Teachers Write 7/11/13 Thursday Quick-Write with Megan Miranda

Good morning! Your Thursday Quick-Write today is courtesy of guest author Megan Miranda. My favorite thing about Megan’s YA novels is the way they’re infused with science — total reading candy for geeks like me.

Megan is the author of the young adult novels Fracture and Hysteria, both published by Bloomsbury/Walker Books for Young Readers. She has a degree in Biology from MIT and spent her post-college years working in biotech and, later, teaching high school science. She currently lives near Charlotte, North Carolina with her husband and two young children. Megan is represented by Sarah Davies at The Greenhouse Literary Agency. Today, she’s visiting to talk about point of view.

What We See vs. How We See

On a recent vacation, I found myself at a desk with a view of the ocean—which was coincidentally the perfect backdrop for me to write a very relevant scene of my work in progress. My main character was about to take the plunge—quite literally—into the ocean.

I started writing what I saw: the light catching off the moving water as the sun set on the horizon; the way I could see beneath the surface to a deeper shade of blue; how the world felt suddenly limitless, stretching out before me.

All of which was there and true, but also not at all how my main character would see these details. Because that character about to take the plunge into the water? She can’t swim. This same setting, filtering through me in a calm and peaceful way, would be terrifying for her. Those same details represent uncertainty for her. She’s full of anxiety. That setting sun is a ticking clock, the premonition of darkness coming. The water that seems to turn a deeper shade of blue beneath the surface is bottomless, disorienting, and something to be feared.

Setting the scene is not just what we see, but how we see it.

When describing a scene, ask yourself: What’s my narrator’s perspective?

The details our characters see are important, but how they see them gives the reader an even greater understanding.

Ask yourself:

*Who is setting the scene for us?

*What’s their mood? What are they feeling?

*Why are they there?

This is a picture I took on that vacation. It’s a beach that’s only accessible by water. But this setting can be described in countless different ways depending on who’s behind the camera, what they’re feeling, and why they’ve landed there:

*What is he or she feeling? Is she lonely? Content? Exhausted? Excited?

*Why is he or she there? Did he seek the spot for solitude? Is he hiding from someone? Is he exploring? Is he lost?


Feel free to use your own story setting, your current view out the window, or this picture, if you’d like.

But whatever you choose to describe, think about the perspective of the narrator. What’s his or her mood? Why is he or she there?

And let your narrator tell us how he or she sees the scene.

Feel free to share in the comments if you’d like!


30 Replies on “Teachers Write 7/11/13 Thursday Quick-Write with Megan Miranda

  1. Sand flours Rumeal’s dark feet as he shuffles down the beach. He registers it as irritating grit between his toes. The sun sits high enough to prickle his skin, slicked with sweat. From the treed hill across the bay, bright white villas pop like teeth, sneering. A few more steps would bring him to the cool ocean. Instead, he stops by the paddle – the survivor of a shipwreck, trying to crawl away from the scuffed orange kayak at the tideline. Rumeal notices a crack in the yellow plastic of one blade. He gives his head a small shake and slides the broken paddle into the front cockpit of the kayak. He doesn’t see the other paddle. He scans both ways along the beach and out on the water for specks of yellow, but there’s nothing. He grabs the handhold at the front of the kayak and drags the boat the two-hundred feet back where it belongs, in line next to four more just like it. He unlocks the cable that’s wound through the other boats and feeds it through the deck webbing of the orange one. Then, he relocks the cable and takes the paddle into the weathered shed nearby. He pulls a roll of yellow duct tape from the shelf, tears off a piece the length of his hand, and smooths it over the crack in the paddle. He gives the paddle a trial flex and decides to repeat the process on the other side. He sets the paddle among the rest in the corner of the shed, pulling the door shut behind him and locking it when he leaves. If only he’d shown such care last night when his shift ended. He wonders how much a paddle costs, how much he’ll have to give up from his week’s pay.

    1. I adore this line: “bright white villas pop like teeth”
      Both the setting and your main character really come to life for me here. Thanks for sharing – I loved reading it!

  2. Here’s my quick write for the day. I feel rusty…I’m on vacation and trying to get back into the writing mode. Any comments/feedback are welcome!

