlds, the more our tales will haunt the reader. But just as important as any outside landscape (whether we’re talking about a standard-issue middle school, a house on the lonely moors, or a castle inhabited by humanoid dragons) are the inner worlds of our characters. Inviting the reader into a character’s head is a way to add depth, spice, and resonance to everything that happens in the story.

There are many fine ways–some trickier than others–to show your readers what your characters are thinking. Help us see the world of your story through the eyes of your characters! Here are some narrative strategies that can help you do exactly

Strategy #1. You can QUOTE the character’s thoughts.

Fancy term: Quoted Monologue (or “interior monologue”)

What it is: The author quotes the thoughts going on in a character’s head, almost as if he or she had hidden a microphone in the person’s brain.

Example: “‘I can’t believe I blushed like a fool when Lulu said hello. How come I’m always such a freaking idiot around her?’ thought Joe, as he scuffed the ground angrily with his toe.”

A quoted monologue is the simplest, clearest way to convey the thoughts of a character. Sometimes you’ll see quoted thoughts written out in italics, instead of captured within quotes, but the effect is the same (I can’t believe I blushed like a fool…). This technique isn’t subtle, perhaps, but then again, subtlety isn’t always necessary. Sometimes we just want to listen in on the characters as they think!

Strategy #2. You can TELL us about the character’s thoughts.

Fancy term: Psycho-Narration

What it is: The author narrates to us the thoughts of the character–using the language of the author, not necessarily the character himself.

Example: “You could tell from the way his toe kicked little scuff-marks into the earth that Joe felt miserable. Poor Joe! He was thinking about how flustered he had become when Lulu said hello. Joe always judged himself harshly–and no one can judge more harshly than a fifteen-year-old boy–after a run-in with Lulu.”

In psycho-narration, in which the narrator describes the inner world of a character using the narrator’s language, the divide between character and narrator looms rather large. (In our way-too-obvious example here, the narrator jabbers on about the nature of “fifteen-year-old boys” in a way no actual, self-respecting teen would speak of himself.)

“Telling” is not always a bad thing, by any means! Sometimes (often) we are writing about characters who do not yet have a full understanding of what’s going on in their own heads; sometimes the story will be richer for the narrator’s hopping in to make something clear–or to infect the story with his/her own perspective on the matter.

Speaking of narrative infection, here’s a third strategy, much sneakier than the first two, but potentially very effective:

Strategy #3. You can sneakily quote the character IN DISGUISE (disguised as the narrator)

Fancy term: Narrated Monologue (also called “free indirect discourse”)

What it is: The author presents the thoughts of the character in the form of narration (not quotation), but using the language of the character.

Example: “Joe couldn’t believe he had blushed like a fool when Lulu said hello. Why was he always such a freaking idiot around her?”

As you can see, these are Joe’s thoughts in Joe’s own words (as in the example for “quoted monologue” above), but Joe’s words are disguised in the third-person and past-tense costume that a narrator might wear! Although the example here is a particularly simple one, in practice the narrated monologue can create some very interesting, perplexing, tricky situations. When the voices of narrator and character infect each other, the prose can become complex indeed.


Today’s Assignment:

Think up a character with a different way of looking at the world (and a different way of talking) than “you” (as narrator) have. Your character is thinking about something. What is s/he thinking?

1. Show us using Quoted Monologue.

2. Tell us using Psycho-Narration.

3. Sneakily bring us into his/her head using Narrated Monologue.


Note from Kate: If you’d like to share one of your examples in the comments today, feel free!


Teachers Write 7.18.15 How Writing is Like Swimming: Saturday thoughts from Kristen Kittscher

Officially, we are in our Teachers Write weekend, but this year, we decided to share some not-quite-lessons on these days. It’s always worth taking a little time to reflect, so today, guest author Kristen Kittscher joins us for just that.

Kristen is a former 7th grade English teacher and the author of the middle grade mystery The Wig in the Window and its forthcoming sequel, The Tiara on the Terrace (Harper Children’s, January 5, 2016). The 2014 James Thurber House Children’s Writer-in-Residence, Kristen loves teaching writing workshops for kids of all ages and visiting schools. Today, Kristen shares a bit about her own journey as a teacher-writer…

For many years, I was an English teacher who didn’t write. At least, that’s how I saw it. In truth, I was writing all the time: with my seventh grade students, in my journal, to fun writing prompts, in rambling emails that I sent to entertain family and friends. I dismissed all of it. Though I yearned to tell my own stories, in my mind “real” writing was done by geniuses endowed with magical talents I didn’t possess. And finishing a novel? That was for rock star authors, not mere mortals.

How did I stand there all that time, urging my students to silence their inner critics and make glorious messes in their drafts, yet never show myself even an iota of the same compassion? It still amazes me. Worse yet, I beat myself up for not walking the walk. Or the talk, I suppose I should say. Because, boy, I did a lot of talking.

