Teachers Write! 7/9 – Mini-Lesson Monday Part II

Good morning, writers! Hope everyone had a great weekend!

Von Sanders – Congratulations! You won our Friday drawing for a copy of REAL MERMAIDS DON’T HOLD THEIR BREATH by Helene Boudreau. Please email me your mailing address (kmessner at kate messner   dot  com) so she can send your book.

For those of you who want to dive right into writing today, here’s the link for Jo’s Monday Morning Warm-Up.

And we have not one but TWO terrific Mini-Lesson Monday posts this morning. This one features guest author Alex Lidell with a character workshop, so be sure to check it out.

And the post you’re reading now features guest author Anne Marie Pace with wise words on Reading to Write. Anne Marie is the author of the forthcoming picture book VAMPIRINA BALLERINA as well as A TEACHER FOR BEAR and NEVER EVER TALK TO STRANGERS. Learn more at her website.


One day, when my oldest daughter was about 9, she handed me a sheaf of papers with a story scrawled across the pages and asked me to read it.  As I read, I started chuckling.  In her story, my daughter had unconsciously mimicked the books in Ann M. Martin’s Babysitters’ Club Little Sisters series.  The characters’ names and situations were different, but the pacing, style and voice were spot-on.  It made perfect sense.  She had devoured the series, reading the books again and again.  Of course, that voice poured out when she began to write. 


We learn spoken language through immersion.  Babies are born unable to speak but within a relatively brief time, most can ask for juice and name their body parts.  Learning to write is somewhat more complicated, of course, but few would dispute that most avid readers find writing easier than those who read less. You’ve probably observed this in your students.

 In fact, new writers are sometimes counseled to read one thousand books in the genre they wish to write in before they start to write. Chances are good that you write in a certain format or genre because you enjoy reading it.  If you’ve read enough, the basic conventions of the genre may come easily to you.  But learning by osmosis only takes you so far. You can’t just read the thousand books and hope for the best; you have to pay attention to what you read. If you want to write with more effective craft than just the bits and pieces you’ve picked up along the way, you have to study good writing and figure out just how authors do what they do.


 Teachers use models with students all the time, whether it’s a model essay or research paper in English class, a model lab report in biology, or a model still life in art.

 Why do we do this for our students?  Sometimes, the model simply sets an expectation:  this is what you should include in your lab report.  Sometimes, it’s freeing.  Writing poetry to some predetermined structure (say, modeling an apology poem on William Carlos Williams’ “This is just to say”) means you don’t have to think about structure.  That part is done for you, so you have more time to think about ideas, themes, or word choice.  Sometimes, studying a model is empowering. Breaking the writing down into manageable chunks makes a daunting larger task seem possible.

What’s true for our students is true for writers as well. Studying models sets expectations:  this is the quality of writing I want to aim for.  It’s freeing:  I know from my study that chapter books of the kind I’d like to write tend to be about 10,000 words, so I will write in a style that allows me to tell a fully-developed story in that number of words.  And it’s empowering:  writing a novel is a huge task, and I don’t know how to do it, but I can learn, one step at a time, from studying the best.


 If this were a longer lesson, I’d want to spend some time at this point talking about using models at the macro-level or story level, the Big Picture.  However, this isn’t a week-long workshop, so if you would like more on this, I’ll recommend two books:  HOOKED by Les Edgerton and Ann Whitford Paul’s WRITING PICTURE BOOKS.  Both make excellent use of models in their discussion.

What I’d like to do instead is give you some examples of reading-to-write along my own writing journey, in hopes that they might inspire you to do something similar, in whatever way they might work for you. 

About eight years ago or so, I decided to recast a short story I’d written into a middle-grade novel. I had the plot, characters, setting, etc. already laid out (in short story form), but I was having trouble beginning.  So I filled in this sentence:

The readers who will like my work probably liked __________ and ___________.

 In this case, the answer to one of those blanks was Patricia MacLachlan’s SARAH PLAIN AND TALL.  (Yes, a collective sigh at its glory is appropriate here.) I pulled it off the shelf and began to take notes.


 Chapter 1 10 short pages; around 200 words per page; total for chapter around 1400 words

 Introduces immediately that Mama is gone, that novel is set in the past (fire), time of day, dogs “Did Mama sing every day?” asked Caleb.  2nd paragraph–that years have passed since Mama died, that Anna has been “raising” Caleb and is somewhat tired of it. Sets up that Papa has changed

a few sensory details fill in.  Interesting that they are sound details, maybe to replace the missing song – but they are not beautiful sounds, a “hollow scraping sound,” the crackling of a log breaking apart

 humor–caleb looks like bread dough with hair

 worst thing about Caleb takes her into memory of Mama’s death, which take her to description of setting and how now it’s winter but it has seemed like winter since Mama died

Caleb brings her back to the present, talk more about Mama, she starts to cry but Papa comes in

 Life continues, with small brief details Then Caleb asks Papa about singing—Papa says he’s forgotten but here’s a way to remember–tells about Sarah. Sarah’s letter is brief, poignant, more literary than factual.

 end of chapter loops back to the singing “Ask her if she sings, I said.”


