Teachers Write 7.6.16 Q&A Wednesday

Good morning! Wednesday is Q and A day on Teachers Write, a chance to ask guest authors for advice on all your questions about writing craft. Though many authors pop in for Q&A Wednesday, we have two official guests today – Cynthia Lord and Kekla Magoon!

Feel free to address questions specifically to either author or pose them generally. Both Cindy and Kekla will be popping in throughout the day to reply to questions in the comments. Please remember that the first time you comment on this blog, your post must be approved by a moderator before it appears. This can take a little while, so don’t fret if your comment doesn’t show up right away – and thanks for your patience!

99 Replies on “Teachers Write 7.6.16 Q&A Wednesday

  1. Good morning! One question I receive a lot from my students is how to get ideas/topics for writing. This is something I struggle with at times too. As one student put it last year, “nothing exciting ever happens to me.” In the past, I’ve gotten topic ideas from other books I read, the news, and events in my own life. How do the two of you get ideas for writing?

    1. I totally relate to your student! I struggle with finding topics to write about that I care enough about that I want to think about them for a long time (a novel will take at least a year for me). I think one problem students have is that we often expect students to hit the ground running with writing–and if they don\’t, it\’s tempting to start telling them what to write about.

      For most writers, there\’s a period of time where you\’re trying out ideas in your mind before you settle on an idea. That can be a messy and frustrating time or an exciting time. So maybe that student is just expressing frustration and needs to think, to dream, to draw, to talk it out, and find their own way to a topic. I\’ve been a teacher and I know that is hard at school, because you only have so much time available. But it\’s part of the process of writing for many writers to flounder a bit before hitting on that good idea.

      I also relate to the feeling that my life is ordinary. Some exciting things have happened in my life here and there, but most of it is not very dramatic. I\’ve come to see that there is great drama in small things, though.

      Trying something new for the first time.
      Saying goodbye to a pet you love.
      Planning a party.
      Making a mistake and needing to make it right.

      It\’s the familiar emotion associated with those ordinary things that we often respond to in a story, as much as the events.

      I mostly write realistic fiction, so that\’s where I look for my ideas. My books start with something real and then I create a story around it. So the whole thing doesn\’t stay true to real life, just the seed of it and some of the details. Of course, you can research things/places/situations beyond your own experience, but there is a whole level of truth that you can only get from experience.

      None of my novels are about hugely dramatic things, and it takes some faith to think they are \”enough\” to share with other people. Writing takes courage. Sharing takes courage. What if you wrote about something that was real that you cared about and people judged it? Or laughed at it? Or made fun of you for it? I think all those worries go through kids\’ minds. When we write personal things, judgment of that writing can feel like judgment of us. Sometimes we forget that when we ask kids to write. It takes a lot of guts to write something real and honest. It\’s safer not to do that. So it may also be a lack of confidence more than a lack of ideas.

      When I\’m starting a new book, I ask myself what do I know about? What do I love? What makes me happy? My books often start with setting, so where I am most excited to be? Then I look for the hard parts in those things.That brings the conflict. Every important experience in our life has at least two emotions, the easy one that we\’re happy to admit to, and the hard one that we may be judged for if we admit to it. It\’s exploring that contrast that fuels my own novels.

      So the answer is ideas can come from anywhere–but for me, the ideas I end up choosing often come because of something inside me.

        1. I’d like to call attention to that last sentence as arguable. If “school writing and real writing are unfortunately not the same” where you are, I suspect further questions beg asking and alternate paths merit pursuing.

      1. This is such a beautiful response. Plus I\’m totally fangirling that you\’re answering questions \”in real life\”, haha 🙂 LOVE all of your books. Thanks for taking the time for us!!

        (I’m so glad that when I add wrong to post my comment, they give me an easier problem the second time!)

    2. Hi Sarah,
      Getting ideas can be the biggest challenge sometimes. And part of why I write fiction is because not many exciting things happen to me, either! So I have to make them up. I sometimes draw inspiration from my own life, by imagining things going slightly differently than they did in real life. Asking “What if…?” can help jumpstart a story. Totally normal, boring family vacation? WHAT IF…a dinosaur attacked while you were eating at IHOP? WHAT IF the car sprouted wings? WHAT IF you met an unusual friend beside the hotel ice maker? What adventures might ensue?

      Also, I like to use the world around me for inspiration. I will make up stories about interesting-looking people that I see in the grocery store, or at the park. Where are they going? What are they doing? What is their family like? What are their dreams? What is their biggest problem in life? How might they try to solve it? The best stories come from great characters, so if you can invent interesting characters with goals and problems (big or small) to overcome, you will be off to a good start.

      1. I love the ‘What if’ idea! I will absolutely use that as a redirect in Writer’s Workshop next year & I can see how freeing that will be to many of my middle graders. Thanks!

  2. Hi Cindy and Kekla,
    Thank you for taking our questions! For both of you, how has your process of writing an ms changed since you first began? Also interested if you still both have critique groups or CPs?
    Cindy, was Ranger first a stand alone book or conceived as a series?
    Best advice you received as a writer…
    And Cindy, how are the foster bunnies?

    1. How my process has changed is that I’m not as afraid to consider doing an outline. I used to think that would take all the fun out of writing for me. But it didn’t happen that way. It just takes some of the fear away. I’m a firm believer in doing whatever works–whatever keeps you moving ahead in the writing is the right thing to do. That varies from book to book with me. I used to think a writer would find their One. True. Process! But books are like children. You have your first child and think, “Okay, this is what being a parent is like. I got this!” Then Child #2 comes along and is very different from the first, and you have to learn to be the parent of *that* child. Some things work again, some do not. So I think I am more open with each book to finding my way through, even if it is different than before.

      1. Interesting answer! I don’t outline yet. I am rather adverse to it, but now I am beginning to “plot” out stories on the quintessential “plot” diagram and it does help. TY for answering, Cindy!

      2. Thank you for saying you outline! I used to in college and grad school for all my essays, but it felt strange for creative writing. Guess I shouldn’t be afraid of my own process, whatever it is.

    2. Ranger is Kate’s series, and I know she’ll be glad to answer that.

      As for the bunnies, Kathy is referring to the fact that I foster rabbits for a rabbit rescue. I had two of my own and then fostered two more last spring, one of which we ended up adopting and the other had babies two days after she arrived at my house! We had a fun, crazy spring with baby bunnies. As far as I know, they are all doing well in their new homes. 🙂 It’s a lot calmer at my house now, but I do miss them.

