Teachers Write 7.31.18 Tuesday Quick-Write with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Good morning! Our Tuesday Quick-Write guest author today is the wonderful Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich! She’s the author of 8th Grade Superzero, a Notable Book for a Global Society, as well as a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. She is a co-author of the NAACP Image Award-nominated Two Naomis, its sequel, Naomis Too, and the forthcoming Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey To Tomorrow, as well as the picture book biography Someday Is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-Ins. Olugbemisola is the editor of The Hero Next Door, a 2019 anthology from We Need Diverse Books. A member of The Brown Bookshelf and the Advisory Board of We Need Diverse Books, Olugbemisola lives with her family in New York City. Visit her online at olugbemisolabooks.com.

Often when we think of writing stories, we think primarily of the character and setting — the who and the where/what.  One of the ways to deepen a story and write three-dimensional characters is to be thoughtful about their emotional life and how they express those emotions in different situations. I often use a variation of this exercise as a writing game with small groups; it’s fun to see how differently we may think about demonstrations of thought and feeling!
Your Assignment: Write a scene using the following:
1) Create a character (include their age, race and ethnicity, gender)
2) and now…using that same character, mix and match setting and emotion.
a) Put them in a SHOPPING MALL, and the emotion is FRUSTRATION
b) in a CLASSROOM, and the emotion is JOY
c) at the BEACH, and the emotion is FURY
d) in a New York City subway station, and the emotion is EXHILARATION
e) in a KITCHEN, and the emotion is SURPRISE
f) in a PARK, and the emotion is DISGUST
g) in a CAR, and the emotion is SHAME
h) on a FARM, and the emotion is ENVY
i) at a BASKETBALL GAME, and the emotion is ANXIETY
j) in a SWIMMING POOL, and the emotion is LOVE
For each of these, be thoughtful about the ways that your character’s traits and the setting impact their actions, how the same trait is expressed differently, depending on the situation. Get to know your character even more, and most of all, have fun! And feel free to share a bit of what you wrote in the comments today if you’d like.

Teachers Write 7.30.18 Mini-Lesson Monday with Chris Tebbetts

Good morning!  Jo has your Monday Morning Warm-Up here… and Chris Tebbetts joins us with today’s mini-lesson. Chris is the author and co-author of many books for young readers.  Titles include the #1 New York Times bestselling MIDDLE SCHOOL series, as well as PUBLIC SCHOOL SUPERHERO, with James Patterson and illustrator Laura Park; the New York Times bestselling STRANDED series with Jeff Probst; and the young adult novel M OR F? with Lisa Papademetriou. His work has received children’s choice awards in Oregon and Hawaii, as well a Sunshine State Young Readers Award nomination, and a nod on the New York Public Library’s annual list of Books For the Teen Age. Watch for his YA novel, ME, MYSELF, AND HIM next summer—and in the meantime, you can reach him with questions or school visit inquiries at www.christebbetts.com.

Three Steps to Character Dimension:
Internal Conflict, Contradiction, and Shadow Traits

I often think in terms of duality when I’m writing. I ask myself, what are the two sides to this story, this scene, this moment?

Or, for the purposes of today’s mini-lesson: what are the two sides to the characters I create? It’s a question that helps make the people who populate my stories more interesting, more human, more complex, and usually, more relatable.

To that end, here are three items for your writer’s toolbox; three ways to bring out the dimension in your own characters.

1) Internal Conflict

We all know that a story needs some sense of stakes. Your character needs a goal, and that goal needs to be impeded by some collection of obstacles and antagonist(s), creating the external conflict of your story.

But how about internal conflict? What conflicting stakes might exist—or could exist—within your character’s situation?

For Katniss Everdeen, there’s a driving tension at the heart of the story, between the rules of the Hunger Games (kill!) and her own moral compass (don’t kill!).

For Les Miserables’ Jean Valjean, it’s an internal conflict between his obligations to Cosette and to the rule of law, embodied by the story’s antagonist, Javert.

And for Ramona Quimby, it exists as a constant tension between what she knows she should do and what she wants to do.

What about in your own works in progress? Is there a way to complicate your character’s situation by giving her more than one want? And by making those wants mutually exclusive?

2) Contradiction

As Walt Whitman’s famous quote goes, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Contradiction in characters is nothing new. It’s as old as story itself. And yet, at the same time, I have this sense that audiences are increasingly open to the idea of characters who don’t always turn one-plus-one into two. Characters who are more than one thing at the same time. Characters who contradict themselves and contain the multitudes that go with it.

In his excellent book, THE ART OF CHARACTER, David Corbett distills the role (and value) of contradiction into two things: 1) It defies expectations; and 2) It depicts complexity and depth.

He goes on to say:

“Developing a character with genuine depth requires a focus on not just desire but how the character deals with frustration of her desires, as well as her vulnerabilities, her secrets, and especially her contradictions. This development needs to be forged in scenes, the better to employ your intuition rather than your intellect.”