Does any of this sound familiar? I hope not. I hope you’re looking at me like I’m a curious alien creature. That—unlike me—you’ve been gentle with that dreamy, writing self and let her meander along river banks and roll in grass and stare up at trees and waste reams of paper on words no one ever sees. That you’ve never told her to hurry up because you had more pressing matters to attend to—then left her behind when she didn’t obey. Or worse: berated her until she ran away and hid altogether.

Though it’s too long of a story to tell here, eventually I learned to stop abusing the writer in me. I finally let go and played, and one day even finished my first long writing project, the manuscript that would become my debut, The Wig in the Window. (No surprise it turned out to be about two seventh graders uncovering a hypocritical teacher’s dark secret, is it?).

If you’ve made it here to Teachers Write, you’re already miles beyond where I started—and chances are, you’re much kinder to your creative self, too. Hopefully you already realize that you are a “real” writer, if you write at all—that you can and will finish the projects you hope to share, or develop a regular writing practice that brings you joy, if that’s your goal.

But if as you absorb all the fantastic craft lessons Kate has gathered here, you find yourself feeling fearful or frustrated—if you’re tempted to give up and take care one of the thousand seemingly more urgent tasks on your to-do list—I hope you’ll stop for a moment and double-check that you’ve filled yourself with the key ingredients first: compassion for—and trust in—yourself.

In his brilliant book on creating, Writing the Australian Crawl, the poet William Stafford likened writing to swimming. Water slips right through our fingers. How can it possibly hold a person up? And yet if swimmers relax into the water—if they make “little strokes with the material nearest them,” they not only stay afloat, they propel themselves forward.

It’s summer. A perfect time for a swim, don’t you think? Dive in that lake! Move your hands through the cool, fresh ideas nearest you. The water will hold you. I promise. It doesn’t matter if your strokes aren’t graceful. You’ll glide ahead, little by little. And pretty soon you’ll find that you—a mere mortal!—will have traveled farther than you ever could have imagined.

Take your time, and let’s meet up on the opposite shore, okay? I’ll be the one out of breath but still cheering.

Teachers Write 7.16.15 Thursday Quick-Write with Kim Baker

Our Tuesday Quick-Write guest today is Kim Baker, the author of Pickle, a hilarious middle grade prank novel with a great, diverse cast of characters. Kim’s sharing not just a quick writing prompt today but a look inside her humor toolbox so we can all develop new strategies to get readers laughing.

It’s been said that you can’t teach humor. To those people, I say HA! Humor is essential to a good story, and sometimes we are able to reach kids through humor that are otherwise reluctant to read. I may not be able to teach you (or myself) a quick wit, or a catalog of one-liners, but have you ever thought of  something funny you could’ve said in that conversation you had with that one guy three weeks ago? You stewed on it and you came up with that zinger that would have been HILARIOUS, once you were home alone. It’s like how you mull over your story. You can weave humor in after the fact as you draft and revise.

Nobody knows when you put it there, and it can serve your stories in many ways. There’s no universally accepted reason for what makes something funny, but we have some likely suspects that are hit or miss depending on the situation (and in our cases, the development and age of our readers). Before writing, I was a children’s crisis counselor and took a lot of psychology classes, so bear with me while we look at a few quick theories on why humans find things funny.

Superiority/Humans are Jerks Theory: People feel amused when they feel superior over others (Hobbes). Slimy, but kind of true, especially for kids who are struggling with their abilities and looking for that carrot on the stick that they’re doing something right (e.g. reading comprehension, social relationships, etc.). Superiority is assurance.

Incongruity/Wait…what? Theory: People laugh when what happens doesn’t match their expectations (Aristotle).

Benign-Violation/Absurdity without Danger! Theory: Expectation threatened + benign situation= Funny (McGraw and Warren).

Relief/Laughing at Inappropriate Times Theory: Things are funnier when we need to reduce tension (Freud).

I have been known to laugh in inappropriate situations. It’s a curse, but even in the most dramatic stories, humor is a great way to cut the tension a bit when the reader is ready for a little break.

We need readers to empathize with our characters, and humor can be a result of that. The best novels (IMHO) find a balance between drama and humor because, ideally, it’s similar to real life. Your character wants something, needs something else, and moves through the plot arc toward a satisfying resolution. But you can’t solve problems for them, or too quickly, and the next best thing can be to find some humor. Kid readers can come to terms with what concerns them, like emotionally stressful situations, indirectly through humor. Stories should be unique, but for empathy’s sake, the character’s emotional reaction should be pretty universal. Here are a few areas (with some minor spoilers) where a writer (read: YOU.) can play with humor in your manuscripts.

Humor Toolbox:

PREMISE: A humorous premise is a great springboard.

Examples: In THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE, two sisters move from a South Carolina trailer part to New York and attempt to win a million dollar cooking contest. In Linda Urban’s fantastic A CROOKED KIND OF PERFECT, the main character wants a piano, but her dad buys her a wheezebag organ. It’s universal that parents can be absent and/or disappointing.

TENSION AND FORESHADOWING: Along with relieving tension, humor is a great way to build it.

Example: The cheese touch in Jeff Kinney’s DIARY OF A WIMPY KID. This running joke is revealed early in the story, and tension rises as the reader grows to suspect that Greg will eventually intersect with the dreaded cheese.

