Teachers Write 7/27/20 – the “Pope in the Pool” Trick, Making Choices in Nonfiction, and a Revisiony Writing Prompt

Good morning, and welcome back to Teachers Write! Today, we’re going to talk about dialogue — and how to make it more interesting.

 Have you ever written a scene where two characters need to have a long (and important!) conversation, but it goes on so long that it feels boring? This week’s revision tip comes from a book for screenwriters, called SAVE THE CAT, whose author Blake Snyder called it the “Pope in the Pool” technique. That name comes from a script called THE PLOT TO KILL THE POPE, and in it, the writers needed to get a bunch of important information to the reader. It was too much to just dump on the page, so instead, they had people have a conversation that included all those important details while the Pope was swimming laps in the pool. We don’t think of the Pope as a normal guy who would swim laps, so that made the scene fascinating,

In my cricket-farm mystery CHIRP, there were several scenes where characters needed to have important conversations that went on for a while. To keep those scenes interesting, I made sure the characters were in action while they were talking – baking cricket-flour cookies together, or playing on a playground while they wait for fireworks to start. And the truth is, dialogue with some action happening around it is almost always more interesting than two people standing still, talking.And you don’t always need dialogue tags in a conversation, once it’s clear who’s talking. Sometimes they can be replaced with action.

Instead of:
“Is that a mouse that just ran under the sofa?” George asked.“Looks like it,” Isabelle said. 
“Is that a mouse that just ran under the sofa?” George leaped onto the easy chair. Isabel squatted down and lifted the slipcover. “Looks like it.”
Here’s an example of a conversation that could use some action. Where might you put these two characters, and what could they be doing while they talk? Maybe they’re working out at a skating rink or building a treehouse or trying to babysit for a little kid who keeps running away. Try rewriting this scene using the “Pope-in-the-pool” trick to make it more interesting!
“I’ve been thinking about last week,” said Prima. 
Yeah, me too,” said Avery. 
“The thing is, she didn’t mean to tell everybody your secret,” Prima said. 
“But she did,” said Avery.
“I know, but…it was complicated. You know she’s only been here three weeks, right? She couldn’t have known all that stuff about your dad or what happened with the race or — ” 
“So?” Avery said. “She knew it was a secret.” 

This Week’s Revision Tip: Making Choices in Nonfiction

This week’s revision tip is from guest author Christina Soontornvat, whose amazing book ALL THIRTEEN, about the Thai soccer team’s cave rescue comes out this fall!

One pitfall of mine when I’m writing nonfiction is that I think every single detail is interesting. Of course I do – this is my subject matter! But I have to remember that my job as a nonfiction writer isn’t just to produce a list of facts that I find fascinating. My job is to take a subject that is very specific, sometimes obscure, and tell a true story that is universally relatable. It’s that universally relatable part that makes the story interesting and makes readers care. So I often find myself in the revision process with way more material than I am going to be able to include in the actual book!

One of the filters I use to decide what to keep and what to throw out is whether the material connects to my larger themes and whether it helps reinforce the universal relatability of the story. For example, there were 10,000 people who worked or volunteered during the Thai Cave Rescue. I could have included so much more information about the volunteer efforts than I ended up with – and the book would weigh 800 pounds! In the end, I decided to shine a spotlight on the volunteers working to control the flooding on the top of the mountain who had to carry out Herculean feats with little support and inadequate supplies. Their story tied into a larger theme in my book about resourcefulness and mental fortitude.

So as you revise, look at how each piece that you include supports the bigger picture. How do the facts work together to tell a universal human story? Are you missing something that could help connect the dots and make readers care? If so, then that’s the area where you can focus your research.

This Week’s Writing Prompt from Kate

If your work-in-progress could talk back to you, what would it say?

Read through your draft; then spend five minutes writing in response to this prompt. Have some fun, and write in the voice of your personified draft. You can make it nurturing or cranky or snooty — whatever you like! This sounds kind of silly, but it’s actually a good way to distance yourself a little from your writing in order to see it more clearly. And it’s a great prompt to use in the classroom, too. I taught middle school English for fifteen years, and my students always discovered ways to improve their writing through this one (even as they laughed about writing things like “Help! I need a thesis statement!” in the voices of their essays!) 


Is it the end of July already? I can’t believe our four weeks together have gone by so quickly! I’m so, so glad that you chose to spend part of your summer writing and learning with me. I hope you’ll share some of these lessons & prompts with your students this year, along with my books. I know there’s a lot of uncertainty as we head into a new school year, but I also know that with your courage and creativity and commitment to your students, you’ll keep loving them and sharing stories and make it all work somehow. Thanks, as always, for the amazing work that you do.

