. Howdy, Campers! Happy Poetry Friday! (poem and the link to PF is below)
Before we begin, there's good news for those of you who want to win a terrific book: We’ve extended the deadline to enter our latest book giveaway of a signed copy of The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults by editor and author Cheryl B. Klein. You’ll find giveaway instructions in Carmela’s March 29 post. The new deadline is now Tuesday, May 7, in part to honor the 100th anniversary of Children’s Book Week. Click here to find out how to enter.
And now...happy 10th blogiversary, fellow Teaching Authors! In particular, happy blogiversary to our founder and fearless leader, Carmela Martino, who has steered the TA ship across the years. I cannot begin to thank you for hauling me on deck just before we set sail. My world is so much richer for it!
In honor of this memorable milestone, all current and several former Teaching Authors are sharing our favorite posts. I've decided to go all the way back to 2009. Here's my post on our first topic, "How I Became a Teaching Author." At the end of that post I conclude that teaching is generosity. I've become more and more comfortable being honest with our readers. Today I know that being honest is a form of generosity. (And to be honest, I was scared straight out of my jimmy-jammies writing that post.)
In this safe space, we've often shared fears about writing or teaching (find some of those posts here); I felt like an imposter as a writer and as a teacher for so long, fear was a second skin.
But this year something's changed.
I must be like the Cowardly Lion at the end of the movie, The Wizard of Oz. As he is awarded a medal for courage, he becomes brave. After I was given an outstanding instructor award by the UCLA Extension Writers' Program, I believed that I actually was a good instructor, rather than pretending to be one.
Here is a not-yet-good-enough draft of a poem what about how I so often felt:
TEACH by April Halprin Wayland
I cannot do this today.
I sit on the stool in this empty classroom.
How dare I believe I can teach.
Am I a teacher?
Do other teachers feel this way--
slightly flu-ish, wanting to puke, even?
They should bring in someone else,
someone with a sword, maybe.
I wonder if my second grade teacher felt this way.
I wonder if all my teachers felt this way.
I almost fall off my stool
But as I began teaching the first quarter of this year, here's what I wrote: .
AGAIN by April Halprin Wayland . Again she drives in early
hooks up her laptop to the screen
puts one sheet of lavender paper
on each desk
puts the perfectly blooming hyacinth
just so on the edge of her desk
tapes her favorite quote on the front door
and two more inside her classroom. .
Again she takes off running shoes
puts on high heels
brushes her hair
fills her water bottle
She breathes for a moment,
closing her eyes.
Then she looks at the clock,
opens the door
poems (c) 2019 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved. (Even on that crummy draft.)
One sign on my classroom door
As we celebrate 10 years of this blog, I celebrated 20 years as an instructor in the UCLA Extension Writers' Program.
I am no longer afraid to walk through that door. (And, though the fear has diminished, I still sweat writing this blog! Perhaps that fear will disappear by our 20th blogiversary.)
my wonderful first class of 2019 holding some of their favorite picture books
P.S. is short for the term “Postscript” which comes from the Latin “Post Scriptum,” an expression meaning "written after.”
Alas, on March 16, the very next day after posting my very sincere thanks and tribute to my very first children’s book writing mentor Marjorie Weinman Sharmat, the NY Times reported her March 12 death in Munster, Indiana. Here’s the link.
My sighs were audible. I could feel my heart heave. For one whole week, while working at my desk in Chicago, reading everything I could find about this award-winning author’s long-time career – interviews, reviews, write-ups galore, so I could tell my Love Story about I’M TERRIFIC’s creator to our Readers, Marjorie Weinman Sharmat was right around Lake Michigan’s bend making Other Plans.
I also lamented my decision to not include this photo. I think it screams ‘TEACHINGAUTHOR!”
Publishers Weekly paid tribute to this prolific author on March 19.
Fortunately, a Munster newspaper obituary shared contact information so I could express to the Sharmat Family my condolences as well as my deep appreciation of this very terrific life-changing author.
Here’s to Nate the Great, but best of all, to Marjorie the Terrific! Esther Hershenhorn
Hip-hip-hooray for ten years of Teaching Authors blog posts! In honor of this momentous milestone, all ten current and former Teaching Authors are sharing some of our favorite posts.
