Teachers Write 8/13/14 – Q and A Wednesday

It’s time for our last Q and A Day Wednesday of the summer. Our official guest-author-answerer today is Erin Dionne, but I’m guessing we’ll have a few other summer mentors stopping by, too.

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 be around today, too.  Got questions? Fire away!

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37 Comments

  1. Andrea P.
    Posted August 13, 2014 at 7:56 am | Permalink

    Thanks to everyone for another great TW summer!

    Good Morning, Erin,
    Your book, Moxie: Rule Breaking, is one of many I purchased this summer. I’m just starting it and already love Moxie and am excited to see how the mystery unfolds. Some of my favorite books (kids and adults) are mysteries. But when I even think about writing a mystery, I have no idea where to start. I took a one day workshop years ago…I am in awe of anyone who writes these complicated and intriguing puzzles. Any advice on how you organize writing a mystery? Planting clues, etc. What’s your process?

    Thank you for sharing your knowledge 🙂

    • Posted August 13, 2014 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      Because plotting is something I struggle with, I use mysteries to help me plot (even if the book is not a mystery per se). I know there has to be the reveal, and I know that along the way I have to drop hints that lead up to the reveal (and a red herring or two). I don’t outline, so I just write toward that reveal as best I can. Then I go back and make sure the clues and twists are working. It takes several passes, but I eventually get there.

  2. Posted August 13, 2014 at 8:23 am | Permalink

    Hi Andrea
    Thanks for your note! As someone who finds outlining and plotting difficult, too, I knew writing a mystery would be a challenge for me. So instead of doing a full outline, I listed the plot moments that I knew had to happen: discovery of the mystery, decision to participate it, finding clues (I figured 3 adventures), and a resolution. That gave me a rough framework. Then I wrote one section at a time, filling in and figuring out what the clues, red herrings, etc, were as I went. It simplified a complex process. And in revision I smoothed out details. Hope this helps!!

    • gae polisner
      Posted August 13, 2014 at 9:52 am | Permalink

      Andrea, I don’t remember who said it to me, but it really resonated: Every story is, at it’s core, a mystery. At least any story that will hold a reader’s interest to keep reading. That concept has really helped me as a writer, even though I don’t write anything that would really be called a mystery. Still, isn’t that true? That any good story is sort of a mystery unfolding? 🙂

      • Andrea P.
        Posted August 13, 2014 at 11:07 am | Permalink

        Erin, I like the framework you described. Gae, I love that quote- and you’re right. 🙂 (I’m finishing Summer of Letting Go- I was hooked right away) Have a great day!

        • gae polisner
          Posted August 13, 2014 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

          😀

    • Posted August 13, 2014 at 11:46 am | Permalink

      You are wise, Gae.

      • gae polisner
        Posted August 13, 2014 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

        Oh, it’s rarely me that is wise. I’m usually just spouting someone else’s wisdom! 🙂

    • Posted August 13, 2014 at 10:40 pm | Permalink

      Thank you! This is so helpful to me, too, as I am revising a mystery right now!

  3. Posted August 13, 2014 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Hi Erin,

    I’m looking forward to reading Moxie and sharing it with my class. Can you share a little about what teachers specifically did that encouraged you as a writer (or what didn’t help that you had to overcome)? Thanks!

    • Posted August 13, 2014 at 10:28 am | Permalink

      That’s a great question, Greg!

      • Posted August 13, 2014 at 11:32 am | Permalink

        Hi Greg and Elissa
        No one has ever asked me this before. What a cool question.
        My fifth grade teacher, Mr. Kraffick, encouraged my writing by letting me use my spelling and vocab words in short stories, instead of disconnected sentences. My 4th grade teacher, Mrs. deBaerstrand, used to discuss the books I was reading with me–why did I like them as opposed to just what did I like. In middle school, a teacher helped me start a literary magazine. All along the way, teachers read and praised my efforts and were excited when I changed an assignment to be more creative. I am indebted to them, and remember that when my students (college age) ask to approach assignments differently.

        • gae polisner
          Posted August 13, 2014 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

          Greg, I just want to chime in that my HS creative writing teacher had us keep a journal… I wrote the stupidest most melodramatic sh*t in there, and handed it in, and it always came back with smile faces and word choices underlined and positive feedback about how important it was that I was expressing myself in a way that felt right to me. What we now call our writer’s voice. I even cursed the big f*bomb one (back then) and she wrote something like, “Sometimes we just need to let it out.” That teacher always made my self expression seem valuable and worthy. And, yes, I have found her on fb, and am friends with her, and have had a chance to tell her over and over again how much she helped me. So, I guess for me — and where FF comes from — is that finding the gem of our abilities and helping us to hone those, will always help more than solely pointing out our flaws.

