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Archive for the ‘Teaching Writing’ Category

It’s March and we’ve long forgotten our New Year’s Resolutions. The fervor with which we planned the success of this year in January is probably frozen solid…we’ve certainly had the weather for that here in Michigan. (FYI – It was 14 below zero this morning…a temp so common now that school wasn’t cancelled despite the fact that it was when the temps were 10 below zero in January.)

Shake off those March doldrums, pour a glass of something you normally drink in the summer, and roll up your sleeves. It’s time to gear up and resurrect the goals for this year.

Speaking personally, this means that the novel I thought I could wrap up in December needs to be complete by the end of this month. I set an unrealistic deadline for myself during the Christmas season. It happens.

To keep myself on track, I did this for the month of February:

A Plan: Create an editorial calendar for the next month. Write down 5-10 things you want to accomplish and schedule time to  complete those takes on a calendar. At the end of the month, be honest with yourself and reflect on how you did. What worked? What didn’t? Repeat for the next month.

Writing Time isn’t always spent writing. Much of the time, I stare out the window as I need to first visualize a scene before I can write it. Although I appear to be day dreaming…well, that’s exactly what I’m doing, except I do need to come back to my desk to write down my day dreams. That’s where a plan is handy.

In February, I did well planning my journaling and blogging, but novel writing took a back seat. I’m going to work on that this month by spending my Wednesday writing time making notes for scenes. Thursday is my big writing day. Thursday is the day my husband is home in the afternoon, giving me from 1:00 – 9:00 PM to write. I do take breaks, but I’ve set a goal to have close to 3,000 well-written words every Thursday. Lofty, I know.

I’ve taken this exercise a step further and I encourage you do to the same. We’ve all heard that if we want to be a writer, we must write every day. It’s common sense that holds true for anything a person might want to accomplish: runners must run, athletes must practice, students must go to school. My obstacle has always been finding balance with my writing and my family. The solution that is working (for now) is to focus on one thing each day based on how much time I can devote to writing and reading.

Here’s the breakdown:

Mondays are the days I crank out my blog posts for the week. I don’t publish them all on that Monday, but schedule them for later in the week. Each day, I return to the posts to re-read, edit and revise them. By the time they are published, my posts have improved. In order to keep the blog posts as fresh as possible, I keep a notebook on my dining room table to collect ideas.

Tuesdays are reading days. No writing except in the form of notes, comments, and ideas that stem from what I’ve read.

Wednesday are scene plot days in prep for…

Thursdays. As I mentioned, this is my big day each week when I really make progress.

Fridays are too crazy with homeschooling groups to even think about writing. It’s my “Day of Rest”.

Weekends must be spent with families, but I coordinate with my husband to set aside a few hours a weekend to read or write.

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A Pro: Spend time reading Joel Friedlander’s blog/website.

Joel’s website is a treasure trove of information. Set the timer, otherwise your entire day will be spent on his blog and you’ll starve.

A Genre-Mash: Just for fun, re-imagine your novel as a picture book – or your picture book as a novel. Write a few scenes and see what happens.

I’ve done this a few times during my weekend writing hours. It’s refreshing to simply puzzle out a story in a different format. Writing styles, patterns, and techniques mature with exercises like this. What may seem a simple exercise will soon become your power yoga.

Why?

Because my favorite children’s books have quirky characters, surprising plot elements, and very often, rhythmic & rhyming verse. Stretching my thinking muscles to write in such a different format allows me the time to play with words. Instead of formatting sentences and paragraphs to show the story, I can pattern the story into rhythm patterns. Not much I do with this exercise is publishing-quality work – but that’s not the point. Trying something new…that is.

It’s very easy to feel that the success a writer creates is determined by the number of words written. That’s a trap. Don’t fall in! Writing success rides on the back of every unpublished word. The stories that don’t hold up, the sentences that fail, the characters so flat that they can slide under a door – those are the obstacles in writing we must overcome before we publish.

Writing exercises that specifically work on something we have no intention (or pressure) to polish and publish are necessary.

Enjoy the writing fun! Please let me know how these exercises work out for you.

Peace,

Jessica

Other Writing Exercises:

Vol. 1

Vol. 2

Vol. 3

Vol. 4

Vol. 5

 

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On this Sunday afternoon, take an hour or so and give one of these a try. It is a good practice to hone your skills as a writer on something other than your masterpiece. Why? For the same reason professional athletes cross-train. Running, weight-training, stretching, yoga – it all leads to a stronger body and mind.

Writing is no different.