We’re also giving away a signed copy of The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults by editor and author Cheryl B. Klein. You’ll find giveaway instructions in Carmela’s March 29 post. The giveaway ends on April 26. Good luck!
Because April is National Poetry Month and I’m posting on a Friday, I chose a post about poetry so I can participate in Poetry Friday and celebrate some more. I pored over all my old posts and picked one about the process of Revising a Poem because it still speaks to me. I hope you’ll also find a helpful tip or two!
Here in Wisconsin, this week’s April showers are snowflakes. Surprise!
We just returned from a vacation in gorgeous Hawaii, where sunshine felt like a soothing balm. We visited Hawaii Volcanoes National Park, watched the sun set from the southernmost point of the big island, hung out with hungry geckos, and ate our fill of tropical fruit. Here’s a glimpse of me with a massive bloom on a rainy day in the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, a paradise of flowers and stunning ocean views. And here’s a Hawaii Haiku:
yellow butterflies, green sea turtles, black sand beach— everything ebbs and flows
I’m happy to report that since I last posted here in August 2017, I signed a contract for a new picture book to be published in spring 2021, and two of my poems have been accepted by magazines. My recent writing has focused mostly on poems, some of which I’ve posted on my blog.
I’ve been spending more time at the sewing machine than at my writing desk lately, making Boomerang Bags reusable shopping bags. A post I wrote for the Authors for Earth Day blog explains more. But I’m missing the joy of writing, so I hope to snuggle back into a daily routine soon. I’m considering this post a start. Thank you, Teaching Authors, for inviting me to contribute!
Irene Latham has today’s Poetry Friday Roundup at Live Your Poem. Enjoy! JoAnn Early Macken
Carmella began the celebration of our TENTH blogiversary at TeachingAuthors! In honor of this momentous milestone, we'll be giving away a signed copy of The Magic Words: Writing Great Books for Children and Young Adults (W.W. Norton) written by book editor and author Cheryl B. Klein. You'll find the giveaway instructions here!
We are looking at our favorite posts of these last ten years, and I have to admit, I love them all, written by every one of the TAs. I found them all inspiring, informative and relevant to the ongoing adventures of writers who teach writing to children, teens and adults. But perhaps the most relevant discussion, from my post of Feb 2017, centers on revision. I'm currently taking the Revising and Re-Imagining Your Novel or Chapter Book online workshop, offered by Harold Underdown and Eileen Robinson. This is my second time around, and I continue to learn new strategies on how to dig deep into your story, looking at what ails it, and how to -- as Cheryl Klein states in her book on what makes for a good story -- "take readers on wonderful outward adventures and stirring inward journeys."
"I want to be sucked into this imaginary world and believe these characters and their actions are real, and I want the flow of language to be like water to a fish -- transparent, so I see right through it to the action, and so immersive that I take it for granted." -- Cheryl B. Klein, The Magic Words
Remember that old marching song:
99 bottles of beer on the wall 99 bottles of beer Take one down, and pass it around, 98 bottles of beer on the wall.
Its repetitive melody helps you find your rhythm when hiking trails or jumping ropes. It’s an ear worm that keeps you steady when the task at hand seems monumentally tedious. It diverts your attention from the monotony to the goal. That’s what I feel when I revise. When I finish a first draft, breathing a sigh of relief and accomplishment, I move on to the first revision. Only to discover another plot hole. A character acts out of character. First person slips into third person. Or worse, the history is wrong.
I write a blend of historical fiction and American fantasy, blending the folklore that captures the American identity with a unique form of fantasy that – I hope – captures forgotten times and personalities in American history. My first book, Big River’s Daughter (2013), begins in December 1811, when a series of earthquakes shook the Mississippi River basin. It shook so hard, the river ran backwards. It changed the landscape. Language is as important as the history during this time. In true rough and tumble fashion, the heroes of tall tales mocked and defied convention. Annie Christmas and Mike Fink – two important characters in the book – used language as wild and unabashed as the circumstance and landscape that created them and the protagonist, River. If the language isn’t correct, not only to the time and place and character, it’s time for a second revision.