Jen Vincent will be hosting one last check-in on Sunday. Enjoy your writing this week, and take some time to celebrate the work you’ve done!

Teachers Write 7/13/20 – Writing Picture Book Biographies, A Quick Scene-Starter, and Revision Tips

Good morning, and welcome back to Teachers Write!  This week’s mini-lesson is from guest author Jess Keating, whose newest title is OCEAN SPEAKS, a picture book biography of ocean cartographer Marie Tharp. 

Capturing the Tide:Three Tips from Writing Real Women

Feeling daunted at the thought of distilling someone’s entire life into a picture book biography in a way that feels responsible, meaningful, and entertaining? Jess Keating here — and I’ve been there!

Here are a few tips I’ve learned from writing real women.

  • Ask yourself: Am I the one to tell this story?

Unfortunately, there’s no easy quiz you can take online to help you here. But you want to read widely and reflect deeply. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve started to scribble notes about someone’s life in the margins of my notebook, only to realize with utter certainty: this is not my story to tell. Be mindful. Be aware. Is your voice the best one to share this story? If yes, keep going!

  • You can’t capture the tide.

It’s too deep. Too vast. Too strong. The same goes for trying to capture every remarkable, poignant, and meaningful moment in someone’s life. Once you accept that you can’t do the impossible, your options open up. Limits serve creativity. Do you want to present a ‘slice of life’ of your subject? A chronological narrative? Something else entirely? What’s best for your subject?

  • Find the beating heart and watch the magic happen.

To date, I’ve written three picture book biographies, each about women in science who did their work in the ocean. For each, I make myself answer one central question before I submit anything to an editor: How did their passions and challenges mirror the broader picture of their life’s work?

Eugenie Clark was a female shark scientist working in a time when women were largely unheard of in marine biology. Both she and her sharks were underestimated, judged, and misrepresented. There were several beating hearts to Eugenie’s rich life, but narratively, the parallel between Eugenie and her sharks was my North Star throughout.

Marie Tharp was an oceanographic cartographer who mapped the ocean floor, thereby revealing the truth behind plate tectonics. Time and time again, she was told her work was “girl talk”. (Literally.) But her brilliant mind was as solid as the ocean ridges she mapped. She didn’t just map history — she made history.

Jeanne Villepreux-Power was seamstress-turned- scientist who built the world’s first aquarium, in turn discovering the truth behind one of the ocean’s biggest mysteries: argonauts make their shells! The gorgeous parallel behind both Jeanne and her argonauts using what they have to create space to thrive was strongest narrative thread I could have asked for!

So how do you find this narrative heart? Make two columns for your subject. Put the specifics of their life in one. Then, let your mind and heart wander into a wider space. What metaphors do you see? What themes? What constants? What mirrors? They are there! Your job as a writer is to find these threads in the tapestry and create a cohesive narrative for the world to see them too. Remember: you can’t capture the tide, but you can capture one beating heart!

I wish you luck, brave writers! You got this.

Want to grow your creativity and make your best work yet? I’ve got a special gift just for you. Visit www.jesskeatingbooks.com/10secrets for a free copy of my guide, ACTIVATE: Ten Secrets to Being Wildly Creative, and give your creative career a jumpstart. I can’t wait to see how you change the world!

-Jess Keating

This Week’s Revision Tip from Kate

Revision can feel like an overwhelming job, even for professional authors. Mention revision to a beginner, especially a young writer, and they often don’t knwo where to start. So it helps to break revision down into bite-sized, manageable jobs. This is something I do with my own work. When I get editorial notes from an editor, outlining all the revisions that need to be done on a project, that letter is often ten pages long (single spaced!) so I take time to read it and think about it, and then I underline the most important things and distill those into a one-page revision to-do list. Here’s what that looked like for my MG novel, CHIRP, a mystery set on a cricket farm! 


You can make your own list for revision, and so can students! Theirs might include things like:

  • Add sensory details – SOUNDS
  • Add sensory details – SMELLS
  • Add dialogue
  • Check for repetition/boring parts
  • Read aloud to catch awkward writing & missing words
  • Check on characters – are ACTIONS showing who they are?

Ready to make your own list? What might be some good revision jobs for the project you’re working on right now?

This Week’s Writing Prompt

This week’s writing prompt is courtesy of author Olugbemisola Rhuday-Perkovich. If you haven’t read her novels TWO NAOMIS and NAOMIS TOO, cowritten with Audrey Vernick, ask for them at your bookstore or library!

Create two characters, and list 5 character traits (eg impulsive, vain, thoughtful, etc) for each. Write a short scene involving the two characters preparing for a surprise party, first from one’s POV, then the other’s. What changes?  What details does each character “see” differently? What do they zoom in on? 


