Teachers Write 7/9/14 – Q and A Wednesday

Welcome to Q and A Wednesday!

Got questions about writing?  Wednesday is Q and A Day at Teachers Write! Virtual Summer Writing Camp, and we’ll have some great guest authors answering – today’s official author guests are Cynthia Lord, Donna Gephart, and Lynda Mullaly Hunt.

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’ll try to be here for Q and A most Wednesdays, too. Please be 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!

131 Replies on “Teachers Write 7/9/14 – Q and A Wednesday

  1. Thank you Cynthia, Lynda & Donna for taking your time to answer questions! I’m asking all of you these questions. (I can’t believe I get to ask three talented authors questions about writing!!!)
    1. When you start a book how do you begin? Do you start with an idea, a character, a setting, a problem?
    2. I struggle with the POV when I’m writing. What suggestions do you have for this? Do you find first person is easier to write or third person?
    3. How long do you write before you begin to revise? Is there a schedule you have or do you start to revise when you find something isn’t working?

    Thank you again for your time in answering these questions. I really appreciate it! What a gift you are to all of us here!

    1. Before we begin, I’d like to say that everyone here has expertise and experiences and I encourage you to jump in and share those under any question–so it’s a conversation, not just a Q&A. I’m going to take your questions one at a time, Michelle, so that replies can go under each one. The first question was about what sparks a story. It certainly can vary, but for me, it often starts with setting. I love dramatic places and I’m curious about the people who live there. Character often comes next, and then from character comes plot. That’s the path my own books often take. Books are like children, though. When your second child is born, you think what worked with your firstborn will work with this one . . .and then they surprise you! Like each child, every book has its own path.

      1. Cynthia, that is so insightful to hear you say that you start with setting. I work in so many writing classrooms in which I see that as the most neglected aspect of the piece. Do you have any advice, exercise or tip I could share with them to focus on this. I think if I said, “Cynthia Lord suggested you try…” they would eagerly give it a go!

        1. One fun exercise is to have the kids start by drawing a map of a place very familiar to them: their room, their grandparents’ house, the playground, the lunchroom, etc. Then have them think of five stories to plot on the map–real things that happened in that spot on the map. Then write down every detail they can think of to describe those areas–using as many senses as they can. Then have them choose one story to write and use some or all of those descriptions. I find that kids often like this activity. 🙂

          Anyone else have a good activity for setting?

      2. Thank you, Cynthia, for inviting all of us to chime in! I love this first question because it made me stop and really think about what comes first. Honestly, I think character comes first for me. I love paying attention to people around me and dreaming up stories for them. Once I come up with a character, then I usually figure out what problem they have and then build a plot around that problem or sometimes I’ve come up with the ending and then I have to figure out what could go wrong before getting them there. Setting sneaks in with the plot and the character usually…either I think about where the character works or where he or she might live based on what I “know” about him or her or as I start to think through the plot, I think of all the places where the character needs to be and then I start to narrow in on a clearer picture of the setting.

        See! You made me think! I love it. Now I actually feel like it’s really hard to separate one from another but I do believe my characters come a little bit before plot or setting.

    2. You aren’t alone: a lot of writers struggle with POV. I think choosing between first and third is often a question of whether the outside story or the inside story of the main character is more important. There are pluses to both first and third, but once you choose, you have to accept the minuses of that POV. First person gives more importance to the inner life of the character and lets you explore that more deeply and intimately, but the reader IS the character in first person, (I am . . ) and if the reader doesn’t like that main character, they will not want to be him/her. So you have to connect the reader quickly. Also in first, the reader only knows what the character knows. I have a secondary character in Rules who is in a wheelchair and who cannot speak. I never tell you his disabilities in the book because my main character doesn’t know and she’s too embarrassed to ask. In first, you are inside, looking out through the main character’s eyes with all of his/her opinions, prejudices, fears, etc. In third the reader is outside the main character so you have a broader view and perspective to work with.

    3. As for revision, I think whatever keeps you moving ahead through your first draft is the right thing to do. You can power through a first draft without looking back. You can revise as you go. You can do a combination of both. All those are right answers if they help you move in a solid forward direction.

      For me, a first draft is full of fear. There’s excitement, but there’s also more doubt than at any other point in writing for me. The story forming in my head is rich and interesting and powerful, and my first draft is none of those things. It’s risky, too. What if I don’t know what I’m doing? What if I can’t make this work? So what works for me is to power through a first draft without looking back. If I were to allow myself to revise (which is more comfortable for me), it would keep me from moving ahead.

      There’s a quote that I use in my school visits that’s really my mantra for first drafts: “Every first draft is perfect, because all the first draft has to do is exist.”—author Jane Smiley. That’s my goal. So I try not to ask myself if what I’m writing is good in a first draft, I just get it done. Revision is where you *make* it good.

      1. Michelle- Great questions!
        Cynthia- Thank you!! As a fifth grade teacher, I am always looking for words of inspiration- for both myself and my students. I can’t wait to share these thoughts with my students this year… “Yeah, I promise, CYNTHIA LORD said that!”

        1. I love this quote about the first draft bc it addresses the idea of expectations of the inner voice. I now have a much clearer understanding of getting started.

      2. Fear is such a powerful entity. It is comforting to know that even published authors grapple with it. I appreciate the honesty and motivation to face fear and hopefully come out on the other side better for having faced it.

        1. I’m glad. 🙂 My next book has a line in it that says “To do brave things you only have to be a little bit braver than you are scared.” So that’s all you need, just that little bit more.

  2. Hi, Cynthia, Linda and Donna:

    Thank you so much for talking with us today! It’s my first year participating in Teachers Write and I’ve looked forward to Wednesdays! I have a couple questions for you all:

    1. Please talk about your writing routine. Is there a certain time in the day and place where you write? For how long do you write?
    2. I’ve recently heard several published authors share that writers shouldn’t read within their own genre while writing. Can you share your advise on this?

    Thank you for answering my questions.


    1. Hi Alex, I\’m a morning person so I often get up around 4 am. I started doing that more than 10 years ago out of necessity with my family, but now it\’s just a habit. I love that time of day. It\’s peaceful and my head is not full of a million other details. I think right as you wake up can be a very creative time because you\’re still close to your dream state. So I work a few hours in the early morning. Now that my children are grown, I can also work again in the afternoon. Sometimes I have to use that afternoon time for other types of writing, though (answering kids\’ mail, etc). That\’s my summer schedule. In the fall, it will change because I\’ll have school visits to work around.

      1. Sorry about the strange formatting. I’m answering in another platform and then copying my message just so I can see the whole message at once. But there’s some translation going on I guess.

      2. It’s interesting that in Chinese medicine, I’ve been told, the early morning hours from 3 am to 5 am is the time when we are most able to access our own spirituality. Maybe that is a possible reason why writing works for you and others in the wee hours.

        1. I think I’m going to try this and run with it. It’s 6:20 now, so I’ve missed out on those hours today.

    2. As for reading in your genre while you’re writing, there’s no “One size fits all.” That’s true of most things in writing.

      There are two things to look out for, though: imitation and your emotions. You don’t want to find yourself influenced by that author and his/her book in a way that is harmful to your book (possibly imitating their style, etc) and you want to make sure that what you’re reading is encouraging you as a writer and not discouraging you. When you read a book, you’re reading a very finished product, and it’s important not to compare that to your books as equals. Some writers are affected by that and others aren’t, so it’s really being honest with yourself and protecting your ability to do your best work.

      I don’t tend to read in my genre while I’m writing, but I do read things that encourage me to take chances. Poetry, for example, makes me reach higher with my words and images, but it doesn’t get in the way for me. Narrative essays do the same. So after I turn a book in, I go on a reading binge in my genre!

