Teachers Write 7/23/14 – Q and A Wednesday

I’d like to suggest that we all take a minute to celebrate with a glass of lemonade and maybe some s’mores today. At the end of this week, we’ll be halfway through Teachers Write 2014, and you are all doing SUCH amazing things. I’ve loved learning with you so far, and I’m really looking forward to the rest of the summer!

Today is Q and A Wednesday, so fire up those questions. Guest authors David Lubar and Anne Marie Pace are here with answers!

Teachers & librarians – Feel free to ask your questions in the comments.  It’s fine to ask a general question or to direct one directly to a specific guest author. Our published author guests have volunteered to drop in and respond when they can.

Guest authors – Even if today isn’t a day you specifically signed up to help out, feel free to answer any questions you’d like to talk about.  Just reply directly to the comment.

Note from Kate: I usually try to pop in for Q and A many Wednesdays, too, but I’m traveling this week.  Please be extra-patient with me if you’re a first-time commenter – it may take a little while for me to approve your comment so it appears.

Got questions? Fire away!

50 Replies on “Teachers Write 7/23/14 – Q and A Wednesday

  1. Can adult characters have a strong presence in a YA novel if your narrator is teen and it is from her POV. If so…what traps should I edit for…if not, should I take a match to my manuscript?

    1. Oh, gosh. You’ve almost stumped the picture book author and David is off drinking Jose Cuervo.

      I would say in general that you can do anything as long as it works. So the easy answer is yes. The harder answer is how to make it work.

      Regardless, don’t take a match to your manuscript. Everything you write has value, even if it’s not yet where you want it to be. Sometimes answers come over great spans of time.

      I’m going to ping Gae and see if she can add anything.

      1. ah, I’ve been pinged. I almost feel like Dr. Bombay… sorry it took me so long to get here… was in the city yesterday seeing James Franco in Of Mice and Men! (for those of you who don’t know, that book plays a central part in my first book, THE PULL OF GRAVITY.) Anyway, this is a GREAT question, Brian (not to mention your phrasing of it made me laugh…) and I’m often in disagreement on the answer with my agent and/or editor… the easy common wisdom is that adults need to have a limited place in YA manuscripts… that teens don’t want to read about adults and their issues, but rather about their own. And while, as a general rule, this can be absolutely true, if you read either of my books, you will see that adults not only are very present but their issues are front and central. Not only that, but some of the first questions I get from teens in book clubs about my stories are above the adults in the story and what happened with them, or why they did what they did… so I think that the general rule of thumb can be an overstatement. I think the bottom line is that the driving FORCE of the story has to be the teens and their issues, but if those swirl with adults and their issues, if it’s done well and doesn’t take over the story, in the end you’re okay… the easy (and hardest) answer is, if you tell a GOOD story WELL, really anything goes. Which is a long, long way of answering what Anne Marie just did! 😉

  2. Good morning. This question is for both David and Ann Marie.

    What is the best way for a new writer to go about finding qualified beta readers?

    Thank you for your time.

    1. Hi Wendy! A few things come to mind. I know people who have found groups or beta readers by posting a notice on the message boards at the library and/or other places where writers tend to congregate. If you are writing for kids, the SCBWI message boards have an area for Critique Groups and critiquing. I don’t know if other professional writing organizations (like RWA) have the same, but I wouldn’t be surprised. Within my SCBWI region (Mid-Atlantic) there is a critique group coordinator who helps people connect—perhaps other regions have the same. It’s worth asking. There’s also networking at classes and workshops, both online and in real life. Sometimes just putting your name out in the universe helps you connect with a like-minded writer.

      Remember that finding the right critique group or beta reader is sometimes a matter of trial and error. It took me a couple of tries with online critique groups before finding the right place for me—but now we’ve been together about ten years.

