Thursday, December 09, 2010

January 2011 is around the Corner!...New Goals!

The month of November is now a fleeting memory. December wrapped it within a deep chill and tucked me inside along with a full calendar of activities and festivities.

HOWEVER...the writing must occur!

Brenda Ferber, a fellow SCBWI member, recently challenged her blog readers to pick up a daily goal (writing a few pages a day, working on a new hobby, etc.) and to maintain that goal for 365 days. A full year. Yep, a full year. She has a fabulously inspiring story that accompanies her challenge. (You can read it at:

Thing is, I agree with her. We all need to take a challenge, to set ourselves a goal, and to work hard (sometimes it definitely will be hard) towards meeting that goal.

After completing the ever-daunting demands of meeting the NANOWRIMO (1667+ words a day), I have realized that it can be done. There are so many wonderful things to get out of working hard towards a personal goal!

For instance, when it comes to making writing your goal, here’s what I’ve discovered:

1. That story, you know the one, that has been floating around, taunting you day after day—well, you can finally give it the time and space it needs to calm down. Putting the words on to paper are like trapping a wild animal. (At least it seems that way at times!) The truly marvelous part of it though, is that the animal will change. What may have started out a hungry, carnivorous T-Rex, can end up being a sweet, fluffy bunny. And what joy! As a writer, you get to decide if you still like it or not.

2. Writing every day gives you that freedom to become distracted. Maybe you don’t have a topic to focus on. So what? I’ve found that writing about the mundane can often become the little seeds I need in a story I write later on.

3. It doesn’t take long before you feel that you are actually a writer. I mean, really a writer. One that writes. Every day.

I save my files daily and label them by date. During NANOWRIMO, my files were labeled like this: Nanowrimo 11122010. Subject, month, day, year. Simple and yet still a huge chunk in a writing folder!

My notebooks (for my “old-fashion” writing) has always been the same. Date in the corner.

Another kudo once you are a REAL writer…and you have been writing DAILY…you can buy new pens. Nice pens. And no one will question why you dropped $10-20 on a pen.

4. When you finish, when you are overcoming your goals, the next hurdle doesn’t seem so impossible. For me, it was the NANOWRIMO 50,000 mark. I’ve written middle grade manuscripts before, but never 50,000 in a month. That seemed nuts. Seemed. Now, I know I will do it again and again. With 50,000 words or more in a month, maybe 100,000 words or more per manuscript, I feel more comfortable and confident than ever! For once, I can cut/trim/edit without so much apprehension. I have options. I have alternate scenes and story lines. It like the Clue movie. I can choose which ending is the absolute best!

All I have to do now is decide what my personal goal will be. The 50K was too big for me during the school months. (I have to keep teaching to pay the big bills.) But 25,000 or 1000 a day doesn’t seem too far from possible. I’ll give it some more thought and let you know by next week! Meanwhile, check out Brenda’s site and think about setting a goal for yourself. Good luck!

Sunday, November 14, 2010

NPR-Three-Minute Fiction Contest--LOSER! and still smiling...

The contest is over; I didn't win. But in a way, I did.

I am an avid contestant. I fill out forms, I complete tasks, and I enjoy the game.
However, the "typical" me is shy and critical when it comes to actually submitting something to be "judged". See? Isn't that a harsh word?
But this time, I accepted the challenge, whole-heartedly. And I didn't win.
However, I'm totally okay with it. In fact, I loved it. It had rules I could follow and presented a challenge I enjoyed.

The story requirements were that it was a mere-600 words or less and began with "Some people swore that the house was haunted..." and end with "...nothing was ever the same again after that." Curious?

Here is my entry from the most recent NPR Three-Minute Fiction contest:

A Snowballs Chance...

Some people swore that the house was haunted. My wife, for one, felt that it was Snowball’s spirit that scratched at the door each night. My daughter swore that the dirt piled near the flowerbed could only be the “Ghost of Snowball” returning to her old habits. Even the neighbors, who hadn’t heard the news, called to complain about the mess left in their yard.

But after Snowball’s mysterious disappearance, I was the only one who had tended to our Bichon Frise’s remains, who had trudged, heavy-hearted, to Foster Road, who had gently nudged the small dog’s white, life-less body into the empty box and then, the one who had dug the hole deep enough to ensure that no intruders would disturb her endless slumber. Yet days after the event, some people still wouldn’t let go.

“Daddy, you can’t take away Snowball’s house now,” my daughter pleaded, her eyes welling with tears. “Where will he go to sleep after his busy nights?”

How do you explain to a five-year-old that death is forever? How do I tell her that all dogs chase squirrels in trees during the wee-hours of the morning and bark at the full moon in the middle of the night? Who but a furry friend could offer the same sense of security from all things that go bump in the night? I, too, was at a loss.

So, as with most issues in our house, it was unanimous. My wife and daughter agreed. The dog house would stay. At least, until Snowball’s spirit found rest.

During the first week following the dog’s death, I was mowing the yard and found one of Snowball’s favorite toys, a squeaky frog. I had almost missed it hiding in the tall grass. Then, the memories snuck in. I recalled that first day. My girls had returned from an “adventure” with a “surprise”. Snowball had been so small, barely any larger than the toy itself. I remembered how I laughed as I watched my toddler chase after the little fluff of a creature. But Snowball was more than that.

I brushed a tear from my eye. “Dang allergies,” I muttered to myself.

Despite the small expanse of enclosed space, I found more of Snowball’s “favorites”; a worn-out tennis ball, a rubberize fire-hydrant, and oddly, a bone. I picked each up, tossed them onto the porch and then promptly forgot about them.

The next morning as I left for work, I remembered the pile of toys. The bone was gone. At that moment, unlike the rest of my family, I knew that what was haunting us was not the spirit of Snowball, but more likely, a bothersome stray.

I spent the rest of my day planning my ghost hunting strategy. I would buy a motion-detecting light with a camera attachment, a no-kill trap, and an easy-to-apply muzzle. I could sense the “Ghost of Snowball” business nearing its end.

The clerk at the hardware store noticed the excitement, perhaps over-excitement, in my purchases.

“Got raccoons?” she asked, smiling.