    Splash! I turn to catch the spray of water flying from the lake’s surface out of the corner of my eye. They’re here, I think. Now, how to catch them is the problem I have yet to solve. The early morning sun is warm on my skin as I throw the boat’s anchor overboard to sink into the sandy bottom of Norris Lake. I move to the other end of the boat and again, set the second anchor, for I’m sure fish are here. Very near. As I reach for my freshly strung pole, I imagine the look on everyone’s face as I return in a few hours, the live well filled with large- and smallmouth bass. I’ll be the hero, the savior of this fishing trip; no, I mean family vacation. My boys, not to be outdone, will quickly pounce on the newly returned boat, anxious to duplicate my fishing prowess, not to be outdone by their 53 year-old father.

    Ah….the smile on my face reflects my thoughts as I cast my line for the first time this morning. I feel the tug on my pole as my minnow sinks 30 feet into the depths of the green glass water. I set this pole, then with a practiced flick, send the line of my second pole in the opposite direction, the silver lure on its end reflecting the sun’s powerful rays. Using my peripheral vision, I keep the bobber of my first pole under close watch as I steadily reel in my lure on the second pole. This is the sure thing, the lure that will catch bass according to the Bass Pro Shop salesman. Guaranteed.

    No hits yet on either of my lines. I rhythmically cast and recast my lure, creating a wide arc around the perimeter of my boat. In the quiet of the morning, I’m lost in my mind’s visions again…I see the quick descent of my bobber into the lake’s depths. Immediately I react, set the line, and start to reel. My prey fights back and I immediately engage in the struggle. I let out some line, permitting the fish to run a little, confident that I can reel it in. The fish takes off, diving under the boat. My pole dips dramatically, straining under the passionate dive of my prey. I begin to reel slowly, pulling gently on my pole, coaxing the fish from underneath the boat. Suddenly it surfaces with a mighty lunge, and I see him, for surely this bass can only be a mighty male, in all its natural splendor. Long and plump, scales gleaming with sparkling droplets of water, at least 12 inches above the lake’s surface, he turns as if to look at me, the hunter, and quickly spews the hook with my minnow on it from his mouth. As I watch, the bass appears to mock me with a smile in his eyes as he re-enters his watery domain. I imagine the tales told as the bass rejoins his companions in the dark, weedy lake depths, tales of the lone morning fisherman, so sure of his success, but out of luck once again.

    A tug on my line breaks through my thoughts as I rejoin the present, and quickly set the hook. My actions are automatic, mimicking my dreams…

    1. I love how all the little details really set the mood here (the feel of the early morning sun, the green glass lake, etc). I truly felt like I was in the boat, fishing alongside your narrator. Thank you for sharing!

  3. Megan, I really liked the way you described the difference between your point of view and your narrator’s point of view. This is something that is so hard to teach students as they being revising their writing. If its ok, I may read your example to my class so hopefully that will help them as much as it did me! Thanks for your involvement in Teachers Write!

  4. Any other day, I would have loved to be on this beach. We hadn’t had a vacation in a million years. But it wasn’t any other day. We were stuck here, our boat smashed to pieces and that weird catlike thing on the hill didn’t do much for the view. I’ve been in a lot of sticky situations, but I was stumped this time, and I’m not used to being stumped. I always come up with Plan B. My brain was frozen and it scared me, especially knowing we weren’t alone on this island. We were being hunted, and if I didn’t get my thinking out of neutral, we were doomed. Melvin was useless, lost in his own mess of a mind, spouting gibberish and crying his eyes out. I had to pull it together. I always pulled it together, what was wrong with me?

    1. Right away, I love how you set us up with that first line to know that all is NOT well… and I really like how you contrast the details of who your narrator usually is (not used to being stumped, always able to pull it together), with how your narrator is acting now. Thank you for sharing!