    3. Hi Kathy,
      My process has evolved over time, as different books require different creative approaches. What has changed is mostly how I come about a story, in terms of plot, characters, scenes and events. I have learned to do more outlining than I used to, and to be more comfortable writing from an outline. I have also done some collaborative projects, which requires advance planning and working around someone else’s vision in addition to my own. With my earliest books, I drafted randomly and then drew a plot together out of what I had written. But I had to plot out my Robyn Hoodlum series differently because it is three books. For How It Went Down, I had to use a lot of note cards and charts to keep track of the 18 viewpoint characters and their 200+ vignettes. So I have learned new tricks for outlining and developing effective story structures.

      However, there are some process touchstones that I return to repeatedly. I like to write in coffee shops, as that is what I did most often early in my writing life. I like to print out my manuscripts and write notes on them, rather than keeping every draft in the computer. I had a critique group when I lived in NYC, and I loved them. They were an integral part of my process, and I didn’t learn quite how integral their feedback was until I moved away. So my process has adjusted to not having them regularly, but I will still do a manuscript exchange with fellow writers from time to time.

      1. What a detailed response you authors are giving us, Kekla. I ha always wondered if established authors needed the CP or crit group. And yes, new trick with new books. I am collaborating on a professional book for the educational market w/a teacher friend of mine, NF, so we have to do a proposal and an outline . That will be new for me. Eighteen POVs – amazing!

    4. Kathy, When I had the idea for Ranger in Time, I envisioned it as a series right away. It’s hard to conceive of a time-traveling search and rescue dog without then imagining all the places he can go. 🙂 When Scholastic decided to publish Ranger, they started with a four book contract, which has since been extended to ten books. They come out every six months, which m means I’m almost always working on more than one at a time. Lately, I’ve been reviewing illustrations for book 5 (set in Viking Age Iceland), revising book 6 (set during the Great San Francisco Earthquake) and researching/outlining book #7, set in Normandy on D Day.

      1. Kate, TY for the reply! I temporarily mixed up Hamster (Cynthia’s) with Ranger (yours.) Glad to have both answers. At my lira today talking Ranger w/one of the children’s librarians. She knew of your other books, but not the Ranger series. We looked them up to see if Columbus libraries classified them as CB or regular J Fiction. They call them J Fic. I told her though my 5 yr. old grand loves having them read aloud to him. She will now also promote w/the older age CB series.

  3. Cynthia,
    My students always ask me how you know which rules to write for David. I frequently ask them to think about how they know what to write. They frequently infer that either you did a lot of research or have some life experience that helped you write this book.
    Did you get the idea for the rules for David from your life, someone else’s life, or from a lot of great research?

    1. Thank you, Allison. I have two children, a daughter and a son. My son has autism, so Rules is a “write what you know” book for me. My kids are adults now, but they were close to the age of Catherine and David when I started writing Rules.

      My daughter was a huge help, in fact. She has always been an avid reader and she liked to read my drafts and point out whenever she thought I was thinking/writing “like a mom” and not “like a sister.” I always took her advice. Writing the book also led us to have wonderful–but hard–conversations about the extra joys and frustrations of being a sister. So she helped me to be honest in that book.

      Some of the rules came from my own family (though we never called them rules). “Don’t stand in front of the TV when other people are watching it” and “No toys in the fish tank” came from my house. Other rules I had to create for the book. My editor suggested we have one at the top of every chapter, so I came up with some specifically for that.

      If you’d like, you can tell your students my two favorite rules from the book. “Looking closer can make something beautiful” (because I think it works for people, as well as things) and “Pantless brothers are not my problem!” 🙂

  4. When dealing with setting, is it better to be specific or keep a place fictional? For example – they walked to the pier, or they walked to Surfside pier. ?
    Also, do you think a YA novel could be successful without incorporating modern technologies? For example, if the characters do not use cell phones or computers will kids today be able to relate?

    1. It’s up to you as the writer how specific you want to be about a setting. My own decision about that is that if I’m going to change *anything* about that specific place/setting/building, I make up a name. I can still take lots of details about that real place, but if it’s not ALL real, I change the name. I find that people get taken out of the story if they know that real place and it’s not exactly the way it is in real life.

      I use lots of real settings in my books, but I will often take a building from here and a park from there, etc. In my most recent novel, A Handful of Stars, the main character lives above a general store. The outside of the store was from one real store, the inside was from another, and then I moved the whole thing in my mind to another part of the state where the book is set. It feels real because it is real, even if it doesn’t exist exactly as I described.

      One way to really ground a place is to sprinkle real things in among the things you make up. So when I set a book in a firm place, I give the characters last names from that real place. I find them on plaques, road signs, mailboxes, gravestones, and for my last book, I Googled the honor roll for the local high school to see what people were naming their kids in that area. I never use an entire real person’s name, but a first name from one local source, a last name from another.

      As for modern technology, it’s so integral to kids’ lives today that for most teens, I don’t think they know a world without it. So your character would be *different* not to use it, and there would be a reason for that. If you point out the reason early on (can’t afford it, don’t like feeling tied to it, got broken and haven’t had time/money to fix it, etc), readers will just accept it. But kids today use their phones for so much more than calling/texting. For example, when I need to know the time, I look at my watch, and my daughter looks at her phone. So I think it’s quite possible, you just need a reason why and to tell the reader why. Or you could choose to set the book earlier in time, too.

      1. I love how you’ve included the search for real names in the idea of real places. I’m sort of obsessed with names. Always have been. As an 8th grader, I bought a Baby Name Book just so I could read about names, their origins and their meanings. When a writer chooses names that don’t seem right for their settings, I find it very jarring as a reader. Thanks for this great insight into your process.

        1. I love names, too! Even as a child, I remember making up stories for the names of people in the cemetery. For the book I’m working on now, I was at a little market in the town where the book is set and at the cash register, they were selling small home-made telephone directories for that area. I gasped when I saw them. They’re full of ads for local businesses and the names of residents. It was $10, but really, I felt like I had gold in my hands as I bought one!

          1. Yes – love it. I used to make “people books” before I could write complete sentences. I would draw pictures and give names and ages. And even playing with my stuffed animals, I kept a log of their names and birthdays! Thanks for the suggestion of researching names for an area though – didn’t think to do that!