I like the way he emphasizes intuition in this case, since we’re dwelling into aspects of character that don’t always make sense on paper, but are, at the same time, completely and realistically human.

3) Shadow Traits

Here’s a bit more from THE ART OF CHARACTER:

“The tension created by these two antagonistic impulses – to control our behaviour so we “get along” and to let go and “be ourselves” – forms one of the core conflicts of our lives. And conflict is inherently dramatic…. For every trait we publicly exhibit, its opposite lurks somewhere in our psyches.  These shadow traits may be feeble and ill-formed from lack of conscious use, but they exist – meaning that if a character acts unbelievably, we can make what he does seem more organic if we find a way to root it in the battle between the character’s conscious and suppressed behavior.”

Even as I write this article, I’m aware of the overlap between these ideas. Internal conflict is a kind of contradiction. And contradiction might easily contain some element of these so-called shadow traits, like Katniss Everdeen’s savage side, the part of her that comes out only by necessity. (Notice how that story begins with a hunting scene, where she’s killing wild game to provide for her family.)

That said, it’s not as important to me for these ideas to be distinct from one another as it is to find ways of asking myself useful questions about my characters along the way. To that end, here’s an assignment and some additional food for thought to consider:

Your Assignment:  This exercise is based on ideas from “Composing A Life,” by Mary Catherine Bateson, a sociologist (and also Margaret Mead’s daughter). For more, I suggest listening to Bateson’s interview on the On Being podcast from a few years ago.

In the meantime, you can apply this exercise to any of your characters, or even to yourself, which can also be illuminating.


What are the two sides of your character’s story? That might refer to her entire lifetime; her arc within the story; a specific scene or chapter; or even an individual moment. Almost always, at whatever scale, there is more than one thing going on.

I’ll use myself as an example. Both of these stories about me are true to my experience:

Story 1: In high school, I lived in the coolest little hippie town in America, surrounded by an academic, artistic, and diverse community. I was popular, confident, and involved in all kinds of extra-curricular activities. I loved my friends, and felt like I could truly be myself around them.  I learned a ton in those four years, and I’ve never lived anywhere like it since.

Story 2: In high school, I lived in the most boring little town in America, surrounded by corn fields and pig farms. I was deeply closeted and keeping it a secret, not just from everyone around me, but also from myself.  There was still so much I didn’t know. In fact, all I really knew was that I couldn’t wait to get out of Yellow Springs, Ohio.


Now look for the continuity between those two sides of the story. Bateson poses this as a sociological question, but I’ve borrowed it with my storyteller’s hat on. What is it about your character (or yourself) that unites those seemingly conflicting truths?

Working off my own example, I’d say that the continuity for me was in two things: SMALL TOWN LIFE and SURVIVAL. Which is to say, yes, I grew up in a really cool little town, and yes, it was still (for me) the absolute middle of nowhere. Also, while one part of me thrived in high school, that was only possible because I was also keeping another part of myself hidden from the world.


Write a scene that captures some of this duality. How might the contradiction manifest? And how might the continuity? Maybe it’s a scene you can use in your finished story. Or maybe it simply helps inform your overall writing process. Either way, I hope it might be useful for some of you.


Some questions to consider if you’re feeling stuck:

What is/are your character’s internal conflict(s)?

Are there competing stakes in your story? Two things the character wants, but can’t have both? If not, would that improve the story?

What is/are your character’s shadow trait(s)?

Where at the beginning of your story is the person your character will (or might) become?  Can you show the potential for that change? (And do you want to?)

How is your character the same (and changed) at the end of the story?

Feel free to share a bit of what you wrote today in the comments if you’d like!

Teachers Write 7.27.18 Friday Mini-Lesson with Linda Urban

Good morning! It’s the end of the week, and that means you can stop by Friday Feedback to get help with a work in progress. It also means another great mini-lesson, and today’s guest author is Linda Urban!

Linda writes picture books, chapter books, and middle grade novels. Her titles include A Crooked Kind of PerfectHound Dog TrueThe Center of EverythingMilo Speck Accidental AgentMouse Was MadLittle Red Henry, Mabel and Sam at HomeWeekends with Max and His Dad, and Road Trip with Max and His Mom. Her books have appeared on more than 25 state reading lists, as well as best books lists from The New York Public Library, Kirkus, the National Council of Teachers of English, and IndieNext. Linda has a BA in Journalism and an MA in English from Wayne State University in Detroit and pursued further graduate study in Film and Television Critical Studies at UCLA. For ten years, she served as marketing director at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California.

Linda’s joining us today to talk about notebooks!

One of the most important things I’ve ever written is this:

Like so many people who love to read and aspire to write, I had been gifted dozens of beautiful notebooks over the years.  Hardcover, softcover, leather bound, handmade.  I’d purchased at least as many for myself.  And I almost never wrote in them. I was so afraid of making a mistake, or saying something inane, or making any mark I thought might be unworthy of the paper I was writing on.