    2. Hi,Wendy. I think Anne Marie covered the topic well. I’ll just add a couple randoms things. (I hope they make sense. I’m on my first cup of coffee.) When I first focused on middle grade, I’d pay kids of the target age to read my mss. and mark anything they liked, and anything they didn’t understand. My daughter was in elementary school at the time, so it wasn’t hard to figure out which of her friends were enthusiastic readers. I don’t do that these days. Later, I was fortunate to find a friend who had a strong academic background in literature, and no desire to write novels. So he’ll read my mss. and not ask me to read anything in return. (Once in a while, he’ll have me read an academic paper, to make sure it is appropriately indecipherable.) Generally, for me, the hardest part isn’t finding someone suitable, it’s actually asking. It feels like a burden to say, “Hey, would you mind reading these 250 pages and telling me what you think?” That’s why the critique-group suggestion is a good way to go.

      1. One thing to add. (Still on that first cup. Ideas come in spurts…) If your ms. involves anything specific to a field where you aren’t an expert, you have a perfect opportunity to ask an expert to read it. For example, one of my novels involved a character with some serious medical problems. I asked a doctor I knew to read it. (This doesn’t necessarily speak directly to the issue of finding QUALIFIED readers. But, as Anne Marie said, it’s a trial-and-error-process,)

        1. I have a student that reads my work because they can pick out the inconsistencies. I had a character lying in bed listening to his aunt call him to get up. He commented how much he hated getting out of bed. The next step was his aunt threatened to drag him out of be and he “jumped” up. My student said, “Wouldn’t he drag himself since he hates getting up?” They often see the inconsistencies we don’t. This is a middle school student. She always marks what worked and what she liked and then asks questions about things that are confusing. This has helped since I was first told I wrote like a teacher, meaning it was too stiff. As far as the expert goes, I agree with you. I needed advice about how to handle a criminal act and the punishment involved. I was able to ask a friend who is a judge. Seek them out because they are usually very helpful.

        2. Keep ’em coming, David. Lol! All very excellent advice. Thank you so much. I’m not anywhere near being done with my ms, but I do have my children read through different scenes and give me feedback (hence the editing out of my complicated wording that I love so much, but my 11-yo daughter said, “Why would she struggle awake? Who struggles awake?” (Well, I do every day, but…). Yes, the kids catch those awkward phrases that they wouldn’t use.

          Looks like to I need to actively seek a critique group. I hope to find one here, but if not, I’ll venture into other places.

          Thank you again.

      2. David, I’d like to draw special attention to what you said about student readers making things they like and don’t understand. I think that’s a great way to make use of kid readers. I worry when I hear writers saying, “My students loved it, my grandchildren loved it” and so forth, because that’s not necessarily an arbiter of what is publishable. But your way is super-practical and I think very helpful, too.

  3. This questions is for Anne Marie. I’ve checked out your website and your school visits. A teacher said you used post-it notes and PRIDE to help students revise work. Can you tell us what the acronym PRIDE stands for?

    1. It stood for PHRASING RESEEING IDEAS DEVELOPMENT/DESCRIPTION EDITING. The idea was that kids are often reluctant to revise because it seems like hard work, and I wanted to emphasize that the hard work could lead to feeling proud of yourself.

      I wasn’t completely satisfied with it because in practice I would want reseeing to come before the rest of it and then the words in different order, but RIDPE doesn’t spell anything. 🙂 What I did with the kids to get around that was have them put the letters on post-its in RIDPE order as we talked about each thing and then they rearranged the letters into PRIDE. It worked well enough, but I will probably not be happy until I have a word that works in the right order, too!

  4. Thank you to you both for sharing time with us!

    To David, I am sure you have heard this dozens of times…the boys in my 6th grade class LOVE your weenies series.

    To Anne Marie, I just want to affirm that I don’t wanna be a wanna-be. I wanna be!

    My question to you both is not a writerly one but a teacher lay one: How does a Midwestern teacher get real writers in front of his class? I read about author visits and Skype conferences with middle school classrooms and I salivate. As someone planning for a vibrant community of writers in my 7th grade classroom this fall, I’d sure like to tap in.

    In your experience, how does a teacher go about this? How do you determine if/when you engage directly with students?

