Teachers Write! 6/6 Wednesday Q and A

Got questions about writing?Β  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp, and we’ll have a bunch of great guest authors answering.

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.Β  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.Β  Just reply directly to the comment.

Note from Kate: I’m chaperoning my daughter’s field trip today & won’t be checking in until tonight. Keep the lemonade cold, okay? I’ll stop by later & answer questions, too. But note that if you’ve never posted a comment here before, I won’t get to “approve” it for moderation until I’m home, so it may be later on when it shows up. Thanks for your patience!


269 Replies on “Teachers Write! 6/6 Wednesday Q and A

    1. I write MG, but I think I might be more mindful about content during the editing phase because I always imagine the book being shared aloud in a classroom. Whenever I have language in a draft that’s questionable, I try taking it out to see if I miss it. It’s almost always fine without it.

      1. HI Kate,
        Just signed up for Teacher Write Camp. And that is as far as I go in understanding what I do next. As I teach kindergarten, I believe there are no silly questions and that when you don’t understand something, just ask for help. Help! Is this how the camp goes? I respond to someone’s comment as I am doing right now. In other words, I am ready to write, even though I am cracking up right now. Now, where do I do it?

        1. Where do you write? In your notebook or on your computer, and then if you want to share excerpts in the comments on this blog, feel free!

    2. I write YA and to be honest it really depends on the project whether or not I use more colorful language. In CROSSED OUT I did have Stephanie say something that my editor told me didn’t really need to be in the story. My editor said most of the profanity doesn’t really need to be in a story. It’s like Kate mentioned. Try taking it out and see if you miss it. Most of the time the story is fine without it.

  1. Everyone seems to be chasing the next Hunger Games or Twilight. And it seems as though the only interests out there from agents are for fantasy and paranormal and the like. Is there any interest (from agents, publishers, etc) anymore for a good old coming-of-age story? I love those books, my friends love those books, and many students love those books. But I just noticed in Barnes and Noble today that the “teen paranormal” section is now almost as large as the “teen fiction” section. It makes me sad. Especially since my WIP is a coming-of-age story. What are your thoughts?

    Thanks πŸ™‚

    1. Writing to trends doesn’t work for a couple reasons… a) because a trend may or may not be what’s in your heart, and b) by the time your book is finished, the trend will be over. Write what you love and write it so beautifully that it will be impossible to ignore. As my agent likes to say, “There is ALWAYS a market for awesome.”

      1. My thoughts on this: agents/editors are still (always) looking for the next big thing, or to hit a score on the current best thing. BUT, there are also always agents and editors looking for good contemporary MG and YA. I know. I just sold one (thank goodness!). It’s harder. To sell and to market. But there are still good people who want it. And readers who do too. If you guys don’t know already, one of the best places (IMHO) to see what agents are currently looking for (and you can see there are several that say they are looking at contemps) is here on Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents Blog (New Agent alerts). http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/new-agency-alerts

      2. I love that, too, Jen: I was just going to repeat it too, so I guess I still will: There is always a market for awesome.

        Thanks for inspiring us, Kate!


      3. Absolutely loved your reply to this question, Kate. Writing what’s in one’s heart does lead to awesome! And, there’s no substitute for that! Additionally, if the writing is personally relevant, it is always worth the time and effort. You never know where it’s going to take you! Happy writing!

    2. Trends come and go. But great books can often find a market. (It would be unrealistic to say “will always find a market” since life isn’t always fair.) 20 years ago, half the YA shelves had Christopher Pike books. Then horror (tradional, not romance) died for a while.

      1. In fairness, I think my quote is more like “there’s always a market for AWESOME.”

        While no individual book (no matter how great) is GUARANTEED to sell, the chances get exponentially higher when craft, characters & story are of particularly high quality, even if the genre/category is “not selling.”

        For example, common knowledge is, vampires are dead. (haha). But someone I know just sold a new vamp-book, because it was unusual & exceptional. Picture books are allegedly difficult to sell – but we sold more of those than anything else last year. I think it’s a case of, “the harder you work the better your luck.”

    3. And at least at the last two SCBWI-NE (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators-New England) conventions, editors and agents have been saying “Enough already with the paranormal!” Remember that the lead time for books is quite long – what’s in the stores today is what was being acquired two-to-three years ago. Even dystopian YA may be coming to the end of its run from what I’ve been hearing (although if anyone could perfectly predict the market, he or she would be a wealthy guru!) Kate is absolutely right — write YOUR book and make it the best book it can be.

    4. Hi Leslie,
      As someone who loves realistic, contemporary YA, I too have walked out of B&N completely depressed. But I also coordinate the website http://www.thecontemps.com, a site that spotlights contemporary YA fiction, and every month I put together the release calendar and there are always at least 15 titles, usually more. So yes, absolutely, editors are buying realistic fiction. It may not get as big of a deal as a hot dystopian trilogy, or may not get as much buzz, but I do think most agents and editors understand there is always a need for these kinds of books. What’s hard, I think, is doing something different – so often it can feel like it’s been done before. And a really quiet book, without any kind of hook, is going to be especially hard to sell. So think about ways to make your story stand out from the rest, either in terms of the setting or maybe something your character is going through. Best of luck to you!

      1. As Kate mentioned, it’s important to remember that the publishing world works with a serious time-lag. And I’ve heard that the fantasy/distopian market is getting maxed out, which is great news for those of us who write other kinds of YA fiction. Write the story you need to write, and when it’s time to sell it you can work on finding its place in the market with a publisher who shares your vision.

    5. Leslie, I agree with Kate. Additionally, my agents tell me that they’re looking for two kinds of books, the popular mass market books (like ‘Twilight’) and “high quality award winners”. While the two aren’t mutually exclusive, you might notice that not many of the former are the latter. Write stories and characters you love as best you can. Read lots of good books to keep yourself growing and learning as a writer. Revise, revise, revise. Superb, carefully crafted stories with strong, deeply realized characters are always in demand.

    6. oops, sorry if I put my reply in the wrong place (under Kate’s reply instead of under your question?)

    7. Don’t underestimate the influence of Hollywood here. Publishers are not just looking for the next Hunger Games/Twilight to sell books; all the big houses are looking for the next movie franchise as well. Realistic/coming-of-age movies are harder to market, and they do not become franchises.

      1. Thanks so much for all the info! I appreciate all the comments and answers on this thread. I love this Teachers Write experience! So glad I found out about it. Thanks again to everyone who’s contributing and to Kate for hosting this. Really, I can’t say thank you enough. πŸ™‚

    8. Make your writing so awesome so you start the NEXT trend. Everyone wants to write/publish/sell/buy the most exhilarating next best book, not necessarily another similar book in a trending genre. I believe the writer should lead the way and take all if the rest of us with them. As a sales rep, it’s much more difficult for me to sell another one of “those”, than it is to sell an original. Be unique. Inspire us.

  2. I’d like to know a little more about the research portion of the writing that you do. Does your writing always require research? How do you approach this portion of the writing process?

    1. I find that almost always, there’s research involved. For me, that generally starts with books and websites but quickly grows into interviews and experiences, which enhance my writing with details that you can’t get from books. I’ve blogged & guest blogged about the research process for a few of my books:

      Sugar and Ice

      Marty McGuire Digs Worms

      and an upcoming thriller, Wake Up Missing (2013)

      1. I’m always doing research for my books. I’ve been known to use family member’s and friend’s knowledge on certain subjects such as the Muslim crossing to facts on Egypt. I also visit my library often plus love Google. I’m with Kimberly Pauley in that it’s a fine balancing act between the two. For example, I’ve been researching Paris for a sequel and now just want to go!

        1. I can’t imagine writing about Paris without planting my bottom on a bridge, in a cafe, or on the grass by the Eiffel Tower. Can’t you write it off as a business expense? πŸ™‚

    2. Yes, there’s always some level of research (at least for me). Google is always my friend, but your local librarian can be a godsend as well. The key trick for me is balancing — you have to make sure you don’t over do it on the research. It’s far too easy to keep researching and never write!

    3. My historical novel, Silhouette of a Sparrow, required a lot of research. I worked with the local historical society, spent time with the special collections librarians at the Mpls library, rode the streetcars and the steamer boats, pored over bird books, and did lots of staring out of my own window. I started with just a little bit of research, then wrote the story focusing on the character’s journey while just putting in notes to myself about gaps in my research. Then, during the revision process, I went back and filled in those gaps. It’s crucial to ground yourself in the time and place of your project, but I find that doing too much research up front bogs me down and distracts me from my most important job: telling the character’s story.

      It’s not just historical novels that require research! My picture book, Loon Baby, needed research too. And my new contemporary MG novel required more research than I anticipated going in. Every story has a context, and that context has to be real to the writer and the character in order for it to be real to the reader. Plenty of details come up that need researching too–for just this one book I learned about the Columbine High School Massacre, algebra, photography, and sheep ranching. You never know where your book will take you!

    4. I should say up front that I write extremely goofy fantasy novels that involve superheroes, giant robots, telepathic fish, talking clams with legs, aliens named after former presidents, etc. Stuff I largely make up, in other words. But I still do some research, partly to provide at least the approximation of verisimilitude (I don’t want readers to have to suspend their disbelief TOO much), and partly because it often does unearth some great new detail that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. Since I’m generally not in pursuit of a scholarly level of accuracy, I let my research activities roam all over the map – I look at a lot of websites and books, but when I was writing my superhero/supervillain book GEEKS, GIRLS, AND SECRET IDENTITIES I also went to the Cartoon Art Museum, kicked around old stories with friends from high school, watched THE IRON GIANT, talked to the guys working at my local comic book shop, walked around Lake Merritt at the time of year when the goose poop and algae are at their absolute smelliest.

    1. SCBWI has workshops and conferences with editors, after which participants have a limited time to submit directly to them. If you aren’t a member, I suggest joining. See SCBWI.org

    2. I think the best tactic is to find out what kind of picture books a particular *editor* is looking for. Research an editor by looking at his/her list and learn their taste. Write what you are passionate about and then look for a “match” who will appreciate what you do.

    3. I second Kate’s advice to try to keep your pb manuscript at 500 words or fewer. At a conference last fall, agent Erin Murphy said that she hadn’t sold a pb with more than 600 words in more than three years. Shorter is definitely the trend.