The notebook page you see above was one such journal.  Hardcover.  Thick paper.  Bright white.  I loved it and knew instantly that THIS would be the journal of all journals – a document of our family’s holiday traditions, the sort of thing that my children would find upon my death and sue each other for custody of, it was so poignant and lyrical and full of meaning.  On the first page, I hoped to begin with something simple.  A Christmas shopping list.  For my husband’s first gift, I intended to purchase a Southern treat I knew he’d love.  These special, mail-order only grits  from a company called Hoppinjohn’s.  Do you see what I wrote instead?  Yes.  Papa Johns.

So long perfect notebook!

Or maybe, hello perfect notebook.

Because for the first time ever, I crossed out my mistake and kept writing.   The burden of heirloom writing had been lifted and now I could write ANYTHING!

In an instant, my notebook went from being a performance space, with the expectation of perfection and a someday-audience, to a practice space where experimentation, play, and messes were not only okay, but expected.

And it has made a huge difference in my work.  My notebooks are full of observations, experimentations, doodles and drafts.  Jumbled amongst the writerly stuff are to do lists, drawings by my kids, theater programs, and recipes.   And while that might sometimes make a particular item a tiny bit more challenging to retrieve a few weeks later, most of the time it prevents me from feeling too precious about things.

This is a page of observations from a trip to the dentist’s office.   While I have not written a novel set in a waiting room, I can’t say it won’t happen.  And the practice of observing small details has most definitely come in handy.

This is a notebook page I made during a revision of Milo Speck, Accidental Agent.  I was working out the relative size of our hero, Milo, to the beings and features of Ogregon. These doodles didn’t just help with revising what was already in the manuscript, it sparked inspiration for an entirely new scene.

This is a brainstormed list of participants one might find in a small town parade, like the Bunning Day Parade that structures so much of The Center of Everything.  You see I’m also working out some of the book’s themes and character choices as well.

Since messing around with my own notebook, I’ve grown more and more interested in the ways that other creative people use notebooks and if you’re similarly intrigued, I highly recommend you take a look at Syllabus by cartoonist and University of Wisconsin Prof Lynda Barry (whose Tumblr  is a must-follow).  Also eye-opening, the notebook Frances Ford Coppola kept while working on The Godfather (scroll down to see the actual pages. That is annotation!), and this great collection of notebook pages from JK Rowling, Kurt Cobain, and Sylvia Plath, whose sketches of the furniture at Yaddo are both delightfully wonky and a model for keen observation.

Your Assignment: More important than studying other people’s notebooks, however, is to get busy getting messy in your own.  So, my prompts for you today are twofold.

  1. If you have a nice notebook that you haven’t been using, take it out now.  Open randomly to any page.  Make a mess.

You’re expecting someone to scold you.  Or you want to scold yourself.
Ask yourself why that is.
What principle or belief is at work?
Now set a timer and for five minutes, write about why you hold that belief.  Where did it come from? What purpose does it serve?  Is it empowering you – or holding you back?
Does that belief in any way inform your internal editor?

  1. Find another page. If you like, you can turn to the front of your notebook, but if you’re feeling really rebellious after exercise one, let randomization be your guide.

Set your timer for ten minutes and observe the space you’re in.   You don’t need to write in complete sentences – in fact, it might be better if you don’t.  Take time to notice.  What do you hear?  What sounds are closest to you?  What sounds are furthest away?  What sound is missing?  How about touch?  What temperature is it?  How humid?  Are you sitting? Standing?  What surfaces are you making contact with?  What do you see?  What is just out of sight?

Turn the page.  Now consider a setting from your work in progress.  A protagonist’s bedroom.  That awkward Thanksgiving dinner at the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet.  The dragon-tamer’s office.  Whatever.  Now set your timer for 10 minutes and do the same sort of observing.  Doodle, draw, write, draw lines and arrows.

Now set your timer for another 10 minutes and write a moment where your protagonist enters this space.  Let her observe.  Notice how her emotions, her agenda, her experience shape her observations.  Don’t worry if what you write has little to do with your story-in-progress.  This is notebook work.  You’re not performing for a reader.  You’re practicing.  Get messy.

Teachers Write 7.26.18 Thursday Quick-Write with Ammi-Joan Paquette and Jen Petro-Roy

Our Thursday Quick-Write today is a team effort from Jen Petro-Roy and Ammi-Joan Paquette. Jen was born, raised, and still lives in Massachusetts, even though she rejects the idea that snow and cold are ever a good thing. She started writing in third grade, when her classroom performed a play she had written. It was about a witch and a kidnapped girl and a brave crew of adventurers who set out to save the day. As a kid, numerous pictures of Jen often featured Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins books clutched in her hand, so it was just a matter of time until she started writing her own books for children. In the past, Jen has worked as a teacher and a teen and children’s librarian. She loves running, board games, trivia, and swimming, and has a mild obsession with the television show Jeopardy! P.S. I Miss You is her debut novel.