      1. Cynthia:

        Thank you for your insight! I love learning how other writers approach writing and the writing life. This is enormously helpful!

        Thanks again,


    3. Hey, Alex,

      Like Cindy, I prefer doing my most creative work in the mornings, after I exercise. I find that three or four hours of writing is a good day’s work. But it’s important to have a specific goal for those hours and energy and motivation before I begin. To get this energy and motivation, I do a lot of thinking about what I’ll be writing when I’m walking the dogs, washing the dishes, driving somewhere, etc.
      It’s not easy, though, to come to the page every day with fresh ideas and energy, so I have some other tricks I use. I have a writing buddy with whom I check in every day. Before we start writing, we send an email about our goals and ambitions for the day. When we’re done writing, we check in again to see if we’ve met our goals. Sometimes we even meet up at the library and write together on our individual projects. We’ve told each other on busy days that even 30 minutes of writing matter. This helps me “find” time to write.
      Lately, I’ve been using the Pomodoro Method, which is a system of 25 minutes work, followed by a 5 minute break. This pattern repeats for four segments, then a 20 minute break precedes four more segments. You can find a free on-line Pomodoro timer by Googling the term “online stopwatch Pomodoro.” My productivity has increased dramatically with this method, and the spinning tomato on the timer cracks me up.
      When I’m beginning a new book, I can’t read fiction. I need to get my own story set in my head before I introduce other stories, which might be more compelling than my own fledgling story idea. During this time, I often read magazines and non-fiction books. Like Cindy, when I finish writing a book, I celebrate by reading fiction like a person in the desert drinks water.

      1. Thanks for your response, Donna. I’ll certainly try the Pomodoro Method. It sounds like a great way to keep myself on-task.

        Thanks again,


  3. Thank you for joining us!
    My questions….
    If you are writing a novel in verse how does one “story-board” it? I write lots and lots of poems….but not all necessarily for “the book”. I’m a pretty focused/structured person….except in this! lol.
    2. what are some intermediate “next steps” for authors? In between writing and developing a pile-of-stuff and taking the plunge into looking for an agent? This question is for me….but also for the many, many students that are really good and I don’t know where to direct them. I’m not a LA teacher….so I feel kinda lost in directing them forward.
    3. laughing here—-I’m such a librarian–any tips on archiving snippets, stories, poems….the pile-o-stuff?
    Thanks so much for being here. It’s just the first week and I’m super happy to see all the activity!

    1. Linda, I appreciate your asking the question about where to direct students as I had a student this past year whom I believe is really good and I’ve been wondering the same thing.

    2. Hi Linda, I’ve never written a novel in verse, but I’m going to ask my verse novel friends and see if they will come and give some ideas.

      There are good resources online for writers about submitting work. SCBWI (the Society of Children\’s Book Writers and Illustrators) is a good organization to join with lots of support and information. http://www.scbwi.org/. You can look over their website (some of the pages are available to anyone and some things you need to be a member to see). SCBW is a great organization to help you learn the business. For example, there’s a standard way to format a manuscript and write a synopsis, etc.

      When you’re ready to submit, there\’s a resource book (also in ebook form) published annually by Writers’ Digest called “The Children\’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market Guide” that includes addresses for publishers and agents and a brief summary of what they\’re looking for. The 2015 edition comes out in Sept. so right now the 2014 book is on sale on the WD website. http://www.writersdigestshop.com/2014-childrens-writers-illustrators-market-group. You can also order it at your local bookstore.

      The editor information included in the book can go out of date, so it’s good to double check that before you put something in the mail.

      For your students, all the above applies, but if you can find places that accept student writing, they will not have to compete with adults and they stand a better chance. Here’s a list to start with: http://www.childrensbookguild.org/about-the-guild/faqs/73-where-can-i-get-writing-by-children-published

      But let me give you something to think about. There is a tremendous amount of rejection in the publishing process. I worry sometimes when I meet an adult who has a child or a student who is a good writer and loves writing and the adult immediately jumps to the idea of publishing. The standard thought is that it generally takes about 10 years from the time you start until you might have a published book. That amount of time can vary widely, but it’s a good place to put your expectations. Ten years of reading and learning your craft and making mistakes and missteps and learning from them. I think most kids need that writing gift nurtured, and the publishing process is not very nurturing. In my most cases, you’ll wait months and months for an answer, and then many times the answer is no. It’s a hard rollercoaster to be on. So think about that student and whether this is the right time for that or if it’s better to encourage them to learn more about their craft and experiment and share in a smaller way with less rejection.

      1. I appreciate what you say here, Cynthia, in response to students who develop a real interest in being published. I ran into some determined developing writers this year who received similar advice from an author friend. I wasn’t sure how they would receive it-I worried a little about whether they would be discouraged by the advice to practice more and publish later. As it turns out, the students were really appreciative of her honesty and felt like she was looking out for them as writers.

        1. Melissa,

          I was thinking about your question of students’ publishing and it seems to me they just need an audience. So maybe blogging would do it for them, or starting a website like a google site where they could publish their writing. My students also submit to the Creative Communications essay and poetry competitions and really feel accomplished when their writing is selected for publication. Also iBooks author or the Book Creator app could be used/submitting a book to iTunes? Just some ideas..

    3. I wrote a response to you, Linda, but I put links in it, and the blog needs Kate to approve the comment. Apparently it thinks I might be Spam! 🙂

  4. What a wonderful gift of time and wisdom! thanks for answering our questions. I wonder what the three of you think about the future of published books and the rise of the e-book. Have you had success with the electronic book or have your overall sales slumped? I have been asked to put one of my books online and I am resisting it. Should I just give in and put it online? Do you ever think that seeing a child curled up with a book in a comfy chair will disappear from this world?
    Thanks again…

    1. Gosh, I HOPE that never disappears, Maureen! I think reading on a device and reading a book are two different experiences, but both have their time and place. I haven’t seen a decline personally but I think it hasn’t trickled down to Picture Books and Middle Grade as much as YA. But the world changes and kids today are so tech savvy, it’s another way to reach readers.

  5. Hello there and thank you for taking the time to do this for us!

    I am wondering…before you had submitted your first manuscript and once you had an idea, what kept you from planting those seeds of doubt in your head that often stop me in my tracks?

    Dana 🙂

    1. Doubt is my middle name, Dana! But I’ve come to see that *revision* is actually where books become wonderful. My first drafts are just a framework, an exploration of a story and characters. It takes some faith to write even if you don’t feel confident, but knowing it doesn’t have to be right the first time through is also freeing.

      And you can play little games with yourself, if they help. I *named* that judgmental inner editor voice in my head. When I was growing up, I wasn’t very good at penmanship and we had a stern teacher for that named “Mrs. Cathcart.” She would swoop around behind us and she had a rubber stamp with four sides: “Handwriting 1,” (the best) to “Handwriting 4” (the worst). She’d come up behind us and BAM! her hand would suddenly appear and stamp “Handwriting 3” on my paper. It was demoralizing, because I had to finish the page even though it was already judged as not good enough. And that’s how it can feel sometimes when I’m writing a first draft. That inner editor slaps “Writer 3” on my page.

      But I named my inner editor Mrs. Cathcart and when I’m doing a first draft, I send her away on vacation. I imagine her on a cruise sipping umbrella drinks, hanging out in the deck chairs, asking the waiter to rub some sunscreen on her, etc. It has to be some place *good* so she doesn’t want to come back! Then if I feel her creeping in, I tell her it’s not her time yet, and I send her somewhere else fun. I’ll call her home when I’m ready for her. It’s goofy but that actually helps to take some of the seriousness out of the whole thing and allows me to do that first draft.

