November News and a Writing Challenge

November always feels like an in-between month, doesn’t it? But this is a great season to cozy up with a cup of a tea and a notebook to try some writing prompts. Here’s one for you…

Recently, an author-illustrator friend shared a painting she’d created, along with an invitation: Write a story to go with this art!

I happened to see it in one of my online groups, and even though I was on deadline for a writing project, the playfulness of that post pulled me away from my other work for a while. It was so much fun, imagining a story that was so different from the history-based nonfiction I’d been working on that day. And it reminded me of a project I loved to do with my 7th graders when I was teaching. We’d each choose a piece from the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s online collection and use it as inspiration for a piece of writing. A story…a poem…whatever it sparked. Today, I visited the Met’s Twitter feed and found this photo.

It’s from the Met’s “The Last Knight” exhibit. What do these ghostly knight hands spark for you? Take fifteen minutes to write whatever comes to mind. (And feel free to share this prompt with your students, too!)

Art-inspired writing aside, I’ve been wrapping up a number of projects this fall and also celebrating some new & upcoming books.

INSECT SUPERPOWERS is about real-world insects with real-world superpowers. It’s graphic nonfiction, illustrated by Jillian Nickell in the style of a super-hero comic book. Out now from Chronicle books, it’s a perfect book for graphic novel fans as well as budding entomologists. You can read more about it and order a signed copy here.

My next novel, CHIRP, doesn’t come out until February but has already earned two starred reviews. This one, from Kirkus, captures the spirit of the book perfectly:

“Sometimes courage is quiet.”

Mia’s life turned upside down a year ago when she broke her arm during a gymnastics routine, so a family move back to Vermont, where Mia’s paternal grandmother lives, seems like the perfect fresh start. Gram farms crickets as an alternative food source, and Mia is eager to help out during the summer. Things start going wrong at the farm, however, and Gram is certain that sabotage is the cause. With the help of new friends made and new skills acquired at the day camps her parents force her to attend, Mia is determined to keep Gram’s beloved business from failing. But to grow past obstacles internal and external, she must first find the courage to speak out. This story defies categorization: It’s at once a friendship yarn, a summer idyll, a mystery, and a push for female empowerment. Messner deftly weaves together myriad complex plot threads to form a captivating whole. Characters are well drawn and multifaceted; all are imbued with a rich individuality, from earnest, increasingly confident Mia to the never seen farmhand James who attends all his husband’s baseball games. The women, tellingly, remain at the helm throughout. They are entrepreneurs, activists, engineers, mayors; they are mothers, daughters, friends, lovers. Each woman’s rise is its own story, giving Mia a supportive space in which she can come to terms with her own conflicts. Mia and her family are white; the supporting cast is vigorously diverse.

Rich, timely, and beautifully written. (Fiction. 10-14)

Bloomsbury is offering a fun pre-order offer for CHIRP – if you order your copy now and send them the receipt, they’ll mail you a poster and a class set of bookmarks! Details are here. 

If you’d like your copy of CHIRP personalized and signed to you, your favorite reader, or your classroom or school, you can pre-order through my local independent bookstore, The Bookstore Plus in Lake Placid, and they’ll send your book out on release day.  Just leave a note in the comments about how you’d like it signed.

I hope that you and your family have a wonderful rest of November! Read some great books and try out that writing prompt, okay?

#WhyWeWrite: Seven Award-winning Authors Share Their Secrets for the National Day on Writing

We write to share wonder and curiosity, to illuminate universal truths and small moments, to shine light into shadows, and so that our stories can walk quietly beside readers to let them know they aren’t alone. Today, we’d like to share some of our best writing secrets — the ones that keep us going and help transform a draft from good to great.

Martha Brockenbrough, author of The Game of Love and Death and the forthcoming Unpresidented: A Biography of Donald Trump







One thing I see often in the writing of my students (and sometimes my own work) is a scene that could be made stronger with a really strong setting acting as an anchor.

We all know that lots of description can be a snooze for readers, so I’m not encouraging anyone to do that. Most definitely not!  

But …  we should know where we are at the start of every scene, and finding clever ways to establish that will make your writing sing.

Think about how you know where you are. Your senses tell you. Sight often dominates, so here’s a way to find fresh observations. Close your eyes right. What do you hear? What can you smell? Are you sitting or standing or in some way interacting in your environment? How is that affecting your body? Those are questions you can ask yourself about your character and their world, and you can choose the most interesting and useful ones to help your reader slide inside your character’s entire existence—head, body, and experience in that form.

And one more tip: this is sometimes something I do the day after I’ve written a scene, and when I’m trying to warm myself up for new words. I read the previous day’s work and think about how I can create more anchors and more resonance for readers. It’s always a quick way for me to get myself back into the project, and I find so much pleasure in enriching things for readers this way.