    – Matt

    1. Aw, thanks for reading that article, Matt. I have been guilty of each one of those things over the years, so I was truly writing from the heart. 🙂

      As for school visits, many if not most authors love doing school visits. For one thing, it’s tons of fun, and for another, to be honest, we depend on school visits for income.

      It’s funny you’d ask because usually I’m thinking about how I can contact teachers, not the other way around. I’d start by coming up with a dream list of authors you think would connect with your kids and check out their websites to see if they do school visits and what they charge. Generally, school visits include a stipend plus travel and lodging expenses. If you want a really well-known author/presenter who lives far away, this could get relatively expensive, and yet the great presenters will give your kids memories and inspiration that will last a long, long time. On the other end of the spectrum, you may be able to locate local or regional authors who are just starting out. That budget might be more reasonable for you. And Skype visits are another less expensive option. Some authors do a certain number for free and then charge not too much after that.

      But don’t eliminate an author based on budget before you investigate all your options, even in these days of tightened school budgets. There are grants available that could possibly fund visits. Also you might be able to get your PTO/PTA on board and the library may have funds.

      1. This is great to know and thanks for the response, Anne. I have already begun putting feelers out. And your wannabe message is now my new motto!

    2. Hi, Matt. Thanks for letting me know your students like my stories, and thanks for helping them discover my books. (If you haven’t discovered it, There’s a topical index for the Weenies stories, with 400 topics and a separate section of language-arts concepts. It’s at the bottom of my home page.) As for getting authors, check resources that list authors by state. (Kim Norman’s site is a good place to start. http://authorbystate.blogspot.com/.) I believe SCBWI has information about authors, but I don’t know how whether it is formatted by state. If you have an independent book store near you, see if they host touring authors. See if your public library (or county library system) will join in funding a visit, or help to write a grant. For Skype, many authors will do a short visit for free, if they are currently promoting a new book. (Some do a certain number of free visits each year.) Most authors who Skype charge in the $200 to $300 range for a session. (Some charge more.) Check if there are any teacher or library conferences near you that might bring authors into town.

      1. Just want to elaborate on what David wrote… many of us will Skype for free if you are using our book(s) in a classroom setting — especially if the school library or classroom purchases a minimum amount of copies. I also often ask, but not to much success, that the students put up book reviews of my books on Amazon, especially, as it helps some algorithm to keep the book in the online public eye. Certainly, if an author Skypes in for free (or not!) it’s a really nice way to help them out in return. And, if you google “Kate Messner” and “authors who Skype for Free” you’ll come up with an incomplete list of those of us who do. Of course, investigating whether your school can supply a small fee is always welcome and appreciated!

        1. Thanks, Gae and happy belated birthday! I am hoping to line up a few choice authors for my students – even better if I can say I spent the summer with them. 😉

        2. Hi Gae!
          I’m glad you said something about the reviews. I’ll definitely have my kids write reviews for Amazon this year. I didn’t know it was so important. Thanks for the information. 🙂

      2. Awesome resource – authors listed by state. David, How ironic that Kim Norman is right here in Kansas! I did see the resource pages on your site and will look for ways to fold this into mini-lesson activities this fall.

          1. Oh dear, Matt, so sorry I led you astray on that. Since I maintain the site, I sort of “cheat” a little bit and pay myself for the maintenance work by listing myself in each state — with a disclaimer at the top of the page about living in Virginia (where Anne Marie lives, too — although too far away for us to see each other as often as we’d like, I’m sorry to say.) But don’t despair! Our dear Kate maintains a list of authors who do free Skype visits. I’m on the list, but many other wonderful writers are on there, too. Not sure where Kate has it on this site, but I’m sure you’ll find it easily enough with some clicking around.

  5. I have a question about writing dialogue. Does the dialogue come naturally as you get to know your characters better or do you have to work at finding ways to create distinct voices?

