For Writers

If I Taught Writing: What I Learned About Teaching Writing from Becoming a Writer…and a Mother

The other day, my six-year-old son and I serendipitously ended up at a classic-car show in our downtown. I didn’t really know he was even that interested in cars. But he was and asked me to take a couple of pictures of him with cars and even a picture of an engine (I think it was an engine).

That night he had me take one more picture of him “working” and then asked me to print the pictures. I was sure they would end up somewhere random, such as crumpled in his pocket or stuck between couch cushions. Instead, that same night he showed me a book he had made all on his own.

If you’re familiar with Chris Van Dusen’s If I Built a Car, you will notice my son follows a similar structure to Van Dusen’s book, even to the end (“If I built a car, that’s just what I’d do.”) The ideas, though, were all my son’s. This is not a child who normally sits down to write for pleasure. But there’s a lot I learned from this experience.

I am a former elementary and middle school teacher. I actually left teaching to pursue a career in writing as well as to start a family. What I’ve learned is that when I return to teaching (it’s inevitable I will), I will definitely teach writing differently.

Here are some tips I have for teaching writing to elementary and middle school students. In other words: If I taught again I would do the following:

  1. As a writer, if I’m not inspired, I’m not inspired. I put my work-in-progress to the side and come back to it when I’m ready.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I wouldn’t expect students to pump out a product when they’re just uninspired. I’d have students do something different for a bit (even something not writing related) and try again later.
  2. Whenever I get inspired by something I see, I try to write it down before I forget it.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students keep a running list of topics. They’d have access to their list to add to it throughout the day. It wouldn’t have to include only topics, either. It could be a funny sentence or the name of a character, etc.
  3. When I’m stuck for an idea, I look at picture books to see if they inspire me. Sometimes I even attempt to write in a similar style to one.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d allow students to write “fan fiction.” If they liked a book, I’d have them do a spin-off of it (for instance, my son’s spin-off of If I Built a Car). Then they wouldn’t have to worry about inventing characters or inventing a plot. They could focus on other aspects of writing.
  4. I find that when I’m running, I get all sorts of ideas (such as the idea for this post!). It clears my mind and allows ideas to flow.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students work on discovering how they can clear their mind. How can they become inspired? Does drawing help? Running? Bouncing ideas off peers?
  5. Unless I’m typing, I am not working at my desk. I edit on my couch in front of the fireplace, and I work through plot issues by spreading my manuscript out on my floor.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d remember that writing at a desk doesn’t work for everybody. I’d allow students to test out different ways of working.

    My second office.

  6. I find a lot of value from reading mentor texts. I learn about different formats, styles of writing, etc. I see what good writing looks like.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have kids use books as much as they could as inspiration for their own writing. If they are writing nonfiction, I’d let them tear apart the nonfiction section of the library. Which book formats do they like? What writing styles do they like? I’d have them do the same with narratives. They would look at humorous books and sweet books and scary books.
  7. Most of my time as a writer isn’t spent writing new material; it’s doing revisions.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I would change the focus of editing away from the grammar. Instead, I’d spend time on how to both add and cut text. I’d do an exercise in trimming a longer piece to figure out what’s really crucial to what they are writing. I’d have them make every word count.

    How I edit a novel. Assistant pictured in background.

  8. Writing fiction requires lots of research. With my latest novel on sled dog racing, I interviewed many mushers, attended sled dog races, and looked up the correct wording on websites.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d have students do research even when writing fiction. There must be something they need to look up or verify.
  9. Experts are the best source for fact checking. No matter how much book and online research I’ve done on a topic, when I show an expert my work, they find a better way to word something or find a part that should be tweaked.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d remember that kids are even experts on something. A lesson I’d love to try out: have students write down topics they’re experts on (skateboarding, sewing, etc.) Then give one of their topics to a student who’s not an expert in it. Have that student write about it as best they can without any resources. Then have the expert read and edit it for accuracy and word choice.
  10. So going back to my son. I think the biggest lesson I learned about teaching writing is from being a mother. My children watch me write day and night. They see that when I have some spare time, I write—even on vacation. That’s because I really love writing. I did not ask my son to write about his experience at the car show. I think he chose to make a book because he saw me making books.
    Takeaway: If I taught again, I’d be sure to write when my students are writing. I’d share my work-in-progress with them. I’d show them that writing isn’t just something you do in school. It’s a way to express yourself: your likes, your dislikes, your beliefs.

So if I taught again, that’s just what I’d do!

I also asked my fellow middle grade authors, What tips do you have on teaching writing as a writer yourself? Here’s what they said:

Ditch the “trade and grade” style of peer editing and form mini-critique groups in teams of 4. One child reads while the other three follow along, writing down suggestions and then discussing before moving on to the next student’s turn.
– Kym Brunner, author of Flip the Bird

I wish we had done more fun writing exercises in 5th grade. My main advice is, let them have some fun by creative writing. Schools are so focused on structure and preparing for the tests, that writing for fun, is often overlooked.
– Jonathan Rosen, author of Night of the Living Cuddle Bunnies

Sit down. Then, no matter how much you want to, don’t stand up until you’ve written something.
– Darcy Miller, author of ROLL

Every first draft is bad. The magic is in rewriting.
– Kristin L. Gray, author of Vilonia Beebe Takes Charge