Ammi-Joan Paquette is the author of many books for young readers, including The Train of Lost Things, the Princess Juniper series, Ghost in the House, Bunny Bus, and The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies, as well as the Two Truths and a Lie series, co-written with Laurie Ann Thompson. Joan is the recipient of a PEN New England Discovery Award honor, and her books have been recognized with starred reviews, Junior Library Guild selections, and on a variety of “Best of the Year” lists. In her non-writing life, she is a senior literary agent with Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Visit her on the web at www.ajpaquette.com

Jen & Joan both write books that address emotional topics for kids, and they’re joining us today with a conversation and a writing prompt. 

Q: Many books are inspired by their authors’ life events. Did any personal experiences inspire this novel for you?

Jen: Absolutely. P.S. I MISS YOU tackles a bunch of “tough topics.” (Or, I should say, what people label as tough topics.) Because for me, tough topics are real-life for so many, and that’s why it’s so important to include these issues and situations into our narratives–so our readers can see themselves in our books. In my book, Evie struggling with a lot–her older sister Cilla is staying with a relative after getting pregnant in high school and disappointing her strict Catholic parents. At the same time, Evie’s friends are starting to develop different interests and Evie herself is developing a crush on the new girl in school. While struggling with my sexuality is something that I myself never went through, Evie’s relationship with religion and her journey to both question and redefine her faith in God is something that I did experience (and that I am still navigating). For many, faith is something that is set in stone–for them, it’s a touchstone. But for others, for adults as well as kids, faith is something that has to be worked through, doubted, lost, or strengthened. Any of these paths is okay, and I worked hard to make Evie’s journey feel authentic.

Q: What was the journey that led to writing your book? Did you feel any concerns in dealing with such a sensitive topic?

Joan: This novel is the most personal of any I’ve written so far. The external catalyst event that brought on the book was my daughter losing a jean jacket that was important to her. That led me to think about things that I had loved and lost over the years, and about lost things in general. Right before my eyes, the Train of Lost Things was born—and with it, the question: What if there was a way to get back your most precious lost belongings? What if you just had to believe enough?

As I set to writing the story, however, I knew right away that there would be deeper layers to tell. And thinking of loss brought me to the passing of my mother, in a very quick fight with cancer over a decade ago. While Marty in TRAIN OF LOST THINGS is dealing with the loss of his jacket, and his efforts to get it back, the deeper aspect of his fight has to do with the impending loss of his father to cancer, and how he learns to deal with this.

I know some people question whether sad or “tough” topics are too much for kids to handle, whether they should be cushioned from them. But I think we all know that real life is sometimes messy and sad and tough. There’s no avoiding it! Fiction can give young readers the tools to experience some of these sad or hard emotions in a safe space, to explore their own feelings through these hypothetical situations, which may give tools or strength to draw from in any future challenges. As well, sometimes kids—just like us adults—need the cathartic experience of curling up with a sad book and having a good cry.

Q: What is your writing process? How do you begin a new book?

Jen: I’d say that I’m a combination between a plotter and a pantser. I’m a natural perfectionist, so I absolutely need a road map to guide me as I write, but I also thrive off of the excitement that comes from the thrill of that “new shiny idea.” Usually when I have a new idea, I start writing furiously…until I hit around page twenty and realize I have no idea where I’m going. That’s when I start to draw my road map.

I usually plot out my book in a notebook, drawing out timelines and calendars, plotting each chapter, and writing up character profiles. Then I dive back into the first draft, which is my least favorite part of the process. I’m a huge revision fan. I love diving back into the mess, pushing up my sleeves and figuring out what I did wrong and what I did right, how to connect different threads, build up certain sections and further develop characters. Since we’re talking about “tough issues” in this post, revision is another place where I can revisit any serious situations my characters are getting into and make sure both the details and the emotions are true to life, without being too preachy or heavy-handed.

Like many, I go through a lot of drafts as I’m writing, usually at least four before anyone else sees the manuscript. I think it’s so important to realize that that messiness is part of the process. For everyone!

Q: How do you know when a life experience or idea is “the one” to make it into fiction? When it comes to tough subjects, how much is too much?

Joan: I think the best ideas to pursue as a writer are the ones you absolutely cannot put out of your mind—the ones that won’t let you go, no matter what. The ones you can’t help but write. So how do I know when a story is “the one”? When it hunts me down until I write it, and forces me to stick with it come what may. (As a matter of fact, I’m wrestling with just such an idea right now…!) And there is something cathartic about exploring difficult life experiences through fiction, even for us as writers. I think sometimes we sit down with big life questions, framed as the experiences of others, and through the safety of that fictional lens, we can work through to understand what we truly believe, and want, and are.

So how much is too much? That’s a question that only I can answer for my stories, and only you can answer for yours. One thing I do know for sure, though: It never hurts to try. It never hurts to start.

Your Assignment: Brainstorm a list of situations and experiences in your recent or distant past that come back to you. It might be a big challenging life turn, or it might be the smallest conversation or exchange that left you scratching your head or cringing in embarrassment. Try retelling that event in a fictional setting. What will you change? What will you preserve? What is it about that incident that has so captured your mind that you have not been able to forget it? Maybe it would do the same to another reader, somewhere . . .  As always, feel free to share reflections in the comments.

