Thursday, June 23, 2016

Summer Reading: Smack Dab OUT of the Classroom by Dia Calhoun

What was the best thing about summer when I was a child and a teen? Summer reading! For ten weeks I could read whatever I wanted. No assignments. No homework. Only those stars mounting up on my summer reading chart at the local library. Read ten books and you get a prize.

Ten? I was just getting started at ten! I reread old favorites, and many new books as well. With that memory in mind, I browsed the library shelves today looking for something fun and new. I spend a lot of time driving, so audio books are my friends. But when I'm driving, I can't listen to anything too serious--too distracting.

And so, having just watched the BBC version of Pride and Prejudice, my eye was primed when I pulled a book by Marion Chesney titled Emily Goes to Exeter. The premise sounded fun. Miss Hannah Pym, formerly housekeeper of Thornton Hall (OK, good sign, loved the parallel to Jane Eyre's Thornfield Hall) becomes a travelling matchmaker in 1800's England.

Could be fun. Could be terrible. That's the point of summer reading. You never know.

I'll lreport back next month. Meanwhile, choose a book that is fun and different, lean back against a tree, and think of nothing else for a few hours.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Writing Prompts by Laurie Calkhoven

When I use writing prompts to get to know my characters or elements of my story, I always combine them with meditation. I’m building on my April blog post about using meditation, which you can find here:

When Characters Step Out of the Mist

As I said there, once I have brought my characters to me in meditation, I turn over an index card on my desk with a question. I can’t say how important it is for me to be surprised by the question. If I know ahead of time what I’m going to be writing about I spend the entire meditation thinking and planning. The element of surprise makes it possible for new and interesting things to bubble up—things I didn’t already know.

I have a number of prompts scribbled on those index cards, and I add to them all the time. After reading the “swing set of tears” scene in A FAULT IN OUR STARS, for instance, I added a question about childhood toys. A teenage character I’m working with now desperately a Barbie doll when she was five—a toy her feminist mother wouldn’t allow her to own. I’m not sure how that plays into her story yet, but I do trust that more will be revealed.

Here is another prompts that has taught me a lot about my characters:

Your character has a strong memory involving a parent. What is it? Is it a happy memory? A sad one? A mix of emotions? Why is it such a powerful memory?

 Learning what that memory was for Michael in MICHAEL AT THE INVASION OF FRANCE helped me to figure out what his inner journey was. It informed every sentence in the novel.




And another prompt:

Your character has an object in his or her hand. What is it? Why is it important?

When I was learning about Daniel in DANIEL AT THE SIEGE OF BOSTON, I discovered he was holding a clay marble—his lucky shooter. All of a sudden I had my opening scene and the marble plays a roll in the climax as well.

I’m always collecting new prompts. I’ve already collected a couple this month from other writers’ blog posts. If you find one that’s especially helpful, please share!

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Writing Prompt: School Assignments

I write school stories. Over the years some of my best story seeds have been provided by the most creative idea-generators in the world: elementary and middle school teachers themselves. Even in this age of teach-to-the-test pressures on educators, teachers constantly generate new fun - and hilariously funny - ways to make learning come alive for students - and, I've found, to make stories come alive for readers.

My boys both participated in their elementary school's fifth grade "biography tea," where they had to research some famous person and then impersonate him/her at a fancy tea-party. From that assignment I created my chapter book Being Teddy Roosevelt.
For another assignment they had to keep diaries in the persona of pioneers heading west on the Oregon Trail. That became a central plot line in The Trouble with Babies, where Nora is appalled when she draws a "fate card" for her Oregon Trail adventures that has her "married" to class bully Dunk. 
On school visits I haunt the hallways to peek at student work. I was thrilled to see a bulletin board full of ideas for how each kid would change the world. I scribbled down some of the kids' actual answers in my trusty notebook; they made their way into How Oliver Olson Changed the World - which also featured the "third grade space sleepover" my boys attended.
Next time you're stuck about something to write about, wander over to an elementary school - or wander vicariously via Pinterest - and see what fascinating activities inspirational teachers have invented. Each one contains terrific material for a story. In case children's authors needed yet another reason to be grateful for teachers, this is it. 

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

The Grandmother in the Police Car and the Hot List/Not List (Prompts!) by Bob Krech

Two of the most interesting prompts for middle grade writers fell into my lap over the last couple of years. I like these a lot and have used them again and again with classes.

With the first one, I was stopped at a traffic light when I saw a police car drive by on the road in front of me. It was a local township police car, but as it passed in front of me I saw that the driver was an old woman. Like someone's tiny grandmother with white hair tightly done, glasses, hunched over the wheel. I swear I saw this! I've told this story to many classes now and I ask them the same question - why? Why is a grandmother driving a police car? I asked students to write down some possible answers, which would then serve as story ideas. Here are some they came up with:

*She was a lazy police officer's mother and she was bringing him his car
*It was a police officer in disguise
*She is a master criminal who stole a police car
*She is part of a special squad of grandmother police officers: The Granny Squad
*She was bringing her police officer son doughnuts
*She borrowed her son's car while he was eating
*She was an alien who disguised herself as a grandmother and took the car
*She was at a diner and had an emergency and needed a car right away so she took that one. Now the police are chasing her.

The second prompt came from a student. When I asked the class to think about things they observed around them that might be a good start for a story, this eighth grader reported that scrawled in pencil on the wall in the girls' bathroom were two lists of student names. The Hot List and The Not List.

