Teachers Write! 7/18 – Q and A Wednesday

Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp, | so if you have questions about writing, ask away!

Authors are always welcome to drop by and answer questions (you never quite know who you’ll run into here!) But today’s official author volunteers are Jennifer Brown, Sarah Darer Littman, Amy Guglielmo, and Pam Bachorz. They’ve promised to be around to respond to your questions today, so please visit their websites & check out their books!

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


71 Replies on “Teachers Write! 7/18 – Q and A Wednesday

      1. Ha! I have been very VERY lucky. I had no input in my first cover (CONFESSIONS OF A CLOSET CATHOLIC) but I loved it, and my friends from high school even thought it looked like high school me a little. My second cover, PURGE, I also loved. The original cover for LIFE, AFTER was much darker and had the Twin Towers on it – I felt it didn’t express the ultimate hopefulness of the book and was nervous about using the WTC on the cover. I loved the design that was used in the end, particularly how it was carried through the entire book and the chapter headings. And WTGP – I was blown away with the design for that book!! SO AWESOME!! I did have input into the order of the wording on the cover. I think it draws the reader in and reveals the chilling nature of the book. So yeah, it’s mostly luck and little bit of input : )

      2. You can actually get cover “consultation and approval” or something like that written into contracts. It’s in all of mine, I think, and I do generally get a say.

  1. Thanks, Q & A-ers for your wise words in advance!

    I have been writing this MG manuscript. The character and voice part of the story was more important and fun to write in the beginning half of the book–I felt like I was on a roll. Now the plot part is super strong and hopefully suspenseful, but I feel like I’m losing the character/voice part, which is the part I enjoy the most. I feels a lot more difficult now. Yesterday I thought if I could trick myself into breaking up each scene into little scenes, I wouldn’t feel like I had to rush everything along, and that might make me remember the voice part and enjoy it more. I don’t know if this makes sense, but if it does, please let me know if this has happened to you. How you capture the initial enthusiasm and blend voice/plot when the plot is getting pretty exciting (I hope)? Thank you!!!!!!!

    1. I’m not sure I posted in the right place!


      This has happened to me and I’m going to try your trick next time! I like that you are breaking down the scenes into smaller scenes where you can spend time with your characters. Sometimes I just need to write the story to get it down on paper then I can go back and see how my characters feel about what is happening to them “in the moment.” Think about your characters tics and traits. When things get stressful and intense what do they do? Bite nails? Sweat? Curse? Kick things? What do you do when you get excited or are placed in a stressful situation? How do you react?

      Another idea: My writing friend was working on a manuscript recently and couldn’t get through a tough part of the story so she skipped that part and picked up the next scene. She found it was easier to go back and fill in the blank chapter after she knew what happened next.
      I’ve skipped around tough chapters too. Maybe take a break.

      It doesn’t sound like it’s a plotting issue so don’t force the voice. And don’t worry! Your characters will speak when they’re ready!

      Hope that answers your question.


    2. Maybe this isn’t as big as a problem as you think it is. At the start of a story, an author has to invest a good amount of words in revealing the characters–their “regular” lives, and then the force that comes in and shakes everything up. So it’s natural that you’d be spending more time on telling us about characters to begin with. As the plot kicks in, you can’t invest as much time in telling us about them. We’re going to learn more by watching how they interact with the exciting plot you’re throwing at them.

      I’d suggest that you just KEEP GOING, and when you’re done, give the whole work a good read to see if you really are “losing” your characters are you go. If so perhaps you can pull some of the detail from the first part into the latter parts–or just beef things up. Your brain may well just need to focus on plot right now! You don’t have to get it all right, all at once.

    3. What Amy and Pam said. The more books I write (I’m now revising book five and starting book six and the dregs of my many abandoned books in archive boxes are a major fire hazard in my garage) the more I am an evangelist for Annie Lamott’s “shitty first draft” concept. I write as fast as I can and if I get to a bit where I’m stuck, I skip ahead and leave myself highlighted notes like [insert witty dialogue here] or [ need to research this more].
      And when the inner critic starts to berate me for this, I tell her, “Hey, lady, it’s only a shitty first draft. That’s what REVISION is for!”