98 bottles of beer on the wall, 98 bottles of beer…
The historical details are particularly important, whether it is the day the river ran backwards or a day during the Civil War. Historians work within a broad spectrum of data-gathering, dairies, journals and other volumes of primary sources. Planning and plotting resemble postnotes arranged in rainbows, Venn diagrams and flowcharts, all in the quest for accuracy. The process of writing historical fiction, like researching history, is neither straightforward nor risk-free. My second novel, Girls of Gettysburg (2014), focused on Pickett’s Charge during the Battle of Gettysburg. No other time in American history has been so researched, even down to the number of bullets fired during the charge. Historical fiction makes the facts matter to the reader. If you get those details wrong…
97 bottles of beer on the wall, 97 bottles of beer…
Even after a manuscript is done, it's not truly done. My dear Reader (what some might call a beta-reader, but I call her Clara) and I have a process. After so many rejections, we review the story, and look for possible revisions. For all the blood, sweat and tears – no tall tale here! – spilled during the writing of the manuscript, a manuscript is more likely to get rejected than not. Recently, I revised one rejected manuscript, taking it from 150 pages to 175 pages, refining character, language and plot while expanding on the historical context. During this process, I have to keep reminding myself, revising is when the real writing begins. This is when the real story emerges, the one that needs to be told.
Now I’m revising another historical fantasy manuscript. The original was an experiment into the contemporary. After several rejections, it became apparent that the experiment didn’t work. With this book, I venture into the wild, wild west, taking on its fantastical landscapes and lore. Think The Reluctant Dragon meets American Gods.
96 bottles of beer on the wall, 96 bottles of beer…
Historical fiction is one of the hardest sells today. As one agent warned me, western themes are harder still. The original manuscript was 150 pages, and I have to get it to 225 (for many reasons, one of which is the conventions our hoped-for editor prefers)...
95 bottles of beer on the wall, 95 bottles of beer…
You know what? I hate beer. And this morning, I hate revision even more. It’s hard, hard, bloody hard work. It makes me dizzy-eyed. And there’s no guarantee that after all that blood spilled, sweat poured, and tears cried, and there’s been plenty of each, I’ll even be offered that coveted contract. So why do it anyway?
Indeed. Instead of spending all those hours writing, typing, outlining, researching, deleting, cutting, pasting, I could bake a pie. I could eat a pie. I could give my cat a bath. I could learn a new hobby, plant another garden, or two, or three…
Wait. Pause. Take a breath.
True enough, I have enough gardens. And I have enough hobbies, which mostly centers on books and more books. And my cat would not let me live to see another day if I dared give him a bath. And I haven’t had a baking oven for close to a decade.
Besides, this character, for all her flaws, is getting really interesting. If I could just…
Fine. Back to work.
94 bottles of beer on the wall, 94 bottles of beer…
Our Tenth Blogiversary is actually on April 22, 2019. We're starting the celebration early because we've invited our former TeachingAuthors to participate in a special series looking back at our favorite posts over our blog's history. As it turns out, that series will feature TEN posts, starting with this one. You'll hear from the six current TeachingAuthors: April Halprin Wayland, Bobbi Miller, Carla Killough McClafferty, Esther Hershenhorn, Mary Ann Rodman, and me, Carmela Martino, as well as our "retired" TAs: Jeanne Marie Grunwell Ford, Jill Esbaum, JoAnn Early Macken, and Laura Purdie Salas. TENTeachingAuthors in all! (If you're new to our blog, you can read bios of the current and former TAs on our About Us page.)
I have to say, I was having a terrible time choosing just one from the over 200 posts I've written as my "favorite." Should I pick a post I especially enjoyed writing? Or should it be one that seemed to resonate most with readers? Finally, I "cheated" and looked at the blog statistics to find which of my posts has had the most page reads. Turns out, it was one from our very first year of blogging! On August 12, 2009 I shared a post called "Getting to Know Me--Six-Word Memoirs" that is still among the top 5 most-viewedTeachingAuthors posts of all time.
That post was not only fun to write, it also led me to incorporate a new activity into the summer writing camps I teach. The post includes a Writing Workout intended "To engage students in thinking about their lives and to show them how to write concisely." This exercise has proven to be a great hit with my young students. Even reluctant writers can manage to find six words to describe themselves, and often quite eloquently.
When I introduce the topic in my camps, I share the example of one of my own six-word memoirs:
Published author who enjoys teaching writing.