      One way to work towards shorter manuscripts is by remembering to leave room for the illustrator. As you write, consider what can be shown in the illustrations. I’m often surprised by what I can cut as I revise. I tend to allow myself to write “long” on my first drafts and then challenge myself to see how much I can cut and tighten during revisions.

      Oh, and, humorous stories almost always seem to be in demand.

      Good luck!

      1. While shorter is always better in the PB market, I find it works for me to not think about word count right off the bat, but rather work on a PB plot that works up to one key scene, like a movie. Then, fill in only the words that are absolutely necessary to get to that scene and only those words that are necessary to wrap up your theme after that crucial scene.

        And if it’s any help to the motiviation of longer form PB writers, my agent has sold three PBs of mine in the last year and a half (one as short as 425 words, one as long as 1,200)…so yeah, longer is possible, it just has to be necessary and word choice and theme is (if possible) even more crucial than in longer form fiction.

    1. I teach sixth grade language arts, and I need advice on revising. I model revising, display student examples of revised pieces, have a revision cart (PVC pipe phones, sticky notes, highlighters), and integrate mini-lessons into the writing process on what to look for when revising. The kids still look it over once or twice and then say, “I’m done.” Many of them then hand the final piece in with tons of missed revisions. Does anyone have any advice or activities/lessons that I can utilize to get the kids to slow down and revise carefully?

      Authors – I love to write, but when it comes to writing a query letter or cover letter for a submission I sound like a complete writing idiot. I believe that it is nerves. Does anyone have any advice on sounding like yourself (not like a nervous person that just learned how to write) when writing a query/cover letter?

      1. Andy, at the risk of promoting my own book here, have you seen REAL REVISION? I interviewed 40+ authors about how they revise & adapted many of their strategies for students, so there are tons of “Try It” pages, too. There’s a free preview online at Stenhouse:


        Try writing a short letter (2-3 paragraphs) telling your friend what your book is about. Or pretend you’re writing a book-talk to give to your 6th graders. Query letters will be similar!

        1. Kate, promote away! I have your book and it has been extremely helpful. In fact, I have helped you promote it by getting other teachers (7th grade and the library) to purchase it.:)

          The revision cart idea came from your book. I can’t seem to get them to slow down and REALLY revise. I believe that they think they are revising, but in the end they miss critical revisions.

          Thanks for the advice with the cover/query letter – I will try it!

          1. Andy, When I taught creative writing to college students, one of my assignments for them was to have them rewrite a story as a poem, or a poem as a story. Not quite revising, but it gets them in the spirit of things and makes them change each piece radically, either getting the writing down to its core essence or expanding on a theme. Also, I know in school you don’t always have time to put things in a drawer for a week, as a lot of writers do, but I think coming back at something after a period of time really helps you realize where you could be better. This has to work with young people, too, I’d think! And finally, I think it really helps to know how much other people really revise; if you could say “Neil Gaiman rewrote x book y times…” When I first tried writing kids’ books (from journalism, where I had more immediate gratification) I didn’t want to revise more than I would for a basic news story. Now I feel like the revising IS the writing.

          2. Andy-I’m not a published author, so I’m not sure if I’m supposed to reply to your question! I teach 2nd grade and I find revision is the most exciting part of writing to teach. I also bought Kate’s revision book and it’s on my summer reading shelf, although I just had to scan it and love it already. One thing I do with second graders that I find very effective is to have them reread, reread, reread. We reread every single day before we even pick up our pencil and if you come into my room you will often find students sitting in parts of the room rereading their writing to other students, giving it a test drive. They always do their rereading to a peer with their purple pens (we call them magic pens in 2nd grade) and they cross out, add, etc. during that time. At the end of writer’s workshop, I give them 5 minutes to finish their thought and reread their text before we gather for share time.

            1. Kim –

              Great advice! I always pilot my revision ideas for a school year. I am seriously thinking about going back to last year with a few revisions. It sounds similar to your “reread, reread, and reread” and I call it “Speed Revising” (after “Speed dating” but the kids do not know this). They move around the room with their highlighter and pen and revise other student’s work. After four to five rotations, we meet back up for class sharing. It provided pretty good results, but I am looking for better results that is why I changed it up this year.

              Real Revision is awesome! I have utilized a ton of activities, especially on using sensory details.

              Thanks again for the advice!

      2. Andy – I’ve written several pieces on revising for the Write Sisters blog http://thewritesisters.blogspot.com/ and some of the other Sisters have as well – you can put “revision” or “editing” or “re-writing” in the search box and see if any of those are useful.

        The best tips for effective revision that I have are things that are often not incorporated in the classroom, but could be – first, that you not attempt to revise anything until it has sat, unread, for at least a few days. This is because while it’s fresh in your mind, it’s really hard to see what could be improved. A few days or week later, you come to it with fresh eyes and all sorts of changes seem possible. So if you could collect the papers, stick them into your drawer, and bring them out again a week later (or at least from Friday to Monday) your students might be better able to see-again (what “revision” means).

        The other thing I find super-helpful is to read the manuscript out loud, noting any places that need smoothing/fixing, and to have someone else read the manuscript out loud to you, while you mark up a copy noting places where they trip over words or become confused. While it would be a challenge to have multiple pairs of students reading out loud in a classroom setting, I would encourage you to find a way to incorporate “reading out loud” into your students’ revision process.

        1. Thanks for the advice. I really enjoyed your blog – I bookmarked it!

          It seems like the theme for revising is walking away from the writing piece for a few days. Time is valuable in the middle school classrooms (even more so these days with the new APPR requirements), but walking away from a piece can be accomplished. I believe that I am going to have to plan carefully to execute this plan next school year in language arts.

          I am willing to try anything that will help the students find the most success that they can find with their writing. Success usually leads to enjoyment, so that is my goal while attempting to turn students into writers.

      3. On the revision question, one of the pieces of advice I give to teachers when I do classroom visits that surprises them most (and which they seem to try to effectuate most and have good results with) especially with older kids and more advanced writing, is to include a step in the process which requires that they put the writing away for a few days and NOT LOOK AT IT, and come back to it with fresh eyes. Once you’ve worked on anything for a while, your eyes stop seeing what’s really there and your brain reads what it thinks is there (this is not a medical truth necessarily, just something I’ve experienced from my own writing life). It’s amazing what you can see you missed — or what you didn’t write the way you thought you did — if you walk away from it for a week or more. I know that’s a hard luxury in education, to take that time, but try it! πŸ™‚

        1. Gae,
          Thanks for the advice. Great idea to let the writing set. That’s why it’s good for students to be working on multiple pieces. Your query letter seems really great too; I’m bookmarking this page for when I feel ready to tackle one!

          Thanks for joining in the Teachers Write group!

      4. For the query letter question, I suggest going to law school. πŸ˜‰ I only half jest. My precise legal writing history has really helped me write a query. KISS applies (Keep it Simple Silly). First paragraph intro (with a punchy hook, but not gimmick!), second para what your book is about in three sentences — NOT the minor details of your story (which is the biggest flaw that I see: rambly details about characters), third para. final details… my book is complete at 75K; I maintain a blog; I’ve been published here; I hope to have the oppty to supply you with a partial or full. PERIOD.

        In the coming weeks, I’m going to make a “Help with Your Query” offer to those who participate on my Friday Feedback blog. Stay tuned. Until then, Kate’s advice is spot on.

        1. Thanks for this! I just finished a manuscript for a picture book. (Well, I’m at a first-draft-is-done/having-other-people-edit-it phase). I’m getting started on the query letter. Is it improper etiquette to send out queries to multiple agents at once? (I mean, I’m on summer break, so I’d like to get a few of them out now, rather than waiting 2 months for an answer from one, and then starting again.) I got mixed answers from my Google search, so I’d love to hear from people who have been published.

          1. Hi Kirsten,
            It’s fine to query multiple agents at the same time.
            However, you shouldn’t query multiple agents at the same agency. A pass from one agent is sometimes a no from the entire agency. Each agency will specify on their submissions page.

            Hope this helps!


          2. I don’t really know the difference between picture book and fiction queries… ?

            As for multiple queries, years ago they used to be frowned upon. I’m on my third (and final!) agent and none of them have ever minded multiple queries. They usually don’t ask for exclusives anymore at that stage… maybe at the reading stage if they then ask for more…
            I think there’s sort of a reasonable limit of queries to make at one time, say, no more than 5 – 6 but even that might not be the case anymore. Others may have had a different experience.

        2. I love KISS – thanks for the great idea. I get so nervous when writing a query letter that I never sound like myself, and I feel like my letter does not represent my manuscript well.

          I will be back for your β€œHelp with Your Query” on your Friday Feedback blog.
          Thanks again!

      5. I too teach students MS English, and two ideas from recent years have proven helpful enough that I’ve stuck with them. (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.

  3. Like most of us, I have read A LOT of extremely well written YA and middle grade novels, and my question pertains to those crucial beginning paragraphs. Although I know it’s not unusual for authors to actually toss the initial chapter(s) of their first drafts as they begin the revision process, this is what I want to know: How do you know where your story ACTUALLY begins? How do you capture that in medias res (in the middle of things) feel?? Simple to explain, yes? πŸ˜‰

    1. Begin on the day that is different. (Someone really smart said this, and if I knew who, I’d give credit, but I don’t remember.) Anyway – it’s great advice; you don’t want a whole lot of scene setting before you introduce the problem, I don’ think. But sometimes you don’t know until later on what you need to cut or where you need to start. THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z. lost its first three chapters (yes, whole chapters!) in the revision right before I signed with my agent.

        1. I think “begin on a day that is different” means you don’t want to start your story on a day that shows the character’s everyday lives BEFORE something has come along to change it. Harry Potter had a happy life with his parents as a baby, but the first HP book begins on the day he’s brought to live with the Dursleys. BECAUSE OF WINN-DIXIE begins on the day Opal finds a scruffy dog and brings it home, and not on a day when she and her father were still living in their previous home. HOLES doesn’t begin on a day when Stanley Yelnats is going through his usual routine at home and school, it begins on the day he’s accused of stealing a pair of shoes.

        2. Most writers end up throwing away their beginning chapters because not much action is happening. The temptation is to begin on an ordinary day in the character’s life and explain to the reader everything about your world and about the situation.

