Teachers Write 7.26.16 Tuesday Quick-Write with Madelyn Rosenberg

Happy Tuesday! Guest author Madelyn Rosenberg joins us for today’s quick-write. Madelyn is the author of the Nanny X books, HOW TO BEHAVE AT A TEA PARTY, and HOW TO BEHAVE AT A DOG SHOW. Her quick-write today is about postcards!

Postcards

Last summer I came up with a new writing prompt and I had so much fun with it, I did it all summer long. I’m calling it “Postcard.” When I have students do the prompt in a classroom, I pass out index cards. When I’m doing it myself, I just scrawl on a page of my writing notebook.

The rules are simple: Describe the scene around you, using only 10 words or short phrases. Put one word or phrase on each line, so you’re laying it out like a poem. Think about your different senses as you study your scene and write it out. It’s a good way to practice working varied senses into whatever you write. Especially smell – I hate how often we leave out the sense of smell when it is so evocative/linked with memory. I like to include scraps of dialogue in my postcards, too.

You can use this exercise not just to write about the world around you, but to write about a scene in your current work in progress.

A few examples are below. Sometimes it’s more fun to put the title at the end, especially if you’re sharing with others.

Pool

Wet

Coconut

Non-greasy UV protection

Float

“Marco.”

Blue

Sunshine

Umbrella

“Polo.”

Splash!

 

Plane

“Drink or snack?”

“We are experiencing turbulence”

A carpet of clouds

Recycled air

Gingerale and tea

Angry stomach

Look for the exit over the wings

Books, kenken, in-flight magazines, barf bags

“Adjust your seatback position”

Map of the world

 

And here’s one from my daughter:

 

San Francisco Streetcar

“Three rights make a left”

Roller coaster

“Don’t block the exit!”

Wind

Screech!

Cold

“Hold on!”

Hills

“Just sayin’”

Slow. Fast. Slow.

 

Today’s Assignment: Write your postcard! Describe the scene around you, using only 10 words or short phrases. Put one word or phrase on each line, so you’re laying it out like a poem. Think about your different senses as you study your scene and write it out. And feel free to share your ten lines in the comments today!

 

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Teachers Write 7.25.16 Mini-Lesson Monday with Linda Urban – Offering Critiques

Good morning! Jo has your Monday Morning Warm-up here, and Linda Urban is joining us for today’s mini-lesson. 

Linda Urban writes picture books, chapter books, and middle grade novels.  Her works include A Crooked Kind of Perfect, Hound Dog True, The Center of Everything, Milo Speck Accidental Agent, Mouse Was Mad, Little Red Henry, and most recently, Weekends with Max and His Dad. 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.
 
In today’s Quick-Write, we’re going to focus on one approach to writing a critique or response when you’re helping someone out as a reader of a work in progress. Linda Urban and I are critique buddies who do this kind of reading for one another often. She’s our guest author today, so we’re sharing a conversation about critiquing as well as a peek at what it sometimes looks like.

 
Linda:
Sometimes when we ask a reader to look over our work, what we’re really asking is how they understand the words on the page.  What assumptions are they making?  Am I leaving the right seeds planted in the right garden?  Is the tone of my character dialogue conveying the playfulness I think she has?  Or does she just sound cheesy?  
 
Kate:
That’s exactly the kind of help I needed with my novel Breakout, about what happens in a small town when two inmates break out of the local prison. The book is told entirely in documents, and after writing all of them, I was so overwhelmed that it was difficult for me to know if the words on the page were reflecting characters’ voices the way I’d hoped. I asked Linda to focus on that when she read. Here’s what it looked like in practice…
 
Nora Tucker’s letter on page 1 with Linda’s response:

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.09.21 PMScreen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.09.27 PM

An excerpt from Elidee Jones’s time capsule letter to “future Wolf Creek residents” with Linda’s response: 

Screen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.10.43 PMScreen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.10.50 PMScreen Shot 2016-07-06 at 4.03.12 PM
 
 
Sometimes, critiquing is a matter of asking questions and making specific suggestions, but often, it’s also a matter of telling a writer, “Here’s what I’m taking away from what you’ve written so far…” Ready to give that kind of critique a try? 
 
YOUR ASSIGNMENT:
———–
In the spirit of being brave, I’m sharing a little more of this not-quite-ready manuscript with you today. If you’d like to give this kind of “here’s-what-I’m-seeing-and-thinking” feedback a try, choose one of the excerpts below (either Nora’s letter or Elidee’s letter to her brother Troy) and write a paragraph analyzing what you’ve taken away from it. Suggestions, of course, are always welcome, too! These letters are not from the very beginning of the book, so there may be references to things that came up that were mentioned earlier- that’s okay. 🙂 Feel free to ask questions, too – questions help writers see what’s clear and what’s not, and often they force us to think more thoroughly about what we’re trying to say.
 
Nora’s letter for the time capsule – June 8th
 

Dear Future Wolf Creek Residents,

I was planning to write about my sleepover with Lizzie today, but there’s something WAY BIGGER going on because two inmates broke out of Dad’s prison overnight!

Lizzie and I went to bed at around ten. Right before that, I went to close my blinds so the sun wouldn’t wake us up early. My window faces the prison, and you can see the lights and the siren horns over the houses across the street. Those sirens are supposed to go off and warn everybody if an inmate escapes, only they didn’t.

So at eight this morning, the doorbell rang and it was a state trooper who told Mom two inmates had broken out of the prison. Mom already knew that because I guess Dad got a phone call at five in the morning when they were discovered missing, so he had to go to work then. Mom told Lizzie and me not to say anything to Owen because she doesn’t want him to be all scared. She says this isn’t going to last long because even if the police don’t find those guys right away, it won’t be long before the black flies do, and then they’ll be begging to go back into prison.