            1. Oh my gosh, Kimberly — your “people books” — I did that, too!! I thought I was the only one.

              And Cynthia, the small-town telephone directory — pure gold, indeed!! Great story. Thanks for sharing.

              Good to know that I have fellow “name nerds” in TW : – )

      2. Thank you so much! You basically validated my gut instinct, but it’s been bugging me to get another opinion.

    2. Hi Kimberly,
      I’d say the most important thing is to keep your setting consistent. If you’re going to write about a real place, it helps if it’s a place you are familiar with, or can make yourself familiar with through research, or travel, or extensively analylizing Google images. If you’re writing about Surfside Pier, and it is a real place, then you will want to draw on details from the real place to help the scene come alive. If you’re writing about a generic pier, you will still want to incorporate specific sensory details, but you can invent those rather than relying on observation and description of the real world. Even a generic setting can feel alive to the reader if you place the right balance of setting details into the scene. The scent of the salt air, the breeze off the water, the view of water between the boards on the boardwalk, the sound of waves against the pylons and the bling of carnival games in the background, if it’s that kind of pier, etc. But if the real Surfside pier always smells like seaweed, don’t make it smell like cotton candy in the story. It will feel less real to readers who are familiar with the real place.

      Technology is tricky. In a vacuum, yes, I would say teens can relate to a book that doesn’t incorporate modern technology. Young readers still enjoy books written a decade or two ago. However, if you’re writing realistic contemporary YA fiction, it is somewhat unbelievable that the characters wouldn’t have phones or use computers. This doesn’t mean that you have to go out of your way to include these elements, but if you’re specifically excluding them when they would normally be used, why? There’s a balance between leaving technology out because the story doesn’t need it, and essentially creating an anachronism about modern teen life. Kids don’t need these elements to relate to the characters, but part of our task is also to reflect teen life in an accurate way.

      One concern I’ve heard about technology in stories is that it solves problems too easily. Characters wouldn’t end up in interesting situations if they just call/text/email all the time and don’t go out into the world. I don’t buy that as a major storytelling problem. There are plenty of ways to create conflict in a story that technology doesn’t interfere with. Yes, you can have someone forget her cell phone, or be out of range, or lose battery power, or drop it down a ravine to get rid of it, but there’s also emotional tension, social anxiety, peer pressure, etc. Things that technology only exacerbates. Thinking back on HOW IT WENT DOWN, most of the characters technically have cell phones, but there are only a few mentions of anyone texting, as I recall. That’s part of their lives, but not part of the story I’m telling, and it doesn’t have to be mutually exclusive. I didn’t make a point about it, but if a character would realistically text in a certain situation, I let them. Probably they were texting all the time “offscreen.” Whereas, in 37 THINGS I LOVE, I have characters texting to meet up and such because that communication was germane to the story of Ellis’s developing/collapsing friendships with Cara and Abby respectively.

    3. I feel the need to preface all of my comments here with a note that I haven’t written THAT many books yet, so I’m still figuring it out myself. That said: the settings in my books are all fictional, at least on the neighborhood/town/city level. It’s partly because I haven’t yet written a book that NEEDS to be set in a specific, existing location, although that’ll happen eventually – I have an idea for a book about a character visiting Korea and spending time in Seoul, and that will obviously require using Seoul as a setting. Until now I’ve used fictional towns and cities, however, and that’s worked for me because it’s given me the option to create a setting that’s exactly how I want and need it to be. I didn’t create them entirely from scratch, however. The setting in my first book, Copperplate City, shares some qualities with cities in the San Francisco Bay Area where I live now – it’s a coastal city, for example, and has businesses inspired by local businesses I’ve patronized before. The setting in my second book, Primrose Heights, shares some qualities with towns in northern New Jersey, where I used to live – a suburban vibe, occasionally provincial attitudes, and demographics. In both cases I ultimately added or modified a bunch of things to suit the needs of the story I was writing.

  5. Good morning! A question for both (or either): when you get an idea for a story, how much drafting do you do before you research and how much research do you do before you draft?

    1. Hi Natalee,
      It varies for me. I find overall that I jump back and forth between research and drafting. Usually in a historical fiction piece (which is where I do the most research) there will be some fact or nugget of information that got me started on the project. Often I will take that limited information and start drafting, but I will constantly run into questions about the time period, the historical context, and the specific story situation. Drafting my way in helps me find the right questions to ask when I turn to the research. On the flip side, the research generates new ideas that I wouldn’t have thought of, and that inspiration can help me develop new scenes and take the story in new directions. The whole process of integrating research into my writing is very fluid and organic. The only danger with writing too much before you research is that you might be making fundamental story choices based on information that turns out to be false or unrealistic. So you have to be willing to revise. The danger of over-researching before you put anything on the page is that you can get very tied to things being 100% accurate and when you get into that mindset it can feel difficult to imagine and create. You have to be willing to follow the story, and fill in the gaps between the facts.

    2. Natalee, for me, it all overlaps. I research throughout the entire process of writing a book. Once I have an idea in mind, I start reading, visiting the area where the book is set, going to events or having experiences related to the book. After my first draft, I move to a finer level of research: taking down sensory details, fact checking, interviewing, etc. As the book progresses, new questions come up. Some research is from books, some from videos, some from having the experiences reflected in the book, some from travel, some from talking to people.

      For me, I have an early-morning writing time, and I use it for writing. Then in the afternoons I do my research. Occasionally I’ll have a quick question as I’m writing, and I’ll just look up the answer, but I save the bigger research for another time. Partly, because for me, it’s *easier* to research than write. So I have to be careful not to let research become an excuse not to write.

  6. Wow! What rich questions. I can’t wait to come back & see the answers.

    I’ve written, revised & edited a picture book to the best of my ability & have sent it to writer friends for critiques. Then I’ll work on it some more, but would you submit directly to publishing houses that take unsolicited manuscripts or try to find a literary agent? What did either of you do?

    1. Agent! The time and energy it takes to query agents is very much worth it. Once you break through that level of things, it becomes much easier to break through on the publishing side. Agents get better, faster responses to their queries and they help you navigate the industry in a way that is really important, in terms of making good business choices and protecting your rights. I submitted to publishing houses directly first, but if I had it to do over again I would get an agent first. Also, that was ten years ago, and it is even harder now to go it alone. A lot of publishing houses won’t consider unsolicited, unagented manuscripts at all, so you’re limiting your pool of possible publishers, and you’ll be waiting much longer to hear off the slush pile.