  6. Thanks so much for being here today. I just want to gush a second here and say how much I love your writing and look up to you as role models. I’m having a Cynthia Lord week. I’ve read “Half a Chance” and “Rules” and just started “Touch Blue.”
    I am curious about tense. I have written in both present and past. How do you decide which works best for the story? I find most are written in past tense; however, Rules is in present tense. Any pointers?

    1. Hi Margaret! What a lovely comment to read. Thank you!

      Rules and Touch Blue were both written in present tense. Half A Chance and my 2015 novel (A Handful of Stars) are written in past.

      Present tense comes most easily to me, but there are some drawbacks to present. The major one is time. In present, everything is now, so it\’s harder to deal with the passage of time. It works better when the story won\’t cover a long period of time and each chapter is one scene. When it\’s more than one, there\’s a certain awkwardness to the transition that is much more easily accomplished in past tense.

      Present is more immediate and it adds tension, but that tension has to be worth what is actually happening. \”I get up. I find my shoes under the bed.\” That doesn\’t deserve that extra tension, so it can work against you as well as for you.

      Finally, some readers just don\’t like present tense. It feels like a gimmick to them.

      Past tense has more of a storytelling voice and time is easier to deal with. It does add some distance, instead of immediacy. Half A Chance and my new book have a more \”timeless\” tone to them and past felt right. I also didn\’t want to always write in present simply because it was my go-to tense. It took some relearning to write in past, but past tense is invisible and I like it for that.

      I usually just start a book using whatever voice and tense come to me.Then as I’m writing I see if it continues to serve the story. Or if there are things I want to do that are harder in that tense, it might be worth making the change.

      Once a teacher asked her students to choose a page of Rules and rewrite from present tense to past tense and then they discussed what happened in that shift: what was lost, what was gained? They also rewrote passages from first person to third person to see what happened. It’s a great exercise to do on your own work as well as books, just to see what happens.

    2. This is a good question! Thanks for asking. 
      I have had some Cynthia Lord days, too! Absolutely love Rules and Touch Blue. Haven’t gotten to Half a Chance yet, though. Something to look forward to!

      Re: your question…Sometimes when my kids ask me about dinner, my answer is that I’m making “an experiment.” That means that I’ve taken a recipe that we know and mixed it up off the cuff. It’s become a joke around here.

      I experiment was tense in the same way. When a book is just beginning within me I will sometimes write a few chapters in present tense and a few in past tense. I do this with point of view as well, writing a few chapters in first-person and writing a few chapters in third person.

      It’s when I read them aloud to myself that I know what the answer will be for that particular book. For me, it comes down to what sounds right.

      If I were to choose a favorite tense, however, I probably choose present tense. For me, it feels most immediate and gets emotion to rise to the surface more easily. But as I said, that’s just me 🙂

      1. Love the ‘experiment’ analogy for dinner. When my kids would ask and I wasn’t sure I would say ‘crap in a pan’ or ‘pantry surprise.’ That was code for I’m not sure yet.

        1. Thanks for the laugh. I like both the “experiment” and “pantry surprise” ideas. When I was growing up it was “coffee grounds and eggshells” while my wife’s answer to our boys was “chicken surprise”. This meant one of two things, either something made with chicken as an ingredient or surprise, it ain’t chicken.

  7. Thank you all – what an honor it is to ask you questions. Cynthia – I finished ‘Half a Chance’ last night and loved it. I spent my summers with my grandmother at Martin Meadow Pond outside of Lancaster, NH and you took me right back there. LTL (Love the loons!) 🙂
    My questions:
    1. I teach 7th graders, many of whom are reluctant (nearly phobic) writers. Some of my classes form a sense of community right off the bat and others, we can’t seem to find it despite my best efforts. It seems so important to me so that they are willing to take risks in their writing but maybe that’s my bias and not theirs. So…do you have any suggestions to help build community? and do you think I am placing too much importance on this and just get them writing? Thanks in advance for any advice. Such a treat! 🙂

    1. Wow, Susan! I\’ve been to Lancaster many times. It\’s such a beautiful area (I grew up in Milton, NH on a lake that had loons). My parents sold that house a few years ago and it brought up a lot of emotion for me–all those familiar roads now lead somewhere I don\’t belong. And that\’s where the idea for Half A Chance started–a need to explore that and finally let it go.

      I\’m sure everyone has some wonderful thoughts about community so I hope you teachers will all chime in.

      To risk you need to feel some confidence, and to share comfortably, you need to feel trust with the people you\’re sharing with. Both of those things can take some time to build–and some people come more ready for that than others because of the experiences they\’ve had prior to that moment. Just look how many of you felt anxiety about sharing your work, right? It\’s hard to risk with people you don\’t know well yet.

      But guidelines help, just like Kate did for our sharing yesterday (only giving positive comments until we discuss giving feedback, for example). When we know what to expect, it makes it easier.

      Also ask yourself if what constitutes a risk for you is the same thing as it is for that student? It may be a risk to simply commit to ideas on paper. Maybe having them write a few pieces and then letting them choose one to share. So they feel some ownership and power in that situation. And then having guidelines about what to say to each other to build trust. I think community is built from having positive experiences with each other–just like what is happening here, right? You risked sharing something when you were ready to do so and received affirmation. It makes it easier to share again. It makes it easier to try something new in your writing, too.

      I think this group is really a good example of how trust gets built among writers. 🙂

    2. Susan,

      I just finished teaching a year of high school creative writing (grades 9-12) and a week of creative writing camp (ages 10-13), so I have some strong opinions about creating a supportive, safe environment.

      One of the first things I tell students is how important it is to have an environment where they feel safe to share work. We consciously cultivate a culture of kindness in the classroom.

      I spend the first couple days playing games to help the students know one another, feel comfortable and find what they have in common. For example, we sit in a large circle and the first person says her name and one unusual thing about herself. The next person repeats what that person shared and adds her own name and one unusual thing about herself, etc. I tell the students ahead of time, I’ll choose one person at the very end to say everyone’s name and unusual thing. From this activity, students find things they have in common.

      There are also a lot of different ways to share one’s writing. Some things I had everyone share, such as a visual storytelling project about something important to them. But when we shared our writing as a group, I let everyone know ahead of time, I wouldn’t force anyone to share with the group. Sometimes, we broke into very small groups, which made the sharing less intimidating. Other times, when students were writing, I’d meet with each student individually. Or I’d read their writing and comment in writing without oral sharing. Or I’d pair them with a buddy to share with.

      When it came time to critique, I made sure to emphasize we would be helping to improve the writing, it was never personal.

      It’s also important that a student doesn’t feel judged. After someone read, I said, “Thank you for sharing.” Because even effusive positive feedback can be intimidating. I had a student who said, “____’s writing is so good, no one else might as well read.” That student hesitated to share after that comment. And so did the rest of the class.

      Sometimes even though you give your best efforts at creating a warm, safe environment where meanness isn’t tolerated, the group dynamics may still be off. I had this happen when we had a group that treated each other like family. It was a warm, fun environment and everyone readily shared, but when a few new students joined our class and some had “big” personalities, that feeling was shattered and I watched some of my most prolific writers dry up no matter what I tried.

      I think your students will greatly appreciate you trying to create a warm, safe, supportive environment.

      One thing that’s not always mentioned with teaching writing is that some days we would have free reading time. I’d allow the students to sit anywhere they were comfortable. Some curled under tables, others squeezed between bookcases, others put their feet up, etc. There was magical energy in the room as each of us (me included) took time to lose ourselves in favorite books. These sessions were often preceded by our school’s librarian doing a fun book talk.

      If you have any other questions about this, don’t hesitate to contact me via email.

