Teachers Write 7.14.17 Friday Revision Notes with Gwenda Bond

Good morning! Fridays on Teachers Write are feedback days, so feel free to hop on over to Gae’s blog for her Friday Feedback feature. Be brave!

Most Fridays, we’ll be focusing on revision here. Many of our Wednesday Q&A session questions were on that topic, so I hope you’ll find this helpful. Beyond Teachers Write, those who have a novel draft – or pieces of a novel written – and want to take the next step when it comes to revision may want to spend some time with Linda Urban and me on Lake Champlain in the fall. We host an annual weekend revision retreat called Time to Write, with craft talks, workshop and critique sessions, and quiet revision time. It’s held at the Valcour Inn on Lake Champlain, which is pretty much the loveliest place on earth to write and learn. I just got back from a retreat there…

Here’s more info about the Time to Write Revision Retreat for those who might be up for a road trip in November. Back to Teachers Write now…

Today’s guest author is Gwenda Bond, whose work includes the Lois Lane series and the Cirque American series, about daredevil heroines who discover magic and mystery lurking under the big top. She also co-write the the Supernormal Sleuthing Service with her husband, author Christopher Rowe; book one, The Lost Legacy is out now. Gwenda has also written for Publishers Weekly, Locus, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She’s joining us today to share some favorite revision strategies!

I’m one of those writers who loves revision. For me, first drafts are usually at least a little painful (and sometimes tragically awfully so). I fight every draft, usually because I’m so eager to get to the revising part. But sometimes it’s possible to be too eager, for me anyway, and I try to revise before it’s time to revise and just end up–in the words of writer friend Justine Larbalestier, who might have been borrowing them from someone else–”moving around deck chairs on the Titanic.”

So these days my watchword for revision is distance.

A couple of years ago, I realized that my best revisions have all been done at a very specific emotional and psychic distance (bear with me, sometimes it’s impossible not to talk about writing with terms that sound vaguely magical…because so much of the time when it’s going well it feels that way…even if that is a deceptive side effect of hard work). The best way I can describe it is that arm’s length feeling, where I don’t feel like I’m clutching the story to my heart anymore, it’s far enough away that I can see it more clearly–but not so far away that my heart and head don’t feel a strong pull to it. It’s when the story starts to feel flexible. Like I won’t just be breaking it or bashing against it, but see how to mold it–finally!–where I want it to go to make it better. (I also try to get into this frame of mind for outlining, sometimes easier than others.) In a perfect world, time would always or usually do this on its own. But, alas, in the world of deadlines and reality, sometimes you have to speed your brain along as best you can.

Since I had this realization, I’ve worked on perfecting getting into that mindset and have developed a few different strategies to do so. These work in combination or on their own, so try mixing and matching if you’re struggling to wrap your head around a revision. These are all things I do when I’m stuck on a draft too.

1) Work on something else. Especially if I’m expecting notes back quickly or will have to don the revision gloves and slice back into a project right away, one of the most effective things for me is to write something, anything else, as long as it’s fiction. A short story, a fragment, jumping to another novel, whichever. Immersing myself in another project–as long as it’s fiction–decouples my brain from the one I just finished drafting. At least a little.

2) Give myself a reading vacation. Sometimes I’ll give myself a week or two off from writing and just inhale as many good books as I can find. Sometimes they’re in my genre, sometimes they’re as far from it as possible, sometimes a mix, but reading fiction is a great way to let your story brain both work out and relax at the same time. I almost always come out of these stretches ready to work again.

3) Get feedback. Often seeing a story through someone else’s eyes is the best way to get perspective on it and distance from it. Notice your reactions, what resonates and doesn’t, what makes you excited to get back to work and what makes you feel hopeless. Take the helpful stuff and get back to work. Leave the rest on the table.

4) Trust your gut. Let your subconscious work on it. The longer I write, the more intuitive about the process I become. One of my favorite screenwriters is Ernest Lehman, who famously struggled to put the script of North By Northwest together, because he was largely stitching ideas for scenes and moments from himself and Alfred Hitchcock into a story. I’ll just share this anecdote in his own words:

(blockquote)
“So I kept pressing forward, and Hitch, confident that I now knew what the hell I was doing, moved over to MGM from his home base at Universal, and started storyboarding the script with his art director, and casting the roles. And all the time, I’m sitting there in my office sweating the fact that I have no idea whatsoever why the hell they’re all going to Mount Rushmore! Why were these people heading to South Dakota? I had no idea! So, the last act of the script was blank. Actual blank pages! Then Cary Grant came on the picture with some astronomical salary, and I was still sitting there in my office with nothing but a partially-completed script. So I called up Hitch, and I told him we were in big trouble. He came rushing over to my office, sat across from me, and the two of us stared at each other. Finally, he suggested that we call in some mystery novelist to help us kick around ideas, but I didn’t like the idea. After all, I was getting paid by MGM to write the thing, and I felt that it would make me look pretty foolish. I kept saying, “God, what’ll they say about me upstairs?” and Hitch would say, “Don’t worry, I’ll tell them it’s all my fault. I’ll tell them I should’ve been able to help you, but I couldn’t — or something like that.”

“Then we went to his office — it was about six o’clock in the evening — and we kept talking about his idea, even discussing which mystery writer we should get, and, all the time, the right side of my brain was working, and suddenly, as I was listening to him — not really ignoring him — I said, “She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him.” So where the hell did that come from? It just popped into my head. That’s the way it works sometimes: you’ve got a problem and, no matter what else is going on around you, the right side of your brain keeps working on it and then, suddenly, it pops out of nowhere. And Hitch took it right in stride. Even though I’d completely changed the subject and suddenly blurted out, “She takes a gun out of her purse and shoots him,” he didn’t miss a beat and responded, “Yes, the Polish Underground sometimes killed their own members, just to prove they weren’t in the Underground.” And I said, “Yes, but these are fake bullets. That’ll convince Vandamm that he has to take her away with him. Now that she’s a fugitive, he’ll decide to take her on the plane.” And, instantly, I had the whole last act.”
(end blockquote)

Now this was a drafting problem, but it’s the same kind of question that happens in revision and can make it hard to approach. Particularly if you’re too close to the story still. It’s the “but I don’t know how to fix it” problem. The “I don’t know what happens” problem. Your subconscious will work on it while you’re doing other things, and sometimes you just have to let that happen. Sometimes you have to walk away from your desk that day and say, “I may just have to abandon this. I have no idea how to fix it.” And voila, the answer usually presents itself as soon as you give yourself permission to walk away or give up. (Tricking our brains into cooperating is so much of the writer’s job.) Long walks are one of my favorite things to abandon desk and do to tackle story problems.