And now it’s time to write! Enjoy the journey, and try to spend at least fifteen minutes writing a few days this week.  And don’t forget that Jen Vincent will be hosting a Teachers Write check-in on her blog each Sunday.It’s a chance to chat with other campers, ask questions, and share snippets of your writing for the week.

We’ll be back next week with another week’s worth of inspiration and writing!

Teachers Write 7/6/20 – Welcome, a Creative Kickstart, Writing about History, and Tips for Revising

Good morning, and welcome to Teachers Write! I’m so excited that you’ll be writing with us this summer. This year’s format is a little different; I’m sharing a mini-lesson, writing prompt, and revision tip each Monday, and then you’ll have the week to explore those on your own schedule (and in a notebook, away from the screen if that’s your preference!) If you’re not already getting our weekly emails, you can sign up to do that here. 

Before we start today’s lesson, would you celebrate with me for a minute? I have three new books out this Tuesday!

HOW TO WRITE A STORY (illustrated by Mark Siegel & published by Chronicle Books)  is a follow-up to HOW TO READ A STORY and celebrates the writing process, from brainstorming and drafting to revision, editing, and publication, or sharing with friends! I hope you’ll share it with your young writers. You buy it anywhere books are sold, and personalized, signed copies can be ordered via my local independent bookstore. Just call 518-523-2950, or you can order online.

I’m also launching a brand new nonfiction series called HISTORY SMASHERS this week, with two books to start and four more on the way over the next year and a half. The series is aimed at undoing some of the lies and myths we teach kids about history and sharing the untold truths.

HISTORY SMASHERS: MAYFLOWER tells what really happened with the Pilgrims and Wampanoag people (and dismantles the myth of the First Thanksgiving) while HISTORY SMASHERS: WOMEN’S RIGHT TO VOTE takes a more honest look at the women’s suffrage movement. (It was a LONG journey and some of America’s most beloved suffragists were openly racist.)  I know that many of you are working to dismantle white supremacy through your teaching, and sharing more honest stories about history is an essential part of that work, so I hope these books will be helpful to you. Again, if you’d like signed copies, I’m happy to personalize for you or your kids – just order through my local bookstore & they’ll get books out to you this week!

Writing History, Questioning, and Evaluating Primary Sources

Now…let’s talk about writing history. Authors & researchers are always emphasizing the importance of primary source documents like letters, diaries, and journals. But it’s so important to remember that those documents have biases. Much of the Pilgrims’ writing about the Wampanoag people, for example, downplays their culture. Some of this may have been due to ignorance on the part of the Pilgrims, but it’s also easier to justify stealing someone’s land if you look at them as inferior people. When we look at writings like Mourt’s Relation, one of the only two English primary sources from this era, that’s important to keep in mind.

When I write about history, I often start by making a list of things I think I know about a topic, and that’s a great starting place for young writers, too. For example, when you think of a Pilgrim, there’s a good chance you picture something like this guy on one of our History Smashers pages.

But how can check to find out if that’s what Pilgrims really looked like? We can look at portraits painted during their lifetimes, but even that gives an incomplete picture. People typically wore their best, most formal clothes to have their portraits painted, and at that time, one’s best outfit was usually black. But primary sources can help us out. When I was working on HISTORY SMASHERS: MAYFLOWER, I found that estate inventories from Plymouth (listings of what people owned) include clothing in all kinds of bright colors — red, yellow, orange, green, and violet, in addition to brown and black. That’s how we know that the classic Pilgrim-in-Black is a bit of a myth.

Revision Tip of the Week

Maybe you’re in the middle of a writing project right now and looking for ideas for how to revise. Or maybe you’re just collecting strategies to use on your own and share with students later on. Author Nikki Grimes joins us this week with some thoughts. Nikki has a new picture book biography of Kamala Harris coming out soon!

The revision process can be daunting, whether you're working on a 32-page picture book, or a 300-page novel. Where do you even begin?

Tip #1: Start by addressing the easiest element, and slowly work your way up to the element you find most challenging. That way, you won’t lose precious time stuck in neutral. As you solve your manuscript”s small problems, your confidence will grow allowing you to more easily dive into the bigger issues.

Tip #2: Work on your revision in segments. On one pass, concentrate on dialogue or voice. On another pass, tackle pacing or word economy. On another pass, focus on descriptive language, replacing trite phrases—I call them placeholders—with original metaphors/similes, etc. You may need to work on tense consistency, added back-story, deeper character development, or you may need to reconsider POV. Whatever fine-tuning your manuscript may require,
the work will seem less daunting if you tackle each element separately. At least, this is the approach that gets me from first to final draft! I hope this helps.