      Picture books can be tricky, because some agents don’t rep them unless you also write other things. Some do. It’s something to research about the agents who interest you most. Submitting to editors you meet at conferences is always fine, and there are a few good writing contests out there (check the rules carefully before entering). If your book is accepted for publication through one of those avenues, you can use that as leverage to help get an agent, too.

    2. Stefanie, I think you’ll likely hear different opinions on this, so probably the best thing I can do is share Harold Underdown’s beginners’ guide, which will help you to think about all the various issues to consider. Not all agents represent authors for just picture books, so sometimes people choose to submit directly to open publishing houses for that reason. But there are lots of resources here: http://www.underdown.org/basics.htm And I think it’s also a great idea to attend a regional SCBWI Conference if you can. They offer manuscript critiques as well as workshops on these kinds of questions.

      1. Thanks to both of you! SCBWI Canada East is a great resource & even mentions that they offer free critiques before you send anything. The conferences in Ottawa look like a blast too.

        Reading, Katherine Bomer’s The Journey Is Everything, but she has amazing tips on close reading, gorgeous essays & excellent writing advice in general.

        Thanks again & I truly appreciate all the support, advice and writing prompts #TeachersWrite provides. It motivates me to keep my butt in the seat, writing!

  7. Good Morning, and thank you to both of you for helping out today.

    My questions are for both of you, but especially for Kekla in regard to historical fiction.

    When doing research for a ms, how do you go about identifying experts on a topic?
    What is your favorite or most productive method for interviewing experts?

    Thank you for your time.

    1. I get nervous about interviews so I haven’t done as many of them as I should. In terms of how to identify interview subjects, it partly depends on the topic. If you’re writing about a specific person or an event/moment in time that involved specific people, then those names rise to the top pretty quickly in the research process. For example, I do a lot of civil rights era research, and many of the individuals involved are still alive to be interviewed. If it’s a topic of interest that is either too old for anyone involved to still be alive, or too general for there to be specific people to target, then you can look to the scholarship on the subject. Who is writing about it? Interviewing scholars or other authors with knowledge can be useful. Look at the indexes of the books you’re using for research, and see if there are any names that crop up repeatedly. If you can access documentaries, look and see who is being interviewed on film, and find out who those people are. Also look into any museums, organizations or societies that relate to the subject matter. For example, If you’re writing about the Salem Witch Trials, there are museums and cultural centers in Salem, Mass, that would have information and expertise to share.

      As far as interview methodology, my main goal is generally to get something that I couldn’t get from other research. So I’m inclined to ask them things like “what is a little known aspect of the subject that doesn’t get much attention?” Or “what is the most important thing people should know about this topic?” And generally to let them talk as much as possible. I come with a few specific questions prepared, if there are gaps in my research, but I also don’t want to drive the direction of the conversation too much in case they can lead it somewhere unexpected. I prefer to do it somewhere quiet and private so that there is no background noise and I can record, if they grant permission.

      1. Thanks! Unfortunately I missed the morning window but my question was also about interviews. Thanks!

  8. Good morning,
    Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions. Cindy, I loved Handful of Stars and Kekla, I have your book right now to read.
    My question for either or both of you is what was your querying process like and was there ever a time when you thought about hanging it up as a writer. Thanks.

    1. I had a relatively short query experience, so I’m lucky in that regard. I certainly got a number of rejections early on, and I worked without an agent for a long time (which I wouldn’t recommend). I submitted picture books and short stories for a year to all rejections, then I went for my MFA in writing and stopped submitting, then after I graduated I started again with my thesis novel, THE ROCK AND THE RIVER. It went several places over the course of three years before it was picked up. It felt long to me at the time, but it actually was very fast. I had been doing write-for-hire historical books, and I submitted my own novel’s first chapter to an editor who wanted me to audition for a work-for-hire fiction opportunity. She really liked my novel sample, and so she acquired it instead! There is all kinds of luck and timing involved in when and how any writer gets her first break.

      Certainly, I’ve thought about stepping away from this work. It’s difficult, in many ways thankless, and it is very rare that the income merits the effort that went in over many years. In the end, I enjoy the writing process and I especially enjoy the part I get to experience now, meeting young readers and teachers/librarians who are enjoying the books. It is worth hanging in there through all the industry crap and submission/rejection drama to get to the other side. Patience and persistence is necessary, although difficult at times. Hang in there!

    2. At this point, I have an agent, but if I’m going to try to sell a book, I have to either submit a whole book or a proposal for it to go to acquisitions.

      Publishing is a mix of art and business, and a publisher has to care about both things. So ideally, a book must do both. That’s a tall order.

      There are so many important things to us as writers that are out of our control. Unless you self-publish, other people decide if your book gets published. Other people decide if you sell books, win awards, get good reviews, etc. It’s a slow moving process, too. So there are lots of valleys for every peak. I think what keeps me going through those valleys is the work itself. I enjoy the work (not every day! But most days). Writing fills a hole in me that nothing else does. I can pause for a while when I need to, but eventually that hole asked to be filled.

  9. Hi,

    Thank you so much to everyone for this amazing experience! I am wondering if you write every day at the same time or if you have bursts of inspiration that lead to writing? We ask kids to write on command st school according to our class schedules but I find that tricky when I write.

    1. In a perfect world, I like to follow bursts of inspiration. But I can’t only do that and make a living. Creating rituals can help get you in the mood for writing. I like to write first thing in the morning, and that works for me most days. But I used to have a different full time job, where I had to get up and go to work all day, so my routine was to stop by Starbucks on the corner by my house after work to write. Because I established “coffee shop” as my effective writing space, I can still use that to help inspire me if I’m off track. When I take myself to a coffee shop, I get work done! Creating touchstones, however simple, for yourself can trigger your creativity. even in your own home. Maybe it’s making a cup of tea and sitting in a certain chair. Maybe it’s wearing a special writing hat, or using a special pen. If you do this ritual consistently, doing it will eventually become a trigger for writing.

    2. I have to treat it as a job and show up ready to work. I tend to do that first thing in the morning–really early. It started as necessity. One day when my son with autism was about 5 years old, I faced the fact that this would be a lifetime of care-giving for us. I saw my college writing texts on the shelf and felt loss. So I knew had to either make time for writing or I had to not want it anymore.