5) Talk it out. I’m a big believer in describing stories and story problems out loud, especially if I’m trying to figure out a revision. First off, you have the distance of being away from the page. Second, there’s something about articulating a problem out loud that often leads you to the solution. I use my husband for this most often, but a dog or cat will work. Because you don’t even need another person to be listening (although it’s a bonus; hit up your writer friends). Just forcing yourself to say the issue out loud can reveal solutions and give you new perspective; it helps create that ideal distance to be at for fixing a story.

I hope some of these are helpful for you — happy revising!

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Teachers Write 7.13.17 Thursday Quick-Write with Hena Khan

Good morning, writers! Today’s guest author for your Thursday Quick-Write is the brilliant Hena Khan.  Hena is the author of GOLDEN DOMES AND SILVER LANTERNS; IT’S RAMADAN, CURIOUS GEORGE; and AMINA’S VOICE.

The Name Game

A friend and I recently overheard a conversation in which a little girl was asking her mother, “but HOW did you KNOW my name BEFORE I WAS BORN?” As we laughed about how cute she was I was reminded that even though a name is something we don’t pick ourselves, it defines us in so many ways.

When I was growing up, my best friend changed her name when we were in elementary school. It left me feeling like I lost a piece of my friend, and that she was deciding to become someone else. I wondered if my own uncommon name was less worthy than I thought it was. And I feared that part of what my friend was choosing to discard, along with her old name, was our relationship.

Maybe because of that experience, the idea of our names and how they shape our identity is something I still think about often. As a kid I often imagined how my life might differ if my name was Melissa, or if I had a really cool nickname (I didn’t). I never changed my name, and kept my last name after marriage. I randomly ask my kids if they like their names, or if they wish they were called something else. And I explore the theme in my newest book, Amina’s Voice, when Amina’s best friend Soojin considers taking a new name, much like my friend did.

Today’s Assignment: Imagine that could go back in time and name yourself before you were born. What name would you choose?

Take a few notes about why you picked that name. Does it have a special meaning? Does it evoke a certain emotion? Can you describe the way it makes you feel—powerful, beautiful, distinguished, quirky, brave, something else? Do you think you would be a different person if you had grown up with that name? Who would you be?

Now, write yourself a short 4-5 line bio—the fun and lighthearted kind that highlights your personality and personal achievements, not a professional bio—using your imagined name. If you think you’d be exactly the same person you are today no matter what your name was, that’s great too! And I’d love to read your name choices and bios in the comments section below.

Happy writing!

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Teachers Write 7.12.17 Q&A Wednesday

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write Virtual Summer Writing Camp, and we’ll have some great guest authors answering. Today’s official author guests are Christina Diaz Gonzalez, Megan Frazer Blakemore, and Nanci Turner Steveson.

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

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

Note from Kate: I’ll try to be here for Q and A most Wednesdays, too. Please be patient with me if you’re a first-time commenter – it may take a little while for me to approve your comment so it appears.

Got questions? Fire away!

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Teachers Write 7.11.17 Tuesday Quick-Write with Phil Bildner

Good morning, writer friends! Tuesday and Thursday are Quick-Write days at Teachers Write, so our guest authors will be coming by with some writing prompts to try out. Do as much or as little as you’d like with each mini-assignment, and feel free to bookmark those you’d like to use with students later on. Teachers Write posts don’t go anywhere after the summer ends. They’re always here for you to use and share with student writers.

Today’s guest is Phil Bildner, the author of numerous children’s picture books including Martina & ChrissieMarvelous Cornelius, ​and ​Twenty-One Elephants​.​ He’s also the author of A Whole New Ballgame, Rookie of the Year, and Tournament of Champions, the first three books in the middle grade Rip & Red series. A former middle school teacher in the New York City public schools, Phil spends much of the year visiting schools around the country conducting writing workshops and talking process with students. He lives in Newburgh, New York with his husband and dog.

Coming and Going

Today’s Quick Write isn’t an entirely original one. I’ve seen variations of this prompt a number of times. The one I’m sharing is a technique I use more and more to help jump start and layer my own writing.
 
Watch people come and go. When you’re at the coffee shop, the supermarket, the cleaners, the gas station, the gym, the doctor’s office, or wherever, watch the people as they enter and exit. But don’t only focus on their appearance — what they look like and what they’re wearing. Think about the how. How are they coming and going? And think about the why. Why are they coming and going, Think of their story. Think of their purpose. 
Today’s assignment: Whenever you’re in a public place today – the grocery store or coffee shop or picking up kids from camp – spend a few minutes writing about who comes and goes, and how. Choose someone and imagine their story, and spend a little time exploring that in words. As always, feel free to share a bit of your writing from today’s prompt in the comments!

 

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Teachers Write 7.10.17 Mini-Lesson Monday: Another View of the World

Welcome to writing camp!

Teachers Write is a free virtual summer writing camp for teachers and librarians. Please click here to sign up if you’d like to join us and haven’t already registered. If you’re on Facebook & want to also join our group there – here’s the link. Then click “Join Group.”

A quick note about blogging your Teachers Write experience: There will be daily opportunities for you to share and interact with one another in the comments section of each post. Usually, our guest authors will stop by to be part of the conversation, too (though not always – some will be on deadline or traveling for book tours or research).  In addition to commenting, it’s great if you also want to set up a blog where you share all of your writing from this summer. One important request: Our guest authors have given permission for their lessons & prompts to be shared on the Teachers Write blog only. Please do not copy and paste any mini-lessons or writing prompts – publish only your own writing on your blog. If you’d like to reference the ideas shared here, providing a link is the best way to do that. Thanks!