Mom also told us she got an early morning phone call from Lizzie’s mom, who’s at the hospital with Lizzie’s grandma. Her grandma woke up having chest pains or something, so Lizzie’s mom took her to the emergency room to have it checked out. It turns out everything’s fine and it wasn’t a heart attack or anything, but they’re still at the hospital, and Lizzie’s mom can’t pick her up until later.

So it’s been a pretty crazy morning here! I figured all these time capsule letters were going to be about sleepovers and brownies and final exams, but I guess you never know.

Oh! Speaking of brownies, I have Lizzie’s grandma’s secret mint brownie recipe for you.

Priscilla’s Magical Minty Brownies

  1. Mix up two packages of any brand fudge brownie mix according to the directions.
  2. Pour a little less than half the mix into a 10×15 inch baking dish.
  3. Put a layer of Peppermint Patties on there.
  4. Pour the rest of the mix on top and bake it at 350 for about 45 minutes or until they seem done.

I was expecting it to be fancier, but I guess that was her secret. Sometimes things aren’t quite how they seem.

Anyway…back to the prison break. Lizzie and I wanted go out reporting so we could write more letters to you about it. Lizzie has this cool new voice recorder thing that would have been perfect, but Mom said we couldn’t go out because of the manhunt, which is totally unfair because she let Sean go to the market for work.

So I guess Lizzie and I are going to work on collecting background information instead. That’s always important for news stories, too. Lizzie’s making a chart showing inmate population and stuff, and I’m going to copy my notes about Alcatraz escapes in history. I know Alcatraz is a totally different prison and has nothing to do with Wolf Creek, but there are some really cool stories.  One team of guys who escaped from Alcatraz made dummies and left them in their beds so it would look like they were still there, sound asleep, instead of out escaping.

Pretty smart, right? More to come…

Your friend from the past,

Nora Tucker

————————————————————–

Elidee’s letter to her brother Troy on June 8th: 

Dear Troy,

We were supposed to come see you today, but now we can’t because two guys broke out of the prison. Have you already heard about that? You must have. It’s not like people bust out of that place every day.

Mama had your Skittles and stuff all packed. We were gonna get there right when visiting hours start at 8:30, but we didn’t even make it to the end of the street. The cops were stopping every last car. When Mama pulled up, they looked in the back seat and the trunk and asked where we were headed. She told them, and one guy laughed. The other guy said there wasn’t gonna be visiting hours for a good long time. So we went home. Mama says I can eat your Skittles, and she’ll get new ones whenever it turns out we can see you.

Do you know those guys? You probably can’t answer that. Probably I won’t even send this letter — Mama says you won’t be able to get mail for a while either. Really I’m just writing because everybody at home is busy with end of school stuff, and there’s nobody to talk to here. I don’t know any kids, and Mama’s all caught up in church stuff. You know that’s part of the reason we had to come, right? Other than you. Her church friend Mrs. Gonzalez moved here last fall so she could visit her husband more, and she’s been trying to get Mama and me to move up ever since.

That wasn’t supposed to happen, though. We were supposed to stay in the Bronx because I was going to switch to some fancy school that you have to apply to get into, and it was gonna be great. Mama was gonna be ten kinds of proud. Only I didn’t get in. I worked so hard on that dang application and wrote it all fancy, but then a letter came in the mail saying that even though my grades were fine, my essays were boring. They said it nicer, but that’s pretty much what it came down to, and I didn’t get in.  Right after that letter came, Mama decided it was God’s will, telling her we ought to move to be closer to you and Mrs. G. So here we are. And now she can’t see you anyhow because those guys got out.

I hope you don’t know those two. I hope it all happened far away from you because it sounds like the kind of thing that could get everybody in trouble, and you definitely don’t need more trouble than you got already. None of us do. Not when everything’s already so different and mixed-up-out-of-place.

I started school this week. There’s only a few days left of classes before summer. It’s okay.

I won’t ask how it is in there. I know it’s awful, even though Mama tries to make it sound like it’s not so bad and you’ll be okay.

I hope you’ll be okay. And I hope us being closer helps you remember there’s a life waiting for you.  Mama says you’re just as smart as I am except when it comes to choosing your friends. She says you’ll be able to take college classes when your time’s up. Sooner if you win your appeal. I used to think Aunt Maya was right about that being some crazy-pants dream, but I keep thinking about that guy from the play. The one who wrote his way out.

You would have liked that play. Even though it’s about dead white guys, the actors and actresses all looked like us. It was your kind of music, too – all rap and hip hop  – and that Hamilton guy said in a song he never thought he’d live past twenty. I’m pretty sure he ripped that line off from Kanye, but it was still pretty cool. It made me forget that the story happened so long ago, you know? Like it coulda been happening in our old neighborhood right now. And like maybe you really could write your way outta that prison like Hamilton wrote his way off his island.

So keep working on your appeal. I’ll wait a while to eat your Skittles in case we get to see you soon.

Love you,

~Elidee


Feel free to share your feedback in the comments if you’d like, too!

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Teachers Write 7.24.16 Being of Two Minds with Cheryl Klein

Good morning! Jen is hosting Sunday Check-in on her blog, and we have a special guest essay here today, too. Cheryl Klein is executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books at Scholastic as well as the author of The Magic Words, a great new resource for writers. She’s joining us today with a post about bringing your work-self and writer-self together. 