I also share examples from other students their age, like these:
And, speaking of your support, I have a special request:
We'd LOVE to know some of YOUR favorite TeachingAuthor topics. You don't have to look up the actual post, but we'd appreciate if you would share a comment about a favorite or helpful topic we've addressed. Or, if there's a topic we HAVEN'T addressed that you'd like us to, please share that.
If you choose option 2, you MUST leave a comment on TODAY'S blog post or on our TeachingAuthors Facebook page. In your comment, please mention a favorite or helpful topic we've addressed here on our blog, or a topic you'd like us to address in the future.
(If you prefer, you may submit your comment via email to: teachingauthors [at] gmail [dot] com.)
Note: if you submit your comments via email or Facebook, YOU MUST STILL ENTER THE DRAWING VIA THE WIDGET BELOW. The giveaway ends April 26, 2019 and is open to U.S. residents only.
I’m finishing up our TeachingAuthors series on mentor texts. It has been insightful to read the entries from my fellow TAs.
Naturally, the books that I’ve considered mentor texts are all nonfiction books. Writing nonfiction is not about stringing together a bunch of facts. It is about curating an endless number of facts, distilling them in a meaningful way that tells a powerful true story like it has never been told before.
In a way every nonfiction book I’ve ever read has been a mentor text. If I read a paragraph that is particularly striking, I reread it and consider how the author got the information across. But here I will point out a couple of authors and give examples from the books.
One of the authors that I have long admired is Russell Freedman (who passed away about a year ago). His books are serious but never boring. For example in the Newberry medal winning book Lincoln: A Photobiography, the first paragraph of the book says,
“Abraham Lincoln wasn’t the sort of man who could lose himself in a crowd. After all, he stood six feet four inches tall, and to top it off, he wore a high silk hat.”
These first two sentences give us a vivid picture of the man along with great facts.
In one of Freedman’s picture books, The Adventures of Marco Polo, he begins the book this way:
“As Marco Polo lay dying, friends and relatives gathered anxiously by his bedside and begged him to confess.”
In all of Freedman’s books, he carries the reader along with the serious-but-never-boring story.
Another author who was well-known for his fiction, but wrote nonfiction with equal success: Sid Fleischman (he passed away in 2010). Years ago Mr. Fleischman was a speaker at our SCBWI conference and I had the honor of driving him to the airport. I’ve never met a more polished and kind gentleman, nor one that was as humble as this very successful author of many books. I will never forget his graciousness to one and all. His books were like the man himself, brilliant and funny without even trying to be. At every turn, the texts of his books are witty and engaging. For example, the first paragraph of The Trouble Begins at 8: A Life of Mark Twain in the Wild, Wild West:
“Mark Twain was born fully grown, with a cheap cigar clamped between his teeth.”
Another example of a creative beginning is Fleischman’s book Sir Charlie Chaplin, The Funniest Man in the World which begins:
“In the pesky rain on a March Night in 1978, nitwit thieves huddled at the grave of Sir Charlie Chaplin and dug up the body of the world-famous comedian. They held it for ransom.”
His text is always accurate, yet entertaining.
As I write my nonfiction books, I keep in mind the great authors who have gone before me. I’ve learned from their mentor texts to start each book in a way that hooks the reader. Then even as I am telling a true story, I’ve got to hold their attention until the very last word on the very last page.
I began my Writer’s Journey writing picture books pre-Internet, pre-J.K.Rowling’s Harry Potter $ucce$$, pre SCBWI when it was minus the I. Barbara Seuling had yet to write her first edition of How To Write A Children’s Book and Get It Published! But Richard Peck was right. “We write by the light of every story every read.” Had Marjorie Weinman Sharmat’s picture book I’m Terrific not shone so brightly for me at the start of my career, I’d likely have remained a Children’s Book Writer Wannabe I discovered the book, illustrated by Kay Chorao, with my almost-three year old son on the New Books shelf during a Library Moms-and-Tots visit. The cover grabbed our attention: an obviously self-contented smallish bear, admiring his image in a paw-held mirror. A robin sat nearby, a soon-to-be-awarded gold star in his beak.
Once checked out and read aloud, that small bear’s story struck a chord in my toddler’s heart. Yet the tale and the telling struck a chord in my heart, too: the first-ever picture book I was writing looked and felt the same. So I read and re-read I’m Terrific, only minus the toddler and wearing my Writer’s Cap.