SITUATIONAL: Opportunities for humorous situations abound, as long as they serve the story. Humorous situations can move the story along and lead us to empathize with the protagonist. And the more characters we can empathize with, the funnier a scene will be.

Examples: The main character in DEAD END IN NORVELT by Jack Gantos gets nosebleeds when feeling stressed. In Judy Blume’s classic TALES OF A FOURTH GRADE NOTHING, the protagonist’s pet turtle is eaten by his little brother, supporting the universal truth that little brothers can be a pain.

SHOWING INSTEAD OF TELLING: You’ve heard the adage “Show, don’t tell” and humor offers ways to do that.

Examples: In Kate DiCamillo’s MERCY WATSON series, she never tells us that the Watsons are unabashedly devoted to their pet pig, Mercy. And she never says that Mercy is…self-absorbed. She shows it through actions throughout the story. Readers can identify with pet devotion and possibly having overly devoted caregivers. It’s an empathy-o-rama.

The protagonist in Adam Rex’s THE TRUE MEANING OF SMEKDAY is hiding from an alien while trying to find her mom. The alien shouts, “There is no to fear! The Boov are no longer eating you people!” There’s no lengthy backstory on how the aliens initially ate people when they first arrived or their struggles with language, it’s all implied in one funny line.

DIALOGUE: Dialogue is one of the easiest ways to add humor to a scene. The overall tone of the story needn’t be humorous. If you want to add a bit of levity to an otherwise serious story, it won’t disturb the general ambiance. And if you can think one of your characters as funny (as opposed to you as the writer), it breaks down inhibitions. A sarcastic kid will mostly be sarcastic with a few trusted, safe people but maybe not everyone. Dialogue humor is nuanced. What can you show by how your characters use humor? Does she joke when nervous? Does he show his intelligence through sly references? Personality comes through in humor and response.


Jackson glanced at the open padlock by his feet. “03-22-33. Captain Kirk’s birthday, right?”

Hashemi scratched his head. “How did—“

“Seriously? You’re carrying a Star Trek battle axe.”

“It’s called a Lirpa.”

“All I’m saying is, your lock combination is way too easy to crack.”

— THE GREAT GREENE HEIST by Varian Johnson


“Funny you should ask about my mom, sir,” I shout. “I figured you might do that, figured this might be the first thing you bring up when somebody as little as me— as little looking as me— walks up to your Greyhound ticket counter, a counter you’re doing one heck of a job manning, to request a ticket out of here.”

I’m losing him. I’m losing him. “It’s downright ludicrous, I’ll admit as much, but on the topic of my mom: She’s just in the bathroom. And I’m sure she’ll be out in just a moment, but she’s going through a bit of a stomach ailment and asked that I please take care of my ticket, alone, before she gets out. Because it could take quite a while.”

Libby and I had rehearsed this speech, and perhaps even over-rehearsed it.



CHARACTERIZATION: Think about what makes a character is funny. Intentional and unintentional humor are pretty different. And at the start when you thought about whether or not you’re “funny,” maybe you consider yourself funny, but only in specific situations, or with certain people. Characters are like that, too.

Examples: Doug Swieteck in Gary Schmidt’s Okay for Now and Jocelyn in Heidi Schulz’s Hook’s Revenge.


Snark and sarcasm may have their place, but (especially with a 1st person narrative), proceed with caution.

Avoid clichés. If you must tell a tired joke, do it in a fresh way.

Watch out for humor “signals.” If you feel like pointing out how your characters laughed at something, make it stronger so that your reader knows they laughed without being told.

Scatological humor should be used sparingly, if at all. Kids get grossed out, too.

Be kind.

You can also convey humor through setting, interaction, expectations, obstacles, threats /challenges/conflicts, confusion, misunderstanding, antagonism, surprise, satire, and the juxtaposition of a character’s wants and needs. There’s SO MUCH rich potential. And the more funny stories we write, the more we can read.

So, on to the exercises!

P.S. You can find a list of additional funny books on my website, and please let me know if you have any recommendations!

Today’s Assignment:

#1: Write down five favorite funny passages, scenes, sections of dialogue, etc. from books, TV, movies, etc. and take note of how the humor worked.

#2: Create a scene of short dialogue between two characters when they each think they’re talking about something else (e.g., Chunk’s confession to the Fratellis in The Goonies, the interogation scene in My Cousin Vinny, etc.).

#3: Write down three funny events from your childhood. Think about why and how they were funny. Now embellish and expand.

Note from Kate: Feel free to share one of your responses (1, 2, or 3) in the comments today – just be sure to let us know to which of Kim’s prompts you’re responding!

