Teachers Write 8.3.16 Q&A Wednesday

Good morning! This is our final Q&A Wednesday of the summer, so if you’ve been saving up questions, today is the day! Our official guest authors are Augusta Scattergood and Karen Romano Young!


Other authors will probably pop in today as well, so feel free to direct questions directly to Karen and/or Augusta or just ask general questions for anyone to answer. 

Posted in TeachersWrite | Comments closed

Teachers Write 8.2.16 Tuesday Quick-Write with Nanci Turner Steveson

Good morning! It’s time for your last Tuesday Quick-Write of the summer, and our guest today is Nanci Turner Steveson. Nanci is the author of SWING SIDEWAYS, a great new novel for middle grade readers, and she joins us today to talk about “spit poetry.” 


Let me start by saying I am a novelist, not a poet. However, I am on the Board of Directors of Jackson Hole Writers, and we have a very active group of poets who meet monthly. I was just starting to work through revisions of Swing Sideways when I decided I should attend one meeting so I could get to know that side of our organization.

I am a very organic writer. Everything I write in a first draft is, as we say, “puked onto the page.” You will see shortly that the quality of loveliness in this puking process is non-existent. It’s during revisions that I take The Ugly Duckling and work toward creating something I hope will be beautiful. I like to think of this as sculpting.

This process changed after listening to the poets dissect one person’s work at a meeting I attended. They discussed (for 20 minutes!) how the placement of one word changed the magnificence, or clarity, or subtleness of one line. I started going to their meetings to learn, because it was clear I had a lot to learn from them.

My most active takeaway has been an exercise I challenge you to try with a piece of rough draft work you may be fretting over. Below you will see the extremely ugly, spit-it-out-on-the-page paragraph I tried this with the first time. I took that mess of thoughts and words and plunked them onto separate document, in a different format, to create more white space: double line spacing, and sentence breaks so at first glance it looks like it could be the makings of a poem.

In this format it was easier for me to see the words that needed to come out. I began cutting and, with each pass, the beauty of the real message began to shine. After I got rid of all unnecessary words, I was able to put it back into prose form to flesh out the rest. The paragraph at the bottom is the actual result of this process.

ORIGINAL MESS: Ahead of me, about one hundred yards away, was an area that looked darker than the rest of the night. I looked at the sky and saw how it was changing from dark to light. I was still crying, hiccuping away the tears I couldn’t control, looking for something, but what? Something to tell me where I was, and to show me what we’d been searching for all summer. The wooden oars of the rowboat burned my hands when I picked them up again, my hands were weak, achy, they hurt as much as my heart. But I rowed on, toward where I thought land might be, where I thought there might be a willow like the one we’d seen in the picture. Maybe if I found just the willow, maybe that would be enough for California, maybe then I could take her home and we could forget about everything and hopefully it all would be fine. But I had to find that piece of land, that part of the shore that could be were Dad said I would find the willow.



Ahead of me,

about one hundred yards away,

was an area that looked darker

than the rest of the night.

I looked at the sky

and saw how it was changing

from dark to light.

I was still crying,

hiccuping away the tears

I couldn’t control,

looking for something,

but what?

Something to tell me where I was,

and to show me what

we’d been searching for

all summer.

The wooden oars of the rowboat

burned my hands

when I picked them up again,

my hands were weak,


they hurt

as much as my heart.

But I rowed on,

toward where I thought land might be,

where I thought there might be

a willow

like the one we’d seen

in the picture.

Maybe if I found just the willow,

maybe that would be enough

for California,

maybe then I could take her home

and we could forget

about everything

and hopefully

it all would be fine.

But I had to find that piece of land,

that part of the shore

that could be were Dad said

I would find the willow.



Up ahead, a ribbon of sky changed, ebony to silver. I rubbed my arms and hiccuped away the last of my tears. When I reached for the oars again, the first hint of peach was beginning to mingle with the gray. The border of the lake took on a real shape. I could make out the tops of the trees and the bottom, where their trunks met the ground—black against green. Wood in hand, I rowed harder, faster toward the blooming light, toward a place where the earth arched and curved, then spun into an almost perfect circle.


Today’s assignment: Try this yourself now… Take something you literally just spit out and see where you end up after using this little trick. Would love to hear how it worked for you, and/or your students.

Happy sculpting!