Admittedly, I was first looking to learn the how-to of the picture book format. I began by typing out Sharmat’s text as it appeared on the pages, leaving triple-spaces for each successive page turn. I indented where the author indented, placing characters’ words within quotation marks. Dialogue, I sensed, contributed immediacy and energy, and that fine balance between narrative and dialogue moved along the story. I noticed repetition of both phrases and sentence structure. The sentences themselves offered noun-verb clarity, yet my fingers felt the rhythm of Sharmat’s playful words.
Jason’s three friends - Raymond Squirrel, Marvin Raccoon and Henrietta Emily Bear, appeared within the building scenes, always in the same order, creating the expectation necessary for young listeners. Jason’s Mama claimed the transitional scenes. Each scene called for a new and different setting. A star-studded Jason spoke the story’s final words. “Thank you,” he said, once his friends dubbed him “terrific.”
Next, I revisited Kay Chorao’s soft, penciled illustrations. I covered the text and let the pictures tell me the story, as my toddler son did each time he re-read the book. The pictures said it all, amplifying characters’ actions, re-actions and emotions.
Finally, I cut apart one of my carbon-ed (!) text copies, paragraph by paragraph, then re-pasted the words to the pages of the blank 32-page book I’d created. I left space for the front matter, then room for the accompanying illustrations.
Ah, I thought: the picture book story’s told across fourteen double-page spreads, creating, sort of, a play’s three acts. And, Oh! Within each newly-set changing scene, the characters speak their thoughts and feelings as the action worsens. And, Yes! Everything comes together at the end, tied up with a bow. There wasn’t one part of Jason’s story hanging out, un-tethered.
(My well-worn copy of I'M TERRIFIC)
But to my surprise, it wasn’t just the text that showed me the way forward on my Writer’s Journey. It was THE BOOK in its totality that taught me what I needed to know! The front flap copy showed me the importance of hooking a reader – child, editor, agent. The title page introduced a publisher (Holiday House). The Library of Congress listing showed me both the book’s plot summary (“Jason Bear thinks he’s terrific and even awards himself gold stars for superior performance in his chores. His friends don’t like to be around him.”) and its themes and curriculum connections (Pride and vanity, forest animals). The dedication encouraged me to consider my book’s dedication, a someone in my life likely to keep me keepin’ on (namely, that almost-three-year-old son of mine). The book’s back flap author and illustrator copy connected me to other books Marjorie Weinman Sharmat wrote as well as the work of Kay Chorao. Soon I was discovering other illustrators of Sharmat’s books and other authors illustrated by Chorao, which meant other publishers, whose catalogues I studied, other formats, other structures, other genres. I deconstructed and rebuilt Sharmat’s Nate the Great to learn how to write easy-to-reads; I did the same and learned novel writing, thanks to Sharmat’s Maggie Marmelstein.
Reading I’m Terrific as a reader, the book amused and delighted me, as it should have. Reading I’m Terrific as a writer, the book informed and inspired me, as only it could have. Jason Everett Bear and Mesdames Sharmat and Chorao deserve buckets of gold stars for all they taught me.
I still turn to children’s books to learn and hone my craft; I encourage my students and writers to do the same. I consider each published book a Teacher-in-Waiting. Or even better, a TeachingAuthor!
As luck would have it, Holiday House published my very first picture book There Goes Lowell’s Party! one year after re-issuing I’m Terrific to mark its twentieth anniversary. (My now-grown toddler and I knew a good book when we saw one.) When I found myself seated across from Kay Chorao at the Holiday House ALA Dinner that year, I shared how I’m Terrific illuminated my writer’s journey. “Thank you,” she said. Then she graciously signed my copy, drawing stars that lit the page. Speaking of stars, thanks to My Juicy Little Universe and Heidi Mordhost for hosting today’s Poetry Friday.
Happy learning! May a terrific book light your Writer’s Journey!
P.S. If you’re seeking a human TeachingAuthor to light your way, one or two spots remain for my MANUSCRIPT WORKSHOP, July 14-19 at The Landgrove Inn, Landgrove, VT. You can read more about this long-time workshop, created by Barbara Seuling, by scrolling to the bottom of my TEACH page on my website. Fortunately, bags fly free on Southwest so I’ll be bringing lots of relevant mentor texts from Chicago for my writers.
. Howdy, Campers ~ happy Poetry Friday! (my poem and the link to P.F. and are below.)