          • Posted August 14, 2014 at 12:15 am | Permalink

            Finding and naming the “Hidden Gems” in student writing is one of my core beliefs, which I learned from Katherine Bomer’s book “Hidden Gems”. Thanks Gae!

        • Posted August 14, 2014 at 12:21 am | Permalink

          Thank you Erin! What an honor and privilege we have to help kids grow as writers. Hearing what memories you have, and how you have helped others, provides a great reminder for me of how to best help student writers. I was honored this past week to be invited to a college send-off party for a student I had back in 3rd/4th grade. The thing I learned by working with her was the importance of letting kids use their own creative means of constructing their writing, a lesson I cherish to this day.

  4. Jane
    Posted August 13, 2014 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    A comment I sometimes hear from kids is “My story isn’t any good, it isn’t as good as XYZ’s story.” What advice do you have for overcoming the burden of comparing your writing to others’ writing and allowing yourself to just write and explore? (obviously, this isn’t a problem just limited to kids). Thanks so much for being here.

    • Posted August 13, 2014 at 10:51 am | Permalink

      Hi Jane —
      I stopped by, and your question resonated with me, so I hope you don’t mind if I jump in with an response. This summer especially, I’ve been reading some truly wonderful works that made me think, “This is so much better than anything I could write!” But that thought no longer feels negative to me; my next thought was, “Why? What did that author do to make me think that way? And how can I achieve a similar effect in my own writing?”

      I think comparison can be destructive when the writer is stuck on the “My story isn’t any good” part. It might help your students to know that many writers (all the ones I know!) say that at one point or another. It’s because they put so much of themselves on the page — that’s a lot of emotional exposure. Kids are sure to feel that kind of insecurity too, even more strongly. But if your young writers truly see something in someone else’s writing that they admire, it might be worth focusing on that a little, exploring what it is and why it’s effective. It could lead to a deeper understanding of a student’s own work and of the writing process as a whole.

      • Jane
        Posted August 13, 2014 at 12:52 pm | Permalink

        Thanks so much, Diane and Erin. This is so helpful. I think it also helps to be able to say that even published writers whose books these kids read have struggled with the same thing. Both of your suggestions are great. I love the idea of using admiration as a springboard for growth. Thank you!

    • Posted August 13, 2014 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      Hi Jane
      Oh, I am SO familiar with this problem, in my own work and in others! My best suggestion is to have an honest conversation: if there’s something that you’re admiring in someone else’s wrk, how can we revise your piece to strengthen that element? Typically, I find that someone like Jo Knowles, for example, does an incredible job with delivering emotional experiences to her characters. I admire that, and then look at my own work and see where I can strengthen that aspect. If kids are discouraged, I suggest peer editing for positivity: your partner reads your story and tells you three things that they like–only. Another day you work on what doesn’t work. Feeling confidence in our stories–and that we have the power to write them–is important for writers of any age. And frequently we only see what’s not working. Hope this helps!

    • gae polisner
      Posted August 13, 2014 at 3:44 pm | Permalink

      also, just wanted to add that I have certain mantras I whisper to myself, and one of them is simply that I can only do well what *I* do well, can only be, as a writer, who I am. So, try as I might — and I want MIGHTILY — to be E. Lockhart and write the next We Were Liars, that’s simply not the kind of book I can write. So, I step back and do the next best thing: admire it mightily, and then do a little of what Erin describes too! 😀

  5. Posted August 13, 2014 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    Good morning! Thanks so much to all of you, again, for all you do for us. I’ve worked on my historical novel for the past 4 years or so. Following Gae’s advice, I’m working to tell the very best story I can. I have a dilemma, though, as I begin to think of a home for this book. I inherited my father’s small Indie Press last year. I’m making good progress to build interest, taking careful steps to revitalize and take forward what he built. My husband wants the world to see my book, wants me to consider agent query and submission. At the same time, it’s the kind of book I want to offer as a publisher, local history and a kick-butt female MC. So I am conflicted and exploring. All the books in our lineup are family-produced so far, though I plan to change that. Your experiences, pros and cons of what you know, would be much appreciated! I’m not decided – quite- and your input would be so very helpful! Thanks again for another great summer of learning.