Kate Messner, author of Breakout and the Ranger in Time series


I look for small things when I write. Often, the tiniest detail is the best detail when it comes to grounding a scene in a particular time and place or bringing a huge, sweeping moment back to the personal. The tricky thing about this is that the first thing we think of as writers is almost never that perfect, small detail. We have to dig for those.

When we’re imagining a beach by a lake, we get the lapping waves and the calling seagulls right away. But when we go to a lake and listen, we also hear the two dogs barking just up the hill – one with a deep woof and one with a high-pitched yapping. We hear the far-away train and maybe the scrape-clunk-scrape of a kid sorting rocks to find just the right one to skip. These are better details.

We’ve all seen disaster scenes on television, but again, when we imagine this setting, the first details we think of – twisted beams and emergency lights – probably won’t tell the story in the best way. It’s the smaller, more specific details that make it personal – the broken eyeglasses with the red frames, the Snapple rolling down the street from an overturned bagel cart, the firefighter who’s stopped to pet a dog. The first set of details tells us there’s been a disaster; the second set makes us care.

Here’s an exercise you can try in any setting. First, just stay at your desk or wherever you are, and write a quick description of that setting. What do you think you’ll probably see, hear, feel, and smell when you get there? Now, take your notebook and go to the place. Sit down, and for five or ten minutes, just watch and feel and listen, and write down things you notice. Sniff the air, too. Everyplace has smells, and not always the ones we expect. What did you notice that wasn’t on your first list? Those might be the best details of all.

Tracey Baptiste, author of The Jumbies books and Minecraft: The Crash

The most fun thing for me about writing is cutting scenes. Knowing where to cut a scene is hard, and getting just the right ending to it is also tough, but I think about it in two ways,

  1. Have I shown the reader everything they need from this scene? And
  2. Does the ending propel them to the next one?

So the first part always involves some back and forthing. Sometimes you don’t know if you’ve given the reader everything in a scene until you get to the end of the story and realize that you didn’t set up some things earlier that they’re going to need at the end, so you have to go back and fill this into scenes you’ve already written. This is mostly easy enough to figure out once you realize that you don’t have to get the scene perfectly right the first time, and it’s TOTALLY fine to go back and re-do a scene, add or subtract, etc.

What’s more difficult is knowing how to end it in a way that makes the reader want to keep on reading. And for that, I encourage you to watch one of my favorite movies in the whole wide world, The Fifth Element.

This movie cuts scenes with razor-sharp precision and what ends one scene starts the next, and it all feels orderly, but also super exciting.

Anytime I can’t seem to get the end of a scene right, I go watch The Fifth Element to re-learn how to basically throw the reader from one scene to the next. The way the editor or director moves from one scene to the next is merciless, and I apply that strategy to the end of every scene I write. Mostly, it involves finding the connective tissue between the two scenes so that what’s dropped in one is immediately picked up in the other by someone else, in a different way, but it works like gangbusters.

And it’s super fun.

Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich, author of Two Naomis and Naomis Too 

Revel in what you do well. Enjoy your writing strengths, and use them unashamedly. I think of myself as much better at character development than ‘plotting’/action, and often spend too much time as my own personal contortionist, trying too hard to PLOT THE STORY, feeling inadequate and dim. It is inevitably misery-inducing, and not very good. But when I start with and spend time with what works for me — thinking deeply about character — the story comes, and those things that I think I have to do to PLOT, do come as a more natural extension of my work. So, do you. Enjoy it. Be proud of it–congratulate yourself, even (for just a bit, don’t get all biggety. But if it were me, I *might* have a morsel of cake). And then get to work. Start from your joy, and then challenge yourself. For instance, if you start with character, keep thinking about how the fullness of your character can drive the story. If Naomi Marie is anxious to appear a high achiever and prove herself on this group project, she might take on some tasks without asking her other team members if that’s OK. Maybe she takes on too much, and that affects another activity. Maybe another group member suspects her of sabotage, and engineers revenge. Stuff can happen! If you start with action, with a bit more ‘What if?’, maybe there’s a group of kids working on a project but one has been asked to cheat in order to make a friend look impressive. What kind of character might agree to cheat, and why? How would they go about it? Who in the group might immediately be suspicious, what would they do? and WHY? Would another group member be an accomplice, and (you guessed it) WHY?

Don’t try to be a different type of writer. Start from your strengths, and let them nourish your challenges. Let your writing joys feed your struggles.

Anne Ursu, author of Breadcrumbs and the forthcoming The Lost Girl

Like Olugbemisola,  I am not a person who thinks in plot. To me, books are all character–even fantasies with the most elaborate world and coolest creatures are nothing without a compelling, whole character at the center. Fantasy books are journeys–yes, external ones, but more importantly they are internal journeys. Our protagonists begin in a situation where they have some deep-seated need or wound, something so desperate and profound that only a fantasy journey can heal that wound.

Whenever I get stuck on the plot, world, antagonists, or side characters I go back to the protagonist. What is her journey really about? What does she want and what does she really need? How can I design the rest of the story to challenge her and change her so that need is met by the end of the book?