BEING OF TWO MINDS: How to Carry Strengths and Confidence from One Job You Know into the Work of Writing

By Cheryl B. Klein

Until last year, if you asked me what my job was, I would have said without hesitation, “I’m an editor.” I’ve worked in children’s and YA publishing for nearly sixteen years, and I love collaborating with authors to help them develop and refine their stories. I’ve also done a fair amount of writing, certainly—I even self-published a book in 2011. But since that book (and all my freelance writing) focused on teaching writers how to edit their own work, editing remained my primary identity.

Then, in 2015, a traditional publisher offered me a contract for a revision of my self- published book. Suddenly, my writing went from part-time hobby to second job, where I was on deadline for a project that tens of thousands of people might discover and read. This shift in identity and responsibility freaked me out, to put it bluntly. Some of my panic was the enormity of the task I’d undertaken, to restructure and expand my idiosyncratic little book into a comprehensive writing guide in just a few months. But a lot of my new fear was about judgment: I was about to be the judged rather than the judge, the edited rather than the editor, and I spent a fair amount of time staring at a blank page, wrestling with the insecurity and fear that truth brought up.

What got me past my block at last was editing. I didn’t know if I could succeed at writing the book I dreamed of creating, or some days, if I could write even one new essay for it. But what I did know, for sure, was how to probe, dissect, arrange, amplify, streamline, balance, and prune a piece of writing until it optimally expressed its core idea and emotion — that is, how to edit. All I needed to do, I reasoned, was fight through the fear and judgment and get some messy ideas on the page. Then I could edit that mess into a coherent essay, and bird by bird, I’d have a book.

This strategy worked. Better yet, it reminded me that I could use all my editorial techniques on my own material, and I approached the revision with newfound confidence. Just as I often outline novel manuscripts as I read them, I created a chapter list of what I thought the book should look like, and revised it as I added and subtracted essays. After I completed a rough first draft, I printed out the manuscript and read it on paper to get a holistic view of the text. Afterward, I made a to-do list of major revisions I wanted to undertake, rather like writing my own editorial letter. When my editor sent me her line-edits on the manuscript, I froze up again briefly, because here was capital-J Judgment of my writing, right on the page in front of me. Then I remembered how I feel when I edit a book—that I’m never interested in judging a writer, only in making the book work—and that freed me to consider her suggestions with a less emotional mind. Throughout the process, my comfort with my first job eased my anxieties in the second, and thanks to that interplay, The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults will be out in September.

So why might this matter to you? Well, if you likewise freeze up when you sit down at the blank page, I suspect you too can use strategies from your day job to get past the block and improve your work as a writer. A few ideas to try:

Keep a journal of your day job. I have files on both my desktop at work and my laptop at home where I note recurring patterns in books I’m editing, submissions, or my own editorial reactions, and ideas that might blossom into essays or talks later. As a teacher, you have an unparalleled opportunity to observe a wide range of kids and young adults in action and reflect on their psychology and behavior, individually and in groups. Take notes on what you’re seeing each day — even just one striking image or a line or two of conversation — and let the richness of that reality inspire and inform your work. Moreover, if you’re just starting out as a writer, journaling is a terrific way to build fluency and discipline, and to get in the practice of telling the truth without fear.

What are your favorite parts of your job? What are your unique strengths in that job? Why do your colleagues come to you for help? Try to start your writing from one of those places of love or confidence. If you get most excited about the ideas you’re teaching, begin a story with a theme rather than a character or plot. If you’re fascinated by character, consider the narrative possibilities in bringing two contradictory qualities together in one character, or binding three very different people together in a shared cause. If you prefer one-on-one work with students rather than wrangling and entertaining a large group, try writing an intimate story that focuses on relationships rather than the next Game of Thrones. In short, if you know what you do best, you can build from there to fortify your weak spots, rather than starting your work on uncertain ground.

Look for metaphors and strategies from your work life that can help you in writing. When I was in college, a friend of mine who majored in computer science said that he wrote all his humanities papers as if they were computer programs: His thesis statement was the introductory code for the program; each paragraph of supporting evidence was a subprogram; in his conclusion, he compiled all of the preceding material together. Thinking of writing as coding gave him a structure he felt comfortable with, just as thinking of it as editing relaxed me with my book. What happens when you think of writing as teaching? If your readers were your students, how would you design your time with them? What strategies would you employ to get your point across? To keep them engaged? Experiment with these ideas in your writing.

Use the principles you teach. What do you tell your students about writing? “Messy first drafts”; “show, not tell”; “Use active and not passive voice” . . . These are all lessons we grown-up writers must remember as well. I find myself resisting this truth at times, when I say to myself, “I’m an editor, not a writer! I teach this stuff to writers, so I ought to get it all right the first time!” But honestly, I never get it all right the first time, and there’s no shame in that. I just need to accept that no matter how much I know, I too always have to follow these basic principles—because they’re really good principles!—and I always have more to learn as well. If I lock myself into a position as an “expert,” I miss out on the benefits of being a student: openness, simplicity, a willingness to take risks and have fun.

Trust the process, and trust your process. Along similar lines, whether we are sixth graders writing a five-paragraph essay, or novelists with forty books under our belts, we writers all use the same basic processes: Brainstorm, draft, then revise; good sentences become good paragraphs and then good chapters; big ideas, small details. These structures might seem limiting or frustrating occasionally, but they also work, and if we follow them, quality writing usually results.