Teachers Write 7.25.18 Q&A Wednesday with Phil Bildner and Tanya Lee Stone

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write Virtual Summer Writing Camp, and we have some fantastic guest authors visiting to answer questions. Today’s author guests are Phil Bildner and Tanya Lee Stone.

Phil Bildner is the author of numerous children’s picture books including the Margaret Wise Brown Prize winning Marvelous CorneliusMartina & ChrissieTwenty-One Elephants, and The Soccer Fence. He is the also the author of the Rip & Red middle grade series — A Whole New BallgameRookie of the Year, Tournament of Champions, and Most Valuable Players. A former middle school teacher in the New York City public schools, Phil spends much of the year visiting schools around the country conducting writing workshops and talking process with students. In 2017, Phil founded The Author Village, an author booking business. He lives in Newburgh, New York with his husband and dog.
Tanya Lee Stone is known for telling true stories previously missing from our histories. Her work has earned an NAACP Image Award, Sibert Medal, Bank Street’s Flora Straus Stieglitz Award, Golden Kite, and numerous other honors including Parents Magazine Best Nonfiction Picture Book, YALSA Nonfiction Finalist awards, Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, Jane Addams Honor, NPR Best Books, NCSS and ALA Notables, YALSA BBYAs, Kirkus Best Books, and NCTE Orbis Pictus Honors. Stone is a frequent speaker at schools and conferences.

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 author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Note from Kate: I usually try to be here for Q and A most Wednesdays, too. 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 7.24.18 Tuesday Quick-Write with Hena Khan

Today’s Tuesday Quick-Write is from guest author Hena Khan. Hena grew up in Maryland, with her nose in a book. She’s the author of the picture books GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS and CRESCENT MOONS AND POINTED MINARETS as well as novels like AMINA’S VOICE and the new ZAYD SALEEM: CHASING THE DREAM chapter book series.


I spend more time than I like to admit thinking about and sometimes agonizing over what I eat, to improve my health and at times to help me shed a few pounds. A recommended strategy to stay on top of your diet involves keeping a food journal and tracking what you eat all day. But like most other recommended strategies, I find that one to be incredibly tedious and usually abandon it after a couple of days.

In POWER FORWARD, the first book in my new chapter book series, my protagonist Zayd is a 4th grader who’s small for his age but doesn’t let his size get in the way of his dreams. He is underweight and gets frequent stomachaches. Zayd’s mother asks him to keep a food journal to help figure out what might be causing them, and to help him potentially GAIN weight. She even labels the pages for him with DATE, WHAT I ATE, HOW I FEEL. But he finds it no less tedious.

When Zayd does occasionally write in the food journal, he ends up editorializing his meals and the things he eats (e.g. “pretty good with barbeque sauce,” “not as good as beef, but edible”) and how they makes him feel (“like a basketball is dribbling on my insides,” “grateful”). He is very specific about quantities or flavors (“seven goldfish crackers,” “watermelon jolly rancher”) and adds extra details that probably won’t help mom very much but make the journal a lot more fun to read.

Your Assignment:  Think back on what you ate yesterday, and create a food journal for the day. But not any regular old, boring food journal! Instead, bring each of the meals to life with descriptions that would make the most over-the-top food critic wannabe Yelp reviewer jealous. That vanilla flavored non-dairy creamer in your coffee? Even it can have a starring role if you desire. Give each of the foods you consumed context and meaning. How did they make you feel about yourself and your purpose in life? Can you find any symbolism between what you ate and your mood? Can you write any amazing metaphors or similes? Your journal entries for the day can be an ode to the food you ate, or hate mail, or a combination of both. You could keep the food descriptions simple and add categories if you choose, like “WHAT I WISH I ATE INSTEAD” or “HOW THIS RATES COMPARED TO THE BEST MEAL I EVERY HAD” Let your imagination run wild.

Don’t forget snacks. And feel free to fictionalize if it’s more fun. The pantry is the limit! I’d love to read your favorite lines or entries in the comments. Happy writing!

Teachers Write 7.23.18 Mini-Lesson Monday with Sarah Albee

Good morning! Ready for your Monday Morning Warm-Up? Stop by Jo’s blog for that, and then come back here, ready to work on some nonfiction because today’s Teachers Write guest author is Sarah Albee!  Sarah writes nonfiction books for kids in grades K-9, including POISON: Deadly Deeds, Perilous Professions, and Murderous Medicines and George Washington, First President. Other recent nonfiction titles include Why’d They Wear That?, Bugged: How Insects Changed History, and Poop Happened: A History of the World from the Bottom Up. She loves visiting schools and presenting to kids of all ages. She joins us today with a mini-lesson about all the choices that go into creating a work of nonfiction.

