Teachers Write! 6/20 – Q and A Wednesday

Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp, so if you have questions about writing, it’s time to fire away.

Authors are always welcome to drop by and answer questions (you never quite know who you’ll run into here!) But today’s official author volunteers are Jennifer Brown, Barb Rosenstock, Jean Reidy, Erin Dealey, and Julia Devillers. They’ve promised to be around to respond to your questions today, so please visit their websites & check out their books!

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  Published author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

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


109 Replies on “Teachers Write! 6/20 – Q and A Wednesday

  1. I have two questions that are conected. How do you deal with doubt and who’s feedback do you trust for your writing?

    1. Doubt is a great thing for any artist (and writers are artists). It means you’re jumping into something new. If I decide to write a horror story, I’m comfortable, and I know I can do it, because I’ve written many of them. I’ll create good work, but I won;t grow as an artist. (Let me emphasize that there’s nothing wrong with this. We need to jog between sprints.) But if I decide I want to write a realistic novel about a boy who wants to work as a clown in a dunk tank, my first thought will be, “I can’t pull this off. I’ve never written this sort of book.” Then, I have to sit down and push through the fear — assuming my need to write that book is great enough. Every time I’ve pushed past the doubt, I’ve been glad I did — even if, in the end, I didn’t finish the book for some other reason. I spent four years avoiding a book I wanted to write because I didn’t think I could make it interesting. (It’s fiction about math.) I finally sat down and wrote a test chapter. Then I wrote the book. Acknowledge that doubt is a real force, but take not as a stop sign, but as a challenge.

      1. Thanks for answering my question, I totally get the “push past the doubt,” an idea I’ve used as a coach. And like you share, the athletes have all had success when they did. Writing takes more time, and I think that adds to the challenge.

    2. Good Morning Jamey! Doubt stinks, but it’s part of the process, at least for me (which stinks too, don’t get me wrong!) In fact, I was just doubting my ability to write a coherent sentence this morning. I think when you doubt your words, your ideas or yourself, it’s really wondering “do I have anything meaningful to say?” which isn’t a bad question to ask. The answer is always yes, we all have important stories to tell (whether we write them down or not.) But depending on what you’re working on, the doubt might be coming from not having found your path to/through the story. That’s the process part, the “don’t give up” “try again” “keep searching” part. If you weren’t a thinker, you wouldn’t be a teacher or a writer, and thinkers question, wonder and doubt. It’s often the place where the good writing comes from. If you can, get the book Art & Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland…read it and keep it close, it helps.

      About the feedback part, I’m odd in that I don’t belong to a formal writing critique group. I spent a lot of years in advertising having my writing critiqued by committee, so I tend to not do group critiques. Sometimes I’ll try something out on my husband, but just yesterday he said, “I’ll read it, but I’m not saying anything, last time you got so pissed!” I didn’t even remember what he was talking about, so I guess I’m one of those people who shouldn’t mix business with family. I do have 3 or 4 “writer friends” who I send drafts to if I feel something’s missing (and they to me…) their opinions can be tough to hear, but I trust them completely. Maybe you can hook up with some of the teacher/writers here? I’ve been impressed by their insightful and supportive comments. The best advice I got on feedback is to ‘read it out loud’ and ‘write like a reader’ both of which entail taking a step back emotionally from what you’ve put on the page in order to see what needs to be improved.

      1. I tell my writing students the same thing “read it out loud” or have a friend read it to you. A great way to “hear” what the reader hears as they read the writing. Thanks for the book recommendation (I love to read). I had to laugh about the husband response, I’ve asked my wife to read things and she doesn’t like the expressions I make as she gives me her feedback. Thank you for answering my questions.

      2. I love your answer for feedback. It’s good to know that other writers share their writing with family but don’t always like what they say! My daughter is also a writer so we hurt each other’s feelings a lot!

    3. Hi, Jamey! Great questions! Doubt is a tricky little monster, and he always seems to be around! Every now and then, I remind myself This is not life or death. This is just a book. It helps to remind myself that if this particular story stinks, it is not the end of my world. It is not even the end of my writing. There are always more ideas where this one came from. Also, trust your instinct. You’re a reader, so you know what good writing looks like. If the writing looks good to you, you’re probably right!

      As for who I trust for feedback on my work…I can’t trust my husband. There, I said it. He’s just so stinkin’ nice, he would never tell me if something wasn’t good. Cheerleaders are great, but they’re not very helpful in improving your work. So I usually don’t let my husband, or my parents, read my work until it’s through revisions. I do have a critique partner, and also a select couple of author friends who I’ll ask for help every now and again. And then my agent will give honest editorial feedback as well. Find yourself a like-minded writing buddy who will tell you when something needs to be changed, but will do it in a way that won’t crush your soul.

      1. I love the last piece of advice 🙂 . I think finding that person to give solid feedback would also help for me in dealing with doubt. As stated earlier, I get the basic “that was good” type of feedback. It kind of feeds my doubt. Thank you for taking the time to answer my question.

    4. Hi Jamey,

      Doubt is entirely normal – so pat yourself on the back for experiencing one of the genuine and shared pains of writers everywhere. If you didn’t have doubt, chances are you might be too confident in your writing and not pursue the hard work necessary to make your writing the best it can be. So, if possible, embrace your doubt …

      but don’t let it paralyze you.

      Gather a group of trusted readers and get the feedback you need to take your writing to the next level. Figure out what’s working and celebrate that. Then figure out what’s not working and why. By embracing the process step-by-step, the large, looming cloud of an unfinished project becomes manageable components.

      Share your work with a small, experienced group of writers and readers. Here are a few questions that might help you determine who you can trust:

      1) Does their feedback nag at you, prompting you to ask many more questions until you understand what the real issue is?

      2) Do they start with what’s working and what’s not and then turn to rules and resources to clarify their thinking? OR do they start with the rules and try to fix things that may not be broken? Hint: I worry about the latter.