          If you being on a day that is different for the character (starting at a new school, something strange happening, etc.) you can contrast what’s strange, new, or exciting with the “status quo” your character began in.

          It’s a neat trick to help you as a writer to “show and not tell” through action and keep the story moving at the same time.

          [Not published, just putting in my two cents πŸ™‚ ]

    2. Similar to Kate, I use a variation of the Seder question: How is this day different from all others? Begin there, and then use chapter two or three to fill in a little bit of backstory or sprinkle it throughout the first third of the novel. Try starting in a couple of different places and see what your first readers (your writing group members?) think is the most energizing beginning to the story.

    3. I was going to answer, but read Kate’s response, so instead, I’m just going to remember her advice: Begin on a day that is different. I LOVE this.

      You teach. You learn.

      1. and, my simple, simple answer is this: you can’t be sure of the beginning until you really know the characters, the middle, and the end. And sometimes, still not then. Sometimes, that’s where a good agent or editor (or writer friend) help you. πŸ˜‰

      1. Yes, I would love to hear more about Scrivener tips. I purchased it to work on my dissertation, and there were many aspects that I loved about it but I had some challenges once I got to the point of needing to compile it and send it off to my committee because the formatting would be off. In order to save time with subsequent drafts, I ended up switching to Word to get the formatting to what it needed to be and leave it that way. Do you notice the same? Or is there just a point where you decide to switch over to another program for ease of sharing/collaborating with others? I might just need to get to know the program more as well.

    1. I just sit down and write. I’m under the impression ‘how’ you write varies greatly from person to person. I had a couple of stressed out days when I finally worked out the climax of my novel. Plus I spent a couple of stressed out weeks while I tried to write a battle scene. I wrote NaNoWriMo style. It took me 2 1/2 months to finish my first draft.

      I am editing now and learning so much. I wish I had tried this when I was in high school. I’m not sure why it took so long for me to write a novel. I’m now 47 and a high school physics teacher. (2nd career) Who knows where I would be if I could have gone through this process earlier?

      1. I hear you Nanette – I’ll be 43 when my book comes out, and I’ve occasionally wondered criticized myself for not getting started on all of this earlier in life. But the thing is, I wasn’t ready when I was younger. I think I NEEDED to be in my mid 30s to be able to even try writing a novel, and maybe that’s true for you too. I don’t know where your path through life has taken you, but I suspect it’s just the path that you HAD to take, for a multitude of reasons. And here you are now, doing something that many, many people never manage to do, whether it’s because of fear, the cumulative inertia of years, or some other reason. You’re doing it now! That’s tremendously meaningful, and ultimately more important than any thoughts about not doing it earlier. πŸ™‚

    2. Laptop and Word. I keep a folder for each project and re-save drafts with a number attached, novels and picture books alike. That way, when I start a new revision, I can tear the previous draft to shreds without hesitation because I can ALWAYS go back to an earlier version. Funny thing, I almost NEVER go back!

  4. I’d like ideas (from guest authors or fellow teachers) on getting students more excited about the revision process. Many of the English teachers at my school, myself included, have had a hard time getting students to go back through their work. In their eyes, they wrote it once and worked hard on it–it has to be perfect, right? What are some good ways to make them understand that revision is something that even the best writers have to do, and it’s not a sign of poor writing? Also, any fun ideas for revision activities would be great! πŸ˜€ Thanks in advance.

    1. One of the most powerful ways that I convinced my students to take more time in revising was to introduce them to a published author, Margi Preus, author of Heart of a Samurai. Margi skyped with us and showed us her HUGE box of revisions. When they heard her talk about the necessity of continuously working until a piece is “done enough,” it really hit home. Even if you can’t Skype or meet an author, you can share stories/blogs/interviews from authors they admire. Good luck!

      1. I’m a former teacher — now a full-time writer — who remembers all too well how much I loved writing in middle school and high school but HATED the revision process. In fact, until I finished my first novel 2 years ago, I still dreaded revisions. Then, I wisened up by sharing my drafts and revising based on feedback from others. The “aha” moment for me was to revise based on feedback (because I was always too close to my work to know what needed to be cut/improved). Hearing what others LIKED was an amazing feeling, and that helped me cut out the not-so-great parts. I also like to remember the word “revision” for what it truly is: another look. It’s not that the piece was bad to begin with. The new look helps bring out the strongest parts and let go of those that get in the way. Hope that helps

      2. Thanks for the ideas, Joan! I love the authenticity of bringing authors into class to discuss their creative processes.

    2. Well…like I told Andy, at the risk of promoting my own book here, have you seen REAL REVISION? I interviewed 40+ authors about how they revise & adapted many of their strategies for students, so there are tons of β€œTry It” pages, too. There’s a free preview online at Stenhouse:


      And actually…this question seems to be surfacing a lot. Stay tuned – I’ll see if we can plan a mini-study group on revision as a breakout for #TeachersWrite!

    3. I definitely recommend Skypes with authors for this! I just did a Skype chat recently with a teen writing group and the librarian said they came away with it with a new appreciation for writing and revision. πŸ™‚ Lots of us do these kinds of chats. I love to do them, personally. They are so much fun. If you do book one with an author, you can ask that they show some things to expand on the revision process. Some of the things I use are drafts with editorial revisions, scans of my ever-changing outlines, scans of pages of my notes, etc. Things like that.

    4. I try to teach my seventh graders that revision means to see again. It means taking a second or third or fourth look at the writing, making improvements each time. We “look again” at our pieces first for word choice. Then we look again for improvements in sentence fluence or organization. I ask them to turn in th e original with each subsequent revision, and the final grade is based partially on changes made along the way. Students can see the bovious improvements from draft one to draft four and are ALWAYS more satisfied and proud of their polished copies. Time? Yes, but worth it? Yes.

    5. I think a way to get them excited about revision could be to read two (brief) pieces. The first unedited, the second, the same thing, but revised. On my Friday Feedback blog VERY once in a while, I will do a quick edit on a piece a friend posts. It is amazing how removing a few words and/or changing a few tenses can really make a piece pop. Maybe it will help for them to actually HEAR it in action.

      1. I’ll try to find one of the old posts where I did this and post a link. One was for Jen Vincent’s (Teach Mentor Texts) piece.

      1. Very cute – I had not seen this video – really wish my kids were still at school!

        I will use it early next year!

      2. Erin-

        This was HILARIOUS! Your Max is one talented pooch. And he obviously enjoys a good book. Thanks for posting this and I’ll be using it to entertain my students at the beginning of the year!

  5. I know there are a million ways to sketch out your story/storyboard/outline your story before you start. Just wondering if any of the authors would like to talk about their particular way of doing this and any helpful tips you may have.

    1. Some writers describe themselves as either a Plotter or Pantser (meaning they’re writing by the seat of their pants–they aren’t quite sure where a draft is going until it’s finished). I’m more of a Plotter. I’ve had some good luck with the Snowflake Method by author Randy Ingermanson. Here’s a link:


      I’ve never done his entire method. I usually am ready to write before that, but it’s a good way to start developing characters, setting, plot.

      But you’re right–there ARE a million ways. The way that gets you to finish the book is the best way!

    2. Hi Sonja,
      I write first and then make a story map to see where the holes are. It’s called a sloppy copy for a reason. : ) Get your idea out there first and then see where it goes. Outlining first doesn’t work for me, but everyone is different.

      1. I’m only doing this for the first time…but I had an idea and just started writing. Then I realized I was starting to plan where things were going to go in my head and I needed to get it down in front of me to really make sure it all made sense. I ended up having two blank pieces of paper in front of me and then putting the different parts of my story on sticky notes. I love sticky notes! I was able to plop them down and then look at it all and move things around easily until I thought it made sense. Now I am just writing along and moving through each sticky note. (Again, this is just what worked for me and I am so not en expert.)

        1. I like the sticky note idea, Jenn, and I have my students do it, but I have never done it myself with my creative writing. When I was writing all of those 20+ page papers for my English Masters program I used the sticky note layout, but I haven’t used it for my YA. It feels more “right” for me to just write at this point. And as a result, I often find myself writing in chunks that aren’t in chronological order but still fit, which leaves lots of missing connective tissue. *light bulb appears above my head*

          Jenn! You just helped me figure out how I will piece it all together…sticky notes!! Trying to figure this out has been driving me crazy and hindering my progress. THANK YOU!!!! *Sending you a virtual hug right now!!*

    3. About 2/3 of the way through a draft I usually need to do something to help myself figure out where the story is going. I draw a story map of some kind, using an image that makes sense with the piece (a narrative arc, stair steps, a treasure map, a mountain, whatever) and then I mark the chapters/events of the story on it. Visualizing it in space really helps me, especially with building and pacing the conflict of the novel.

  6. I love writing to make meaning out of life. I love to write memoir. Fiction is scary. I’m not sure I have stories other than my own inside me, even though sometimes I find myself thinking this or that would make a good story or this or that would make a great character trait. Where do your stories hide? How do you get them to surface? Do you start with the plot or with the character or with the setting? What’s the creative process look like for you?

    1. I’m going to let other authors chime in on this one…because we have a couple Monday mini-lessons on this topic, so you’ll hear from me soon!

    2. Maya, I think the answer to your question rests in your first sentence, which I love. Often stories or poems do start from personal memories, and allowing yourself to change details or add characters can change them. Sometimes the personal moment that was the seed disappears in the process.

      1. Jeannine, of course that’s true of fiction as well; I mean if we didn’t connect to the themes on the personal level and say “Hmmmm…” after reading the novel, fiction would not have the power it has. You take a meaning you’ve gotten out of life, blow it up, exaggerate some characters, twist a plot, and voila you have a story. Not so easy, though–where do you find those characters who exaggerate the real world yet still are believable, how do you fictionallze it enough so you don’t lose your family (Pat Conroy’s dad knew he was The Great Santini)? I would love to experiment with fiction; I’m just not motivated. I’m hoping that maybe one of these mini-lessons will spark some creative fiction writing energy in me.

        1. I’m sure one of the lessons will spark… something. We don’t always get to choose our best forms. But I love the way you’re thinking about all of this.

    3. I usually start with setting. A time and place that intrigues me. Then I fill it with a character, which is always me, and not me. Together we experience things that I have experienced or imagined or wondered about or feared or hoped for, and I let the character take over and make her or his or its own decisions. The character becomes more distinct from me as the story moves forward, and begins to surprise me more and more. And that’s what makes fiction fun. And interesting. And scary. And powerful. You get to move beyond the facts and the limits of your own life and the boundaries of your own self, in order to find what is true.