      I started getting up around 4 am. I thought I would do that for two weeks, and either it wouldn’t be worth it to me and I’d find another way to be creative that didn’t require the alone time that writing does for me. Or I would make that work for myself.

      That was about 15 years ago, and now my son is more independent. But early morning is a really creative time for me. My head is not full of the day’s details. I’m closer to a dream state. The whole day goes better if I write first. I can give myself to the day’s events without regret or feeling like I should be writing, etc. So I was working on my book at 4 this morning.

      When I travel, I can’t write, and I do a lot of school visits (about 50 a year). So I try to gather my events all into Sept-Nov and March to May. That gives me the summer and winter to write.

  10. Good morning! Kekla, could you explain how you transformed facts of Malcolm X’s life into novel form? Did you have to invent dialogue? Create new characters? Because you collaborated with his daughter, and because he is such an important historical figure, did you feel anxiety or pressure to get it ‘just right’? Thanks for the amazing books you create! I look forward to sharing this info with my students.

    1. Oh, yes, I felt pressure to get it right. Or, at least, right enough, as it’s historical fiction and all. But it is intimidating to work with Malcolm’s life in a fictional context, and to attempt to write from “his” voice. I hope he would be happy with the outcome!

      We wanted the events of the novel to be as close to Malcolm’s real life as possible, and luckily we know a lot about his life from his own autobiography and other texts that have been written about him. There is less known about his teen years than his later ministry for which he became famous, but that is part of why Ilyasah wanted to tell this story in the first place.

      We took as many facts and specific circumstances as we could and then built scenes around them. We did invent dialogue, and many of the scenes are things that *could* have happened and likely did happen in some similar way. We did not invent new major characters, although we did invent some minor ones. The author’s note and other backmatter explain some of these decisions in more detail, too.

  11. While a year is obviously a very long time to work on a manuscript, it always amazing me that a novel can be written in that amount of time. How do you structure your writing time? How much time do you spend writing each day? I feel like I would get so distracted or that other elements of life cause me to put writing “work” on the back burner. I’m interested in what a timeline for a novel looks like to those who are published.

    Thanks again for taking your time to talk to us! This has been such an inspiring experience for me!

    1. The timeline is very different for each book. I have a novel that I drafted in a couple of months (not including revision time!) and at the other end of the spectrum I have one that I started in 2003 that I finished drafting in 2010 and am still revising! So it’s not a predictable science. In terms of the “novel in a year” timeframe, that is a very common drafting period for a lot of writers. Revision comes after that. Think of it this way: if you write just one page a day, double spaced, in standard font, then after a year you will have a 365 page manuscript. That’s longer than any single manuscript I’ve ever published! Want to do it only on the weekdays? You’ll still have a book-length manuscript. One page is too much? Do half a page, and you’ll still be in the ballpark of an average middle grade novel. No one ever sits down to write a novel. You write a word then another word. A sentence then another sentence. Eventually you have a page, then another page. Every little bit adds up. I have friends with many children who write on a notebook next to the stove while cooking dinner, waiting in car line, sitting in the bathroom while bathing the toddlers. And so on.

      I’m fortunate to have more time and space for writing, so I tend to binge write bigger chunks, and not daily, but that’s conducive to my writing style. I know a lot of professional authors who aim for just a page or two a day, and write steadily that way. For me, doing it first thing in the morning is key. If I can pound out a page when I first wake up, then I have done my work for the day and everything I do on top of that is gravy. The early morning discipline also helps with the distractions of other life. It gets out of the way, and then you can go about your day.

      After drafting, I can easily spend another year revising on my own and/or with an editor. It’s a marathon, not a sprint!

      1. Wow, that’s a great explanation. And much less daunting to tackle. Thank you for this. One page a day – this I can do 🙂
        (Although I think I’m still in training, not sprint or marathon ready yet! One day.)

  12. Good Morning Cynthia and Kekla,

    First I wanted to say that I am a big fan of your books. The characters always resonate with my students. I read in an earlier comment that you should always start with what you know. When creating your characters do you have a person in mind or do you combine traits from several people you know?
    My second question is do you write your story in a linear fashion or do you jump around as you write? I am finding I am writing individual scenes and now need to figure out how to tie the thread to connect the story.

    Thanks for your work and for taking time to work with us this morning.

    Happy Writing,

    1. I tend to start with something I know, but other writers probably don\’t do it that way. So there\’s really no \”should,\” except to do what works for you. And it may even take awhile to figure out what that is! Art is a often a messy business, but that\’s what gives it life. A computer could probably write a book, but it\’s the humanness of the writer that we respond to. So honor whatever keeps moving the book ahead for you.

      In a first draft, I would say just follow your passion. If you\’re excited to write by jumping around, jump around. If you are excited about an idea, no matter what it is, follow it. Most published authors have to do lots of revisions, so go into your first draft with that expectation. All can made better/tighter/deeper in revision. But you can\’t revise until you\’ve first written. So lay that groundwork first, however it works to get there. As I often tell students, \”My first drafts are NEVER good. Revision is where I make them good.\”

      As for characters, I there are real life complications in using a whole person (I\’ve only done it once, because it was a friend and a cameo appearance that I knew she would love). I might use certain traits. I did that especially with David in Rules. He shares many of the same traits my own son had when he was young. My son doesn\’t care one bit about Rules, so that\’s why I felt fine doing that.

      When I do a writing workshop with kids and we create a character, the first thing I tell them is that they cannot use the name of anyone they know. They all groan at that! But the truth is once you have a whole real person in mind, you immediately won\’t make certain choices because of that real person. And books need that flexibility. Sometimes characters have to make bad choices, for example.

      I will sometimes use photos off the Internet to describe people. I type into Google Images something about my character. \”Red headed trumpet player\” for example and look at real people who share that. It keeps me from going toward stereotype, because real people are full of contrasts. On a practical level, I don\’t really care about people\’s looks very much and it gives me something to describe.

      One funny time that happened was while I was working on Rules. We were well into the publishing process where my editor was asking for fine details, and there is a boy named Jason in the book. His mother is in the story occasionally, and I hadn\’t described her very much. So my editor wanted just a sentence with what she looked like. I didn\’t really care what she looked like, so I said to myself that I would turn on the TV and the first woman who was about the right age, I would just describe her hair.

      So Jason\’s mother has Judge Judy\’s hair!