Read every genre, write poetry, practice outlining a mystery, give a picture book a try. Warm up with these exercises and then turn toward your current work. Ask yourself: Can I bring anything new to my story? How did these exercises help me discover my writing voice? Are the results of the exercises worth exploring further?

 

  1. In Writing Exercises Vol. 2, you printed a few pages of your most recent work to focus on how you begin each sentence. With those newly printed pages, put a box around the verbs (action and linking). How many weak (linking) verbs do you have? Play around with stronger verbs and see if it enhances the visual effect of the story.

For example: John walked into the room holding a gun. I have your attention with the word ‘gun’, right?

Now try: John stormed the room, eyes wild, his hand trembling as a gun slipped from his sweaty palm. Very different. The action is generally the same: John enters a room. With the second sentence, John is unsure and in way over his head. Stormed vs. Walked.

How about this: John kicked the door open and aimed the gun at Stewart. “I never miss,” he said. Totally different John.

I don’t normally write about men storming rooms with guns…kinda fun. Stories I read to my son are more about trucks with spinning wheels and little bunnies saying goodnight to everything in the room. Which leads to the next exercise…

  1. Go to the library and ask for a popular children’s picture book. Copy (by hand or on your computer) all the text. Note how the illustrations break the story apart. Do the same with your work, using illustrations or chapter breaks. How does that change your story?

My son recommends Good Night, Good Night Construction Site by Sherri Duskey Rinker. I love the rhymes, but it’s the illustrations that seal this book as a family favorite. With over 1,000 5-star reviews on Amazon, I’m not alone! Check it out – you’ll never look at construction vehicles the same way again.

3. Read the book that was on the New York Times Best-Seller list the day you were born. Search “New York Times Best Sellers” and “the year you were born”.

Write about the book – different than you normally read? What did you like and dislike about the book? Will you read more by this author? Leave a review on Goodreads, Shelfari, Amazon, and the like. Don’t forget to make mention of reading this book in your writer’s journal. A well-documented list of what you’ve read will be invaluable.

In the year and month I was born, JONATHAN LIVINGSTON SEAGULL, by Richard Bach was #1. Time to search the library shelves!

May your writing time be filled with lovely music in a quiet atmosphere with rich dark chocolate and strong coffee nearby. Peace!

Jessica

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Being a writer is not easy. Speaking personally, I write alone in a quiet room. It’s best when I have more than 30 minutes to devote to the task. With four homeschooled children in the house, you can imagine that this isn’t easy. When I do find the time to write, I use earphones, a little George Winston, and every minute I can.

When I do finally polish up a piece in preparation for a reader to provide feedback, I’m always disappointed. I’ve finally realized that my disappointment can only be expected when I don’t ask for specifics.

If you were to ask me what I thought of the basketball game, I would likely say that the uniforms have nice colors. For a basketball fanatic, this answer would seal the belief that I know nothing about basketball beyond being able to identify the court, ball, and all the tall players. Stereotyping, I know.

As a writer, when I ask a reader to let me know what they think, I receive the answer I asked for: I liked it; It was good; Not my style, but a nice story.

To a writer, this is incredibly unhelpful.

Here is a list of questions I can ask readers of manuscript drafts to ensure that “It was good” no longer betrays my growth as a writer.

1. What is the heart of the story? Without a heart, we are nothing. Same is true for a story. While the question is clearly a subjective question, it will allow the reader to dig deeper into the story and share their impression. If they come up with something you didn’t intend, well, that’s interesting. If they can’t determine the heart of your story, then you have more work to do.

questions for readers

2. Does it flow well? I remember watching a documentary about Sesame Street. To test the flow of the program, they mixed up the regular order of the short clips and had a handful of 4-year-olds watch it. The preschoolers were unsettled and started pacing the room. Several said to their teacher that the program didn’t make sense. While the video clips were all part of a regular Sesame Street program, the fact that they were out of order was enough to prevent comprehension. The same could be true about your story. All the pieces might be there, but are they in the best order? A bigger question: Is your story being told from the correct point-of-view?

3. Which chapters pushed you forward? Give your reader a colorful pen (I don’t use red because it reminds me of grading papers. I use purple. Much less like blood.) and ask them to put a star at the end of the chapter if they want to read more. If the chapter ended and their curiosity had died, then have them draw in a sad face. The purpose is that each chapter must spurn on the action and the investment of the reader to the story. If that dies, so does your story.

Related Articles:

Finding Time to Write

Finding Time…Vol 2

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Do you remember gym class? Outside of the horrifying gym uniforms (think green polyester shorts and a t-shirt with my last name written across my chest with a black permanent marker), the exercises we did at the beginning of each class prepared our muscles for the real work to begin.

