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

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

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


Upping the Stakes

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

I suppose I’m not always normal.


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

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

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

I Shouldn’t Have …

*borrowed her bicycle

*said that snarky comment

*opened his locker

*loosened the rung on the ladder

*eaten the last taco

*eaten the taco that fell on the floor

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




*Hammered finger instead of the nail

*Airbag broke nose


*Was tripped

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



*The picnic got rained out

*The raccoon stole my backpack

*The snow storm left me stranded

*Lightning knocked out the electricity

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


Other categories that have worked for me:

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

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

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

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


Just a couple more tips…

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

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

And now you can choose to:

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Got questions? Fire away!

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

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

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

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

Fixing the Inevitable Mistakes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Teachers Write 7/17/14 – Thursday Quick-Write

Good morning!

It’s time for your Thursday Quick-Write, so let me introduce your guest author for the day, Sarah Darer Littman. 

Sarah is the author of WANT TO GO PRIVATE? – an edgy YA novel that offers a terrifying glimpse into the world of an internet predator – and other terrific books for kids & teens.

No reader likes a boring bad guy, so Sarah’s topic today is a great one…

Creating Interesting Antagonists

Writers tend to focus on the main character. That’s usually who we identify with most. That’s whom we hope our readers will bond with, and whose journey and struggles will keep them turning the pages, captivated and rooting for our MC until both character and reader reach “The End.”

 As I tell my creative writing workshop students, the intersection of character and plot is when we force our character to make choices. The consequences resulting from those choices drive the plot forward.

 My favorite example of this, ever, is the show Breaking Bad. If you haven’t watched it ( it gets gory, I warn you) get out a notebook and a pen and do so. Here’s the premise. A sad sack high school chemistry teacher (who had formerly contributed to Nobel prize worthy research) is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer just as he finds out his wife is unexpectedly pregnant. He spots a former student while on riding along on a raid with his brother in law, a DEA officer, and decides that fabricating high quality crystal meth is the way to ensure his family’s financial security once he is gone.

 His first choice – to do something illegal, but arguably (this is why he is such an endlessly fascinating character) for “good” motives – to ensure his family is financially secure when he is gone.

 This choice has consequences, of course. He has to lie to his family about his whereabouts when he is out producing meth in an RV. He steals lab equipment from the school where he works.

 And those consequences lead to other choices – which drive the plot forward, over five seasons of incredible writing and acting.

 The consequences of our main character’s initial choices will lead them to situations where they have to confront the antagonist – and make more choices, with new consequences.

 Having a fully fleshed-out antagonist doesn’t just make your book more interesting –it makes it more realistic. We are all born with the capacity for both good and evil, and it is rare to find a person that is one hundred percent of either. A main character who’s one hundred percent good would be as boring to me as a bad guy who is one hundred percent bad. The books that keep me thinking about them for weeks afterward are the ones that look at the gray areas.

 My upcoming book, BACKLASH (Scholastic, April 2015) tells the story of a cyberbullying incident that spins wildly out of control. It’s told from four points of view, and one of the most challenging parts of writing it was to ensure that I’d fully explored those gray areas.

Here’s one of exercises I do with my creative writing kids, to help get started.


What did you learn about your antagonist from that exercise? How can you expand on that to create more depth in your story?

Note from Kate:  If you don’t have a fictional work-in-progress right now, choose a scene from your favorite novel and rewrite it from the antagonist’s point of view. It will give you the same kind of experience!

Feel free to share a snippet of today’s writing in the comments! I know Sarah will be popping in to read, and I will, too, but please remember that we won’t be able to comment on every post every day, so it’s important that you support one another, too. Thanks!

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Teachers Write 7/16/14 – Q and A Wednesday

Welcome to Q and A Wednesday!

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp. Today’s official author guests are Diane Zahler and Kathryn Erskine – and other folks may be dropping by to join the conversation as well.

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

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

Note from Kate: I’ll try to be here for Q and A many 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!

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Teachers Write 7/15/14 – Tuesday Quick-Write

Good morning, Teaches Write campers! I have two quick links to share with you today before we get to the main event…

First…a few people in the comments have talked about being overwhelmed by research & wondering about how to organize a project, so I want to share the tool that I use whenever I start a new project. It’s called Scrivener – and my favorite thing about it is that it has this nifty index card view where you can organize notes for scenes & chapters. They have a free trial if anyone wants to download & play with it. It’s been very helpful to me when it comes to organizing/outlining.