At the same time, just as students demonstrate different learning styles, every one of us will have our own writing style and process, and we’ll find our greatest success if we learn to work with and trust that flow. Both my editorial and writing processes feel very sluggish, crabbed, nitpicky, and all over the place to me, as I try to organize thoughts that run in a million different directions. Through the years, I’ve developed a number of techniques to contain these ideas and put them in useable form: the aforementioned chapter outlines and to-do lists; character and plot checklists for evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of a novel. These techniques actually slow me down even further, as I have to complete the tasks to feel like I’ve got a full grasp on a book, and it always feels like other editors are working faster and more efficiently than I am. (Yes, we editors can be just like writers when it comes to judgment and competition!) But I’ve also learned that I do my best work, and feel best about my work, when I accept and trust the process I’ve cultivated—and it’s resulted in many, many terrific books through the years, if I do say so myself. If you find a methodology and a story that works for you, don’t worry about how other writers do their drafts, or whether you’re doing it wrong. Trust yourself and your flow, as you do in your day job, and that will bring out your best work.

———–

Cheryl B. Klein is the executive editor at Arthur A. Levine Books (www.arthuralevinebooks.com), an imprint of Scholastic Inc. She is also the author of Second Sight: An Editor’s Talks on Writing, Revising and Publishing Books for Children and Young Adults, and The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults, which will be published on September 6, 2016. She lives in Brooklyn, New York. Please visit her website and sign up for her newsletter at www.cherylklein.com, and follow her on Twitter at @chavelaque.

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Teachers Write 7.23.16 “On First Person Present” by Dayna Lorentz

Good morning & happy Saturday! Today’s a reflecting-on-craft kind of day, and our guest post is from Dayna Lorentz, the author of the Dogs of the Drowned City series for middle grade readers and the No Safety in Numbers series for teens. Dayna’s here today for some nitty gritty point of view discussion. 

Wrestling with the First Person Present Point of View

When I sat down to write the final book in the No Safety in Numbers trilogy, I wanted my narration to be intense, immediate, and voice-driven, so I used the first person point of view and wrote in the present tense. Once I started putting words on the page, however, I realized the depth and breadth of the hot water this choice put me in: first person, present tense is an incredibly limiting way to tell a story. Here are some of the pitfalls I encountered and some tips on how to get around them.

When writing in the first person, present, you are limited to a single character’s perspective, and also to that character’s immediate experience. Not only is the reader stuck in your narrator’s head, they are stuck with her in her present moment. This fact of the point of view sets boundaries on the story you can tell. The story is constrained by what the narrator can perceive, and the information she understands in that moment within the plot.

However, you can use this limitation to enrich your narrative by creating tension for the reader. For example, have someone tell the narrator something that she doesn’t understand, but that the reader does, building some dramatic irony. Perhaps the narrator overhears an older sister telling a friend about seeing a spirit haunting the bathroom mirror, which the reader knows is teasing, but the narrator is spooked.

You could also build suspense by having the narrator hear an unidentified, but menacing noise coming from somewhere in the setting. An omniscient, third-person narrator would have to tell the reader it’s a window-shutter flapping against the siding, but the first person narrator, limited to her experience, simply hears the clatter and bang and her imagination conjures up the ghost Big Sister described.

Practically speaking, this point of view handcuffs the writer’s ability to use the full toolbox of techniques for telling a story. For example, if you want to include a flashback or give context to a character’s reaction or even describe the scenery, you need to create the space in the plot for that to happen. To continue my example, the narrator can’t dive into her long-standing fear of ghosts brought on by an unfortunate Halloween mishap or even describe the eerie shadows playing across the wallpaper without having to stop on the stairwell, back to the wall, eyes squeezed shut, and reminisce, knowing full well that precious seconds are ticking by as she stands there during which the ghastly ghoul might grab her.

The first person, present point of view also lends itself to rambling. Your book could easily end up a string of thoughts and observations. To avoid this, it is important to put your character into scenes—add another character to the setting or force the narrator to move into a new space. Don’t leave your narrator fretting on the steps, convinced of imminent danger; add Big Sister flipping on the lights and revealing the misunderstanding, perhaps by dragging the poor narrator into the bathroom and confirming the lack of phantoms in the medicine cabinet.

Finally, first person present effortlessly slides into “telling.” Don’t let the narrator blow through a moment by telling the reader, “I feel relieved.” Show her relief by describing the relaxation of her muscles, the quieting of her heartbeat. Let her describe the tree branches outside the window as she recognizes that they, and not some silly specter, made the spooky shadows.

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Teachers Write 7.22.16 Thinking about Revision with Ammi-Joan Paquette

Good morning! It’s Friday Feedback day over on Gae’s blog, and today we have guest author Ammi-Joan Paquette visiting to talk revision. Joan is the author of a pile of books, from picture books to novels, including the latest in her Princess Juniper series, PRINCESS JUNIPER OF THE ANJU. 

Into the Revision Tub We Go!

By Ammi-Joan Paquette

Over the past few weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about revision. It’s sort of a love-hate relationship we have with this magnificent beast, isn’t it? (Hopefully that’s not just me!)

Quite honestly, I’ve always been more of a drafter. There’s something about the tangible heft of plowing through a first draft that satisfies my deepest writer-urges. (Or maybe my neurotic hyper-organization tendencies!) When you’re drafting, you always know where you’re at. Daily progress? 1000 words = great! 2000 words = awesome! 50 words = . . . um, points for showing up?

But revision is kind of like being in a bathtub with an octopus. You’re never 100% sure who’s scrubbing who’s back and whether by the end of the session you’re going to end up cleaner than when you started. (On the plus side, you’re probably getting some great sensory research in.) So revision and I have something of a patchy history.

