Teachers Write 7.20.16 Q&A Wednesday

Good morning! Wednesday is Q&A day on Teachers Write, which means it’s your chance to ask questions of our guest authors. Today’s official guest and answerer-of-all-questions is Mike Winchell!

Other authors may drop in to answer questions, too, so feel free to ask both questions that are Mike-specific and general questions about writing. 

45 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.20.16 Q&A Wednesday

  1. Dear Mike Winchell,

    Thanks for stopping by today! You have the most amazing looking website. Did you create that yourself or hire it done? My first question is…..if you created that yourself….HOW? I would love some tips on that.

    It’s really cool to be chatting with a currently working teacher and author. I know you understand that “rockstar” love we School Librarians and Teachers have for authors. You get to be both. Cool!

    I have some nitty-gritty questions for you.

    Can you describe how you carve out writing time as a working teacher? What do you do on those days you are just too exhausted for rationale thought….and THEN there’s some evening activity to show up for? Seriously. You must have some golden words of advice here as a working teacher.

    I am writing historical fiction. As a School Librarian I know that it’s not at the top of most kid’s genre list. What historical fiction have you read that you love and what do you recommend to make it engaging for kids?

    What historical fiction (if any) have you used as mentor text with creative writing students?

    What’s your “take” on novels-in-verse? There seem to be two extremes in the “take”. They are either poor poetry dressed up as a novel…..or rich story using verse as a vehicle. Any novels-in-verse that you love and/or use as mentor text with your students?

    What’s the best writing advice and/or tip that you received that you made part of your writing life?

    I’d love to know some nuts and bolts on how you put Been There Done That together. I’d love to create a “knock-off” of stories from teachers in my school for students to read.

    Finally, before you totally kick me out of the press pool for asking too many questions….what are your favorite websites/tweeps to follow as an educator?

    THANK YOU! Rock on as a Teacher AND Writer.

    1. Hi, Linda. I tackle series best with numbers, so here we are numbered.
      1) Yes, I designed not just my author website, but also our Been There, Done That website. I used WIX, which is very user-friendly. I have a few writer friends who also use WIX. I love it.
      2) It is hard to balance time for teaching, editing, and writing, and family to boot.. I find that time by using school breaks and weekends for writing. I stay up late into the morning (like 3:00 AM) and then sleep in. And I am NOT one of those “you need to write every day” people. Life is just too unpredictable for me to commit to that mode. As far as something coming up, I don’t let writing interfere with any family commitment, but it trumps spur of the moment social media events so I will waive those for writing.
      3) historical fiction: love it, but you’re right about it not being a fav of young readers. My antidote for that is Karen Cushman. She’s the best (and has become a really good writer friend of mine as a result of BTDT). Mentor texts: LONG WALK TO WATER.
      4) I admit I was not a fan of novels in verse before working on BTDT. But now I love them. Caroline Starr Rose and Ellen Yeomans and Margarita Engle changed my mind when I worked with them on BTDT. And if you want a mentor text in short form, use Margarita Engle’s work on von Humbolt in BTDT. I use it with my creative writing students and have activities on the BTDT website to use.
      5) writing advice: Revise! Revise! Revise! When you think it “might” be ready…it’s not. Revise again..
      6) BTDT was a HUGE endeavor, and I honestly would need a few pages to explain that process. Since I am writing this on the road on my tablet, that will be too difficult.
      7) I don’t really have any educator sites that I follow besides Colby Sharp’s. I follow pub weekly, and other librarian blogs (too many too list). Librarians totally rock!
      I think I got everything. Thanks!

  2. Hi, Mike (from a fellow CNYer – Syracuse area also)!

    As I read through your website, the one question that popped into my mind was, What was your process for having your first book be an anthology of big name children’s authors? Thanks.

    Wendy Scalfaro

    1. A local cny-er, huh? Nice! Ellen Yeomans and Bruce Coville join us as locals, and they’ll be doing a Bridge Street near September time and a book signing on September 10 at the Clay Barnes & Noble.

      As for putting BTDT together. It was a long process that really was a result of a few failures on my writing front. I got to know a lot of authors and agents with my first few books. When I had the idea for BTDT I turned to those ppl I had gotten to know. A lot more went into it, but that is the quick answer.

      1. Cool. Mention that you and I talked on Kate’s site when you come in and it’ll remind me of the convo. Look forward to meeting you, but really, Bruce Coville will be there so that’s reason enough to show!

  3. Wow this is perfect timing in my teaching life! I just read Writing with Mentors by Allison Marchetti and Rebekah O’Dell and have been looking for resources to pull in more author/writer information. Find a way to make students realize that they are humans too; ones who struggle with ideas, or time to write, or revision. (Something I, myself have only been discovering during Teachers Write!) And now you’re book is an Amazon Prime delivery away! Thank you so much for being here today and for sharing your work with us!