    4. I think one key here can be to fictionalize. To take that tiny bit of memoir/life and really blow it up. Make it bigger than life. Make it NOT true, so you can run with it. You can always reel it in later. πŸ™‚

    5. Hi Maya, I’ve also used kernels of my own life as a starting point for book ideas – none of my protagonists are exactly like me, but so far they’re all, oh, at least 20% me. So I might start with a roughly-drawn protagonist who’s a bit like me, interested in some specific thing I loved at his or her age, and challenged by some specific thing I was challenged by. But my single biggest jumping off point is simply to start writing the same kinds of stories I loved (and still love, in fact). So I’ll start with some fairly “high concept” concept, like “what if a superhero forgot how to be a superhero?” or “what if a group of kids who love a role-playing game found out it’s based on a real place?” or “what if a kid was transferred to a new intergalactic alien immersion school?”

  7. Hi,
    Can you tell me more about SCBWI. I’ve been to the website a couple of times. And to be honest it’s alittle intimidating. What are your suggestions.Who are it’s memebers.

    1. SCBWI is made up of people who write and illustrate for children, both professions (I’m a member) and those hoping to break in. It holds both national (August in L.A. and January in NY) regional conferences, where you can go to attend craft workshops and meet lots of other writers, as well as editors and agents. There are also contests and grant opportunities and a newsletter, website, and discussion board. I’m a fan – and I often speak at conferences now – but this was where I got all of my newbie information when I was starting out.

    2. SCBWI is where I got all the information and know-how I needed when I was starting out, too. (And its where I met Kate, so bonus points for that.) It is the one gift I think every beginning childrens writer should give him/herself. If you can, treat yourself to a membership and a conference (the New England regional event, if you are anywhere near, is worth the trip) and I can almost guarantee you’ll find inspiration, information, and new friends on the same journey.

    3. SCBWI is a great organization to belong to. I’ve been a member since 2002 before I ever had a book published. Here in Southern California we have an Editor’s Day in which editors from different publishers come and discuss the market/go over the first 10 pages of your story; Agent’s Day, where agents come and do the same; writing retreat in Palm Springs; and much more. It’s totally worth the cost of membership. I tell others that if you’re serious about writing children/YA books you should belong to a professional organization. Plus there’s local schmoozes where you can met up with other writers.

    4. I love SCBWI! I got a lot of information there when I was starting out (and I continue to get information there, in fact), and I’ve been lucky enough to meet a lot of people (by my standards, anyway) at the conferences. That’s no small thing for a gargantually shy introvert like myself, BTW. I actually think it’s greatest benefit for me has been inspiration, however. I feel incredibly inspired by the feeling of belonging to a defined community in which everyone has a shared dream, and established authors, illustrators, agents, and editors share their time and wisdom so generously with people who are just getting started. I’ll be a member for the rest of my life.

  8. Okay…this is my question and it is always something that I think about asking because it occurs with my own writing. The rough draft seems like crap…like very horrible writing and then I feel like I shouldn’t continue. What is your advice for this and how do you get through it if you feel the same way about your own writing?

    Kate, another question. I remember on Twitter awhile back you mentioned that you use colored pencils during the brainstorming process of your writing. Can you tell me more about this? I want to use your strategies but can’t remember this one. Thanks Kate! A ton!

    1. My rough drafts are all awful. That’s why I don’t look at them until I am done…because I’d think, “Whoa! This is some pretty stinky writing here. You really have no business continuing with this and might as well hang it up and go get a cupcake, sweetheart.” I write and write until I’m done (at which point I at least feel capable about being done) and then I revise like crazy. Other people have other processes, but I think the important thing here is to trust the process.

      I tend to use colored pencils more during the revision process, when I’m trying to identify where I’ve included certain characters or threads – or even where I’m using multi-sensory language – I’ll go through and underline each element/character/sense in a different color.

      1. Wait. Your early drafts are bad too? This is so comforting to me, considering how great your books are by the time they are published! I currently have 4 WIP (i know, i know, pick a story and STICK TO IT! I have literary ADD apparently; ideas for yet another book are brewing in my head), one of which is a picture book that needs revision, but three of which are novels. I can’t seem to get past a certain point, because I go back and read them over and think “this is complete crap. why do i think i can write?” and then get discouraged.

        That was actually going to be my question as well.

        If you don’t go back and reread what you’ve got, how do you continue with it? You just read over the last page or so to figure out where you’ve left off?

        This is probably my biggest obstacle as a writer, even greater than the crazy commute + three kids issue of time.

        1. Yep – I read over the last couple pages and then get flying again. When I realize there’s something I need to fix/change, I add it to a big list of “known issues’ that I write by hand alongside my laptop. That list becomes my first revision to-do list AFTER the draft is done

    2. John: One of the more important things you can do for yourself is to give yourself permission to write crap. I tell my students that, and also, that the first draft is not writing. It’s getting the ideas on paper. When we start revising, that’s when we start writing.


    3. Yes, early drafts are CRAP. Period. Sometimes, second drafts are crap. I have gone into a cold sweat rereading THIRD drafts I’ve sent out to my agent. MORE CRAP.

      For most of us, it’s ALL in the revision, baby!

      1. I have another question then after reading this…how do you keep going? What do you to do convince yourself to keep going? How do you stay focused on what you are writing when/if a new idea pops into your head that seems more exciting?

        I talked with Jay Asher at IRA and he said he has lots of things that he’s working on all the time. That makes total sense but I feel like if I let myself switch to a new idea, I’ll never follow thru and actually finish anything.

        1. sometimes sheer desire to succeed, Jen! You have to want it. That’s the bottom line. You say, if I don’t sit my ass down and keep plowing thru the hard parts, I will never finish a book. And if I never finish a book, I never have a chance to publish it. Simple, right?

        2. Jen – The honest truth is I say that at the end of finishing a manuscript (any length – MG, PB, short story), which includes major revisions, I treat myself to something that I love – a gigantic chocolate milkshake from McDonalds (that is my only example because that is always my treat – thank goodness I don’t finish too many manuscripts:).

    4. I would venture to guess that almost all writers would label their first drafts as crap. That’s just part of the process. I like to use the sculpture analogy. A sculptor has this big old hunk of clay or marble or whatever. When he begins sculpting, its form is unrecognizable. That’s the first draft . Over time with work from the sculptor and revisions for the writer, the final form emerges.

    5. I don’t remember where I read this, but It’s the rough draft’s job to be terrible. The more writers I meet, the more I’ve learned how much each one of us is convinced that our drafts are worse than anyone else’s (mine are, however, the absolute worst, so don’t even try to compete on that score!) You gotta write through the terribleness ‘cuz you wouldn’t be doing this if your heart didn’t have something to say.

    6. I alternate between thinking that every single word I write is brilliant, and that it’s all total crap and I should give it up and be a plumber instead. My only advice is just to keep writing, and keep revising, and keep showing up to do the work. Over time, I’ve actually kind of gotten bored with both extremes. They waste so much energy. I know that they cancel each other out– nothing is either as wonderful or as terrible as I first think it is, so I just need to push forward and trust the process.

  9. How often do you strand a story? (ie, it starts strong and goes nowhere) And do you ever come back to it?

    I came across a long short story (short novel?) that I was working on a few years ago, and remember so vividly how much in tune I was with it, and then I reached a spot where noting made sense at all, and there the story has sat ever since. It might be one of those summer writing projects — resuscitate a dead story and bring it back to life.

    So, any words of advice to restart a dead-end story with promise?



    1. Kevin: One possibility, especially if your brain is resisting taking the story up again, is to go through the dead-ender and pick a scene that might have its own story and write that story. You can do that with a couple of scenes. You may find your way back into your original story or, you may find a new story.


    2. Here’s what I would do. Re-read it, to re-acquaint yourself with it. Maybe even print it out and set it next to you on your desk. Then open a new, blank document, AND START OVER. Who knows where the thing got derailed? Don’t let yourself follow the same road again. Start with what you love about the piece, what still inspires you, and let yourself begin again. I even sometimes re-type sections from the hard copy into the new document if I love them enough, but because of the fresh start, I am in no way wedded to the previous version. I am free to see what rises out of the ashes.

  10. My question is somewhat like John’s above…
    I started writing something a few months ago, a novel that was rumbling around inside my brain. I started writing, which felt great. Then the next weekend I looked at what I had and changed my mind about how I wanted the novel to play out — rewrote my sort of overview/outline and started again. By the next weekend, I wasn’t satisfied with that, either, and thought of different ways it should go, but then I was too frustrated that I’d have to start all over again and really stopped writing it completely. I think it would be easier if I could write it entirely at one sitting and then just be editing, but I can’t do that with a novel and so I keep redoing what I’ve already written each time rather than moving forward.

    How do you keep yourself from stopping and starting anew every time? How do you get over the hurdle of “wait, this isn’t good enough to write yet”?

      1. I love this poem! I’m going to print it out today and put it up by my computer to remind me to keep going. Thanks!

      2. Thanks for telling us about the “middles”. I’m at this point, too, in my middle grade book. Although I have a strong sense of where it is going, I feel like I’m trying to pad out the book to get to the action. I wish I could just relax in this middle part a bit more!! There are interesting things that could happen at this point. I’m worried that the reader will be getting antsy and want more action and forward motion, and less character development/description. If that makes sense.

    1. It’s hard to give any good answer after Kate’s answers. I keep scribbling down her answers for ME! I guess that’s why SHE’s running this camp. πŸ™‚

    2. Right around page 60 I always find myself thinking “oh no, the honeymoon is over.” The fresh energy of the early pages is gone and I’m starting to realize that a novel is complicated. This writing stuff is hard work! I usually set myself page goals during those hard stretches (5 NEW pages a week, or something like that). After a while, there’s momentum again, and then I get excited about how things are going to wrap up, how the loose ends are coming together, how I’m liking the character more and more, how exciting that climactic scene is. The middle is about work ethic for me, I guess, and I just have to remember that the joy always returns.

