Sunday, September 25, 2016


My favorite thing about Auggie, the star of THE JUNCTION OF SUNSHINE AND LUCKY, is her positive outlook--and the way she never sees things as they are but as they can be. Auggie looks at a rusted pipe and thinks, "Flower." Or, "Wind chime." Or, "A woman dancing." If she didn't have that kind of outlook, she'd never become a folk artist.

My favorite thing about Izzy, the main character of WORDQUAKE, is that she'd open-minded. As the story opens, she considers books to be nothing more than dusty, mind-numbing old weekend-stealers written by dead guys who'd probably bored themselves to death.

The adventure she embarks on shows her a new way to look at the written word, though. And Izzy lets it. I mean, a character can go on the world's most amazing journey--but if he or she is close-minded, they'll miss out on seeing the world from a new angle. They'll miss out on letting that adventure have an impact on them. Not Izzy, though. She lets the events of a single day change, that you just can't help but admire.

Friday, September 23, 2016

What’s Missing? Story Structure! Smack-Dab-in-the-Classroom by Dia Calhoun

From the private Creative Writing mentoring I do for both adults and kids, I’ve discovered many people have a poor understanding of story structure. It isn’t really taught in general creative writing classes, beyond perhaps pointing out that a story needs a beginning, middle, and end.

Perhaps this lack isn’t surprising, if you consider all the many and often complex techniques of looking at story structure. You can read STORY, by Robert McKee, for a super in depth version. But the simplest, quickest technique I’ve found is in Eve Heidi Bine-Stock’s book, How to Write a Children’s Picture Book, Vol. 1: Structure. She developed her story structure chart for picture books, but I’ve found it very useful to give me a quick snapshot of novel structure. And an easy way to try many ideas out quickly.

Bine-Stock explains the chart using well known picture books as examples, so this book would be a useful and accessible way for a middle school or secondary school teachers to teach story structure. Have the kids look at a few middle grade novels using the chart as well. Whether teaching literature or creative writing, this book would be a great tool for teaching story structure.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Finding our Characters' Broken Places by Laurie Calkhoven

I’ve enjoyed everyone’s thoughts this month on our characters’ dark sides—how we find them and how we write about them. The fact is that we all have dark sides. We hope that the good is the side that mostly presents itself to the world, but we all have them.

When I’m getting to know my characters, letting them tell me who they are and what they want, I always ask them to tell me about their broken places. They can be as simple as being the shortest kid in the class (like Claudia’s character) or as complex and overwhelming as learning your father just isn’t interested in you (like Michael does in Michael at the Invasion of France). But it’s those broken places that explain the darkness in our characters and give us a path to lead them to the light.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


I love the concept of TRUTH OR DARE—and the title! Your book is so spot-on for this age group. How did you tap into that middle grade mindset? 

I often wonder the same thing! Seriously, it's just my default mindset when I'm writing. Either I'm an angsty twelve year old or Adult Me. The latter when I'm conducting business, the former when I'm creating fiction!

Beyond the exploration of the awful spiraling effects of lying, you really dig into the ins and outs of young girlhood friendships (I especially love the description of the ways in which Lia’s friends can so quickly seem to move on without her while she’s on vacation.) How much of your own childhood friendships seep into your work? Or, conversely, do you find yourself inspired to write about things that happen to your own children?

I never directly, consciously poach anything from my kids or from my own past. But as we know, stuff seeps in. Sometimes you don't realize it until you read back what's on the page.

When did you start writing? Do you remember your first attempt at story-telling? What inspired you then? What inspires you now? 

I've always written. When I was five, I wrote my first "book"--"Mitchell Colleps"--about a mischievous boy with a robot who ate Spanish rice. My mom sewed the binding in pink wool, and I still have it. There's a photo of it  on my website,, and sometimes I bring it with me to school visits, to show kids that dreams can come true.  "Mitchell Colleps" was inspired by an imaginary friend of mine. I can't say I still have imaginary friends--but often, when I've finished writing a book, the characters have become so real to me it's hard to let them go.   