      3) Are their comments generally consistent with those of other trusted readers?

      4) And finally, do they know how to ask the BIG questions – about tension, pacing, character, etc.?

      I hope that helps!

      1. The fourth question just clicked with me. I am a big picture person, I know the rules can be worked on. But those big ideas that take time to connect, I want to know if the connections can be felt / understood as they read. Thank you.

        P.S. For me, and others, I have gained a great amount of insight today. Big Thanks to everyone for answering questions today!!!!

  2. Hi, Jamey! Two answers for you…

    Doubt: I deal with doubt by knowing that it is part of life when it comes to writing. There will always be those voices that creep into your head while you’re writing, saying, “That’s no good.” or “Boy, honey…you might as well hang this up now and take up basket weaving.” (In her brilliant book BIRD BY BIRD, Anne Lamott refers to this voice as a radio station KFKD, which you can sound out in your head and then have a little laugh over) For me, the trick is recognizing when those old songs are playing and saying, “Ah…I know you. Okay, pipe down for a while so I can get to work.”

    Whose feedback to trust: This is kind of a matter of trial and error, and you may need to critique with someone for a while before you figure out if their feedback really works for you. But you don’t want someone who just pats you on the head and says how great your book is; you want someone who can push you to make it better. And on the flip side, you also can’t really trust the feedback of someone who consistently makes you feed bad about yourself. I hate to even bring this up, but I know friends who have been in critique groups where ego and frustration might combine to make a writer’s feedback more of the tear-it-down variety than the let’s-build-it-up kind. You want good, tough constructive feedback – not negative energy.

    Probably the best way to tell if someone’s feedback is good is to try what they’re suggesting. Do they think you should delete a character? Rewrite the beginning? Change a plot thread? Try it with an open mind (in a separate document, so your old version is still there). Does it make sense to you? Do you feel good about how it turned out? If this happens pretty consistently, you’ve probably found someone whose feedback you can trust.

    And one last thing – this is why it’s a good idea to have multiple readers for your work. If one of my critique partners suggests something and I think, “Hmm…I don’t like that,” I’ll often wait to see what the others say. If no one else mentions the issue, it may be a personal preference, but if another one points out the same thing, I know that I have work to do, and an issue to resolve, even if I choose to resolve it in a way that’s different from what the first partner suggested. Make sense?

    1. Right now, I get the “that’s good” feedback. I will have to search out writing groups. As a teacher I have instructed my students to have two people read their essays, but your example about how many people might point out an issue is a strong teaching point. I try to emphasize to my students that they are the author, they get final word on reworking their essays. But sometimes they will do an edit I suggest just because I’m the teacher. Your answer got me thinking about how I can reinforce their ownership by discussing the idea of looking at feedback in this way. If I suggest something, but nobody else even mentions it, consider it but go with your judgment. If three people point out an issue, take that into real consideration. Thank you for answering my question and sparking some thoughts for my classroom instruction.

  3. Authors,

    Thanks for this Q & A session.

    If you already have numerous books in your series written, how often would you release new books in your the series to the public?


    1. Are you self-publishing them? I don’t have experience with that (with a traditional publisher, there’s a team of marketing/editorial people who make those decisions with the author), but I do know that some series release on a pretty quick schedule – a book every month or two – while others are once or twice a year.

      1. Kate,

        No, I am not self-publishing. My publisher and I have been working on determining how often to release the books. I have been pushing for every 6-9 months because of how quickly the students I teach are able to read books. They devour series very quickly. In fact, during my author visits, the series question always came up. They were excited when I proposed the 6 -9 months because they do not like to wait.

        The publisher seems to be fine with that rate, but a second or third opinion from writers would help me to figure out what might be coming down the road.

        Thanks, Kate.


    2. Marquin,

      I have experience with both conventional publishers (nonfiction) and independent publishing (fiction). Conventional publishers tend to work on a much longer lead time for books than independent publishers, but I think timing is really about building your audience and your market. I increasingly think of my next book as a critical step in building my overall audience, and is really part of building my marketing platform. A second book boosts sales of your first books, and a third book will boost sales of your previous books.

      My experience (see my blog at http://blog.srstaley.com) suggests that it’s best to publish books within two years. Even with conventional publishers, unless you are a bestselling author, it will take at least a year to build the visibility for your book. I’ve found that books published more than two years apart makes it difficult to leverage previous books.

      Some genres, however, such as erotic, romance, and sci fi have an avid readership base that allows very quick publishing and turnaround enabled by digital technology. But, even though I know authors that turn out books every 3-4 months (and I know one author that published 10 sci fi books in a year), I believe this pace really reduces the effectiveness of your marketing efforts.

      For my young adult fiction, I’m targeting a book every 12-18 months, and I”m using an independent publisher to make sure I can meet that mark.

      Hope this helps.

      1. Sam,

        Thanks! Your blog on How Technology is Saving Our Lives in Books helped me to connect where I am to where I plan on going. I realize that the target audience for my chapter books (8-12 y/o) hate waiting and they often mature faster than we can create and get books to them. If I wait two years for each book then I’m probably not going to meet their demands. Thanks for the wisdom.


    3. Hi Marquin,
      I only have experience with picture books here. But in my series, the first two came out within 6 months of each other in the same year. The next was 18 months later. And the next — I think — is scheduled for 18 months later again.
      Thanks for the question and good luck with your series!

    4. I have zero experience with series books, so I’m afraid I can’t offer any valuable advice. However, I do want to wish you the best of luck with your series! Go, you!

    5. Kate, I teach 5th grade in Farmington, Michigan

      Jean, thanks for the timeline. Seems like you average about a book per year. I know I can write quality books pretty quickly when I get into my zone. I realize I may not get more than four years of a reader’s life, so I want to make sure I can give them as much humor and help during that time.

      Jennifer, I appreciate the encouragement.