Some notes were directly helpful, other were less so.  But as I thought about SARAH’s first chapter, two points stood out:  the importance of sensory detail and how MacLachlan picked them to highlight Caleb’s and Anna’s emotions, and the looping from the first sentence to the last, with the motif threaded in (in this case, singing).  When I began to write, this is what came to me:

            The scents of ginger and molasses curl around me like a patchwork quilt, warming the kitchen in the way that only the smell of baking cookies can do.

            I can’t help remembering how ginger cookies are Billy’s favorite, how he had a sixth sense about them.  Even if he was working way up the hill, he would manage to bound into the kitchen as soon as the first batch was pulled from the oven.  He would eat half the tray in one fell swoop, until Mama slapped his hand away and told him to save a few for Christmas Day. But as I open my mouth to say so, I see the tightness of Mama’s lips and her tired eyes and know she is already remembering the same thing.  I shut my mouth again, drawing the thought back inside me tightly. 

            Billy isn’t here this year.  He isn’t here now, and he won’t be here for Christmas, and he won’t be here in the New Year.  And maybe never.

            Mama wraps a towel around her hand and reaches into the oven to pull the tin baking sheet from the oven.  She bangs it on the table to loosen the cookies, a little harder than maybe it needs to be banged.  I wonder if she’s wishing she hadn’t baked ginger cookies at all.

            But maybe she’s hoping like I am–hoping that, wherever Billy is, that the smell of ginger cookies will drift like smoke just as far as he has drifted, will seek him out and tap him on the shoulder, as if he were just up on the ridge, and lead him back to our kitchen.  And he’ll follow that smell to the railroad track, he’ll swing onto a passing car and he’ll ride the rails back to Gordonsville, he’ll hitch a ride as farther more along as he can hitch, he’ll make the rest of the way on foot up the road and into the hollow. 

            He’ll find his cookies waiting, and find me waiting, too.


That exercise helped me shape that passage, which at the time I thought was a first chapter (after many revisions, it’s now just a section in the middle of the manuscript).  But I also used my notes on a smaller level.  Take a look at these lines from SARAH.

            “Well, Papa doesn’t sing anymore,” said Caleb very softly.  A log broke apart and crackled in the fireplace.

 In simple terms, it’s dialogue followed by a bit of scene-setting.  To me, it has more depth; that particular image of the breaking log emphasizes the brokenness of Anna’s and Caleb’s family because of their mother’s death.  If it were just a question of word count or pacing, MacLachlan could have used a whistling teakettle or a flickering light or Papa’s stomping boots outside to fill in that spot, but she didn’t; she chose a breaking log.  Now, I have absolutely no idea if that choice was intentional or if I’m reading something into it that MacLachlan didn’t intend.  For our purposes, that doesn’t matter.  What I learn from this bit is that I can make conscious choices about my words to give them deeper meaning.  Thus I chose to have my main character imagine the scent of baking cookies drifting outside and even across the country, mirroring her brother’s journey. 


 An exercise I have occasionally done involves writing in the style of another author–not to plagiarize, but simply as practice.  There’s not enough room to go into that exercise in depth here, but if you are interested, you might check out these blog entries of mine from February.  The first link leads you to the writing I did while doing this exercise and the second link discusses its benefits for me.




 Fill in the blank:

 The readers who will like my work probably like __________ . 

 Study the opening section or chapter of whatever work you used to fill in that blank.  What about that work do you think readers respond to?  Why does it work so well?  What reaction does it evoke in you?  HOW?  What specific techniques does the author use to make it work?  How can you apply what you have learned to your own writing?

 Now take a paragraph from your work-in-progress.  Use your answers to the above questions to help you revise it into a stronger, more effective piece of writing.

 If you decide to share your efforts with us, please let us know what book/poem/story you were studying and what you learned from it, as well as your new writing.

7 Replies on “Teachers Write! 7/9 – Mini-Lesson Monday Part II

  1. I thought this might be a straight forward assignment. Now I realize that my WIP is inspired by books that are very different from one another. How far should I go in mashing different genres into one work. Can humor and drama (and some mystery) all coexist in one work without one needing to be the main genre?

    1. Absolutely. I use the term “genre” very loosely. Some people use it more specifically in talking about “genre fiction,” meaning sci-fi or romance or mystery (with all the subsets of those), but I definitely don’t mean to imply that you must limit yourself in any way.

      I think the best books–the ones that get under my skin–depict the entirety of the human emotional experience, and thus do involve both humor and drama and wondering (mystery, in one sense).

  2. Absolutely. I use the term “genre” very loosely. Some people use it more specifically in talking about “genre fiction,” meaning sci-fi or romance or mystery (with all the subsets of those), but I definitely don’t mean to imply that you must limit yourself in any way.

    I think the best books–the ones that get under my skin–depict the entirety of the human emotional experience, and thus do involve both humor and drama and wondering (mystery, in one sense).

  3. Such a wonderful post. This is exactly what I’ve done to get (and complete) several freelance nonfiction jobs. The modeling is easier for me with nonfiction, especially NF that has a specific and expected format and voice. I’ve also been using this a lot to study and write picture books. I still find it harder to go with novel-length fiction, but when I get stuck or feel like I’m reallyi drifting, I go back to looking at favorite, successful books. I study them for things like what happens when, who makes that happen, what does the hero do in terms of action and reaction…It just really helps me see the structure that holds THOSE books together and try to grasp the one I need for my project.

    Thanks, Anne Marie!