And the winner of our latest give away--Laurie Wallmark's book, Hedy Lamarr's Double Life: Hollywood Legend and Brilliant Inventor--is....Katie G! Katie, a loyal subscriber, also won a TeachingAuthors giveway in 2013. Moral: it paysto hang out in the TeachingAuthors' tree house!
And speaking of the TeachingAuthors' tree house, these days we're up here drinking hot cocoa and sharing how we use Mentor Texts.
In all my classes I use mentor texts. Show, Don't Tell is the first thing I teach. Even if a student is a published novelist, a renown screenwriter, or a seasoned journalist, it never hurts to be reminded of what Anton Chekov means when he writes: "Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass."
In one exercise (created by my son when he was in elementary school), volunteers act out something in silence and their classmates guess what they are trying to convey. We discuss: how did they know the dog was happy, the child was having a tantrum, or the woman was old? They showed us, they didn't tell us, of course.
The first book I read to introduce Show, Don't Tell is Barbara Shook Hazen's masterful and moving picture book illustrated by the brilliant Trina Schart Hyman, TIGHT TIMES (Viking Press, 1979).
I wish I could put this book in your hands, but I can't, so I'll give you an example of how Hazen shows, rather than tells:
When the child narrator asks why he can't have a dog, his father explains, "Because of tight times" and continues:
"He said tight times are when everything keep going up.
I had a balloon that did that once.
Daddy said tight times are why we all eat Mr. Bulk instead of cereals in little boxes.
I like little boxes better.
Daddy said tight times are why we went to the sprinkler last summer instead of the lake.
I like the lake better."
I just typed the text of this book. It's astonishing what Hazen does in just 694 words. This book was published at a time it was perfectly acceptable to turn in a picture book manuscript of 1200 words or more!
And having typed this text, I can feel in my fingers that one of the picture books I am working on needs more showing, less telling!
* * *
A month before my mother, a classical pianist, died, I couldn't tell you what I was already missing...I had to show it:
WHERE IS MY MOTHER? by April Halprin Wayland
Quietly she cries,
she lies blanketed in grief.
Where is my mother:
spark of light,
moving, always moving,
striking a match,
setting piano keys on fire?
poem (c)2019 April Halprin Wayland. All rights reserved.
Okay, Campers...do you have favorite picture book that demonstrates Show, Don't Tell? I'd love to know what it is!
Spread the word: on April 13, 2019 from 9:30 am-4:30 pm, author/illustrator Barney Saltzberg, fiction and nonfiction picture book author Alexis O'Neill and I are reprising our one day class at UCLA, Writing a Picture Book and Getting it Published. Join us!
Did you know that monarch butterflies are endangered...and that you can help by raising them? Just ask beloved TeachingAuthor emeritus, JoAnn Early Macken; click here for the monarch resources on her website.
I didn't start out to be a picture book writer. My Best Friend was a gift from God, written in two hours (when I was boiling mad) for my four-year-old daughter. My Best Friend was the first book I ever sold.
Now...how to do that again?
My first born picture book--and it's little friends.
I had no idea.
The picture books intimidate me. If you've been reading my posts awhile, you know I get wordy. How could I cram a story into a 1,000 words? (That was in 1999; today's word counts are more like 300 words and less.) I was (and still am) a novelist, who likes a lot of breathing space for my story to expand.
Picture books, unlike novels, are meant to be read aloud. They're a performance piece with several components. The art (which I don't do; I'm not an illustrator), the word choices and cadence of sentences all come together (hopefully) to tell the story.
Although I didn't know this was what I was doing, I used other picture books to "mentor" the birth of my next book, First Grade Stinks.
I picked my favorite books from my daughter's shelf. What did they have in common?
Lots of picture books rhyme. Even in elementary school I couldn't string together six rhyming lines that made any sense. Forget about rhyming.
My mentoring books had other things in common. Words that were fun (and easy) to say. Lots of onomatopoeia. I love making up sound words. Click Clack Moo by Doreen Cronin is a book title that repeats in my brain when I am in "sound spinning" mode.