But as I’ve worked my way through the Princess Juniper series, I’ve come to realize how important revision is, and how strongly I rely on it. The truth is: I love drafting, but my drafts are downright sloppy. At that stage I’m basically just churning out the raw plot. The end result is a quivering mash of around 35-40,000 words. There is no time when I am not deathly afraid that this draft will be the one that doesn’t come together. I thought it when drafting Princess Juniper of the Anju last year, and I thought it while drafting the third and final installment in the series, Princess Juniper of Torr, several months ago.

Each and every time, though, the messy draft is followed by a headlong dive into that ol’ revision bathtub. And gradually I’ve come to realize something: Revision really is where the magic happens. Drafting is rush and wonder and discovery; but revision is craft. Revision is where you pull out the magnifying glass and examine every aspect of your story. Characters? Deepen. Arcs? Launch. Stakes? Heighten. Language? Smooth. Voice? Enrich. And that (long, effortful) process brings a deep satisfaction all its own.

I’ve also learned to work within my own constraints. I am the type of result-oriented author that needs a tangible roadmap for creation. With drafting that’s a measurable word count. With revision, I’ve learned to make (what else?) a to-do list. All through the early stages, I keep a document open where I jot down anything I can think of that I want to follow up on later. When my critique partners send along notes; when my editor comes back with comments; when I begin my own read-through and start seeing blank spots. One by one by one, they all go on my list. During my recent foray into Princess Juniper of Torr, my revision to-do list capped out at 94 bullet points.—Everything from “show father’s reaction to Juniper’s short hair” to “add more emotion to her return home” to “build up the climax to give it more punch.” It’s all measurable, it’s all exciting, it all becomes immensely doable.

A couple months ago, book #2 in my series hit the shelves. Princess Juniper of the Anju first saw the world as a cluttered, messy, abbreviated draft. It’s now 62,773 words long, and just as rich and layered and satisfying as I have been able to make it. It’s far from perfect, I’m sure, but having gone down all my checklists and satisfied all my criteria (not to mention innumerable read- throughs), I can ultimately say that my wet tangle with the revision monster was worth it. And if I left the bathtub with a tentacle or two more than I went in with—who’s counting?

Happy revising, all!

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Teachers Write 7.21.16 Thursday Quick-Write with Heidi Schulz

Good morning! It’s hard to believe how quickly the summer’s flying by, isn’t it? Today is quick-write day, and your guest author is Heidi Schulz, who likes to tell people that she lies to children for fun and profit. Heidi is 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 will publish her picture book debut, Giraffes Ruin Everything, in August. 

Today’s challenge from Heidi? Be funny!

Want to have a humorless conversation? Start trying to analyze why something is funny. Humor likes to shrivel up and die from close examination. But that’s okay! We can still learn a lot from its corpse. What makes something funny, anyway?

Think about the last time you laughed—not one of those courtesy chuckles, but a true, deep, belly laugh. Odds are the thing you were responding to came as a surprise. Truly funny things are often unexpected. As you are writing humor, think about what might surprise and delight your reader.

Why is humor important?

Humor engenders sympathy. It breaks down barriers. It opens the gateway to other emotions. When I teach humor workshops I often ask if participants have seen the movie Guardians of the Galaxy, and if so, which characters got the most laughs. Everyone agrees Rocket and Groot, right? Then I ask, which characters made you tear up, get a lump in your throat, or elicited some such emotional response? Once again, Rocket and Groot are the big winners here.

I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Laughing with a character is a bonding experience, which is why I feel it’s important, even in serious books.

Still not sure? Take a look at Melinda Sordino in Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak and Doug Swieteck in Gary D. Schmidt’s Okay for Now. Try to imagine how those stories would be different if not for the delightfully clever and humorous voices of those narrators.

We are able to connect more deeply with those characters, even in the midst of their pain, because humor makes it feel safer to do so. As a result, we feel everything more deeply.

But, I’m not a naturally funny person!

That’s okay! You don’t have to be able to tell jokes or make people pee their pants laughing over cocktail conversation order to write humor. Maybe your humor doesn’t blossom on command, but writing is a slow, meditative process. You can take your time with it. If you have ever laughed at something, you understand humor. Don’t shy away from trying just because you have never been the class clown. Perhaps all you need are a few new tools and some practice.

Astound Your Friends, Confound Your Enemies: Five Humor Writing Tricks

1. The Rule of Three

Groupings of three feel more complete, more pleasing to readers. They are also more humorous. Just be sure not to bury your punch line. If I change the order of the example below so that the funny part is in the middle it becomes far less effective.

Original: “I imagined skipping over there and asking if anyone would like to trade places. I’d offer to play goalie. They could be hunted down by a maniac in a blue Crown Victoria.”—The Wig in the Window by Kristen Kittscher

Altered: I imagined skipping over there and asking if anyone would like to trade places. They could be hunted down by a maniac in a blue Crown Victoria. I’d offer to play goalie.

Not as good, is it?

Make sure you end with the joke, and then build in a beat, perhaps by ending the paragraph, or even adding in a scene or chapter break. That rest will help give emphasis to the last line—the funny part.

2. Specificity

Specificities are funnier than generalities. In the example below, the size, breed, and name of the animal is far more humorous than if it just read “dog.” Read the sentence aloud both ways and see what I mean.

Original: “I saw her out on the front stoop one afternoon with her arms full. She held a jewelry box and a stack of photo albums and her teacup Chihuahua, Billy Dee Williams.”—The True Story of Smeckday by Adam Rex

Altered: “I saw her out on the front stoop one afternoon with her arms full. She held a jewelry box and a stack of photo albums and her dog.”

Try being specific. Is your character eating “cereal” or “Sugar-Frosted Honey Nuggets?” Look for areas where details such as this will add to the humor and voice of your work.