    1. Keep reading – especially what’s being published NOW in the type-and-age-level you’re working on. Children’s/young adult books have changed a lot since we were children.

    2. Krista,

      Write the way you write.

      Don’t compare your style or way of going about it with other people. If you need music, chocolate, a teddybear, your special pen, late nights, etc. don’t be afraid to accept that. Don’t feel like you have to follow the routine of getting up early, having absolute silence, or anything other writers do to spark their writing. Also, write at your own pace on a regular basis.

      Lastly, if you map it out, you don’t have to write in order. You can write what you feel like writing when you feel like writing it. If you’re grumpy, write about conflict. If you’re chatty, write dialogue.

      Good luck!


      ps When you accept yourself as a writer, you will be willing to write more often.

    3. Finish it up, then let it rest. Hide it from yourself. Squirrel it away for weeks at least. Then read it with fresh eyes. If you’re being honest, you should see what you need to do next.

    4. Turn off the little editor in your head and get the story out first. If not, you’ll have the best dang first pages ever but you’ll never get any farther!

      1. I AGREE with Erin!

        Editors get paid good money to edit. You can always go over it when you finish and correct the little mistakes, but don’t let them stop you from writing.


        1. I have to jump in here because I don’t want anyone to get the idea that you can send work to an editor before it’s completely polished and has been revised numerous times. Editors don’t get paid to read first drafts (and have no interest in doing that). They get paid to take already-professional work and help the author make it even stronger. I would never dream of sending a first draft or even second draft to one of my editors.

    5. I agree with Jody. Write your story, revise, revise, revise, and then let it rest. When you put away a new ms that you’re excited about, it’s easy to think that it’s perfect- that it’s ready to submit. But I can almost guarantee you that if you let it rest for at least a week (longer is better) without looking at it, that you’ll be surprised by what you find when you pull it back out and reread it. And while your story is resting, try not to even think about it; to make the wait time pass more quickly, start work on something new.

  4. I think I keep asking the same question over and over. But here I go again: I’m sort of stuck in the middle of the MG I’m writing, and feel like I’ve lost my way. If anyone feels like going into this issue again, I’d appreciate it. It makes me feel like I don’t have the drive to write like I did during earlier stages. Mainly I think it’s because all the explaining I’ve had to do regarding the characters, logistics, etc. has pulled me away from the main thrust of the story. Or maybe I need to settle into those explanations and not worry about where I’m going. Sorry if this is repetitive from last week!

    1. This happened to me several times when I was writing CAPTURE THE FLAG, and I realized that I’d lost my way a bit and needed to go back to an earlier stage in the writing process and plan some more. Maybe try one of Sally’s outlining techniques from last week? A good, quick outline can work wonders when you feel all wound up in the meandering details.

    2. Diane – A couple of possible “tricks” to get moving again – 1) jump ahead in the story – write the climax, or the ending. Give yourself permission to NOT write sequentially. Middles are hard. 2) You seem to suspect that your “explanatory” material is getting in the way. Make a new copy of the manuscript and strip it out. Finish the story in a stripped-down version. Plan to weave in the backstory/explanatory bits as part of the rewrite. You may well not need as much of it as you think you do. 3) Redo the story with some major change. Change the point of view. Make your characters older, or younger. Change the MC’s gender.

      Having said all that, it’s true that not every book works. Not every great idea has enough heft to become a novel. Maybe this book was a practice exercise. Or maybe you’re just tired of it. No shame in sticking it in a drawer and starting over with a fresh new project. You might come back to this MG someday, or you might not. Most of us have multiple unfinished or unrevised manuscripts in the drawer. We learn by doing, practicing, trying. Just like any craft, not every attempt is sale-worthy. Sometimes, they’re not even worth the time/materials to finish. The nice thing about writing is the unfinished project doesn’t spoil – you can always come back to it later, mine it for parts or turn it into something else.

      1. Thanks, Sally! And Kate! I just tried the outline idea which I think is helping to refocus my direction, and give me more momentum. I don’t want to put this in the drawer, as it’s the only thing I’ve got going on right now. Hate to be precious about it, and maybe I should start some other stories so it doesn’t seem so precious. Since I’ve worked at this for a while, don’t want to give up yet!

      2. Wow. I appreciate this advice on many levels, and as a fiber artist in addition to writing, this speaks to me, too. Sometimes pieces of a work just need to be taken out or re-purposed. But every bit of work you do on it makes you better at understanding how thing fit together. My problem has been sort of the opposite, in that I am lost in what’s missing from my story, the stuff surrounding the plot and characters that bring it alive. But using the outline really helps! I can move from piece to piece to flesh it out without losing the thread. Tedious, sometimes but it can happen. Thanks for all the great feedback — and the questions being asked. Very enlightening.

    3. Hi Diane,

      You said:

      “Mainly I think it’s because all the explaining I’ve had to do regarding the characters, logistics, etc. has pulled me away from the main thrust of the story.”

      I’ve been there quite a few times.

      I like Kate’s idea of getting back to an earlier stage of your process and re-exploring your story questions. If you’re unsure about that, I’d take a look at how Blake Snyder develops loglines in his screenwriting book SAVE THE CAT. It’s brilliant. Then keep that logline in front of you as you write, always asking yourself “How does this contribute to the story?”

      In recent manuscripts, I’ve deliberately kept most of my background information in a separate file and out of my main manuscript. I give my early readers the bare minimum and see if they’re satisfied. If not, I add background/logistics in small doses. This allows me to keep the plot moving forward which is WAY more fun for me to write and for readers to read.

      Good luck with your story!

    4. Ugh, the middle can be so boring to write! I often find myself losing some steam in the middle and wondering if I’m ever going to make it to the end. Try skipping ahead a bit. Get to the exciting part that you know is just around the corner. Don’t worry about what’s in the middle right now — you might discover some things that need to go in the middle while you’re writing the end. Plus, writing the exciting part might re-charge you. Just keep reminding yourself that it doesn’t have to be perfect the first time through. That’s what revisions are for. The first draft can be choppy and at times boring. You’ll fix it later. Good luck!