    1. Hi, Wendyj. Dialogue comes naturally to me for the most part, but I still make sure to give careful attention to each character during revision. (This bolsters Kate’s point from earlier in the week that it’s important to get the story written, first.) But dialogue didn’t always come naturally to me. This skill, like many writing-related skills, came over time as I wrote a ton of dialogue, and read a ton of books. And, of course, characters are defined through dialogue both by WHAT they say, and HOW they say it. The greatest danger is to lapse into parody. In the first draft of one of my early chapter books, I had teens talking like stereotypes, not like real people. (Fortunately, a trusted reader pointed that out to me.)

  6. I’m curious to know how you decide which story ideas are keepers to pursue or ones to let go. If you’re toying with several ideas, is it just a matter of which feels the most insistent, or do you start outlining and writing scenes and then decide?

    1. I always have lots of things in different stages of production, some of which I immediately pursue and some of which languish for months or years. Of course sometimes insistence means that I HAVE to write it because it’s the only thing I’m thinking about and passionate about; and sometimes it means my editor or my agent is waiting for it. Writing for a living means that some days you have to write when you aren’t feeling the love. That’s a different kind of insistence. 🙂

      1. A bit more about stories that are worth pursuing–stories of my heart would *always* win in my priority list–but if two stories were *equally* of the heart, but one was probably more publishable than the other, I’d go with the publishable first because I have four teenagers to raise and put through college. But that’s me, at this time of my life. Your goals may vary. There are writers who write to make a living and writers who write purely for the love of it, and in my mind, a person’s place on that spectrum is their choice. I’m somewhere in the middle.

        I’m not sure this is exactly what you’re asking, but it’s my answer. 🙂

    2. I’m very big on “high concept.” If a plot idea grabs me, and gets me excited, I know I have to explore it. I like to say I write with a shotgun, not a rifle. I have dozens of openings, chapters, and ideas on file. Years ago, I asked Lois Lowery the same question, since she mention in a talk that she has scads of ideas on hand at all times. She said that usually something in life happens that helps bring one of those ideas to the front of the line. (Total paraphrase. I can’t remember her exact words.) If I’m working on short stories, I’m much more likely to forge ahead. I try to be more thoughtful when deciding which novel to finish. If the idea scares me a bit, that’s a good sign. (By the way, when do we get our grade for the math-test portion of this exercise?)

  7. Good Morning!

    This question is for both authors.

    I have noticed authors writing about how they map out a book. Some use notecards. Others use an outline. Please share how you organize your ideas. And, is it okay to write the middle before you finish the beginning?

    Thanks so much!

    1. Hi Lucretia! I’m not sure I’m the one to answer this since it’s different every time. I have used Randall Ingermanson’s Snowflake Method and found it very helpful. I’ve also used Excel spreadsheets, lists, all kinds of things — whatever works for a particular project. David might have some better suggestions!

      As for writing the middle before you finish the beginning, absolutely! Whatever helps you get the book on the page is fine, as far as I’m concerned. The revision stage is where you’ll make sure everything flows the way it ought to.

    2. Hi, Lucretia. I am disorganized, so I usually keep writing until I get myself in trouble. Then, if the flow of days is important, I print out blank monthly calendar pages, and put the major events there. I’ve also made charts that list the chapters on the side, with the characters and plot threads across the top. Then, I place checkmarks to see whether any characters or threads are off-screen for too long. It’s fine to write any part first that calls to you. There are no rules.

  8. Thank you to both of you for being here today. I had a student this past year who began working early in the year on a story which she is still writing. She has been sharing chapters with me as she completes them. She is probably the best writer I’ve had in the 9 years I’ve been teaching. My question is, how/where do I find a person or group of people with much more knowledge and experience than I have to read what she has written and give her a fair evaluation about the quality of her work? In my opinion, with a little guidance and maturity (she’s only 11) I believe she has the makings of an author who will be published some day.

    I have an additional question which I would love to have input from fellow campers on as well. With only 52 minute periods each day, I’m looking for suggestions as to how to squeeze in reading, writing, grammar, and vocabulary. Do you try to do it all each day or do you focus on different parts each day? Thank you.

    1. I honestly think your student is too young for any kind of professional criticism. She will get everything she needs from her teachers and parents, as long as she is being supported. Perhaps there is some sort of writing camp she can attend in your area (I spoke to one yesterday, in fact!).

