For Teachers

Who’s the Boss of Your Writing?


When I’m not writing or doing menial household labor (poorly), I am playing tennis. Strangely enough, what I learn on the court many times translates to my writing. One such lesson I learned the other day was this:

The ball is the boss.

My instructor noticed I seemed to be using the slice and the topspin groundstroke randomly, with no relation to how the ball was coming to me. This was true. Many times, I’d decide, before my opponent even returned the ball, that I was going to use a particular shot. If you’re a seasoned tennis player, however, you see the fault in this – you have to wait and see where and how the ball is coming to you to determine how you should hit it. So my instructor gave me this simple rule: if the ball is rising, hit a slice. If it is dropping, hit a topspin.
This translates to: The Ball is the Boss. Wait and see what the ball is doing and then react accordingly.
It also translates to Get Out of Your Own Head, Stupid!
In writing, this rule is: The Character is The Boss.
No matter how I want a certain thing to happen in my story or how well I plot out the story ahead of time, the character is the boss. If I stay in the character’s head (not in my own) I will write a truer story. My character will lead me to what would actually happen, not what I as the author think “should” happen.
It’s about being flexible, not getting ahead of things or forcing things, letting the plot or the shot work out organically.
It’s about shutting off your brain, trusting your instincts and letting go.

So here’s my question to all you writers: Who’s the boss of you?

Beverly Patt steps off the tennis court once in a while to serve up some middle grade and young adult fiction. 

How Do You Make Time to Read?


I have a confession to make: I’m a bad reader. Let’s be honest: I’m a lousy reader.

I’m the kind of reader that lets all kinds of interruptions stop me from finishing a book. There is my schedule, my kids’ schedule – my writing projects that always seem to take precedence over an evening curled up in bed with a great book. And there is my writer brain that doesn’t seem to turn off when I’m reading supposedly for pleasure. There is the unwillingness to suspend my disbelief like I did when I was young, a general impatience for the story to get where it should be, then exasperation when it does and I think I’ve seen it all before. Is this adulthood? Lack of sleep? Lack of time? Is this maturing writer syndrome? Whatever it is, I feel like I should be reading, and enjoying reading a lot more.

This summer I read six books. For me, six is a pretty good number. I read two on the plane, to and from ALA. The other four I read at my parents’ when I had no place to drive my kids, no major cooking or housework to complete – nothing to do really but kick up my legs for a few weeks.

But let’s compare this to the number of books my fourth-grader read. That would be 26.

6 and 26. Luckily, I’m not trying to be her. Otherwise, I would feel like a pile of doo-doo.

But I did study her reading habits over the summer, to find out how she read so much. She didn’t have a completely free summer. She had a morning camp that ran for 6 weeks, But her afternoons were open until the end of July, and then for the whole of August, nothing at all. She read the Percy Jackson series, the Sisters Grimm series, several standalones, and even a few ARCS that I brought back from ALA, or that she received through a fantastic children’s reading program at a bookstore in Boston. Some came from the bookstore, but most came home from the library. She was not a picky reader, but she read what interested her, and during the summer, she completed every book she started.

Then I looked at my own reading patterns, during the summer, and during the school year (because even if I’m not a student, my day-to-day life is determined by the academic and extra-curricular schedule of my kids).

This is what I came to realize about reading:

1. It’s important to have uninterrupted time. For my daughter, this time was vast – enough that she could keep reading until she finished a book, which was generally in about 2 days. It was harder for me to find this same kind of uninterrupted time. If I did, it was generally when my kids were asleep or out playing with friends, cousins, etc. The best time honestly, was at night, when everyone was asleep. For this I actually preferred my iPad, because I could read in the dark (which okay, might be horrible for my eyes), but which gave me the closest sensation that I was completely alone with my reading.

2. Even when you’re busy, you can still make time for reading. You need to carve out a time to read, and keep that time only for that. It might be at night before you go to sleep. It might be on your morning commute. Or maybe it is at your kid’s soccer game. Where ever it is, it should be consistent and guarded against other obligations.

3. Reading is a mental exercise. Just like your body can go out of shape, your reading muscles can atrophy over time, too. The best way to build up those reading muscles is to keep reading. It gets easier to read when you develop the habit of reading.

4. Sometimes liking a book means having to get to the end. While I don’t advocate finishing everything I read, I do also find that certain books require a greater amount of time to build trust. In a way, when you decide to read a book, you are trusting the author to take you somewhere you want to be. One of the books I read this summer became extremely satisfying by the time I got to the end – but it was an end I couldn’t have seen coming (or enjoyed) when I reached the halfway mark.