When writers I work with are having trouble with their books I often have then write a journal entry from the protagonist’s point of view from the night before the book starts, where the protagonist confides all of their feelings and desires. Maybe the root of these desires runs far deeper than they know; after all they haven’t had a fantasy journey yet. But out of this exercise, I hope, comes a sense of what the gravity of the book is, the thing every other element should revolve around.

Laurel Snyder, author of Bigger Than a Breadbox and Orphan Island

As a teacher, I probably talk more about “default writing” than anything else.

Of course, we all have defaults, and occasionally, they can be useful. But learning to write well means learning to interrogate our defaults, to question their value in each instance. This means that we all need to know how to identify our defaults on the page, and consider other (better?) options.

Like the man said, KNOW THYSELF!

An example: I’ll confess that often, in my books, I default to BLINKING. Characters who are confused or upset or stunned or happy will BLINK, as a way of expressing that there’s a lot going on inside them. Now, this is fine once in a while, but it’s kind of a cheap trick, a manipulation, and I certainly don’t want to rely on it too often. So now that I recognize my BLINKING default, I look out for it. In fact, at the end of each draft, I do a search for the word “blink” and then replace that word/moment with something else, in each case.

An easy exercise that can help with this is something I call the HIGHLIGHTER TRICK. Simply take a printed draft of your work, and a highlighter. Now, read the manuscript backwards, sentence by sentence, beginning at the very end. You aren’t reading for content, so you don’t want to read forward, and get caught up in the narrative. You want to slow down and read each line on its own, as a discrete sentence. Paying attention to the words themselves, rather than the story. And each time you see something familiar—a word or phrase or sound or gesture that you know you’ve used in the past—highlight it. Then, once you’re done reading the whole thing with your highlighter, go back through and treat the story like a Mad Libs, replacing each highlighted item with something else.

One last note: when you find yourself absolutely resisting a specific change, that’s fine! Leave the highlighted section as is. Because sometimes in life, your default is the exact right instinct. The point isn’t that you should never use it. Rather, that you should CHOOSE it, each time, the way you should choose everything carefully.

Linda Urban, author of Road Trip with Max and his Mom and Mabel and Sam at Home

The best way to become a better writer is to read more.
You knew someone was going to say it, didn’t you?  Next to writing a lot, reading a lot is the most commonly dispensed advice there is. Because it is very good advice.

Here’s what gets said less often, but is just as important:  Read Aloud.

So much of writing is about the sound of things — the way words bounce or clash, the rhythm of sentences, the pitch of paragraphs, the hush of the rests between them.  I realized recently that some of my best, most joyful writing has happened during times when I was also actively engaged in reading aloud to my children. It gets in your head, that sound, like an earworm tune you’re not even aware of until you’re singing along with it.  Read aloud to write work worthy of reading aloud.

And then, do that.  Read your own work aloud.
How does it sound? Are there consonants clacking when you intended a soothing swish?  Does a languid pool of description slow down what ought to be a high speed hydroplane race? Have you spiraled madly round a manic moment only to peter slowly out? Again? Really? Fine.

Read it aloud.

Find the beat.
Make a change.

Read it aloud, repeat.  Or re-beat. Until, finally, it sings.

Do you have a favorite writing secret to add? Please feel free to share in a comment. We hope you have a great National Day on Writing and a year full of wonderful stories!

Teachers Write 8.3.18 One Last Friday Mini-Lesson…and Looking Ahead

Good morning! It’s hard to believe that our four weeks together have flown by already, and today is our last day of Teachers Write for 2018, and I want to use this last day of camp to talk about setting goals. That’s probably something you talk about with your students, right?  But sometimes it’s easier to set those goals when we have specific assignments and set deadlines – an essay due on Friday, or final grades posted by the 20th. Goals for your personal writing can be more of a challenge, but they’re just as important.

I use something called a bullet journal to set my writing goals on a day-t0-day schedule, and I set up lists of monthly goals, too. Here’s what that looks like.

You’re probably noticing that this isn’t just about writing. My exercise and hydration goals are here, too, and so are reminders to schedule my kid’s physical and make plans for an upcoming trip to NYC. That’s what works best for me – including all of my responsibilities on one big list – because really, that’s how my world operates. You can read more about bullet journaling here – and there’s a whole post about how I use it in my writing life here. 

I also use other kinds of charts to keep track of ongoing projects. This Gantt chart is a project-scheduling tool that TW guest author Tracey Baptiste taught me about, where you set up a chart with major steps to completing a project and shade in the boxes as things progress. (Please note that this chart only includes the first two major revisions – there are typically 8-15 more after that!)

However you keep track of your day to day and ongoing writing goals, it’s also important to make time to reflect, and that’s what I’m going to ask you to do today.