Four quick things before we get started…

1. Teachers Write is an online summer writing camp with author-mentors who donate their time to work with us. It’s free. There’s no charge to participate, but we do have a request. Kate, Jo, and Gae all put many hours into preparations for this summer camp. Much of the time we’d normally spend on book promotion is going into Teachers Write instead, so we’re asking that everyone who participates try to purchase one of each of our books this summer. That’ll run you as little as $25 – which is the cheapest professional development around (and you get to keep the books!) We also ask that everyone try to buy at least one book written by one of our daily guest authors.  We don’t check on this – it’s all honor system – but if you can, we’d truly appreciate it if you’d support our books in this way. If you truly can’t swing the expense right now, we’d still love for you to participate and would ask that you support our books in other ways – by requesting them at your local library, borrowing them, and writing online reviews. Thanks!

2. Our weekly schedule will look like this:

Monday Mini-lesson, and a Monday Morning Warm-Up on Jo’s blog (check it out!) 
Tuesday Quick-Write
Wednesday is Q and A day – authors will be here to answer your questions! We’ll have some other Wednesday features, too.
Thursday Quick-Write
Friday Feedback on Gae’s blog, and some great Friday revision features here, too. 
Sunday Check-In on Jen Vincent’s blog – a chance to check in with everyone, reflect on the week, and share encouragement.

3. I’ll be popping in to comment, and I know many of our guest authors will, too, but since this community has grown so much (we’re more than 2500 teacher-writers strong now!) you’ll also need to commit to supporting one another. When someone decides to be brave and share a bit of writing in the comments, or when someone asks for advice or feedback, please know that you are welcome (and encouraged!) to be mentors to one another as well. Watching this writing community grow is one of the best things about being part of Teachers Write.

4. The first time you comment, I will have to “approve” your comment before it appears. This is to prevent us all from being besieged by trolls. So when you comment, it will not show up right away – sometimes, it may be later in the day when your comment appears. THIS IS OKAY.  I check in regularly to approve comments, but I also spend uninterrupted writing and family time in the summer months, so please be patient with me, and resist the urge to post more than once if your comment doesn’t appear right away.

Now…let’s get started!

Looking Through Someone Else’s Eyes

One of the best ways to share a character’s heart and soul is to let your readers see how that character perceives the world. And our perceptions of the same setting can be wildly different, depending on who we are, what our past experiences have been, and what’s going on with us right now.

Imagine, for example, a rainy night in the country. There’s thunder and lightning and water pouring down from the clouds. Can you see it? Can you feel it?

What you experience in that moment depends on who you are and what situation you envisioned. Are you someone who loves storms? Or does thunder make you want to hide under the bed? Some of you probably longed to be on your porch with a cup of tea, watching the lightning. Some of you probably thought of a child or dog who might be scared.

Were you imagining the storm from the point of view of an observer who’s warm and safe inside?  Consider how that same thunder might sound to someone whose car is disabled at the side of a quiet road. Or someone who’s trying to sleep on a cardboard box in a park. What if you were someone whose farm has been struggling with drought? Or someone living on a river that’s likely to flood? Someone who just lost a loved one? All of those elements can change how we see our setting.

 

When I was writing THE SEVENTH WISH, I spent some time out on the winter ice of Lake Champlain, where I live, writing about it from different perspectives. One of my characters in that book is an experienced ice fisherwoman. One is a twelve year old who’s always felt a little nervous about walking on frozen water, even as she sees its beauty and magic. I took my notebook out on the frozen lake on several cold January and February mornings and spent time in each of their boots, experiencing the sensations and sounds of the ice and reflecting on that in messy mittened handwriting in my notebook.

 

The same character can see a setting in different ways, depending on the day. The magical frozen lake that Charlie experiences when she’s out searching for “ice flowers” with her beloved older sister Abby changes completely by the end of the story, when Abby is struggling with addiction and Charlie is desperate to catch the wish-granting fish that she wants to believe can fix everything.

That’s an example of a person’s emotional state affecting their perspective on setting, but this is a writing exercise that can have a lighter touch, too.

Cover of Fergus and Zeke by Kate Messner

 

When I was writing FERGUS AND ZEKE, the story of a classroom mouse who stows away in a backpack to go on the school field trip to the natural history museum, I spent a day wandering around the American Museum of Natural History in New York, notebook in hand, imagining how everything would look if I were a mouse. I’d still be impressed with the huge dinosaur skeletons, but instead of simply staring up at them, I might be able to scamper up one and climb around those T-Rex teeth!

 

When I was teaching middle school, I liked to take my students on setting-writing field trips. We’d either go out back to the soccer field, or on rainy days, simply stand at a long row of windows in the hallway to write for a few minutes about what we observed. Then, I’d give each student a slip of paper with a new identity.

“You are a lost five-year-old who can’t find her mom.”

“You have just robbed a bank and are searching for someplace to hide the money.”

“You are a hungry seagull.”

“You are a 90-year-old visiting your home town after 70 years away.”

We’d write for another five minutes or so, and then share our reflections aloud, noting how point of view and perception change the way we see a place and what we choose to notice and share. This is an incredibly powerful way to explore your character’s state of mind and to write in a way that does double-duty – using setting descriptions not only to paint a picture of a place but to reveal character as well.

TODAY’S ASSIGNMENT: Go outside or look out a window. You can do this at home in your neighborhood, or you can go somewhere else – the park, the farmers market, the mall…whatever you like. Spend a few minutes writing what you observe – everything you notice. Write down what you see, hear, smell, and feel.

Then, look through someone else’s eyes and spend a few more minutes writing from that perspective. If you’re working on a story right now, take on the role of your main character during a particular point in the story.  How are they feeling in that chapter? How might they observe the same setting differently than you did? What details would they notice? What would they like? What would bother them? And based on that, what kind of language might they use to describe it? We choose our figurative language based on the world we know, so a modern-day figure skater will choose different words and metaphors than an 18th century farmer.