Posted in TeachersWrite | Comments closed

Teachers Write 8.1.16 Mini-Lesson Monday with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich & Audrey Vernick

Good morning! Ready to get writing for our final week of Teachers Write? Start with Jo’s Monday Morning Warm-Up, and when you’re back, we have a great mini-lesson today – from Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich and Audrey Vernick, two great authors who have collaborated on their newest project, called TWO NAOMIS.

Many of us know the positives of collaborative work; it can strengthen higher order thinking skills and Social-Emotional Learning (SEL); can lessen stress by reducing burdens on individual students, build community, and even promote healthy competition. And since working together is often enhanced by snacking together whenever possible, it can also be an opportunity for cake. (Really, though; when isn’t there an opportunity for cake?)

There can be challenges, though:  the workload becomes uneven, some voices dominate while others go unheard, students worry about being critical of peers—it’s a delicate balance.

Collaboration for us is all about conversation — asking questions, listening for answers. But it’s okay–it’s great, even–if that conversation has some surprises. In a collaborative writing piece, writers have the chance to throw some surprises at their collaborators–and it can really up the fun quotient. When one writer adds details that are new and unexpected, it can be confusing and challenging. But more often, with the right mindset, it can be fun. Imagine a juggler working with two balls. Along comes the collaborator. The juggler stands there, waiting for the third ball to be tossed in. But what if the collaborator tosses a small toaster? A giant stuffed Elmo? Or a bowling trophy? Being open to surprises and willing to work with them is one of the great joys of collaboration.


I love incorporating drama into my workshops and visits, so I often bring index cards that have characters written on them, such as “ten year old”, “toddler”, “mom” and a separate set of cards with one-word emotions, like “frustrated”, “ecstatic”, “miserable”, etc. Then we just mix and match, and act it out, to work on using descriptive language: “Ecstatic toddler!” “Frustrated mom!” We act it out, and take note of movement, dialogue, reaction, etc. and pretty soon we’ve written a scene together.  Soon we throw in different settings and go wild: 

“A frustrated mom at a fast food restaurant! With an ecstatic toddler! And no money!” Then the students make their own sets of index cards and do the same in small groups. Writing “out loud” in this way can free students up from a focus on writing the “right” words to the freedom of really seeing and being the words as they brainstorm together, to noticing small details that enhance storytelling and listening others’ ideas and points of view.

When we were writing a chapter about one of the first joint Naomis meetups, we started out that way:

What if Naomi Marie had planned to go to the museum with her best friend to work on the BEST PROJECT EVER, on what was supposed to be the perfect day off from school that turned into a forced outing with her pesky little sister, no best friend, AND the Other Naomi who’s threatening to ruin EVERYTHING about her life?

What if Naomi Edith loves nothing more than spending a Lazy Day Off at home, leaving home only to go to her favorite bakery for a late-morning treat, and wakes up to find that she is going to the museum (not the one that her father’s been promising to take her to), with the Other Naomi, a pesky little sister, and a mother who’s NOT her mom?

And what if that mom and that dad are nervous and preoccupied when the Naomis need them most?

And then what if that pesky little sister keeps getting lost and always needs to go to the bathroom?

My Naomi began this chapter annoyed with her little sister. As Audrey wrote her Naomi’s irritation with these moments, I was able to see very clearly how my Naomi, who was equally irritated, also began to feel protective of that same pesky little sister, and had opportunities to include moments and details that showed her tender “big sister” side as well.

Two Naomis started with a conversation – a very silly, what if this? and what if THAT? conversation. And once we settled on a story of two girls both named “Naomi”, we ran with it.


“When I was a junior and senior in college, I was part of an improv comedy troupe. Improv is very much an anything-goes kind of situation, but there’s one main rule everyone generally abides by–the YES, AND rule. If you’re in a scene and someone says, “I’m sorry you broke your arm,” you don’t contradict. You go with it. You’re now a character with a broken arm.

One of the most fun parts for me of collaborative writing is trying mightily to YES, AND any surprising elements your collaborator plants in the text and throwing her some of your own. It’s basically about accepting a premise or information. For me, it made my writing go in directions I would not have strayed, and though it can be scary, it can also be a very good thing.