    4. Hi Diane!
      I love the enthusiasm that you have about your book. It is shining through, and I just know it shines through in the manuscript as well!

      I would say if you’re into the plot right now and that’s what’s sweeping you along, just go with it. Don’t worry so much about capturing your character to a tee while you get this part down. After you get through the whole book, go back and re-read. You’ll see exactly where your character’s personality got buried by the plot and it will be so much easier to fix when you’re “out of the weeds,” so to speak.

      I always find that my characters’ personalities are stronger up front than they are deeper into the story, but when I’m going back through, and not worrying about plot as much (because it’s been written), I can see the characters’ traits that got lost later in the story and add them in at that time.

      Good luck, and keep going!

    5. All of you, thanks so much! Your comments are really valuable, and relaxing! I don’t have to worry about the character for now! Ok! That changes my outlook, and I think I can now go forth and do my shitty draft, as Sarah says. I haven’t gotten a chance to look at all your websites, but I did look at Pam’s. The plots for your books look so intriguing, I love the concepts!

  2. Good Morning!

    First off, I really enjoyed exploring all of your websites. I am in the process of creating an insert for the writing journals that my students will use this year. My idea is to list words of advice from authors. I have eight authors who have shared some advice about writing with my students in the past (via Skype or in-person author visits).

    So, my question is: What advice (one or two sentences) would you offer a young sixth grade writer?

    In the journal insert, I will include your exact quote and your name. In the front of my room (for the first week of school) at least one of your books will be on display (so it would be good advertising for you;). Thank you for taking the time to answer our questions!

    1. Andy — great project. The best advice I can give 6th graders is that you can’t polish a blank page. (Of course, given that they don’t believe revision is necessary, the advice doesn’t have the sort of impact I’d like.)

    2. Hi Andy,

      To young writers:

      Read a lot of books. Sample different genres and flavors.
      Write about something you care about, or something that you’d like to read.
      Write. Write. Write. Read some more.

      Amy G.

      Oops. That’s seven sentences.

    3. Neat project Andy! My advice to 6th grade writers would be to live a rich life–try lots of different things, hang out with lots of different people–because that will ALWAYS inform your writing.

    4. Love this, Andy!

      I’m teaching a creative writing workshop at the CW Booth Library in Newtown, CT this summer for rising 6-7 graders and rising 8-9 graders. In our first session on brainstorming ideas, I shared this quote with them from Neil Gaiman:

      “You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we’re doing it.”

      My advice is to be constantly inquisitive and aware of the world around you. Ask questions. Listen to the news. Read. Talk to people who are older than you, younger than you, from different background and cultures. You never know where and when the idea will hit you – but you have to be open to it when it does.

    5. I love David’s advice, and I’ll add to the chorus saying that you need to write something – anything at all – before you can write something great. And that’s tough sometimes because the ideas we have are great and lofty, while first drafts can be ugly. But that’s what revision is for. I wrote a poem about this a while back that you’re welcome to include if you’d like, Andy:


    6. Andy, when I was teaching, I used to encourage my students to keep “idea bank lists” and “verb bank lists.” Idea banks and verb banks are great, because, unlike a regular bank, when you take out an idea or a verb, it’s still there for you to use again in another sentence or story! Have fun!

    7. Important Writing Advice for 6th graders (& everyone else including myself.)
      Step 1: Put butt in chair.
      Showing up is the most important part, in writing, in life.

    8. AWESOME!

      THANK YOU for the wonderful feedback and advice. It is going to be an incredible insert of inspiration, and inspiration is just what the sixth grade writer needs.