Your Assignment: How has your summer of writing gone? Take some time to reflect on what you’ll take away from these past four weeks of Teachers Write and what you hope the coming weeks and months will look like for you as a writer. What’s your plan for keeping regular writing a part of your life? Feel free to share thoughts in the comments. And don’t forget to check in with Jen at Teach Mentor Texts on Sunday for one more conversation about the summer’s progress.

Finally, I want to say thank you so, so much for making this a part of your summer. You’re teaching and sharing stories with kids and helping them to find their own voices in a time when this work is so desperately needed. So thank you for choosing this work and for making it a priority even during your summer break. Thanks for opening up and sharing, for encouraging one another to be brave, and for stepping outside of your comfort zones as writers. It’s been such a gift working with you this summer, learning from you, and reading your powerful words. And it’s an even greater gift to call you friends.

Keep writing. Keep sharing stories. And please know how grateful your author friends are for all of the work that you do.




Teachers Write 8.2.18 Thursday Quick-Write with Tracey Baptiste

Good morning! Our final Thursday Quick-Write for the summer comes from the amazing Tracey Baptiste.

Tracey is the author of the creepy MG fantasy adventures The Jumbies and Rise of the Jumbies (and a third book on the way, too!), the contemporary YA novel Angel’s Grace and 9  non-fiction books for kids in elementary through high school. Her new official Minecraft novel, The Crash, just came out last month! Tracey is also a former elementary school teacher who does lots of author visits, and she’s on the faculty at Lesley University’s Creative Writing MFA program.

Your Assignment: Write a scene in which a character has to communicate something important (traumatic/time-sensitive, etc.) but cannot use spoken or written language. They may be in a foreign country, or an alien world, or there’s some other reason for the restriction. Feel free to share a bit of what you wrote in the comments if you’d like!

Teachers Write 8.1.18 Q&A Wednesday with Meg Medina and Ann Angel

Good morning! It’s time for our final Q&A Wednesday of Teachers Write Virtual Summer Writing Camp. Today’s author guests are Meg Medina and Ann Angel!

Meg Medina is the author of numerous prize-winning works for children and teens, including Mango, Abuela and MeTía Isa Wants a Car, and Yaqui Delgado Wants to Kick Your Ass. Her forthcoming novel, Merci Suárez Changes Gears, will be published by Candlewick Press in Sept 2018. Meg is a founding member of We Need Diverse Books, a faculty member of Hamline University’s MFA program for children’s writing, and serves on the Board of Advisors for SCBWI. More at

Ann Angel writes middle grade and YA nonfiction and serves as contributing editor for YA anthologies. Anthologies include Things I’ll Never Say, Stories About Our Secret Selves and Such a Pretty Face, Short Stories About Beauty . Ann’s biography Janis JoplinRise Up Singing received the 2011 YALSA Excellence in Nonfiction Award and the 2011 SCBWI Crystal Kite Award, was listed by Booklist as a 2011 Top Ten Biography for Youth and a 2011 Top Ten Arts Book for Youth. Additional nonfiction includes an Amy Tan biography and a reader’s guide to Sandra Cisneros’ The House on Mango Street. Ann teaches creative writing at Mount Mary University in Milwaukee. For more information:

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 author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

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!

Teachers Write 7.31.18 Tuesday Quick-Write with Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich

Good morning! Our Tuesday Quick-Write guest author today is the wonderful Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich! She’s the author of 8th Grade Superzero, a Notable Book for a Global Society, as well as a Notable Social Studies Trade Book for Young People. She is a co-author of the NAACP Image Award-nominated Two Naomis, its sequel, Naomis Too, and the forthcoming Above and Beyond: NASA’s Journey To Tomorrow, as well as the picture book biography Someday Is Now: Clara Luper and the 1958 Oklahoma City Sit-Ins. Olugbemisola is the editor of The Hero Next Door, a 2019 anthology from We Need Diverse Books. A member of The Brown Bookshelf and the Advisory Board of We Need Diverse Books, Olugbemisola lives with her family in New York City. Visit her online at

Often when we think of writing stories, we think primarily of the character and setting — the who and the where/what.  One of the ways to deepen a story and write three-dimensional characters is to be thoughtful about their emotional life and how they express those emotions in different situations. I often use a variation of this exercise as a writing game with small groups; it’s fun to see how differently we may think about demonstrations of thought and feeling!
Your Assignment: Write a scene using the following:
1) Create a character (include their age, race and ethnicity, gender)
2) and now…using that same character, mix and match setting and emotion.
a) Put them in a SHOPPING MALL, and the emotion is FRUSTRATION
b) in a CLASSROOM, and the emotion is JOY
c) at the BEACH, and the emotion is FURY
d) in a New York City subway station, and the emotion is EXHILARATION
e) in a KITCHEN, and the emotion is SURPRISE
f) in a PARK, and the emotion is DISGUST
g) in a CAR, and the emotion is SHAME
h) on a FARM, and the emotion is ENVY
i) at a BASKETBALL GAME, and the emotion is ANXIETY
j) in a SWIMMING POOL, and the emotion is LOVE
For each of these, be thoughtful about the ways that your character’s traits and the setting impact their actions, how the same trait is expressed differently, depending on the situation. Get to know your character even more, and most of all, have fun! And feel free to share a bit of what you wrote in the comments today if you’d like.

