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?