So much of writing is about making choices. Fiction writers make many choices before setting pen to paper: What is my setting?  When does my story take place? Will the point of view be first person? Close third? Will my narrator be reliable, or not?

Nonfiction writers also make a lot of choices. If you’re writing history, the first decision is—what story from the past will I choose to tell? Which facts will I include, and which ones will I leave out? Where will I begin, in order to hook my reader? And finally—what voice will I use? Objective? Dramatic? Funny?

Informational writing can be a struggle for many student writers. Faced with an overwhelming mound of research notes, young writers sometimes bung every fact they can into their essays or research papers, with little coherency or clarity.

At school visits, I tell kids that professional writers often struggle with similar challenges, particularly making choices.

Here’s how I explain my own decision-making process to kids. I show them this picture:

It’s my 32-page biography of George Washington, alongside Ron Chernow’s 900-page biography on the same person.

I explain that I had to make a lot of choices about which facts about GW to include, and which ones I would have to leave out. I take kids through my research process, which included spending a week at Mount Vernon as a “visiting scholar.” I talk them through some of the decisions I had to make. Often the choices a writer makes reflect who the writer is as a person. For instance, I happen to be fascinated by what people wore. I even wrote a book on the subject.  So I chose to include the fact that George did not wear a wig, although he did put powder in his hair.

I also love dogs, and wrote a book about them. So I wanted to include the fact that George loved dogs.

I also wrote a book about sanitation. While I personally find this detail compelling, could I justify including Mount Vernon’s three-seater outhouse in my 32-page book? (Kids always giggle at this one.)

That one I had to let go.

How about this super-cool Mount Vernon ha-ha? (If you don’t know what these are, read this.  Sadly, had to leave that out, too.

What about the fact that George Washington owned 316 people? The photo below shows the slave quarters at Mount Vernon.

That I felt strongly should be in the book.

Next I discuss how I decided where to begin. I call on volunteers to be my human note cards. I shuffle my kid-note-cards around in the order that I chose to lay out my biography. As I do so, I explain my choices.

I talk about how I thought my choice of an opening story would hook my readers and make them want to know more about George Washington. I explain that while it’s good to know that George was born in 1732, there’s no need to start with the day he was born. Frankly, he was probably not a very interesting baby. Most babies aren’t, except to their parents. If Mr. Chernow had started his 900-page book about George as a droolly baby, his readers might not stick it out for the next 899 pages. Better to choose a moment in your person’s life, something that you think sums him or her up and helps your reader understand the essence of that person—an event, a discovery, a moment of bravery or peril. And make that moment dramatic, with good writing.

Your Assignment: Choose someone to write about. It might be a famous person, a little-known person from history whose story you want to tell, or yourself. Write down 8-10 facts about this person’s life. Birth, family background, all that basic stuff, sure. But include at least a few pivotal moments in the person’s life—triumphs, disappointments, adversities that shaped him or her (or you).

And now, write the first two or three sentences of this biography—but make some choices before you start writing. Where will you start your story? Which facts from your list really sum the person up and give your reader a sense of who they are? What voice will you use? How will you hook your reader? Share a bit of what you wrote in the comments if you’d like!

Extra Credit Assignment:

If you’re really feeling inspired: write this person’s entire biography in 200 words or less. They should be full sentences, not bullet points. You’ll discover that you’re going to have to make a lot of decisions about what to leave in, and what to leave out. (Like, adverbs.) Your writing will be spare, but you may be surprised to find, it’s clear, too. You have zero room for obfuscation.

I told my history-teacher husband he should do this exercise with his high schoolers. Make them write their research papers in 200 words or less, before they write them in 5 or 10 pages. Maybe next year.

Choose Your Stories

Whether you’re Ron Chernow or me, a fiction writer or a nonfiction writer, a picture book writer or a poet, all writers have to make choices. And now, go forth and write, Teacher-Writer friends! There are so many stories to tell.

**Special Teachers Write Giveaway**

Let me know your thoughts in the comments. I’ll respond, and will draw a random winner to receive a copy of my latest book, DOG DAYS OF HISTORY, by Friday.

Teachers Write 7.20.18 Friday Mini-Lesson with Erin Dionne

It’s Friday! That means we have a Teachers Write mini-lesson for you, and you can also hop on over to Friday Feedback if you’d like to get some feedback on your work & help others as well.

Today’s guest author is Erin Dionne, whose latest book for tweens is Lights, Camera, Disaster (Scholastic 2018). Erin is the author of five other books for young readers, including the 2014 Edgar Award finalist Moxie and the Art of Rule Breaking (Dial 2013). Her first picture book, Captain’s Log: Snowbound, will be released in 2018 from Charlesbridge Publishers. She teaches at Montserrat College of Art and lives outside of Boston with her husband, two children, and a very indignant dog.  Find her online at http://www.erindionne.com.

The Nitty-Gritty:

Distancing Words and Tightening Prose

When we’re telling stories, we’re inviting readers into our characters’ worlds. We want our readers to experience the same emotions and situations that our character feels, because the closer we identify with a character, the stronger the story. Also, the harder it is for that reader to put the book down (and we never want readers to stop reading!).