5. Reading a little more means writing a little less. I don’t know how to get around this fact, at least as it stands in my life. Because as a writer and mom and family member, there are only so many hours in a day to get things accomplished. Sometimes a fabulous book means giving up an evening dedicated to writing. Sometimes it means putting that fabulous book on hold while you finish your draft. It’s a delicate balance. For me, it does help to be between writing projects. So for the time being, reading is a great way to transition from one project to another, to refill the well, and allow myself to enter someone else’s imagined world for a change.

Now that school has started for my kids and me, I’m sure our reading habits will change. But at least I’ve got 6 books tucked inside my brain, and I feel so much better because of it.

So how about you? Where do you read? When do you read? How do you fit reading into your life?



Sheela Chari is the author of VANISHED (Disney Hyperion), the latest Al Roker Book Pick. You can watch her live on the Today Show in October, or visit her online at

Second Chances

I’m writing this as the Olympics end and the athletes go home victorious or defeated, no in-between.  Much as I complain about how hard writing is, I’m thinking lordie lordie, at least nobody watches me do it. No audience cheers or groans as I walk the beam or leap hurdles or execute somersalts from insanely high platforms, all while wearing little more than my own thin skin.  No cameras record and replay ad infinitum my failure to achieve sufficient altitude or my clumsy flip turns.

Of course, writers stumble, fall and land on their own butts all the time, but we get to do it in private, no witnesses.  Happily, the desk doesn’t record how many times we knocked our heads against it, and the keyboard has no comment on how compulsively we dust it while trying to come up with the ending to a scene. Only the coffee mug witnesses the grinding of the teeth, the biting of the nails.

Even better. Writers get to revise.  For us, there’s always more than one chance. Even after something is published, even when we’re reading it in public, we’re apt to slip in one more little edit. No tenth of a point deduction!

I recently read “Splendors and Glooms” by stellar MG author Laura Amy Schlitz. This new novel has a complicated plot told from multiple points of view. A writer could envy how easy Schlitz makes it look—the book features a master pupeteer, and that’s what she seems, pulling all those strings, never getting them tangled. But here is what she has to say about the actual writing and revising:

“This book took me six and a half years to write, and I almost never knew what I was doing…I’d kill off a character in chapter 11, write nine more chapters, and realize I needed the dead man alive again. So I’d throw out the nine chapters—not one of which had been easy to write—and go back to the beginning…It’s hard to keep going back to work that makes you feel profoundly stupid. I kept hoping the book would get easier, but it never did…People who wanted to help me would ask me questions about the plot, and I would glare at them and shriek, ‘I don’t know! I don’t know! It doesn’t make sense!’”

Yikes. I’ve been there (though I tend to shriek behind closed doors).  Getting lost, getting stuck—it’s a maddening, disheartening state.  Yet we’ve always got that second, third, fourth chance to work through it. Revising, as any author will swear, is where the real writing happens.

Lots of writing blogs and books offer revision tips. One I’ve found particularly helpful not just on revising but many aspects of writing and publishing is Scholastic editor Cheryl Klein’s “Second Sight”.  Her chapter Twenty Five Revision Techniques offers tried and true advice like taking time off from the project so you can see it with fresh eyes and compressing the story to one sentence, but also some original and fun exercises to help you judge the success of character, plot and pacing. I especially appreciate the encouragement of Tip # 25: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  We may fudge the take-off or wobble on the landing, but we can work on that. In the end, the main goal is to take our work as far as we can.

Kate Messner is a teacher and a writer who maintains a terrific website, I love this quote from her: “I’m an okay writer but I’m a really good reviser.” Kate’s book “Real Revision: Authors’ Strategies to Share with Student Writers” is aimed at teachers taking kids through the writing cycle, but with insights from thirty-five writers including Jane Yolen and Kathi Appelt, it’s a treasure trove for anyone who writes or wants to.

Paul Theroux said, “Fiction gives us a second chance that life denies us.” I think he was talking about reading, but the words apply as well or even more to writing. Got some of your own revision strategies, or a book or site to share?

Tricia is the author of the award winning middle grade novel “What Happened on Fox Street” and its sequel “Mo Wren, Lost and Found”.  She’s currently deep into revising her new middle grade novel, “Pinch”, but you can find her at