  11. So, I have a story idea & I’m writing. My middle school students are going to give me feedback in the fall. What do I do when I think it’s perfect? How do you even try to break into this business? What comes after the writing? While I’m daunted by the step of the process I’m in now, my brain feels greedy to know the whole journey. Thank you thank you thank you…

    1. Whenever people ask me this question, I send them to the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. The website is deep with the answers to all these questions. I highly recommend attending one of the regional or national events, too. Absolutely worth the investment. As I said above, the return is inspiration, information and new friends on the same path.

      Another resource I point people to is Harold Underdown’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Publishing Children’s Books. It addresses every question you asked here, and a few more, too!

      1. some writer’s forums are a great place to learn about the how-to’s of the business. Early on I was involved in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award contest and the forums there can be a wealth of trading information and expertise (they can also be a stupid, catty zoo, but you just ignore that part – and the good supportive camaraderie always outweighs the stupid). Conferences and organizations. But even the annual Writer’s Market books will walk you through the process. Or Jeff Herman’s Guide, etc. http://www.amazon.com/2012-Writers-Market-Deluxe-Online/dp/1599632276/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1338996150&sr=1-3

        1. and Chuck Sambuchino’s Guide to Literary Agents blog which i posted the link for somewhere up there. *points up*

    2. After the writing comes the submitting, and the very long waiting game. There will be rejections. You will be disappointed. You will submit more, and wait more. Most importantly, you will write something new. Because as much as this book means to you, IT is not the purpose of all this. YOU are the purpose. While you write this story (be it a novel or a picture book or a memoir or a short story) your writing is improving, you are growing as a person, and your next project will blow this one out of the water.

    3. Hi Angie, the virtual forum that I’ve found most helpful is Verla Kay’s Blueboards (http://www.verlakay.com/boards/index.php). There’s a terrific mix of aspiring and established authors and illustrators there, and a wealth of information about every part of the process, including the craft of writing, the query process, learning about agents and editors, researching publishers, tips on attending conferences, manuscript formatting – it’s gold. And if you can join SCBWI, do it – I’ve learned a vast amount and experienced a slew of pivotal moments via that organization.

  12. Voice, Character, Plot, Scene — When you begin a project what is your first target?

    Do you even think about theme, or do you leave that question up to the reader and English teachers?

    Where do my 9th and 12th grade students and I go to explore the best on-line fiction, poetry, drama and screen plays being written today?

    Is asking more than one question bad form?

    1. When I begin writing, it’s the voice that is speaking to me. Plot evolves out of the character’s voice, and, although I do have an idea what the plot will be when I begin writing, it changes numerous times during the writing process because of the character. It’s similar to what Faulkner said about writing: “It all begins with a character, and once he gets up and starts moving, all you have to do is run behind him as fast as you can, writing down everything he says and does.” The scenes are generated by the character, and theme never occurs to me — and, as a former English teacher — that makes me giggle. πŸ™‚

      1. Thanks. I’m not a practiced writer, and it’s been 20 years since I last worked seriously on a piece of fiction. Still,I remember getting tangled up in knots over what I wanted a scene to do, and I remember the easy flow of the writing when I let the character, especially the character’s attitude, do the work. Thanks for reminding me.

        1. πŸ™‚

          I think Margo gave a great answer. And for me, it’s really all of those things at times — though PLOT far less than I wish it was. A character, an image, a voice… you hope they will sustain you and help you gain momentum.

          1. Holden Caufield’s voice carries the novel, at least it did when I read it as a 10th grader in 1973. Today, it doesn’t carry the novel for my 9th graders. Seinfeldian voices, ironic, a bit nasty but intermittently cute/acute, no longer carry novels for me. Still, I think you’re right about voice. Maybe I’ve grown up as a reader, or maybe we are growing up as readers, or maybe we are relapsing as readers, but when I hear an attempt at authenticity, that voice carries me into the novel — Tony Morrison’s voice in Jazz, Pi Patel’s voice in The Life of Pi, Somerset Maugham’s narrative voice in The Razor’s Edge, Jennifer Egan’s voices in Goon Squad, the voice you create in The Pull of Gravity, and A.M. Homes’ short story voices. I love listening to them. I’m thinking that’s why I’m compelled to write poetry. The thought of sustaining a “transitive voice” for 400 manuscript pages is daunting.

    2. I begin with setting, as I said above (somewhere). Usually it’s a place that I fall in love with. Into that place, comes a character. Inside that character, there is an idea. Setting, character, and theme are what inspire me– plot is much slower to come for me and is where most of my revision takes place. I have to work hard to figure out what exactly is going to happen to my character and how on earth I can get the reader to turn those dang pages.

  13. What finally pushed you to write? Is there a defining moment where you finally considered yourself a writer? I feel like I’m waiting for that πŸ™‚

    1. Actually, no, there was nothing that pushed me to write. It’s just always been fun to play with words and I enjoyed the process so much. Writing silly doggerel (is that redundant?) for faculty occasions was fun, and that was the only writing I really did for years. When do I think I really felt like a “writer?” I guess it was when my first article was published (yes, English Journal), but that wasn’t writing for young readers, which I’ve been doing ever since. There are still many days when I don’t feel like a writer, because something’s not working. There is something very exciting about seeing your name in print on the cover of a book, but now, after 27 books, I see it’s not really about that at all. Looking back on it all, I think we all need to give ourselves permission to feel like writers. If we love words and language and get pleasure from crafting a sentence or finding just the right word — we’re writers. So, make this morning your “defining moment” — you’re a writer, or you wouldn’t be on this board — congratulations! πŸ™‚

    2. Hi Sasha,
      As a teacher –like you– I always encouraged my kids to get over the “if onlies” and follow their dreams– Then I realized I was doing the same thing: –If only I had time to work out–If only I had time to write–If only I had a cabin in the woods like Thoreau –haha. If you’re reading this you’ve probably told yourself “Some day I will write a book.” I am telling you that “some day” is now. Mentor thyself like you do your students. You can do it!!!


    3. Yup, I had a moment like that. I first started thinking about writing a children’s book in 1996, then spent the next 10 years dreaming about it but not pursuing it. When my daughter was born in 2006 I realized I had to ruthlessly prioritize my time and energy like never before, and it was only then that I fully understood how badly I wanted to write my book and pursue a career as an author. I also think that’s when I went through the single biggest leap of personal growth in my entire adult life. Having a child was the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, and at the risk of sounding both maudlin and arrogant, it made me a better, wiser, more complete person than I’d ever been. I think having kids didn’t just spur me to prioritize my dream of being a writer, it also gave me the mental and emotional resources I needed to pursue that dream – resources that I didn’t really possess before.

  14. I’m working on a middle grade chapter book (or is it novel? Not sure of the difference). I’m curious as to what would be the word count for this type of book? Or do you even worry about this?

    1. As Kate and other authors have said, the Society of Children’s Writers and Illustrators has great resources, as does Harold Underdown’s Complete Idiot’s Guide, and I would also take a look at BUNNY EAT BUNNY by Olga Litowinsky. Word count is actually less of the issue; it’s more key to know which audience (middle grade or YA) you’re writing for, because that will help determine what your characters do and what actions they take. Let your characters run the story and the word count will take care of itself — in revision (everybody’s most favorite part of the writing process — ha!). Those resources will help you clarify what journey you’re embarking on with your characters.

    2. Just write! Then, after you have a draft, I would suggest you plunk yourself down in the children’s dept at the library and look at a bunch of examples from different sections. Check out the beginning readers, the chapter books, juvenile fiction, YA, even those longer form picture books. See what’s out there that is similar to your story (length, audience, complexity, sophistication of language and theme) and how it is categorized. Where might yours fit? Are you happy with that fit, or do you need to revise to steer the project someplace else?

  15. I struggle to get students to invest in the revision process as well. I just took a peek at Real Revision and it is now on my wish list. I think I read recently that in order to get students to “buy” into the concept of revision, they first have to care about their writing enough to want to make it better. And everything I’ve learned that motivates students to care about their writing is having choice of what to write instead of responding to a prompt.

    1. When I taught high school and middle school, I had handouts of various check lists (gleaned from English Journal and fellow teachers) that the kids had to work with, sometimes individually, sometimes in small groups. These are lists of items such as, “Did I begin the story at the point where something has to give?,” etc. They were also required to write (yes, by hand, in class!) using every other line of notebook paper, which makes it much easier to add/delete sentences, phrases, and words. Additionally, kids were never supposed to erase anything — just cross it out with one line. I told them they’d never know when they might want to use that again, so they should be able to see it. Once I was writing and getting rejected and still teaching, I brought in my rough drafts, replete with cross-outs, arrows, entire paragraphs and chapers gone, and those really made an impact on them. I just did a Skype visit with 150 first-graders and showed them one of those pages, and you would have smiled to hear the “Ooohs” and “Aaaahs”!

      As for caring about writing — from (again!) English Journal, I found one of the best teaching tips ever: the Green Book. Maybe you know about it. I put a fat green three-ring binder in the classroom with lots of notebook paper in it, and any time a kid wrote a great sentence or paragraph on an assignment (even a journal entry), I’d put a star next to it and say, “Please copy into the Green Book.” Kids could (and did) get a C on a paper and yet still have written something so wonderful in one sentence that it would earn the star. I remember a big middle school kid, yelling in delight, “I got something in the Green
      Book!” Kids would pore through it during odd times in the classroom, and they loved seeing each other’s work. You probably already give students the choice sof several prompts to help motivate them, and maybe you have them make up their own prompts for the class, too. Those can be very encouraging for them. Have fun!

      1. I am going into my second year as a Creative Writing teacher, and I LOVE your idea of “the green book!” I save awesome sentences from students to share as examples all of the time, but that’s a great idea to give the students that gratification by starring the sentence and then having them copy it into the book. Thanks for this tip!

        By the way, would you ever be open to Skyping with a 6-8th grade Creative Writing class? We’ll be doing a unit on Children’s books in the upcoming year and it would be wonderful for them to see your marked up rough drafts!

          1. Have you read The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan? It’s based on Pablo Neruda’s life and it’s all printed in green ink because he believed the color green holds a sense of hope. It might be too long for a read aloud…but there is a picture book that tells of his life, too. It just makes me happy to see that the Green Book is green and made me think of Neruda. πŸ™‚

      2. oh, man, what a wonderful idea! If I taught, I would STEAL that green book idea. LOVE it!

