Teachers Write 7/27/15 Mini-Lesson Monday with Elizabeth Dahl

Good morning!July has flown by, hasn’t it? Are you ready for one more week of writing together? Here’s your Monday Morning Warm-Up with Jo Knowles.

And our guest author for Mini-Lesson Monday is Elizabeth Dahl, who lives in Baltimore. She’s the author of GENIE WISHES (Amulet/ABRAMS 2013), a middle-grade novel with line drawings. Elizabeth joins us today to talk about the power of sketching in the writing process…

Drawing Your Way to “The End”

About ten years ago, my father gave me a long, narrow pewter paperweight on which was engraved a simple question: “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” I didn’t have to think twice about my answer: Write a book. Be a writer.

Because I loved books and words, I’d studied English and writing in college and grad school. Every time I’d hear or read an interview with a writer, I’d think, “Those are the ways that my mind works too.” But by my mid-thirties, after years of working as a copyeditor, proofreader, and writer for publishers, corporations, associations, and government agencies, my only finished pieces of creative writing were scattered short stories, poems, and essays, and I’d barely even tried to get them published.

This was the big unmet goal of my life. And an unmet goal has its own heft, no less perceptible than the heft of a paperweight. Over the years, my unmet goal had grown from a stone to a boulder. It was craggy and mossy and impossible to move.

Then one day when my son was in fourth grade, I started writing a story about a fifth-grade girl who was elected to be her class blogger. After the end of the first paragraph, I grabbed pen and paper and drew something I’d mentioned within that paragraph. A minute later, I scanned the drawing and inserted it into the file.

original opening

Almost immediately, I felt lighter and happier. And so I kept going, chapter by chapter. If I found myself writing about hamster erasers that sat atop pencils, I’d think, Why not draw one?

GW1200 003 hamster

After I’d finished a first draft (I had a first draft!), I went back to chapter 1 and, while revising the story, considered more places I might add line drawings. That weird musical instrument Genie was imagining, born out of her middle and last names, for instance: What did it look like?

GW1200 002 instrument

I’d never been the strongest student in my various art classes, but who cared? The drawings were another expression of my main character’s voice, as important as the first-person narration that carried the bulk of the story and the intermittent blog posts that punctuated each chapter.

The more I thought about it, the creative boost I was getting from these drawings made sense. I’d always loved illustrated books as a kid—especially books with simple line drawings, like Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince. As an adult, I continued to love them—books like Tom Angleberger’s Origami Yoda series and Grace Lin’s Dumpling Days. Similarly, I loved the scattered line drawings that appeared within columns of The New Yorker. They were modest, charming, and sometimes a bit sly. They added personality.

Eventually, I signed with an agent, Marissa Walsh, who sold Genie Wishes to the Amulet imprint of ABRAMS. I was thrilled. Not only did my ABRAMS editor, Maggie Lehrman, like what the drawings did for the story, she asked for more. In the end, I had a book that was 40,000 words and 50 drawings long.

I have to be honest. Without those drawings, I’m not sure there would ever have been a book at all. The drawings provided levity, and the levity worked as a propulsive force. It was the forklift that budged the boulder.

The larger lesson here isn’t that everyone should illustrate their own writing. But it’s good to remember that other forms of creative expression can inform and enhance the writing process.

Some novelists listen to the same grouping of songs as they write a particular novel. Others have cork boards full of images that inspired their characters or settings. There’s no limit to the ways that other art forms can complement your literary efforts. Whatever helps you get to “The End.”


Today’s assignment: Take a few minutes to draw or doodle today! It doesn’t have to be anything that you believe will end up in your story, but sometimes, drawing can wiggle ideas loose, so give it a go. Maybe you’ll try one of Elizabeth’s strategies above, or maybe you’d like to storyboard one of your scenes. (Jo Knowles has a great post on that here.) Stop by to reflect on your experience in the comments if you’d like!


31 Replies on “Teachers Write 7/27/15 Mini-Lesson Monday with Elizabeth Dahl

  1. This is such a timely post. When I have my characters interviewed I hunt for pictures that I believe represent them and their personalities. I do this for everything, setting, cars,etc. This last year I started carrying little notebooks with me. If I was in a meeting or at the front of a classroom and a student or someone said something that gave me an idea, I couldn’t stop them to write it down so I would doodle a small picture. Some of my students have picked this up and have used it for note taking. The funny thing is how far I’ve come with doodling. My first years of student teaching taught me to stop kids from doodling. I realized I doodled ideas in meetings, classes etc. Doodling is great for class ideas as well as writing. Thank you for affirming this.

  2. Good morning, Ms. Dahl and TWer’s!

    I have a secret to share. My writing journal is full of pictures and drawings. I am a terrible artist, but believe it or not, some of the pictures are decent. I draw my characters (how I imagine them) to help me describe them with more accuracy. I draw specific settings for the same reason. For the current WIP, I have a four-page sketch of the community library that the main character visits. He is afraid that his friends will find out that he is going to the library, so he spends time in the basement section of the library, which has a children’s section and cubicles for reading and researching (I have it all sketched out – even the location of the stairs). I even have pictures of the two different librarians, the nice one and the mean one (although in the end, Sammy does realize that they are both nice).

    Ms. Dahl, thank you for the post. I enjoyed reading about how you became an author. As a busy school teacher and dad, I often think that I will never get any of my words published, but I keep on writing because like running and swimming, it makes me feel good and I enjoy it. I love the paperweight quote. It would be a great question to ask my sixth grade students at the beginning of the year (to get to know them).