Here’s how it played out in Two Naomis. We had two characters who shared a first name. We had not yet picked out middle names. And in a chapter Olugbemisola was writing, she gave the Naomi I was writing the middle name Edith. EDITH! I did not think of the Naomi I was writing as someone who would have the middle name Edith! My initial instinct was to talk it out with Olugbemisola and come up with a different name. But once I got past that initial reaction, I was ready to yes-and my way through that. The first Edith who came to mind (after Edith Houghton, the subject of a picture-book biography I had just completed) was Edith Head, the famous costume designer. And just like that I made Naomi E.’s mother, who did not yet have a set occupation, a costume designer which led me to ideas I’d have never had if Olugbemisola had given Edith the kind of middle my character thought she’d have preferred, like Violet or Ruby.

Using questions as a collaborative writing and revision strategy can help make the process less stressful and even fun for student writers. As we worked together, writing alternate chapters, instead of “critiquing” each other’s work, and simply suggesting changes or edits, we asked questions.

How do you want the reader to feel?

What do you mean by this phrase?

Why is this character doing that?

How do you think Character A will feel if Character B does this?

Why did you make her say THAT?

This strategy of focusing on meaning-making rather than “corrections” can ease the pressure of “being critical” for students working with each other on revision, and encourage student writers to dig deeper, to clarify, to figure out what they really mean. And as we believe that revision is an essential part of the writing process, we find that revisiting and revising these strategies is also vital. Give student writers opportunities for confidential assessment and feedback without the worry of stigma as whistleblowers, as well as opportunities for whole group conversation…about the conversation.

Asking open-ended questions, listening with “Yes, and…” in mind, making the “what ifs” a conversation – incorporating these strategies in the collaborative writing process opens windows of opportunity for surprise and wonder, for creative thinking, and for unique and thoughtful stories. And that is certainly something to celebrate together.

Perhaps with cake.

YES, AND ice cream.

Today’s Assignment: Want to give this collaborative writing thing a try? Find a buddy. It can your friend or partner or one of your kids or neighbors. It can  be an online friend you’ve met here or a colleague at school. Try brainstorming a story idea together using some of Gbemi & Audrey’s techniques. Then come back and let us know how it went!

Posted in TeachersWrite | Comments closed

Teachers Write 7.31.16 Retelling Fairytales with Grace Lin

Good morning! It’s Sunday, which means Jen is hosting the weekly check-in on her blog, Teach Mentor Texts.

Grace Lin is our guest author here today! Grace is the author of the Newbery Honor book WHEN THE MOUNTAIN MEETS THE MOON, and its new companion book, WHEN THE SEA TURNED TO SILVER as well as the Ling & Ting series for emerging readers and a pile of other great books. She joins us today to talk about the magic writers can find in fairytales!

Retelling Fairytales is like Redecorating a House

As a writer, I love retelling fairytales. I like to think of it as refurnishing a well-built house. You already know that the structure is solid, what you are doing is just changing it to your own tastes.

Though, that can be a challenge, too. How do you make a house that has belonged to another family for generations into your own home? How can you dare to take down that porch (which you think is ugly) when it’s been there for hundreds of years?

But think about it this way—for that house to be lived in, for that house to again hold life, it should be adapted for a new owner. That is like our classic stories—for them to continue to live, we should allow them to change for our new generations, for better or worse. I often think about my time in Rome, Italy when I saw a famous Bernini statue sitting in the middle of a busy street, ageing and discoloring. “That’s terrible,” I said to my Italian companion, “In the US, that would be in a museum!” My friend looked at me in shock, “But putting it in a museum would be like killing it! Here it is looked at and enjoyed, it is a part of life.”

Our classic stories are like this. We can let them change and be a part of our modern lives. And as writers, we are the ones that get to do it!

How? Well, for me, it’s allowing myself to ask, “What if?” One of my favorite stories when I was a child was the ‘Wizard of Oz,’ but it was also one that caused me the most pain. As I mention in my TEDx talk, in fifth grade a fellow student told that I could not play Dorothy in the school play because I was Chinese. Devastated, I was so convinced that she was correct that I didn’t even try out at the audition.

Yet, what if Dorothy was Chinese? Why couldn’t she be? What if she didn’t have to be in Kansas at all? What if she wasn’t even called Dorothy, at all?

Because the wonderful, magical thing about stories is that anything can happen. Why is it crazy for Dorothy to be Chinese when her house actually flies to another world? How could that be more unrealistic?