    3. Hey, Susan!
      Actually, I found this as a teacher as well. Kids at this age tend to be self conscious, over think and I could see that they would often hold back. What I began to do is I began to cut student names off the writing assignments and project them on the wall.

      I started this whole process by using writing assignments that I got from teacher friends, so I was able to tell the kids that the writing assignment didn’t belong to anyone in the room. The reason why I did this is I feel it’s important for writers to be able to both give and receive suggestions for improvement. However, as we were practicing how to do that I didn’t want anyone in the room to be the recipient of an unkind remark. We practiced the sandwich method – beginning with a compliment, following it up with a suggestion, ending with a compliment.

      Then, I moved to writing assignments written by my own students. There were always posted anonymously but at the end I would ask the class if the author wanted to fess up to who he or she was. As the year progressed more kids fessed up.

      Somewhere around Halloween, I did move into small group discussions where kids would critique each other. However, it was only after we did several of these large group discussions and we were able to discuss the difference between constructive feedback and being unkind. Also, I’d stress the importance of knowing that feedback of your writing isn’t right or wrong—just another point of view for you, as the writer, to take or leave as you see appropriate. But, you are always gracious in accepting it. This graciousness in both directions is what builds trust and community, I think.

      Lastly, I would model bravery by writing stories, copying them off, and handing my students red pens. I would tell them that they could fail me if they wished but they better explain why—and, boy, they dug deep to do that! The stories had intentional flaws and the kids knew that :-). But it was further practice in offering constructive criticism and I think it was important for them to see my willingness to put myself out there. As writers we must always remember that we are not actually our work. Negative feedback on our writing is not feedback on us as individuals. It takes bravery to be a writer who puts yourself out there—but it enriches your life so very much.
      You’re right! Community is so important. It’s wonderful that you are looking to foster that—it’s a long term gift that you give your students. I can’t imagine being publishing without this wonderful community that I have! Thank you for all you do every day!

  8. First I want to thank Kate and all of you for donating your precious time to this incredible camp. It is an amazing opportunity to learn from each other and I feel ‘lifted’ after only 3 days! My question is also about writing routine for Teachers. Cynthia has written to this previously so maybe Lynda or Donna might respond. Starting is not hard for me, I set a time and I go and write. It is deciding when to stop (if there aren’t time constraints). Can you talk about your thinking as you wrap up a writing session? Do you make notes for next steps? Try to stop while it’s ‘flowing’ so you can jump back in? I would love to hear a bit about that. Thanks!

  9. Good Morning!
    Thank you all for taking time out of your busy schedules to answer our questions. Many teachers of writing require graphic organizers during the pre writing phase. What are your thoughts on
    1) making them mandatory
    2) Do you have other suggestions for students who struggle with organizing their thoughts and putting them down on paper?
    I teach third grade and I often feel that requiring a graphic organizer is helpful and sometimes hurtful as well. Any thoughts? I’d love to hear how you do your pre writing and organize your thoughts. Thank you so very much!
    Michele Drivas

    1. Personally I don’t use a graphic organizer, but I already know how a story works–and that’s not true for children (until we teach them). So there’s two things at work here. 1 Learning about stories and how to write them. 2. Writing stories. For me, Number One comes from my head and Number Two begins in a feeling place. So it feels counter intuitive in my case.

      But understanding how stories work is important and does take some practice. So for those students who may also find it counter intuitive, perhaps you do some group brainstorming with the organizer to teach story planning to give them something to fall back on or to help organize if they get stuck or after the first draft to set the course for a revision.

      What do you all think? What tools do you use to help students with writing? Are they successful for you?

      1. Michele and Cynthia,
        I am also a 3rd grade teacher, and in my experience, writing is always the hardest thing to teach. I’m always looking for techniques to draw out reluctant writers or kids who protest that they “just can’t think of anything” to write. From what I’ve seen, my students come to me seeing writing as a means to a grade, or something they have to do because the teacher says so. I have found that very few write on their own because they enjoy it or feel like they have a story to tell. At 8 years old, I feel like students need plenty of room to explore their ideas, before they get wedged into a particular format or writing frame. A few years ago, I started “Creative Writing Journals” with my students, where they can largely forget about spelling and conventions, and just write on an idea or prompt. This gives them the opportunity to explore an idea without being judged under a microscope on organization or “proper” writing expectations. Each year, I find that even my most tentative writers start to write more freely, knowing that I’m not evaluating them on their writing in terms of a rubric, but only expecting them to be thinking and writing during that time. I just don’t think kids get that opportunity very often in their formal schooling, but putting it back into our day brings the joy back to writing and encourages shy/bored/uninterested/fearful writers into children who are finally allowed to put a pencil to paper without anyone else judging them. It’s a very freeing process. I can almost see my kids breathe easier once they realize that their ideas are the most important aspect of writing.

      2. It’s been a real joy to read all the wonderful teaching and writing ideas shared by our authors and participating teachers. What a treasure trove of creativity and inspiration! I am a reading specialist, and I have also been dabbling in writing novels for children and young adults for several years. I don’t normally use a graphic organizer with my own writing, or in helping children prepare to write stories. I do, however, make liberal use of the concept of narrative arc. I draw one, and show the kids how the beginning of the story is centered on establishing the characters and the setting, and how the conflict must be introduced early to get that arc moving up into interestingness. For kids, I call the arc a “story mountain.” The best place to find examples to share is, of course, in the library–where there are hundreds of wonderful mentor texts of all genres and levels that can be used with a variety of ages. Helping kids find the connection between the reading they’re doing and the writing they’re exploring is such a key to their success and confidence.

    1. Hey Sue! Thanks for your question 🙂 My process is to write the first two chapters, then the last chapter, and then fill in all the chapters in between. So, I do know the ending of my book pretty early in the process.

      In writing One for the Murphys, the ending pretty much stayed as it was from the beginning. However I did change the ending of Fish in a Tree. The ending was basically the same kind of idea but I rewrote it to include some threads that had popped up in the book as I wrote. By the time I submitted FiaT as a final manuscript, I had written four endings. I sure hope I chose the right one 🙂

      I thought I’d also mention that, although I typically know the ending of my book, there are large plot points/pieces of character development that I don’t know. I am not an outliner – I write more by the seat of my pants. Sometimes I don’t know what’s going to happen until it leaks out of my fingertips. I’ve learned to embrace this and actually think that it makes the writing more fun than knowing everything ahead of time.

      1. Just needed to gush for a minute: my ten-year-old daughter is a prolific reader, and she often doesn’t share with me what she reads. But one day after school, she tossed “One For the Muphys” into my lap and said, simply, “Read this.” So I did, that very night. I loved it as a book, but I loved even more that something about it touched my tough daughter at her core and made her want to share it. Thank you.

    2. I usually think I know the ending of a novel right from the beginning. But sometimes that ending needs to change by the time I get to it. For my novel, HOW TO SURVIVE MIDDLE SCHOOL, my editor had me rewrite the ending several times. Eventually, it morphed from the one I’d wanted to the one that was right for the novel.

  10. Thank you Cynthia, Donna and Lynda for working with Teachers Write this summer. I was hoping you could talk a little about your experience with your first book publication. How long do it take to get published? What are your suggestions for forming a critique group-should it be friends, strangers? Thank you so much!