Repetition of a catch phrase. Years of doing library story hours taught me that kids love to join in by repeating the expected phrase. Carolyn Crimi's Don't Need Friends has the memorable phrase, "Don't need friends. Don't need friends at all." Alliteration. I love alliteration, although a little will go a long way. One of my daughter's favorite books was Princess Prunella and the Purple Peanut by Margaret Atwood. (Yep...same person who wrote A Handmaid's Tale!) Literally every other word in that book began with the letter "P." I never knew whether Lily actually loved the story, or loved making her dad (who stutters a little) read it. (He tried hiding Princess Prunella. Lily found it.) Picture book words should roll off the tongue without being interspersed with the reader adding "crap" as all those P's pile up on the palate. (Oops!)
Most of all, the story should have rhythm. For me, the lines should have beats and pauses, ups and downs, like music. Music that doesn't rhyme.
Nailing down that rhythm was the grunt work of the mentoring process. I typed and typed out whole books. Then I printed them off, and read them aloud again. I marked off the beats in the line. How many? Was there a consistent beat to the whole story? Or just at the predictable catchlines? (Think of those as "the chorus" of a song.) How did the author achieve the rhythm without it sounding sing-songy?
My dad used to recite Poe's "The Raven" to me as a bedtime story (!!). When I think of sing-song writing, I think of "The Raven." Once upon a midnight weary, while I pondered weak and weary/Over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore. I thought all poetry had to sound like "The Raven" which may have contributed to my childhood writer's block when it came to poetry. I had to erase Poe and his bird from my writing subconscious.
There is more to picture book writing than this. Character, motivation, structure and resolution don't give me much trouble. Making the story "sing" when read aloud--to me, that's what makes for a great book. The book that children want to hear over and over.
For the record, when I was writing First Grade Stinks my favorite picture book was Kevin Henkes' Julius, The Baby of the World, which introduces his inimitable mouse-child, Lilly. (Yes, my daughter Lily was in part, named for a fictional mouse.) This book uses the predictable catchphrase and certain repeated words perfectly. Lilly's frequent description of baby brother Julius, "Disgusting!" inspired my character Hayley's oft repeated opinion, "First grade stinks!"
Thanks to Doreen Cronin, Carolyn Crimi, Margaret Atwood and most of all Kevin Henkes (my secret author crush) for all they taught me...without charging a dime!.
Carmela began a new round of discussion, how we Teaching Authors use "mentor texts" as part of our writing and revision process. She explored the definition of mentor texts as published books we study to learn how to become better writers.
While mentor texts tend to be considered literature, I offer that it can be of anything that reflects “story.” After all, we are homo narratus, story animals, suggests Kendall Haven (Story Proof: The Science Behind the Startling Power of Story, 2007). We have told our stories for over 100,000 years. Not every culture has developed codified laws or written language, but every culture in the history of the world has created story in the form of myths, legends, fables, and folk tales.
I’ve written before, exploring how Doctor Who – yes, that Doctor -- can explain the complex definition of historical fiction. In the blending of invention with well-known and accepted facts, a better way to understand historical fiction is to remember that: “People assume that time is a strict progression of cause and effect…but actually, it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly, timey wimey stuff.
A longtime Whovian and dear friend, Cynthia and I have often used Doctor Who as a means to explore literary devices. Consider the character of Doctor Who. Human beings are complex beings, and emotions are dynamic. If we remember that fiction is primarily an emotional exchange, then plot can be understood as a sequence of emotional milestones.
The very essence of thirteen incarnations (regenerations) reflects the complexity of a fully-realized protagonist. The First Doctor was an eccentric curmudgeon. The Second Doctor had a strong sense of humor. The Third Doctor had a love/hate relationship with authority. The Fourth Doctor was quite taken with his own charisma and cleverness, with a love for long scarfs and jellybabies. The Fifth Doctor was a pacifist. The Sixth Doctor was petulant. The Seventh Doctor was ruthless. When the Eighth Doctor changed, there was a profound shift in the character. This was the great moment in the plot when everything changed. He became the War Doctor, a warrior that commited genocide against his own people. His was a regeneration considered so dark, he renounced the title of Doctor. The hope and curiosity of the previous incarnations were ground away by the brutality of his choice. He became the brooding Ninth Doctor, the tragically lonely Tenth Doctor, the guilt-ridden Eleventh Doctor, and the self-doubting Twelfth Doctor.