Of course, “what if” questions can be fraught with layers of concerns, especially if—like me—you are choosing to adapt a story that is not exactly of your culture. When I rework a Chinese story, I often worry that I anger traditionalists with my “Americanization” of the stories (a girl, for example, would never go on an adventure). And, with the attention given to diversity (which I think is a really good thing), I know many people worry about “messing up” or “getting in trouble.” But, in the end, it’s just like redecorating that house. I do the best I can to be respectful of the neighbors, but I also have to change it to how I see fit, because I am the one that will live in it.

I hope you like living in yours!

Writing prompt:

Take a fairy tale with traditionally-set-in-stone characters and settings and ask yourself some “What if?” questions. How would the rest of the story go? (Fun tidbit! A character in my upcoming novel, “When the Sea Turned to Silver” was inspired by asking myself, “What if the Little Mermaid was Chinese?”) Here are some “What if” questions to start you out:

“What if Cinderella was a boy?”

“What if Jack (Jack in the Beanstalk) was a girl?”

“What if Sleeping Beauty never woke up?”

“What if Goldilocks were black?”

“What if Hansel & Gretel took place in the sea?”

“What if Snow White’s mother was still alive?”


Watch Grace’s TEDx talk, “The Windows and Mirrors of Your Child’s Bookshelf”


Posted in TeachersWrite | Comments closed

Teachers Write 7.30.16 Writing Scary Stories with Tracey Baptiste

Good morning! We’re three months away from Halloween, but hopefully you’re in the mood to be scared…because today’s guest is Tracey Baptiste, the author of THE JUMBIES and its forthcoming sequel. She’s with us today to talk about writing scary stories.

How to Write a Scary-But Not Too Scary-Story

Plotting a story for kids with a high fear-factor can be tricky. But to get an emotional reaction from the reader, whether that emotion is fear or joy works the same as it would for any other type of novel. It means tying all of the action pieces to an emotional reaction. In this case, that emotional reaction will be fear. But for little guys, it’s important that a scary story is not too scary. Frightening elements need to be cut with other things: humor, frustration, longing, success. And of these, humor is probably going to be your biggest ally.

To illustrate how this works, I’ll use the plot points from my own novel, The Jumbies, to chart the emotional reaction from the reader and show how to strike an emotional balance that doesn’t leave your reader cowering (unless of course, that’s your end goal). All emotional factors will be numbered 0-10, with 1 being only a moderate feeling, to a strong feeling at 10. Please note, these numbers are SUPER SCIENTIFIC.


Emotional Reaction

The Jumbies begins with Corinne running through a dark forest after an animal.

 Not too scary. Fear factor 2.


Corinne worries that the animal she is chasing might attack.

This could get bad. Fear factor 4.


She’s lost in the dark forest.

We all have that fear of being lost. Plus dark forest? Fear factor 6.


She remembers a trick to get out and starts to exit.

The reader will feel Corinne’s relief, but she’s not out yet. Fear factor 2.


But then something seems to be following her, and it snarls.

Scary thing in the darkness. Snarl probably means something toothy! Fear factor 6.


She gets out of the forest and is immediately grabbed by a pair of hands.

Has something gotten her? The toothy thing that snarled? Fear factor 7.


The hands turn out to be her father, they have a bonding moment.

That’s a nice surprise! Fear factor 0/Love 5/Humor 3


But as they move away, the thing in the forest follows them out.

Uh oh. It’s coming after her again, but she’s with her dad. Fear factor 3.



The action in chapter one is set up to prime readers for the scary bits throughout the story, but it doesn’t do so at top speed. It eases the reader in, gets stronger, and ends on just a slightly scarier note than where it started.

In chapter two, there is nothing scary at all. I needed to set up Corinne’s relationship with her father, and frankly, the readers need a break. But chapter three, which is purposefully short, is a steady hum of scariness that describes the main jumbie and introduces her motives. Chapter four again, has almost nothing scary in it until the very last line, but the next chapter amps up the scare factor again.


The plot points that create the emotions of love/friendship/humor follow each other, but go in the opposite direction of the plot points that create feelings of fear. This is the balancing act. Chapter by chapter, the plot allows for a very varied emotional response. It is a very purposeful emotional roller coaster that keeps kids turning the page, not knowing what will happen next.


Take out one chapter of the story you are working on and write out the action and emotional reaction you expect from the reader using the chart below. Then use a line graph (Click on the Insert tab, then Chart in Word) to plot out the emotional action.