      3. Margo –

        I love the idea of the Green Book. I’m totally going to scam that this year. It’s interesting that you gave your students a packet of questions/checklists. I give my students a first aid kit with commonly misspelled words and lists of emotion words, lists of sensory words, etc. But, really I think I like your idea better.

        Thanks for the great resource ideas!

  16. Everything I’ve read emphasizes the importance for teachers of writing to write authentically themselves. However in todays over scheduled classrooms, the teachers reluctance to embrace this crucial step is often due to lack of time. How can I encourage teachers to invest in this valuable exercise?

    1. You are so right. In my English department, it was understood that we were supposed to be “modeling” behavior (don’t we love it?), so when the kids were writing journal prompts each day for ten minutes, we were supposed to, also. Other than that, maybe others can chime in with some help. All I know is that when I finally “retired” to write full-time, it took almost a year for me to stop my head involuntarily twitching to the left to see how many papers I had left to grade while I was watching sports on TV with my dear husband! I’d be interested to hear what others have to say on this conundrum!

  17. Do you read a lot as writers? I have to admit that right now my passion is reading, not writing, even though I do want to write! I’m afraid if I write more, I’ll read less.

    1. Holly, I once horrified my agent by saying that if I had to quit either reading or writing, it’s writing that I’d kick to the curb. I read like mad. If at the drawing board, I love listening to good audiobooks (not the same as reading, but I can’t draw/paint and read at the same time). I have colleagues who don’t read while they’re writing, but I find reading keeps my creative juices flowing, so I read, read, read all the time.

    2. I do read a lot, but everything from newspapers (never know when a story idea will pop out) to non-fiction to fiction for both young readers and adults. I make time almost every day to read and to write. It’s all about balance, and if you want to write, you might find reading enjoyable in a different way — a well-turned sentence you wish you’d written, and so on. Give yourself permission to make yourself happy — write and read, both!

      1. Exactly!! I read a lot for three reasons: because I LOVE it, I can make good book recommendations to my students, and because it helps me as a writer. I recently finished I AM THE MESSENGER by Markus Zusak, and I underlined line after line of beautifully written words wishing they were mine. I learn SO MUCH about writing through reading the work of masterful writers. Don’t be afraid to write because it will keep you from reading. Reading will help you be a better writer.

        1. Micki, I LOVE Marcus Zusak’s books! Thank you for your feedback. That’s what I’m hoping – that reading can inspire writing, and that I can keep reading if I write more! πŸ˜‰

    3. Yes, I too think they feed into each other. I read to learn about writing and to help me teach writing and to inspire writing. I also read to escape writing sometimes– I really enjoy reading something DIFFERENT from what I’m working on (thrillers! romance!) to give my brain some down-time.

  18. I love writing stories about my children. They turn out as essays or memoir, but I would like to write more fiction with their stories as the inspiration. Any advise on how to make that transition?

    1. What fun you must be having! Since stories generate from (as Virginia Hamilton wrote) “What you know, what you remember, and what you imagine,” you can take those stories of your kids and use your imagination to make the transition. Change the characters — make them bunnies, or make the main character someone new and entirelly different from your child. Ask yourself, “What if?” such-and-such happened, instead? For my recent picture book ALOHA FOR CAROL ANN (Marimba Books, 2011), the initial story was about kids in my classroom in Hawaii, but, during the intervening twenty-three (oh, yes!) years, I changed the characters and let them take the story to a new place. Keep writing about your kids and save those stories for them, and then, write new ones inspired by what happened to your kids — and have fun!

      1. This is great advice. Changing something important about the character is very helpful. Or, try putting the character in a new situation. How would they react to a new setting or a different event? The other thing that is often useful is taking yourself out of the story. How would the story have unfolded if Mom wasn’t around?

  19. How do you deal with the temptation to edit yourself when you feel your story will reveal more than you’re comfortable telling? On the reverse, how do you find the freedom to write stories you fear will be assumed are your own?

    1. This is the writer’s constant (well, one of the many!) fear! Good for you for writing what makes you uncomfortable — that’s writing from the heart. I wish I had good advice to give you, and perhaps others can chime in to help you (and me!). We are supposed to write as if no one was looking over our shoulders, but, as teachers (former, for me), it’s hard to let go of that “must be modeling good behavior” syndrome. I’ve had both my critique partner and my husband tell me to “let loose” — aaaaah! As I wrote earlier, Virginia Hamilton said that writing was β€œWhat you know, what you remember, and what you imagine.” What you’re saying is true — people *will* think it *really happened* to you, so we just have to smile and quote Virginia Hamilton. As far as the temptation to edit, from my experience, keep on writing and don’t edit till you’re done with that section. Then, go back and pretend you’re not you, read it aloud, and work on sentence-crafting and word choices. That can help distance yourself from what you’re writing. Good luck — you’re on the right track. πŸ™‚

    2. Just as editing for sentence structure or spelling should come late in the process, deciding what you feel comfortable sharing should come late, too. Some stories feel as if they most be put on paper, but you’re right, sharing those brings up a whole different range of feelings. If you don’t feel safe sharing, I’d respect that, just as you’d respect a student’s confidentiality. Its time to be shown may come, or not. The amazing thing is that you’re getting past fear to get the story on the page, getting past fear that may stop you from doing any writing. It’s usually best to keep the publishing part, and by that I mean publishing just within your own community, separate. Good luck!

    3. Hi Quiche,
      I agree with Jeannine. Once upon a time, when I taught high school English, I had this annoying voice in the back of my head insisting my writing had to be grammatically correct, morally upright, and dazzlingly brilliant prose destined for a Pulitzer… haha The key is to turn off that editor in the back of your head. Get the story out first, and then see what you need to switch up a bit. Do NOT worry about who is going to read it–until after you get it on paper. No one needs to read it if it’s too personal. That’s your call.


  20. This question is more for my students, but I’m sure the answer would help in my own writing too. In my creative writing class, I have a few students that seem to love starting stories but have a terrible time picking one to continue. How do you push yourself forward with a story and stick with it to the end, even when it momentarily seems a little dull? What do you do when the story is loosing your interest?

    1. Most of those of us who are published writers have lots of unfinished work, and that was my major genre when I was about ten. I wrote notebooks of act one of plays, broken poems, first pages of stories. Some of that is okay, it’s practicing, and you want to be careful not to kill the joy of shiny beginnings.

      But I find when I get stuck on one part of a piece, I’ll move to another. Writing a scene you think might take place at the end might spark an image or situation for that long middle. Or revising earlier parts, which I’d left for later, may take me to new inspiration for the middle. I read in a straight line, but never write in one.

      1. I definitely agree that I don’t want to squash the students’ excitement for new projects, but I do want them to learn that you don’t have to abandon a piece just because it isn’t working right at that moment. I have a few kids with 10+ books started, and I’m trying to encourage them to narrow it down to 2-3 at a time. I like your analogy about reading in a straight line, but not writing in one. I will have to share that with my students! Thanks!

        1. Definitely tell them it’s okay to skip ahead to write the next part of the story that interests them. We all tend to get bogged down in the middle (see that thread, above). Pulling the pieces together is part of the revision process.

      2. totally agree with Jeannine. Sometimes, when I’m stuck, rather than abandon, I’ll allow myself to skip to a whole ‘nother part of the story and go back to the stuck place later.

      3. Yay!! I just commented earlier about how I find myself not writing chronologically, and to be honest, silently fearing I was doing it “wrong.” I see, hear, and know so many writers who say they outline and plan every piece they write. I’ve tried that, but it doesn’t work for me unless I’m writing a paper and I have to have a particular structure. I know there isn’t one “right” way to write, but still, it’s very comforting to know there are others out there (especially those who are published) who are kinda like me.

        1. Hi Micki,
          I’m very much like you! (and there are plenty more of us published authors out here who would say the same. ) I don’t outline. ONe friend of mine writes the ending first and then goes back to write the beginning.

          As for getting started, I follow Jane Yolen’s advice: “Put your butt in the chair.” Tell yourself you’re only going to do this for five minutes. You don’t need to wait until you have an entire day of uninterrupted time. (Because we all know that’s NOT gonna happen.) If five minutes turns into hours–go for it. If five minutes is five minutes, you did it!


  21. I’m having trouble with the name for main character in my middle-grade novel. Yes, I know I can change it during editing, but this problem will come up then, also.

    Here’s the deal: We have a huge, huge extended family. All the common male names appear, along with some unusual ones. Add in the Used-to-be-family ones (like ex-spouses, former boyfriends, deceased championship hunting dogs), and there’s a whole passel of guys’ names freighted with emotional baggage (positive or negative) for someone in our family.

    If my wacky junior high kid character really, really seems like he should be named X or R, do I just go with that? (and then there are the character’s family members, friends, neighbors… wow).

    Any tested methods for deflecting the inevitable questions by relatives about why this name or that was used? Thanks for helping us all out!!

    1. Names do get repeated, and I understand this is especially hard when your family and their menageries are so big. But I think most people see a name in a book as different, so I wouldn’t worry too much. You may find that people are honored to see their name — even if the character who shares the name is wacky!

    2. It sounds like a fun family! Let your character name him/herself — that way, you can let his or her voice speak. That’s what you can tell family — that he named himself — if they ever read the story — and you’d be surprised how many family members never read your work, published OR unpublished! πŸ™‚ The only caveat I have is what happened to me — when the bratty antagonist in my early chapter book SECRET HEROES had the same name as my soon-to-be son-in-law, and luckily, the book hadn’t gone to press, so I called my editor and begged! It got changed in the nick of time. Still, if someone comes into your lives with the name of an evil character in your published book, it’s always good for another funny family story, right? You could always go with the hunting dogs — they won’t complain, right?

    3. Hi Katy–
      Yes, I say go with it. Many of your family members will be tickled they are in your book. And then again, as Margo said, your character may actually name himself once you get to know him better. Authors find out a lot about their character as they write the story. I often picture former students or family members (or a combination thereof) as I’m writing. Then once I get through an entire draft or two, I realize that is not his name at all.


      1. Thanks, y’all! I’ll go with the name that he gives me – and thank goodness for “find and replace” word-processing function if needed.

        Onward! (Even those pedigreed hunting dogs had short, everyday nicknames)

  22. You must give your character the name that fits him/her precisely, even if you know people with that name. Of corse, if you have unpleasant associations with that name, don’t use it.

