Pop Quiz, by Chris Tebbetts

I do an exercise in some of my workshops, where I encourage participants to hone in on the things that stick to them the most: favorite stories, persistent memories, influences on their creative lives, etc., all with an eye on identifying prospective core material from which they might draw for some future writing project.

First, I ask my writers to take a minute or less to make a list of five favorite movies. Anyone who isn’t a movie person is free to list five favorite stories from whatever medium: books, plays, tv shows, video games, whatever. Either way, it’s not meant to be a definitive list, but a quickly-generated one that captures whatever items most readily come to mind in that particular moment.. 

From there, I ask participants to see if they can discern any repeating motifs, ideas, or themes among the movies/stories they just listed. It doesn’t have to be something that’s true for every title on the list; this is more about looking for repetitions of any kind. For example, someone might notice a handful of stories with strong female protagonists; or a lot of mysteries; or stories about loners; or about friendship; or…or…or….whatever it might be.  

After that, the workshop covers a long series of steps that I won’t lay out in detail here, but the overall idea is to put us in touch with story elements that naturally excite us, spark our own imaginations, and—presumably—are there in our minds for a reason. My guess is that if I incorporate anything from my list into a story idea, or a story in progress, it’s going to bring a natural level of creative energy with it, and maybe give me a leg up on the story I’m trying to create. 

So, in keeping with this month’s theme (“The first time I…”), and in the spirit of everything I just mentioned, here’s a list of questions for your consideration. Instead of movies, I'm focusing here on middle grade fiction, and I've included my own answers as well. 

If you want to play along, write down your responses and then see if you don't spot some kind of repetitions in and among the answers you come up with.

And....if you’re still feeling energetic after that, try a timed free write for five, ten, or twenty minutes. Take one of the motifs or themes you’ve identified, and use that as a jumping off point for the free write. For example: What do those strong female characters mean to you? What emotions does the idea of adventure evoke in you? What is the appeal of loner stories? (Alternately: Start writing a scene that incorporates the thing in question.) The point here is to just start writing and see where it takes you.

1) The first character I remember wanting to be: Charlie Bucket, in Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory

2) The first book I can remember reading over and over: Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing, by Judy Blume 

3) The first book I can remember buying with my own money: The Littles, by John Peterson

4) The first MG novel I can remember having a real emotional impact on me: Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh

5) The first MG author to earn my loyalty as a reader: A tie between Beverly Cleary (Ramona the Pest, Henry Huggins, Ellen Tebbits, etc.) and Roald Dahl (James and the Giant Peach, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator). 


6) Favorite MG book of all time: James and the Giant Peach 

7) A MG book that to made me cry: The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, by Kate DiCamillo. 

8) A MG book that made me laugh out loud: Cosmic, by Cottrell Boyce

9) Favorite middle grade reads from the past year: The Bridge Home, by Padma Venkatraman; Where the Heart Is, by Jo Knowles; A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity, by Nicole Valentine; The War that Saved My Life, by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley 

Now it’s your turn. If you’re inclined, share your responses in the comments.

Happy reading, listing, and writing in the meantime! 


  1. I need to take one of your workshops ASAP!

  2. Join us! :-) https://www.highlightsfoundation.org/programs/1907/getting-your-middle-grade-or-young-adult-novel-unstuck-2020/

  3. This is such a great exercise. And Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing!

    1. Thanks! :-) --- Funny, about Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing -- it was SUCH a favorite when I was that age... then I read it as an adult, a few years back, and it was like the magic was gone -- which I mean as a compliment to Judy Blume, who was able to speak whatever secret language to my younger self....

  4. COSMIC! You're the first person I've heard mention that. I do all the time. Great exercise!


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