  3. We’ve been talking and writing a lot about research and finding background info…my question is, how do you keep from getting distracted by what you are uncovering as you research? How do you avoid wasting time on things that come up that are good information but not about the topic you’re researching?
    Thanks for your advice,

    1. I don’t think research is ever time wasted but I know exactly what you mean! Some of my best new ideas come from things I’ve discovered when I’m doing research. If it is hindering your writing then I would just set aside time for research (30 min) then log off the internet while you write to avoid temptation.


    2. Ah, I am in the midst of heavy historical research right now. Anybody want to hear about 1830s parlors in Southeastern America?

      No? NO? What? It’s FASCINATING! 🙂

      I’m not sure research is ever wasted unless you find yourself only wanting to “research” when you’re feeling reluctant to write. Then it’s not research, it’s procrastination.

      Also, if you treat yourself as a research professional, I think you’ll know what’s appropriate and helpful to the story–and when to stop. I’ve tabbed up a half dozen books on my research topics and now I’m typing notes about how those tabs apply to my story. That keeps me focused on why the heck I’m reading about 1830s America. It’s for the story. it’s also been helpful, for me, that I drafted the story FIRST, then did the heavy lifting research. I know what to look for and what I can ignore (as fascinating as 1830s cities in America are, doesn’t apply one bit to my tale, so I skip over that material).

      Also, if you find something interesting that doesn’t apply to your current tale, SAVE it! I am a big proponent of using Scrivener, and one of the things I love about that application is that you can save entire web pages in a research folder. So toss that web page in a folder, somewhere somehow, and move along. It’ll be ready for the next project.

      1. Thanks Pam.
        I am going to look more at using Scrivner. I remember seeing it as a suggestion earlier in camp. There is so much to learn here…but reflecting on the advice you all shared above with 6th graders-the most important thing is to write…right?
        Also, I like the idea of doing the heavy researching after the book is written…

    3. OMG, Amy R, this is such a huge problem for me. I actually do a presentation called CONFESSIONS OF A RESEARCH GEEK, about finding the balance between research and writing. I tend to want to write novels to answer a question for myself and my readers, and I am a huge research geek, so it’s very easy for me to find myself in what I call “The Research Vortex.” What I’ve learned to do now is when I’m writing a first draft, and I come across something that needs research, I make a highlighted note [research XYZ] in the MS and then do it during a break. I use MAC Freedom to cut myself off from the Internet for periods of time while I write and I do the research during one of my “Internet breaks”.

      1. Ok, so breaking it up is a good thing-and get away from the internet…it’s a lot easier now since you can go anywhere in your house-or just grab the phone. OH, such temptation…have to stop.
        Thanks for you ideas. hehehe Confessions of a Research Geek…I bet that’s a great presentation!

    4. Finding a good and interesting topic is never time wasted, because you never know when it will give you another layer to your story or give you another story idea altogether! If it’s not relevant to the story you’re writing, tuck it into a folder for future use.

      I usually do all of my heavy research before I begin writing anything, so being excited about getting going on the story keeps me from spending too much time on research. And then the little things that come up during my writing are usually quick and easy answers that I can look up during little writing breaks.

      It also helps that my writing computer doesn’t have internet, so I can’t be tempted to “hop over” to research something real quick while in the middle of my writing.

    5. I bet we all do so much more research than we use…that’s what I think builds in the layers of language and meaning and character in a book. I haven’t found a way to narrow it down since I don’t know what I’m going to use until the book is finished. I’d love some tips too, it does soemtimes feel like time ‘wasted’ but then again, how can time spent learning ever really be wasted, you know? Now time spent watching “Mob Wives: Chicago?” Well…

      1. Yeah, I don’t find myself watching TV much lately…to many other things that are more worthwhile. I am glad to hear that you think the research builds layers to the meaing and character in the work…Thanks for your advice Barb! Did you catch anything from the other authors you might try?

        1. Yeah, no internet is a genius idea! I need the internet to work/research most days, but for sure I’ll be trying to take off FB & Twitter (or at least make them harder to access!)