      Well, as it looked in about 2004, anyway!. 🙂

    2. I write out of order a lot. I just keep writing scenes until I get a sense of what the story is, and what happens before and after what else. When I have a handful of random scenes, I will usually lay them out on note cards (one card per scene) and place them in the order I think they need to go, and that helps me figure out what is missing, where there are story gaps, and I start to brainstorm things to fill the gaps between my existing scenes. it works really well for me to bounce back and forth between randomly drafting scenes and trying to fit what I’ve written to a rough outline.

      If you struggle with developing an actual plot, beyond just random disconnected scenes, then I recommend a craft book and workbook to help guide you through the process. I like Donald Maass, WRITING THE BREAKOUT NOVEL and Martha Alderson THE PLOT WHISPERER. They both have workbooks that can help walk you through creating a book with your own characters.

  13. Thank you for chatting with us today! My question is about critique groups and writing partners. I’ve been a part of groups before but they’ve never been a great fit. How do you find writing groups/partners to critique with? Who are the first readers that offer you feedback? Thanks!

    1. It can take a while to find the right fit, and the right fit can change over time, too. I’ve been part of online groups that worked well for me. For the past 10 or so years, I’ve been part of an in-person group of three. We’re all at similar points in our careers and lives, and we meet about every month. My family are usually my first readers (or at least I bounce ideas off them). Then my critique partners. You might think being together so long and having a bunch of published books would make sharing early drafts easy, but I still feel some anxiety every time. I always think of that when I ask kids to share.

  14. Good Morning Beloved Writers!
    My question for all authors including our rock stars…is this:
    When writing historical fiction, some “things” (activities, behaviors, ideas) were not tolerated in history. For example, the old “children should be seen but not heard” was a strong expectation of past generations.
    What tips do you have for writing for a current audience while respecting and bringing past codes of behavior to the piece?
    I hope that makes sense.

    1. I’d say it’s perfectly appropriate to write children’s behavior according to the time period. Although certain aspects of external behavior have changed over time, the internal thoughts and feelings of children and teens have stayed more or less the same, so modern readers can still relate to children of the past. From a writing craft perspective, it’s challenging not to bring modern sensibilities and styles of interaction to the piece. The further back in time you go, the more cognizant a writer needs to be about adjusting the characters’ social behavior and thought patterns.

  15. It’s hard to find a good critique group. You need people who you resonate with, and who are near your same level, or a little bit more experienced so you can learn. SCBWI will often post requests for people to join or form critique groups in different regions. Another way to find people is to attend local and regional writing conferences, book fairs, book-related events and try to get to know some other people in attendance. If you make more writer friends, you might find people who are near you and a good fit for a group. If you are shy, and/or live somewhere remote, then perhaps you might find people online? A blog like Kate’s brings people together to talk about writing, as do several others. Another option is to take writing classes (local or online), attend a workshop at a place like Highlights, or enroll in an MFA program. You’ll find like-minded people there, and while they may not live near you, social media makes it easy to feel connected to other writers who are far away.

  16. Good morning, Cynthia and Kekla!

    Thank you both for your time. Each and every morning, I open the Teachers Write blog, and I am in complete awe of the guests. As a teacher, I must be doing something right because my students are reading all of your books.

    I just have a few questions for Cynthia:
    – In Touch Blue and Half a Chance, the settings are so unique to the story. Did you research those sites? Or did you experience those sites?
    – Is it difficult to transition from writing a middle grade novel, like Half a Chance, to writing the Shelter Pet Squad series (elementary or early readers)?

    Thank you again.
    Happy writing!

    1. Hi Andy! The answer to the question about setting is “both.” For Touch Blue, I was a teacher in a small island school in Maine back in the mid 1980s, so I had that experience to draw from. I also did a lot of research, both in terms of book research and visiting islands while I was writing Touch Blue. The situation in that book (an island takes in foster children to boost enrollment to save their school) really happened on a small island in Maine in the 1960s. I was fascinated by that story, but the foster children who came to the island are still alive, and I didn’t know how they felt about what happened and I didn’t want to cause anyone hurt. So I changed it up by setting it in the present day, moving the island in Touch Blue to another part of Maine, and making up the characters. But it was inspired by that true story and by my own island teacher experiences.

      For Half A Chance, I grew up on a lake in New Hampshire. I used four different lakes to take details for the lake in the story (3 in New Hampshire, 1 in Maine).

      I like to know my settings really well. Even if it’s a summer story, I want to know the setting in the winter, the spring, the fall. That shapes the sort of people who live there. I think when you just visit a place briefly, you get the tourist view of a place, and I never want that. The real place is complicated and often that brings conflict into the story.

      I set my books places that I love, because then researching never feels like work.

    2. I find it a refreshing variety to write different types of books for different ages. A novel takes a long time and has harder conflict and so many moving parts. So it’s an intense experience. Then to the write a Hot Rod Hamster book or a Shelter Pet Squad book is a wonderful change. Hot Rod Hamster is more fun and playful, so I get to explore a different side of myself. And I can lay the pages out and see it all with a glance–which is great after working on something with hundreds of pages. Shelter Pet Squad is about a subject I am passionate about, and as a teacher, I loved watching kids go from struggling readers to fluid readers. That is often the chapter book audience. I started as a first-grade teacher, then taught in a multi-age school (nearly a one-room schoolhouse), and then I taught sixth. So writing for all those different ages is extra fulfilling, because I can remember my own classrooms and the books my students loved (and now I get to be the author of some of those books).

      1. I like writing for different age groups, too. I’ve yet to publish a picture book, but I aspire to someday!

        By the way, Cynthia, I really love Hot Rod Hamster!

      2. Thank you very much for the thorough feedback!

        I wondered because a few summers ago, I wrote a middle grade manuscript. I enjoyed writing it (I work with 6th graders), but I am working on a chapter book (4th grade) and I am having a blast with it.

        Keep on writing, and I will keep getting your middle grade novels in the hands of my students.:)

  17. I am also in awe of how much time Cynthia and Kekla have spent in responding to all of our questions. I have 2 question about Touch Blue which I have used as a read aloud for a few years. Your titles for your chapters connect to the “good luck” thoughts that your main character focuses on. How did you decide on this as a way to weave “luck” throughout the story? Also on part of your writing that I admire tremendously and constantly point out to my students is your use of description of setting as a way to bring beauty and warmth into the story when the characters are dealing with tough times. Can you explain if that is your purpose or how you want the reader to interpret this?