Meet Me in St. Louis…for the ILA Conference! (Sorry…couldn’t resist)

I’ll be in St. Louis for the International Literacy Convention this weekend and am so excited to spend time with fellow book lovers. If you’ll be there, too, I’d love it if you’d come by one of my sessions or signings to say hello. Here’s where to find me…


11:45 AM – 12:45 PM | I’ll be giving the lunchtime talk at Institute 07: Accelerating and Extending Literacy for Diverse Learners: Using Culturally Responsive Teaching
Location: America’s Center St. Louis: Room: 226



10:00 AM – 11:45 PM | Signing Books at Anderson’s

Location: Anderson’s Booth #1938

12:00 PM – 1:00 PM |  Signing advance copies of BEEN THERE, DONE THAT, WRITING STORIES FROM REAL LIFE, an anthology edited by Mike Winchell, in which I have a personal narrative/short story pair, at Penguin Random House

Location: Penguin Random House Booth #1919

1:00 PM – 2:00 PM | Teaching Edge-The Writing Thief: Using Mentor Texts to Teach
Location: America’s Center St. Louis, Ferrara Theatre

Join Ruth Culham and authors Kate Messner, and Lester Laminack to discover how using fiction and nonfiction picture books is a rewarding and powerful teaching strategy to help students of all ages learn to write. As models for good writing, students use picture books, chapter books, and everyday texts to to learn specific craft techniques to create strong writing using the writing process. Participants will sample books that align with each of the writing traits, make writing connections to each of the modes/purposes (narrative, informational, argumentative (opinion), and learn how to motivate student writers by using this powerful teaching strategy Presenter(s): ​Ruth Culham​, The Culham Writing Company, ​Dr. Lester Laminack​, Author/Consultant, Kate Messner​,​Scholastic

Ranger in Time -- Rescue on the Oregon TrailRANGER #2 Final Cover

 2:30 PM – 3:30 PM | Signing at Scholastic (Ranger in Time series)

Location: Scholastic Booth #1512

4:30 PM – 6:30 PM | Booksource Reception at BookSource

Location: Booksource Headquarters, 1230 Macklind Avenue

Saturday Evening – Scholastic Family Dinner



Link to All the Answers

10:00 AM – 10:45 AM | Signing ALL THE ANSWERS at Bloomsbury ( with Megan Frazer Blakemore – yay!)

Location: Bloomsbury Booth #1425

Up in the Garden and Down in the DirtHow to Read a StoryLink to Over and Under the Snow

11:00 AM – 12:00 PM |  Signing at Chronicle (HOW TO READ A STORY, UP IN THE GARDEN & DOWN IN THE DIRT, and OVER & UNDER THE SNOW)

Location: Chronicle Booth #1421

2:30 PM – 2:45 PM | Short Presentation at Scholastic

Location: Scholastic Booth #1512 Theater

3:00 PM – 4:00 PM | Book Signing at Follett

Location: Follett Booth #823

(and then home!)

Teachers Write 7.15.15 Q and A Wednesday and Christina Diaz Gonzalez on Writing Diverse Characters

I’m eagerly awaiting the next book from this morning’s Teachers Write guest author. Christina Diaz Gonzalez joins us today! She’s the author of The Red Umbrella, A Thunderous Whisper, and the upcoming MG novel Scholastic is calling “Percy Jackson meets The DaVinci Code,”  Moving Target. Christina’s guest post today is all about writing authentic diverse characters.

Write what you know. It’s sage advice passed on to writers at every level. But look closely at those words. Some people interpret them to mean that you are limited to writing about people who share a common background with you. That diversity is a minefield that is best avoided.

Well, I think that’s all crazy talk!

We need books that reflect all the faces and facets of the world we live in and you should be writing about them. (And yes, I’m speaking directly to you — the one reading this post while sipping some coffee and contemplating that story with diverse characters who may not share your heritage, race, gender, sexual orientation, socio-economic status, galaxy, dimensional strata etc.— you can do this.

By the way, your hair looks really cute today, but I digress.)

You should write whatever comes from your heart, your head and your imagination… but (here’s the key) you must do it well. Look again at that sage advice. It says write what you know, not write who you are. This means that you should be able to write about anything and anyone. You just need to know what you are talking about and make those characters and their experiences authentic.

This then begs the question, how do I create authentic diverse characters? Well, since you need to write what you know… get to know more about these diverse characters in your head by learning more about their real-life counterparts. Here are some basic steps to get you on your way:

1) Interact! You know about the little piece of the world you live in because you interact daily with the people around you. If you want to truly know about other people’s experiences, talk to them and, more importantly, listen to them. Ask questions. Become friends. Observe. There is nothing like a direct source to give you information. Nothing!

2) Research! Look for primary sources that give you a deeper understanding of what your character might be experiencing. Read secondary sources to further your knowledge. Just know that the internet and books will only give you a limited perspective.

3) Review! Have your writing reviewed by several people who have a familiarity with the experiences of your character. Make sure that you aren’t unwittingly writing something that might be construed as offensive, inaccurate, or demeaning. (Note I said several people because one person is not an accurate representation of any group. The more feedback, the better.)

Thanks to social media, you can connect to a wide variety of friends from all walks of life… make use of this resource!

4) Universality! There are universal experiences and feelings shared by all people. Put a little bit of you into your characters. This is not an “us versus them” situation. We are linked by common needs, desires and fears. Find yours and then find them in your characters.