Teachers Write 7.30.18 Mini-Lesson Monday with Chris Tebbetts

Good morning!  Jo has your Monday Morning Warm-Up here… and Chris Tebbetts joins us with today’s mini-lesson. Chris is the author and co-author of many books for young readers.  Titles include the #1 New York Times bestselling MIDDLE SCHOOL series, as well as PUBLIC SCHOOL SUPERHERO, with James Patterson and illustrator Laura Park; the New York Times bestselling STRANDED series with Jeff Probst; and the young adult novel M OR F? with Lisa Papademetriou. His work has received children’s choice awards in Oregon and Hawaii, as well a Sunshine State Young Readers Award nomination, and a nod on the New York Public Library’s annual list of Books For the Teen Age. Watch for his YA novel, ME, MYSELF, AND HIM next summer—and in the meantime, you can reach him with questions or school visit inquiries at

Three Steps to Character Dimension:
Internal Conflict, Contradiction, and Shadow Traits

I often think in terms of duality when I’m writing. I ask myself, what are the two sides to this story, this scene, this moment?

Or, for the purposes of today’s mini-lesson: what are the two sides to the characters I create? It’s a question that helps make the people who populate my stories more interesting, more human, more complex, and usually, more relatable.

To that end, here are three items for your writer’s toolbox; three ways to bring out the dimension in your own characters.

1) Internal Conflict

We all know that a story needs some sense of stakes. Your character needs a goal, and that goal needs to be impeded by some collection of obstacles and antagonist(s), creating the external conflict of your story.

But how about internal conflict? What conflicting stakes might exist—or could exist—within your character’s situation?

For Katniss Everdeen, there’s a driving tension at the heart of the story, between the rules of the Hunger Games (kill!) and her own moral compass (don’t kill!).

For Les Miserables’ Jean Valjean, it’s an internal conflict between his obligations to Cosette and to the rule of law, embodied by the story’s antagonist, Javert.

And for Ramona Quimby, it exists as a constant tension between what she knows she should do and what she wants to do.

What about in your own works in progress? Is there a way to complicate your character’s situation by giving her more than one want? And by making those wants mutually exclusive?

2) Contradiction

As Walt Whitman’s famous quote goes, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.”

Contradiction in characters is nothing new. It’s as old as story itself. And yet, at the same time, I have this sense that audiences are increasingly open to the idea of characters who don’t always turn one-plus-one into two. Characters who are more than one thing at the same time. Characters who contradict themselves and contain the multitudes that go with it.

In his excellent book, THE ART OF CHARACTER, David Corbett distills the role (and value) of contradiction into two things: 1) It defies expectations; and 2) It depicts complexity and depth.

He goes on to say:

“Developing a character with genuine depth requires a focus on not just desire but how the character deals with frustration of her desires, as well as her vulnerabilities, her secrets, and especially her contradictions. This development needs to be forged in scenes, the better to employ your intuition rather than your intellect.”

I like the way he emphasizes intuition in this case, since we’re dwelling into aspects of character that don’t always make sense on paper, but are, at the same time, completely and realistically human.

3) Shadow Traits

Here’s a bit more from THE ART OF CHARACTER:

“The tension created by these two antagonistic impulses – to control our behaviour so we “get along” and to let go and “be ourselves” – forms one of the core conflicts of our lives. And conflict is inherently dramatic…. For every trait we publicly exhibit, its opposite lurks somewhere in our psyches.  These shadow traits may be feeble and ill-formed from lack of conscious use, but they exist – meaning that if a character acts unbelievably, we can make what he does seem more organic if we find a way to root it in the battle between the character’s conscious and suppressed behavior.”

Even as I write this article, I’m aware of the overlap between these ideas. Internal conflict is a kind of contradiction. And contradiction might easily contain some element of these so-called shadow traits, like Katniss Everdeen’s savage side, the part of her that comes out only by necessity. (Notice how that story begins with a hunting scene, where she’s killing wild game to provide for her family.)

That said, it’s not as important to me for these ideas to be distinct from one another as it is to find ways of asking myself useful questions about my characters along the way. To that end, here’s an assignment and some additional food for thought to consider:

Your Assignment:  This exercise is based on ideas from “Composing A Life,” by Mary Catherine Bateson, a sociologist (and also Margaret Mead’s daughter). For more, I suggest listening to Bateson’s interview on the On Being podcast from a few years ago.

In the meantime, you can apply this exercise to any of your characters, or even to yourself, which can also be illuminating.


What are the two sides of your character’s story? That might refer to her entire lifetime; her arc within the story; a specific scene or chapter; or even an individual moment. Almost always, at whatever scale, there is more than one thing going on.