    6. Hi. My name is Kate, and I’m a research-o-holic. Yeah…it’s tough not to get totally sucked in, and to some degree, I think you have to let yourself do that wandering. I’ve had some really great plot threads grow out of accidental research discoveries. But of course, at some point, you need to come back and write the book, too.

      1. Hi Kate!

        Hi I’m Amy, I’m a research-o-holic and I am not even published nor have I spent this much time to work on becoming a writer before…I have learned so much!

        You’re so funny Kate!
        Thanks for all of your hard work and dedication to making this virtual camp so valuable and for answering questions with a personal touch! You are awesome!

  4. With a return to school starting to loom, my thoughts turn increasingly to my students. I’m recalling, at the moment, how their writing often resorts to cliches. (Not just a student-writer challenge, of course.) I’m curious how you all feel about cliches. Do you weed them out as you draft or let them take root? Do you make them a priority for revision or leave other readers — editors, maybe — to sound any cliche alarms? Also, if any of you in the Teachers Write! blog verse have winning methods for helping students get the cliche concept, I’d love to poach your creativity.

    1. Busted! I’m guilty as charged. Wait…that’s a cliche. Those little buggers just seem to sneak into a story when you’re not looking..did I just do it again? Maybe a lesson in “finding cliches” starts with “What’s a cliche?” I absolutely try to revise and remove any cliches from my writing before it goes to other readers. Maybe a class story only using cliches would be a funny way to show students that they can always find a more original way of saying something.


    2. Brian — I’m not a teacher, so I have a 50% chance of giving incorrect advice any time I answer this sort of questions. But I wonder whether it might be difficult for students to recognize cliches since they’ve had less exposure to them than adults. To take a parallel example, since I’ve been reading science fiction all my life, I know enough not to write a story where the last two survivors on Earth happen to be named Adam and Eve. That’s a cliche in the genre. But a kid might not know that, and might write such a story. There’s nothing wrong with that.

      I guess a lot of the answer depends on the age of the students. For elementary school, I’d say just let the words fly. For middle school, suggest they try to say things in new ways.

    3. I’ll let the cliches fly if I’m drafting and nothing else comes to mind as I go. I try not to slow down initial drafts with internal editing. However, I take a hard eye when I revise and try to remove them all. Thank goodness for my critique partner, though, who will catch anything I miss.

    4. Brian, there’s a handout around about cliches that my students would guffaw and giggle over; maybe you can google it. When they’re listed all together, it becomes very obvious that they’re overused. That seemed to help!

    5. Brian,
      As a former humor writer, I have spent countless hours re-writing cliches for humorous purposes. You might try an exercise where, as a class, you do that. Write out (or brainstorm, as a class) a list of cliches, and then come up with a different way of saying them that’s exaggerated for humor (the only example coming to mind at the moment is kind of crass, but would definitely get giggles: “shaking like a leaf” turns into “shaking like a dog pooping peach seeds”). The humor will keep them interested, and hopefully the exercise will get the point across that there are lots of ways to say things.

      Also, I think kids may not be as aware of cliches as adults are. Having a master list that they can refer to while writing might be helpful.

    6. Cliche busting is definitely a revision thing for me. The Inner Critic Lady will certainly look down her nose through her monocle and note them as I write the first draft, but if I can’t think of something better immediately, I won’t stop to fret. Just repeat the mantra, “THAT IS WHAT REVISION IS FOR”

  5. Diane,

    This has happened to me and I’m going to try your trick next time! I like that you are breaking down the scenes into smaller scenes where you can spend time with your characters. Sometimes I just need to write the story to get it down on paper then I can go back and see how my characters feel about what is happening to them “in the moment.” Think about your characters tics and traits. When things get stressful and intense what do they do? Bite nails? Sweat? Curse? Kick things? What do you do when you get excited or are placed in a stressful situation? How do you react?

    Another idea: My writing friend was working on a manuscript recently and couldn’t get through a tough part of the story so she skipped that part and picked up the next scene. She found it was easier to go back and fill in the blank chapter after she knew what happened next.
    I’ve skipped around tough chapters too. Maybe take a break.