    1. Hi Deb–I thought I was replying to your questions but my answer ended up below. (Must have messed up whe I was trying tot so the math–haha) Scroll down to find it. Erin

    2. Hi again, Deb– (Like Cynthia, I am answering these in a Word format, thus apologies for the extra /’s and such that pop up when I cut and paste.) Critique groups are best formed with those whose opinions you trust. You don’t have to agree with those opinions, but what’s the point of having someone read your manuscript if you don’t trust their feedback? I didn’t know the members of my critique group very well when I joined them, but I respected their work and knew they would bring different perspectives to mine. We met via SCBWI ( Note to all: If you are writing #kidlit, I highly recommend you join SCBWI.org –the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) , so I knew they were serious about their craft. We have since become dear friends, but friendship isn’t a necessary component at the start. I’d go with respect and trust. (PS The answer to the first part of your question is a few comments down.) Best, Erin

    3. Deb,

      I like to let people know about the five or six novels I wrote, revised and hoped would be published. They sit in a filing cabinet to this day. I call them “practice.”
      When I turned what would become my first published novel into my agent, she had extensive revision suggestions. I was so frustrated with coming so close so many times, but not publishing my books, I quit. I applied for a job at a local library. When I didn’t get that, I took it as a sign I should revise my novel. It was so bad, I kept only the first two chapters. Then I spent four months researching and revising AS IF BEING 12-3/4 ISN’T BAD ENOUGH, MY MOTHER IS RUNNING FOR PRESIDENT.
      It was worth all the hard work because that revised version sold to Random House, eventually won the Sid Fleischman Humor Award and landed on the shelves of my childhood library, among others.
      In other words, it takes a lot longer than you’d like and is a lot harder than you’d expect . . . but ultimately it’s worth all the time and effort (especially when young readers let you know how much your book means to them).

      I found my local critique groups through SCBWI.

  11. Last night, I finished reading _The Edge of the Precipice_ edited by Paul Socken, a collection of scholarly essays about the place of reading in the “Digital Age.” The gist: justifying reading in any media will always be subjective; even as newer digital forms explode, books still have a place; different media are useful because they afford different spaces for writer/reader transactions (slow, contemplative immersion in novels, say, versus speedy information exchange online). I thought it’d be interesting to get perspectives from our community of authors, teachers, librarians, writers, and readers about these ideas, so here are a few questions…

    To what extent has digital media influenced how you draft and revise? The question intrigues me in terms of both composition — tools you use, how you use them, and how any of that has changed over time — and also product — the end result being paper versus an e-version (whether blog, book, ’zine, what have you). Is your process largely the same as it’s always been or have you made adjustments that have proven either notably effective or not?

    Casting a wider net, what are your thoughts and feelings about the future of reading, whether words on paper or digital alternatives?

    1. Hi Brian–Interesting questions! I am on Twitter ( @ErinDealey) and FB, and blog (occasionally more than often), and edit the monthly e-newsletter for my literary agent at @EastWestLit, but really none of these has influenced how I draft and revise the content. I draft the e-newsletter directly onto the site but for books and sometimes even my blog, I start either on paper (I’m left handed so there’s something about actually writing the first draft with an actual pen or pencil and paper! Feels like I’m connecting with that right brain of mine…) or in a Word document. As for my thoughts on the future of reading–I like my e-reader but there’s nothing like an actual book. And in my opinion, nothing can replace a book when there is a child snuggled up for story time. : )

    2. Hey, Brian!

      I absolutely love my Word Program. I often think how much more difficult it would be to write a novel on a typewriter – major kudos to Author she did that.

      But when it comes to planning, revising, and plotting, I’m still an old-fashioned girl. I have a 3 x 5 card for every chapter of my novel – they are all on a magnetic whiteboard in my office. I use them to look at the flow of the novel, make sure I have enough tension, look for areas or chapters that are redundant redundant, track how often characters appear, make sure that I am varying settings, etc.

      I know that there are computer programs and apps where writers can manipulate 3 x 5 cards on the screen. But, I know that I could never use them. I like to hold the cards in my hand and will often carry them around my back pocket. Why? Because I’m a writer and I’m allowed to do odd things 🙂

  12. Thank you all! I also have a question about endings. Whenever I write a short story I find the ending the hardest of all. Sometimes the ending happens very organically and I am pleased with the outcome. But most if the time I am disappointed or worse I just can’t figure out how to end it. Is the proper way to know the ending before you begin the actual writing? Thanks for your feedback.

    1. One way to think about beginnings and endings is that the beginning of your story or novel makes a promise and the ending fulfills it. So whatever your characters wants (or the central question or however you want to look at what is driving your story) is set up in the beginning and is answered in the climax. The answer can be no, but the question is dealt with in a satisfying manner for the reader.

      So look at your beginning and see what is promised. What is driving this story? A mystery? A deadline? A desire? The plot truly begins when *that* is introduced as important. Before that, is “set up” so we want to know that as soon as it makes sense.

      At the climax, we want the answer: Did the mystery get solved? Did we make the deadline? Did the character get what he wanted? Then we often see a moment or a scene where the character is living with their new reality (the resolution) to end the book.

      So the ending will be determined by the beginning. It’s often the *middle* that’s the hardest part. How to get from that beginning to the ending with increasing tension.

    2. Hi Cathy– In my opinion, there is no tried-and-true way to write your ending. Organic feels the best, doesn’t it? You will note from Lynda’s comment above, that she starts writing with an idea of the ending in mind. I don’t always have that vision, and when I do, it often changes once I get the story out and see what it’s really about. (Maybe that’s why it takes me longer to get a finished manuscript–haha!) I’m a firm proponent of getting the whole story out first before you turn that “editor” brain on. Maybe all you need to do is let go and allow your narrator to take over. Sometimes all that’s stopping you from a killer ending could be the must-tie-up-all-plot-points urge. (This is why so many of our students go straight to the “And then I woke up!” ending.) Here are some “use it or lose it” suggestions off the top of my head: *Try letting the reader connect some of those dots. Lynda’s concept is cool because you want your ending to bring the story full circle. Often, the ending and beginning are set in similar situations but the character acts differently at the end because of the new perspective or growth gained from the actions and choices in the story. *Is there a clear character arc or emotional arc where your MC changes and we readers experience this? * Is there a kernel of insight into the way the world works? One other thing to consider is that not all stories will be perfect and publishable. A potter throws a lot of pots, smashes many of them, and uses the clay to start over. I’ve done this with manuscripts, believe me. It’s part of the process. Hope this helps. Erin

  13. First of all, thank you Cynthia, Donna, and Lynda for joining us here. I have been plugging along on the second quick write because my ideas have just taken off like wildfire. However , I feel as though I am focusing on too much sensory detail and not moving on with the story itself. Is there such a thing as too much detail in a story? I think it’s my LA teacher side coming out since I constantly tell my students,”More detail, more detail!.”

    1. There is a balance to strike. Details add flavor and richness, but they also slow down your pacing. So ideally we want details that tell us something about the character (her life, her point of view, etc) and/or that move the story along. Adding details is like adding seasoning: spice it up but not to the point of overwhelming the dish.

      When you’re free writing and exploring and early drafting, add all the details you want and can think of . Then when you go to revise, if you sense you have too many and it’s slowing the pace down too much, cut a few and save the best ones.

      It can be hard to cut pretty words, though! So I have a file called “Bits and Pieces” where I just put bits of description that I love but don’t belong in this book. Maybe they’ll go somewhere else. Or maybe I’ll leave them in that file and go read them when I want to. It makes it easier to cut.

  14. I love to write, and I love to edit. But I have publishing block. There is so much information out there on finding agents and publishers, query letters and manuscript submissions. I am not afraid of rejection but overwhelmed to the point I can’t get started with the publishing process. What would be your top 3 list of things or resources people in my position know about taking the plunge?

    1. Hey Dawn! I completely understand your feeling this way. In fact, I remember feeling exactly the same.

      First of all, if you’re not afraid of rejection, you are ahead of the game 🙂 All of us experience rejection while trying to get published—a normal, expected part of the process and not something to be afraid of. In fact, sometimes rejection offers opportunities in the form of advice form publishing professionals. Sometimes a rejection doesn’t speak to the quality of our work but merely not finding the right match between your work and an editor or agent.