    Sometimes the characters come with their names; other times, you must name them. The benefit here over a parent who just found out the sex of their baby is that you already know your character’s personality. When I wrote Me & Jack, my MC was a sensitive boy–sensitive yet strong. I needed a name without a lot of hard consonants but something that gave the sense of quiet strength. I named him Joshua. And because he and his dog are so entwined, I did something you aren’t supposed to do: I gave them similar names, Josh and Jack. Both start with J; both are one syllable. I did this to reflect the closeness of their relationship.

  23. This query is less about writing but is pertinent to teachers of writing? Does anyone have any ideas to share how to maintain stamina and endurance among faculty. It is hard to keep the kids motivated when the teachers model “spring fever”.

    1. Hi Linda,
      Try a Random Act of Kindness approach– I used to do this with my Student Council kids. Assign a teacher to each of your students (or double up if you have those who may not follow through…) Have them talk to the students of their secret teacher. Tell them they are “spies” or secret pals with the task of finding out what positive things have been happening in this teacher’s classroom. No observation is too small. It could range from “X finally turned in his homework!” or “We finished our writing assignment.” or “No one got in trouble today!” or “She makes funny voices when she reads aloud.” Then have your student write a note to the teacher (or create a template they can fill in.) that says:

      Dear _________.
      Thank you for all you do for ______(school name.) We heard through the grapevine that __________________ (positive comment) . Keep up the good work. Only ____ more days!
      Your Secret Pal

      Sometime we added a piece of candy like Hershey’s kisses or Kudos bars – (Kudos to you). It’s actually a fun, end-of-the-year writing assignment. Your kids will learn to look for the positive in situations. And your fellow teachers will know others are watching their good deeds… : )

    2. Do you have a bulletin board or a refrigerator in the faculty room/English Dept? If so, you could post β€œgem of the day” contributed from each teacher β€” something a kid (anonymous) has said in class, either insightful or hilarious, or both β€” that is memorable and can lighten or brighten the day. This might make teachers be more attentive (ah, the smell of the barn at the end of the school year β€” how well I remember!) and purposeful during class. Encouraging to post and then complimenting the teacher on his/her contribution can also create a feeling of camaraderie and of β€œWe’re all in this together.” For example, if I were still teaching, I’d have posted what one of my Boys and Girls Club kids (I volunteer for homework help each week) said two weeks ago, upon seeing my author picture in ALOHA FOR CAROL ANN: β€œYou wrote that a long time ago, huh?” Or this gem: β€œI’m thinking so hard that all my brain cells are exploding!” I’m sure other teachers/writers have some good suggestions.

  24. I write adult historical fiction, but I’ve spent many years with 3rd to 5th graders teaching history to students via hands-on history both in a museum setting and in the classroom (going tomorrow to be with 3rd graders) I started a contemporary novel for YA years ago and am attempted to work on it again, but my first love is a picture book that is meant as a teaching resource. It’s based on a 1860 journey through the San Juan Islands here in WA state. It involves a rare dog. All true. I’ve pitched it for years, but I’m getting to the point where I may just self-pub it. Any thoughts on giving it one more try querying and then just going for it? I have a fabulous artist on board. It would tell the story of the journey, but have a non-fiction supplement in the back about Coast Salish peoples and the journey itself.

    1. It sounds like a gem, and when you truly love something, it’s important to you to share it with the wider world. Have you looked at Ellen Jackson’s website that lists all the editors of the various publishing houses and what they’re looking for? Have you checked the SCBWI Market Guide for educational and regional publishers? This sounds like a perfect match for core curriculum standards material. Good luck!

  25. Do you have a bulletin board or a refrigerator in the faculty room/English Dept? If so, you could post “gem of the day” contributed from each teacher — something a kid (anonymous) has said in class, either insightful or hilarious, or both — that is memorable and can lighten or brighten the day. This might make teachers be more attentive (ah, the smell of the barn at the end of the school year — how well I remember!) and purposeful during class. Encouraging to post and then complimenting the teacher on his/her contribution can also create a feeling of camaraderie and of “We’re all in this together.” For example, if I were still teaching, I’d have posted what one of my Boys and Girls Club kids (I volunteer for homework help each week) said two weeks ago, upon seeing my author picture in ALOHA FOR CAROL ANN: “You wrote that a long time ago, huh?” Or this gem: “I’m thinking so hard that all my brain cells are exploding!” I’m sure other teachers/writers have some good suggestions.

  26. What is up writers? Everyone having a nice day?

    Yesterday I read through some of the quick writes and I thought to myself: man, all this amazing writing makes me feel like a loser and incompetent.

    I was wondering if any authors ever felt like that when they read published books or other writing?

    Thanks for bringing the awesomeness.


    1. Hi, Colby — I was wondering when you’d be able to chime in! You are absolutely right about some of the great responses to the quick writes. Yes — I often feel that way when I read some absolutely incredible writing. I can also feel incompetent when I read my *own* writing. πŸ˜‰ Writing is such a community endeavor, just as reading and the encouragement of reading (as you do so admirably on your Nerdy Book Club blog) are, as well. We writers can deal with the awe and the oh-my-gosh-that-knocked-my-socks-off feeling by celebrating the life of the written word and be glad that someone can capture experience so keenly on the page that, upon reading it, we know we were there — or we wish we were there. Inspiration can be found everywhere and to be able to read and to write are gifts. We can celebrate each other’s expression — and that the written word lives on. Okay, was that too hokey?

    2. Hi Colby,
      When you read the writing of others, it’s easy to get intimidated. (Imagine how our students feel!) The thing to keep in mind is that you have a unique voice and perspective as well. No one writes like you do. No one can tell the stories in your heart the way you would. If all artists painted exactly like Van Gogh or Picasso, where would they be?

      I realized long ago that my writing does not fall into the “literary” category. You don’t have to write incredible prose to consider yourself a writer. Give yourself permission to be your own unique storyteller and see what happens.

    3. Oh yes. I am a newbie in this field and I’m always in awe of my colleagues. When someone’s wonderful prose makes me teary I can never tell if it’s out of joy or jealousy. But I try to tell myself that I don’t have to envy, I can ASPIRE. I am growing as a writer, honing my craft, improving all the time. What I am now doesn’t matter. What matters is what I can become– and reading that wonderful prose (and supporting the work of others in my community) can help me become the writer I want to be.

    4. It is VERY easy to feel intimidated by someone else’s powerful writing. You can short circuit that insecurity by turning it into inspiration–what does this writer do that you admire, what can you take from your experience with this book? I see sporting events, live comedy, and I listen to my favorite bands. I can’t do any of that stuff, but seeing others push themselves to achieve their goals or watching the way a comedian or singer uses words and rhythm to move people is something I take with me into my writing.

    5. I have to agree with the others. A few years ago, at a writing retreat, the speakers provided writing prompts for us and many of the attendees shared their writing. I was in awe that they could create such interesting, amazing writing “on-the -fly.” My first thought was “I shouldn’t be here. There is no way I can write prose that polished in the few minutes we were given.” But after some deeper reflection, I realized that I’m much more of a rewriter than I am a writer. And that’s okay. We all have our own processes and our own strengths and weaknesses. Hope this helps!

    6. I feel this way all the time, Colby. (In fact, I have a shelf in my writing room that’s reserved for books I wish I’d written.) But the trick is to let that work inspire, rather than intimidate you. And remember, you have something that no one else in the universe has… not me or Linda Urban or Jenny Holm or Jack Gantos or anyone else. You have Colby Sharp’s voice. Let it shine.

  27. Good afternoon writers!
    I have a question about student writers – and motivating them to take that extra step in re-revising their pieces (poems, stories, etc.) for publication in student magazines. All of the students I’ve approached seem to balk at this idea, as thoughthey don’t believe in their piece as much as I do, or that they’re simply scared of the process. How can I help them take this step? And are there student oriented magazines you would recommend submission to?

    1. I know English Journal has a “promising young writers contest” each year; perhaps reading these would inspire your students to reach higher. Googling for magazines that accept young writers’ submissions could help, also. Best wishes — and your students should feel fortunate that they have a teacher as dedicated as you to encouraging them in their writing. πŸ™‚

  28. I have a memoir (or, fictionalized memoir) that I have started very organically and I am thrilled with the start. Before I go to far, I want to learn more about how to structure it. I don’t know the rules, the recipe, the outlining approach. How can I learn this? What are the best resources? The parts of the story are all their, all strong, but I want to know how to weave together past and present, get the beats right. I hope my question makes sense, and I am very eager for any suggestions, because I will have a month this summer when I can focus on my writing more.

    1. How wonderful that you’ve begun writing this! I’m sure others can add to this smidgin of advice, but, for now, why not read some fiction that deals with memoir/memories that move back and forth in time. If you’ve not yet read ATONEMENT or THE LIARS’ CLUB or THE ENGLISH PATIENT or THE SENSE OF AN ENDING, you’ll enjoy those and perhaps pick up some techniques about weaving past and present together. Best wishes and keep writing!

  29. My question pertains, again, more to the teaching of writing. I noticed as I read through the previous posts today that many of you are writing memoirs. As a beginning writing workshop teacher, I struggle with teaching certain genres, especially memoirs. I taught a memoir unit of study for the first time this year, and I really struggled with helping the students understand what I was saying. I struggled first with helping my 5th graders understand what a memoir is. Then I had troubles finding mentor texts to use. They also really struggled understanding the different formats/templates for setting up a memoir, especially the reflection part. Any advice? Mentor texts to use? Resources to help?

    1. This sounds like a fun exercise for kids! Maybe they can think back to a memorable Christmas gift they wanted and didn’t get, or a fight they almost got into — or did — or that secret they wish they hadn’t revealed. As you have them going through the formats and templates, they might be able to better visualize what they’re doing by using different colors of pens or pencils or markers to delineate which part of a memoir they’re working on. For reflection in mentor texts, I’m hoping Jen will chime in here! Best wishes!

    2. I’ve used Jack Gantos’ HEADS OR TAILS (which isn’t officially memoir but are stories based on his life). They’re funny, too, which helps.

    3. I love My Life in Dog Years by Gary Paulsen as a mentor text for memoir. Depending on how long you will be teaching the genre, you could read the entire book or just use a chapter, as each one can stand alone as an example of a snapshot in time.