If you’re not working with a particular main character in your writing life right now, here are some identities to try on for this assignment…

 

An elderly woman with limited mobility

A teenager who’s being bullied

A dog (Be sure to choose a particular breed before you write. Dachshunds don’t see the world from the same perspective as Greyhounds.)

A dragonfly

An imaginative and energetic five-year-old

 

In the comments today, feel free to share a snippet of what you wrote, but please also write a few lines introducing yourself.  Let’s get to know one another – we’re going to be writing together for four weeks, starting right now!

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Introducing the Summer 2017 Teachers Write Guest Authors!

It’s almost time for Teachers Write 2017!  Our free online summer writing camp for teachers & librarians kicks off on Monday, July 10th here on my blog. Sign up here if you’d like to join us! If you’d like to know more about Teachers Write, you can learn all about it here.

And now it’s time to introduce our amazing guest author mentors for Summer 2017!  These writers are all volunteering their time, so we ask that you support Teachers Write by purchasing guest authors’ books when you can and requesting them for your school and public libraries. Please spend a little time checking out these writers’ websites and books…

Kate Messner That’s me – I’m your Teachers Write hostess & will kick things off with the first mini-lesson on Monday, July 10th.

The Seventh WishCover of Fergus and Zeke by Kate MessnerCover of Ranger in Time: Escape from the Great Earthquake by Kate MessnerCover of Over and Under the Pond by Kate Messner

Gae Polisner  Gae hosts Feedback Friday on her blog and is the most amazing writerly cheerleader you’ve ever met. Gae wrote these great books.

memory

Jo Knowles  Jo will kick off each week with her Monday Morning Warm Up. Here are some of Jo’s amazing books.

stillawork

Additional guest authors will be stopping in throughout the summer to share strategies, wisdom, and inspiration. Check out their websites now and get ready to write with them starting next week!

Christina Diaz Gonzalez

Hena Khan

Gwenda Bond

Loree Griffin Burns

Caroline Carson

Margaret Powell

Martha Brockenbrough

Sarah Darer Littman

Anne Ursu

Leah Henderson

J. Anderson Coats

Dana Alison Levy

Alicia Williams

Sarah Albee

Jody Feldman

Anne Nesbet

Megan Frazer Blakemore

Phil Bildner

Erica Perl

Mike Jung

Kat Yeh

Ammi-Joan Paquette

Madelyn Rosenberg

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Nanci Turner Steveson

Karen Romano Young

Every time I look at this lineup, I get more excited about the summer to come. And it’s almost time to get writing!

For now, please check out the links above. Buy some books. Get to know your guest authors. Follow them on Twitter & find them on Facebook if you like to hang out in those places, too. We’ll be back Monday, July 10th to get started!

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Time to Write Revision Retreat – November 3-5, 2017

TIME TO WRITE REVISION RETREAT with Linda Urban & Kate Messner

November 3-5, 2017

The What:
The 2017 Time to Write Revision Retreat will include daily craft lectures from Linda and Kate, mentor-facilitated small-group critique sessions, lively community meals, and quiet work time.  Cost: $480 (or $455 for early registration by August 1st) includes all lectures & workshops, snacks and meals from Friday dinner through Sunday lunch. Lodging is not included. See below for options.

The When:
November 3-5, 2017.  Arrive any time after noon on November 3rd (first session begins at 4pm) and depart after lunch on November 5th.

The Where:
Valcour Inn and Conference Center is located on beautiful Lake Champlain, just south of Plattsburgh, NY. You can read about the inn here:
  http://www.plattsburghcas.com/valcour-conference-center

The Valcour Inn has nine bedrooms with different nightly rates depending on the level of accommodation and occupancy. Some are large with lake views, porch access, and private bathrooms. Some are smaller with a shared bathroom. Most rooms can accommodate 2-3 people, if you’d like to have a roommate or two to reduce lodging costs. There are also larger hotels in Plattsburgh, just a few miles away, and of course, if you live nearby, you are welcome to sleep in your own bed and commute.  Valcour room options and rates are here:

http://www.plattsburghcas.com/valcour-inn-and-boathouse/main-house-guest-rooms

Additional nearby lodging options include the Hampton Inn & Suites and Microtel Inn &  Suites, both about a 10 minute drive.

The Who:  

Linda Urban and Kate Messner are award winning children’s authors and friends who love to teach and mentor other writers. Between the two of them, they’ve written more than thirty books, presented at over a dozen state and national conferences, and consumed approximately four hundred mocha lattes.

Who should attend?
This is a retreat for experienced novelists, both published and not-yet published.  The workshop will be aimed at writers who are working to revise a completed (or mostly completed) draft of a middle grade or young adult novel or chapter book.  We’ll be asking for writing samples – just your first few pages – when it’s time to register, so that we know you’re in a place where what we’re offering will be useful and relevant.  We can accommodate up to twenty-two writers in this lovely, intimate setting and will cap the retreat at that number. We’ll have the option for returning writers to repeat a craft session from years past or break off into a smaller group workshop.

The How:
Valcour Conference Center is on Lake Champlain in Northeastern NY, 1.5 hours from Burlington, VT, 2.5 hours from Albany, 4 hours from Syracuse, 4.5 hours from Boston, and 5 hours from New York & Rochester.
http://www.plattsburghcas.com/valcour-conference-center/directions
You’ll see that the website gives driving directions from Plattsburgh International Airport, but this is not an airport that services many places. The nearest full-service airport is in Burlington, Vermont a little over an hour away (including a ferry ride). If you fly, it will probably be necessary to rent a car or find a friend who’s passing through Vermont to pick you up at the airport.

How to sign up: 

Send an email to timetowriteretreat at gmail dot com with your name, address, email, and phone number. Please include a quick note about what you hope to be working on and share a short writing sample (700 words or less) if you’re not a returning writer. Don’t worry about this being a tryout or application; our goal is to make sure the workshop will be useful to you, and this will help us to plan our sessions. If you’re hoping to room with someone at the retreat, please let us know that as well. As soon as we receive your email, we’ll send you more information, including directions for mailing your deposit.