One of the craft elements that I’ve been focusing on recently, and wish I had known about when I was writing my earlier novels, is the elimination of distancing words. These words dilute the connection between reader and character—so instead of being in a character’s shoes, it’s as though we’re watching them live their lives through a pane of filmy glass.

We do so much work to build exciting worlds, use active verbs, give our main characters strong voices and clear wants and desires…but these distancing words can put all that work aside.

These words on the page create distance between the reader and the story. Think about the way that you experience the world. Is this the way you talk in your head?

I am going into the room.

I hear the whirring of the fan.

I realize that I left my sneakers at the pool.

I’m willing to bet that you don’t actually think this way in real life. So we don’t want our characters, and by extension, our readers, thinking this way, either. Distancing words separate readers from the main character, whether we’re aware of it or not. There’s that filmy glass plate between the reader and the narrator—and no one wants to look at or listen to something through filmy, sticky glass.

So how do you fix it?

Distancing words are easy to spot once you know what you’re looking for, and make an incredible difference once they are gone.

Distancing words (sometimes called “filter” words) include:

I heard/hear/saw/see

She smells/feels/thinks

They realize/understand

We look/watch

One way to think about these words is that they are telling readers what the action the character is doing, as opposed to directly showing readers the character’s actions.

Here’s an example:

I saw the cat enter the room.

Without the distancing word:

 The cat entered the room.

 The reader already knows we are in a first person narrative, and that the narrator sees with their eyes (assuming this character is not visually impaired). So the we as the writer can safely eliminate the distancing word and restructure the sentence to be more of a direct experience for the reader.

Now, my two caveats to all of this: 1.) this is a great craft element to focus on in revision, or to help you warm up for the day’s writing by reviewing the previous day’s work. This is not something that I focus on while drafting, because I’d be so busy worrying about distancing words that I wouldn’t get work on the page!

2.) Sometimes you need a distancing word—the sentence/idea won’t work without it. That’s okay! If you try to remove the word and you can’t, you likely need it! And that’s how you know you’re using those words to the best of their ability.

Ready to tighten your story and get rid of those distancing words?

Your Assignment: Select a section of your work – either from a work-in-progress or from something you wrote for camp earlier in the summer. Print it out (or you can do this on the computer, but I like to work with paper when I revise). Highlight all of the distancing words that you find in the section. Then, go through them: are there ones that are necessary to keep? Ones that you can get rid of?

Make the edits and review the tightened section the next time you’re at the computer. Does it feel more immediate to you? What does it do to your pacing?

Leave me your thoughts in the comments. I’ll respond, and draw a random winner on July 24 to receive a copy of my newest novel, LIGHTS, CAMERA, DISASTER (Arthur A. Levine, 2018).

Teachers Write 7.19.18 Tuesday Quick-Write with Heidi Schulz

Our guest author for today’s Teachers Write quick-write is Heidi Schulz, the author of the New York Times Bestselling Hook’s Revenge, and a sequel,Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code, published by Disney-Hyperion. Bloomsbury Kids published her picture book debut,Giraffes Ruin Everything, in August 2016. Her short story for children, The Day the Puddles Stomped Back, can be found in Oregon Reads Aloud, an anthology to benefit S.M.A.R.T. (Start Making A Reader Today).

Setting as a Lens for Character

“Ma cracked the window to let some fresh air in, Momly’s car always smelled like a freshly scrubbed bathtub. Like…clean, but poisonous. Cleanliness was next to godliness, huh? So next to godliness that you might die from it. Maddy and me were used to it, but it irritated Ma every single time she was in the car.”—Patina by Jason Reynolds

Effective settings are important to grounding readers in a scene and helping them to feel truly immersed in a story, but they can convey character attributes. Take a look at the paragraph above. What kinds of things can you guess about the main character, and the relationships she has with those around her from that short selection?

The way a writer chooses to describe a setting can offer great insight into character, and can be an excellent way to follow the old writing advice: Show. Don’t tell.

Take, for example, this selection from Illusive by Emily Lloyd Jones. What information about the main character are you able to glean from this reading?

“Arm in arm, she and Devon emerge into downtown Manhattan. Despite the fact it isn’t yet noon, the sun already beats down on the back of Ciere’s neck. She sucks in lungfuls of hot, humid air, tasting sweat and exhaust. Steam flows up from sewer grates, and people swarm the sidewalks—everyone from the homeless with their blackened teeth and sunken eyes to businessmen with tailored suits and briefcases. Ciere has to dodge several tourists as they shuffle past. She tilts her head back and gazes at the city. The buildings are an odd mix of classical arches, sleek skyscrapers, and the grunge that has taken root in these urban areas like mold in an old bag of bread.”

I love this example because it’s so visceral. Words like “swarm,” “grunge,” and “mold” paint a vivid picture and it is abundantly clear that Cierce does not like the city. This works far better than a neutral description of the city and a line of dialogue from the main character such as, “I really hate the city. It’s so gross and dirty.”