    4. Lucy Calkin’s has a great unit on writing memoirs. I ordered a cute book called The Memoirs of a Goldfish.

    5. Jerry Spinelli’s Knots in My Yo-Yo String is a great mentor text for memoir writing. It comes in short, read-aloudable chapters and is funny. Ralph Fletcher’s Marshfield Dreams is the same way. I often bring in old family photographs as illustrations for those books so that my students can see how we are just telling the everyday stories of our lives. There is also a great lesson in Craft Lessons (Portalupi and Fletcher) – the first one – using Truman Capote’s A Christmas Memory; that is usually my kick-off lesson.

  30. I have an old “voice” for one of my characters and I’m having a little trouble getting in the right mood to write like him. He’s from the “medieval times” (the happy ones in our imaginations that had nice clothes, dragons, and no sewage in the streets). Read a little to get in the mode. Shakespeare was a no, but Catherine called Birdy was inspiring.

    What do you use to get yourself to think/talk like a character from another culture/time than yours?

    1. This sounds like a fun read, Lauren. For my medieval mouse picture books and for my soon-to-be released middle grade time travel adventure back to the middle ages, I did a lot of research on the internet to find court trial and assize records. Reading these are a hoot because they give a lot of insight into how people thought and acted back then. Also, primary sources are key, such as THE HIGH MIDDLE AGES by Lyon, MEDIEVAL PEOPLE by Power, and books by the Gieses are helpful. I did major in medieval history, but, honestly, reading first-hand sources is the key to getting into the heads of medieval people. Have fun!

  31. Oh, I thought of a question!

    I have not described what my characters look like in my novel. I have a pretty good mental picture for some of the characters (especially the gods and goddesses) but have written down very little. Is it okay to leave such details up to the reader?

    When I ask beta readers how they would describe the characters, I get a wide variety of answers.

    1. I think it’s good to offer some description, woven in along the way, that gives clues as to your character’s appearance. That said, you want to avoid the character-looking-in-the-mirror cliche. I think “reading like a writer” can help you get a sense for how to do this – pick up a few books by authors you admire, and read a little to see how they weave in characters’ physical descriptions.

    2. Nanette, it’s my understanding that young readers have a need to know what a character looks like, generally. We don’t need to be specific with a gazillion details, but just a few details help to ground your character in place and time. For good models to follow, take a look at some recently published books in the genre you’re writing, and, also, ahem, the Marty McGuire books, by our fearless leader Kate Messner. That may help you and inspire you to sketch them out on paper. Best wishes for sketching away, and I hope others can help you out, here, with your question.

    3. Just seconding Kate and Margo’s advice – some description is needed, yes, but you don’t want to go overboard with a laundry list of details, or resort to cliches like looking in the mirror. One thing my editor’s really helped me with is using descriptive details to flesh out the characters’ identities, not just their appearances. The way a character dresses SAYS something about them, you know? As does the way they carry themselves, their gestures, their posture, etc. There’ll be moments when you can use those details to convey a sense of the character’s personality and describe their appearance at the same time.

  32. Hi everyone,
    I have been reading the questions and comments this evening, and I love all of the wonderful resources, support, and advice given by everyone in this writing community. Thank you!
    My question is this: How do you, as a writer, balance your “real world” with your “story world” and remain grounded? This is day 3 of writing camp, and already I am feeling the pull of the writer inside of me. I really shouldn’t neglect my children, husband, and puppy, right? I’ve committed to my writing schedule (as assigned on Day 1), but my thoughts are continually returning to story ideas as I weed, do the dishes, cook dinner, and drive. How do you manage that urgent little voice inside your head?

    1. Pretend your mind is a cooktop (yes, even when you’re standing in front of the cooktop!) and keep those ideas simmering on the back burner while you’re doing mundane tasks like weeding, folding laundry, etc.. You’ll find that they’ve been enhanced and have better flavors when you lift them off the burner and take a peek under the lids. Family priorities come first, but remember the cooktop for that urgent little voice. I’m sure others have some creative solutions for dealing with this problem….

      1. Yes, I’ve been simmering for a long time. Now that I’m peeking under the lids, I see that I am boiling over. Ack!
        I was originally thinking that this camp would help me to get all of my ideas out of my head, but now I am finding that they are multiplying instead. It is wonderful, but overwhelming at the same time.

    2. I would be the world’s worst possible person to answer this question – my husband always laughs because if I’m thinking & he asks a question, it can take me a good long time to come back from where I was to even realize he’s asked me something.

    3. I am constantly scribbling notes on any available scrap of paper . . . And yes, I spend a lot of time doing mundane tasks while my brain is off gallivanting with my characters. But you might try to come up with an “off-switch” for the times when you really want to be with your family members – maybe visualize closing the book, knowing they’ll all be “frozen” until you open it again, or maybe verbally saying “Bye, I’ll be back” to them and then “Hi, I’m back” when you have the opportunity to spend time with them again. [okay, now I’m afraid you’re all going to think I’m psychotic . . .]

      1. I was thinking the same thing when I originally posted my question about the “urgent voice” inside my head! I do not think you are psychotic.
        Writing ideas down will help me, but I will need to remember to keep something with me at all times. I’m going to try to keep a running list on the notepad app on my phone (because I carry it everywhere) and see if that helps.
        That virtual “off switch” will be tough to do, but I will make an effort to do that, too. Thank you for your suggestions!

  33. Lots of possible questions to ask about publishing, particularly a collection of easy to read – somewhat phonetically based readers – that I have been working on for many years for my own struggling readers. I’ve thought about “self publishing” in theory, but there isn’t enough hours in my days for that. I’ve even thought about trying to do something on a website…but I am not really sure where to start. Most of the stores fit on one side of a piece of paper and can be folded (like a card) into a VERY short story that is fun for reluctant readers. Thus, my thinking is that some kind of “tear off” or Xeroxable book would be best…..they work….time and student approved….where do I go?

      1. Will check it out. I did try EPS and Scholastic – a few summers ago – never heard back ANYTHING from either of them….I know I need to push a little harder πŸ™‚

  34. I have several ideas running through my brain- childhood stories, memoirs of school teaching in the U.S, memoirs of my life. But I don’t know where to begin. My heart is in writing stories from my childhood but I find it hard to translate my thoughts into words- more specifically there are words I cannot find to describe my feelings. Will it be worthwhile to use some of the words from my native language in stories for children?

    1. If you’re just starting out, whatever will get you writing and feeling good about it is worthwhile – so I’d say definitely feel free to use words from your native language in your stories. Those words are part of your voice – part of your history.

    2. I agree with Kate. Use of a native word at emotional times would punctuate the idea that your MC is so stressed/angry/happy/sad/whatever that the native tongue is the only expression. Just make sure to use it as a spice so it doesn’t lose impact. And remember to color that scene with the other things surrounding the emotion: facial expression, demonstrative movement (punching a wall, crossing oneself), feeling shaky or flushed, etc. But the occasional use of the native tongue would be, I think, a marvelous touch.

  35. I seem to struggle with picking an idea and figuring out how to turn it into a cohesive story that someone would want to read. I find it easiest to write about my life, experiences, etc. and have thought about using these as the basis for a YA novel, but I am not sure how to begin that process. Any tips?

    1. Lots of novels start with a personal memory, so that’s perfectly fine. How to build on it? Let the main character be different from you in lots of ways. How will that change the way he or she reacts to a situation, and how can that reaction make the character’s situation more dire? Some thoughts, anyway… We’ll have some getting-started mini-lessons and writing prompts coming up soon!

      1. Thanks Kate! I have never thought of making them react differently than I would. Thanks for the tip and for hosting this wonderful “camp!”

  36. Just today I was told I am teaching 8th grade language arts next year…I’m nervous about the writing piece. Any advice or insight? Thanks!

    1. That’ll be a GREAT adventure, Debbie! Advice on the writing piece: write yourself and model the process for your students. You might want to check out my book REAL REVISION for teaching that part of the process, and also Jeff Anderson’s 10 THINGS EVERY WRITER NEEDS TO KNOW and Nancie Atwell’s IN THE MIDDLE.

  37. Maybe this has been asked – I see there are close to 300 comments already and I’m late – so I apologize ahead of time for the repetition. Here’s my question, stated in different ways. How do you get over the fear of putting your writing out there for others to read? How do you listen to feedback and incorporate it, if it makes sense to you, without feeling like a failure? How do you develop a detached sense about your writing in order to hear others’ suggestions for how to make it better? Maybe it’s just about jumping in there and swallowing hard and moving ahead. Have I answered my own question? LOL!

    1. Yes, I think you did answer your own question, which bodes well for the process. But there’s nothing wrong with some throat clearing, putting your fear on the page (or screen) as you did above. I sometimes begin with words like: I can’t write this…. now go!

    2. Elisa, you did answer your own question! But let me add this: find a supportive group of people to share your works with, especially at the beginning. Supportive AND honest, because you won’t learn if all you’re getting is praise. Know that ALL writers start somewhere and every single one of us gets scared, no matter where we are in our careers. And as far as not feeling like a failure when learning your work needs editing? I don’t think there has EVER been any book published that didn’t need editing. Seriously – even the greats benefit from editors, so the only way you can fail is by not trying.
      Hope this helps!

      1. Hi Joanne,
        Thanks for your advice. Yes, agreed. All good writing gets tweaked here and there along the way. And, yes praise isn’t helpful. Raw, gentle feedback is. I think what I need to do is know that I have something important to say and just put it out there and then get feedback. A supportive group would be wonderful. I’ve always wanted to have a writing group but have yet to find one that meets regularly. I’ll keep looking, though. This virtual group is awesome. I’m glad I took the plunge.

  38. How do you get 3-4-5 graders to expand with details? Sometimes I have a student that freezes and after 3-4 sentences, they are at a lost of anything more to say?

    1. Lists are often easier than sentences, so I’d try having them make lists making sure they expand on the five senses, then try to pull in the best of those.

  39. What made authors decide to start writing? I feel like I read a lot and am super imaginative with creative thoughts but don’t have enough confidence to give writing a try.

  40. Kate,

    I signed up for the camp some time ago but thought I would receive some time of confirmation. Do prompts come through our email or do we just check back to the blog? Sorry for being behind. School just let out Friday and it was the end of my first-year teaching! Looking forward to getting started! ~Cari