Writing Prompt of the Week

This week’s creativity kick-starter comes from author Martha Brockenbrough, whose new picture book THIS OLD DOG releases this fall.

One of the best writing prompts I’ve ever given students is a letter inviting them to attend a supernatural school. 

1) I come up with a list of supernatural abilities PLUS some sort of quality that characterizes the school and let students pick: The school for evil mermaids. The school for inventors of magical objects. The school for vampires with loose teeth.The school for lost flying sheep.

I do it like this because when you pair a type of supernatural with another quality, you have both physical conditions and a state of mind. This gives a writer a lot to work with.


All right…roll up your sleeves because it’s time to get writing. Try out this week’s writing prompt to get warmed up. Think of a topic in history you *think* you know about, and then see what primary sources you can find to support (or blow apart!) that preconceived notion. Then choose a piece of writing you’d like to work on, and give Nikki’s revision strategies a try!

And don’t forget that Jen Vincent will be hosting a Teachers Write check-in on her blog each Sunday.It’s a chance to chat with other campers, ask questions, and share snippets of your writing for the week.

We’ll be back next week with another week’s worth of inspiration and writing!

Announcing Teachers Write 2020: July 6-31

Hello, teacher/librarian/writer friends! It’s almost time for Teachers Write, my free online summer writing camp for teachers & librarians. Have you signed up yet? If not, you can do that here.

But before I share details about this summer, I want to take a minute to celebrate all of you. Really.

The work that you’ve been doing as teachers and librarians these past few months has been nothing short of heroic – pivoting to teach kids online, making sure they have stories to read, all while dealing with your own lives and families. I  cannot imagine how kids and families would have gotten through this without you. Not everyone understands that not being at school was actually more work for you — a lot more. So I want you to know that some of us do realize that. We know how much you’ve given your kids this spring, and how much you’ve given up. So thank you. I hope you’ll take some time this summer to recharge and take care of yourself.

That’s one reason I’m so excited about offering Teacher Write again. This summer will look a little different from years past. Instead of daily posts, which many of you said were hard to keep up with, there will be an email at the beginning of each week with writing lessons, prompts, and revision tips for you to work through on your own time, away from the screen if you’d like. Many will be lessons you can try out yourself and then bookmark to share with your kids later on – like this one. (It’s my favorite brainstorming strategy and works for writers of all ages!)

I’ll have more lessons, writing prompts, and revision strategies to share over the next four weeks, and I’ll be joined by some absolutely amazing guest authors!

Jess Keating will share a mini-lesson on writing picture book biographies! Her latest is about Marie Tharp.

Nikki Grimes will join us for some helpful revision tips! (And yes, that’s a Kamala Harris picture book biography you’re looking at! It comes out in August.)

Christina Soontornvat will join us with some great tips for writing nonfiction! Christina’s amazing book about the Thai soccer team’s cave rescue comes out this fall.

Adrianna Cuevas will share strategies for revising a novel! Her debut (below) comes out this month!

Martha Brockenbrough will share a writing prompt to jump-start your creativity. Her new picture book THIS OLD DOG is out in September.

Every Sunday, teacher-writer Jen Vincent will host a weekly check-in on her blog, where you can chat, ask questions, share some of the writing you did that week, and ask other campers for feedback.

And then there’s me – I’ll be talking about all kinds of writing this summer, but I’m going to have a special focus on researching and writing history. My new nonfiction series HISTORY SMASHERS launched July 7th and is aimed at undoing the lies & myths we teach kids about history. It’s illustrated by Dylan Meconis in a multimedia format that includes lots of illustrations, photographs, and graphic storytelling pages.

Teaching honest history — what really happened in America’s past and not just the sugar-coated myths — is essential to dismantling white supremacy and working toward a better, more equitable future. That’s a huge goal of this series, and I hope you’ll share it with your kids, challenge them to think critically about history, and engage them in lots of great conversations.

I also have a new picture book launching next week! HOW TO WRITE A STORY is a follow-up to HOW TO READ A STORY, which I know many of you use in your classrooms. It’s a celebration of the writing process and a great book for introducing writing workshop to kids.

If you’d like personalized, signed copies of these new titles – or any of my books – you can order through my local indie bookseller, The Bookstore Plus. I’m happy to sign books to you or your kids or your school or library. And if you leave a comment to let the bookstore know you’re a Teachers Write camper, I’ll include an extra special inscription!

I’m so excited for all of our contributing authors, and we’ll have some surprise guests along the way this summer, too! Are you ready to get writing?

To join us, just sign up here.

Camp starts on July 6th, so sharpen your pencils, charge your laptop, and get your notebook ready. I’ll see you on Monday!

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 www.megmedina.com.

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: www.annangelwriter.com.

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 olugbemisolabooks.com.

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.