      1. You all are making me feel much better! Just the idea of skipping ahead to the exciting part makes a difference. Why I never thought of that, I don’t know. Thanks so much.

        1. Go, Diane, go! (really had nothing to add but that. 🙂 We ALL get stuck on the boring middles… and eventually you will make the middle sing and hold up the rest. But until you’re back on track, yes, skip to an exciting part! Sometimes it will offer up the “middle’s answer” to you. 🙂

      2. This reminds me that I recently heard John Irving on “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me,” and he said that he always writes the last line of his novels first. He mentioned that one time he thought he had written the first line, and it turned out to be the last line.

  5. How do you know what age audience your book is best for? In my one project, my main characters are seniors, but the book feels like it is more for younger YA (at least to me). Is this a bad thing?

    Somewhat related: How do you know if your characters sound right for their ages? My characters are pretty geeky in this project, but I’ve been told they don’t sound like teens because they don’t use lots of slang and because one character talks formally all the time.

    1. Your main character(s) should be roughly the same age as your audience. I recommend eavesdropping [without being creepy! :)] on people your characters’ age. Also if you can find people that age willing to read the dialogue and give their honest opinion, that might work too. Once two people give me the same feedback on a disconnect between how the characters sound and their age, I typically know I’ve got to change something.

    2. Conventional wisdom is that children like to read about characters who are slightly older than they are. Of course, that’s a generalization for which there are undoubtedly exceptions, but that’s a good rule of thumb, I think.

      I’m wondering what aspects of your book make you feel it’s for younger YA.

      1. I guess I feel it is younger YA because of where my characters are at relationship-wise and just from the feel of the narrator’s voice. It’s pretty light on mature situations and dialogue.

          1. They are seniors because part of my main antagonist’s flawed plan is caused by college applications (and wanting to look good at them). They’re also in an elective English class (though that could be an upperclassmen thing and not seniors). 2 characters also head up the school lit magazine (again that could be upperclassmen rather than seniors). Some also have leadership roles in band.

            One character also is a senior because I have a different project with him that takes place just before his senior year.

    3. Sarah, this may be something for Gae’s Feedback Friday, too – post a few paragraphs of character dialogue, along with your question about age & see what people think.

      Generally, if your characters are 12 or a little younger, you’ve got a middle grade novel, while if they’re 13+ it’s more of a YA novel. (In fact, I was told recently that’s how Barnes & Noble is deciding where to shelve books now, which puzzles me, but whatever…)

      1. Kate, you read my mind! Sarah, yes, post on Friday Feedback this week (I have an uber-awesome guest author plus I’ll be there as always!) and DON’T tell the age of the kids when you post. You’ll be breaking my FF rules a bit to ask that particular question (but I’ll make an exception ;)) Plus, it’s making me kinda want to do a whole feedback post on it… authentic voice for the age, etc. so I’ll try to squeeze that in the next time it’s just ME there! Excited! *squeals*

    4. Not necessarily a bad thing, kids generally like to read “up” a little (part of learning/imagining their own futures). If speaking formally is one of your character’s traits, make it intentional. Maybe even have others tease him about it. But in general, remember that speech is very very different from written language, and kids do have their own style and jargon – not that you want to use very much slang, because that can make your book too tied to one region or time period, so that it doesn’t “work” in a couple of years. Best advice, always, is read it out loud, especially the dialogue. And yes, hang out at the pool or the mall food court this summer and just listen to the chatter, just to soak up the feeling for their conversations.

      1. Thank you for the ideas. I’ll have to try reading it out loud. I do have the other characters banter with my formal speaker. Maybe I need to move that sooner.

    5. Hey Sarah – great question! And you’ve already gotten some GREAT advice.

      I’d like to add that reading books with spot-on voice really helps. And lately, I’ve read several stories that involve smart main characters with perfect and distinct voices. Here’s a short list:


      all very different stories, different characters and different ages but a nice sampling of honest, smart voices.

      Good luck with your story!

    6. Well. When I was writing Hate List, I had no idea who my audience was. I suspected it might be a YA, because the characters were in high school, but I wasn’t positive. So I was writing it with mostly adults in mind. And it turned out to be a YA. Technically, my book is supposed to be for an “older YA” audience, but I get tons of letters from junior high and even middle school aged kids. So I really think it’s reasonable to expect a book with older teen characters to appeal to kids as young as 12 or 13. (Though, technically, I think 12 & under is middle grade rather than YA).

      As for your characters not using a lot of slang…that’s a good thing! Slang will date your book anyway, because it changes so much (think about picking up a book now where a character proclaims, “Gag me with a spoon!”). If your character talks really formally because she’s a geek, I think that’s just fine.

    7. Hi Sarah,

      I see a few suggestions for some “research” reading, but I’m going to throw one more title out there: The Misfits by James Howe. The main character, Bobby, speaks VERY formally and his friends playfully tease him about it. This book is MG and has great dialogue between the MC and his three best friends.

      Sometimes I find when I’m not sure where to go with my writing it helps to read books that might be in the same vein. Keep going. You’ll figure it out. 🙂

  6. Good Morning Jamey! Doubt stinks, but it’s part of the process, at least for me (which stinks too, don’t get me wrong!) In fact, I was just doubting my ability to write a coherent sentence this morning. I think when you doubt your words, your ideas or yourself, it’s really wondering “do I have anything meaningful to say?” which isn’t a bad question to ask. The answer is always yes, we all have important stories to tell (whether we write them down or not.) But depending on what you’re working on, the doubt might be coming from not having found your path to/through the story. That’s the process part, the “don’t give up” “try again” “keep searching” part. If you weren’t a thinker, you wouldn’t be a teacher or a writer, and thinkers question, wonder and doubt. It’s often the place where the good writing comes from. If you can, get the book Art & Fear by David Bayles & Ted Orland…read it and keep it close, it helps.