Many of the boys immediately perked up while girls exchanged glances and giggles. The air was suddenly electric. I asked, "Could a story come from that?" They all were immediately able to write down and share numerous possibilities including:

*A boy hears he is on the Not List and sneaks into the girls' bathroom to remove his name, only to be caught by the principal
*A girl takes money from other boys and girls to put their names on or take their names off
*Other students begin to put up new lists all over the school with different groups forming around different lists. The principal tries to stop it, but it can't be stopped.
*Boys start their own lists and girls try to do different things to get on the Hot List

It was very, very powerful and it all came from just a simple observation by a student who was willing to share it. It really pays to ask students what they've observed that might be good prompts.

Sunday, June 12, 2016

Prompts For Character Development by Darlene Beck Jacobson

Since we are all MG writers, I thought it might be fun to have a few writing prompts geared to developing a middle grade character.  Here goes:

- Your character is 10 years old. 

- Describe his/her reaction to the following:  a new puppy, losing a best friend, being an only child, being the youngest/oldest of twelve children.

- Your character is given $10.00 and told to buy a gift for someone important in her life.  What does she buy and for whom?

- Your character sees a kid in the schoolyard at recess doing something that makes him stop and stare.  What is the kid doing?

- Your character discovers something surprising under her bed. What?

- Your character must choose ten - and only ten -  of his favorite things to pack in a suitcase.  What does he choose and why?


Saturday, June 11, 2016

Night Prompts (June Post by Jody Feldman)


When I was in middle and high school—and things haven’t changed much in this regard—I wanted all the superpowers as they pertained to life. Sure, Superman’s up-up-and-away would’ve been nice. Also Samantha Steven’s nose wiggle which, poof!, would make my room sparkling clean. But the ones I really wanted were those wielded by psychics, especially ESP and future-telling. What were those girls whispering about? How could I read that boy’s mind and discover facts that would get him to like me? Was I going to be happy when I grew up? Would I get married? Have kids? Wear lipstick?
And while the heavens did not provide me with those superpowers, they did provide me with dreams every night. For my 14th birthday, I think it was, my best friend gave me a couple books on dream interpretation. In order for those to be useful, I had to remember my dreams. And so I trained myself, upon waking, to think of nothing except where my mind had wandered when I was fast asleep. No, these dreams did not give me great insight into my future, not even with the interpretations, but they did give me great insight into storytelling and creativity. And my crazy dreams have continued to reinforce the fact that there is a storyteller inside me.

All this leads me to a very simple writing prompt. Keep paper and pencil or a recording device by your bed. Train yourself to note a few details of your dreams every morning. (You may not be able to at first, but eventually, you will.) Besides what you saw or did in your dreams, remember how those circumstances made you feel.

Every night, through the power of dream, you’ve gifted yourself with great ideas. Then it’s your job to sit back and see how your daydreams can pick up the thread and watch where they take your story next.

Friday, June 10, 2016

Marcia’s 10 Questions for Outlining a Scene

Use these 10 questions to plan, write, and/or revise your novel scene-by-scene!

  1. Where is the character (setting that anchors the character in a specific place and time)?
  2. Why is the character there?
  3. What does the character want (goal)?
  4. Why does the character believe he/she needs to achieve that goal (internal and/or external motivation based on a perceived ‘death stake’ of physical, professional, or psychological)?
  5. What stands in the character’s way (internal and/or external obstacles(s)?
  6. What does the character do about it (action)?
  7. What happens to keep the character from succeeding (disaster)?
  8. What dilemma results from the disaster that requires a decision for the character?
  9. What new situation arises from the decision of the character?
  10. How is this situation even worse than the situation at the beginning of the scene and how does the character think/feel about this new situation?
  
Marcia’s In-a-nutshell Scene Prompts

  1. What is the setting anchor?
  2. What is the character’s primary goal?
  3. What is the obstacle?
  4. What is the disaster?
  5. What new decision does the character make?
  6. What are the action and tension sources in the scene?
Marcia Thornton Jones/2016
Linked in: Marcia (Thornton) Jones
Facebook: Marcia Thornton Jones
Mentoring: www.carnegiecenterlex.org

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

STRETCH your Creativity --- by Jane Kelley


The best stories often combine unlikely elements. A literate spider and a pig? A British boarding school and a wizard? An African gray parrot and a girl with leukemia? (That last idea is from my book, The Desperate Adventures of Zeno and Alya.) When people ask me how I get my ideas, I answer, I combine images that don't belong together. 

To make a connection between two things that DON'T go together, you have to think deeply and uniquely. You have use a lot of imagination to bridge the gap. The tension between the ideas will add to the magic. 

Here's the prompt. Collect an assortment of pictures from magazines. Pick ones that grab your attention. Then randomly select two or three of the pictures. 



If they fit together, like the dragon and the princess bride, or the rescue dogs and the person lost in the maze, put one picture back and pick again. 

What can you make out of a person hanging from a tree and the space station? Rescue dogs and electric guitars? Pillow-head people and a dragon?

As a variation, try separating your pictures into characters and settings. Go against the obvious choices. Try using landscapes to define your characters and people to conjure up new settings. 

In this way, you'll leave your comfort zone and think outside the box. And you won't rely on cliches like those expressions! You'll come up with new ideas and images.

Happy writing!