Second…I understand that at least a few of you are thinking that you may want to work on professional books this summer or at some point in the future. Writing about your classroom, your library, and your teaching is powerful for educators. If this is something that interests you, you should know that most of those books begin with a proposal submitted to an educational publisher like Stenhouse or Heinemann. I’ve worked with Stenhouse on my educators’ books, and they share their proposal guidelines along with some great samples on their website. It’s worth checking out if this kind of writing is of interest to you.

Okay…now it’s time for our Tuesday Quick-Write, courtesy of guest author & poet Jeannine Atkins.

Jeannine has written a bunch of wonderful books for kids – and one for writers, too! My favorite of them all is BORROWED NAMES: POEMS ABOUT LAURA INGALLS WILDER, MADAM C.J. WALKER, MARIE CURIE, AND THEIR DAUGHTERS, a book I loved so much I gave a copy to my mom for Mother’s Day.

Jeannine’s prompt for today is one that you’ll want to refer back to often:

Expanding and Compressing Scenes

 Keeping a story moving along, while making sure to deepen important moments, can be done by consciously compressing time, which is showing minutes or hours of action in a line or two, and expanding these with details to show how feeling-filled time may seem to get bigger or even stop. Examples of compressed scenes can be found in fairy tales, such as: The queen gave birth to seven boys. Jack killed the giant. The girl fled through the forest. Any of these great sentences might be, or have been, the base of a novel or a two hour movie.

 We’ll start out writing our own seven sentences, but before diving in, I’ll remind everyone, as you might remind your students, that prompts aren’t about following directions, but starting to write. As long as you’re writing, you’re doing it right. If you want to veer off, feel free. And have fun – even write that instruction at the top of your paper (I have.) Not just because it’s summer, but it’s good for some of what we call work to have some feeling of play.

 Now, take a character from your work in progress – or if starting fresh, grab a name and begin by quickly free writing seven key points of change in your character’s life. A few words will do for each. These important events can go before or beyond the time frame of what you’re considering for the book or story’s plot. Feel free to put in or leave out birth and death. Later, you may find these seven points serve as a sketchy outline or frame, but now we’re going to look at how each point can open out by the way we word it. Still practicing time compression, write each of your key changes as a sentence.

 Then expand time, lingering and bringing out details. What were the sensory qualities of that moment? What did the air feel like? How did the surroundings look, sound and smell? Try to do this with all your moments of change. Some might begin a story or novel. One might serve as a climax. Perhaps they fall into a useful sequence.

 Congratulations. You’ve just compressed and expanded time. You can stop here or keep playing with these seven transitional moments. While sometimes we want just a sentence to move things along, consider adding details you found when you expanded time to your sentences. At key moments in fiction, we often want readers to stick around and bask. An expanded scene might suggest its importance.

 Go over your draft and see what seems to work best as a short sentence and what should flow into a paragraph. When do you choose to be brief and when stroll from one lingering sentence to another? Sometimes a single, short sentence can set up just the sort of tension we want. Another slower sentence may be like a closed paper fan, opening to a glimpse of what was hidden.

 Maybe you’re attracted to developing a sentence into a scene. Wonderful! Maybe this prompt didn’t work for you. Find another! If you wrote seven sentences, I’m happy. And if you tried to reword some, you were already working on revision. I hope that wasn’t so bad. Check the top of your paper: Did you remind yourself to have fun?


Note from Kate: I don’t know about everyone else, but I have totally bookmarked this lesson to use as a novel revision strategy later on – such great strategies! Feel free to share a paragraph or two of what you wrote in the comments today if you’d like.

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

Good morning! Before we kick off Week 2, I just want to tell you that you all kind of blew me away last week. Your willingness to write and share and support one another was just awesome. It’s amazing & so exciting to see this writing community taking shape.

Want to start with a Monday Morning Warm-Up today? Check out Jo’s blog to get your fingers moving.

And guest author Donna Gephart joins us for today’s Mini-Lesson Monday. Donna is the author of Death by Toilet Paper and other humorous novels for middle grade readers.

Part of writing is getting motivated, so today’s mini-lesson from Donna is a bit of a pep talk!


Those words were spoken by Brother Tom Price, an English professor at the University of Dayton, to Erma Bombeck. Price was Bombeck’s English teacher and ran the school’s magazine and he was impressed by her writing. Those three words – “YOU CAN WRITE” — represented permission for Bombeck to allow herself to pursue the passion that was inside her all along. What followed, as you know, was a wildly successful humor writing career.

 youcanwriteAt the start of summer, I purchased a “YOU CAN WRITE” mug from humorwriters.org for me and a few writing buddies.