    How did you branch over from teacher to teacher-writer? What inspired you and what was your process for making the time for something you felt so passionately about?

    Has it impacted the work you do at your school as well?

    1. Hi, Jenn. Isn’t it great to find something useful for the classroom? That was a big part of BTDT. I teach upper levels now, but had taught middle school for a decade. We never had any short stories (non classics) written by accomplished and popular MG authors. I saw BTDT as an answer to that problem. If you check the teAcher materials page you’ll see there are TONS of materials to use, and a lot more to come. Also, I wanted to open up everything for teAchers with this, so anything you think that would help you please send a message and request.

      In terms of how I branched off to writing, I always wanted to write but had to focused on teaching only when I started. Once I became comfortable as a teacher and didn’t feel overwhelmed anymore, I turned back to writing. I wrote a long (way too long) MG fantasy in 2009 that I thought was great. Is wasn’t. It was really bad. I wrote another book that clicked and ended up with 8 offers of rep from agents. But even with all that interest, it didn’t sell. I wrote another book, got another agent, and that didn’t sell. Wrote another–same result. Then I thought of BTDT and with all my author and agent contacts it came together pretty well. It was clear so many authors were interested, like Kate Messner, and it fell in place forme there. I kept writing all along, and after BTDT was in contract from my agent mentioned I should try narrative NF. I tried and fell in love. Now I try to balance everything equally but give extra time to whatever is most pressing at that time.

      In terms of how it impacts my teAching I often reference the process of revising and rewriting with students so they know how much work I also put into writing. It shows them I’m not a hypocrite

  4. Hi, Mike! Thanks for offering to answer our questions today. Like Linda, your website immediately captured my interest. I’m curious what website platform you used to create your domain (WordPress? Bluehost?) and if you created it from scratch or used a template. I’m also curious what digital software do you use to write your books (Microsoft Word? Google Docs? Scrivener?) I’m a technology integrator at the elementary level, so these things fascinate me.

    Other than time, what do you feel is the greatest challenge as a writer and educator?

    1. Tamara, I use WIX, which I highly recommend. Very simple for non web design types. My buddy Tracy Edward Wymer uses WIX too, and I love his website. For writing, I use Word, and track changes exclusively. Every author I worked with for both BTDT books worked with track changes.

      The biggest challenge, besides time, is probably being comfortable with where you’re at and knowing what to do to grow/progress. Too many people don’t realize recognize that there is always room to grow in everything. I don’t want to ever say “I’m there” as a writer or teacher because then I won’t allow and embrace growth. I’m big on process and learning through EVERY single thing (both positive and negative) so I always want to recognize the room for growth.

  5. Thank you Mike for being here today. I just ordered your book and can’t wait to read it and share it with my students. My question is for anyone to answer. Mike as a teacher of journalism and creative writing it seems to me that it is easy for you to have students write. I live in a district where we have a curriculum written around a textbook. The majority of the writing is informational or argumentative. They have crammed so much into it including quarterly tests on the standards and quarterly writing tests as well as a month and a half of state tests. Any advice from anyone on how to slide in more authentic and fictional writing besides my after school writing with students or NaNoWriMo would be helpful. I’ve managed to slide in some of my own things, but this year they rewrote the curriculum and packed it tight. I want to advise my other English teachers on how to add more creative writing to the curriculum. I’m open to any and all suggestions.

    1. Hi, Sandra, I’m popping in as a random author and former English teacher who feels your pain! ?To try and squeeze more creative writing into a tightly-packed curriculum is a challenge, and your students are lucky to have someone who cares about it! When your students have to write informational or argumentative pieces, have them make up a character who feels strongly about the issue and create an incident around the issue — either a backstory or a followup result in a couple of paragraphs, Reward strong verbs and record any sentences that are “gems” of personal voice by having students copy them into a loose leaf notebook. Have fun!

    2. Sandra, that stinks, doesn’t it? The major draw for our subject is creative writing and choice, but then the state decides to go the opposite direction. This is why BTDTwas appealing to me as an educator because it keeps a NF focus, but allows you to incorporate a creative slant in every author contribution. I hope it allows you to use the NF and then sneak in the creative pieces. If you use it with students please let me know how it goes. Keep fighting the good fight!

  6. Dear Mike,
    Thanks for taking the time to answer our questions. My question is how do you keep track of information given by multiple POV? I start out with good intentions on tracking what’s going on and then fail. I didn’t know if perhaps your new Gilded Age series was told from multiple POV. I can’t wait to read them. Best wishes.

    1. Martha, good question. For narrative NF like the Gilded series, I pretty much stay in 3rd objective. Since I include so much in form of direct quotes and the like, it reads like fiction in the pacing sense. For my fiction, one of the biggest issues is choosing the POV I’m going to use. Often I have written the opening chapter from 2-3 different POVs to test the voice. It helps.