    About the feedback part, I’m odd in that I don’t belong to a formal writing critique group. I spent a lot of years in advertising having my writing critiqued by committee, so I tend to not do group critiques. Sometimes I’ll try something out on my husband, but just yesterday he said, “I’ll read it, but I’m not saying anything, last time you got so pissed!” I didn’t even remember what he was talking about, so I guess I’m one of those people who shouldn’t mix business with family. I do have 3 or 4 “writer friends” who I send drafts to if I feel something’s missing (and they to me…) their opinions can be tough to hear, but I trust them completely. Maybe you can hook up with some of the teacher/writers here? I’ve been impressed by their insightful and supportive comments. The best advice I got on feedback is to ‘read it out loud’ and ‘write like a reader’ both of which entail taking a step back emotionally from what you’ve put on the page in order to see what needs to be improved.

      1. I can’t move it (it would look like my comment if I tried), but you can copy it, hit “reply” to his original comment and paste it there – and then I can delete the other one, and all of this conversation about moving. 🙂

  7. Thank you Kate for facilitating this camp and thank you authors for participating!

    I have a novel that has been languishing on computers and in my writer’s notebook for about 7 years now. I like the idea and it keeps coming back to my mind, but I can’t seem to move the story forward. I think one of the problems is that I don’t have a strong main character. Initially, the mc was a guy. I’ve changed his name several times and still haven’t found the right one. Yesterday I started thinking that maybe my mc is a woman. I just haven’t been able to find his/her voice or name.

    I’m not sure what to do. Help!


    1. This has happened to me, Natalee. Great idea, shadow of a main character, no voice. Usually I can just think it through, but one time, I was totally stuck, pacing my house practically tearing my hair out. I needed a change of scene and parked myself in the library of a nearby university with a notebook and a pen. At the top of the first page I wrote, “Tell me about yourself.” Then I sat there and I started scribbling away. “There’s not much to tell. I’m pretty boring really except for the time that …” And I was off. It took a few sessions at the library interviewing my character like that until I found out exactly who he was.

      I did finish that book, but not to my satisfaction. There is a crucial element which still eludes me. And perhaps that is why I initially had so much trouble with my MC in the first place.

      Good luck!

    2. Hi Natalee,
      I’m curious as to what you mean here. Main characters don’t have to be “strong” at the beginning– and actually it’s good if they aren’t because then they can grow as the story builds. The MC’s name does influence those on a new class reader’s initial opinion of him/her (just like those on a new class list–haha) but it’s the character’s actions that SHOW his/her strength. If you mean your narrator isn’t strong enough try having a different character tell the story and see how that feels. If you mean the voice isn’t strong enough, perhaps change from 3rd person to 1st. Also it may help to get to know your character better. We often know our supporting characters much better than the MC.
      Hope this is what you meant!

    3. Does it make you feel any better to know that the main character in THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. was originally a boy named Josh? 🙂 True story – I’d started the book but knew the voice wasn’t working, so I stopped and worked on some character journaling activities, trying out different voices and kids until Gianna surfaced as the girl who wanted to tell the story.

    4. Have you done a character sketch of any kind? I always begin every project by sketching out a very detailed description of my character, both police blotter information (height, weight, hair color, eye color, etc.) and deeper information (hobbies, interests, family dynamic, important childhood events, favorites, etc.). Then I get out my handy dandy copy of Characters & Viewpoint by Orson Scott Card and go even deeper (motivation, stereotypes, networks, etc.). Finally, I write a very brief bit of dialogue between my character and someone else that has nothing at all to do with the story (dentist, mailman, etc.) to get a taste of my character’s voice. You might consider doing one of these for each (male and female) character you have in the running and see which one ultimately speaks to you the strongest. It will take some work, but in the end it will be worth it to get that story on paper.

    5. Hi Natalee,

      I think it’s awesome that you’re open to experimenting with your character. Here’s a technique that I love – and the bonus is that some of the writing may actually end up in your final manuscript.

      Free-write in different possible characters’ voices in diary or interview form. Ask those characters “What do you think about this?” or “How do you feel about that?” referencing story problems or scenes from your plot. It’s directed free-writing.

      Spend time with those characters, giving yourself more than just a few hours to journal in their distinct voices. If you can devote a few days to each – even better – give yourself time to get into a character’s head and voice. Some may come easily, but they may not be the best. Others may take time, but may be the perfect fit for your story.

      Put the journals away for a week or so and then go back and read them OR turn them over to a trusted reader and see which character voice seems the most honest and original and true.

      I hope that helps!
      Best of luck with your story!

  8. Any advice how to get my 7th graders to embrace revising? I used Kate’s book last year for ideas. My students seem to be under the impression that once it is written down, it is set in stone. I do write alouds so they can see me modeling revision. I have shown them actual manuscripts, such as Ezra Keats book Snowy Day where he revised a “simple” picture book fifteen times. I would appreciate other suggestions as it is now a critical piece of writing component of Common Core Standards. Gone are the days of timed essays, and I am glad “testing” will mirror real-world writing better. Thanks in advance!

    1. As I recall, questions like this came up in the Q&A on 6/6. (Sheesh, where does the time go? (Feel free to ignore that rhetoriclal question and get back to Tracey’s.)) Here are two thoughts I had then by which I still stand: (1) Author/teacher Penny Kittle acclimates her students to “constant revision.” Any time kids draft in class, there’s a brief, immediate follow-up period for revision. “Reread and make it better,” as Kittle instructs her students in that moment. I like the way this injects revision more frequenly into the routine, rather than saving it for later when students have a *finished* draft, which they take to mean they’re done. (2) In terms of concrete techniques that my students use during these revision bursts, I’ve become increasingly fond of something called ratiocination, which a colleague taught me. It involves turning all the embedded know-how in most editing tasks into more explicit steps for students to take, using different colors/shapes to mark their drafts. Since I can’t figure out an easy way to share my own resources, here’s a version I found online: http://www.huffenglish.com/handouts/ratiocination.pdf
      There are many different ways to skin this cat, which could all qualify as ratiocination. I think of ratiocination mainly as a way to reveal patterns inherent in writing conventions, to slow my students down, and to encourage them to become more deliberate editors. A book resource that has helped me with this and ties into the idea of mentor texts is _Mechanically Inclined_ by Jeff Anderson.