When seen as one character, rather than twelve (and now thirteen!) “regenerations,” the protagonist becomes a complex, dynamic character. A character, while racing through time and space, who remains anchored to his (and her) companions. They exert a force on him (and her!), changing him even as he changes them. That’s the very essence of a plot moving forward.
The Importance of Backstory
Important to developing a realized character is his backstory, the history that underlines the situation at the start of the book. Backstory drives the character’s motivations. It is primarily the character’s wounds that become the core of his emotive journey and drives his choices. Choices that move the plot forward. Such wounds are so deep and organic that they ultimately define how the character sees the universe.
And the Doctor has had 54 TV years of backstory, of accumulating a long lifetime of emotional wounds. As Amy Pond once said of the Eleventh Doctor,
“What if you were really old, and really kind and lonely, your whole race is dead. What couldn’t you do then? If you were that old, and that kind, and the very last of your kind, you couldn’t just stand there and watch children cry.”
Secondary Characters, otherwise known as Companions
At its core, the Doctor's story is about these epic relationships. These secondary characters helped to reveal the best and worst characteristics of the Doctor. The First Doctor was a know-it-all, prickly codger, but his two hearts softened whenever his granddaughter, Susan Foreman, walked into the Tardis. When Adric died during the tenure of the Fifth Doctor, the first long-term companion to die on the Doctor’s watch, the Doctor was stunned and reflective about his mad man in a blue box ways. By the time the Ponds died (during the time of the Eleventh Doctor), he was overwhelmed by his grief and hid away in the clouds. Only the mystery of the Impossible Girl was strong enough to compel him to leave the Tardis.
And these secondary characters were often the vehicle used to escalate the stakes while adding layers to the character, asking the question, “what if?”
What if we went to a museum to see the works of Vincent Van Gogh, and saw a monster in his painting? What if we went back in time to visit the artist, and met the monster lurking in the church?
What if we decide one morning to turn left, instead of right? How would history change?
What if we met a friend in a creepy old building with a garden filled with stone statues? What if these statues were really predatory creatures, and every time you blinked, they moved in for the kill?
What if there were giant whales swimming through space?
What if a broken but brilliant man, during the final years of a 1000 year war, genetically modified survivors to ensure his people's survival? What if these modifications were integrated into tank-like robotic shells, with every emotion removed except hate? What if this new species thought themselves the superior race?
The Importance of Theme
What, then, is the Doctor’s story about? What is the big idea that propels his story, the theme that connects all the parts of his narrative? Theme is connected to the protagonist’s journey, the lessons he learned along the way. The theme allows the readers to relate to the characters and feel invested in the outcome.
Supported by the sweeping themes of love and war and redemption, grief continues to be a powerful, emotional theme that prevails throughout the Doctor’s story. As the Doctor learns repeatedly, honor your dead, but keep on living. He learned this with the passing of Adric, and the passing of the Ponds, even at the passing of his wife, River Song. His best friends, and even his childhood best friend who grew up to be his favorite frenemy, the Master, eventually they all left him. Throughout the course of his long life, he became defined by his losses.
In one story, the Twelfth Doctor saves a Viking girl -- at his companion's urgent request -- through a technology that makes her immortal. Her tragic saga spans through eternity, as she outlives everyone she loves, until at last she also witnesses the end of the universe. And yet, her story doesn’t end. It continues unexpectedly after the Doctor endures torture for a billion years, forcing his way back to Gallifrey, in hopes of saving his companion, Clara. Eventually he pulls Clara out of her timeline, which traps her between two breathes. In their final goodbye, she wipes the Doctor’s memory of her before flying off into her own adventures with the Viking Girl. Clara chooses to let him go to save him. Yet, before the Twelfth Doctor regenerates, he remembers Clara. The story comes full circle, a narrative device that frames the story to bring about resolution. At this point, the Doctor's inner and outer conflicts converge at the same time and place (all puns intended) for emotional impact. There remains intact certain kernels of emotional truth. An old Ibo (Africa) proverb states, “all stories are true.” And what we learn in this wibbly wobbly journey through time, as the Doctor has learned, is what it means to be human.
So you see, there is much to learn from the Doctor about writing the epic adventure. As the Doctor tells his companion, and in so doing reminding everyone, through those Tardis doors, stepping into story,
“… we might see anything. We could find new worlds, terrifying monsters, impossible things. And if you come with me... nothing will ever be the same again!”