Deadlines: 

August 1st for Early Registration Discount ($455) 

October 1st Regular Registration Deadline ($480) 

To reserve a spot at the retreat, participants must submit a $50 nonrefundable deposit at the time of registration, with the balance due by October 1st.  It’s also fine to pay the full amount when you pay your deposit. After October 1st, retreat registration fees are not refundable unless we’re able to find someone to fill your spot.

Questions? Email us at timetowriteretreat at gmail dot com.

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Fergus and Zeke, a new series for beginning readers!

FERGUS AND ZEKE, the first book in my new easy reader series with Candlewick is out today!

I’m excited about some great news we’ve already gotten about this book. It’s a Junior Library Guild selection. There’s a lovely review from Kirkus that ends with “Here’s to more adventures for Fergus and Zeke!”

The Wall Street Journal just featured FERGUS AND ZEKE in a roundup of the best new children’s books:

“A dapper fellow with lavender fur, Fergus loves following the rules of Miss Maxwell’s class. ‘When the students solved math problems, Fergus solved them, too,’ we read; ‘he always kept his eyes on his own work.’ But when teacher and children prepare to visit the natural-history museum without him, Fergus embraces his inner outlaw and stows away in a backpack. He soon falls in with Zeke, a gray mouse of insouciant temperament who scoffs at the idea of following ‘people rules.’ Cheery illustrations by Heather Ross add zip to this educational excursion for 5- to 8-year-olds.”

And Publishers Weekly had this to say:

“In a high-spirited series opener set over four chapters, Messner (the Ranger in Time books) lets readers live out their Night at the Museum fantasies through Fergus and Zeke’s explorations, as they clamber over lion and dinosaur exhibits and generally disregard any “no touching” rules (“Those are people rules!” crows Zeke). Ross’s (Grimelda: The Very Messy Witch) energetic full-color cartoons run wild with the museum-as-playground theme, and Zeke’s decision to join Fergus in the classroom neatly sets up their next adventure.”

 

But what those reviews don’t tell you is the story behind this story…and how the seed for this book was planted years ago at the Rochester Children’s Book Festival.

One of my favorite things about festivals is the way young readers approach an author’s table. “Do you have any mysteries?” they’ll say, or “Have you written any books about dogs? Because I really love dogs.” Five or six years ago, a little girl walked up to my table, looked at me with big eyes, and said, “I just learned to read! Do you have a book I can read all by myself?” I didn’t at the time, and I felt bad about that…like I’d let her down.  When I got home, I couldn’t stop thinking about that reader, so I went to my library and signed out a stack of books – the best stories I could find, published with very new readers in mind. I read piles and piles of them and started experimenting. After a towering heap of failures, I wrote FERGUS AND ZEKE.

Fergus is a classroom mouse who’s enthusiastic about everything from music class to story hour. How could he possibly stay behind when it’s time for the big field trip to the natural history museum?  So Fergus stows away on his class trip to the natural history museum, has some adventures and misadventures among the butterflies, lions, and dinosaur bones, and ultimately brings home a friend.

I love research, so it’s probably no surprise that my first step in writing FERGUS AND ZEKE was planning a field trip for myself. I’d been to the American Museum of Natural History in New York, but I’d never imagined it from the point of view of a mouse. So with my notebook and my camera, I set off to spend a day at the museum, imagining what it would all look like from a small rodent’s perspective.

When I arrived, the coat check room was bustling – a mouse would have to be careful not to be stepped on there. I’ve always been in awe of the museum’s enormous blue whale model. Imagine how much more colossal it would seem if you were only a few inches tall! It was so much fun to see how our amazing series illustrator Heather Ross created these scenes…

Writing about Fergus and Zeke’s adventures behind the scenes at NMAH allowed me to live vicariously. Who hasn’t always wanted to get inside those glass cases in the mammal hall to play with the elephants or pet the lions?

And wouldn’t it be fun to climb on those dinosaur skeletons?

As a kid, I found that I learned best when I was doing something out of my seat. As a teacher, I always connected with fidgety students who couldn’t quite sit still during a lecture. I did my best to get us all up out of our seats – and out of the building – as often as possible. Those are the kinds of adventures that Fergus and Zeke have, not just in this first installment, but throughout the series. (They’ll be experimenting at the school science fair in book two!)

I’m so excited to share Fergus & Zeke’s adventures with readers – kids who love school, kids who live to explore, kids who don’t like to sit still, and kids like that little girl at my book festival table – who want books they can read all by themselves.

UPCOMING EVENT: I’ll be signing copies of FERGUS AND ZEKE on Saturday, June 17th from 3-5pm at The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid. If you don’t live nearby but would like personalized, signed copies of any of my books, you can call The Bookstore Plus at 518-523-2950 or order online here, using the comment section to share the name of the person or family to whom you’d like it signed.

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Book Release Day: Researching RANGER IN TIME: JOURNEY THROUGH ASH AND SMOKE

One of of the things I love to do in my author visits to schools is share the research behind my books with student writers. Kids love seeing photos of the real places where Ranger in Time stories takes place, and it’s fun to share how a tiny detail I might notice on a research trip – a feather on a grassy trail, a line in a letter from an earthquake survivor – turns into a plot thread in the story.

Today is book release day for RANGER IN TIME #5: JOURNEY THROUGH ASH AND SMOKE, so I thought I’d do a mini-author-visit here on my blog for the readers I won’t see in person this week. This book is set in Viking Age Iceland and features a Viking girl named Helga as the main human character.

My research for the Ranger in Time books always begins with a big pile of books from the library, so that I can get a solid overview of the time period in which I’m writing. I start reading with a list of basic questions. What was happening in my particular setting and in the larger world at this time? What were the details of the historical event taking place in the book? What was the social structure of the society in which my characters live? Who had power and who didn’t? What did people believe? How did they live? What did their homes look like? What jobs had to happen on a day to day basis? Who did those jobs and how did they get done? What did they eat/wear/do for fun?