Your website bio indicates that your favorite word is “definitely.” Love that! (Anyone who writes can sometimes struggle to maintain a positive outlook.) How do you maintain it? (PS: I say definitely cats—my first-ever friend was a yellow one. And I also say definitely dogs—my current pet is a very spoiled Peke.) 

I think that if you love writing, it's *definitely* a privilege to be able to say that it's your career.  Some days it's hard--okay, impossible-- not to feel  demoralized. Authors are no strangers to rejection and indifference. HOWEVER, we get to play with our naughty cats (like my Luna and Coal) and our sweet dogs (like my lovely hound, Ripley) while we tell ourselves stories. In our fuzzy slippers!! How can we not be ecstatic about that?

I love the sweet, upbeat tone of TRUTH OR DARE. Do you have to work to find it? Did it come naturally? Do you have any tips for finding a character’s voice? 

I have to say the voice comes naturally to me. I think it you have to work too hard to find it, and to maintain it, it's probably going to seem forced and unnatural on the page. Here's what I tell writers who are developing their voice:  If you're writing for kids, try to hang out with kids, and eavesdrop on speech patterns. Then, when you've written something in a kid's voice, read it out loud. Listen for things like contractions: if you aren't using them, your voice is probably too formal and adult. 

I also love the discussion of “better or worse” in the book (Lia’s optometrist dad is always asking “better or worse,” while Aunt Shelby thinks dividing experiences this way is a waste of time. Where’d that idea come from?  

I have terrible eyes, so they're always getting checked. I guess that phrase just hit me one day. One of the themes I keep coming back to in my books is realizing that people aren't either/or, black/white. We're all just grey, really--rounded, imperfect, inconsistent. So having a job that makes you see the world in either/or ways all day long  is kind of horrifying to me.

Perhaps my favorite part of the book is the idea that losing friends lets you gain superpowers (invisibility and super vision). Lia’s actually dealt with a lot of loss: her mother has died as well. Do you think children deal with loss differently than adults? How so? 

Great question. I can tell you that I experienced great personal loss as a kid--and when it happened, I remember telling myself, "If I can get through this, I can get through anything." Do other kids feel this way when tragedy occurs? I hope so, because it really did help me. And I'm guessing that many adults don't feel  this way in the face of a terrible loss, because they're not looking to the future as optimistically as kids are.  Am I saying that kids are stronger and more resilient than adults? Sounds as if I am.

Which is tougher—writing or teaching? More rewarding? 

Hoo boy, tough one. There's nothing more exhilarating than teaching when you've got a great bunch of kids, and you're all reading and discussing  a book you truly love. But sometimes you don't get to choose the text. (At my former school, we had to teach tenth graders Alexander Pope's long poem, "The Rape of the Lock." Can you imagine?) At least when you're having a hard day as a writer, it's private. Teaching is a public performance requiring an endless supply of positive energy. So on balance...yep, teaching is harder. Definitely (Ooh, there's that word again!).

What’s your writing style? Plotter? Pantser? As writers, we’re always learning new tricks—what’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned about your own work in the last year? 

Glad you asked this. I used to be a pantser, convinced that if I outlined, I'd lose the sense of adventure that made writing fun. Then three years ago, my oldest kid became very ill. For a year, I didn't write a word, spending my days with him at the hospital. (He's okay now, knock wood.) At the end of that year, I wanted to get back to work, but after so much time away from my desk,  I didn't want to waste more time writing something that might not get published. So I forced myself to develop a detailed  synopsis , which my agent  and editor liked, and which became TRUTH OR DARE. I've written my next two books , STAR-CROSSED and STUFF I KNOW ABOUT YOU, synopsis first, and now I'm a total convert to this way of working.  For me, the hardest part of writing is developing the plot, so if I get that out of the way first, the writing is a (relative!) breeze.