“Nope, I’m conducting a paranormal investigation.” I smiled back and winked. Problem solved. I scooped up the bag and grabbed the cage. I had walked not two feet when I was stopped.

The orange wall in front of me was marred by a single stand-out image.

I set down the cage and moved closer.

Staring out at me, beady eyes and all, was a Bichon Frise. “MISSING! LAST SEEN A WEEK AGO RUNNING DOWN FOSTER ROAD….” I scanned the flyer, “…Casper”.

I had already buried the ghost.

Nothing was ever the same again after that.

Thursday, November 04, 2010

Word Count, Deadlines, Plot Ninjas! Oh MY!
I am officially Nanowrimo-ing and thus, I am excusing myself from feeling guilty about my blog....
In my "absence", I plan to:
1. meet my daily word count goals
2. assist my student writers by staying positive and helping them meet their goals
3. not use writing as an excuse for avoiding the dirty dishes piled near the sink.
(I will instead use schoolwork as the excuse for the dishes.)

My head is full, my eyes are tired and my wrists are beginning to feel the pain of swollen joints. Thus...
...until I have completed this journey...
ZZZzzzzzzz zzzzz

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Writing Challenges- I Gotta’ Plan

I'm excited! I have a personal obstacle to overcome, a writing challenge to meet and at the same time, a teaching goal to set.

"What is it Juli?" you ask.

I'm going to participate in the NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) this year!
But oh, no! That's not all! I'm going to challenge my students to participate with me as well! I'm setting up the challenge using the teen site and the teacher resources. My hope is to have 5-10 students (out of 80) commit to writing and occasionally meeting at lunch during the month of November. I envision the students and I discussing our challenges and sharing our stories as they progress.

After being stuck in a rut for the past few weeks, feeling like havoc has been swirling about me--blocking me from moving in any direction--I am ready to take on this challenge. 50,000 words? Ha! Bring it on!

Think about it: thirty days (has November). 50,000/30= about 1700 words a day. With the help of Dr. Wicked's Writing Lab this can be done in a snap! I could write 850 words in the morning (in 30 minutes without seeing red) and another 850 in the evening. I'm starting to really see this...THEN! I can officially declare December as, get ready--CaNoReMo (Caveny's Novel Revising Month!)

Are you going to take the challenge? Sign-up at or today! and start having completed manuscript dreams again!

November is going to be an exciting month!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

My dog, Xavier, whose pesky characteristics
could launch an entire series!
 Characters: Animals/Pets

As my students and I watched My Dog Skip during class this past Friday, I prepared them, didn't give the world away, but answered the question they feared most, "Does the dog die?"

"Yes, eventually, all dogs die," I replied, "but, didn't you watch the Disney movie All Dogs Go to Heaven?"

Now for junior high students, the wonderful thing is that the majority of them had seen All Dogs Go to Heaven and they do still watch Disney movies on occasion. Thankfully, the voice of comfort that a sad ol' Disney movie can bring, was enough to make my worried little charges calm down. That is, almost.

"Mrs. Caveny, obviously, you never met my dog," one student piped up, "there's no way he went to heaven."

I smiled. I understood what the student meant. Some dogs, well, some dogs follow difficult paths. I turned to her and added, "But did you love him?"

The student looked up at me. Her eyes were sad. Ya, they did. And that right there folks, is why Disney and animal-story writers in the world today win every time. We do love those pets, regardless.

Take The Incredible Journey*, by Sheila Burnford, for example, one of my favorite animal books-made-into-a-movie. Sure you love Shadow, but you also love Sassy. Why? She's rotten. Ask anyone who has ever had a Siamese cat. They know. Siamese are independent and full of arrogance. But despite Sassy's faults we love her.

In Winn-Dixie, by Kate DiCamillo, one can't help but to fall for the awkward mutt with the snarky smile. He's flawed, and up against a character that feels flawed to some extent herself; he's her perfect match.

So is it the dependence we are attracted too? Is it the unconditional love? Do we love these animals because of some need they fulfill in the character's heart? I believe it is all this exactly...and more.

When I write about the animals that have shared my life, they have each touched upon different aspects of myself. Kitty, the golden mutt--companionship; Oscar, (and later Sophie), both canaries--joy and peacefulness; Sam, the bossy Siamese-- stability; Max, the white zoom-a-roo, Spitz-a-poo,-- mothering, and currently, Xavier, the insane Cattle dog-- understanding. (Note: Xavier is currently "in-the-dog-house" for misbehavior/overzealousness--a daily thing.)

I guess that whatever breed they are, whatever traits they themselves possess, animals will always win in a story. Ultimately, they move from being the "vehicle" that reveal a main character's traits, to being one of the main character themselves.

Which animal/pet/friend from your life complements or suggests a characteristic of yourself? Have you written about them lately?

P.s. *The Incredible Journey is the original book for the movie Homeward Bound, the Incredible Journey. 

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

For the Love of the Language- Favorite Lines

Today I was suckered into reading a book that was suggested by a student of mine. She promised it would be worth my time, and although I was reluctant, I did truly believe that she loved the book. "How bad could it be then?" I convinced myself.

I started reading it during our sustained-reading time and found that the book was, at least, interesting. It made it's way into my backpack, and then, into my home, were it sat on the sofa-table. By 9:00, I had read a few more chapters.

The book, PEEPS, by Scott Westerfeld is (by no surprise) a vampire-themed story like the other 70% of my students' current choices. Although I'm not thoroughly convinced of the story yet, I am in love with the language.

If you have never read Scott Westerfeld, you might at least recognize his name from the incredibly popular YA series he recently concluded: The Uglies, The Pretties, The Specials and The Extras. Most of his stories are futuristic fantasies which blend teenage internal conflicts with the societal chaos of slightly stranger, new worlds.

Despite my reluctance to dig into another vampire story, I can't get out of this book! Westerfeld is fun and creative. He feeds the teacher in me with great context clues surrounding strange new words. He builds bridges between his details, setting me up for some mystery he'll reveal bit by bit. He uses fabulous figurative language and often carries it on for a paragraph or even an entire page! He's sometimes a bit trite, and that's o.k. too. Truth is, I've been suckered in to this book by the language.

