Teachers Write 7/4/13 Thursday Quick-Write with Jenny Meyerhoff

It’s time for your Thursday Quick-Write! I know it’s a holiday, so no worries if you’re too busy setting off fireworks and eating s’mores to write before bedtime. You have the weekend…

Our guest author today is Jenny Meyerhoff. She’s the author of a young adult novel, Queen of Secrets, and three books for young readers–Sami’s Sleepaway Summer, Third Grade Baby, and most recently, The Barftastic Life of Louie Burger, a story about an aspiring stand-up comic with an unusual catch phrase. Unlike Louie, Jenny is not a comedian, but she does know a lot about barf. After all, she’s a mom. Her three kids love fluffernutters, comedy and reading. Jenny lives in Riverwoods, Illinois with her funny kids and her delightful husband. For more information, visit her website:  www.jennymeyerhoff.com.


Setting a Mood

When I am writing a short story, a picture book or a novel, I believe one of my main goals is to make the reader feel something. In fact, this may be my most important goal, but often I get caught up in the plotting, the clever wordplay, the characterization, and I forget about the mood. When the writer isn’t deliberate about mood, the reader is often left emotionally cold.

The way I define mood, it is the overall emotional resonance of a piece of writing.  While a novel as a whole has a mood each scene will also have its own mood as well, but that mood will relate to the overall mood. For example, if the overall mood of a novel is sad, then the moods of scenes may vary from heartbreaking to bittersweet but will likely not extend as far as giddy excitement, unless there is a great reason for it.

Often when I’m writing a first draft, I forget to think about mood, and while this is okay, at some point I need to go back and check that what I’ve written isn’t at odds with the mood I meant to create. Maybe I wrote about the desolation of gray snow and bare trees in the same scene that my character got up the nerve to ask for what she wanted and got it. My reader is going to have a hard time knowing what to feel. When I revise, I pick details that echo what my character is feeling and describe them in ways that evoke a certain feeling.

Get a blank paper and in a few sentences, write a bare bones factual description of the room that you are in right now, for example, one brown desk, a wooden bookshelf, a rectangular window.  Use all five senses if you can. How does the room smell, feel, what sounds do you hear. Get up and walk around. Pick thinks up, touch them.

 Okay, now imagine you are creating a scene in that room with a character who is feeling terrified. What would that character notice about the room? How would it be different from the emotionless factual description. Perhaps the way the clock ticks? The way the door sticks? The fact that the door doesn’t lock. Write a paragraph describing the room from this character’s point of view. Don’t tell us that s/he is terrified, but make it clear from the description.

Now write from the point of view of a character who is in love.

Now from the point of view of a character is impatient, sad or angry.

Extension: if you have a work in progress, pick a scene, and write the emotion you want your reader to feel at the top of the page. Now read through and notice all the details you’ve included that evoke that emotion, all the places you could add detail that would add layers of emotion, all the places you’ve created an emotional response at odds with the mood you intended.

Thanks for writing with me!


Note from Kate: Feel free to share a few lines of what you wrote  in the comments.

Jenny’s giving away a signed copy of her newest book THE BARFTASTIC LIFE OF LOUIE BURGER to one lucky commenter today!




37 Replies on “Teachers Write 7/4/13 Thursday Quick-Write with Jenny Meyerhoff

  1. In the dark the things you left on the floor during the day reveal their true selves.

    Markers become clumsily-dropped bones. A sock becomes the glove of a fingerless something that only wants to grab. A piece of construction paper becomes a trap door that could only lead to the crawl space where a host of things waiting are taking bets on each step you take in the dark brings you closer to what they have been waiting for all day.

    That empty bag of fruit snacks becomes a sort of bait for them who wait.

    And in the dark, even the carpet becomes a thousand small feelers tickling the bottoms of your feet making you wish you could have that sock back.

    1. Paul–I love how this takes me right back into childhood—I would imagine all sorts of terrifying creatures just waiting on me to slip up in the dark. Today, my kids do the same. And yes, after reading this–even here in the morning with all the lights on–I’m sorta itching to get my socks on! Thanks for sharing!

      1. I like these little quick-writes. A paragraph here. A paragraph there. Just a little something to play with. I typed this one straight into the comment box as warm up for the day. I like to hit these quick-writes on the fly. Thank you for reading it. It would be fun to explore as a list poem, I think. Maybe we could try this later on today or this week.

      2. I agree with Sonja and Jenny! This is great -especially on the fly. I love the sound of the line “bait for them who wait.” It’s a little scary, too.

    2. Hi Paul,
      I had the exact same reaction as Sonja! Your piece really took me back to my childhood and that fear that only comes from the dark + a great imagination. So glad you had fun with it!

    3. Crazily enough, this reminded me of my classroom at the end of the day – the remnants of our day’s work. Even the sock. You wouldn’t believe what fourth graders will uncover in their backpacks. I love it!

    4. How true that is! Everything that is usually normal in the daytime can become terrifying at night! I truly enjoyed this “quick” little paragraph. Fear and humor all rolled into one!