5) Re-check! When you think you’re done, think again. Go back and think of how a child who is similar to that character would see him/herself after reading your depiction. Is the character nuanced like your reader? Are you promoting a stereotype? Are you happy with how you just made that child feel?

Today’s assignment:

Imagine writing about a “diverse” character (someone unlike you or your background). Make a very basic checklist of their attributes (name, age, gender, race, ethnicity etc). Go to the list above and decide how you can learn more about this character. Think of the people you can approach in real-life (or even online) that will help you further understand how your character relates to the world you will be creating. Share with me your thoughts on this and I hope you will all be including nuanced, “diverse” characters in your stories, so that our books reflect the reality of our world!

Note from Kate: In addition to sharing your reflections on this activity in the comments, feel free to ask questions about this topic as part of Q and A Wednesday! We’ll have other authors popping in to chat along with Christina.  Please remember that comments from 1st time commenters need to go through moderation, which can take a little time – anywhere from a minute to a couple of hours, depending on my access to my computer to approve them, so please be patient & only post once. Thanks!

Teachers Write 7.14.15 Tuesday Quick-Write with Elana K. Arnold

Good morning! It’s time for our Teachers Write Tuesday Quite-Write, and today’s guest is Elana K. Arnold. Elana is from Southern California. She’s the author of a number of great YA novels, including her latest from Carol Rhoda Books, Infandous.

Elana’s quick write today is “Setting as a Reflection of Character.”


There are some obvious essentials to storytelling. First, your story must have at least one

character; next, the character must want something; third, there must be something

keeping the character from getting what she wants. Hopefully, the characters converse.

Bam. You’ve got characters, plot, and dialogue.


But if you stop here, you miss out on a wonderful opportunity. WHERE does your story

happen? And, WHY are you choosing that location? Since this is fiction, we have the

wonderful power to place our characters and their conflicts in just the right setting. When

used well, setting can deepen our understanding of the character.


When I was a younger writer, setting was usually an afterthought. I drew box houses

around my characters, a five-pointed sun, maybe a lazy cloud or two. I didn’t really care

where the characters lived and worked. But as my own real-life setting became vitally

interesting to me and I began to be an agent of change and choice in my own life, I began

to ask, Is this home? Is this where I want to be? It wasn’t long until I started asking these

questions on my characters’ behalf, as well, and my fiction deepened and improved.


In THE QUESTION OF MIRACLES, Iris Abernathy hates her new home, perpetually

rainy Corvallis, Oregon. And the rain acts as a droning reminder of her unhappiness. Of

course, Iris sees the rain as miserable because she is miserable. If she were happy, maybe

the rain would feel cozy and private, hopeful and renewing.


Take a look at the setting of your work in progress and ask these questions:

1. Is there a setting at all? (You’d be surprised how often the answer to this question

is “Not really.”)

2. Is there a connection between the emotional landscape of my character and the

physical landscape around him?

3. Is this setting my best choice for this character and this story? (If not, consider

making a change.)

4. Is the setting as clearly rendered as the characters and the plot? (If not, are you

feeling inspired to make it so?)


And now, an assignment. It’s two parts. Pinky promise NOT to look at Part Two until

you complete Part One.


PART ONE: Take a pad of paper and a pen or pencil. Go outside and look around. Write

a paragraph describing your surroundings.



PART TWO: Now, you are a lost six year-old child. Rewrite the same description from

this point of view.


Now, you are a satisfied housecat. Rewrite the same description from this

point of view.


Now, you are a fifteen year-old whose parents just announced they are

divorcing. Rewrite the same description from this point of view.


Reread the four descriptions. Look at how different the exact same setting can become

depending on the scrim of perspective through which you view it. When you return to

your own work, remember this. Setting can be a reflection of character.


Note from Kate: This is a great writing prompt to use with students, too!  If you’d like, share your original quick-write on setting along with one of your character-based descriptions to share in the comments today!


Teachers Write 7.13.15 Mini-Lesson Monday with Liz Garton Scanlon

Today’s Mini-Lesson Monday is courtesy of guest author Liz Garton Scanlon. Liz is the author of picture books like All the World and Noodle and Lou as well as a brand new middle grade novel, The Great Good Summer. She’s wearing her poet hat for today’s lesson…all about rhyme.

Hi Teacher-Writers! Thanks for letting me join you at Camp today. I want to talk a little bit about rhyme because it’s rich with possibility but oft-misunderstood. Folks either think:

1. It’s super-duper easy (spoiler alert: it’s not) or,

2. It’s way too hard (it’s not that either).

Really, rhyme is a puzzle – tricky but not impossible. So if you’re willing to play along, I’ve got some hints to make writing in rhyme a little more fun and a lot more successful.

1. Rhyme should follow a pattern. If you are going to write a piece of rhyming verse, write pairs of lines that rhyme (couplets: aa/bb/cc/dd/etc) or maybe four lines, wherein every other line rhymes (quatrains: abab/cdcd/efef/etc) or even a whole poem where only every second line rhymes (simple rhymes: ab/cb/db/eb/etc). This pattern is called the rhyme scheme. When you start writing in rhyme, pick a rhyme scheme and stick with it!