      The worst thing that could happen would be for her to feel pressure. Writing isn’t gymnastics, where you hit your peak in your teens. In fact, too much success now could freeze her later.

    2. Hi, Dan. I love that you are such a great advocate for this student. She’s fortunate to have you for her teacher. Unfortunately, I am totally incapable of offering suggestions as to how find someone to nurture her talent. It’s outside of my areas of expertise. Perhaps the middle-school or high-school gifted teacher, if your system has one, could offer suggestions.

  9. Where or how would the parents go about finding such a camp? She loves to write so I believe that both she and her parents may be interested.

    1. Sorry about this. I thought that I was replying to Anne Marie’s comment, not posting a new one.

    2. Well, you know what’s in your area better than I do, but I’d suggest asking at the library, a writing center (if there’s one in your town/city), community education, and so forth. When she is a little older there are fabulous summer writing programs like the one at UVA, Young Writers Workshop. http://theyoungwriters.org

  10. It’s been fun. Thanks for the great questions. I’m knocking off to spend some quality time with my friend, Jose Cuervo. I might check in later to see if there are any questions from American Samoa or Palau, but I can’t promise I can maintain the same level of content. Big thanks to Anne Marie for giving so much good advice (and thus freeing me up to talk about math tests and coffee), and Gae for stopping by to add value to the answer. And special thanks to Kate for being brave enough to let me play. Uh, oh … it looks like I’ll have to factor a trinomial before I can post this. Wish me luck.

  11. Hi Dan – I teach 3 sections of 8th Grade English, and I also have 52 minute periods. I believe the short answer to your question is \”No.\” I do not think you can cram everything into 52 minutes. I focus on different things each day, sometimes ignoring one area for several days (or weeks) in favor of other areas. I break my year into a series of \”units,\” each one focusing on either reading or writing.

    If I\’m not teaching a specific writing unit, I like to start most days with a 10-min writing prompt. That way, the students get to write at least a little bit every day (they will use some of these prompts to expand into longer pieces during other units).

    My vocab always comes from whatever unit I am teaching. If we are working on a novel, I will have three or four vocab lists generated from the book during the course of the unit and introduce one every 10 days or so. It usually takes a whole period to go over each of these. If I\’m having the students write short stories, I might skip vocab for a few weeks.

    I use what I call \”mini-lessons\” to teach grammar. I have a series of one-period or half-period lessons that cover grammar topics (with hand-outs/graphic organizers the students complete as we go through and save for future reference). I schedule these for the transition between major units (after finishing a short story writing unit and before starting the next class novel unit) or as a \”day off\” during a longer unit.

    In the interest of trying to instill the idea that we don\’t have to dissect, analyze and tear apart everything we read — that sometimes we read just for the joy of getting lost in a book — last year, I instituted \”Friday Reading Day.\” I picked a long novel (last year we read \”Ender\’s Game\”) and I let the students sit/lay down on the floor/on bean chairs/all over the classroom and I read to them. This usually ended up being 3 out of 5 weeks, and we stopped to discuss all kinds of things along the way– from Cold War history to theories of light-speed travel — so it took until Spring to finish the book. I was afraid the students would be bored, but even my advanced class listed it as one of the best things we did all year. Yup. Even 14-year-olds love being read to. (The other thing we did that was a unanimous favorite across all of my sections was reading Gae\’s \”The Pull of Gravity,\” ending with Gae\’s SKYPE visit to my classes — I can\’t wait until this year\’s Freshman English teacher gets to learn what a \”vomit draft\” is. If you want to know, invite her to your class!)

    I think you can work in all four areas into each unit in some way (writing assignments or vocab during a novel unit — reading-based assignments during units that concentrate on writing), but I never try to get all four in every day or even every week.

    Sorry to go on for so long. I hope this helps.

  12. I just checked to make sure yesterday’s questions were all answered and it seems that they are! Thanks to Kate for making this opportunity available, and thanks to David for being a wonderful partner-in-crime!

    Best of luck to you all through all your writing endeavors!