      1. I am sorry if this question already came up on 6/6, but I was out of town. Thanks for the online resource. I do use different colored pens, but they are for the different stages of the writing process. I am going to ponder how to adapt the color idea for the ratiocination technique. I do have the book _Mechanically Inclined_ and planned on rereading it this summer. I like to embed grammar/mechanics into my mini-lessons through mentor/model pieces. However, there are times when you just need to utilize direct instruction for a concept/skill. Thanks again for your input.

    2. Hi Tracey,

      What a great question!

      I feel that the greatest motivation for revision is feedback. I understand that for a teacher grading stacks of papers everyday, feedback on every version is impossible. But would it be possible to build more peer feedback into your classroom time or as alternating homework assignment to the revision?

      I learn so much from critiquing the work of others, I doubt this would be time wasted. And if you’re concerned that the student feedback might be slight or unthoughtful, maybe develop a rubric or a list of questions they ask as they read. One technique I use a lot is like peeling back the layers. I simply underline a section, sentence or word that’s not working for me (or that’s working really well!) and ask why, why, why? — until I’ve hit on true source of the problem. If students need more motivation to critique well, maybe grade them on their critiques. And if you have students change up critique partners from time to time, they’ll be working with the input of several readers.

      As far as revising more independently, I really like Brian’s ideas. Visual techniques are most motivating for me. I have a pack of colored markers that I use to track different characters through a story, highlight themes, trace subplots. For shorter pieces like picture books and poetry, I’ll often use spread sheets to easily move words around and test different versions of a story side by side. But regardless of which visual technique I use, I always need to know what I’m specifically “looking for” — so a sheet of revision questions would be helpful.

      Finally, in my critique group we celebrate — not with champagne and confetti, but with “oooohs” and “aaaaaahs” — great revision discoveries. Because we all know how crucial revision is to turning out a great piece. Celebrating the process as much as the end result can be tremendously motivating to the young writer. So maybe you can build some time into your coursework in which students get to share their revision discoveries — and then get to shine in the “oooohs” and “aaaahs” of their fellow classmates.

      I’d love to hear how it goes, Tracey!
      All the best,

    3. Hi Tracey,
      In this microwave society, it’s hard to get kids to take extra time for revisions when in their minds, it’s done and they have better things to do. ( like hang with friends) we mentioned this when you were gone, I think, but you might consider having your class skype an author. Talk to him/her about their writing process and let the kids hear it from someone other than their teacher. ( It’s hard to be a prophet in your own land, as the saying goes.) There are a lot of us who skype and Kate has great info here on her web site.

      Another thought I had was to team up with another 7th grade class and create writing partners so they are rewriting for the other class. One last thought–I always used a points system so that each draft was worth a certain number of points– even extra credit if they go beyond 2-3 revisions. Some assignments were then graded by the overall total points + final draft grade. Bribery perhaps but it works!

  9. First, thanks to all the authors for donating time and expertise in this forum.

    How do you work through those uninspired moments, those times when the story doesn’t flow as easily as it did in the beginning? How do you keep the story from seeming contrived rather than natural? How do you let the story lead you rather than pushing it in a particular direction?

    I’m writing for an older teen audience, and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to avoid staying out of the way. Does that make sense?

    I’d also like to hear more about keeping the setting generic enough to appeal to a wider audience. I have a scene set in a local national monument on the Snake River. Should I make it unidentifiable?

    BTW, I really like see the authors encourage reading the MS aloud.

    1. Hi Glenda,

      RE: inspiration. When I find that happening, I go back to what inspired me to write the story in the first place. I’ve found this helpful for both my fiction (YA) and nonfiction. It may be a bit easier for me because my stories tend to be character driven, but I find inspiration in the personalities, challenges & dilemmans my charcters face. If I find I”m stuck, or less inspired, it’s usually because I strayed from the core story idea. I bring it back home. I think you can do the same thing with a story that is inspired by a particular setting.

      RE: Staying out of the way. I’ve found the best approach for me is to let my characters and the story drive the plot. I think if you stay true to your characters and let the story flow organically, you can avoid getting in the way (if I understand your query properly).

      RE: Setting. I’ve gravitated toward using real places as long as I don’t infringe on trademarks or copyrights. In my YA historical romance, I placed my story in the 18th century US Virgin Islands and this provides a richness to the story that I couldn’t replicate otherwise. I find this provides a realism to my stories that a wide audience can still identify with, although this has limits. In my YA novel focused on bullying, I use a martial arts theme but have avoided being to specific about the martial art, the school, or the city in which it takes place, opting for a more generic setting. This allows my story to focus on bullying more generally without getting caught up in the professional and personal conflicts that seem to plague the martial arts community.

      1. Hi Glenda! Great questions and Sam’s response is brilliant.

        At the risk of sounding lazy, I’d like to repeat a technique I suggested in my reply to Natalee above. It really does work! Here goes.

        Free-write in different characters’ voices in diary or interview form. Ask those characters “What do you think about this?” or “How do you feel about that?” referencing story problems or scenes from your plot. It’s directed free-writing.

        Spend time with those characters, giving yourself more than just a few hours to journal in their distinct voices. If you can devote a few days to each – even better – give yourself time to get into a character’s head and voice. Some may come easily. Others may take time. But either way, your characters will inspire you and begin to reveal your true plot.

        Good luck with your story!