  2. This is a wonderful quick write, but will need to complete it later. Traveling for the 4th. Have a great day!

  3. Shades drawn, muting the light. They should be open this time of day, but something keeps them closed. Bad things hide from daylight.
    The doors shut, holding the heat, holding me, in.
    Happy sounds outside, muffled, through windows that in other homes would be open.
    Suffocating, but I don’t leave. I can’t.

  4. In the middle of the night, a music box plays. As, “I Could’ve Danced All Night” floats through the room, shadows slide, slither and writhe to the eerie beat. Is that lemon I smell? I can’t be sure. Under the covers, my legs feel as though someone or something is laying on them, but my dog is in the other room. Who, or what, is there? As suddenly as it began, the music stops, and the silence is deafening.

    1. Wow! Ican hear the music and smell the lemon already. I can picture your character lying in bed just as the silence hits. That fear of not know what’s coming.

      1. I used the music box, because my sister told me this actually happened at her house the other night! And the lemon? Well, I remembered somewhere (probably Ghosthunters!) someone said that lemon was commonly smelled in a haunting! Don’t know if it’s true, but right after we moved into our 170-year-old house, I would wake up to the scent often. Never figured it out! 🙂

  5. Definitely a quick write!

    It’s really one large room with the bar dividing the space and the sink on the kitchen side. A room designed to allow the family to gather there and share, talk, and simply be. The TV sits next to the fireplace competing for attention. Most of the furniture has a wood component making the pieces seem like heavy anchors floating in a sea of beige – beige carpet, beige walls, . Despite the eight windows surrounding the perimeter, the room is dark. Heavy velvet drapes block the day, only allowing the sun’s fingers to wrap hesitantly around the fabric. An open window pulls the aroma of hours old coffee through to the outside passing over the cat sitting on the sill. A combination of freshly cut grass, suntan lotion, and roses floats in the room – the smell of the summer sun. Birds call to her, but she sits in the stillness on the couch in between the dark and the light. It’s the beginning of her second day. Her second day without her children.

  6. I took a walk with my dog and thought over this prompt. I thought about the day he would not be there when I wake up, a sad day indeed.

    I think I hear the clink of his collar when I open the door to the kitchen. Waiting for him to greet me with a jump and a tail-wag, I remember and sink into the chair. The kennel in the corner is empty, his scent lingers. A bowl half full of kibble, the leash hangs limp over the door handle. I rub my bare foot over the rough fraying tennis ball, kick it up, but he is not here to chase it. Tears cloud my eyes. I wait for the scratch at the door. I wait for the whimper, the familiar bark. I wait.

  7. Another great writing prompt! It is so important to think about mood and tone and to pick only those details that support it. I am sitting out on my back patio right now, which made the exercise a bit of a struggle at first, until I changed the setting to nighttime. Everything can be terrifying at night. Here it is:

    I hesitantly climb the stairs to the patio. The moonlight glares off the glass of the table and sliding doors, throwing shadow and light together, blinding me from the contents of the room just inside. The chairs are situated haphazardly around the table, as if their last inhabitants suddenly abandoned them. There is a rustling in the bush behind me, and I jerk around to find the source of the noise. It’s just the wind, I tell myself. My eyes move from the dark, empty yard, to the rusty iron railing caging in the patio.

    1. I love the creepy feeling this gives me. The suddenly abandoned chairs, the noise behind you, the rusty railing. I want to know what happens next – or even what led you to this place. Great job.

  8. The steps quicken as round and round they go. The air becomes suffocating. I can hear the pull chan clinking against the cold, glass light bulb. I shiver under the blanket drawn up to my chin as I stare at the door to the epty room, waiting for what is on the other side to emerge. “You kids get in bed up there”, mom yells, before I have to come up there.” Suddenly there is silence, followed by a giggle before the steps begin again.

  9. This is exactly what I needed to hear today. I was sketching out some notes for an idea I am growing. Then, as I was reading the new book by Joelle Charbonneau, The Testing, I paid particular attention to the mood created at the beginning of the novel. The combination of your advice, the advice the other day about micro tension, and the other writes we have been doing build on each other. It’s exciting to pay closer attention to mood, micro-tension, character development in reading and writing. I can’t wait to see how these ideas help me to grow my story.

    1. I so agree. I was finishing the book “The Prey” by Andrew Fukuda last night and my mind kept looking at all we had been learning and applying it to the book to see how the author had fulfilled those lessons.

  10. I have a headache so part of my setting is not an actual room.

    Pounding demons tramp around in my skull banging about on my forehead with glee. They pinch and poke every tender spot cackling all the while.

    I gathered my things and settled in all cuddled under my favorite quilt. The soft light on my nightstand soothes my eyes. I am hoping sleep will bore the little buggers to death. But first, perhaps the smell of cinnamon and cloves from my chai will appease them.