  5. When the brown truck announced its arrival with a squeal of the engine, she moved the white sheer to the side to see if it was sidled up to her condo. Her heart thumped hard in her chest. She wanted whatever it was they were bringing her, but she also knew she shouldn’t have spent the money. The adrenaline rush of a QVC order at 2am was a truck 5 seconds before impact. She felt the blood rush warm her cheeks as she forced herself to wait by the window until the doorbell rang and the box thumped down. Then she casually walked to the door. Who was she casually walking for? She chastised herself silently. The doorknob’s cool metal sent a shiver up her spine. She pulled open the door and reached for the box glad that the UPS driver was already pulling away from the curb. It was embarrassing that they all knew her so well. Knew her name. “Here you go Anne,” they’d say a little too loudly. She would smile and look around skittishly to see if other condo owners were outside. But today she was in the clear and, even better, it was a big box. She heaved it up, careful not to let the dirty box touch her new white linen shirt, and raced inside leaning up against the heavy door to close out the world.

    1. Kimberly, I love your word choice: brown truck to begin (rather than slapping us in the face with “UPS”); the “adrenaline rush . . . 5 seconds before impact” sentence; and I’m thinking her “new white linen shirt” is another QVC purchase. Poor Anne, she has a big problem along with her newly-delivered big box.

    2. Kimberley,
      Fancy meeting you here! I have been looking for your posts. I hope all is well.

      Now to your excerpt – Nicely done! I love how you connected what Anne was thinking to the vivid description of the delivery. The reader see the scene (show me, don’t tell me – something I am constantly trying to get my sixth graders to do with their writing. I actually laughed out loud at the end.

      Thank you for sharing. Happy writing!

    3. Echoing everyone else to say what a great scene this is! I really loved this and felt like I had a strong insight into your narrator. I really felt her conflicted emotions…and loved how this was reflected in the details as well. Thanks for sharing!

  6. This is truly a quick write, so there may be changes in tense and POV. It’s interesting, because this really isn’t what I planned to work on this summer, but it’s what I’ve been thinking about.

    It seemed like she had just fallen asleep when she heard a car door slam. Tracy held her breath, waiting for the kitchen door to open. She pictured her father sitting at the table, his hands wrapped around a cup of coffee. When her mother finally stumbled in, he would lift his weary eyes and be relieved and angry all at once. Tracy wanted to run to the kitchen and hug her mother, protect her from the torrent of questions her father was about to unleash.

    She lay there another minute, waiting. The house was strangely silent. Suddenly she heard a heavy knock on the front door. Why would Mom be knocking? Tracy wondered. Dad always left the door open for her. And why was she at the front door? Was she so wasted she couldn’t even find her way into the house?

    Tracy’s heart began to beat really fast. She couldn’t make up her mind if she should get up and find out what was going on, or if she should try to go back to sleep. No, there was no way she could sleep now. She listened harder as her father hurried to the door. The screen door squeaked and Tracy heard a man’s voice. “Mr. Houlihan?” it asked. “Is this the residence of Annie Houlihan?”

    Now Tracy felt sick to her stomach. She had to go to the door. She had to say, “Yes, Annie Houlihan lives her,” in case her father couldn’t. She threw her legs over the side of the bed, but to her surprise, they didn’t hold her up. Shaking almost uncontrollably, Tracy managed to pick her self up off the floor and go down the hall to where her father was standing. A tall police officer was asking him if there was anyone he could call for him, a relative, or a neighbor maybe. Dad just shook his head without a word. The officer glanced up and saw her, and then he was silent, too. All their words, countless questions, were swallowed up by a great, gaping silence.

    But the look on the officer’s face told Tracy the answer to the only question that mattered: Her mother was dead.

    1. It didn’t seem like it was written quickly at all! Caught and held my attention from the beginning right to the end. You put so many details in. Thanks!

    2. This was such a powerful scene. My heart was beating quickly right alongside Tracy’s. The emotions felt so real, and the scene so vivid. I also loved how Tracy’s thoughts about what would happen unfolded first… and when there was a knock, we were filled with unease just like Tracy was.

  7. I’m calling this quickwrite STRANDED.

    Marcus couldn’t face the lifeboat even one more time. The violently orange lifeboat was supposed to be a two-man vessel, but it was a lie. Looking at it hurt his eyes almost as much as the glare of the sun off the gritty sand. The azure waters were no comfort. It was calm now, but he knew its depths hid monsters. Monsters that made the waves pitch and roil and steal your life. His oar was still where he’d dropped it last night when the storm had finally thrown the tiny orange boat onto the beach like the trash it was. He wondered where Mom’s oar was now. His mind skittered away from the thought like a cliff’s edge, but it was too late. Marcus closed his eyes against the tardy sunlight, sank to the burning sand, and let the grief overwhelm him.