  7. My question is focused around beta readers or critique groups. How do you work that? Where did you find yours? Organically through friends & writing classes or through grouups. I’m interested in joining a group, but I’m not sure how one does that. Any chime in voices on this would be appreciated!

    1. Stephanie, I actually don’t use CPs much because I don’t ever have the time exchange. I turn to a couple writer friends and my agent for specific feedback I need, and usually limit it to “can you read this portion and tell me if…” I do enlist betas a lot, and I often beat for others (based on time I have).

      I have some advice, though, on finding a CP or a group. You have to find people who are at your stage. It won’t work if you are experienced and have newbie CPs. I recommend you look for those ppl you see in blogs and commenting forums often who have similar comments and broach the subject when you see someone and then STICK with those ppl.

      1. Thank you for the advice! I just ordered BTDT. It’ll be a great resource for my class & I love having them write memoir, of sorts, adapting to reality or not as they see fit!

        1. Memoirs…In that case, try using the memoir and Life Graph materials I added to the BTDT website. I guarantee they all work, since I use them myself and they REALLY click with students. The life graph,.actually, if you were really motivated, works SO well if.you use PPT and do it digitally. I have students include their own pictures, and they write their memoirs and hyperlink them to the graph itself. It’s very complex doing it digitally, but the paper graph also works well. Have fun.

    2. Stephanie, I found my first critique group by joining SCBWI, getting involved with online conversations on their message boards, and responding on one board in particular which was for organizing crit groups. That group, alas, wasn’t the right fit, so I went back to the SCBWI boards and tried again. That group lasted for a couple of years and was actually very helpful, so I was happy about the way that turned out. It eventually fell into a state of collective ennui, however, and ended through a kind of mutual disengagement on everyone’s part. By that time I’d gotten to know more people in and “almost in” the industry, and was invited to join a small critique group by a couple of friends who were, like me, no longer complete beginners, but still trying to solidly establish themselves. That group stuck – they’ve been my critique partners ever since, although I do occasionally reach out to other friends if/when I want to get some completely fresh eyes on something. All of these situations happen remotely, by the way, I’ve never been part of an in-person critique group. So there’s potentially a lot of trial and error involved, and you may not find the right mix of people right away. Since I now work with one editor (and don’t have plans to branch out with other publishers at the moment, although who knows what the future holds), there does come a point when I work exclusively with him, but in the early stages, my critique partners are really important.

  8. Thanks for stopping in to camp with us today. I’m a 7-8th grade reading specialist and just ordered your two Been There Done That books! They will be a terrific addition to our library and working with our writing students and teachers. I’m also looking forward to your two upcoming novels. My WIP is a MG piece and I’m working on shortening chapters to heighten pace, build tension, and keep kids reading. What advice can you offer regarding those aspects? What a pleasure to meet you, see your fantastic web site and buy your books!

    1. Kate, the obvious recommendations on pacing are short(er) chapters (but not too short) and cliffhangers. I will add to always remember the character motivations and let that drive the narrative. The other issue is characterization. I struggle with developing characters in my fiction, but in my narrative NF it’s quite easy when I remember to let an anecdote communicate traits. For example, as I write about Edison, it’s essential to the later story that readers know he was always a competitive guy. So I search all my sources for the perfect childhood anecdote to show this has been with him throughout. Now, if you do the same in fiction, it works just as well. It helped me so much with my fiction.

  9. So very nice to meet you and your books. I just ordered one of your Been There Done That books. I am also super excited for your new series. I think the boys will especially love them. I’ll spread the word to our other librarians in the District. Such good questions above, I will check back to read the answers.

  10. Dear Mr. Winchell,

    Thanks so much for stopping by today! I appreciate your time.

    I love your website and your books! I have placed them on my fall order. As a teacher-librarian, I love when students can connect real world to learning and it looks like these books definitely meet that.

    Right now, I am definitely more in teacher mode than author. I have had several people suggest that I might like to write a book someday, and the idea is appealing, but overwhelming. How do you take that leap, especially if it feels like you don’t have ideas to put in the book? I don’t have something that I am burning to put down on paper, more just toying with the idea. Where do I start?

    Thanks again for your time. I very much appreciate your thoughts and ideas.

    Jennifer Newkirk
    Library Media Specialist

    1. Jennifer, like anything, you know it’s time when your passion takes hold and you see it as imperative to create. If you get the “bug” it will be impossible NOT to write. Until then, as I’m sure you are already doing, read, read, read in the demographic and genre you’re interested in writing. This will give you the scaffolding needed to understand what does and does not work. You’ll see SO many authors mention how the first book (sometimes more) ended up being a colossal mess, BUT how it was essential to being able to write a good book. The experience itself is critical. That said, might be wise to start right now, but don’t put any expectations on yourself. Say “I am writing a book” and leave out anything about publication.