Emotional Reaction
















Rules of thumb:

In opening chapters, you want to see more variation in the fear factor. The chart should be all over the place.

In middle chapters, the fear factor should be amped up, but so should other emotions.

Short chapters without much variation are OK, but should be preceded and followed by chapters that are quite different, emotionally.

In the final chapters, the fear factor should be at their highest levels, with other emotions only added in to increase the reader’s feelings of fear/worry for the main character.

Like all horror novels, it should not end on an emotional fear factor of zero. There should be something left over, that keeps the readers on their toes.

Feel free to share a bit of what you wrote today – or a reflection on this prompt (or just say hi to Tracey!) in the comments if you’d like!


Posted in TeachersWrite | Comments closed

Teachers Write 7.29.16 So Many Sides of a Story with Jen Malone

Good morning! Who’s feeling brave this week? It’s Friday, which means it’s time to check in with Gae on her blog and get some feedback on your work-in-progress if you’d like.

We also have guest author Jen Malone joining us. Jen’s titles include AT YOUR SERVICE, YOU’RE INVITED, and THE SLEEPOVER. Her next project is a book written with friends, in multiple points of view. Jen’s joining us today to talk about how that all works!

Group Projects: They’re Not Just For Your Students

The very words “group project” can strike fear in the hearts of your students, but their teachers know better, right?

The writer’s room tends to be a mythical place, typically reserved for TV show scribes, but I’m here to make a case for exactly that type of banding-together approach across all types of fiction. And, in the true spirit of collaboration, I’ve invited some friends to join me (well, not just my friends, but my co-authors.)

The seven of us are about to turn in a manuscript for a multi-authored middle grade novel called Seven Sides to Every Story, which will publish with Simon & Schuster next summer and which we pitched as, “Following the format of the film Love Actually, seven students’ storylines intersect over the course of one night at a middle school dance.”

When I first approached these talented ladies with the idea for a book authored by seven people that would NOT be an anthology, but rather one continuous story, every last one of them said “sign me up” before I even got to the details.  And then we set to work figuring out, um, how exactly do we do that?

We hope to persuade everyone to try this type of writing (really you should- it’s fun, we promise!) so here’s a little conversation about what it’s been like in the trenches:

Jen Malone (At Your Service, The Sleepover, co-author of You’re Invited series):  Rachele, what were your first thoughts when I mentioned this idea?

Rachele Alpine (Operation Pucker Up, You Throw Like A Girl): My immediate reaction? Bring on the crazy! Seriously, I was thrilled to be a part of a project with some of my favorite middle grade authors. I wasn’t sure how (or if!) we’d be able to pull it off. Seven people working on one story sounded like a whole lot of different opinions, but I was up to the challenge from the get go!

Jen: So how exactly are we doing it? Alison? Gail?

Alison Cherry (The Classy Crooks Club, Willows vs. Wolverines): I couldn’t fathom how seven people could possibly agree on one plot and put together an outline that made sense—I can’t even agree with myself about the plots of my books half the time. But it didn’t turn out to be that much of a challenge at all! The seven of us had a long conference call and talked through who each of our characters would be. Then each of us submitted a short explanation of our character’s basic three-act structure, which Jen and I then chopped up and pieced together into a full-book outline. Shockingly enough, the draft we ended up with adhered almost exactly our original plan!

Jen: Ah yes! I have a picture of that notecard-shuffling in action, Alison. Here are the two of us taking over the porch on a writing retreat. Thus far, this has been the only part of the writing process that actually happened in person (and even then, only between two out of the seven of us)! Obviously, M&Ms were critical to the process.


Gail Nall (Breaking the Ice, Out of Tune, co-author of You’re Invited series): Truly adorable picture. I’ll summarize the process: 1) a really good outline, 2) flexibility (no big egos allowed!), 3) an awesome editor and 4) Google docs.

Jen: Yes, Google Docs has been a lifesaver. We can all work at once in the document and leave comments for each other as we go. Here’s an example:

Screen Shot 2016-05-23 at 3.41.26 PM

Jen:  Ronni, what’s been the most enjoyable aspect to writing like this?