  11. This was challenging for me. Here’s what I got late at night sitting alone in a quiet room in a quiet house.

    12:47 AM. I sit at my desk in the corner alone. No one stirs. No tiny feet run across the wood floors. No four legged creatures play or fight. No laughter rolls under the door and echos off the walls. No raised screaming voices argue over the favorite toy of the moment. Even the hum, bubble, and gurgle of the saltwater tank and accompanying sump seem nonexistent. I type quietly on the keys and clear black words appear on the white screen. Just as I hear no one and nothing, no one hears me.

    I see the shadows of my monitor, the outline of my hair and figure, and my fingers moving around the keyboard. The yellow walls seem miles away. The crocodile painted on the wall and the outline of the donkey on the floor seem to shrink in their skin and disappear. No chat windows are open. I see no one, and no one sees me.

    I close my eyes and breathe in deeply. I do not smell the cake I just frosted sitting in the kitchen. I do not smell the fabric softener from the load of laundry running in the dryer. I don’t taste the remains of dinner or the toothpaste that surely remains, if only faintly, on my teeth. I continue to teach the keys on my keyboard. They don’t reach back for me. I am alone. I hear no one, see no one, feel noone, smell nothing, and taste nothing. I am alone. I wonder about no one and somehow feel certain that no one wonders about me.

  12. How do those two shed so much? The dark gray couch is a perfect camouflage, but the purple velvet pillows, added to give a burst of color-magnet! The cats seem to relish their fur decorating everything. They curl up in the most unlikely of places, just to leave a tuft of fur. If you ignore them for too long they will “reward” you with a yowling cat fight- leaving clumps of fur across the floor. Clearly the room belongs to them.

    My two minute write.

  13. Great post today because for me the mood of a book actually becomes like a character in the book. I’ve recognized it a bit in my own writing but I’ve been calling it “the vibe”. ; )

  14. I really like this exercise — it’s one I will use with my students! Thanks!

    Here’s mine — definitely a quick-write and out of nowhere…there’s no story behind this.

    The rumble of the diesel engine sent chills down her spine. Please, please don’t let him come to the door. Let him think I’m not home. Why, she wondered, had she left the windows open today, of all days? It would be better to be scorching than this. Her eyes anxiously scanned the room for a place to hide. The desk was too small; no way could she fit under there. And nothing else could possibly conceal her.

    The pick-up door slammed. Footsteps approached the door. Her eyes shot back to the window nearest her desk, the one farthest from the door. That was her only hope. Quickly, she pulled the crate over under the window, praying it would support her weight.

    The doorbell rang, just once. Then he started kicking.

    She was out of time.

    She silently pushed the screen out of the window, stepped up on the crate, and pulled herself into the backyard. Freedom…for a moment. Now where?

  15. I’m coming late to the party, but love the inspiration to find time to write. I’m using naptime, but the girl just woke up, so it’s back to Mommy time.

    The television is on again. Cartoon voices, that monotonous cheer they conjure with their contrived sing song rhythm. The exaggerated inflection and empty tunes send my mind scuttling into the corners of the room. First there are the cheerios, spilled mornings ago now; it’s a wonder the dog hasn’t licked them up. Then the clusters of dust and dog hair—though they swirl through the atmosphere of the living room, they settle in heaps around table legs. The long, jagged scratch across the floor. The stain on the rug from a dirty pair of sneakers. Clutter, everywhere there’s clutter. A sweating glass of iced coffee leaves a ring on the oak coffee table, there’s a sneaker, just one, in the middle of the floor, dumbbells that haven’t been put away.

    The wind blows through the yard, brushing the branches back and forth. They’re unsettled. The windows are closed and though I can’t hear it, I imagine it must be noisy outside. The soundtrack of our yard in summer is an eclectic one: the steady baseline of trucks barreling down the Main Road from which our little dead-end lane meanders, a buzz of bugs, one kind or another, rubbing their legs together (I imagine a coffee break; another bug crawling into his comrade’s place in the Pit, yes, yes, alright, grab me a smoke on the way back!) There’s a mechanical tone of a chainsaw that comes and goes. As the sun arcs back to the opposite horizon, the Peepers will join in, a coyote who lives in the next neighborhood may howl a solo. Inside, it is just these cartoon characters, teaching me how to solve all of life’s problems with a song, showing me the simplicity of resolving conflict, the ease of self-confidence. The end of despair played out in colorful vignettes involving a blue and red steam engine or a curious little monkey.

  16. Whew, I really took off with the story about the person in love and overall filled 4 pages of my notebook just on the 3 scenarios. Here’s the gyst of my 3 pieces.

    Scared – A woman hiding under the kitchen table from an intruder. Her 4th of July party ended earlier and she turned down a friends offer to check her house and to stay the night.

    Love – A girlfriend decides to surprise her boyfriend with a romantic dinner in his apartment for their 3-year-anniversary. She is hoping this will be the push he needs to propose. Unfortunately the suprise is on her when the boyfriend comes home with someone.

    Mad/Impatient – A dad paces the kitchen floor as he waits for his son to come home and he’s already 30 minutes past curfew. The single dad is mad and growing impatient but also scared becuase his son isn’t answering his cell phone and his has never been this later before.