  11. Hi Mike,
    Love the ideas behind BTDT and I plan to order them. The question I have is about the nature of authors contributing to a book. Does any of the money from the book sales go to the contributing authors or does it just go to the author of an anthology?


    1. Brandi, I just realized my comment must not have gone through earlier. Each author got an advance and a percentage of the possible future earn out royalties. Truly a team effort.

  12. Hi, Mike!

    My question may not be overly thought-provoking (and in all honesty it may be a dumb question that you have been asked a million times), but I truly wanted to say thank you for coming on today and that I am also a cny-er (teach at JD Middle School). It is an absolute pleasure coming into contact with a local teacher who is also an author (gives me hope:). I look forward to reading both BTDTs.

    Here’s my question:
    Can you suggest any useful conferences or workshops in the New York/New England area? You may not attend many conferences/workshops, but I wanted to ask because you are local.

    Happy writing (and teaching)!
    Good luck with your future writing endeavors!

    1. Andy, looks like we have some local CNY talent and teachers, huh? Not really surprised by that. I have a few teacher/author friends in the area as well. With Bruce Coville, Ellen Yeomans, and Tamora Pierce, we have a good set of established authors, and I think I see more newcomers stepping up too. Frank Cammuso has a nice career going in graphic novels for MG, too.

      In terms of conference and such, I am an SCBWI member (so is Kate) and if you’re not a member I highly recommend joining. It’s like 100 per year but there are many reasons to join, like meeting local authors who you can CP and beta with, and regional conferences as well. I am not a regular at conferences yet because of the time constraints with editing, writing, and teaching. By the way, JD is a great district (as you know). If I wasn’t so far in I probably would have looked into JD too (16 years in, so I’m pretty much committed to Cortland for my teAching career).

      Good luck and happy writing!

    2. Andy, I highly recommend the New England SCBWI spring conference – I was faculty there last year, and not only did I have a great time, but I got to meet a slew of highly accomplished children’s literature people.

    3. Hi, Andy.

      I agree with both Mikes. I am a SCBWI member for the Western and Central NY region. This year I attended the one day Syracuse conference in Baldwinsville (we had Laurie Halse Anderson, Frank Cammuso, and an agent and editor) and the New England conference (in Springfield) Both were extremely helpful and great for networking. Membership is $95 the first year and $85 after that. They have lots of resources available as well. Do check it out.

  13. Thank you for your insight and counsel, Mike. I really try to keep a rhythm of Goal-Conflict-Disaster balanced with Reaction-Dilemma-Decision in the chapters. I appreciate your comments and will keep working on my WIP!! Thank you again!!!

  14. Authors….if you are still around…THANK YOU.

    And, what are your thoughts on Scrivener? I’ve been poking away at trying to learn/use it and it feels like it’s not worth the time/frustration of it.

    What say all of you TW?

    1. Hi Linda!
      It’s late and I’m not sure you’ll check back, but I thought I’d share my two cents on Scrivener. I’m a novice at it myself and am sure that I’ve barely scratched the surface of what it can do, but have been quite pleased with it for several reasons. I’m a “pantser” (fly-by-the-seat-of-my-pants) writer and so write random, unconnected scenes as they come to me, jumping around in my WIP. Scrivener is wonderful in letting me rearrange them, changing the order (drag and drop) and inserting new ones as I go. I also like the notecard “synopsis” feature that I can drop in at various points to plan what I’ll add at a later date. I feel like it’s helping me with the planning piece that I don’t do as well- filling in the gaps, if you will. I wish it were in the cloud, though.
      I’m curious how others feel about it, too. Good luck if you decide to stick with it!

    2. Linda, I’m also in the learning curve with Scrivener, and what I’ve found is that I like it for planning purposes – researching, outlining, doing fast chapter summaries, and even writing whole chapters when I’m not worried about doing them in sequence. But when I want to really draft the actual pages in order (as I suppose is always necessary at some point), I’ll switch to Word (or Google Docs, which is where I do most of my work these days). But then if I need to revise in a way that involves tearing chapters into pieces and Frankensteining the chapter pieces back together in a new configuration (usually with a fair amount of new words thrown in), I’ll go back to Scrivener, because it’s ideal for that sort of thing. I also use Scrivener as a kind of one-stop dumping ground for random thoughts and assorted bits and pieces of research.

  15. Thank you authors! I have checked back and I so appreciate your input. I think I’ll keep plugging away at it … .but not at the cost of my writing time.
    Using it for planning purposes, Mike Jung, I hadn’t thought of that and I think that is a super idea.
    Thanks again. I feel like TW is writer’s tutoring!