Ronni Arno (Ruby Reinvented, Dear Poppy): Friends! I’m an extrovert, and writing is a fairly introverted activity. The fact that I get to connect with my friends/co-authors on this project makes it so much more fun. I love bouncing ideas off of each other, sharing thoughts, and reading what everyone else has written. The fact that we have to incorporate our characters into other characters’ chapters (and vice versa) has been a new experience, too, and I think it intensifies the creative process.

Jen: Definitely social, which is not often a word associated with writing a book. We have a private Facebook page where we can brainstorm solutions together, pop questions up for debate, or even (this happened just this week) answer a poll to vote for a character’s new name. Here’s a screenshot from our initial Google Hangout brainstorming call. (hmm… perhaps we need to be thanking Google in the acknowledgments of this book). Don’t we make it look fun?

brainstorming call 2

Jen: Laughs aside, there has been a learning curve to writing a book in such an unusual way. Alison, what’s been the most challenging for you?

Alison: This isn’t the first collaborative book I’ve written, but the other project involved only two other people, both of whom have been my first-line-of-defense critique partners and close friends for years. Since we’ve read so, so (so so so so) many drafts of each other’s writing, we understand one another’s processes, and giving criticism in a way that makes sense to us has become pretty second-nature. Since I know some of my Seven Sides coauthors significantly less well, we don’t have that kind of shorthand, and that sometimes made it challenging to communicate what I meant in a way everyone could understand. It’s a lot easier to say, “Dude, this chapter makes no sense” to someone you’ve contacted thirty other times that day than it is with someone you’ve never spoken to one-on-one! In general, though, I think we’ve handled this admirably, and it’s been really good practice in explaining my thoughts clearly.

Jen: I would say the same for me, with regard to gaining experience explaining thoughts clearly and tactfully—and that’s never a bad skill for any of us to hone, since we need to be able to do that with critique partners, agents, and/or editors, even when writing on our own. Speaking of our own projects… Dee, how have you juggled working on this book alongside your other solo manuscripts?

Dee Romito (BFF Bucket List, Arrivals and Departures) This book came along at an interesting time because I not only had a deadline for another book, but I was also preparing for my debut middle grade to release. Fortunately, there was such a strong outline for Seven Sides, and structured dates for when chapters were to be turned in or critiqued by, that it was easy to see which project I needed to work on at any given time. Plus, it was so fun working with this group that I usually couldn’t wait to dive back in.

Ronni: I’ll add that it was so great to get on the phone with Dee to hash out our characters’ scenes—knowing that someone else was counting on me helped keep me on task!

Jen: Stephanie, what makes a collaboration like this different from your solo pieces of writing?

Stephanie Faris (30 Days of No Gossip, 25 Roses, Piper Morgan series): Collaborating means letting go of that personal attachment you have to a story a little because what you’re writing feeds into the “greater good” of the work you’re doing. It’s like being an actor in a movie–while you’re over here connecting with your character’s journey, six other authors are connecting with their characters and you’re all working to make the end product as a whole great. So when someone suggests something as an overall change, your job is to go in and make sure that change not only makes your scene work better, but makes their scene work better, as well.

Jen: Well said! I’ll also mention that being open to new formats and styles of writing has taught me a lot I can and will apply to my own solo projects. I never used to plot heavily, but seeing how much more quickly I could draft with an outline in place (a total necessity for a project of this scope) converted me for life. 

As teachers, you have a set of skills and strengths developed in the classroom that can lend itself well to this type of project. Engaged educators are always crowd-sourcing ideas and may be accustomed to fitting outside-the-box creative approaches into a mandated curriculum and/or managing others to achieve a common goal.

So here’s a challenge for you: Create a group project of your own by looping one, two, or a dozen Teacher’s Write participants in on the next writing prompt you try. Feel free to use the comment box below to find others eager to team up. M&Ms are optional.


Posted in TeachersWrite | Comments closed

Teachers Write 7.28.16 Thursday Quick-Write with Laurie Ann Thompson

Good morning! Today’s Thursday Quick-Write shines a light on nonfiction – something our guest author Laurie Ann Thompson does beautifully. Laurie is the author of BE A CHANGEMAKER: HOW TO START SOMETHING THAT MATTERS and EMMANUEL’S DREAM: THE TRUE STORY OF EMMANUEL OFOSU YEBOAH. 