  8. [MC, 14 y.o., name unknown] took another choppy breath and glanced back at her kayak. She should drag it further from the lapping ocean waves. She was too exhausted – it would remain as is, at risk of being swept away when the tide came in again. Who cares, she thought.

    This small island was her go-to place when she needed to be alone. Her parents had allowed her to start coming here on her own last summer – IF she wore her life vest, and IF she let them know where she was going, and IF there was plenty of daylight left and the weather was good. The litany played through her mind like a nursery rhyme. All the ifs were meant to keep her safe, or maybe they just made her parents feel like they were still in control. Well, obviously, they weren’t in control, and they were about to ruin her entire life.

    She dropped limply to the sand, still in her life vest, and gave herself over to despair.

    (I have no idea where this is going – it’s not a WIP, just a response to the quick-write prompt. But as I was writing, my mind started playing with a couple of possible scenarios: 14 y.o. girl is overreacting in that dramatic teenage way, because her parents have told her they’re going to move (from the only home MC has known; or they\’re going to have another baby); or, parents really are in big trouble – divorce, or IRS/bankruptcy problems, or . . .)

    (Also – sorry – I don\’t know how to use the HTML tags for italics. Research time!

    1. I loved that this sparked some potential ideas – and I think you really nailed her mood/voice! I love the string of IF’s, and how it transitions to her current situation. Thank you for sharing!

  9. Here is a rough draft of a scene toward the resolution of my story. It still rants a little too much (I’ll edit that down), but I like how the sensory details relate to the boy and the father’s own memories, not the “tourist” views of the beach (I think this part calls the beach the “strand”).
    The little boy, running on the strand, has no sense of his permanence. Loose sand sprays up from his feet then packs below the smack of his shoes as he reaches where it is flattened silken by the tide. Sand sprays the air. Foam sprays of the froth of waves at the water’s edge. Light splinters across the water, then vanishes, plum, behind a smoky clouds. Sound of a gull there, then away. Impermanent, immaterial, glittering decoration in the moments of life, passed through, remembered or forgotten, but gone, done, over with. But he is four, nearly five. Aware only of his giddy gladness to be released from his grandparents’ rental car, his fascination at the weighty black hulk of ships moving along the glassen sea, solid as buildings yet moving, clearly, steady as if pulled along a rope: Glasgow-Dublin, Liverpool-Dublin. Smaller boats mere distant glints on the southern horizon, the fainter memory of his unmet grandfather on the ferry, Dublin-Man.
    Roonan knows. Knows what it was to be this boy’s age, stumbling uncertain in his older brother’s trails along this same sand. Knows what it was to watch that ferry leave Dublin in the years he went with his father to the Isle of Man TT, and the years they waved him off, Roonan only Liam’s age, too young to go, left home with his mother’s sister. He sees his son as if he could see himself then, riding his aunt’s hip – she held him to keep him from dashing off in the crowd on the dock – as she watched for her sister along the rail. Sees his aunt brush hair from her eyes, her hand shielding the sun, squinting, then her smile, her hand shooting skyward to wave, his own hand rising, blind to who she was waving to. Lost memory. Unimportant. No one here, any longer, whom it would matter to. Only a mother, a father remembers such images and cares. In that, he’d joined impermanence of the passing gulls, the breeze, a color lovely enough in a cloud for everyone to remark and point, yet soon gone. Carinne loved him. Aidan held on to him, as a brother. He could admit this importance. But their lives would go on, had his ended. Would remark on him in later years as everyone along the strand pointed to the sun as it lit a pleasure boater’s sails, the sky lavender, the sails gold, wake splashing silver along the hulls. “Take a picture!” they all might cry out, dig desperately for a camera before the moment passed. But it would pass. Be recalled and shared fondly if the picture had been caught. But gone, over.
    This boy, he knew, was something else. In the simple existence of this child, his life changed. Strip away every essence of this moment and this boy still lived. My son. My son. Nothing in the world lived and breathed, but that child. Everything else moved on, but the boy was still there, his. Light of the day competed in his soul with the light of the day he was conceived, white whale bone light in that room filled with memory, and his Carinne. His Carinne. His son. What had been real for him before had been only his damnation. Charcoal dry bitterness of what stained his life. But the boy, his son, the little voice calling to him now against the wind, pointing things out to him and laughing in that magical sound that must come from heaven, the echoing bell of pebbles down a drain, his boy’s laugh, those pistoning legs, so artless as he ran across the sand. The world’s spin dizzied him less. He felt his weight on the ground, the pressure of his own fingers in his palm as he gripped a fist. The world made real. Permanent. Everything changed. I will be a better man. Not a choice, but a map laid open ahead of him by the path led by this boy.