    1. Hi Mona, Thank you for using Touch Blue with your students! Themes come out of the story organically for me–but I am on the lookout for them. So when I made Tess’ father a lobsterman, there are lots of superstitions around fishing. As that started to come up in the story, I made note of it and continued it. Then I look throughout the story for other places where lucked played a role. Tess is lucky in that she was born into a family that could take care of her, etc.

      I live on the coast of Maine, so I’m familiar with the general luck superstitions of lobster fishing. But my editor wanted one superstition on the top of each chapter, and I didn’t have enough for that. So I had to do some research. For example, one chapter is just a letter that Tess writes to Aaron’s mom. So for that chapter I researched superstitions about mail and letters.

      As for setting, I am always looking for contrasts, and dramatic landscapes appeal to me. I always write about places I love and I think that comes through in the descriptions. I grew up in a very rural area, so rural kids have a special place in my heart.

  18. Thanks for your answer to my first question! I love your suggestions! You recent answers about writing for different age groups made me wonder about word choice. Do you have to be careful about the difficulty of the words or level of your writing if you are writing for beginning readers or younger readers (particularly if it’s a levelled book)?

    1. I do really think about word choices in my early readers. If a word is the right one, I’ll keep it, even if it’s a bit challenging, but I don’t want too many of those. I want the child to feel competent and excited to be able to read it to himself/herself. So in an early reader, I am thinking about audience with every word. My publisher has their own measures for levels. I actually wanted to write Level One books (the easiest ones) for Hot Rod Hamster, and my publisher wanted them to be Level Two because they sell more copies of those. So I actually had to make the books harder to reach Level Two.

  19. My goal is to write a children’s book. Then after that.. write more children’s books. I would also like to illustrate the books that I write. Is this ok to do on a first book ? Do you recommend it ? Thank you in advance for all of your help ! 🙂

    1. Hi Karen, I’m not an illustrator, but yes, there are many author/illustrators. And I think it can be a little easier to sell a picture book (or get an agent) if you have both talents. Sometimes an editor will look at both your words and art and only choose one (want to publish your book with a different illustrator, for example), so be prepared that might happen.

      I would recommend joining SCBWI (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators). You can look at their website and access some of the content there without joining. But it’s very helpful for anyone who wants to start writing and/or illustrating for children. http://www.scbwi.org/

      1. Thank you Cynthia !! I really appreciate this… GREAT advice and thank you for the SCBWI recommendation !! Karen

    1. I found my first agent through friend and colleague referrals, and I found my current agent the same way, but in a more extensive search. The first time I knew nothing about any agents and I kind of lucked into someone I was happy with. The second time I had more experience and a stronger sense of the type of agent I was looking for. I also went specifically for agents who rep people whose careers I would like to emulate. And that is what I would recommend to anyone looking for an agent. Find out who reps your favorite authors, and research those agents. It’ll give you a starting point. You can find out from most authors’ websites, or look at the acknowledgements in their books to see if they mention an agent. Most agencies will have client lists on their site, too. You’re never going to know all the clients of one agent or agency, but it’s a big industry. As long as they have a couple of people whose work you respect, and you like how they seem to work, then they might be a good fit for you. It’s not about landing a “big name” agent; it’s more about finding someone you have a rapport with and shares your vision for your writing career. So think beyond who reps the biggest, most bestselling author types, and more about successful authors with a lot of books under their belts who are making a living and have some degree of name recognition. For me that was a helpful process to identifying the right agents to query. Of course, they also have to like your work and feel like they’d work well with you, but that part is out of your hands. All you can do is put your best work forward and keep trying till you find the right match!

    2. I met my agent at an SCBWI conference (Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators).

      I know that’s not feasible for everyone, so here’s a good resource: Association of Authors’ Representatives. Put in the search box what you write (Children, YA, etc). http://aaronline.org/MAgents

      Click on the agent’s name and see their general information. Click on their website and look at their submission policy and see if and how they want to be approached, what they’re currently looking for, etc. Then put that agent’s name into Google and look for interviews and sales and authors to get a sense of them personally. You’re hoping for a long term relationship (and they will control your money and be your voice to publishers), so it’s important to do lots of homework first to find yourself and your work a good match.

  20. Thank you authors for taking your time today to pass on a wealth of information! I love participating in Teacher’s Write because it allows me the opportunity to gather information, practice, and gaining my own writing confidence. I am then able to help my students improve their writing experience.
    My question is what would you recommend as far as examples of great endings? Students write several genres over the course of the school year and therefore, their writing is short compared to a novel. I struggle with get students to understand the importance of wrapping up the story. They don’t want to read a book without an ending and at the same time, they don’t know how to wrap up their writing unless it is only one sentence worth. I would love any tips, tricks, and suggestions to help them wrap it up in a paragraph. Thank you again for taking your time to share with all of us!

    1. What is their age group? One of my favorite all-around middle grade titles is HOLES by Louis Sachar. The ending wraps everything up nicely, and brings together many different threads. If they’re older, I absolutely adore ARISTOTLE AND DANTE DISCOVER THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE by Benjamin Alire Saenz. Very satisfying ending that is more subtle and emotional, but has very concrete story elements that get wrapped up, too.

      In shorter story writing, too, the wrap up is important. Very often fiction is about characters changing, and achieving or not achieving goals that they establish in the beginning of the story. Events happen, but characters also have feelings about what is happening. Some sentences are more about the facts of what is happening, and other sentences are more about the feelings. The greatest writers can have both things happening in each sentence all the time, which is hard to achieve as a beginner. Perhaps helping the students realize that the ending has multiple questions it must answer would lead them to write more than one sentence. Questions like: How did the character change? Did the character achieve his or her goal? How does he or she feel about what has happened? What does he or she think might happen next?

      Most young writers that I know have a “this happened, then this, and then this” style of storytelling. Nothing wrong with that–we need story action to move the plot forward. Short and simple is a perfectly great way of learning effective storytelling. So I wonder if placing some more emphasis on the emotional layers of the story could help them expand and deepen with a few extra lines here and there.

      1. It is 5th grade, sorry I left that out. I will try your suggestions and if you think of anything else that will be much appreciated as well.

  21. Thank you so much for sharing all of your thoughtful advice! I have learned so much from reading all of the questions and comments!