2. Rhyme isn’t just about rhyming words – it’s about meter too. If you embed rhyming words in a chunk of text that doesn’t have some predictable rhythmic arrangement, you won’t even hear the rhyme and your work will be for naught! Start by counting the syllables in each line of your rhyming verse. Lines should be fairly regular and should match the rhyme scheme. So, if you’re writing in couplets, each line should have the same syllabic count. If you’re writing in quatrains, each line might be the same, or they might alternate so that the first and third lines match, syllabically, as do the second and fourth. (Note: Counting syllables will get you 80-85% of the way there, rhythmically. If there’s a line that still doesn’t sound right, it’s because the meter is off in one or more words, so even though the number of syllables is right, the emphasis is on the wrong syllable somewhere. The simplest solution for this is choosing a different word!)

3. Rhyme is less important than meaning. Sometimes, because the puzzle of rhyming is so tricky, we say something totally illogical or nonsensical – but darn it, it rhymes! This is really only ok if you’re writing Jabberwocky. In all other cases, you need to find a way to do what the story or poem actually needs. Rhyme is just the vehicle for getting the story told. If you’ve been forced into something that makes no sense, scratch it and start anew. With these hints in mind, here’s today’s assignment:

1. Commit to writing a 12-line rhyming poem or story.

2. Use either 6 couplets (aa/bb/cc/etc) or 3 quatrains (abab/cdcd/efef)

3. After you’ve written the first 2-4 lines, count the syllables. Even them out as necessary and then stick with that count as you finish the piece.

4. Read it over. Does it make sense? Did rhyme force you to do anything you didn’t want to do? Adjust as necessary.

5. Wrap it up. Read it aloud. Read it aloud again. You hear that? You did that!

Nice job, poet!


Note from Kate: Feel like sharing your twelve lines for today? Go ahead & paste in the comments – we promise to be supportive poet-friends!

Teachers Write 7.11.15 Weekend Reflection with Meg Frazer Blakemore & Laurel Snyder

In the past, we’ve taken weekends off at Teachers Write, but this year, I thought we’d use the time for a little reflection and discussion of the issues that connect us as writers, readers, and teachers. Today, we welcome guest authors Meg Frazer Blakemore and Laurel Snyder.

Meg lives in Maine and is the author of acclaimed YA and middle grade novels like The Water Castle, The Spy Catchers of Maple Hill, The Friendship Riddle, and her latest, Very In Pieces.

Laurel calls Atlanta home. Her latest novels include Bigger Than a Breadbox and Seven Stories Up, and she has a lovely picture book from Chronicle coming this fall – Swan: The Life and Dance of Anna Pavlova.

Meg and Laurel join us this Saturday with a thoughtful conversation about books for kids and “reading up.”  They’d love for you to share in the discussion in the comments today!

Meg: My first novel was YA, and I’ll be publishing a YA this fall, but in between I’ve written three middle grade novels. Right around the time I first started writing middle grade, I also shifted from being a high school librarian to a middle school librarian. As a high school librarian I was a big proponent of authentic portrayals of high schoolers in YA literature, and when I moved to middle school I felt the same way: books about middle school should portray middle schoolers authentically. The problem I ran up against as a writer and a reader was that middle grade books are marketed for an 8-12 audience. How could I write authentically about a twelve or thirteen year old — a middle schooler — while still making it appropriate for an eight year old? As I was mulling over all of these issues, I saw that you, Laurel, were doing a panel discussion at NESCBWI with Aaron Starmer and Kate Milton called “The Blurry Edge of Thirteen.” I went and participated in a great discussion about that issue, and I hope we can have a similar conversation with the participants of Teachers Write. Do you want to start by talking about your own feelings or thoughts on this tricky situation?

Laurel: Sure! And I should say that it’s an ongoing evolution for me. I find I’m more and more engaged with this topic each year.

When I began to write middle grades seriously about a decade ago, my goal was to write the kinds of books I loved best as a kid. I loved the humor and wild language play of folks like James Thurber and Edward Eager best of all. So THAT was what I was shooting for, and if you look at my first two novels, Up and Down the Scratchy Mountains and Any Which Wall, you’ll see that pretty clearly.

But as I began to interact with kids more and more (as an author and a mom), I found myself feeling frustrated by the way we parent our kids today. There’s this overwhelming hunger to keep them “safe” from fear and sadness, to sculpt an ideal experience for them.  But that in no way prepares kids for the real world.

Then I found myself remembering other books I’d loved. The Egypt Game. Dicey’s Song. A Candle in Her Room. Books that delighted me in a different way. Books that matched me as I got a little older. As I hungered for something beyond whimsy.

So that’s what’s happening with my own writing. Each book seems to go a little further. I’m still invested in magic, language play, and childhood. But I’m really interested in trying to bring some gravity and grit to the magic. To recognize and honor the emotional complexity of what it means to be a 12 year old kid.

I wonder, what do you think the HARM is, really?  I’m not sure I believe a book can hurt a kid, even if it does scare or educate them about the world.