I’ll use myself as an example. Both of these stories about me are true to my experience:

Story 1: In high school, I lived in the coolest little hippie town in America, surrounded by an academic, artistic, and diverse community. I was popular, confident, and involved in all kinds of extra-curricular activities. I loved my friends, and felt like I could truly be myself around them.  I learned a ton in those four years, and I’ve never lived anywhere like it since.

Story 2: In high school, I lived in the most boring little town in America, surrounded by corn fields and pig farms. I was deeply closeted and keeping it a secret, not just from everyone around me, but also from myself.  There was still so much I didn’t know. In fact, all I really knew was that I couldn’t wait to get out of Yellow Springs, Ohio.


Now look for the continuity between those two sides of the story. Bateson poses this as a sociological question, but I’ve borrowed it with my storyteller’s hat on. What is it about your character (or yourself) that unites those seemingly conflicting truths?

Working off my own example, I’d say that the continuity for me was in two things: SMALL TOWN LIFE and SURVIVAL. Which is to say, yes, I grew up in a really cool little town, and yes, it was still (for me) the absolute middle of nowhere. Also, while one part of me thrived in high school, that was only possible because I was also keeping another part of myself hidden from the world.


Write a scene that captures some of this duality. How might the contradiction manifest? And how might the continuity? Maybe it’s a scene you can use in your finished story. Or maybe it simply helps inform your overall writing process. Either way, I hope it might be useful for some of you.


Some questions to consider if you’re feeling stuck:

What is/are your character’s internal conflict(s)?

Are there competing stakes in your story? Two things the character wants, but can’t have both? If not, would that improve the story?

What is/are your character’s shadow trait(s)?

Where at the beginning of your story is the person your character will (or might) become?  Can you show the potential for that change? (And do you want to?)

How is your character the same (and changed) at the end of the story?

Feel free to share a bit of what you wrote today in the comments if you’d like!

Teachers Write 7.27.18 Friday Mini-Lesson with Linda Urban

Good morning! It’s the end of the week, and that means you can stop by Friday Feedback to get help with a work in progress. It also means another great mini-lesson, and today’s guest author is Linda Urban!

Linda writes picture books, chapter books, and middle grade novels. Her titles include A Crooked Kind of PerfectHound Dog TrueThe Center of EverythingMilo Speck Accidental AgentMouse Was MadLittle Red Henry, Mabel and Sam at HomeWeekends with Max and His Dad, and Road Trip with Max and His Mom. Her books have appeared on more than 25 state reading lists, as well as best books lists from The New York Public Library, Kirkus, the National Council of Teachers of English, and IndieNext. Linda has a BA in Journalism and an MA in English from Wayne State University in Detroit and pursued further graduate study in Film and Television Critical Studies at UCLA. For ten years, she served as marketing director at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California.

Linda’s joining us today to talk about notebooks!

One of the most important things I’ve ever written is this:

Like so many people who love to read and aspire to write, I had been gifted dozens of beautiful notebooks over the years.  Hardcover, softcover, leather bound, handmade.  I’d purchased at least as many for myself.  And I almost never wrote in them. I was so afraid of making a mistake, or saying something inane, or making any mark I thought might be unworthy of the paper I was writing on.

The notebook page you see above was one such journal.  Hardcover.  Thick paper.  Bright white.  I loved it and knew instantly that THIS would be the journal of all journals – a document of our family’s holiday traditions, the sort of thing that my children would find upon my death and sue each other for custody of, it was so poignant and lyrical and full of meaning.  On the first page, I hoped to begin with something simple.  A Christmas shopping list.  For my husband’s first gift, I intended to purchase a Southern treat I knew he’d love.  These special, mail-order only grits  from a company called Hoppinjohn’s.  Do you see what I wrote instead?  Yes.  Papa Johns.

So long perfect notebook!

Or maybe, hello perfect notebook.

Because for the first time ever, I crossed out my mistake and kept writing.   The burden of heirloom writing had been lifted and now I could write ANYTHING!

In an instant, my notebook went from being a performance space, with the expectation of perfection and a someday-audience, to a practice space where experimentation, play, and messes were not only okay, but expected.

And it has made a huge difference in my work.  My notebooks are full of observations, experimentations, doodles and drafts.  Jumbled amongst the writerly stuff are to do lists, drawings by my kids, theater programs, and recipes.   And while that might sometimes make a particular item a tiny bit more challenging to retrieve a few weeks later, most of the time it prevents me from feeling too precious about things.

This is a page of observations from a trip to the dentist’s office.   While I have not written a novel set in a waiting room, I can’t say it won’t happen.  And the practice of observing small details has most definitely come in handy.

This is a notebook page I made during a revision of Milo Speck, Accidental Agent.  I was working out the relative size of our hero, Milo, to the beings and features of Ogregon. These doodles didn’t just help with revising what was already in the manuscript, it sparked inspiration for an entirely new scene.