      The first thing I would recommend you do is join http://www.scbwi.org/ It’s a phenomenal organization for people who write for children. I literally would not have been published without them.

      SCBWI holds conferences where you can meet editors and agents, receive feedback from them, find critique groups that you trust, and learn the ins and outs of researching agents and editors for the right match. One of the best things about this organization is the camaraderie.

      The second thing I would suggest, is to find a really good critique group. You can find these on the SCBWI website (once you become a member – which is worth every penny. Trust me. 🙂 They are invaluable and often share information about editor and agent contacts/information. In addition, extra sets of eyes are great for manuscripts and you want to send out your very best work, as you rarely have an opportunity to resubmit.

      Now, let’s talk research! Consider websites such as http://agentquery.com/ or http://www.querytracker.net/ . With websites such as these you can generate a list of agents by putting in your genre and generating a list of names/agencies. And the fun begins!

      Once you have a list of agents, begin by going to their agency websites. Based on the website itself, their list of clients, and the *absence of fees* you’ll be able to ascertain who is legitimate and who is not. If you’re ever asked to pay a fee or submit your writing to a website that gives it some sort of rating for a fee in order to submit, avoid these agencies or agents as they are probably not reputable.

      Agent bios on the agency websites will usually tell you what kind of genre the agents are looking for. Once you have a list of agents who are matches for your genre then go to Google.

      Put the name of the agent in quotation marks and then add the word interview. I found this to be the most helpful in researching. For me anyway, reading interviews of agents and editors really gave me a good sense of who they were – and I do feel that a personal connection is important.

      When you are ready to query, I suggest you begin with 5 or so. Be sure to do your research and indicate specifically why you are approaching that particular agent. (You would approach an editor same way – however there are only a few publishing houses that are open to submissions from writers these days.)

      When I queried agents. I also researched some of their clients, taking the time to read client books, etc. In the last paragraph of query letters I would include some of the books I especially enjoyed and stated why I thought that agent would be a particularly good match for me and my work. Generally, agents do not like to feel like they have received the same exact query that dozens of others have. Take the time to personalize – it will be worth it.

      The best of luck to you! It is not an easy road but it is well worth it. 🙂 I’ll be thinking of you and sending publishing vibes your way 🙂

    2. Dawn,

      If you’re hoping to sell a novel, I’d suggest beginning with an agent.

      There are many good sites to research agents. I like http://www.literaryrambles.com/. When you find a dozen agents who rep what you write, you can explore the agent’s individual web site for client lists and submission guidelines.

      At that point, you can submit your query and/or sample pages to a number of agents at once.

      Remember, that an agent isn’t just selling one book. An agent will be guiding your whole career. Choose carefully.

      Since the literary landscape of agents changes so rapidly, this resource might prove useful as well: http://www.writersdigest.com/editor-blogs/guide-to-literary-agents/new-agency-alerts

  15. Hello- I’m a published author that’s looking at promotion. Things seem to change so quickly on the best practices to promote (Twitter over Facebook (that now charges for extra exposure), blogging, book trailers). What do you find works best for you?

    1. Honestly, I find that the social media that I enjoy doing work best for me. Because I enjoy it, I keep it up and have made some wonderful friendships. I also find it helpful to do targeted mailings to people or organizations that would have a special interest in me or in the subject matter of my book. That goes beyond the groups that my publisher targets. It’s hard to know what’s helpful sometimes, though, isn’t it?

  16. Hi Deb,
    My Quick Write session isn\’t until August, but I thought I\’d chime in here with Cynthia, Lynda, and Donna– (I\’m loving their answers!)
    The short answer: There is no standard timeline as to how long it takes a book to get published.
    The long answer: My first picture book was a slush-pile success story (no agent)–I queried two publishers because I couldn\’t find any others who would accept rhyme–got a rejection right away, and then after the other publisher asked for full manuscript, I didn\’t hear from her for six months, at which point I got a fabulously exciting phone call from her. She wanted to take my manuscript to acquisitions! What I didn\’t realize was that this meant several rounds of editors and PR and marketing deciding if the project should go forward. A few weeks later, she called and offered me a contract. Cue the HAPPY DANCE and my visions of a wonderfully long revision process with this amazing editor …(I am an English teacher so the prospect of going through THE PROCESS was sheer nirvana to me!) However, aside from a few minor changes–which took about a month due to response time–, my editor said the manuscript was ready for illustration. Normally, an illustrator gets a year to complete his/her part of the book, so the \”standard\” is that picture books take two years from contract to pub date–HOWEVER…the illustrators my editor had in mind were all busy with other projects so it actually took four years for GOLDIE LOCKS HAS CHICKEN POX (Atheneum/S&S) to make it to the shelves.
    Novels are a different story because there are fewer, if any, illustrations and in most cases only cover art. In my case, after four years of writing and revising, my agent sent my YA novel out to a few editors and we got such glowing rejections, I decided to pull it and go back to revisions per their suggestions. I am currently waiting for the responses of a few beta readers before my final (I hope) revisions, and then the plan is to submit it again this Fall. (fingers crossed.)
    I hope this helps! I\’ll answer your critique group question in another reply. Best–Erin

      1. Thanks–and you’re welcome! The real “Writing Process” is a lot of “hurry-up-and-wait,” but don’t let that deter you. I love what I do!

    1. Erin, thanks so much for your responses to my questions. I really appreciate the insight – right now as a FT teacher the time commitment to the writing process seems so overwhelming on top of everything else, but it’s hard to ignore that urge to write. I’ll hang in there!

  17. I love reading all these posts and answers. Makes me feel like we’re all best friends sitting on the patio sipping ice tea. You’re all welcome to come over! As a 4th grade teacher, I LOVE reading my kids writing, except the endings. Ug. Someone asked about graphic organizers, they work for some and not for others. Any tips about helping kids with endings?

    1. Hey Kelly! Absolutely – I’ll be right over 🙂

      Your question made me smile because it made me think back to my days of teaching third grade. At the beginning of the year, the kids would often rely on endings that were fantastical but were not appropriately so. For example, they would write a very contemporary story and then have the whole resolution come about because a spaceship landed in the backyard with aliens kidnapping the main character, etc. It was kind of akin to “Then I woke up.”

      Most of my first draft comes from the guts – and that includes the ending. However, for me, the ending is the most cerebral part of the process in revision. Endings are about resolution. Endings are often about answering questions or showing a change in the character.
      So in terms of breaking this down for a kid, I guess I would suggest that the writer determine what the big question will be at the beginning of the story – such as, “Will the main character actually get the lead in the play?” “Will the character adjust to her new life in a big city?” “Will the charter get the dog she has been begging for?” Basically, a story begins with a main character who wants something. The plot would include obstacles to that desire and the ending would give an answer to that big question – whatever it is.
      I think something like this step-by-step could be done with a graphic organizer. However, I’d personally tell the kids that if their writing strays from the organizer, to just go with it!

      1. Your advice reminds me of a writing exercise I did at a conference last fall. Fill in the blanks for your work in progress: After _____, _____ must _____ or risk _____, in order to _____.
        After (inciting incident), (character description), must (primary action), or risk (struggle, internal or external), in order to (end goal/resolution). Before starting with our own stories, we tried it with a well-known story like Harry Potter. Try it! It’s a great exercise in thinking through a story’s higher purpose!

  18. How do you ensure the voice of your main character is authentic to who he is? After reading the intro to my latest work in progress to my best critic, my 8-year-old gave me the following advice: You need to give Jaxon a more colorful vocabulary. He’s a cool guy and drives a Camaro for crying out loud.” Apparently, according to her, I need to “step outside of my boundary line.” Any advice?