These exercises serve the same purpose. Before you start the long haul of working on your latest, soon-to-be best-seller, warm up your creative muscles with one (or all) of these:

1. Go back to the beginning:

Write about the first chapter book you ever read. What do you remember?

Was it a good read or did you not finish it?

2. Take a step into a great challenge:

Imagine you are a first grade teacher and have been asked to include a 68-year-old illiterate man in your classroom. What might come of that situation? Make notes, write a few scenes, or run with it.

3. Go back to the basics:

Print the first two pages of any story you are writing. Circle the first word of each sentence. Are those words similar? If so, re-work the sentences and re-print.

Make these writing exercises more fun – get out of the house, order a cup of hot something (it’s below zero here in Michigan) and write the way you imagine all writers do…over coffee, in the middle of a cute café, capturing the essence of your next character from the personalities walking by your table.

Do you have a published book? Click on this pic to read about an opportunity to receive and share in a marketing group.

Do you have a published book? Click on this pic to read about an opportunity to receive and share in a marketing group.

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  1. Write a prayer. Even if you don’t practice a faith, write a prayer. It can be a letter to God about anything you want. You can say anything you want. Don’t worry, you won’t be struck by lightning…God can take your worst.

 

  1. Write a sentence, paragraph or short story using the word ‘defenestrate’.

 

  1. Copy the first paragraph of your favorite book by hand. Reflect on what you learned about the way to introduce a story, the sentence structure, the introduction of setting and character. How can you apply those same ideas to your current story?

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Today, I cleaned out the junk drawer. It was an overdue task, but now that it’s finished and organized, I feel like my entire house is cleaner. Two realizations struck me as I cleaned. The first was that my children are older; a fact obvious in the fact that there were only two Legos in the drawer. A year ago, or whenever I last cleaned this drawer, my daughter constructed an entire city with the blocks I found.

The second realization was that I have lost the gift of seeing the world through a child’s eye. When I handed my daughter the Legos, I hoped that she would actually put it away. Like Tim Hawkins states, Legos are like weapons.

My daughter was thrilled with the Legos find, exclaiming, “Oh! You found the couch!” And when I looked at the two tiny pieces stuck together, it was clearly a piece of furniture.

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How does this relate to writing? Perspective. How does your character see the world? Where one person would frown in the rain, another will dance in it. While I see meal prep as time away from writing, others see it as a wonderful hobby.

Take another look at your main character. How do they see the world? What makes her happy? What drives him crazy? What is her favorite song? Which song was playing when his first girlfriend dumped him? How do they respond to that song in later years? Then look at a secondary character – write a scene in which their opinion of a situation is completely different from the main character’s opinion. Would it be a comedy? Or would the scene make Edgar Allen Poe proud?

While you may not be able to use this exercise in your main piece, it might serve well in a writing contest. In the very least, it will be fun :)

Related article: Miss Interpretation

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school bus

I was supposed to be in Cheboygan, MI this month talking to students about writing, but schedules being unruly beasts, I’m not able to be there. Instead, here is a bullet point list of ideas to do with students to encourage them to write.

* End the School Day with Journal Writing
At the end of a school day, each child has endured an adventure, solved the mystery of science, experienced a horror in the lunch room, felt the sting of bullying… the list goes on. Give them time to write about their day. What did they learn? What would they like to forget? What was the highlight of the day? Ten minutes a day of dumping their thoughts on paper could safe a life. I don’t believe I’m stretching the truth there.

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* When the students write, so does the Teacher
Model the behavior you want from the students. Are you a homeschooling parent? Do the same.

* Read what you wrote to the class
If the subject matter isn’t entirely private in nature, share what you wrote. Make sure it is light hearted. Although, if there was a difficult moment of the day, write about that, but end it with a VERY positive tone. Modeling positive thinking is good thing!

* There are times to correct grammar and times to just read
Think about it – if every time you spoke someone corrected you, how long would it take before you stopped talking altogether? Imagine a child at a dance being told he was dancing wrong…that’s a wallflower in the making. Sometimes writing is just writing – horrible spelling, grammar, and dialogue and all! The voice can’t always express the heart. That’s the power of art in therapy. Writing can be therapy too, but not if the teacher marks up a student’s heart with the sharp end of a red pen.

* Give students time to share
If you were to look at the notes of a popular public speaker, it’s likely there would be errors. But in public speaking, the notes are not graded, just the delivery. If you have a student who is not a good writer, they are likely a good speaker. Given them an audience. Don’t have time to sit and listen to one student? Give them a video recorder/digital recorder and let them run with it. You’ll be amazed with the growth in that student!