Early on in the book,Westerfeld main character, Cal states, "The bruises on my chest were still throbbing, and my ribs were knitting back together in an itchy way." Perfect! (I'm borrowing that one next week as an example for the class.) It's that LANGUAGE that keeps me reading. I want more. I crave more.

Heck, I'm a special breed of vampire, maybe I'll even write about it: Vampires that crave fanciful words, witty phrases and creative figurative language!

Do you have a favorite line or a great passage that should be shared? Post it!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Personal Writing: A Community of Writers
During the past few weeks I have felt more and more akin to one of my favorite characters, Alice, as I, too, have found myself lost in a rabbit-hole of sorts. My blog has suffered, my soul needs "fed" and my notebook is calling me. And that is why, today, I made a point to scupt out some of that "valuable" time to meet up with a community of writers (in this case, teacher-writers).

Regardless of our professions or trade, being among a community of writers is an essential part of a writing life. This particular group that I met with today are all past participants in the Piasa Bluffs Writing Project (a subsidery of the National Writing Project). We're all teachers of one level of students or another, and we have all experienced the joys and trials of teaching writing as well as experienced the value of our own personal writing.

Unlike my Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) critique group, this NWP group uses the majority of time together to sit quietly and write to reflect. Where the SCBWI group provides guiding and critical advice while presenting new personal challenges, the NWP group gives me a chance to delve into my "metaconsciousness" and find out what really makes me tick (or in the more recent case, what causes my "tick" to become stuck) as a teacher of writing and a writer.

Both groups are vital to my growth. Both groups are places, spaces, and "aces" that provide support and feedback for my writing soul. I encourage those who do not have one of these supports to find a group. Whether it's a partner in crime that will sit alongside while you write and lend an ear to listen, or a large group that serves as your sounding board that you can bounce those gems of your writing out upon, find one. I know that I would be at a loss without my writing groups.

Thanks SCBWI and PBWP partners!

Monday, August 30, 2010

IDEAS: Deadlines, Jobs and Goals

Monday, already? Where did the time go? What happened to my promise, "every-other day or so--at least"? I knew when I initially wrote that, that there would be a time when that might be a problem. But I wanted to at least have a goal in mind, even if it was only a self-imposed "DEADLINE".

So what is the big deal will goals and deadlines anyway? On Facebook, my writing friends stress about their writing deadlines. Many of them use a daily journal so that when they aren't working on their manuscripts, at least they're writing. Some are working on "assignments" from their agents or publishers. Whether it's personal or professional these deadlines are constants in their lives.

My friends that teach have Monday through Friday deadlines--lesson plans, copies, research, grades. Often these deadlines overlap into the personal deadlines of Saturday and Sunday jobs.

And then there is that word: JOBS. (That sneaky, little five-letter word...teeheehee.) Are deadlines only part of jobs and professional lives or do we try and slide them in as part of our personal lives as well? I believe that this may be the root of all deadline-related stress. We have pushed ourselves to be a corporate-world machine. In this JOB, day-to-day living, we have imposed DEADLINES on even the most mundane and simplest of things. "I must finish the laundry on Saturday, by noon." "My car's oil needs checked on Thursday evening, or else it will not get done." When, in reality, if we simply think of these as GOALS instead, the stress of missing them wouldn't be as terrible.

So I didn't post any writing last Wednesday or Thursday as I had planned, but my GOAL is to write. I want to write more, share more, and create a personal and professional place for my writing.

Whew! That feels better already.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

IDEAS- A Picture Says...How Many Words?

One of the methods I find most helpful as I write is to be able to have images surround me. These images keep me focused on my characters, the setting and the plot. Currently, I'm back to revising one of my short stories. While I’m working, I find myself reflecting more and more on the picture that inspired the story in the first place.

The particular image for the story is an original design that I purchased at a local etsy-ish craft fair last year. The picture called-out to me. As I examined various pieces, the artist and I talked about his "inspirations" for them. But this one, the one I ultimately purchased, had a deeper story for me. Even as I left the fair, the story kept building and building. I had no choice but to write it down.

I'm sure that one of my earliest "games" led me to creating stories in this way. I love to people watch and create mall-inspired mini soap operas. I’ve been a “observer” for as long as I can remember. Again, it's the visual that leads me to the story. A young woman struggles to keep her eyes open as she pushes her toddler through the throngs of shoppers. Why did she come to the mall? Is this even her child? It's the curiousity of not knowing her back-story that fuels my desire to create one.

I can see how this is similar to the need of I had as a child to name my toys. I had to claim them as mine, and without any other descriptors and definitions of who or what they were, I provided them with that structure. I named them, elaborated where they came from, and told long-windies about what they did in their spare time. (By the way, if you have any doubts about their spare time, you should read the original Raggedy Ann stories.)

The only part of all this “using visuals to create” that bothers me is that I know so few students that do this anymore. It’s a thought to ponder on another day…until then, I’m going to continue to do what works for me and visuals are my key. Watching is my tool. Imagining is my technique and writing is the way I share.

What works for YOU? How do you get a story started? Where do your ideas come from?

Sunday, August 22, 2010

PROCESS- Practice, practice, practice

I remember writing as a child. I remember writing in diaries and journals, writing stories and notes to friends, drawing doodles which drifted away into words, and even copying poems and songs by hand. To me, writing has always been present in my life. There are times in my life when I have written only in bits and pieces but writing has always been there. It is like riding a bike. Even if I don’t write for a week, I'm familiar with the balance it requires, and the effort is no longer frustrating.

This isn't true for most of my students as we begin to write. Many have never gotten the hang of writing. Their beginning stages of writing never went past a required “summer vacation” piece. To these students (and adults too), writing can be scary. Perhaps their favorite story was returned to them with red ink crossing every "t" that didn’t make the grade. Maybe they could never think of anything that was actually TRUE to write when faced with a demanding prompt. But that isn't all.

Their hands hurt. Their fingers cramp. Pencils break and ink smears. All these things and more are the little bumps in the sidewalk of writing that can underscore frustration and build up walls. If this sounds like you, keep writing. You are almost there! Practice writing. Practice writing ANYthing!

Remember the bike? Do you remember the training wheels? I'm sure that they were on at some time, but when did they come off? I barely remember. Writing can often be the same way. The space of time between not writing and writing will blur. You will become more frustrated not having a pen then not having something to write about.