    2. Glenda,

      Mapping out my books helped me to match my feelings/mood for the day with what needed to be written. Then, I put the puzzle together at the end and trimmed any fat that was necessary.

      Currently I’m using the Mindmaple.com program to help me get everything out of my head and organized so I can see it on the screen. It is really working for me.

      I also started writing about my progress in my blog. (Click my name if you want to see it.) Even though I didn’t have many viewers, knowing that someone might be following was enough to motivate me to keep writing and sharing the process with that person. I used the blog to chronicle the entire process for writing my 4th book in 25 days. And, it is great to go back and relive those moments again.

      I hope this helps! GOOD LUCK!


    3. Hi Glenda,
      I agree with Sam here. To “get out of the way,” try putting yourself in your character’s shoes. What would he/she do at those moments when you’re stuck? It’s almost like a theater improv game. I tell students, “Don’t think. Take yourself to that place. Be the character, and write it down.”

    4. Wow, now you’ve got me wanting to ASK the questions. Is it important to make a setting more generic to appeal to a wider audience? I love specific settings, they anchor the story for me, but I don’t write novels, is this something you need to consider when you do?

      If you’re drafting and struggling, I wouldn’t worry about the parts of the story that don’t work yet. I always have more luck seeing what’s forced or contrived once I’ve gone through at least once without worrying about it, but again, as many processes as there are writers. When I’m in my own way, it’s usually because I’m trying to write how I “think a book should be” instead of simplify, simplify, simplify.

      1. I asked the question about setting because of something I read in one of the Teachers Write posts. I think it was in the FB group. I, too, love the details and all the little nuances. My mind is all over the place right now. I actually think I want to map out an idea for a second project, a memoir in vignettes. Many years ago I wrote a feature article for my college newspaper titled “Confessions from the High Risk Bracket.” That title has stuck w/ me for years, and I’ve always wanted to do something w/ it.

    5. I really embrace the revision process, so I don’t feel a huge need to keep the story terribly inspired during the first draft. In other words, I allow myself to write utter schlock in draft #1 because I know I can always delete it or beef it up later. I also know that, when the story gets boring, there’s something exciting just around the bend, and the sooner I get to it, the better.

      I don’t know that you really need to keep your setting generic. I tend to make up the towns that my books are set in, but have enough local landmarks that my local readers can recognize the part of the country we’re in. One of the best parts of reading (and writing) a story is getting to know new places. Many of your readers will never visit the landmark you’re writing about, but they can feel like they’ve been there if your story takes them there and makes them believe it.

  10. I teach middle and high school ESL students. Once my students attain a mid-level proficiency in reading, they want to find popular books to read. They are really hard to find at their interest level. I am thinking “Twilight” and other popular books for lower reading level while still keeping with their more mature interest level. Especially books that would interest high school boys. Most of the ESL students that I have taught know nothing about baseball and are not interested in American football.
    Do you know anyone who has written books for this audience? What would it take to write books for this audience?

    1. Jaana, this won’t answer your question exactly, but I do have a suggestion for you or anyone else who has an interest in literacy development for boys. The very best book I’ve ever read on this subject is Reading Don’t Fix No Chevys (2002) by Michael Smith and Jeffrey D. Wilhelm. It’s a research-based book that focuses on a diverse group of young men and their literate lives. I highly recommend it for anyone who works with middle and secondary level students. It’s fascinating reading and will change the way you think about boys and reading.

      Back to your questions – I think what is contained in this book would certainly guide a person who is looking to write for this particular audience.

    2. This is a very interesting problem, Jaana and thanks for asking it. In fact, this type of reading issue was what motivated me to start writing YA fiction. Boys are particularly hard because they are less patient and more gender specific in their interests. The reaction to my books, which don’t focus on ESL students specifically but attempt to target the “adult” in young-adult fiction, has been all over the place in the classroom. I think your idea of going to popular YA or even children’s fiction that has higher literary value makes sense, and fantasy/sci fi might be particularly valuable for teaching boys–Eragon, Redwall (younger readers). I would put the Hunger Games series on your list (although the first person narrative might be a bit of a challenge for ESL students) as well as Harry Potter (particularly books 5-7 which deal with larger social issues). I also wouldn’t dismiss classic escape literature, even books like Louis Lamour or Edgar Rice Boroughs. These books are faster paced, very accessible, and the best escape literature deals with more weighty spocial topics.

    3. Good Morning, Jaana,

      It sounds as if you have a determined bunch of young men as students, if they’re achieving mid-level reading proficiency — and that they have an equally-determined teacher! You may already know about Perfection Learning’s Cover-to-Cover series for reluctant readers; they have a number of books that might interest your students in both subjects and reading levels. Also, check Capstone and Saddleback Press for similar offerings. Good luck and happy reading! 🙂

    4. Jaana — thanks for creating more readers for all of us writers. Orca Soundings are high-interest/low-readability books for teens. I have to admit I’m not familiar with individual titles, but I know the line has been been around for a while. You could probably get some excellent suggestions by posting your question on YALSA-bk, the ALA’s listserve for YA books. I have a huge bias (admittedly self serving) toward short stories, when it come to suggesting reading material reluctant readers. You also can’t go wrong with action-packed novels, such as those of Roland Smith.

      1. I heartily agree with both of David’s suggestions! Orca books – I’ve reviewed a few for my library review group. Action is good, and tightly enough paced to engage, but the writing isn’t overwhelming. The ones I read were about extreme sports, and some thriller aspects came into the stories. When I was reviewing the titles I read, professional reviews of the series were lacking, and I feel they are ignored. Roland Smith’s books are good action, too, but very accessible reads. I heard him speak once and he said he switched to writing fiction because he couldn’t make a living writing non-fiction. He read lots of books and started writing what he saw was missing. That’s probably a good way to start, eh? We’d all better get busy!