Writing From the Heart: Putting Yourself Into Your Story

I worked on draft after draft of the text that eventually became Emmanuel’s Dream—a true story about a man from Ghana with a disabled leg—for six years before I landed my agent and two more years after that before the manuscript finally sold. I’d done all my research and had written a competent biography. People read it and enjoyed it. But the most common feedback I received was, “Good writing. Unfortunately, there’s just something missing.”

At various points along that bumpy road to publication, I will admit that I occasionally became discouraged. During one particularly low period, my well- meaning husband said something along the lines of, “Why are you—an able-bodied white woman from Wisconsin—writing this story anyway? Maybe it’s time to drop it and move on.” My first reaction was OUCH, but then I started to wonder… maybe he was right. What did I have in common with Emmanuel? Why did his story affect me so deeply? Why did I feel it was important for children to hear? Could I convey that in a meaningful way?

It turns out these were just the questions I needed to ask in order to come up with a brand-new draft that finally worked. You see, I’d had all the facts in the right order, but what was missing was heart—my heart. I’d been so focused on writing the truth that I’d carefully removed my own feelings from the page. But isn’t real emotion just another kind of truth? And isn’t it, perhaps, the most important kind of truth to share with others? When I finally sat down and got clear about my why for telling that story, the how to tell it best revealed itself almost immediately. For me, it wasn’t a story about having a disability. It was about being counted out, challenging an unfair and discriminatory system, and making the world a better place. With that in mind, the heart of my story became clear.

Since then, I’ve used the same approach for every book I’ve written. For example, for my teen how-to guide, Be a Changemaker: How to Start Something that Matters, my why was the intense yearning to change the world that I had felt as a young person and the frustration and disappointment of not knowing where to begin. For my simple picture book, My Dog Is the Best, it was how important my canine companions have been to me throughout the years, despite their various idiosyncrasies and imperfections. Readers may take their own, different meanings from my books, of course, but they won’t be able to until I’ve purposefully injected the proper bits of myself into the books first.

This all feels like it should be obvious to storytellers, yet clearly it took me years to figure out, and even then I only stumbled upon it by accident. In my school visit presentations, I recommend making every single writing assignment uniquely relevant to you, the author, by finding a way to tie it to your own personal interests and concerns, and there’s always an audible gasp of excitement—from students and teachers alike. And just last week a well-published author whom I admire greatly was discussing her struggles with her current work in progress. When I asked what her why was for writing it in the first place, she said she’d never thought about it that way before but couldn’t wait to apply it to her next round of revision!

So, in case it wasn’t obvious to you either, here’s an opportunity to get good and clear on your why and put the missing pieces of you into your work.

Today’s assignment:

Prompt 1: Go somewhere quiet and calm your mind. Turn off your busy brain and focus on your deepest emotions. Think about your current work in progress, if you have one. If not, think about something you’ve already written for Teachers Write. If you haven’t started writing yet, just think about why you want to write in the first place. Now journal for ten minutes about the following questions:

 Why must you tell this story?

 What are you really writing about?

 Why do you care so much?

 What meaning are you trying to create for yourself?

Optional: Once you’ve completed that exercise, go back and look at your work in progress to see if there are ways to put your most authentic self more prominently into your story. Is the work achieving what you’re really wanting it to? Where can you make adjustments that will reveal a bit more of your innermost heart?

Prompt 2: You can also use this basic concept to brainstorm new story ideas!

Write down a list of things that make you feel any kind of strong emotion: happy, sad, scared, angry… you name it. Think about why each item on your list makes you feel the way it does. Is there a story there? Make a document or folder where you can store these kinds of ideas whenever and wherever the emotion strikes!

Whatever you choose to write, feel free to share a paragraph or two in the comments today!

Posted in TeachersWrite | Comments closed

Teachers Write 7.27.16 Q&A Wednesday

Good morning! Got questions about writing?  

It’s Q&A Wednesday on Teachers Write, and today’s official guest author is Hannah Barnaby!

Other folks may stop by to answer questions as well, so feel free to ask things that are Hannah-specific as well as general questions. Hannah & I will be checking the comments today to share answers!

Posted in TeachersWrite | Comments closed

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!


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.




Non-greasy UV protection










“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!”




“Hold on!”


“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!


Posted in TeachersWrite | Comments closed

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.

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?  
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? 
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,


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

Posted in TeachersWrite | Comments closed
  • Find Kate Online

  • Enter your email to receive email notifications of new posts