When I was 19, I had come home from college for my first summer break. I was never a fabulous bike rider to say the least, but the tricks-riding no-handed, jumping, making it up the big hill without effort- these were all things I could do. Except for one. I wanted to ride without my feet on the pedals. I wanted to stand and balance on the frame while the bike was moving. I was 19. I was still fearless, so I tried. And, I fell. It's been decades now and I can still find the scar. But I tried.

With writing, I'm at that point again. I have practiced; I've built endurance and skill. Now I'm ready to go the next step. I know there is the possibility of falling, but I will try. I will write more. And then more again. Until, I can do this: write the next book, finish the next project, or complete the next goal.

Writing isn’t inherited or innate. Writing takes practice. And the great part is: the practice gives us something more to write about!

What are you waiting for? Go WRITE!

Thursday, August 19, 2010


I cannot believe it. I did the unthinkable (for me). And…I as I am continuing on this path of uncharacteristic behavior, in part, I can successfully say, I have moved away from temptation.

"What did you do?" You are wondering.

I assure you, I didn't do anything terrible, drastic, or even life-threatening. I did something new--new for me.

I stopped reading. Seriously--are you sure you are ready for this?--stopped reading in the MIDDLE of a PAGE! Oh, yes I did!

I didn’t stop at the end of a chapter, not at a break in the print, not at a heading. I stopped in the middle of a random page somewhere in a chapter.

"Oh, WHY!?" you cry. "WHY?"

It’s so unlike me. I crave thick black lines around my coloring pages, I avoid puddles like the plague, I like numbers that fit (I'm using Dr. Wicked's Write or Die by the way)--I like structure. Stopping in the middle of a page, in the middle of a chapter, isn't me at all. It's very atypical. And WOW! It is fun!

I stopped reading when I hit a line that said, “These girls have no concept of thinking towards the middle" (Dessen, Sarah Just Listen)**. For some unknown reason, I didn't want to know what Ms. Dessen and the character, Owen, meant…yet. I wanted to wait, and savor the realization at another time. For now, I want to guess. I want to wonder what it is that this means.

Often, I am in such a rush. I dash here and run there so often that even when I am reading I treat it like some sort of marathon. (“I must finish the book this week because: the next one is waiting, I promised it to someone, I owe a huge fine, etc., etc.”) This fast-paced method of devouring books takes out some of the natural "joys" of reading. It's one of the things I tell students to do, but often forget to do for myself: Enjoy the book.

Just Listen is in my bedroom. It is far away from me at the moment. I like that. Of course, I'm going to finish that chapter tonight. (I'm being a little crazy for me today, but I'm not that crazy!)

What have you done recently that is out of character for you? How did it make you feel? Will you do it again? Sometimes, we need to look out how else reading and writing (as well as our other learning experiences) can be approached in order to grasp a better understanding. If you haven't tried something a bit different from the norm recently, go ahead. It's why I like puddles--might as well JUMP!

**So what does this line mean? I'm going to infer a bit here. Maybe it’s about the ying and yang of life. Things are either black, or white. Owen might be about to explain that at times we have to compromise and accept what the “middle” is like. When we look at a situation, we need to see the bits of black AND the bits of white. I’m not 100% positive, but that’s what I have so far. I'm not going to tell you if I'm right though. Read the book!

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

LITERARY DEVICE: Metaphor ~an Exaggeration on a theme.

Steam... created when water boils, as the water evaporates quickly and at a high temperature...then dissipates into the air, not as a trail of smoke or a cloud heavy with condensation. It simply disappears.

Two days ago, as I started yet another new school year, I was on a roll. One action and thought bubbled into another and overcame yet another, until I was at a full boil. Then, before I noticed what was happening, in came the steam.

First, the steam sat on the surface. It covered everything I was doing; everything I had planned. Steam floated, hovered actually-- waiting. But, true to metaphor, I kept working. Nothing would be stopped. Meetings ended as other meetings started. Staff members passed one another going down the hall and back again. We were buffeted about like maccaroni noodles in the pot. Finally, I made it home around 10 p.m. and sat in front of my monitor, eating my supper, a salad--leaf by leaf.

Sleep was calling. But the temperature never dropped.

This morning, I couldn’t wait to get to the school. My internal clock had by now shifted to autopilot. Somehow I had managed my way through the motions necessary to complete my morning routines. I found myself floating along the steady stream of cars heading towards my building. I was early, but in my mind, I was late.

The steam now swirled overhead. It hung over me like an ominous storm no matter what I did. Despite the short time with the students, I was overloaded. Not even the Bay of Naples during the eruption of Vesuvius comes close to the churning of the waves in my mind at this time. Time disappeared in the fog. I felt lost. I ran home, straining my eyes, still clinging to the hope that I would find more time.

But the steam was hot. The steam pushed me further. Too far.

I am now.




….It’s gone...

Sunday, August 15, 2010

PERSONAL WRITING: And Here I am Again...

“Wake up,” a voice tells me.

It's hazy in the room. A dim light filters through the venetian blinds but I am not convinced. I've played this game before.

“Wake up,” it insists.

I twist and turn, pulling myself upright. My head is heavy; my eyes, weak. Deep crinkles created new ridges in my cheek overnight.

“Get up!” I’m ordered.

I stand. My feet buzz with this new arrangement. My ankles pop and crack. Slowly, I inch across the room to my dresser. But then, I stop.

"It's a dream," I tell myself. I turned around to look at the empty bed. Only bed sheets and pillows remain.

"You would see yourself sleeping in a dream," the voice explains.

"But wouldn't that be so typical of me to attempt a deception in a dream?" I nod. "Yes..."

I slink back around to my side of the bed and slip under the still-warm covers. Air fills my nostrils and calms me. It's clean and clear. My eyes close, my head becomes heavy, I feel the entire weight of my body imprinting ever-so-lightly on the firm mattress.

"Dream..." I coax myself. "Just a dream…" I'm convinced.

Seconds, minutes. I sink deep into the peacefulness of slumber.

Beep, beep, beep, beep..."No," I whisper. Beep, beep, BEEP... "No!"