    My question centers around point of view and how you determine which point of view to use. I am struggling with trying to determine how I want to tell my story. Most of what I’ve written so far has been in the third person, and while that’s working well for the most part, there are times when I feel that my character is specifically trying to tell her story in her own words from her point of view.

    1. Usually when I can’t decide, I try writing the same scene from both perspectives, to see which I like better. And I don’t just mean transposing the pronouns, either. I mean sitting down with a blank sheet of paper and writing the scene once in first person and then starting over again from scratch in third person. The difference in those POVs is often more than just what pronoun you’re using. In first person everything is filtered through the eyes of the main character, and nothing is empirical. In third person, even a close third, there’s an outside narrator, so there can be some slant to things that isn’t quite what the main character herself might say. A first person narrator is only going to call attention to the things she notices, and the things she wants to share. A third person narrator may include details about the world, the character, or the situation that the character herself might not reveal. These choices can be made deliberately on the part of the author or they can be made unconsciously in the writing process. Sometimes one version just feels right.

      A random tip for writing in first person: try to start as few sentences as possible with “I.” It seems challenging at first, but it makes for much smoother reading, and you can’t help but include more interesting details. instead of “I watched a red car drive by the window” try “Out the window, a red car rolled down the street.” The reader comes into the character’s mind and sees it with her. We don’t need to be reminded who is there doing the seeing.

      1. Thank you so much for the suggestions! I’m working on writing a scene from both perspectives and I’m learning a lot about the direction in which I want the story to go. I had gotten a little off track, but your advice got me back on the writing train:)

  22. I just started writing something yesterday. I sat down today to continue and now everything is going in a completely different direction. Does that happen to you? I keep reading things that say you have to have a plan but my character seems to be creating a life of her own. Don’t get me wrong, it’s super fun! I just wonder how well it will turn out. So stick to the plan or chart a new course?

    1. I like to follow the muse, personally. If you had an original vision for the way things were going to go, perhaps you could jot down a few notes so you don’t forget it, but otherwise I’m a big fan of playing around and seeing where things lead. The writing that comes organically for me is much more exciting and surprising for me as the writer, so that often makes it more exciting for the reader, too.

      The reason I suggest making notes about your original intention is just in case you later decide the story has gone totally off the rails and you want some of that former direction back. We think we won’t forget things, but often we do. I find notes to myself from months ago and I’m always like “WOW, I’m glad to be reminded of that….”

      Also, it’s ok if it doesn’t turn out exactly right on the first go. Revision is necessary, always. Thus, you might as well take some messy creative chances, knowing you can clean it up later. It’s quite freeing, really.

    2. I agree with Kekla (hi, Kekla!) and advocate that you follow your character around, as William Faulkner said, and write down everything she/he says or does as fast as you can. You never know where that might lead. Kekla’s idea on notes is golden, We can’t always remember those little epiphanies we had in the beginning, unless we write them down. So, grab your pencil and notebook, and run!

  23. Hi Kekla, Cynthia and Kate!
    I hope I’m not too late to the party. I have a very specific question. What do I do about technology!! I know the general rule is to leave it out so it doesn’t date the story but middle schoolers don’t generally talk on the phone anymore. They text, they chat and I feel like if I don’t include their main method of communication it will seem unauthentic to them. What I’ve done so far is I say “device” instead of computer or phone. Who knows maybe in the future we will communicate with our watches, or belts or implants in our palms. Any thoughts?
    I’ve read The Seventh Wish and I noticed that Kate did use alot of texting, but maybe since you are published already you can get away with that!

    Thank you!

    1. Personally, I think we’re at a point where a book with a modern setting, with teenagers (or pre-teens) and absolutely no texting just feels kind of unrealistic in most situations. There are going to be exceptions, for sure – certain mountain towns don’t have cell service, but in general, it’s such a part of life now that unless there was a reason for its absence, I’d probably question a story set in 2016 without it.

      1. Thank you Kate. I completely agree. I hope most publishers would agree with you. The texting in The Seventh Wish was intrigral to the story. It was telling when Abby didn’t text Charlie back. I also really liked the family group texting when the dad was “yelling.” Good comedy there.

  24. Hi!
    This year I will be implementing a writing journal into everyday practice that they will just be writing into the day or out of the class and it will be their safe writing place, where I will not be grading what or how they write, but it is more like a journal.
    Now I was wondering if you could give me some pointers on what to include in it. I have been putting together a powerpoint with different daily prompts that I will have the class write each day before we start the class and I was wondering if you think that is best? I have Friday’s as free write friday’s and I am sure I will be adding things in addition to the already scripted prompts, but any insight that you can give would be awesome!

    1. HI Jennifer,
      I have done journals with my ninth graders. I started out with it just being a free write. Some students loved that and got really creative and others wanted a prompt. I tried a daily prompt for a while, and students still had the option to write about something different. And then I went to a list of prompts that students taped into their notebooks. They could write whatever they wanted and if they were stuck, they could pick any prompt.

    2. Hi there! I have two thoughts…instead of calling them journals, call them writer’s notebooks. Some probably don’t care what you call them but I always find that when we call them journals, they become a diary instead of a collection place for diary like things AND observations and noticings, artifacts, wonderings, etc!

      Aimee Buckner has a wonderful book called Notebook Know How which is all about getting students in grades 3-12 to use their notebook and inspires adult writers too! Ralph Fletcher has two books that are great for notebooks: The Writer’s Notebook and Live Writing. These are great $5 paperbacks that I have even read aloud to students before.

      Good luck!!! 🙂

  25. I’m sorry I missed this yesterday morning, but, WOW, you ladies covered just about everything your students wanted to know!!!! Thank you. Kate, Cynthia, and Kekla, it amazes me how you’re so willing to break away from your own writing schedules to help others. Thank you!!!

  26. I wasn’t able to be here yesterday but wanted to say a HUGE thank you to Kate, Cynthia and Kekla and to everyone who asked questions and/or commented. What a rich thread of conversation! I just started my day by reading through all the questions and answers. I’ve learned so much that will help me as a writer and that I hope to pass along to my students. Wow!

  27. I’m with Mona and Molly! It’s already Saturday night, and I just read through all the questions and responses from Cynthia and Kekla. Wow is an understatement! I wrote notes in my NB that came straight from your answers: Cynthia’s idea about having students analyze a PB to help with endings, and Kekla’s “What if?” question to help when kids get stuck.