3. Hyperbole

Hyperbole is specificity exaggerated, and it can be used to great comedic effect. Read through your work, looking for areas you might be able to exaggerate. I’ll bet there are a billion of them.

“I homed in on Adam and his precious violin, which was probably handcrafted under a mountain by dwarves, it was so expensive.”—Unidentified Suburban Object by Mike Jung

4. Incongruity/Funny Juxtapositions

Incongruity is unexpected. It’s surprising. And it’s really funny.

Ask yourself, “What is the polar opposite of what is currently happening in this scene?”—for example, Heavy Metal Mondays at your local Teavana shop, or vicious attack chickens—then see if you can incorporate it.

“George ducked as they zoomed past his head—pecking and flapping and flailing and floundering and squawking. Tabitha ran to help him. ‘STRONGARM’S CHICKENS!’ George yelped as twenty or more of them surrounded him and Tabitha. They had wicked gleams in their eyes and looked rather hungry.”—Pilfer Academy by Lauren Magaziner

5. Reversal of Expectations

This is similar to incongruity, but can be subtler. As a writer, you plant clues, leading your reader to believe something is about to happen, and then, surprise! it’s something totally different. (Remember how I said truly funny things are often unexpected?)

“Anger and fear are close kin; even closer than my brother Danforth and me. As children, we were nearly inseparable. At least that’s what the surgeon said—though with skill and effort he eventually prevailed.”—Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code by Heidi Schulz (Hi!)

Practice Makes Funny

Like every other bit of writing, revision is where your humorous bits are going to start to shine. You may rewrite a joke or funny scene ten times, or more, before you get it right. That’s okay! Keep at it.

Ask your critique partners to highlight anything they found funny. If they didn’t get the joke you were going for, try reframing or replacing it with something else. Unlike a stand-up comedian who has one shot for a joke to land or bomb, unless you are writing in front of a live audience, you have the chance to refine as much as you need.

In the meantime, start paying attention to what makes you laugh. Can you emulate what the creator did to elicit that response from you?

Today’s assignment: Think of an everyday activity, such as: making breakfast, getting the mail, brushing your teeth, walking the dog, etc. and turn that activity into an extreme sport. Write a paragraph or two from the point of view of a sports commentator, using the rule of three, specificity, hyperbole, incongruity, and/or reversal of expectations to add humor.

(If you want a fun example of sports commentating, watch this exciting race:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jfaXbh0Pkb4)

On your mark. Get set. GO BE HILARIOUS!  

And then come back and share some laughs in the comments!

Posted in TeachersWrite | 27 Responses

Teachers Write 7.20.16 Q&A Wednesday

Good morning! Wednesday is Q&A day on Teachers Write, which means it’s your chance to ask questions of our guest authors. Today’s official guest and answerer-of-all-questions is Mike Winchell!

Other authors may drop in to answer questions, too, so feel free to ask both questions that are Mike-specific and general questions about writing. 

Posted in TeachersWrite | 45 Responses

Teachers Write 7.19.16 Tuesday Quick-Write with Kat Yeh

Good morning! Kat Yeh is today’s guest author for your Tuesday Quick-Write. Kat is the author of THE TRUTH ABOUT TWINKIE PIE. She lives in Long Island but is here with us today to talk about plot twists.

Come On, Baby! Let’s do the Twist.

It’s a tricky thing — the twist.

Sometimes you see them coming a mile away. And sometimes they catch you off guard.

But the very best twists will always feel like that magical combination of utterly surprising and yet inevitable.

So, how do we do this?

Whether you are looking to write a surprise ending to your picture book, throw a little curveball into your novel’s plot, or land a big, jaw-dropping OMG that trashes everything you’ve ever believed about humanity and the world, there are two key elements that can help you pull it all off. The Set Up & Misdirection.

1) SET IT UP

A twist needs a trail of tiny hints that lead up to its reveal. A twist should never seem to come out of nowhere or feel as if it has no purpose other than to shock or surprise. I love that special satisfaction of re-reading a beloved, beautifully written book with a twist and then seeing how the author has skillfully laid down the tracks that led me there. Seeing how what I thought were small story elements or little details turn out to have been planted for big purposes.

Hints should be subtle. Too much and you’ve given it away. I think I’d always rather have a reader miss a hint than feel pummeled over the head with one. Plus, if I’ve set up my story right, there will be another hint coming along shortly.

As you are writing and revising, your Find tool is great for keeping track of your hints and how you distribute them. Search key words and see how each hint or reference is shaped. I like to create a document that lists every hint of my twist from first mention to reveal. And then edit from there.

Don’t forget to think of your audience as you’re making choices about how big or small to make a hint. Something that may seem obvious to you as an adult writer who has read hundreds of books may slide right by a wide-eyed young reader who is less worldly.

2) MISDIRECTION

This is something that all magicians know and use, regularly. Misdirection. Creating a big flashy distraction in one hand, while the other (often in plain sight) holds the key.

Use misdirection to keep a hint from being obvious. Hopefully your story will be filled with many high stakes elements and lots of tension. Use these as your distraction. If the misdirection you use is already part of your storyline, your hints will blend seamlessly into the narrative.

One of the great kidlit twists is from HARRY POTTER & THE SORCERER’S STONE by J.K. Rowling. I hesitantly say *spoiler alert* here, because I actually do know a few people who have yet to become immersed in the joy that is Harry Potter. But I did want to use an example that most people already know.

The Twist:

VOLDEMORT IS ALIVE AND ON THE BACK OF QUIRRELL’S HEAD UNDER A TURBAN.