I was wrong. Summer is over.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

PROCESS--Spaces and Places--Part 2 (I’ve Got the Music in Me)

I've spent the last few days reworking and revisiting various parts of one of my middle-grade manuscripts. It invades my mind, regardless of the specific SPACE or PLACE.

Last night, on the 30 minute drive home from a meeting, I was bombarded by imagery and ideas which may play a significant part in my story. This one "chapter" kept replaying itself, fixing up parts here and there each time I retold it. However, I wanted to go to the next scene. I know the overall gist of the plot, but I can't seem to picture it the way that I want to. (My little movie-maker-mind is out of film!) That's how I've come to the conclusion that it’s time for me to find my story’s soundtrack.

Each story that I write has its own little soundtrack of a sort. Music, or a specific cadence/rhythm, helps me get into the story better. It might be due to my slight attention deficit that the music doesn't distract me; it actually helps me to focus. The soundtracks reflect my writing "mood", the tone of the piece, the settings, and often times, the characters themselves.

I can influence my students’ writing by the music I play in the classroom, so why not influence my own? For instance, I like listening to the trickle of rain when I'm writing a scene in which a character is stuck in their room. (Yes, there are soundtracks for this!) I've used tension-building music to help me on focus on the pace of my writing. I use music with a driving beat to make my heart thump. I like to imagine my character feeling this as well. For some reason, I've found Joss Stone, with her soulful voice, soothing to help me during a re-read/editing session and helpful overall.

The particular scene I want to work on involves my main characters in a bit of a pickle. Remember the great music in the scene from Thomas Crown Affair? When Pierce Bronson is evading the police in the museum? I tried this music; it didn't match for me. So today I've been listening on-line. The amazing thing about music stores on-line is that you CAN listen before buying. With MP3 players and digital music downloads I can pick and choose a variety of songs and make a special album targeted to my writing needs. I find this incredibly helpful when I start out, not knowing specifically what I’m looking for.

I suggest trying this while you’re writing. In fact, let me know if you are already using music. What gets your writing going?

Monday, August 09, 2010

PROCESS- Writing Spaces and Places- Part 1

One of the most significant changes that I have made in the past few years of teaching has been a change in the physical atmosphere of my classroom. From teaching self-contained 6th grade for 11 years, then teaching in the JH for the past 5 years, I had accumulated a lot of junk to say the least. I had punctuation posters spread across the front of my room, a cursive alphabet stretching across the top of the back boards, style posters, editing posters, literature posters, cutesy Argus posters, and countless others. By the end of each year, I was thankful if the janitors weren't messing with the walls so that I wouldn't have the chore of putting all 100+ items back up in the fall. Then… I went to the Piasa Bluffs Summer Writing Institute (class of 2009).

There, I had a conversation with a calm and centered friend, Alicia. We discussed the difficulties our students had focusing in the class. Not all, but many have an incredibly hard time, even in JH, when asked to concentrate on one task lasting longer than 15 minutes. We discussed our teaching styles (Do I talk too much? too fast? Do I give clear instructions?) and our classrooms. She told me about how she had repainted her classroom and redecorated with art prints. I began having dreams of a “Barnes and Noble”--a relaxing chair, a good book, and a cappuccino at hand. I pitched my idea to my principal--color scheme, decoration, and purpose. Is it too late to paint? It was a go!

This will be the second year in my "chocolate milk" room. The walls are all painted a smooth light chocolate (I would go a bit darker if I had a choice again) and I invested a bit of cash in six art prints and frames. I pulled out the one desk I had for group work and showcased it with new fern-green plastic lawn chairs. At yard-sales, I found three large exercise balls (all white~ coincidence?) that we use for computer chairs. I hung three white Chinese lanterns (without lights in them) from the ceiling just beneath the fluorescents (for the glow). I have a wind chime, a small waterfall, and a metronome. I gave my classroom a name. "The Creativity Cafe". I label things with it. I love my room. The students like it better too.

I will say my room is still filled though. I have thousands of books--too many to shelf at the beginning of the year. And then there are the students. I think that's the change that I like the best. Once I had rid my room of odds and ends that jumbled and cluttered, my students were able to see better. I could see THEM better.
The discussions have changed. The mood changed. But I know it's not over, I'm still evolving as well.

I went into my classroom to begin setting up for this next year. I've taken three full boxes of books home. I've been "weeding". It feels better. It's beginning to shape-up into my favorite place to read and write. Space is good.

What's your "perfect" space like? Do you remember writing in a classroom? What makes/breaks your reading/writing experience? Share with us!

Saturday, August 07, 2010

PROCESS-The 24-hour process of collecting RESEARCH

I know students and adults alike that cringe when they hear the word “RESEARCH”. I’m sure that somewhere along the way, they were forced to fact find for a topic or theme they had absolutely no interest in what-so-ever. As writers, we are able to CHOOSE the topics, themes and genres that we write or accept to write. Research becomes something different to us. Collecting and gathering bits of research can lead a writer to a story and can help fill in the blanks that round-out a character or story.

Research comes in many forms. Information can be channeled through the BOOKS we read. I finished read The Alchemist (see my Shelfari at the side) and I couldn't help but pull my prior knowledge from the stories that I have read before. One of those is The Two Princesses of Bamarre, by Gail Carson Levine. The Two Princesses sparked my interest in Norse Mythology. Not long after, I read East, from the Rebecca Caudill reading list. Since then, I've read a good five books or more on Odin and Yggdrasil then started to think of ways I could use these myths in stories of my own.

I find that NEWS reports can be great sources of information too. As mundane as the local news can be, I choose to skim through it and turn instead to national and world broadcasts (and one's with a bit of human interest stories as well). My morning and afternoon drives between school and home give me opportunity to listen to NPR. The news opens new windows for my writing.

Not that long ago, one of NPRs programs highlighted a human interest story about a film star who had passed away. The star's life after film intrigued me. I wanted to know more, unfortunately, I had not written her name down. I searched the NPR website, I called on the assistance of a friend-of-a-friend who works for NPR, and I even placed an email query. To no avail. Then, on the way home from a family vacation last summer, the story surfaced again. We were driving through the hometown of the star's retirement retreat! A flyer announced that she had lived there. Again, I have a renewed interest and a need for research. She's too interesting for me to let her go again!