    5. Hi Jaana,

      Have you ever seen the Tana Reiff books? I don’t know if they would necessarily appeal to your students – maybe your high school students would be interested. I used to use some of her books with my adult ESL students because the reading level was not too high, but the content interested my students: topics like starting your own business in the U.S. and immigrating from various countries and the effects on family life. The books may feel quite outdated to students now, though, and I don’t think they’d capture the attention of middle school students. But maybe they’d help you think about a market for these students and how you could get started writing for them yourself.

      Another book I recently read that your students might like is Katherine Applegate’s Home of the Brave about a boy from Africa adjusting to life in Minnesota. Not exactly popular in the way that Twilight or The Hunger Games are, but a good story for an ESL student who has experienced trauma in his/her native country and also is going through the trauma of adjusting to a new country.

      1. Thank you all for some great ideas! I now have a few more books to read (:)) and websites to check out. I just might finally have to get a Kindle so I don’t have to carry too many books on the airplane!
        Who know, maybe one day I will write a book for my students….

  11. A message to all of you who have thanked the authors for sharing our time, as well as those shyly stalking the Q & A sessions out there: If I may take the liberty of speaking for the authors, please know that it’s fun for us too. Thank you Kate for this fabulous opportunity. It’s wonderful to connect with those of you who nurture so many budding authors and young readers all year long, 24/7. I’m thrilled you are taking some time for yourselves this summer. I meet tons of teachers at school visits who tell me, “Some day I’m going to write a book.” My answer every time: “Some day” is now.
    Happy Writing!

  12. It has been a LONG day (we had our school field days and I was one of the organizers – much stress comes with this, but I am feeling euphoria now because it went well), but it was our last full day.:) I hope that I am not late to the Q and A party – I love this day!

    So I here go with my question: I feel like when I write in small amounts (quick writing exercises/quick writes) I can nail “Show me, Don’t tell me.” But when I write in longer increments (example – my MG novel manuscript), I struggle a bit with a consistent “showing” of details. My writing is tight. Does anyone experience this tightness with their writing? Does anyone have any suggestions/advice on how I might loosen my writing while keeping vivid details?

    Thanks for any feedback that you can give me! I have thoroughly enjoyed reading all of the other questions and answers from today.

    1. Hi Andy,
      Just to clarify – when you say your writing is tight are you saying that it’s not overly wordy? And are you saying that you have trouble “showing” in your MG manuscript?

      1. Jean,

        Sorry! To clarify – I tend to tell the reader every single detail, even details that are obvious. I also tell readers the story, rather than showing them things about the character (or setting) that help them to understand the character (or setting). Example: I will tell the reader that the character is intelligent versus showing them something that would lead the reader to the assumption that the character is intelligent.

        I don’t “tell” as much when I am writing a short story or quick write, so my problem puzzles me. I feel like I am “telling” so much because I want my middle school audience to understand (I am thinking about the sixth graders I teach).

        1. Got it! I got confused because “showing” often uses more words.

          Here are a couple of thoughts.

          First of all, “telling” has it’s place. When I need to transition quickly in time or place in my story, a few quick “telling” sentences work wonders. A good example is the “getting ready for school scene.” Unless this scene is in some way critical to the plot, all I need to say to transition through it is “Andy got ready for school.” The reader shouldn’t care which toothpaste he used or what shirt he put on – unless those choices reveal something about Andy’s character that is crucial to the story.

          On the flip side, when a scene IS important and crucial to the plot, I want to slow it down. And I do that by “showing” the necessary details, actions, dialog and thoughts. But like you, sometimes I get carried away with what seems necessary. And that’s when I rely on the critique and revision process to help me pare down the details to those that are essential.

          I hope that helps!
          Have a great evening.

    2. For me, this is something that’s part of the revision process. You mention telling every detail… in the first draft of Eye of the Storm’s picnic scene, it took my characters five pages to cross the creek and meadow to even open their sandwich bags because I found it necessary to describe every pine cone they stepped over and every bug that flew past along the way. This is my process, though, and I’ve learned to own it and deal with it when I revise – at that point, I can read for very specific things (too much description, overtelling, etc.) with my editor’s hat on. Would it make sense for you to focus on that issue with its own revision pass once you finish?

      1. Thanks, Kate!

        Even in the revising stage, I sometimes struggle to “tell” and not “show”. I get so caught up in thinking, “Will a sixth or seventh grade reader understand the story without all these details?” Maybe it’s just my sixth graders, but they often need things spelled out for them.

        I do feel like I need to revise in smaller increments of time. I tend to spend hours (because free time is so valuable) writing and revising even when I know the ideas aren’t flowing.

        Side note – Thanks for the info on the NYSRA Conference author visit. I made the contact today and got the ball rolling at school for a possible visit. The librarian is super excited. I like pleasing the librarian!:)

        1. Hey, Andy… I recognize that “tight” description, don’t I? 😉

          Did you try writing a scene out all in dialogue between the characters?

          But I do agree, that it’s something that may need to wait until revision (and, distance… coming back to a scene after walking away long enough to “forget it” and read it with fresh eyes). Also, this week on Friday Feedback, I’m gonna link to some of my favorite “craft” videos and one is on show vs. tell. I hope that will help. Can’t link it now or it will spoil my super guest star. 😉 Also, Andy, how bout picking up a book or two you love and really pay attention to the way they are writing and see if you can notice how they finesse details and description and where you part ways from that. Does that make any sense? Keep going! You’ll get there. And don’t worry too much about it on this first draft. Gae

  13. I hope I can still get some responses to my question at this late posting. In the summer, I instruct a young author’s writing camp (grades 3-6). I spent last semester creating a handbook for new instructors and I am curious as to what advice you professional authors would give to instructors for the 5 most powerful writing lessons they should cover during the week. I’d love to be able to add your ideas to the handbook.

    1. Is it mostly for fiction writing? If so, I’d consider a day on great beginnings (using mentor texts as examples) – and then maybe one on voice and point of view, one on word choice and sensory language, one on characterization, and one on the revision process?