    It doesn’t sound like it’s a plotting issue so don’t force the voice. And don’t worry! Your characters will speak when they’re ready!

    Hope that answers your question.


  6. Kate, guest authors, and teacher writers,
    I am interested in hearing what your personal daily writing schedule is. I can tell from looking at your websites, and reading posts throughout the summer that you are amazingly involved and productive people. I know everyone is different, and I’d like to collect as many responses to this question as possible. Thanks.

    1. I can’t wait to read everyone’s replies; this is a fascinating topic to me, too.

      I have two answers for you: pre and post going part-time in my day job.

      For about eight years, I wrote while also working full-time for an educational publisher. Back then, I scheduled my writing time religiously. I committed to at least 10 hours per week. I had blank grids that I kept a stack of, in my study, and each Friday I planned the following week. I wrote down exercise time (at least 3 times a week) and also writing time. Then I posted it on my study door so my family could see it too. The schedule varied from week to week. Sometimes I’d wake up at 5 or 6 to write until my son was up. Other times I’d “binge” with a big blocks on the weekend. It all depended on what else was going on in my week.

      Then, about a year ago, my employer very wonderfully agreed to let me transition to a part-time schedule. So now I write every weekday morning for at least 3 hours, and then I work every weekday afternoon for about 4.5 hours. I can’t tell you how much I love this schedule, and how lucky I feel. My writing has transformed. Before I was so tired, and I felt so rushed. Now I have these lovely long and predictable blocks when I can create.

    2. It seems like it’s never the same two days in a row. 🙂

      I started writing before my older son was born, so for eight years of writing, I had to work around babies/toddlers/preschoolers. I usually stayed up super late or got up super early and definitely wrote through naptimes and during the short hours they were at preschool.

      But three years ago, two things happened. I finally got published, and my youngest went off to kindergarten, and I found myself with waaaay too much time on my hands. My schedule was no longer dictated to me, and I was very unproductive that first year. Fortunately, I’ve had some time to work it out.

      I am still a stay-at-home mom first and foremost, so I never even try to write during a time that my kids need my attention (for example, I’m not writing much this summer; only in little spurts and fits when they’re off at a camp or sleeping over at a friend’s house, etc.). I find this to be the easiest way to keep from feeling pulled in too many directions.

      I also lose at least one writing day per month (and sometimes — usually in October and May — several days per month) to school and library visits. I just accept that these things are an important part of the job, and I don’t try to write on those days, either.

      But on a day where I actually have all day to write, it kind of goes like this. I start by answering emails and filling out interviews for blogs and so forth. Update my Facebook and Twitter. Then I take a break for a workout. This is important, because it helps me clear my mind. I come back, grab some lunch, and get writing. I write for about 4 hours, but find that much more than 4 hours and I start to get…”stale.” I need some pondering time in between scenes and if I’m cranking away for longer than 4 hours, I just don’t get that important pondering time. I try to have it all done and put away before the kids get out of school, and then I check emails and Facebook and Twitter and all that stuff again before bedtime.

    3. I work full-time (and am coming to you today on a lunch break!) and since that takes up a good portion of my weekdays, I do most of my writing on weekends. I need fairly large uniterrupted chunks of time to draft, so most of that is done on weekends, but I am okay editing in the evenings after work.

    4. Me? I get up, eat bon bons for breakfast, write a few bon mots, and then have my hunky cabana boy feed me grapes while I get a full body massage.

      And then I wake up to my real life. I’ve learned to write anytime, anywhere, anyplace. This is probably how I’ve developed tendonitis and carpal tunnel in my wrists. I’ve parts of my novels in doctor’s office waiting rooms. This morning I was writing (and answering some of these questions) while my daughter was having physiotherapy. My author bio includes the title “unpaid chauffeur” and as a single parent, that role has dominated my life for a very long time. I’m not sure who is more excited about my daughter training to get her license in the next few months – her or me!