From there, I branch out to articles and websites written by archaeologists and historians. This is important because even though we often think of history as a subject that’s literally set in stone, we’re constantly making new discoveries. Sometimes, that happens via archaeology, as in this recent case where a team in Poland was working at the site of a Nazi death camp and found a pendant believed to have ties to Anne Frank.  Sometimes, historians find documents that shed new light on old stories from history. And sometimes, newly developed technology lets us learn more about artifacts that we found a long time ago. That’s how scientists and historians working together found out that many of the bright white marble statues we see in museum exhibits about Ancient Greece and Rome were once painted in bright, colorful hues. 

After this part of my research, I often still have questions, so for almost every Ranger in Time book, I also plan a trip to the setting where the story takes place. That allows me to visit more museums, talk with historians and archaeologists who live and work in the place they’re studying, and see the settings my character would have inhabited.

Two summers ago, I spent a week in Iceland, doing research for RANGER IN TIME: JOURNEY THROUGH ASH AND SMOKE. Before I take a research trip like this, I already have a lot of notes and a rough idea for how the story might go. But there are always details I haven’t discovered yet and settings I can’t quite picture yet in my mind, and that’s where the site visits come in.

My first stop in Iceland was The Settlement Exhibition in Reykjavik, a fantastic museum that was literally built around the archaeological discovery of one of Iceland’s first farms.

This museum, along with the National Museum of Iceland, gave me great insight as to how Helga and her family might have lived. Here’s a conjectural image from the National Museum of Iceland, showing how a Viking longhouse was constructed.

In this new Ranger book, you’ll read about a woman who works for Helga’s family making cloth on a loom. It would have looked like this one, on display at the National Museum of Iceland.

In every Ranger in Time book, the historical character gives Ranger a small token of remembrance when it’s time for him to go home. As I research each book, I’m looking for ideas for what that item might be, and sometimes, I find it on my research trip. Here’s a broken brooch from a display at the Settlement Exhibition. You’ll see it again in the story.

Iceland’s geography is largely formed by geothermal activity, and there are amazing lava caves in parts of the country. I knew this would be one of the settings for Helga’s story, so I spent some time exploring those areas and taking reference photos for Ranger in Time illustrator Kelley McMorris.

At one point in the story, Helga climbs out of one of the lava caves, and when I saw that Scholastic had chosen that scene for Kelley to illustrate, I sent her this photo of my daughter in case it was helpful. Here’s my daughter climbing…

And here’s Helga…

Another big scene in the story takes place at Thingvellir, the site of Iceland’s first parliament, where chieftains would come from all over the island for two weeks each summer, to make laws, talk about issues that affected everyone, and settle disputes. Here’s a speculative painting from the National Museum of Iceland showing what that might have looked like in Helga’s time.

And here’s what Thingvellir looks like today.

I’d been searching on this trip for a place where the story’s climax could take place, and I found it in these crumbly, hazardous cliffs.

On a different rocky cliff near the ocean, I got to see Iceland’s puffins. They’re an important part of Helga’s story and also amazing to watch. I stood here for hours taking photos.

But probably my favorite part of each Ranger in Time research trip is the part I’m not expecting – the tiny detail that I wasn’t looking for but can’t imagine leaving out of the story once I find it. In Iceland, that detail was Funi.

When my family was hiking near an extinct volcano in the interior, we met this tiny arctic fox pup near the base camp. Local guides told us his mother had been shot by a hunter, so they’d sort of adopted him. He was curious and adorable, and I was smitten, as both an animal lover and a writer.

A quick check of Iceland’s natural history told me that the arctic fox was indeed around when the Vikings arrived, so if you read RANGER IN TIME: JOURNEY THROUGH ASH AND SMOKE, you’ll discover that in addition to looking after Helga, Ranger finds himself babysitting a mischievous arctic fox pup as well.

Iceland is a beautiful, rugged place, and visiting pushed me to think more about Helga’s character. What would it be like for a girl who left her home in Norway to live in a rocky land so far away?

I’ll wrap up this post with some tiny purple and yellow flowers that seemed to answer that question for me. They grow everywhere in Iceland — on the most windswept, rockiest stretches of land. You’ll find these in the story, too. They’re defiant and tough, and they seemed to embody Helga’s spirit. I thought she might find inspiration in them, just as I did when I was working on her story.

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To Share or Not to Share: Evaluating News & Other Online Content

To Share or Not to Share: Evaluating News & Other Online Content

shareIf you’re on social media, you’ve likely had the experience of scrolling through your feed and seeing something you thought was so great, so important, or so awful that you wanted to share it far and wide.

 

Recently, I watched a fake graphic about a protest inauguration-day concert go viral among many smart people in my news feed.

freedomconcert

The same week, I saw someone else share a Breitbart piece about Obama ignoring the fact that violent crime in America is way up, even though real statistics actually show the violent crime rate is way down.

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 8.36.25 AM

We tend to get excited when we see things that a) align with our ideas, or b) outrage us, and sometimes, we share those things without checking as well as we should.

Who cares? Well, it’s important to realize that whatever political side you’re on, sharing things that are unconfirmed or just plain wrong tends to weaken your positions, rather than strengthen them. If you’re interested in curating a social media feed that’s respected and thoughtful – and not just in the eyes of people who agree with everything you believe – here are some questions to ask yourself before you hit that Share button.

What’s the source for this information?

With links, that’s fairly easy to determine. Is the website hosting the information a reputable news source? Real news outlets employ trained professionals with journalism degrees. They’re trained in investigative reporting as well as legal issues relating to journalism, and ethics. (That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes from time to time, but when a real journalist does report something in error, you’ll see a timely correction and/or apology rather than a doubling down on the incorrect information.)

Which news sources are trusted by most people in America? This chart based on a 2014 study from the Pew Research Center and published in Business Insider offers some guidelines.

If your hope is to have people across the political spectrum view your social media feed as reliable and reasonable, you’ll probably want to stick to sharing information from sources that are more maroon than yellow.

You might also choose to make a special note of that source. Donalyn Miller, an author & educator I respect a lot, has taken to posting something like this each time she shares a piece on Facebook:

**Please read the article before commenting or sharing. PBS is a legitimate, credible news source.

I think this is a great idea. It’s helpful to identify what you’re sharing, whether that’s news, a persuasive piece written to promote one point of view, or something intended to be humorous. (More on that when we talk about satire…)

Is this particular piece NEWS or OPINION/COMMENTARY?