Meg:  What I really liked about what you said is that you write to “recognize and honor the emotional complexity of what it means to be a 12 year old kid.” I think we don’t alway recognize that because we don’t want to imagine our kids going through that kind of turmoil, but they do. And books give them a place to ask and answer questions. Are You There God It’s Me Margaret was such a touchstone for me as a fifth grade girl, and as I was working on The Friendship Riddle I kept asking myself, “What would Judy do?” Like, “Should I include a scene about the awkwardness of shopping for a first bra? Well, what would Judy do?” And I did include it, because it is a very important moment in a girl’s life. And, I don’t think talking about bras, or mentioning periods, is harmful to an eight year old who might also pick up the book — or to a boy. In fact, it’s probably good for boys to read about these moments in a girl’s life.

It’s interesting, when we got into this discussion, I was thinking about the twelve year old child, and how he or she deserves a literature that reflects an accurate twelve year old experience. But I think we also need to have some respect for the eight year old who might self-select a more “advanced” (thematically and content wise) middle grade book.

Laurel:  Absolutely!  One of my pet peeves is the idea that a book is “inappropriate” for a kid if it contains unfamiliar or confusing words or ideas or relationships. Is there a better way for a kid to learn a new idea?  Is there a better way to be scared or saddened or confused?  Books are a perfect form for introducing new things. They’re a healthy way to learn the world.

I’d love if people wanted to share their own moments like that– particular books that they remember introducing an unfamiliar idea!  I remember how A Tree Grows in Brooklyn blew my brain open, taught me so many harsh, brutal, daily things about a period of history I’d only seen through rose colored glasses. We need All of a Kind Family AND A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. You know?

Meg: I agree — I would love to hear what books the Teachers Write participants remember as mind-opening or reassuring during their own early or pre-adolescence. Also, how do these issues play out in your classrooms with your readers?

Teachers Write 7.10.15 What’s So Funny? with guest author Sarah Albee

Fridays at Teachers Write are officially Friday Feedback days, hosted on Gae’s blog, so I hope you’ll pop over there if you’re ready to share a bit of your writing and to help others by providing supportive, thoughtful feedback. But we’re *also* going to have the occasional Friday posts here, too, because honestly…we had so many amazing volunteer authors that we couldn’t fit all of our mini-lessons on Mondays.

So today, Sarah Albee joins us. Sarah’s written dozens and dozens of books, including great, high interest nonfiction titles like Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up, Bugged: How Insects Changed History, and Why’d They Wear That?

You’ve probably already guessed from these titles, Sarah has both a great fascination with history and science and a terrific sense of humor. Her post today is all about how that sense of humor can show itself in nonfiction writing.

What’s So Funny?

Hello, teachers! It’s lovely to be back again for Teachers Write. Today I want to talk about voice, and particularly, how to channel the funny, lively, entertaining, engaging, charming side of you onto the page. Adding humor and energy to my own writing is something I usually do at a late stage of revision. I’ve done the research, figured out the structure, and written a billion drafts. If it’s gone well, I hope there’s at least some liveliness in the writing voice already, but it’s at the late stages of drafting that I carefully examine each sentence to see where I might be able to enliven the tone. How can I make this funnier, or at least more vivid, for my reader? Good comic writing—actually, any good writing—jars the reader’s brain away from its customary expectations by expressing something in a unique way.

So how does a writer add zing to her writing? It is possible, and you can get better at it with practice. Here are three strategies to try:

1. Surprise your reader with the unexpected.

Last week I heard Dave Barry on the radio. Terry Gross was interviewing him about his new book. He was talking about the good old days when he was a kid, in the pre- helicopter-parenting days when parents basically ignored their kids. “On a summer morning we’d leave the house,” he said, “and my mom would say, ‘Be sure you’re back by September.’” It’s funny because your brain is expecting “by dinner” of course, and he jolts you with the unexpected.

You can use surprise by twisting clichés and hackneyed phrases, the ones you tell your students not to use. It can work well with titles. Here are some chapter headers I have used in my last few books:

 The Age of Shovelry

 Twentieth Century Pox

 It’s all Fun and Games until Someone Loses an Isle

 Make New Friends But Keep the Gold

 Padded Bros

 Caulk Like an Egyptian

2. Use strong, unconventional, or unexpected verbs.

One of my favorite nonfiction mentor authors, Mary Roach, comes up with brilliant verbs. I love the one she uses in this sentence from Bonk:

If you can machete through the lingo and obfuscated writing, you will find an extraordinary body of work.

In How They Choked, Georgia Bragg’s unconventional description of Henry VIII paints a very apt picture of him :

Henry VIII was thirty-one and he looked so-so in his royal Spanx. He enjoyed making up laws that worked in his favor, power-eating, and spending time with his wife’s ladies-in-waiting.

3. Make a funny comparison (with simile and metaphor).

If you can come up with a good simile or a metaphor, you’ve got your reader in the midst of one world and then you suddenly make her mind jump the track by introducing a comparison to a totally different situation. And then the reader’s mind jumps back to your first world and she laughs at the surprising yet apt parallel you’ve drawn. You can do it with a short phrase. For example, in this New York Times article about ice cream, the author talks about how much he hated when his parents cheaped out and bought ice milk, “which tastes of nothing so much as frozen sadness.”