Why do we need permission to write? Do we feel writing is a waste of time? Frivolous? Should we be doing something more important, like laundry, taxes or mowing the lawn?  At the end of Bombeck’s life, did she wish she had folded more laundry, grappled with more tax forms or edged a few more lawns?

Of course not! And we shouldn’t either. Life’s too short to repress our creative energy in favor of more “practical” activities. We should do what makes us feel fully alive.

The only person who can give permission for you to write with wild abandon is YOU. The biggest roadblocks to our writing successes usually come from within ourselves.

So, today, give yourself permission to write.

Your Assisgnment:

First, list every writing project you’d like to explore, as though you have unlimited time and energy.

 Always itched to create a picture book about hens who got chicken pox? A memoir about your years as a sky-diving, ninja-fighting postal worker? An alliterative poem about perplexed people who picked pickled peppers? A middle grade novel about death by toilet paper. (Wait a minute; that idea’s already been taken.)

Once you have your list, find the project that scares the heck out of you, the one thing you think you shouldn’t write. Or the project that makes your heart beat a little faster and your cheeks flush with excitement. WRITE THAT!

Kick fear out of your way.

Now, put your list aside and write the dedication of your next book or project. That’s right. The dedication. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t written a single word of this book or project yet. For whom are you writing? Remember, your writing is a gift. Who do you love enough to give the gift of your words to?

My fourth book – Death by Toilet Paper — was kicking my tail feathers. I kept starting and stopping, lost in a tangle of ideas and words until I came up with the dedication. I’d gift this book to my sister, Ellen, whose persistence with contests and with life inspired my book. As soon as I came up with the dedication, the words flowed. And I ultimately did give the finished novel – Death by Toilet Paper – to my sister, Ellen, as a birthday gift.

Note from Kate: What’s on your list of projects? Which one scares you? Which one makes your heart beat faster? And to whom will your favorite project be dedicated?  If you’d like to share some ideas in the comments, feel free!

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Teachers Write 7/11/14 – Friday Feature: Embracing the Process

Congratulations! It’s Friday, and that means you’ve survived your first week of Teachers Write. Gae is hosting Friday Feedback on her blog today, so even if you’re not quite ready to share, you should go visit & see how that works.

And we also have a Friday Feature with guest author Lynda Mullaly Hunt. Lynda is the author of ONE FOR THE MURPHYS and the forthcoming FISH IN A TREE.

Lynda does frequent school & Skype visits. She’s pretty terrific, and she’s here to talk about embracing your process.

Roll with the Hunches: Thoughts on Writing Process

As a writer, I struggled in the beginning because I thought that writing was done the right way or the wrong way. I figured the right way was to write things in sequential order and the wrong way was the way I do it.

Thing was, characters dropped into me. I’d imagine things that would happen to them almost as if coming back to me as a memory. So, I started taking notes. Soon, those notes became scenes. The writing wasn’t great but it was better than it had been. So, I decided to try and go with this lack of form.

I wrote an entire novel that way. It’s a novel that will never be published but it taught me character development, plotting, pacing and–most importantly–to trust myself. To stop emulating my outline-loving friends and to embrace my own process even though it felt like that first white-knuckle hill on a roller coaster. Soon, I realized that at the end of a “writing ride” I was happy and wanted to ride again, so…

When I write a book I write the first two chapters and then I write the last chapter. All the middle chapters are written out of order. I don’t plan it that way—it comes to me that way. While I’m in the kitchen making coffee I have no idea what will leak out of my fingers that day.

I begin by reading some of what I’ve written the previous day and then begin writing—I just jump in even if it’s not coming easily. (I often cut the beginnings of scenes as those words were the map that helped me get to the important stuff.) When I’m finished with the chapter I give it a title and write it on a 3 x 5 card. Then I add three bullet points of important things that happen. Finally, I slap it on a giant magnetic whiteboard in my office.


So, by the time I finished the first draft of Murphys what I had was 50 chapters about a girl named Carley Connors who lands in foster care. Then I had the task of laying them all out on the floor in such an order as to make a novel. Was this hard for me? Very.