Terrifying and wonderful and, if you go back and look, perfectly planted with seeds and cloaked in misdirection. From the very beginning, J.K. Rowling leaves a trail that upon rereading is easy to see. Here are just a few examples:

1) Quirrell nervously lies about the origins of his turban. Hint.

At the beginning of the story, Quirrell tells the students that the purple turban he never takes off is a gift from an African prince for getting rid of a zombie.  “But they weren’t sure they believed this story. For one thing, when Seamus Finnegan asked eagerly to hear how Quirrell had fought off the zombie, Quirrell went pink and started talking about the weather…” This funny and outlandish bit (zombies & stuttering & a silly teacher in a purple turban!) distracts us from the fact that QUIRRELL LIED. He is not telling the students the reason he wears a turban is because the Dark Lord is under there. Misdirection.

2) The first time Harry’s scar hurts, Quirrell is sitting right there. Hint.

From the start, poor Professor Quirrell’s personality distracts us from his whereabouts and actions. He is scared and stuttering and weak. While Snape is the obvious Bad Guy. Mean and greasy. “The hook-nosed teacher looked past Quirrell’s turban straight into Harry’s eyes — and a sharp, hot pain shot across the scar on Harry’s forehead.” Ahh! Strange, greasy haired teacher (ew!) looks into Harry’s eyes just as the pain comes. Misdirection.

3) When Harry is almost killed in a game of Quidditch— once again, Quirrell is right there. Hint.

Early into the story, it is established that Snape hates Harry. And now Harry’s broom has gone rogue and Snape is seen staring right at him (again!) and muttering something! Hermione attempts to save Harry. “…as she knocked Professor Quirrell headfirst into the row in front. Reaching Snape, she crouched down, pulled out her wand, and whispered a few, well-chosen, words. Bright blue flames shot from her want onto the hem of Snape’s robes.”

We are so focused on Snape, that the falling over of seemingly-there-for-comic-relief Quirrell is not nearly as interesting as blue flames. He is knocked over and the broom stops —and we register that information — but mostly we are thinking about Snape. Misdirection!

Now look at your own story. Check those hints that lead to your twist. Are they obvious? Or cloaked in misdirection?

Here are some of my favorite twists: The Sixth Sense for movies, When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead for kidlit novels, and One Cool Friend written by Toni Buzzeo, illustrated by David Small for picture books (check it out to see hints and misdirection in both writing and illustration!).

Today’s assignment: What are some of your favorite twists in beloved movies and books? Choose one to write about; be sure to talk about the set-up and misdirections. Doing this helps you to use those beloved favorites as mentor texts as you get ready to write your own twists. And feel free to share your ideas in the comments if you’d like.

 

Happy twisting!

Posted in TeachersWrite | 32 Responses

Teachers Write 7.18.16 Mini-Lesson Monday with Mike Jung

Good morning! Jo has your Monday Morning Warm-Up here, and we have guest author Mike Jung visiting with today’s mini-lesson! Mike is the author of GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES as well as UNIDENTIFIED SUBURBAN OBJECT. He’s also plays a mean ukulele, and he joins us today to challenge a bit of conventional writing wisdom…

mike

Write About What You Don’t Know

One of the most common pieces of accepted writing wisdom is “write what you know,” meaning…okay, it’s pretty self-explanatory. Of course, every most common piece of accepted writing wisdom has its equal and opposite reaction, and for that one it’s “write what you don’t know,” meaning we should push ourselves, reach outside the comfortable boundaries of our current knowledge, and write about things we don’t know, but want to know, and are willing to learn about. Be diligent and respectful, do your research, have trustworthy people who can read your work with an informed perspective, etc.

Good advice, to be sure. However, HOWEVER, that’s not what I’m talking about in this post, as you can tell by the clever insertion of “about” between “write” and “what.” When I say “write about what you don’t know,” I mean something very different from the aforementioned “write what you don’t know,” because I’m not talking about approaching a story whose core is outside of our existing knowledge or life experience, using research/interviews/travel/etc. in order to fill those gaps of knowledge and experience to the greatest extent possible, then writing about that new knowledge with as much authority as we can muster. What I’m talking about is seizing upon a moment in which we discover a gap in our knowledge, experience, understanding, or worldview, and writing about how and why that gap exists.

I know, super-tricky! How do we write about something we don’t know about if we don’t know about it? Could you be any more confusing, Mike? What kind of writer are you? Maybe an example would be more illuminating. Yes, I’m thinking this blog post through as I write it, sorry. #notsorry

My mother and I have a complicated relationship. I love her, we’re very alike in more than one way, and we have a lot of difficulty communicating. I won’t go into all of the reasons for that difficulty, partly because I still don’t fully understand them all myself, but there’ve been some calamitously large gaps in our knowledge about each other, including my knowledge about her childhood and adolescence in post-WWII Korea. That’s changed to some degree over the past ten years, and the credit for that goes to my wife Miranda, because she’s somehow able to talk to my mother in a way I’m not, and as a result I’ve heard some stories about my family history that I don’t remember ever hearing before, some of them expected, some of them truly harrowing, all of them startling in their unfamiliarity. I knew my brothers were already more familiar with these stories than I was; like I said, it’s very, very complicated.

I really am enough of a creatively opportunistic troglodyte to have very quickly thought about these story fragments (because they did feel like haltingly conveyed fragments to me) as literary raw material. Miranda rightfully thought that those stories held the seeds of a compelling memoir, and that’s how I very briefly thought about them in terms of storytelling (“briefly” because collaborating with family members on any kind of project is a psychological minefield I’m not even remotely ready to walk through). Write what I don’t know, as they say. My mother’s experiences are not my own; would it be possible for me to learn about them to the point where I could write about them authoritatively in any way?