Can you tell us more about future releases? Works in progress? What’s next? 

I'm especially excited about STAR-CROSSED (Aladdin/S&S--March 2017), which is about an eighth grade girl who realizes she has a crush on the girl playing Juliet in the eighth grade production of Romeo & Juliet.  I guess my inner English teacher was behind this project, because I do use a lot of Shakespeare's play. I have to say that writing  STAR-CROSSED  was the most fun I've ever had writing a book--truthfully, it was a daily joy, and I'm happy to say that my book is not--I repeat , not-- a tragedy. I've also just not finished the first draft of STUFF I KNOW ABOUT YOU (Aladdin/S&S September 2017), which is about a free-spirited girl who discovers, over the course of a three-day school field trip to DC, that her roommate has an eating disorder. As a former anorexic myself, I've been horrified to read that eating disorders are showing up in tweens much more frequently these days, so I wanted to write a book that's actually enjoyable and funny--about a serious subject I'm passionate about.

Keep up with Barbara Dee:!

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Little Tiny Bits of Darkness by Claudia Mills

I have to confess that my bad characters aren't very bad, and my dark characters aren't very dark. Most of my recent books are for younger kids, third-grade-level chapter books featuring small trials and tribulations and ending with small triumphs. Ahh, but seemingly tiny moments of heartbreak and seemingly tiny markers of hard-won growth can feel huge to the child characters, and child readers, who experience them.

A couple of decades ago a book of mine received a scathing review in The New York Times, one that I can quote practically verbatim to this day. The reviewer - whom I could name but prefer not to - castigated my story because the problems my main character faced - being the shortest kid in the class, sulking in the shadows of his older brother's consistently greater success - weren't worth writing about. Everyone in the book was too nice, he sneered. Why on earth would kids, he accused, want to read the literary equivalent of "vanilla pudding"?

Well, first of all, I happen to adore vanilla pudding, I wish I had a bowl of it right now.

But, more important, I continue to think that the relatively small problems of basically kind and decent people can be the subject matter of fiction for young readers. I wrote that New York Times reviewer many letters, which of course I never mailed, and this is what I tried to tell him: To be a children's writer is by definition to take seriously problems that the rest of the world doesn't think are very important. 

As both a child and an adult reader, I identified deeply with Ramona Quimby when she goes on strike from kindergarten after her teacher, Miss Binney, scolds her for pulling Susan's irresistibly tempting "boing-boing curls." Ramona can be a pest: indeed, Ramona the Pest is the title of the book. Older sister Beezus can be disdainful. It breaks Ramona's heart when she thinks that maybe Miss Binney doesn't love her any more. But no one here is wicked, no one is cruel, and everything Ramona feels is triggered by events that are microscopically small to most adult observers, though seismically significant to a five-year-old.

Little bits of darkness can blot out the sun of a young child's world. And there is a need for stories that recognize that fact and honor it with loving recognition.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Where is the light? (September Theme - Sarah Dooley)

This month, we’re talking about what we love about our characters, or about their dark side. But when it comes to Sasha from FREE VERSE, her dark side is one of the things I love about her.

In her grit-poor, fiercely proud, “coal-keeps-the-lights-on” community, Sasha deals with shadows on a regular basis. Shadows of her dead father and the others lost to the town’s main livelihood. Shadows of her absent mother, her brother, and the emotional problems plaguing her that she doesn’t understand.  As hard as she tries to look up and stay bright, there is always another shadow, another dark spot to navigate, another bit of herself lost to grief and sorrow. And yet, she comes through it.

I love Sasha Harless, and I love her town, and to love these things is to love all of them, darkness included. In writing the novel, it was difficult to walk into that darkness far enough to get a feel for Sasha, and to look around and see what she saw, and to feel what she felt, and to write what she thought about all of it. As a writer, it forced me to face the shadows of my own life, and I don’t know that I did so as skillfully as Sasha. I do know that she, like anyone, had to face her darkness in order to find the light and grow towards it.