(Also note that in this example, the point of view is not first person. Conveying a character’s feelings through setting description works just as well in close third.)

Now take a look at this selection from Love, Ish by Karen Rivers:

“There are a million billion stars shining through the blackness and it’s totally worth it to be out here even though I can’t sleep. The constellations slide by above me so slowly I can barely see it happening unless I close my eyes for a bit and then open them again. I see three falling stars (which are really just meteors, but it’s prettier to think of them as stars). Tonight, the moon is a crescent and if you follow the end of the crescent, you can see Mars. It’s blurry and so so so so so small. I can’t believe I’ll go there one day. I mean, I know I will, it’s just hard to imagine being that far away, being in a hammock on Mars (in a biome, of course) looking at a blurry Earth.”

Aside from conveying a positive association with space (“shining through the blackness” “prettier to think of them as stars”), there is also a sense of wistfulness conveyed in the description of Mars being so far away, and the thought of one day looking at the Earth from a similar perspective. We gain a lot of insight into this character from this one short description.

One last example from my book Hook’s Revenge.

“A miasma of overripe fish, gun smoke, and unwashed bodies hung in the briny air. Schooners, sloops, frigates, cutters, and many other varieties of ships in various conditions were moored offshore. Sailors swarmed over their surfaces like roaches on leftovers, inspecting rigging and performing repairs. Before her eyes, a brawl broke out on the deck of a twenty-gunner. The air was filled with sounds of the roaring sea, screaming gulls, shouted curses, breaking glass, and breaking bones.

A wide smile grew on the girl’s face. For the first time in her life, Jocelyn felt truly at home.”

Here, I’ve used words and phrases with a typically negative connotation (“swarmed,” “roaches,” “screaming,” “breaking bones”), leading the reader to expect the character to feel negatively, but then I reverse those expectations for comedic effect. Try playing around with this technique in your own work.

Your assignment:

Choose a setting. Make a list, using all your senses, of that place’s attributes. Try to use neutral words/phrases. Then, using that list as a guide, make two more lists, one recasting those neutral descriptions in a positive light; the other, in a negative. Feel free to consult a thesaurus if it helps.

I have created a chart, pictured below, using the example of an old barn.

Now try writing about this place, first from the point of view (either first person or close third) of a character that has a positive association with that place. Then reverse it and write the negative. You do not need to use every item on your list, but try to include multiple senses. See my examples below.


A sudden cloudburst was all the urging Leah needed to find refuge in the old barn. Inside, it was warm and cozy. Billowy cobwebs draped the beams above, softened all the barn’s hard edges. In the sweet-smelling hay underfoot, Leah heard the bustle of small animals going about their business, while overhead, flies buzzed lazily, caring little for the storm outside. From the shadows, a tall horse, soft and brown, moved slowly toward her and Leah quickly pulled the left-over apple slices from her lunch bag. The mare gently took each piece as offered, her velvety muzzle and warm breath tickling Leah’s palm. Leah hoped it rained all afternoon.


A sudden cloudburst forced Leah into the old barn. Inside, it was damp and smelled of rot. Spiderwebs hung everywhere, concealing fat spiders that Leah felt certain could drop into her hair at any moment. In the limp, musty hay underfoot, Leah heard the scuttling of rodents and she took a small step back toward the door.  From the shadows, a monstrous horse approached. Hands shaking, Leah pulled the left-over apple slices from her lunch bag and tossed them on the ground, hoping to either distract or appease the animal, then ran for the door. She’d rather take her chances in the storm.

Of course, negative and positive associations are among the least complex emotions you can convey. Take a look at your setting again and see if you can describe it in such a way that conveys loneliness, anxiety, contentment, pride, relief, or some other feeling—perhaps something from a character you are currently working on? Post that description in the comments below.


Teachers Write 7.18.18 Q&A Wednesday with Mike Jung and Jess Keating

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write Virtual Summer Writing Camp, and we’ll have some great guest authors answering. Today’s author guests are Mike Jung and Jess Keating.

Mike Jung lives in Northern California with his wife and kids. He writes middle grade fiction, and his, novels GEEKS, GIRLS & SECRET IDENTITIES and UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECTS were published by Arthur A. Levine Books, an imprint of Scholastic. He’s also contributed essays to numerous anthologies and is a founding member of the We Need Diverse Books team.

As a zoologist and author, Jess Keating has been sprayed by skunks, bitten by crocodiles, and
victim to the dreaded papercut. Her books blend science, humor, and creativity, and include the
acclaimed My Life is a Zoo middle-grade trilogy, the award-winning picture book biography,
SHARK LADY, and the hilariously informative World of Weird Animals nonfiction series. You can learn more about her upcoming books at www.jesskeating.com, or find her on Twitter @Jess_Keating.

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 author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Note from Kate: I’ll try to be here for Q and A most Wednesdays, too. 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!