    • Posted August 13, 2014 at 11:44 am | Permalink

      Hi Valerie
      First, congratulations on taking on this endeavor! The world needs more indie presses.
      As for what you should do, that’s a dilemma that I’m not sure I can answer. I think “the world” can still experience your story if it comes from a small press but you market it widely (which you’d have to do anyway at a large publisher), but you’d have to work to get the distribution. Kate Messner wrote two historical, local novels (the wonderful Champlain and the Silent One is a joy to read), and they were published through a small press. I don’t want to speak for her, but they helped her establish local author visits and gave her an even stronger root in the schools in her area. I’m sure she can contrast her experience with a larger publisher. Whatever you decide, I’d recommend checking out the Council of Literary magazines and Presses (clmp.org) and the Associated Writers Program (AWP) conference to connect with a small press community.

      • Posted August 13, 2014 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

        Wow, thank you, Erin! I’ve not known exactly which might be most effective ways to find that small press community and this is extremely helpful. I’ll hope Kate can chime in with her varied experience. I feel encouraged to move both book and Press forward, thank you so much.

        • gae polisner
          Posted August 13, 2014 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

          Just a wow from me, too, Valerie (as I have no advice on the question…). I learn such neat things about some of you that I’ve “known” for summers, as the days go by. 🙂

          • Posted August 13, 2014 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

            Well, there you go, Gae. I won’t link. That isn’t what’s up here, though I just want everyone in the world to see what we’ve done! But I have spent the year and a half since my Dad passed away learning a TON. And your advice last year, Gae,to tell the best story I can tell, that’s what it’s all about. That is my mantra. The tag-line my Dad created for the Press is “Books, stories, ideas, inspirations.” That was my Dad all over the place, and it’s exciting to be doing this, not only in his memory, but in its own right, as my creation from here on out. So whether or not you’ve given advice, you’ve both helped me in the decision-making, just by your responses.

            • Gae Polisner
              Posted August 13, 2014 at 10:08 pm | Permalink

              <3

  6. Posted August 13, 2014 at 12:46 pm | Permalink

    Hi, Erin (and Gae, and anyone else who wants to chime in)!

    I have a couple questions.
    1) How do you know when a WIP is done, ready to go out to query? Is there a feeling you get, or an educated guess, or do you just get to the point where you can’t deal with one more revision and it’s “good enough” for now?

    2) When you get an idea for a story and you begin the process of nurturing it from a seed to a full-blown novel, how do you know it will be any good, that it’s a real story?

    3) Have you ever completely ditched a project (or projects) that just weren’t going anywhere?

    Thank you for your time and expertise. I look forward to reading your books.

    • gae polisner
      Posted August 13, 2014 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

      Wendy, see my totally unhelpful answers below in caps under your questions:

      1) How do you know when a WIP is done, ready to go out to query? Is there a feeling you get, or an educated guess, or do you just get to the point where you can’t deal with one more revision and it’s “good enough” for now? YES. I KNOW IT ISN’T A YES OR NO QUESTION, BUT YES. Sort of all of these. Also, there are other key markers, e.g. If I’m writing a YA, and it’s less than 50,000 words, I know I’m short and need to necessarily flesh things out. If I’ve never gotten myself a few weeks distance then gone back and read a hard copy of the mss beginning to end, then that’s a necessary step, that always leads to more revision, before I determine whether I’m as done as I can be. And, then, of course, you pass the manuscript off to a few trusted readers and I always ask the questions — as YOU now know — what isn’t working baout the story? What, if anything, feels like it needs to be fleshed out more? Do you care about the characters? Do you want to keep turning pages? Are there spots where the story lags and you got bored? Etc. Those are the beginnings to knowing…

      2) When you get an idea for a story and you begin the process of nurturing it from a seed to a full-blown novel, how do you know it will be any good, that it’s a real story? YOU DON’T. So much is gut. Or sometimes you so DO know, and your fingers fly and you just know. 🙂

      3) Have you ever completely ditched a project (or projects) that just weren’t going anywhere? LAUGHS. <3

      • Posted August 13, 2014 at 10:38 pm | Permalink

        What a perfect answer to my third question! 🙂
        Thanks Gae. Your answers are very helpful, as always.