Reputable news sources such as those identified above offer both objective news and opinion or commentary pieces. Sometimes, they’re labeled clearly in the headline, but often they’re not. You may need to take a close look at the piece to determine what you’re reading.

How can I check to verify the information shared here?

Google is your friend, especially if you really want to share something being reported on a less consistently reliable source like BuzzFeed or HuffPost. Find out if similar information is also being shared via some of the more reputable, trusted new sources listed above.

Sometimes, there may be other ways to check out information, too. If the piece is about what someone said on Twitter or on a website, go directly to the source. But also realize that tweets can be deleted, so the fact that something isn’t there now doesn’t mean it never was. Sometimes people have screen shots of these deleted tweets, and you can look for that as well. It’s important to look very carefully at the Twitter account, too. There are many, many fake Donald Trump accounts, with the same profile picture and very similar Twitter handles. Go to the person’s actual Twitter home page to check the account name and look for the “verified” checkmark in their profile in situations like this.

For example, this is a real tweet from Trump:

realtrump

This is not:

faketrump

Sometimes it’s difficult to tell the difference between real tweets & the parody tweets, so checking the profile is helpful.

One more note about Twitter: Keep in mind that unless an account is verified or you know the person who owns it, you have no way of knowing who’s tweeting. The fact that a Twitter account is named “Democrats for Trump” or “Conservatives Against Trump” doesn’t mean that the account is run by people who fit that description.  Since KellyAnne Conway’s “alternative facts” interview on Meet the Press and bans on social media from government agencies like the EPA and National Parks Service, several apparently subversive Twitter accounts have sprung up with names like AltUSEPA and RogueNASA. While it makes good sense that someone defying a gag order would need to protect themselves with an anonymous account, there’s no way to guarantee that those accounts are run by people from those agencies. Even if they are, before long, we’ll probably see similar accounts that are not. So follow & read if you’d like, but be wary.

It’s also important to look carefully and use tools to evaluate websites.  One example:  Since the inauguration, I’ve seen shared articles about the WhiteHouse.gov website, including some that criticized Melania Trump’s biography for promoting her jewelry line’s availability on QVC. 

In situations like this, it’s important to visit the website to check the article’s accuracy. It’s also important to remember that websites get updated all the time. It’s common for someone who receives criticism to edit in response to that criticism. If all you see is the “right now” version of the website, it might look like the criticism was based on “fake news.”

An Internet Archive tool called the Wayback Machine allows interested citizens to check on things like this. It’s an online archive that allows you to paste in the website’s URL and look at what was posted there at specific times on specific dates. As an example, here’s what the Melania Trump bio paragraph in question looked like Friday afternoon after the inauguration (on the top) vs. Sunday, after the critical articles were published (on the bottom).

melania2
Regardless of whether you care about Melania’s jewelry line, this is a helpful tool for evaluating information about what was or wasn’t on any website. It’s also interesting for students to see how websites change over time.

Be careful with photos.

If you want to share a photo that’s not connected to a legitimate news article, find the ORIGINAL source to determine its origin. Photos get repurposed sometimes, and pictures being shared on social media don’t always show what the caption says they show or what is implied. During the campaign (September 2016), Eric Trump tweeted this.

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 6.53.25 AM

Whether or not you agree with Eric Trump’s sentiment, this photo wasn’t taken at the Pensacola rally. It was a year-old photo of a larger crowd from a Trump rally in Dallas. (Note the Texas flag to the bottom-left of the big screen. That might have been a clue for careful photo sharers.)

Just after the November election, another photo circulated on social media showed hooded Ku Klux Klan members marching with a caption saying it was KKK members celebrating. This wasn’t true either. The Klan did hold a victory parade in North Carolina, but the particular photo being shared in this case was an old one that had nothing to do with the election. Unless you check the original source of the photo, you have no way of knowing where it came from, who took it, or when it was taken.

Check the date for news articles and tweets

And highlight it in your post if you choose to share something that’s not current.  This is an easy mistake to make when sharing everything from politics to astronomical events. Just yesterday, this tweet from Vice President Mike Pence was making the rounds.

penceold

This came as the Trump administration was reportedly preparing to issue an executive order banning immigration from a list of mostly Muslim countries.  This Pence tweet could give the impression that the Vice President is critical of that policy. But check the date. This was Mike Pence of December 2015, before Trump had won the Republican nomination and tapped Pence to be his VP. The current order is also expected to modify the ban so it’s no longer “a complete and total ban on Muslims” as Trump promised during his campaign but a ban that lists mostly Muslim countries the administration says are “terror prone.”

This “old news” situation also happens sometimes with articles about bills urgently described as “currently being voted on.” Check the date so you’re not sharing bad information that results in a flood of calls to a politician’s office about something that happened a month ago.

Checking the date doesn’t just apply to political articles. A while back, I saw a Facebook post about a meteor shower that would be “Lighting Up the Skies Tonight.”  I love meteor showers! My first impulse was to share, but before I did, I wanted to find out the exact date & time. When I clicked through to the article, I found out that it was old – about a meteor shower that had happened a couple years earlier. If I’d shared, I’d have been that person who sent 4500 of her closest friends out into their yards in the cold to stare at an empty, dark sky.

Check to see if the piece is satire.

Satire is defined by Merriam Webster as “a literary work holding up human vices and follies to ridicule or scorn.” If the piece you’re sharing is satire, you might want to consider making that clear in your post. The Onion is a well-known satire site that posts pieces like this.

 

onion

Most people know that The Onion is a satire site, in which all of the articles are made up, including the details, the quotes…everything. Still, you’ll sometimes see a piece like this shared with a heartfelt comment about how upset the person is that the Vice President would be so sexist in his language. That happens even more often when the piece comes from a magazine like The New Yorker, which offers both real, in-depth news articles and satirical pieces, often by the writer Andy Borowitz.