  10. Tourists! They’re always all over our island.
    They think they can just paddle up and walk on other people’s turf. So Annoying.
    Looks like they may be picking blueberries on the other side of the rocks.
    Won’t be many left for Gram’s blueberry buckle.

    Rich people, with their fancy boats and clothes and even boat shoes.
    Who needs shoes on a boat? Jeesum!
    Jo walked up to the kayak. It was shallow and so narrow.
    Not at all like the rowboats at the dock.

    Jo looked around. No one in sight.
    It’s not stealing. Just trying it out, like at LL Bean’s.
    Jo grabbed the funny looking oar with 2 ends and dragged the kayak into the water.
    Yipes, it’s kind of tippy.

    One foot in…

  11. Point of View
    I found a great, low-cost vacation, hiking in the Rockies this summer. Thought my 16 year old son would think it sounded cool. Our point of views were very different!
    Are you kidding me? She wants me to go where? Up a mountain and sleep in a tent. What is wrong with her? It’ll be fun she said. Right. What’d you do this summer Josh? Oh, went camping with my mom. I would never be able to live that one down. Why doesn’t she understand? The idea of hiking up and down mountains for four days listening to her jabber nonstop, who would think that’s fun? I don’t care if it’s Colorado and its cooler. It’s still sleeping on the ground. With her in a small tent. What are we gonna do, sing Kumbaya? Yeah, right. There’s no way I’m going anywhere that doesn’t have wi-fi. She’s out of her friggen mind. I’ll go back to dad’s before I go camping with her.

  12. Usually, she treasured her early morning walks. There were only so many more days until she would deliver. Her husband did not like her going anywhere alone at this point in the pregnancy. So most of the time her eyes scanned the sand on the edge of the water, for rocks, uneven places, or little discoveries. This is why she was shocked almost tripping over the oar. Looking up, she saw the kayak a few paces further. Instinctively, she scanned the bank of grass not far from the shoreline, looking for the owner. Nothing. Beach grass, undisturbed waved lightly in the sea breeze. Even footprints and dents in the sand were not evident.

    Without warning, last night’s images on the news sprang from her memory – a missing person, last seen by his family, heading out into the bay on his kayak. Could this be connected?

    She hesitated before looking into the middle of the kayak. Nothing but sand and water collected in one side.

  13. Perspective – the main character from my WIP; his friend, a girl, is visiting is summer camp for the weekend and they head out in the canoe to explore the lake

    Dark clouds, silhouetting the peaks of the Adirondack Mountains, are rolling through the sky just to the west of us. The tops of the highest trees are swaying in the fierce winds that are beginning to blow over the lake. What happened to the humidity? Hot and sticky temperatures are replaced by a chilly, more autumn like, breeze.

    “What are we goin’ to do?” Kalie asks in a shaky voice.

    “We’re goin’ to pull up on the island over there.” I reply while pointing at the island that we are quickly approaching.

    Baboom, Boom, Baboom, Boom. The thunder echoes over the small lake and sends shivers down my spine.

    We pull the steel canoe up onto the little beachfront. As I throw the oars into the canoe, the sky lights up with glaring lightning and leaves bright streaks in the sky. The rain starts to fall, first in heavy, large drops, and then instantly it begins to come down in buckets. I point ahead to a trailhead, and Kalie runs ahead.

    “I’ve played on this island a million times as a kid.” I shout. “The trail will hook to the right and we’ll have to climb a hill to the lean-to. If it’s still there?”