One of my other stories involves fact-finding that I thought should be easy --in my own backyard. But alas, it wouldn't be research if it were that easy. Many of the FIRST-PERSON experts that I would like to talk to are disappearing. (There is one that I've been told I could bribe with banana bread and would talk if I would be willing to visit regularly!) The local LIBRARY has been helpful in providing the source material, but it is so scattered and unorganized that it becomes a hefty job to search for one small fact. I have used old plat charts, news-clippings, and even advertisements to help me piece together the information that I need. Photographs are the best!

PHOTOGRAPHS tell not only time, place and person, but can also help explain style, expression, etc. For example, two of my characters are pre-teen boys during the 1920s. The only photos I have found of boys without hats on are from a few class photos. Otherwise, boys in the 1920s wore hats. Photos with written details on them are the most valuable (I cringe to think what scrapbooking is doing for our future record-keepers...when the glue wears off and the pictures fall out of the page, what we will know then?!)

As writers, we can let research drive us or research can tag along, but throughout all of my own writing, I keep it there for the entire ride.

Share one of your writing/research tips!

Tuesday, August 03, 2010

CRAFT- Word Choice
Capricious, Carnivorous, Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Big words, lovely words! I am captivated by words that other author’s use that not only convey the meaning but have a special "texture" of their own. Words that you want to repeat and let roll around in your head for a week or two. Glazier...glazier...A glazier is a man/woman who replaces glass. Glazier. I had never heard the word before I had read Stieg Larsson's Girl Who Kicked a Hornet's Nest. Did the word affect the overall content of the paragraph--no. Stieg Larsson could have skipped over it. Used "repairman" (actually, it was probably a choice made by the translator now that I think about it...). None-the-less, I love the word. I wrote it down. But I didn't need to--it's stuck in my mind.

When I'm writing, those words can become a problem. I try to insert them in mundane places. I’ll think about jazzing a section up and then I’ll try a word that has been rattling in my brain. However, as much as I fantasize about creating a Tolstoy someday, I'm not that writer. I'm not Larsson either, nor am I J.K. Rowling, Mark Twain, or Alice Walker. Their distinctive writing style comes across as not only the "voice" of their characters, but their own particular writing “voice”. Sure, the tone of their work, the mood, the setting--these all effect their writing as well, but their particular choice of words match THEM.

A fellow writer recently shared the ever popular website in which you paste a sample of your writing to "analyze". The results compare your writing to world-renown writers. True to my original statement, I am not a Tolstoy. I’m sure I didn’t use enough Russian names, but Tolstoy’s word choice alone is so distinct. Try it out:

In Stephen King's memoir, On Writing, he comments on his own writing "voice". He is a man of simple words, clean, middle-American, no fluff-n-stuff. He explains that to use other’s words, anything other than his own “voice”, would be fake. It's not him. It's similar to when I shout, "OMG!"—my oldest son chides me, "Mom, don’t say that. It just doesn't fit you."

In essence, that wonderful word that I latch on to from another’s writing, whether fantabulous or not, may not be for me. They may be the words that match the voice of my characters, they may be words I use in parody, but for the body of my writing (middle grade and picture book) - they don't match. Which leads me with my next writing dilemma--What is MY voice? My writing style?

What is yours?

Saturday, July 31, 2010

PROCESS- Friends to pull you out of the Mud!

Boy oh boyo! Yesterday caught me down in the dumps! What's a girl to do when the doldrums get you? (I'm immediately drawn into the chapter from The Phantom Tollbooth, when the main character is caught in the doldrums by the creatures there that lazily hang about. These are NOT your friends!)

I tried the internet. I searched the things I love: crafts, Amazon, new Barbies. I tried reading. In my mind I had it all figured out. If I could reach 75 pages I would be stuck in good! I could read away my somber attitude. No such luck. Even though the characters in the book are great, the writing fast-paced, and the plot intriguing, I didn't read more than five pages.

I flipped through my magazines—ripping out one great idea at a time. My motions were repetitive, and I was going nowhere. I tried on clothes (warning: Do NOT try on clothes when you are moody). Finally, I went to sleep. No matter what I did, I could not escape my droopy mood.

But this morning…things are better! I'm not sure if it was the sleep I needed, or the mindless activities to get me re-focused. Whatever the problem, today I am cured!

After a good hair-cut, a short antiquing spree (part of my Artist's Way requirement!) and a healthy dose of caffeine, I'm back!

Part of that "feeling good" was stopping by the coffee shop to see a friend during her book signing. Although she and I are not "phone-a-friend" type of friends at this stage, we are writing buddies. We share the same critique group and often write about similar themes and genres. And seeing her so happy and excited about her book only makes me happy and excited for her. That's what writing buddies are about. She inspires me. She makes me want to write more today. To go a little further than I did the day before (remember, yesterday I did nothing so this should be easy!). When a writer gets stuck, surrounding her/himself with writer friends should be our #1 line of defense!

If you don't have a critique group or a writing buddy, I encourage you to find one. Joining the Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators (SCBWI) is a great place to start!

See my writing buddy’s website:

Thursday, July 29, 2010

PROCESS: Reading while Writing

Why do I read so many books when in reality, I want to write them? The fact is that on more than one occasion I have run across a book that reflects the same theme/mood/conflict that I keep tucked away in my notebooks. It’s the old “I’ve bought a distinctively new car” effect. When you are confident that it’s unique, you go to pick it up from the shop. On the drive home, you notice that it looks like everyone else’s that passes you by. Same with stories. (My husband swears that he wrote a short story that was used as the base of “Gross Point Blank”.) Why do I log on to and search for MY story, MY book?

Reason #1: Know thy competition.

If I’m writing a middle grade fiction set in the depression, I search the competition. Are they successful with what they have written? If so, why? If not, what are they missing? Is it the genre? Is it the age? Maybe a topic is really hot, and I’m sitting on a story that I should bring out. What is going on in the market? I check out the displays at the book stores. I look at the websites of the authors. The literary world is changing and I need to know how to keep up.

Reason #2: Research, research, research.