This is a brainstormed list of participants one might find in a small town parade, like the Bunning Day Parade that structures so much of The Center of Everything.  You see I’m also working out some of the book’s themes and character choices as well.

Since messing around with my own notebook, I’ve grown more and more interested in the ways that other creative people use notebooks and if you’re similarly intrigued, I highly recommend you take a look at Syllabus by cartoonist and University of Wisconsin Prof Lynda Barry (whose Tumblr  is a must-follow).  Also eye-opening, the notebook Frances Ford Coppola kept while working on The Godfather (scroll down to see the actual pages. That is annotation!), and this great collection of notebook pages from JK Rowling, Kurt Cobain, and Sylvia Plath, whose sketches of the furniture at Yaddo are both delightfully wonky and a model for keen observation.

Your Assignment: More important than studying other people’s notebooks, however, is to get busy getting messy in your own.  So, my prompts for you today are twofold.

  1. If you have a nice notebook that you haven’t been using, take it out now.  Open randomly to any page.  Make a mess.

You’re expecting someone to scold you.  Or you want to scold yourself.
Ask yourself why that is.
What principle or belief is at work?
Now set a timer and for five minutes, write about why you hold that belief.  Where did it come from? What purpose does it serve?  Is it empowering you – or holding you back?
Does that belief in any way inform your internal editor?

  1. Find another page. If you like, you can turn to the front of your notebook, but if you’re feeling really rebellious after exercise one, let randomization be your guide.

Set your timer for ten minutes and observe the space you’re in.   You don’t need to write in complete sentences – in fact, it might be better if you don’t.  Take time to notice.  What do you hear?  What sounds are closest to you?  What sounds are furthest away?  What sound is missing?  How about touch?  What temperature is it?  How humid?  Are you sitting? Standing?  What surfaces are you making contact with?  What do you see?  What is just out of sight?

Turn the page.  Now consider a setting from your work in progress.  A protagonist’s bedroom.  That awkward Thanksgiving dinner at the All-You-Can-Eat Buffet.  The dragon-tamer’s office.  Whatever.  Now set your timer for 10 minutes and do the same sort of observing.  Doodle, draw, write, draw lines and arrows.

Now set your timer for another 10 minutes and write a moment where your protagonist enters this space.  Let her observe.  Notice how her emotions, her agenda, her experience shape her observations.  Don’t worry if what you write has little to do with your story-in-progress.  This is notebook work.  You’re not performing for a reader.  You’re practicing.  Get messy.

Teachers Write 7.26.18 Thursday Quick-Write with Ammi-Joan Paquette and Jen Petro-Roy

Our Thursday Quick-Write today is a team effort from Jen Petro-Roy and Ammi-Joan Paquette. Jen was born, raised, and still lives in Massachusetts, even though she rejects the idea that snow and cold are ever a good thing. She started writing in third grade, when her classroom performed a play she had written. It was about a witch and a kidnapped girl and a brave crew of adventurers who set out to save the day. As a kid, numerous pictures of Jen often featured Baby-Sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins books clutched in her hand, so it was just a matter of time until she started writing her own books for children. In the past, Jen has worked as a teacher and a teen and children’s librarian. She loves running, board games, trivia, and swimming, and has a mild obsession with the television show Jeopardy! P.S. I Miss You is her debut novel.

Ammi-Joan Paquette is the author of many books for young readers, including The Train of Lost Things, the Princess Juniper series, Ghost in the House, Bunny Bus, and The Tiptoe Guide to Tracking Fairies, as well as the Two Truths and a Lie series, co-written with Laurie Ann Thompson. Joan is the recipient of a PEN New England Discovery Award honor, and her books have been recognized with starred reviews, Junior Library Guild selections, and on a variety of “Best of the Year” lists. In her non-writing life, she is a senior literary agent with Erin Murphy Literary Agency. Visit her on the web at

Jen & Joan both write books that address emotional topics for kids, and they’re joining us today with a conversation and a writing prompt. 

Q: Many books are inspired by their authors’ life events. Did any personal experiences inspire this novel for you?

Jen: Absolutely. P.S. I MISS YOU tackles a bunch of “tough topics.” (Or, I should say, what people label as tough topics.) Because for me, tough topics are real-life for so many, and that’s why it’s so important to include these issues and situations into our narratives–so our readers can see themselves in our books. In my book, Evie struggling with a lot–her older sister Cilla is staying with a relative after getting pregnant in high school and disappointing her strict Catholic parents. At the same time, Evie’s friends are starting to develop different interests and Evie herself is developing a crush on the new girl in school. While struggling with my sexuality is something that I myself never went through, Evie’s relationship with religion and her journey to both question and redefine her faith in God is something that I did experience (and that I am still navigating). For many, faith is something that is set in stone–for them, it’s a touchstone. But for others, for adults as well as kids, faith is something that has to be worked through, doubted, lost, or strengthened. Any of these paths is okay, and I worked hard to make Evie’s journey feel authentic.