    Thank you again. Happy writing!

    1. Andy–The community library drawings sound awesome. And that would be such a fun warm-up exercise to do with new students. Good luck with your writing!

  3. Thank you, Elizabeth! I enjoyed reading your journey to becoming a professional writer. I plan on adding your book to my school’s collection. Our middle school starts in fifth grade and I think our students would relate to your book! We are not too far away in PG county.

    1. Selene–Woot, Maryland! I almost taught at PG Community College, way back when (I was living in Takoma Park). Please tell your students to write me about fifth grade if they feel like it! Yay to Kate Messner and TW for bringing us all together!

  4. This post is so serendipitous. I’ve been reading so much about doodling to support thinking. Last year I encouraged more storyboarding for writers and this year I want my writers to incorporate doodles in drafts whenever it might be helpful. I’m going to add this more to my summer writing regimen. Thanks!

  5. Great insights & examples, Elizabeth. Plus, I love the paperweight anecdote.

    I was reviewing some of my Teachers Write drafts, and I picked ‘Match and Candle’ from last week to accompany with a doodle:

    I love you.
    You scare me.
    I need you.
    But you’ll be the end of me.
    I just want to touch you.
    Don’t come any closer.
    I can’t help it. I feel like I’m on fire.
    Now that you mention it, I’m starting to feel a little wicked myself.
    One kiss then?
    You’ve got flair, I admit. One kiss.
    Just one. But I have to warn you…
    About what?
    My feelings. They’re sometimes all-consuming.
    Then there’s something you should know.
    And what’s that?
    My last relationship ended badly.
    Let me guess: old flame?
    Nope. Burn out.

    Doodle here: https://goo.gl/BdPNDg

  6. I’m an illustrator first, a hopeful writer second. So coming at it from a different perspective than most TWers. I’m going to give this a try, but not using my “regular” style which feels tiresome and heavy to me. I’m going to try some simple sketches and try not to judge! Thanks, Elizabeth, for this suggestion!

    1. Diane–You are so welcome! I think of a book like HUGO CABRET, with the intricate sketches. I so admire people like you who can pull off something more intricate!

  7. This is such great advice. I have begun trying (again) to find places in my Ela curriculum where students can draw/create art to go with the writing assignments. One of my struggling students totally locked in this year on a creative assignment that had storyboarding. He worked diligently and even overcame his fear of presenting in front of the class because he was so proud to share his project. He was on track the rest of the year and I can’t help but think this was because this was his learning style. We used to do so much more of this before all the reforms. Thanks for a powerful reminder.

  8. I echo Sandra in that this certainly is a timely post! I’ve been working on my creative WIP, a children’s book series on bugs, and every time I sit down to tinker with the story, I instead dream up what I want the characters to look like. I envision exactly their positions, expressions, etc. and this is what truly helps to propel my story forward. I am not a very good illustrator but I sure can doodle with the best of them. Author Sarah Albee also gave me some wonderful advice recently on storyboarding, and I am eager to check out more on that (I storyboard with my high school film students each year). I am so grateful for your posting today, this will help me move the ideas from out of my head and finally, finally onto paper! I am also a big fan of Mo Willems and his combination of photography and illustration in some of his stories. For my bug story, since it’s a combination of fictional story and non-fiction scientific information for kids, I am thinking this might be a fun project to start on as well (going out and photographing certain insects, environments, etc. that my character will encounter). Thanks so much Elizabeth!

    1. Andrea, your bug story sounds fun. I’ve been thinking a lot about photographs as illustrations too. When I was a kid I can remember just sitting around studying the images in books, whatever they were. It was sort of like zoning out and sort of like meditation.

  9. You all sounds like such committed teachers, BTW. I know how much energy it takes to run a classroom well and I\’m in constant awe of those of you who do it month after month, year after year.

  10. Excellent post! I am sure that it will impact many of my students. I can’t wait to use it in the classroom.

  11. Oh.my.gosh……this exercise was much harder for me than I thought it would be. And, it was harder than it should have been. Because in my MIND I had this notion that I would come up with something great and witty and wonderful and there would be this breakthrough in my ms.
    Well, you know what happens when a body has delusions of grandeur! I have a few pages of doodles and none of them really do anything that I wanted. I kept making lists of words to help me think of things to draw…..my kids and my MIL got involved with helping me brainstorm because I think in words not pictures. Didn’t know that about myself.
    How great this was for me to think about students and the way THEY think. I have seen a statistic recently about how the brain processes images 60 times faster than text. These MG books with drawings are appealing to their audience more than just because they are “neat” and “cool”…..they are delivering information!
    There was no waaaaaaaaaaaaaay I was going to meet the unrealistic goal I set for myself.
    I need to know my character more. This was the beauty of the assignment for me. I have been so focused on what my character has lost, lost, lost in her time period, in her life that I have not really thought about what she is gaining in her experience.
    This exercise combined with Amy Fellner Dominy’s exercise are really challenging me to know more about my character.
    This is great! I needed this more than I realized I did. I will be assigning myself sketch book assignments regularly from now on! Can I just say THANK YOU for making me think in this way today?! Loved this assignment.
    I am sharing my sketches on the facebook group.

    1. Hi, Linda,
      I do not have a FB page. In fact, I have never wanted a FB page until today. It sounds like you had some success. I love the line, “This is great! I needed this more than I realized I did.” I have felt this way SO many times this summer. Thanks for sharing!