I use those cards to organize the book. In the upper left-hand corner of each card I use colored circles to represent each character. When all the chapters are laid out it tells me if I have left a character for too long. For example in the first draft of One for the Murphys I had 11 cards in a row without a green circle which stood for Daniel, an important charater. So, I switched the cards around :-)

I also put the setting in the bottom right-hand corner and if I have too many similar chapters I consolidate them. For example in writing the Murphy’s I had four conversations between Carley and Toni take place in the bedroom. So I printed those four chapters out, highlighted the material I wanted to keep, and rewrote them to make two chapters.

cards plot

When I have it all together in what I feel is novel-form, I put aside a day and read the entire thing out loud in one sitting. That really tells me the shape of it. Then I go back to those cards—still lined up on the floor and go through each card to think about questions, tension, repetition. I look at the length of the chapters, too.

Finally, I make cards of “scenes to write”—holes that need to be filled in the story. I spread those out on my desk upside down and pick from the pile. Then I take a stab at writing the one chosen. This approach to writing is not as smooth. These scenes start our clunkier than most but I smooth them over eventually—the ones I keep, anyway.

So, the beginning really is from the guts and the card part is cerebral. It’s a strange system but it has worked for both One for the Murphys and Fish in a Tree (Feb, 2015).

I spoke with a few phenomenal writers and friends about their processes in writing a novel.

Apparently, Leslie Connor, author of five books including The Things You Kiss Good-bye also writes in a similar style to mine which made me happy. Because I’m *such* a fan of her writing! But, I thought you may want to hear from a couple of others who have different processes:


~~Stacy DeKeyser author of Jump the Cracks , The Brixen Witch and One Witch at Time (follow-up to Brixen Witch out Feb, 2015) writes about her process:

“I’m more a stepping stone person. If I have a character who wants something, I give him some obstacles and plot out Turning Point #1 (at about the 25% point), the middle, and Turning Point #2 (at around 80%), climax, and resolution. And ending that is full circle in some ways but changed irrevocably in others. Then fill in the blanks! So easy! (Ha!)”


~~e.E. Charlton-Trujillo, author of Fat Angie, writes of her process this way:

“As a filmmaker and short fiction author first, the novel writing process in the first draft is very dialogue based. I hear the characters talking and jot down the tension, texture and nuance of what they need to say. Followed by notes on key sensory detail. I don’t spend a lot of time describing the scene when I’m going. I know I can fill that in, but the dialogue is gold right off the rip. Often I’m thrown right in the middle of the character chaos. Whether it is the beginning, middle or end of the novel, I’m just there.

I also build a soundtrack for the overall book. Music that the characters laugh to — cry with — drive to their passion. The music is something that can drop me right into the story. Often there are specific songs for particular chapters. Sometimes a character theme. This allows me an immediate emotional access to them if I’ve had to step away from the story for some reason. I tend to write the way I would edit a movie. Ten to twelve hour days, six days a week for four weeks. Then I’m done with the draft. Let it sleep for a few days and revisit or send it to my agent to put eyes on the spine of the piece.”


So, dear fellow writers, experiment with different approaches. Sometimes, you’ll dovetail processes. Have fun with it. Don’t over think it; ironically, the brain sometimes gets in the way of good writing.

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Teachers Write 7/10/14 – Thursday Quick-Write

Megan Frazer Blakemore joins us for today’s Thursday Quick-Write! Like some of you, Megan is a librarian, and she’s also the author of great books like THE WATER CASTLE and THE SPY CATCHERS OF MAPLE HILL.

Today’s Thursday Quick Write: Word Hoards

I’ve taken two writing workshops with Monica Wood (whose Pocket Muse books I highly recommend), and in each she did an exercise where we went around the room each person saying a word until we had quite a lengthy list, maybe three to five rounds depending on the number of people you had in the room. Then everyone wrote a story using the words generated.

I called these lists Word Hoards, a term I learned from Beowulf. I’ve done this exercise in turn with groups I’ve led, and keep the list in a notebook so I can go back and find words to inspire me. Over time, I started doing Word Hoards for my characters. I imagine I am one of my characters and that I’m participating in this exercise, and start listing out the words that the character would say, often with surprising results.

This exercise is both about voice because you are thinking about the specific vocabulary of the character, but also about letting yourself go and seeing where you characters will take you.

The exercise: Using a current work in progress, take three or four of your characters and create Word Hoards for them.

Note from Kate: If you don’t have an active work-in-progress, try writing this from the point of view of a character you dream up today. Maybe it will turn into a bigger idea! Or if you’d like to focus on history or science, try writing from the point of view of some historical figure or scientist or animal!

If you’d like to share a few lines of what you wrote today in the comments, we’d love that – and promise that all our comments will be friendly and supportive. If you’d rather keep your writing to yourself today, in your notebook or on your hard drive, that’s fine, too.

Happy writing!

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