Sometimes I need to know a nagging detail about a setting or an archetype. Reading up on the subject always helps. For instance, right now, YA is brave and often edgy. Call me curious. What are the ingredients? Knowing what is being used and what isn’t helps me know my own limits. In one of my stories, my protagonist’s mother has a temper problem (to say the least). Do I want to use profanity in my books? Is it necessary? How do other author's handle this?

More often than not, when I’m reading a book, I'm looking for the voice of the characters. I find that what stands out to me in the books I read guides me as a writer. A character's voice can be powerful and unique, and so far, I've not found my main characters in someone else's book. (Hurrah!)

Reason #3: Have faith in your story.

I remember the first book I ran across with the same subject matter as one of my manuscripts. I literally ran to my room and sulked for days. How could someone else write MY story? At first, I stared at the book. It was published while mine sat in a notebook. How could I continue on MY story? Was I too late?
Wrong, wrong, WRONG!

Since that moment, I've realized a few things about fiction writing. It's never truly fiction. It has bits and piece from here and there. Our memories, our friends, our own personal growth and experiences. This is what makes it unique; what makes it OUR fiction--US. Maybe someone else out there loves the same things that I do, reads the same books, had seen the same landscape as I have. That will come into their stories too. But my stories are MINE.

Although I don’t search like I use to, when I run up against the competition, I don’t look at the similarities the same anymore. Instead, I use my time to focus on my writing and the differences.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

PROCESS- Writing Daily

Ever since my 6th Christmas, I have kept some sort of diary, log, or journal. My first one had a lock and Holly Hobbie on the cover. I took up two lines for each letter. Phrases like, "I love Danny" and "My cat is SOOOoooooooo pretty" are common throughout the first few years of random writing.

My next diary had a blue cover and again, a lock. Apparently, as an elementary student, I was more in touch with my surroundings. I wrote about the day, how the sun was shining, how it was raining, snowing, cold, and how (especially during summer vacations) the scenery differed from my norm. I’m happy to see that even then, I did take my writing with me.

Then I moved on to unlocked journals. Funny how these later books of my youth actually contain the fluff that should be kept under lock and key. I have quite a few of these “revealing” books.

As time progressed, and I matured, I experimented with other forms of paper and ink “journals”. I used "Travel Journals", wrote regularly in "pregnancy journals", bought some fancy-smancy bound books with ribbons, and even "photo-journaled" my year (with short notations).

Now I'm in a different phase of writing yet again. I try to maintain the "three-pages-a-day" mantra set out in Julie Cameron's book, The Artist’s Way. (Suggestion for those of you wanting to do this, if you write 3 pages a day for a year that equates to 1095 pages. Divide that by your average cheap Mead notebook (70 pages) and that means you would fill 15 notebooks.) My writing is more regular and substantial. It's sometimes superficial, but then again, some days are.

Last night, as I was re-reading a chapter, I was tearing myself down for not writing my 3 pages the past few days. I gave myself the usual excuses: no time, no energy, no space for self, and nothing to write about. But as I was reading, I kept returning to an analogy that Cameron wrote comparing athletes and their training to writing our daily pages. I am always, and I mean ALL-WAYS a better writer when I've been writing regularly. So why take a break in my training?

As a teacher, I can set aside anywhere from 10-20 minutes at the start of the class for writing. Easy. Can I make them write? Not always so. But often my students are somewhere in that same continuum of writing that I have been. Some are ahead of me. Some students are so new to writing that I (and other teachers too) must learn to accept that this is a basic, fact-driven stage, and that after a month or so, they will move on too.

But as writers, we have to stop from making excuses. Thank goodness Nike coined the phrase for us: JUST DO IT!—write today.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

IDEAS--Finding my inner "character"

The July heat subsides a bit in the evening, and Friday night, I had the perfect opportunity to "walk" in one of my character's shoes. The sky was clear, the stars were bright, and the sounds of humanity were at a bare minimum. The road in front of me was barren (it was incredibly late...or early, depending on your view) so I took off on a short walk.

One of my character's lives in a story that takes place during the dead of winter in the 1920s, but despite this difference between his world and mine, I could easily imagine what this same place/time/scene would be like through his eyes. I embraced the solitude. First, I thought it through. "What would be different through his eyes?" "What around me would have to change?" In a way, it was similar to the visual effect from the Matrix movies, when the world human's "think" they live in shifts away, to the world that actually surrounds them, but in reverse. I was trying to visually create the world around me/my character.

After I had changed things in my mind, I started to take on my character's slouch, his mannerisms, some of the ticks that make him unique. What would he be doing out on a night like this? What would he be thinking? Would he be alone? Then, I talked it out. (Being alone is the perfect time for that.) Would he talk aloud to himself?

Although I don't see the results of this particular improvisation of my character as a specific "scene" of my story, I feel that it helped me answer a few questions that I had about him. It helped me understand his view better. Even though I have created him, I do, to some extent, feel that he exists somewhere outside of “me”.

Some authors/writers suggest writing or keeping a diary from the perspective of your character—using your character's "voice". This is a great idea, but for this one moment I had to myself, the imaginary transformation was what was needed.

Friday, July 23, 2010

BLOG Posts and Purposes for Writing

The past day or so I have given a lot of thought to the purposes and uses of my blog site. First and foremost, it is a personal space for me to write on a regular basis, about my fictions, nonfictions, and random streaks of brilliance. Yet a blog is more than a personal writing space. It's a space to be shared.

As I started re-formulating my blog, I kept returning to my number 2 job in my life--teaching. (Number 1--my family.) Deep in my subconscious, or perhaps not even that deep, lies the truth that I write BECAUSE I teach. My motto is “lead by example”. Without writing in my life, I find it hard to lead my students to be at their own personal bests. Thus, another purpose for my blog is as an educational outlet. I hope to create a place where my students and I can meet, throw around some ideas, and in the end, all become better writers.

A fellow writer in my critique group brought up the point that a blog isn't really "out-there" unless you place it somewhere so that it can be found. With that in mind, I've decided to share. If this blog space isn't your cup of tea (say, you are a friend, but not a writer; a parent of a child, but the child writes, you don't) then I ask only this: share the site with someone who might use it. I envision other writers and maybe teachers who share blogs with their students (or who would like ideas on how to share the writing tips with their classrooms). Welcome to my blog! (Perhaps there is even someone out in cyberland with a thing for reading blogs that have the word “PUDDLE” in the title! If so, then welcome to you too!) The point being, even though I had patted my back for writing on a "blog" for a week, if the writing isn't shared, then just who is it for? (Yep--I'm thinking deep today.)