* Share good sentences
When I was a teacher, I made the horrible mistake of reading a student’s work as the ‘bad example’. Yeah, I know – horrible! Never ever read a students entire paper to a class, even if it’s the good example. Instead, pull several well-written sentences from several students papers and post them on a bulletin board (refrigerator for homeschoolers). Even a weak writer can have a great sentence. This boosts self-esteem and will result in stronger writers.

Related Links
Writing and Editing with Students

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Let’s begin with a bonus today: By

It’s the preposition of the wRiting Effort DoUbled by Concentrated Educational Details, but let’s not forget the little things. And that’s it – don’t forget the little things:

  • The importance of proper formatting for manuscript submissions:
    • Times New Roman
    •  size 12, double-spaced
    •  1 inch margins
    •  new paragraphs indented (tabs) not an additional space between paragraphs
    • Running headers are expected: your last name, title, page # (i.e. Schaub/Gateways/14)
    • Resource for formatting: http://www.writingworld.com/basics/manuscript.shtml
  • How to write a query letter
    • Writing a great query letter is as important of rockin’ that little black dress on the red carpet. It’s the first and sometimes the only impression you make. It must be flawless, as intriguing as your story, and it must be formatted correctly. Each agent, editor or publisher will ask for different submission packages, but query letters are pretty standard. The best resource I’ve found on-line is http://queryshark.blogspot.com/  It’s funny and direct.
  • Using the Writer’s Market to find agents and editors. That’s a no brainer.
  • Read books they have represented. It’s time-consuming, but necessary – know to whom you are sending your work. Visit their website. Follow their submission guidelines to the letter. Track your submissions.

Concentrated. (Pack a punch in fewer words – how)

Like orange juice and soup from the can: just add water. In writing, that means we grant the reader some intelligence and don’t spell out every single detail. Find the words that fill in the gaps without running margin-to-margin for three pages.  Excellent writers give readers the concentrated pulp. Readers add their own vision. End result: literary joy.

Three out of four suggestions of what follows are some excellent writing points I found in Word Magic for Writers by Cindy Rogers.

The book oozes ideas, reminders, reviews, new concepts. And just when you think you’ve read it all, there’s another zingy hint that punches up the quality of your writing.

The first two are terms I had never been introduced to before …and I called myself a writer!

1. ASYNDETON

Put simply, this is a list without a conjunction. I’ve already used this in this post. Do you see it?

I learned something new right on page 27 of Roger’s book even though I’ve studied writing, practiced writing, edited writing. (There I did it again.) The technique of listing a series without a conjunction creates multiplicity, despite that only three things are listed. Computers are programmed to dislike the asyndeton as the word ‘edited’ in the previous sentence is underlined in green. Be brave. Ignore the green line.

Another example:

The house of a homeschooling family is busy; not only in the flourish of activity from numerous children, but the books that clutter the tables, the art projects on the walls, the kitchen that serves lunch with a side of algebra.

The image given shows the reader – without so many words – that there is more going on in that homeschooling household than just those three things. The list goes on in the readers mind, allowing he/she to bring a piece of their own imagination to the sentence without me, the writer, stuffing it into their heads. This first sample gives the reader ownership of the image this sentence evokes.

However, in school, I was taught to put a conjunction at the end. Read that again with changes that make the inner editor happy.

The house of a homeschooling family is busy; not only in the flourish of activity from numerous children, but the books that clutter the tables, the art projects on the walls, and the kitchen that serves lunch with a side of algebra.

Written in this way, there are only three things happening in the house. My home has been a homeschooling home for years, but I’m certain that any parent will agree that any house with kids has more than three things going on at once.

2. POLYSYNDETON

If you guessed that a polysyndeton is a series with a conjunction between each and every word, you are a genius! The effect of the polysyndeton is similar to the asyndeton in that an image is strengthened and given a feeling of endlessness.

Her day included laundry and diapers and groceries. It didn’t matter if she was tired or sick or had no matching socks. She was a mother and a daughter and a sister. Nothing else mattered.

The use of commas between each phrase is optional – I like it without sometimes because of the restless mood it creates. This mother is so busy a sentence about her doesn’t even have time to use commas. But if you want to slow down the pace of the polysyndeton, use the comma. For example:

We drank wine on the deck, and on the beach, and in the hot tub. Lunch was taken in front of the T.V., or by the campfire, or in bed. Delicious slices of sleepy silence filled moments between meals, between walks, between sight-seeing. It was their first vacation since the last child went to college. If only they knew it would be the last.