I didn’t know, and I still don’t know, because I ended up doing something quite different, albeit in a very diffuse, long-term, subconscious kind of way. I didn’t write anything that was directly about my mother’s very challenging experiences as a child and teenager in Korea; I thought about them, but I didn’t write about them. And I thought about other things. I thought about how and why it is that my mother and I have such intense troubles with communication; I thought about the shatteringly vast differences in our life experiences, and the equally shattering similarities in how we sometimes approach the world around us; I thought about the fact that there’s so much about my mother’s life that I didn’t know, and still don’t know.

Eventually, gradually, over years, I ended up writing about that lack of knowledge. It wasn’t a linear, A-to-B process, because sorting through the entire history of my relationship with my mother’s not something you do over the course of a couple of lattes, you know what I mean? And I didn’t take these psychological and conversational experiences with my mom in a direct, ripped-from-the-family-headlines kind of way, although there may very well come a day when I do exactly that. What I ended up writing about, years later, was a book called Unidentified Suburban Object in which a character (her name’s Chloe Cho) knows nothing about her parents’ pre-immigration life, tries very, very hard to find out, and then does, with surprising results. The story of Chloe’s parents bears only the most broad and nonspecific resemblance to my parents’ story, and the reason Chloe knows so little isn’t a reason that it’d even be possible to use as an explanation for my lack of knowledge.

Chloe’s emotional reactions are true to life, however. They’re distilled down to their essence in some ways, and my lifetime of pondering these questions gave Chloe a far greater degree of self-awareness and critical inquiry than I ever possessed as a tween-age kid, but there’s real honesty in the emotional underpinnings of that story.

My mini-lesson probably won’t provide any immediate solutions to problems in what you’re writing today. Or heck, maybe it will, but I think of it in longer-view terms than that. Maybe you could try it anyway? Writing doesn’t have to be a short term thing, after all, and actively building the ability to examine our internal selves is one of the most important aspects of doing this work. If we can engage in this kind of self-examination, which can feel so unresolved for so long, we can unearth a wealth of emotional honesty. I value emotional honesty; when it comes to doing the work of writing books for children, it’s probably what I value most. Maybe we can think of this as a way of laying groundwork for future work that’s more polished and more complete.

Today’s assignment: Is there some action, event, period of time, swath of history, or social arena that you didn’t know about, and jarred your sense of self when you learned more? Have you thought about why you didn’t know? How did you finally end up knowing more? Write about that. Don’t write about the thing you didn’t know about; write about the reasons you didn’t know about it. It may feel awkward. It may actually hurt. Write about it anyway. You can do it. You may find that this is one that wants to stay in your notebook for now, but as always, feel free to share a paragraph or two of what you wrote today in the comments if you’d like.

Posted in TeachersWrite | 21 Responses

Teachers Write 7.17.16 Dear Fiction… A letter from Erica Perl

It’s Sunday check-in time, so be sure to stop by Jen’s blog for a group hug and to see how everyone’s doing with their writing this week. 

Our guest here today is Erica Perl, the author of many popular works of fiction for young readers, including Ferocious Fluffity: A Mighty Bitey Class Pet (illustrated by Henry Cole), coming soon from Abrams and The Capybara Conspiracy: A Novel in Three Acts, coming soon from Knopf. Erica’s here today sharing an open letter…to fiction!

fluffity

Dear Fiction,

How are you? Guessing you look great – you always do! I have a confession to make: I think about you all the time. I know, I know: non-fiction is super hot right now, and I totally get why. Non-fiction helps kids learn about actual circumstances beyond their own and it also validates real experiences they were sure no one else shared. Best of all, it helps them to see the world as full of possibilities, real ones that could actually happen and are supported with back matter and citations and proof. Yep, non-fiction is still packed with all that nutritional oomph but now it’s better-tasting than ever. A non-fiction book is the basis for the hottest show on Broadway, for crying out loud! And have you read any of the Nathan Hale’s Hazardous Tales? Genius! There’s none of that gritty stuff that used to get stuck in your teeth when we were kids, remember that?

And yet… oh, I’m just going to come out and say it. I still love YOU! When I go to the bookstore looking for a new friend, it’s your shelves are my first and foremost destination. Sometimes, I play coy and just admire your jackets, which are often the prettiest in all the land. But even when you have the plainest of wrappers, it’s your inner beauty – your words – that wins me over every time. You always deliver delicious surprises and unexpected developments, even when you swear you are going to be “realistic.” I always defend you, by the way, against those haters that call you “fake” and “made up.” Think about it: Shakespeare and Sophocles could’ve stuck with non-fiction, and then where would we be? Plus, it’s not as if non-fiction has a monopoly on supporting text-based expository writing. I feel I owe it to you because of all you’ve done for me. I mean, you take me to all kinds of new places, some of which are places I thought I already knew, like New York City, or Narnia, or my own heart. And you introduce me to new friends, many of whom are people I didn’t think could possibly exist. Okay, fine, they don’t exist – you are Fiction, after all – but they feel as familiar to me as members of my family.

I know instantly upon meeting them that I will carry with me for the rest of my life. You make me laugh and make me cry, sometimes even on the same page (*cough, cough* Lily and Dunkin), and you make me see the world a little differently every time, in the best possible way. 

That’s why I can’t quit you, Fiction. You had me at Once Upon a Time…

Love Always,

Erica

Today’s writing prompt (if you’re up for some Sunday extra credit!): Write a love letter to an inanimate object or intangible concept. Go!

 

Posted in TeachersWrite | 10 Responses
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