Friday, September 16, 2016

What We See in the Dark by Naomi Kinsman

Think back to the last time you found yourself in the dark. Maybe you were camping, or out late on the beach, or even in a room darkened by thick curtains. Take yourself back to that moment and remember: what did you see?

Darkness can be velvety and thick. It can wrap around us like a blanket. In the dark, we slow down, we pay attention, we're often on guard. In the dark, we're also more open to wonder. If you're like most people, what you remember seeing in the dark isn't the darkness, but the light. Did you remember stars or the moon or a lit candle? When we're in the dark, the light draws our eye.

In fact, light doesn't show up very well unless it is placed next to the dark. Visual artists know this principal well. Take a look at master artworks and you'll see heavy, dark tones that set off startling flashes of light.

Joseph Campbell said, "At the darkest moment comes the light." After studying stories for a lifetime, and pulling the patterns he saw together into the Hero's Journey framework, Campbell knew a thing or two about character and story. The truth is, to create characters who glimmer with hope, we must allow their darkness to also show up on the page.

Even though I know darkness is necessary for creating authentic characters, I still back away when I see a quality in one of my characters that I don't like. Why is she so jealous? I might wonder. How can he be so cruel? As writers, we can't avoid the fact that everything that shows up in our writing has somehow grown out of our own life experience or perspective. We may not be jealous or cruel, but in seeing our character's capacity to be those things, we realize that no matter how much we wish it weren't true, we have that capacity as well.

And yet, acts of courage, trust, or kindness wouldn't mean as much if they didn't cost us something. We're often moved to tears by stories of heroes because we know that setting our own needs aside and doing the heroic thing is anything but easy.

It's a stunning thing when a writer can face his or her own darkness to create a character who sparkles with light. Those are the stories I most want to read ... and the ones I aim to write every day when I sit down at my desk.

Our world needs courageous writers and daring readers who aren't afraid of the dark. What we see there points the way to transformation and understanding.

Naomi Kinsman is an author, educator and creativity coach. She is the author of the FROM SADIE'S SKETCHBOOK series and recently collaborated with singer, Natalie Grant, on the GLIMMER GIRLS series. Naomi is also the founder and Executive Director of Society of Young Inklings, an organization that offers classes, mentorships and publishing opportunities for young authors ages 6-16.  Society of Young Inklings utilizes WRITERLY PLAY, the improv-based teaching methodology that Naomi developed, as the foundation for its programming.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

What’s Their Story? By Bob Krech

Bad characters! Always interesting to create, some times more so than the good guys.

Most of my stories come to me first as a scene. And then another scene. And then another. Somewhere along the line there’s going to be conflict and there’s usually a bad guy or semi-bad guy appearing. I don’t often know ahead of time where they came from of what they’re story is. But I need to find out.

I hate books where the bad guy is totally bad. He’s mean, he kicks his dog, he’s a racist, he lies, he steals, and he tries to break most of the commandments. I often encounter these characters in books with important themes like race or sexual abuse. The protagonist will be multi-faceted and complex, but the bad guy is a cardboard cutout.

More often in real life, the bad guys we meet, are not bad all the time or with everyone. They may rob you, but be kind and loving to a parent. They may hate you because of your skin color, but be exceptionally loyal and trustworthy to their friends. People are complex, so should our characters be.

I think we’ve all either done or day dreamed about doing bad things. Which makes you realize, even nice people like you and I, have at least the imagination to visualize doing something wrong. I believe most people we hear about doing bad things have some sort of backstory that at least partially explains (not excuses) their behavior. The best bad characters have authors who share some of that with us (Voldemort! From Harry Potter, Judd in the Shiloh books!)

Finding out what your bad guy’s backstory is, making it interesting, and sharing some of it with your readers, could be one of the most rewarding parts of writing your story.