    Kalie slows and grabs my hand. We run ahead as the rain picks up its intensity. We have to slow because we can’t see the trail curving to the right. We find our way and the lean-to is just ahead of us. Thank goodness that it is still there.

    “Right in here.” I say and duck my head into the coverage of the lean-to.

    “This is the best. I can’t believe how perfect this is.” Kalie’s smiling her usual smile. “I hope that this storm passes quickly.”

    “Usually they do.” I reply as I am clearing the bench for us to sit on.

    We settle onto the bench, completely soaked to the bone, and the refreshing breeze is sending chills up my spine. The vicious storm is overhead and with each roar of thunder, Kalie is moving closer and closer.

    “What should we do to pass the time? Something to keep my mind off how cold I am.” I grab a long stick and begin to draw out a tic-tac-toe board in the thick sand.

    Kalie is smiling again. “I have an idea.” And she scotches down the bench and against my right shoulder. Her eyes meet mine immediately and suddenly her soft lips are touching mine. Am I dreaming? Our first kiss. I sure hope that the storm continues.


    We pull up the canoe to the dock. Our moms come running down through the yard.
    “Are you two okay?” They say in unison.

    “We’re soaking wet and cold,” I say, trying to throw them off the trail if they do think that something inappropriate happened, “but it was the best storm I have ever been in.”

    Kalie slyly winks at me with that patented smile on her face.

    1. Love this Andy! I am right there with them. I’m not to keen on how many “are”s are in the first paragraph. It stops me from flowing to where they are. I love how cozy he and Kalie are, how clearly close they are to each other both literally and figuratively. The way you’ve depicted the storm works for me completely. I am wet and cold….and happy for him and his first kiss.

      PS Hi there friend. I’ve been looking for you too.

  14. I was remembering a tree in my own yard when writing this paragraph for my WIP.

    Cora walked across shiny, hardwood floors, through the house, to the back door. She could see Derek’s legs hanging down from the oak tree in the center of the yard. It was a great climbing tree – Cora had learned how to climb trees in that tree. The branches were sturdy and spread just far enough apart for a kid to climb up and around. There was even a small nook where several branches came together that made a great little storage space for any essential tree climbing gear – like binoculars, walkie talkies, or snacks. When the tree had all of its leaves, you could hide up there for hours without ever being noticed by an adult. The tree offered a freedom and privacy that kids could find in very few places.

  15. I am going to write from the perspective of two different characters. I am taking the term “quick write” quite literally. I am writing what comes to mind and then doing a quick edit of my work. See if you can figure out who my two characters are.

    1. Finally, a moment alone and the book was calling her name. Come…open my pages…delight in the story that I’m here to tell you. But, Shanda didn’t actually get the chance to open the book. Five seconds after her “moment alone” she heard the dreaded words, “Mom, when’s dinner?” Of course, it was always her pleasure to be serving her family. Making dinner and doing laundry and doing dishes…but how she missed those moments alone. Thinking that dinner could wait, Shanda slipped outside on the back deck and opened her book. Instantly she was transported into the world of Thomas and Katherine and their sultry love scenes. Although Shanda only got to read one chapter, a smile was on her face for the rest of the evening. Dinner was cooked; dishes were done; laundry was put away, and yet Shanda was still with Thomas and Katherine in their woodland cottage.

    2. Sarah avoided the kitchen table like the plague. There was an item on the table that she did not want to see, think about, and certainly not read. The book was assigned three weeks ago and had to be read by Monday, only two days away. Sarah hated reading and knew that this book would not turn that around. She found other things to do instead of walk past the table. Sarah organized her closet, did her math and science homework, and spent two hours on facebook. Unfortunately, the time had come and the book could no longer be avoided. If Sarah wanted to have any chance of finishing her assignment she had to get started. She trudged over and flung out her arm. Even without looking, her hand found the exact object that she had been avoiding for three weeks. The location had been seared in her mind, and soon, the words would be as well.

    This was an interesting activity for me. I usually write along with my kids when I assign quick-writes in the classroom; however, those are almost always connected to the literature that we are reading. It was harder to pull something out of thin air. I think it is a valuable activity, and I want to start doing more of this next year. I still think that you can dig deeper into the thoughts of characters by stepping into their shoes, but it would also be nice to see what the kids come up with when given a more open prompt.