    • Posted August 14, 2014 at 10:09 am | Permalink

      Hi Wendy

      I had some posting issues last night, hope you see this today.
      Great questions!
      My answers:
      1. How do I know when it’s done?
      I work with a critique group regularly, and I know that it takes me multiple drafts to get to a strong product (my first book went through 13 revisions!). But when the changes I’m making aren’t making the story BETTER, just different, that’s when I know I’ve done all I can and it’s time to send it out. That doesn’t mean the revisions will stop–an editor will bring insight that you never imagined! It just means that for now, it’s in the best place I can bring it to.
      2. How do you know if your idea is any good?
      I do a LOT of pre-writing. A LOT. I use a notebook, write by hand, and develop characters, conflict, etc. if a character doesn’t have complex problems, if there’s no conflict, if the potential for action is a string of things that are imposed on the character, rather than him or her generating their own problems–the story won’t fly. And I’m grateful that I’ve done that upfront work, because it saves me getting 80 pages in and realizing there’s nowhere to go.

      3. Have I ditched projects?
      *laughs like Gae* oh! yeah. Picture books, easy readers, novels, YA, adult romance….

  7. Jennifer
    Posted August 13, 2014 at 3:23 pm | Permalink

    Thank you all for taking the time to share your craft with us. Participating in #teacherswrite has been such an incredible experience for me. Your ideas have enriched my writing life and as a result, will also enrich the writing lives of my students.

    • gae polisner
      Posted August 13, 2014 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

      So thrilled it was a good experience for you! <3

    • Posted August 14, 2014 at 10:10 am | Permalink

      This makes my heart happy, Jennifer!

  8. Sheila Mustard
    Posted August 13, 2014 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    Erin – On Monday, I asked you about helping students revise and I appreciated your suggestions for older students to cut and rearrange for different perspectives. I am working with younger students so I plan to implement the suggestions of colored markings and changes. I completely agree that for all of us our writing is an accomplishment and so it becomes even harder to think that it is not perfect and needs a slight reworking.

    Which brings me to today’s questions
    What is your recommendation for students and peer editing?
    What is your advice to build confidence and encourage students to feel comfortable with writing?

    • Posted August 14, 2014 at 10:18 am | Permalink

      Hi Sheila

      I love your concrete questions!
      Peer editing, I think, is an essential part of the writing process–one because it’s hard to share your work, and getting practice in that is essential, and two because we lack the objectivity to strengthen our own pieces. That said, giving a good peer review is so hard! And kids get frustrated when others don’t offer good suggestions. Even at the college level, I believe in guided reviews. I give my students really specific items to comment on and look for: find three things you like about the piece. What is working with the opening sentence? Are you hooked? Are you bored? Why? …and so on. I have them write the answers to the questions on a piece of paper, then talk them through with their partner–and tis works up and down the curriculum.students need to be taught what to look for in others work, and then they can see it in their own. I also think sticking with the. Same partner is helpful for the duration of an assignment, so both parties can witness how an essay or story changes from beginning to end of an assignment.

      To build confidence, I try to reinforce the idea that only YOU can tell your story. I would tell it differently, your neighbor would tell it differently…and your voice needs to be heard. I also encourage reading pieces aloud, showing students my drafting process, and basically hammering in that no one gets it right the first time–if ever. Writing is an art, like painting, and it takes a period of time to get to a finished product. And a finished product is still up for revision. I also try to bring in other authors processes, to show there are different ways to tackle assignments and writing, and that finding what works for you is PART OF THE PROCESS. It’s not one size fits all.

  9. Tammy Petty Conrad
    Posted August 14, 2014 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Hi, I know it’s too late, so I’m not expecting a response, but just wanted to put this out there. Right now I’m finding it hard to stick to one project. I started a chapter book on a whim and I’m blogging on a variety of topics. I’m happy that I have many ideas right now and the fun thing about the blog is the short turn around time to ‘publication’. But the chapter book isn’t moving along too much. Just wondering how others deal with this type of thing especially when they have a full time job that will be taking over again next week.

  10. Posted August 18, 2014 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Hi Tammy!
    I hope you see this response. Thanks for your question! For me, my biggest tool when it comes to managing projects and ideas is a notebook. I have a dedicated one for each project, and one for brainstorming new ideas. So when I’m hot to trot on something, I can jot notes in the notebook even if I don’t have time to sit at the keyboard–and they’ll be there when I have time to come back to it. Oftentimes, the things that I find I’m excited about versus the things I feel I *should* be working on are a way for my brain to work on the other project subconsciously. So those little blog posts might be a way for your brain to process writing shorter chapters for your chapter book. Try setting aside some time every few days to work on the chapter book. And if after a month you’re not excited or feeling like it’s not moving along, take a break from it. Write what you’re excited about. And if that’s blog posts, that’s fine!! Especially when the school year gets going, we need to devote our time strategically to work that we’re passionate about.

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