    1. I read my pages aloud. Your ear catches things your eyes don’t. Does it sound like a real person who lives this life in this place? Even better, read it aloud to someone else (as hard as that can be), and every time you find yourself wanting to skip over something or cringing, you know that’s a place to work on.

      Jaxon sounds like a fun character!

  19. Thank you all for sharing your insight! In talking with teachers about Teachers Write at Nerdcamp, some shared how they just don’t know where to start or how scared they are to write something down. And then at Nerdcamp Jr, I sat with a kiddo who easily became frustrated when other kids were coming up with ideas and she felt stuck. Her eyes filled with tears and she slouched in her seat, trying desperately not to cry. I sat with her and started to brainstorm with her and she calmed down but I makes me sad to see and hear how scary writing is for people. What suggestions do you have for writers or to support writers who are just stuck getting started or scared to write something down?

    (I believe in reminding them that writing is a process so we can write anything and always work on it if we don’t like it and that there isn’t a right or wrong when it comes to writing…but I would love to hear your thoughts!)

    Thanks for sharing your writing lives with us! It helps to hear how writing works for you! 🙂

    1. Hey Jen!

      First of all I would like to thank you for being such a caring teacher and helping that student. There are days I wouldn’t mind you visiting my office 🙂

      We all have days like this as writers where the ideas aren’t flowing. And I think when we get really stuck it’s due to fear that the ideas never will.

      With the new writers or young writers I think they sometimes feel that there is permanence to putting something down on paper. And the thing is, this just isn’t so. As a published author I will often tap things out on my keyboard that I know are terrible – that I know I will delete later. The thing is, sometimes you have to write through the junk in order to get to the good stuff.

      I have a 30-minute sand timer on my desk. On days like this, I flip it over and the rule is that I have to keep writing no matter what – no coffee refills, no answering the phone, no Facebook, etc. Sometimes I will begin these exercises by typing things such as, “This is not the best day I’ve ever had for writing. I wonder if anything will come… “And you know what? Something always does. Eventually.

      The other thing I would suggest in terms of trying to spark ideas is to ask a kid what they’ve wondered about? I think the adage, “Write what you know” is not necessarily the way to go. Writing what I know often bores me so often write what I wonder about instead.

      This isn’t necessarily easier but I think it’s more interesting and therefore more motivating.

      So for example if I were talking to an elementary aged kid, I may ask him/her to think of an argument that they had with a friend. I might ask them to think about changing something in that argument and wonder about how that could’ve changed what happened. I would ask them to re-write that story with a change.

      Have they ever thought about trying out for a play? Or baseball team? But didn’t. Perhaps they could wonder what would’ve happened if they followed through and write a story about that.

      And all the while they need to remember that words on a page are not words in stone. One of the greatest tools a writer has is the delete key – and we use it often!

    2. Hi Jen–I love your “there are no wrong answers” approach. This is so true! Long ago, I was one of those kids. I had a lot of ideas, but the “editor” in my brain wanted the PERFECT one. (What if kids laughed at my story? What if they found out I’m dumb? or Crazy?) Sometimes it helps to ask students to write “the worst story ever.” That’s what sloppy copies are for anyway. Not all of us write by outline but in school I felt like I had to get organized before I wrote and that made me freeze up. As a panster, I get the story out first, and then go back and revise, like you said. It’s similar to when young kids play and make up a scenario and see where it goes. We stress format so much in class sometimes we forget that creative play is equally important. And so do our students. Maybe that’s why I thought I would be a math teacher when I grew up. (!!True story!!) There was a right and a wrong answer in Math, and a formula to fix it if you got it wrong. Not so with writing.

    3. Jen,

      My heart breaks for that young writer. I’m so glad you sat and helped.

      I often tell my students I’ll show them the second scariest thing known to man. After a while, it’s revealed that the second scariest thing is a blank piece of paper. (The first scariest, of course, is public speaking.) And then I tell them I’ll provide tools to help tackle that blank page. One of those is brainstorming ideas, just like you did with her.

      Another thing I did with my writing students was write alongside them. I made sure to let them know while they were scribbling away, that I couldn’t think of anything or that I had only one lousy sentence written. And I’d share my half-baked, unfinished writing with them as well. It was good for them to see even a published writer struggled to put words on the page sometimes. (Many times.)

      Another activity that takes the pressure off by putting the pressure on is a collaborative story, where a timer is set and each student writes only one line of a story, then passes the paper and the next student writes the next line, etc. The finished stories are usually hilarious, and young writers don’t feel the spotlight too intensely when it’s a group effort.

  20. Hi Cynthia, Donna, Lynda, & Erin –

    A few years ago, I used a story idea I was working on to model the writing process with my students. Some days I would “write out loud” on the screen, and discuss the creative process with them. Other days, I would bring in sections I had worked on, and get their feedback. Through these wonderful interactions, I wanted the kids to see another part of writing; courage. I shared my own fears about how the work would be received, whether by my students, or by other teachers. Students asked “Could you make a whole book? Could you be a writer?” Because I want my students to pursue their dreams, I pursued this one. I completed the story. But I had no real intentions of becoming an “author”. We had writers visit the school, and I recalled the haunting stories of numerous rejection letters. I researched the publishing process, and felt that the amount of time I devote to my teaching craft would not allow me to adequately pursue traditional publishing. So I self-published, and continue to write as a passionate hobby.

    But I’m left wondering if I did my story justice. I wonder if I should take this story devote serious efforts to get it published. I’m not looking for a career in writing, but how did each of you pursue publishing while still working in your original profession?

    1. Greg,

      Now that I taught last year, I can see how one’s creative energy goes to one’s students. That said, if you’d like to try to publish your story, I encourage you to go for it. Summer affords time and energy. But once you select an agent(s) or publisher(s), send your story out and forget about it. Write your next story. It usually takes a long time till you hear anything. The worst thing that can happen is your story will get rejected. (I’ve received hundreds of rejections.) The best thing is it will be published, and your story will be read by more people. And you won’t have to ever think, “What if . . .”

    2. Hi Greg–What a great idea to show your students first-hand about the process and the courage in creating. I wrote my first drafts of Goldie and also Little Bo Peep Can’t Get To Sleep in the pick-up line of my daughter’s elementary school, after a long day in the trenches teaching middle school. : ) Some writer friends go to a coffee shop –and away from the To Do list at home or at work–to write. Some like Cynthia get up at 4am–GASP. (My husband will tell you that would not work for me…) The trick is finding what your schedule is and where you could carve out time for YOU. What made me get serious was joining SCBWI, and what made me devote time to my writing each week was joining a critique group–thus I was motivated to have work to share and keep pursuing this dream of publishing. As teachers, we tend to put our own writing dreams aside because we aren’t getting a monthly paycheck for it, and there is no instant feedback from editors–like we get from our students (good or bad–haha). The best advice I can give you is what you’ve already figured out: by pursuing this dream you are teaching your students how to follow their own. Yes it takes risk, and time you probably don’t have–but you are leading by example. It may be the best “professional development” you’ve ever experienced.

    3. Greg, I started writing seriously for publication while I was teaching middle school. For ten years, my writing time was 9pm to 11 or 12, after my kids went to bed and my teaching work was done. Believe it or not, those hours add up, and I got quite a few books written that way, and in the margins of life…while I was waiting to pick kids up at sports practice or sitting in the dentist’s waiting room.

      1. Kate, thanks for the encouragement! I am deeply indebted to you and your colleagues for providing this wonderful camp experience for all of us. I also grateful that some of the veteran campers were willing to share the keys to the ranch restroom. The long porta-potty lines in the middle of the summer heat were keeping me from the precious writing time! 😉

  21. Thank you all for giving your advice this week. My question is about diaglogue. What tips do you have for making characters speak and sound like regular speech?