Q: What was the journey that led to writing your book? Did you feel any concerns in dealing with such a sensitive topic?

Joan: This novel is the most personal of any I’ve written so far. The external catalyst event that brought on the book was my daughter losing a jean jacket that was important to her. That led me to think about things that I had loved and lost over the years, and about lost things in general. Right before my eyes, the Train of Lost Things was born—and with it, the question: What if there was a way to get back your most precious lost belongings? What if you just had to believe enough?

As I set to writing the story, however, I knew right away that there would be deeper layers to tell. And thinking of loss brought me to the passing of my mother, in a very quick fight with cancer over a decade ago. While Marty in TRAIN OF LOST THINGS is dealing with the loss of his jacket, and his efforts to get it back, the deeper aspect of his fight has to do with the impending loss of his father to cancer, and how he learns to deal with this.

I know some people question whether sad or “tough” topics are too much for kids to handle, whether they should be cushioned from them. But I think we all know that real life is sometimes messy and sad and tough. There’s no avoiding it! Fiction can give young readers the tools to experience some of these sad or hard emotions in a safe space, to explore their own feelings through these hypothetical situations, which may give tools or strength to draw from in any future challenges. As well, sometimes kids—just like us adults—need the cathartic experience of curling up with a sad book and having a good cry.

Q: What is your writing process? How do you begin a new book?

Jen: I’d say that I’m a combination between a plotter and a pantser. I’m a natural perfectionist, so I absolutely need a road map to guide me as I write, but I also thrive off of the excitement that comes from the thrill of that “new shiny idea.” Usually when I have a new idea, I start writing furiously…until I hit around page twenty and realize I have no idea where I’m going. That’s when I start to draw my road map.

I usually plot out my book in a notebook, drawing out timelines and calendars, plotting each chapter, and writing up character profiles. Then I dive back into the first draft, which is my least favorite part of the process. I’m a huge revision fan. I love diving back into the mess, pushing up my sleeves and figuring out what I did wrong and what I did right, how to connect different threads, build up certain sections and further develop characters. Since we’re talking about “tough issues” in this post, revision is another place where I can revisit any serious situations my characters are getting into and make sure both the details and the emotions are true to life, without being too preachy or heavy-handed.

Like many, I go through a lot of drafts as I’m writing, usually at least four before anyone else sees the manuscript. I think it’s so important to realize that that messiness is part of the process. For everyone!

Q: How do you know when a life experience or idea is “the one” to make it into fiction? When it comes to tough subjects, how much is too much?

Joan: I think the best ideas to pursue as a writer are the ones you absolutely cannot put out of your mind—the ones that won’t let you go, no matter what. The ones you can’t help but write. So how do I know when a story is “the one”? When it hunts me down until I write it, and forces me to stick with it come what may. (As a matter of fact, I’m wrestling with just such an idea right now…!) And there is something cathartic about exploring difficult life experiences through fiction, even for us as writers. I think sometimes we sit down with big life questions, framed as the experiences of others, and through the safety of that fictional lens, we can work through to understand what we truly believe, and want, and are.

So how much is too much? That’s a question that only I can answer for my stories, and only you can answer for yours. One thing I do know for sure, though: It never hurts to try. It never hurts to start.

Your Assignment: Brainstorm a list of situations and experiences in your recent or distant past that come back to you. It might be a big challenging life turn, or it might be the smallest conversation or exchange that left you scratching your head or cringing in embarrassment. Try retelling that event in a fictional setting. What will you change? What will you preserve? What is it about that incident that has so captured your mind that you have not been able to forget it? Maybe it would do the same to another reader, somewhere . . .  As always, feel free to share reflections in the comments.

Teachers Write 7.25.18 Q&A Wednesday with Phil Bildner and Tanya Lee Stone

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write Virtual Summer Writing Camp, and we have some fantastic guest authors visiting to answer questions. Today’s author guests are Phil Bildner and Tanya Lee Stone.

Phil Bildner is the author of numerous children’s picture books including the Margaret Wise Brown Prize winning Marvelous CorneliusMartina & ChrissieTwenty-One Elephants, and The Soccer Fence. He is the also the author of the Rip & Red middle grade series — A Whole New BallgameRookie of the Year, Tournament of Champions, and Most Valuable Players. 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. In 2017, Phil founded The Author Village, an author booking business. He lives in Newburgh, New York with his husband and dog.
Tanya Lee Stone is known for telling true stories previously missing from our histories. Her work has earned an NAACP Image Award, Sibert Medal, Bank Street’s Flora Straus Stieglitz Award, Golden Kite, and numerous other honors including Parents Magazine Best Nonfiction Picture Book, YALSA Nonfiction Finalist awards, Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, Jane Addams Honor, NPR Best Books, NCSS and ALA Notables, YALSA BBYAs, Kirkus Best Books, and NCTE Orbis Pictus Honors. Stone is a frequent speaker at schools and conferences.

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 author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Note from Kate: I usually 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!