 

Screen Shot 2017-01-26 at 9.48.18 AM

These pieces, if you look closely, are labeled as “Satire from the Borowitz Report.” It’s helpful if you label them in your social media feeds, too. This is especially important in our current climate where some real news may feel like satire to readers, given the unprecedented nature of some things being tweeted or said by those in power.

Pay extra attention before sharing something that you feel passionate about, either way.

Propaganda is designed to produce strong emotions – patriotism, fear, love, disgust, identity. When something you read gives you a surge of one of those feelings, that doesn’t mean it’s automatically not true or worth sharing, but it does mean that you’ll need to be diligent to make sure you’re sharing news and not propaganda that will cause others to view all of your posts as less trustworthy. Strong, emotional language in a headline is another clue that what you’re reading might be written to influence more than to inform.

Don’t make assumptions.

I participated in the March for Civil Rights and Women in Atlanta recently and saw this when the march passed by the Ferris wheel by Centennial Park.

riseup

 

I immediately connected it with the tens of thousands of people demonstrating, and I shared this photo along with some other march pictures on social media. I was just visiting Atlanta and am not a football fan, so I didn’t know that aside from being a beloved and revolutionary line from the musical Hamilton, Rise Up! is also a rallying cry for the Atlanta Falcons, who were about to play the game that ended up sending them to the Super Bowl. It was an excellent lesson for me on how we all see things through our own lenses, and I appreciated the people online who kindly let me know that I’d misinterpreted the message. The people who jumped into my Twitter mentions to call me names and make thinly veiled misogynistic threats were another story. Which brings me to the next topic…

How to Help a Friend Who’s Shared Something Untrue or Unreliable 

I appreciated the friends & strangers alike who replied to me on Twitter, saying things like “Hey, not to be a bummer, but I’m pretty sure that sign is for the Falcons,”  or even “That awkward moment when you think the Falcons sign is for your demonstration…”  Those posts allowed me to realize my mistake and make a note on the photo so other people weren’t under the false impression that the Ferris wheel was lit up for the march. I got other replies, too – the usual, misogynistic, name-calling tweets that appears in most women’s social media feeds when they’ve said something a man doesn’t like. Those just make the person tweeting look like a jerk.

If a friend posts something on social media that’s just plain false and you can find the reliable information that shows that, it’s often helpful to share a link to a reliable, trusted news source with a friendly note that says, “Hey…just so you know, I think this might be inaccurate. Look what (source xyz) has today.”

If your friend posts something that’s circulating but that you can’t find confirmed anywhere, a question might be helpful. “Were you able to confirm this anywhere else? I read this piece with interest but haven’t been able to find the information anywhere else, so I’m wondering how accurate it is. Thanks!”  That’s a kind way to ask the question and is likely to result in a good conversation in which your friend either shares more sources or realizes that the information might not be confirmed.

What Happens When You Make a Mistake

If you discover that you’ve posted something that turns out to be inaccurate, unconfirmed, or badly dated, you might feel embarrassed. But the reality is, mistakes happen. Try to be open to listening and researching, rather than feeling defensive. Read what people are saying, whether they agree with your position or not (this is admittedly easier with meteor showers than it is with politics) and then defer to common-sense guidelines and decide if what you shared is really news or not. If you’ve posted satire that people thought was real, that’s easy to fix with a quick edit identifying it as such. Same story if you’ve posted an opinion piece that people are taking as fact. But I’d advocate for a different approach if you come to realize that what you’ve posted is just incorrect or misleading.

Standard social media protocol is often not to delete tweets/posts that have become controversial because it can look like you’re trying to cover up your mistake. But personally, I think sharing bad information should be an exception to that rule. If you share an article that turns out to be false or misleading, it’s not enough to add a note at the bottom of the comments thread saying, “Please note: This is not confirmed and is from a questionable source.” Those articles – especially the emotionally charged ones – get shared at lightning speed with one click, so it’s probably best to delete the bad information entirely and offer a new, separate post that says something like “Earlier today, I posted an article about a meteor shower that I then deleted because it was brought to my attention that the article was from two years ago. I apologize for the mistake & appreciate the friends who pointed out the date.”

Why is all of this important?

We’re living in an age where facts are under attack and where information spreads more quickly than it ever has, whether it’s reliable information or not. Being part of the solution means doubling down on our efforts to make sure what we share on social media is clear. I’ve decided that for me, that means sharing news that comes from reliable sources, double checking those sources, and clearly identifying essays and satirical pieces I choose to share so that they’re not mistaken as news.

Here are some great resources for reading, thinking about, and sharing with students.

Politifact is a nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize winning fact check website for political issues.

http://www.politifact.com/

 

Snopes is a reliable website for determining the validity of almost anything going viral on social media, from politics to warnings about going to your car at the mall.

http://www.snopes.com/

 

Snopes gets attacked sometimes by people who don’t like their ideas challenged. Here’s an article about who runs it & its background so you can make your own decisions about that.

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/25/technology/for-fact-checking-website-snopes-a-bigger-role-brings-more-attacks.html

 

Here’s the Business Insider article on trusted news sources in America:

http://www.businessinsider.com/here-are-the-most-and-least-trusted-news-outlets-in-america-2014-10

 

A Finders Guide to Facts from NPR has another good list of questions to ask yourself before hitting that Share button.

http://www.npr.org/2016/12/11/505154631/a-finders-guide-to-facts

 

The News Literacy Project is a nonpartisan national education nonprofit working with educators & journalists to teach students about information literacy.

http://www.thenewsliteracyproject.org/

 

An article from the NY Times on How Fake News Spreads

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/20/business/media/how-fake-news-spreads.html?_r=0

 

A piece from the journal Psychology Today on the manipulation tactic known as gaslighting

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/here-there-and-everywhere/201701/gaslighting-know-it-and-identify-it-protect-yourself

 

Blogger’s note: Given that this post is all about checking and evaluating sources, here’s some information about me. Aside from being a children’s author, I spent fifteen years teaching middle school English and earned National Board Certification in Early Adolescent English Language Arts in 2006. Before that, I worked in television newsrooms for seven years and have a degree in Broadcast Journalism from Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communication. The common ground with all three of these jobs is that facts matter.

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