I do know this: I stop reading a blog after three-five days of nothing new to read. Fear not my friends! With only the wind at my back and nothing blocking my way, I will promise to blog each or every-other day!

Again, WELCOME readers and pass it on!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

IDEAS: Naming Characters

"A rose by any other name..." this one simple section of Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet holds so much meaning to me. Why? As a writer of fiction, I am forever in the process of choosing names.

In my classroom, I provide baby-naming books. I find these to be very helpful (more so than the internet because of the alphabetical listing and the ability of the writer to visually compare the names). I’ll pull out history books, encyclopedia novels, popular names of the times etc. But beyond the name books, I look for potential names everywhere.

On recent travels I saw a billboard for someone running for office. The last name was printed in blue across the board shouting out in large letters, "CHASEN". I liked it. I grabbed my notebook out of my purse and jotted it down. (Boys/men...this is why you must always either wear a sports coat with pockets, carry a bookbag, buy small, slim notebooks or ditch those stereotypes and carry a purse...a notebook on hand at all times is essential!!) The name reminded me of Jason and Chase combined. Many of the books I've enjoyed had handsome characters with these names. Of course, they are overused. Thus, ta-da! I introduce: Chasen.

At this point, my character, Chasen, has no form. No physical features, no background. Yet he does have a few things I might build on. 1. He's male. 2. His NAME is attractive (maybe he isn't...that might be his problem). 3. His name might be connected to another similar sounding word: chasten. Hmmm…4. He has lots of possible nicknames. I like characters to have at least one pet name. Something mom or grandma calls them. Maybe even the pet name is the prominent name in the story. Non-the-less, I find having pet name possibilities helpful.

If I've not been "gifted" with a name in the way I found "Chasen", I might rely on using the next best thing for my story. An advantage of being a teacher/writer is the plethora of character types that I've come across. Let's say my character is a wall-flower. She has friends, but tends to wait for decisions to be made. I'll plop a name from one of my former students (years and years ago) to hold the place until I am "gifted" with the right name for her. At least, in this way, I'm able to stay close to the character through their name as well as the action.

If you have any great suggestions for how your characters’ names develop, please share them with us. Although the name, Chasen, doesn't have a place yet in a story, it's waiting in my notebook and you’re free to try it out too!

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

IDEAS from a Rainbow

As we were driving home from a vacation today, the sun peaked over the horizon enough to allow its rays to pass through a smattering of rain. I’ve always loved science, and the physics of nature’s prism--a rainbow--is truly fascinating. For almost five minutes the rainbow was full and contained all the required colors in an artist’s palette: Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo and Violet. But then, the clouds and moisture floated south, and the sun began to dip a bit more on the Western horizon. Bit by bit the colors tore apart and melted back into the sky.

I couldn't help but think of all the things that I could write about rainbows. From the simple acrostic style poem to the personal moments I've had in the presence of rainbows. My family is a Stargate family and the comparison between a stargate and a rainbow is all too easy. Even Dorothy went OVER the rainbow, so why not through the rainbow, under the rainbow or past the rainbow into another dimension?

Then there is always the folksy pot-of-gold story. Leprechauns and all. Irish heritage helps here; however, I'm not sure that I've ever trusted the red-bearded wee-ones. Images of Lucky on the cereal box jump to the forefront of my mind. But if I need a character, this could be the place to start.

While I’m making connections, unicorns and rainbows naturally go together. Growing up in the 80s, I've always like unicorns and the combination of the two creates images of peacefulness and dreams.

One simple image out of a day, in this case, my rainbow, can open many doors in my writing. Tonight I’ll try one out.

Monday, July 19, 2010


I seem to be full of them at the moment. I love that, but then, as they say, too much of a good thing...too much--A Problem—heck YES! When I'm really full of those ideas, when they pop around in my mind like the beads in a kid's toy vacuum, there IS a problem. I lose focus. I'm not sure which one to latch on to. I don't know which one I should pick or where I should start.

I could choose the memoir. The short bits of anecdotal life that help me work out a stress in my current life. For instance, my grandma is about to undergo surgery. The family has cleared out her apartment to help make the fast transition to assisted living. Photos that are grandma’s and hers alone have surfaced. Those photos have memories that have lain dormant for decades. Ideas, ideas, ideas.

Then there are the realistic YAs. I read them; I write them; I have fun with them. My characters are reflective of my friends, my students, myself. It's summer and I can't help thinking about how my characters' summer vacations are going. Ideas, ideas, ideas.

And of course, there are the historical fictions. OMG...I'm stirred by them at the moment. After attending the summer writing workshop with KATHI APPELT I can't help thinking about their personal goals. A blog that I follow recently covered the idea of writing the premise of your story as a guide. Despite my stories having a clear outline already, I can't help but think about putting the goal and the premise out and letting go of sections I have already developed, but that don't really belong in the novels.

Oh. And there are the stories, genres, and characters that really haven't played out at all yet that are swimming around inside my head using my eyeballs as their source of light. They dart in and out of my consciousness, teasing me. Ideas, ideas, ideas.

There isn't enough time in the day to write them all! What's a girl to do?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

She's back! In efforts to make a decision about starting a new blog, I found the solution in modifying my old blog. (Which, if you care to scroll through, you can see...was not a very interesting or worth-while venture.) However, this NEW IMPROVED BLOG will have a shift in focus:

Writing! Mine, yours, ours, others, famous, not-so famous, and amateurs. The way I figure it is this: I encounter problems while I write. I'm sure you do too. By sharing our problems and solutions, my hope is that this blog can be a tool for us both to use.

Each day I will share parts of my journey (by the by- most of this blog is as a result of my continued work with "The Artist's Way". If you haven't read it yet, I encourage you to. It's fantabulous!). Hopefully, I will be helping someone like you or perhaps you can help me. With this in mind...I encourage you to share any writing advice, problems, solutions and just plain info. that all students of writing can benefit from.