    Thanks in advance.

    1. Eavesdrop. I have a shirt that says, “Be careful or you’ll end up in my novel.” It’s so true. I get excited when I overhear a good bit of dialogue. I think, I’ll use that in a book someday.

      For dialogue to sounds natural, it is often broken up. We don’t always speak in complete sentences. In fact, we don’t always listen to the other person and sometimes, what we say might not have a whole lot to do with what the other person just said. It’s fun to write dialogue when we know a character is thinking or feeling one thing, but saying something very different.

      Finally, intersperse your dialogue with actions and thoughts so you don’t have a couple of talking heads. Let us know where the people talking are located, what’s going on around them and how that affects what they say or hold back.

    2. Read just the dialogue (no tags or gestures) aloud and see if it sounds to your ear like real people having a conversation. Your ear is often a better judge of that truth.

  22. Thank you, authors, for graciously and thoughtfully taking time from your lives to spend with us. A whole lot of really good stuff here! I hope there will be a digest of this wisdom for handy reference.

    I come to the klatch with iced coffee rather than tea. I hope that this is a forgivable transgression!

    My area of interest is feedback. When I write, I am an absolute hog for audience. I can’t wait for someone to read my writing and comment on it…probably the narcissist in me.

    What about you? Do you have someone(s) who reads your work and gives ongoing feedback as you write? How much feedback is too much? How do you determine what feedback is valid? when do you trust your gut, and when do you defer to the wisdom of others?

    I ask these questions as both a writer and a soon-to-be 7th grade writer’s workshop facilitator anticipating similar concerns. Thanks in advance for your responses.

    1. Matt,

      I have two phases where I seek critique:

      1. When I’m shaping a new piece, I appreciate feedback to see if I’m headed in the right direction or veering way off track.

      2. When I’ve revised a piece on my own and can’t see where else to improve it, I seek feedback to take it to another level.

      I remind myself of this quote by Robert McKee: “Unfinished work invites tampering, while polished, mature work seals its integrity.”

      When to trust your gut? Always. Just make sure it’s your gut and not your ego. ☺

    2. Hi Matt– I agree with Donna. And how cool is it that you’ll be facilitating a 7th grade writers’ workshop. Nice!

      Feedback is tricky even between adult writers, as many of us still deal with the raw angst of acceptance that your 7th graders feel. (Seriously. We all have our doubts. We all wish for “That what awesome. Let’s publish it NOW!” reaction.) You develop a tough skin, but when you think about it, wouldn’t you rather have “helpful” but possibly painful feedback first before Kirkus sees it?

      When I first started sharing my writing, I heeded every single note and suggestion my beta readers gave me–and basically revised that novel into oblivion. (It is still in a file somewhere…) It helps if critique groups –young or seasoned– begin by agreeing on feedback Do’s & Don’ts. It’s also a big learning experience to have them practice on a “random example someone wrote.” (Don’t tell them it’s by a well-known author; have them give feedback first–This teaches them there are many perspectives to feedback. No one’s perfect. Our expectations of others’ writing are also influenced a lot by the types of books we like to read. What I like–or have problems with— in a manuscript won’t always be the same someone else likes.

      The sandwich response is also a good format with students: begin with one positive note + share ONE thing that didn’t resonate with you, confused you, or brought you out of the story + end with another positive observation.

      Sometimes it helps to have the writers specify what they want you to focus on: plot? character development? the ending? opening hook? I often ask readers to let me know when they lose interest (big red flag!) or skip a part or get confused or if something doesn’t seem authentic.

      Trusting your gut is huge in this business, and something I learned to do over time. Now when I give feedback it’s with a “Use it or lose it.” caveat. Only you, the writer, know what story you are attempting to tell.

  23. Hi Cynthia, Donna, and Lynda!

    First of all, thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedules to answer questions about reading and writing. I am honored by the opportunity to ask questions. I have two questions:

    1. My sixth grade students struggle through the brainstorming and revising/editing stages of the writing process. Do you have any “hook” or “gimmick” type activities to get the students interested in taking their time during these important stages? (Example: Revision phones – they love using them)
    2. Do you have a favorite stage in the process?

    Thank you again in advance.
    Have a great day!
    Andy Starowicz

    1. @Andy, I am currently reading a book by Georgia Heard called, “The Revision Toolbox.” The book is loaded with ideas, techniques and min-lessons to teach revision to young writers. It has been a treasure trove of ideas for me thus far. FYI – Anything written by Georgia Heard is worth reading.

    2. Hi, Andy,

      There’s a great book for young writers by the late (gosh, I hate writing that) Walter Dean Myers. It’s called JUST WRITE; HERE’S HOW. In it, he shares his 6-box method and character timeline method of pre-writing. He wrote that the extent of his pre-writing determined whether or not he’d sell the novel. And his re-writing determined whether or not the novel would sell well.

  24. Hi, ladies. Thanks so much for being available to answer questions today! My question is similar to Dawn’s earlier post: I don’t necessarily get writers block; I get publisher’s block. I have absolutely no idea how to begin the process. I know some people rave about self-publishing e-books, but my old-fashioned heart years to hold my book in my hands. What was your first experience like as you entered the draft-to-published arena?

    1. Hi Julie,

      I’m going to repeat something I said this morning, but it had links in it so Kate had to unlock it.

      There are good resources online for writers about submitting work. SCBWI (the Society of Children\’s Book Writers and Illustrators) is a good organization to join with lots of support and information. You can look over their website (some of the pages are available to anyone and some things you need to be a member to see). SCBW is a great organization to help you learn the business. For example, there’s a standard way to format a manuscript and write a synopsis, etc.

      When you’re ready to submit, there\’s a resource book (also in ebook form) published annually by Writers’ Digest called “The Children\’s Writers and Illustrator’s Market Guide” that includes addresses for publishers and agents and a brief summary of what they\’re looking for. The 2015 edition comes out in Sept. so right now the 2014 book is on sale on the WD website. http://www.writersdigestshop.com/2014-childrens-writers-illustrators-market-group. You can also order it at your local bookstore.

      The editor information included in the book can go out of date, so it’s good to double check that before you put something in the mail.

      That’s what I did. I went through that reference book and looked for publishing houses that were open to unagented writers, who published the sort of book I had written. If I wasn’t familiar with the publisher, I did some research to be sure they seemed like a good fit for my book and me. And then I just took a chance. And when I heard no, I kept trying. “No” is by far the most common answer we writers get! But it only takes one yes, right?

      1. Thanks so much, Cynthia! This is great information, and I’ll keep trudging through. I love this site — so wonderful for those of us who teach and write along side our students. Happy Summer!

  25. No question…just want to say thanks for the fantastic advice given here today. Wow!

  26. I’m getting a late start, because I was attending a workshop Monday and Tuesday. However, I did a late submission for yesterday, and tried to read everybody’s stories, even though I didn’t have time to comment. I hope I can keep up for the rest of the camp! Love your suggestions.

    1. Thanks to all for submitting questions. It’s been fun! I may miss the next two weeks of Q&A while I’m teaching at Fine Arts Camp but I’ll be back at the end of the month , and in August with a Quick Write.

      And to Anne Lyon– Welcome! No such thing as a late start here. No one is grading anyone. : ) Everyone gets A’s !

  27. I was wondering if you could share with us what you do when you encounter writer’s block? Do you find that these strategies could be helpful in working with children in writing?

  28. To end this wonderful Q & A session, I’d like to thank everyone who participated and offer this quote: “Good writing is always about things that are important to you, things that are scary to you, things that eat you up.”
    —John Edgar Wideman