Or you can do it with a more extended comparison. Here’s Mary Roach again, in her book Stiff:

The way I see it, being dead is not terribly far off from being on a cruise ship. Most of your time is spent lying on your back. The brain has shut down. The flesh begins to soften. Nothing much new happens, and nothing is expected of you. 

See how your mind jumps from cadaver to cruise traveler and back to the cadaver? And then your brain processes what you just read, and you laugh.

Here’s a late-stage revision I made in my book Bugged: How Insects Changed History. I wanted to enliven this rather dull passage:

The mouthparts of assassin bugs puncture their victim. The bug injects a poison that liquefies the soft tissues of its prey, enabling it to ingest the contents.

So I swapped in two metaphors and changed to this version:

The mouthparts of assassin bugs are pointy two-way straws. The bug injects a poison that turns its prey’s insides to soup.

Nicola Davies’ Big Blue Whale is not meant to be a funny book per se, but it’s got this unexpected, evocative description of the blue whale’s skin:

It’s springy and smooth like a hard-boiled egg, and it’s as slippery as wet soap.

Your mind jumps from the whale track onto the hard boiled egg track, to the wet soap track, and then back to the whale. And you can picture its skin perfectly, can’t you?

One of my favorite humor writers, PG Wodehouse, is the master of extended metaphors. Whenever I want to write “funny,” I read Wodehouse. Here are a few of my favorites:

She looked at me like someone who has just solved the crossword puzzle with a shrewd “Emu” in the top right hand corner.

Jeeves lugged my purple socks out of the drawer as if he were a vegetarian fishing a caterpillar out of his salad.

Unlike the male codfish, which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all, the British aristocracy is apt to look with a somewhat jaundiced eye on its younger sons.

Try it with your work-in-progress. Check the sentences that don’t yet zing. Is there a comparison you can make that’s unexpected? Can you swap in a more surprising verb?

It’s fun. Just be your charming self.

Note from Kate: This is a GREAT post to share with students who equate informational writing with dry, boring writing. It doesn’t have to be that way, and Sarah’s books are terrific mentor texts for teaching this kind of zingy nonfiction style.

Don’t forget to head on over to Gae’s blog now for Friday Feedback!

Teachers Write 7.9.15 Thursday Quick-Write with Tracey Baptiste

Our guest author for today is Tracey Baptiste. Tracey writes both fiction and nonfiction and penned one of my favorite middle grade novels of 2015, The Jumbies. It’s a fantastic, spooky adventure set in the Caribbean, where Tracey grew up reading Grimm’s fairy tales and wishing for books that featured the wonderful stories her family told in Trinidad. She couldn’t find them — so she wrote one.


Tracey has a series of writing prompts for us today – all focusing on VOICE:

One of the things I struggle with most is voice, so I have a few tricks that I use to make sure that every character in my book has their own strong point of view, even if they are just coming in for a quick comic relief.

You probably already know how important voice is. Two people telling the same story won’t say it in the same way, and it’s likely that you’ll find one more compelling than the other. That’s voice. So you want to make sure that your characters all have compelling voices, even if that voice is meant to be annoying, or aggravating, or inciting as needed in your story. Whatever it is they have to do, they have to be able to do it well.

So let’s get to it. For each of these exercises you’ll need a quiet space to work, and a timer. You can do these exercises for all of your characters, but starting with any character you’re struggling to understand is probably your best bet.

Exercise 1: Visualization

Picture your character walking through a door that is far away. All you can see is the shape of their body because there is a bright light behind them. When they step through the door, describe what they are wearing. (Write all you can in 2 mins.)

As they move further into the room, describe the objects that you can see around them. (Write all you can in 2 mins.)

As they stand in the middle of the room, people begin walking toward them. Describe who these people are and what their relationship is to your character. (Write all you can in 4 mins.)

Exercise 2: Becoming Your Character

Put yourself in your character’s shoes and answer the following interview questions as if you are them. What do you love the most? What do you hate the most? Who are you jealous of? If you could do anything right now, what would it be? What is your biggest secret?

Exercise 3: Flip the Switch

Imagine that a bad guy with an opposite-ray dropped into your book from hyperspace. The opposite-ray hits your character full in the face and now they are the complete antithesis of the person they were before. Now answer the same questions above again. What do you love the most? What do you hate the most? Who are you jealous of? If you could do anything right now, what would it be? (I don’t include the secret question because presumably will be the same.)

Exercise 4: Conversion

Take any scene from your current WIP that includes the character you’ve been working on. Strip away all of the setting information, the emotional tag lines and write it as a play with only the characters’ words and any stage directions that move your character into a spot that helps your plot to continue, such as: Moves to door. Door swings open and hits them in the face. Now see how the words your character uses without any props conveys their emotions, or DOESN’T convey their emotions.

Note from Kate: If you’d like to share a paragraph of what you wrote today, please feel free to do that in the comments!