An example Cindy Rogers uses in her book is from Isaiah 24:1-2

Behold, the Lord makes the earth empty, and makes it waste, and turns it upside down, and scatters abroad the inhabitants thereof. And it shall be, as with the people, so with the priest; as with the servant, so with the master; as with the maid, so with her mistress; as with the buyer, so with the seller; as with the lender, so with the borrower; as with the taker of usury, so with the giver of usury to him.

3. AMPLIFICATION

Just like it sounds, amplification brings attention to a particular feature, event, or idea to which the writer wishes to direct your attention. Being a ‘concentrated’ writing technique – using fewer words and no exclamation points – to make a statement, a professional writer knows this trick.

He responded as a two-year-old, with a two-year-old tantrum. A tantrum worthy of Best-Actor performance. A tantrum which broke the sound ordinance.

4. REPETATIVE REDUNDENCY

I recently read a friend’s draft of the first chapter of her first novel. While her concept is top notch and the characters are easy to like, the writing lacked the sparkle needed to make it jump out for agents and publishers. For example, within the first paragraph, she wrote something like this:

He launched himself down the dark alley, hoping the darkness would hide him from his pursuers, hoping the cloaking blackness would hide his fears.

Notice the problem? The words dark and hide are used more than once. If you are savvy, you also noticed that hoping is used twice, but that is the amplification technique, and therefore acceptable.

Every sentence in your novel needs to pack a punch. Using the ‘punch’ concept, what is more memorable? A one-punch knockout or a series of medium slaps on the cheek that really just irritate? If you box, you go for the gusto and land that solid right-hook in the first ten seconds of round one and go home. The same is true for writers. Knock the reader out with amazing upper-cut to the imagination.

The sentence re-written might be:

He bolted down the alley, hoping the darkness would conceal him, hoping the raging beat of his heart wouldn’t give him away.

I changed launched to bolted. This character isn’t jumping off something – he’s not launching. He’s running for his life. I also followed the show-don’t -tell rule (your bonus tip for the day). Instead of using the word fears, telling the reader how he’s feeling, I described his pounding heart. It’s implied that he’s afraid. If he wasn’t he wouldn’t be running away.

Next Time: Educational (no quiz, I promise!)

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Writing a story, a book or a poem might not be a physical feat, but it is certainly a mental accomplishment worthy of medals and trophies. Finishing a story, polishing it up to be read and shared is much like what we do to prepare for church, for a date, for school pictures. Who would ever think of having a school picture taken with messy hair and a smudge of playground grass on your cheek? Ok, I just described my fifth grade picture…but that was a mistake I still regret!

Parents and teachers feel frustration when kids turn in writing assignments that have not been edited or revised. While it’s a valid excuse for frustration, what do kids really know about the difference between writing, editing and revising?

Editing is the grueling task of fixing spelling errors, comma splices or a lack of a comma, adding possessive apostrophes…you get the idea. Editing does not come naturally. The knowledge must be learned and practiced.

Revising is studying the flow of a paper. Do the paragraphs begin with a good introduction sentence? Are they followed by supporting sentences? Does the paper veer away from the intended purpose?

The best way for students to learn to edit is to read their work aloud. For me, that step alone helps me catch more than 50% of my editing errors. Reading aloud works for revising, too. First, for a student to recognize a good flow of a five paragraph essay, they need good examples and poor examples – none of which should be fellow student’s work. The pressure is too great to be a good writer and the horror too lasting if a student’s paper is selected as being the ‘bad’ example.

If you are a teacher or a homeschooling parent, teach writing in small and consistent chunks. Share samples of good writing. Choose a topic and help students to create one outline. Assign each student to write their own five-paragraph essay from that outline. The most important piece is to grade these writing assignments using only three or four specific areas. For example, all students should know when to use a capital letter, end punctuation and how to indent a new paragraph. Once those three areas have been mastered, move on to three new areas.

This idea is not mine, but something I learned years ago at a writing conference. The areas are called “Focus Correction Areas” or FCA’s, which should be written at the top of the paper to remind each student in which areas the teacher will be grading. There is a great example of this at http://www.docstoc.com/docs/23426069/Five-Types-of-Writing-and-Focus-Correction-Areas-(FCAs) .

As a writer, a task I do for several hours each day, I still make mistakes. How can we expect students to hand in well-edited papers? (In the professional world, we have editors for that!) Allow them time to “professionally” edit each other’s work and keep the possibility of earning a good grade an achievable reality. Don’t hand out those gold medals for writing to every student who hands in a half-effort. Allow the students to earn that prize by keeping the focus on the progress, not the final result of each paper.

Put on your Sunday best for your writing. It will pay off, I promise!

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