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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Good morning!

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

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

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

Creating Interesting Antagonists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Welcome to Q and A Wednesday!

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

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

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

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

Got questions? Fire away!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Expanding and Compressing Scenes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

So, today, give yourself permission to write.

Your Assisgnment:

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

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

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

Kick fear out of your way.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roll with the Hunches: Thoughts on Writing Process

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

cards plot

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

Today’s Thursday Quick Write: Word Hoards

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

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

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

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

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

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

Happy writing!

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Teachers Write 7/9/14 – Q and A Wednesday

Welcome to Q and A Wednesday!

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp, and we’ll have some great guest authors answering – today’s official author guests are Cynthia Lord, Donna Gephart, and Lynda Mullaly Hunt.

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 7/8/14 – Tuesday Quick-Write

On Tuesdays & Thursdays during Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp, we’ll be sharing quick-write prompts, designed to get you free-writing for a few minutes in response to a question or idea. Some of these will feel like writing memoir, some will focus more on fiction or nonfiction or poetry. Some of them will just be hard to categorize. Many will be prompts that you can bookmark and share with your student writers later on.

Our Tuesday-Thursday quick-writes can be used as a simple free-write, brainstorming, warm-up activity OR as a way to deepen your thinking about a work-in-progress.  So feel free to approach the prompt in whatever way works best for you, even if that means ignoring it and writing about the other thing that sprouted in your head when you sat down to do the quick-write. Okay… got your keyboard or pencil ready?

Today’s Quick-Write is courtesy of Nora Raleigh Baskin, who’s written a whole bunch of wonderful books, including RUNT and the Schneider Family Book Award winner ANYTHING BUT TYPICAL.

Tuesday Quick-Write: Taking a Risk

The most important skill to have when writing books for children is to be able to get into the mind of a child, not an adult looking back. However, being able to “mine” the memories of your own childhood is key.

Today, choose a memory from your own life, preferably of a deeply felt emotion (i.e. fear, joy, embarrassment, anger, sadness). Now write the experience as fiction, as if it happened or is happening to your character. It can be either in first or third person, past or present tense. It can as close to the facts or as far as you wish, retaining the “truth” of the emotional experience while creating “fiction.”

Note from Kate: If you’d like to share a few lines of what you wrote today in the comments, we’d love that – and promise that all our comments will be friendly and supportive. (We’ll talk about more constructive critiques later on. Let’s just get our feet wet with compliments today!)  If you’d rather keep your writing to yourself today, in your notebook or on your hard drive, that’s fine, too.

Please feel free to TALK to one another in those comments, too! Some things you read there will resonate with you or spark memories or simply make you sigh. Writers will appreciate hearing about that. Nora and I are actually both on a writing retreat this week and probably won’t be able to comment on every single post, but we’ll pop in and read, and you know that cheering one another on is part of this community, too!

Please note: If you’re a first-time commenter, I’ll have to approve your comment before it appears. This may take a while if I’m not at my computer, but don’t worry – I’ll get to it and it will show up later on!

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Teachers Write 7/7/14: Mini-Lesson Monday: You Come, Too

Welcome to writing camp, everybody!

Teachers Write! is a virtual summer writing camp for teachers and librarians. Click here to sign up if you’d like to join us!  If you’re on Facebook & want to also join our group there,here’s the link. Then click “Join Group.” And please click here to sign up for my email newsletter so that you’ll get updates throughout the year.

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. 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 the 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!

Three quick things before we get started today…

1. Teachers Write is an online summer writing camp with more than two dozen published author-mentors who donate their time to work with us. It’s free. There’s no charge to participate, but we do ask that you buy a few books over the summer as a way to support the authors who are supporting you. Our request: choose one book from each of our three main “all summer long” authors – Kate, Gae, and Jo – and at least one book from one of our daily guest authors. You can read about all of our author mentors and find great books here. If you truly aren’t able to do this financially, we understand that and still want you to write with us. We’d love it if you requested these books at your local libraries & signed them out.

2. Our weekly schedule will look like this:

Monday Mini-lesson, and a Monday Morning Warm-Up on Jo’s blog
Tuesday Quick-Write
Wednesday is Q and A day – authors will be here to answer your questions!
Thursday Quick-Write
Friday Feedback on Gae’s blog, and an occasional Friday feature here, too
Sunday Check-In on Jen Vincent’s blog

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 1400 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.

Today’s Monday Mini-Lesson: You Come, Too

I fall in love with places.