      I use Mac Freedom to “turn off the Internet” for periods of time – sometimes 15 minutes, sometimes 30, sometimes an hour, depending on the day. I write like a fiend during the offline time, then allow myself a quick online break, then turn the Internet off again.

      Although I don’t have a “day job” I do political writing as well as writing novels. Sometimes it’s hard to switch gears when I’ve got a column due.

      I try to go to one retreat a year where I can be a hard core writer. I get more done at that retreat in three days than in three weeks at home.

      1. Sooooo Sara where exactly DO you buy writerly bonbons? I’ve been searching high and low and it seems like they’re not stocked locally…

    5. Well, when I was teaching full time, my writing schedule involved getting the kids to bed, writing from 9-11pm or 9-midnight or until I couldn’t keep my eyes open any more and then going to bed. Rinse and repeat. I did this on weekdays, and weekends were mixed – sometimes I’d just take them off to relax & have family time, or if I really needed to get work done, I’d head out to a coffee shop for a few hours during the day.

      Now that I’m no longer teaching, I write from 11 or 12 to about 2:30 every day, sometimes again at night. That’s during the school year. During the summer, I’m incredibly sporadic and will go a few days without writing much but then put in a 12-hour-day if I’m on deadline.

  7. Hi Wendi–I think it’s a good idea to schedule your “intense writing time” for the time of day that you, personally, are most productive. I am a morning person, so I get up at 4:30 – 5 or so, allow myself 10 – 15 minutes to check email and Facebook, walk the dog, accept the cup of coffee that my husband has lovingly brewed for me, and get to work. During the school year, I work until 7, when kids get up, and then get back to work after the morning craziness for another 3 -4 hours. If I’ve met my writing quota for the day (which varies depending on the project and my adrenaline level/freak-out mode about a deadline), I allow myself to do less structured stuff, like writing a blog post, answering emails, exercising, and life maintenance. If I’m lucky, I can squeeze in another chunk of writing time later in the day, but that’s a bonus. Hope that helps!

    1. Yes, Sarah, this helps. And thanks to everyone else who has taken time to answer my question. I’ll be checking back later this evening, so anyone else who’d like to chime in with an answer, please do so.

      Oh no, now I must edit for clichés. lol That’s also been a helpful discussion. Thanks all!

    2. Wow Sarah,
      That’s a full day…thanks for sharing how your day looks. I have noticed that my most productive time of the day is early in the morning or in the afternoon when Nat is sleeping…uhoh, what will I do when she stops napping…oh, well, live in the moment right?

  8. I’ve a question!

    In the process of editing, I find myself doing one thing at a time. At the moment I am doing and edit for psychic distance. Next I plan to look at my secondary characters and try to give them more “life.” I have an adverb hunt scheduled too.

    How do you edit a novel? One main idea at a time? Or do you do it all at once? What other big things do I need to look at?


    1. Nanette — it sounds like you’ve found a process that works for you. I do numerous passes, but each one is general. I fix everything that seem broken. I suspect your approach, looking for specific things on each pass, has a lot of merit. The one specific thing I do, usually when I think I’m finished, is to go through and figure out, for each scene, what the main character’s motivation is, and what my motivation is for having the scene(e.g., introduce a character, instigate a problem, wave a red herring). This help me find scenes that serve no purpose.

    2. I’m weird, I think, because it totally depends on the book and its needs. Sometimes, I do everything at once, digitally. Sometimes, I write comments on a hard copy and then edit. And sometimes I do what you’re describing and make multiple passes with a focus for each. Whatever works!

    3. I do it in waves. First wave is just fixing obvious errors, typos, grammatical problems, glaring inconsistencies, etc. Then I do a wave for readability. Then usually there is a big picture sweep, where I’m adding and deleting whole scenes and changing the timeline and rearranging chapters and so forth. Then there’s usually a character focus sweep, where I get deeper into the minds and hearts of all of the characters, including the secondary ones. And then another sweep or two for nitpicky errors.