I can’t think about the drenching afternoon rain in Costa Rica or the creaky bridge over the creek behind my childhood house without sighing. And many of my favorite books are my favorites because they transport me so fully to a different place and time. The Revolutionary New York of Laurie Halse Anderson’s CHAINS. The small-town New Hampshire parade of Linda Urban’s THE CENTER OF EVERYTHING. The gritty inner city streets of SCORPIONS by Walter Dean Myers and the Boston landmarks of Erin Dionne’s MOXIE AND THE ART OF RULE BREAKING. As a reader, if I can not only see your setting, but also smell its air and hear its song, I’ll come along with you anywhere.

Writing, in many ways, is an invitation to come along someplace. Robert Frost knew this when he wrote “The Pasture” (from North of Boston, 1914)

I’m going out to clean the pasture spring;
I’ll only stop to rake the leaves away
(And wait to watch the water clear, I may):
I sha’nt be gone long — You come too.
I’m going out to fetch the little calf
That’s standing by the mother. It’s so young
It totters when she licks it with her tongue.
I sha’nt be gone long — You come too.

Those tiny details – raking leaves, the mother’s lick of her calf – make good on Frost’s “You come too” invitation by taking us along on the walk. And we can all do this as writers.

Last night, we hosted my son’s graduation party at the house. Maybe my favorite moment was near the end of the afternoon, when all of the teenagers swam out to our raft and the neighbor’s float nearby.


If I wanted to share this moment in a way that brings you into my yard, I might start with a free write:

The kids have left us late this afternoon, for that small, square island of independence seventy yards from shore. The girls are on one raft, stretched out  to soak up Saturday sun. On the other, the boys stand awkwardly until somebody shoves somebody and there is leaping and laughing and splashing and so much teenager joy that I ache from missing it already, before they are even gone.

Now, I kind of like this snippet of writing. But in order to bring you closer, I’ll want to bring in more of the tiny details – those that go beyond the expected sun’s warmth and light shining on the waves. Sometimes, when I’m searching for those unexpected details, I like to isolate senses and write about one at a time. So I might spend a minute or two focusing only on the sounds of that moment. This is easiest if you close your eyes and only listen:

Call from the house: Do we need more ice?
trampoline springs as the kids bounce – sproing – squeak – sproing
Neighbor’s porch door slamming
wind rustling the oak leaves that hang over the deck
scrape of a metal spatula on the grill

Then I might isolate only the sense of touch – scratchy grass under my bare feet, the tickle of a bright green, newly hatched bug that’s landed near my elbow. And smells – hamburger smoke, sunscreen and bug spray, new cedar mulch from the garden we cleaned up just in time for the party, and that lake-smell that is half fresh and half fish. You get the idea…and then I’d go back to rewrite the passage sprinkling in some of those had-to-have-been-there to notice it details to make the piece more alive.

The kids have left us late this afternoon, for a small, square island of independence bobbing in the lake-wind seventy yards from shore. Here at the deck tables, hamburger smoke drifts through the sunscreen-and-bug-spray air of summer. I wiggle my toes in the rough grass under the picnic table and listen to their cold-water squeals over the hush of rustling oak leaves above. The girls are on one raft, breathing in the cedar planks and lake air, half fresh and half fish. They stretch long and tan, soaking up Saturday sun, while on the other float, the boys stand, arms folded over their chests until somebody shoves somebody and there is leaping and laughing and splashing and so much teenager joy that I ache from missing it already, before they are even gone.

This is still rough around the edges, and if it were to be part of something bigger, I’d revise more, trimming words here, adding more there, and playing with the blend of those concrete details and the inner world of emotion as I take it all in. But you get the idea, right?

So here’s your assignment for today:

Take your notebook or laptop and go outside somewhere – your house, the beach, the woods, a city bench…wherever. If it’s raining where you live today, you can sit by a partly open window.

Write a snippet of that moment, just off the top of your head without thinking about the details. Then, underneath that snapshot paragraph, try to isolate the tiny details of each sense with your words.  Take a minute or two to focus only on the details of what you hear…then what you smell…and so on. And then, go back and rewrite your paragraph if you’d like, working in some of those tiny, had-to-be-there details.

In writing, I find that the first details that come to my mind are not the most original. It’s when I really stop and listen to what’s there – rather than what I expect to be there – that I discover the richest details…the ones that invite a reader into the place I’m writing about. You come, too.

If you’d like to share your revised paragraph in the comments today, feel free! If you’re not quite ready yet, that’s okay, too. We’ll be here when you are. :-)

Want some more inspiration for today? Check out your Monday Morning Warm-Up on Jo’s blog, too!


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