The hero and the villain in a story either both want the same thing for different reasons, or different things for the same reason. Either way, they’re reflections of each other.
– Katie Slivensky, author of The Countdown Conspiracy

Your writing will never be perfect. But you can always make it better.
– Beth McMullen, author of Mrs. Smith’s Spy School for Girls

Writer’s block could mean that you’re focusing too hard on the wrong things. Back up and try looking at the writing from a different angle.
– Allison K. Hymas, author of Under Locker and Key

Sometimes it’s helpful to plan a story out before you write, but it’s also a-ok to start writing the story and figure it out as you go. The important part is to revise carefully once the first draft is finished.
– Lindsey Becker, author of The Star Thief

It’s okay to feel like you don’t know what you’re doing.
– Gareth Wronski, author of Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy

If you confront three of your characters with an identical problem, each should solve it in their own way. What they do tells us so much about who they are!
– Sarah Cannon, author of Oddity

You don’t have to write every single day to be a writer. Thinking and reading counts too.
– Carter Higgins, author of A Rambler Steals Home

No matter how challenging or scary it may seem, it’s important to write a story from the heart—it will make the writing stronger!
– R. M. Romero, author of The Dollmaker of Kraków

Be kind to your curiosity. Embrace the moments when you think, “I wonder…” – especially when the “I wonder” seems silly and strange and like no one else will care.
-Patricia Bailey, author of The Tragically True Adventures of Kit Donovan

Go for a walk, go to the park or the grocery store or anyplace new and soak up the sensory details. Take notes on the sights, sounds, and smells–they will make your writing come alive!
-Christine Hayes, author of Mothman’s Curse

When teaching setting, I like to use the “5 Senses Rule.” Does your story have details the character can see, hear, touch, feel, smell, and taste? If not, you may want to work more on the setting.
– Hannah Kates, author of Patel Patterson and the Apocalypse Key

So here’s a tip I give to all aspiring writers, young and old: the most important question a writer can ask themselves as they’re developing their story idea or even just when they have that “spark” of an idea is “What If?” That question is the engine that drives the plot. What if there were a young boy who’s parents were dead? And what if he lived with these really terrible relatives? And what if he discovered on his birthday that he was, in fact, a wizard? Oh! And what if there was a wizarding school? I like giving that example of how JK Rowling asked and explored “what if” when she wrote Harry Potter.
– Bobbie Pyron author of many middle grade novels, including the upcoming A PUP CALLED TROUBLE.

What tips do you have for teaching writing?

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How to Start a Creative Writing Club for Kids

When school started last year, I got the crazy idea that the students at my daughter’s elementary school might like a forum in which to do creative writing. Although they get some in the classroom, I was thinking of a completely non-judgmental environment where I guide them but they ultimately do what they want, where there are no wrong answers or points off for misspelling a word. Really, I wanted for them the kind of club I would have loved myself as a child.

I pitched the idea to a friend of mine, a professor of creative writing, who very graciously shared with me exercises she does with her grad students. It took some work but I brought them down to a level I thought would work with 4th-6th graders.

Next I had to get buy in from the school principal to run an after school club and use the library. She loved the idea but reminded me I needed a ‘baby sitter’ because I’m not a credentialed teacher. The librarian agreed to keep me on the straight and narrow and I promised to keep his library in good working order.

From there, I got myself invited to a PTA meeting to see if they would throw me some funds to run the club. Really all I wanted were notebooks, pencils and a few other little things here and there to help with the writing exercises. They said yes and I was off.

We meet once a month for an hour. We have two rules for Writing Club. The first is we are respectful of everyone’s ideas; if a fellow student is reading his/her work aloud, we are quiet and listen closely. The second is no one has to read if they don’t want to. No pressure. I also give away middle grade books I’m done reading. Winners beam like they’ve just won the lottery.

September’s giveaway books

At our first meeting this year fifty students showed up! I ran out of everything – notebooks, pencils, seats, table space – but seeing these kids, scribbling away, giving voice to the stories in their heads, gave me hope for the future.

(for specifics on the writing exercises, please visit my website)

 

An Interview with James Ponti (+ Giveaway)

I’m so excited to welcome author James Ponti to the blog. I had the good fortune to sit next to him at a luncheon once, and by the time I finished the meal, he had not only encouraged me with my next project, but also graciously contributed some ideas about possible themes. So if you ever find yourself in the same room with him, grab that nearby seat! In the meantime, read all about his background, his books, and his writing process below.

James began his career as a writer for television and film before turning his talents toward writing books for kids. He is the author of many young adult and middle-grade novels, including the Dead City trilogy and his new FRAMED! series, which began with Framed!, an Edgar nominee for Best Juvenile Novel, a Parents’ Choice Award Winner, and a Florida Book Award winner. The book is also on the Sunshine State Young Readers Award list in two categories: Grades 3-5 and 6-8. He recently published Vanished!, the second book in the series.

First, congratulations on the success of the series. Framed! and Vanished! are complete page-turners, which are funny and suspenseful at the same time. How did you come up with the characters of Florian Bates and his friend Margaret?

Thank you and thank you so much for having me on From the Mixed-Up Files!

When we think of mysteries, the first elements that come to mind are plots, crimes, clues, suspects, etc… That’s all good, but when we think about the mysteries we love, we almost always think about the characters, so I knew from the beginning that the most important element of the books would be Florian and Margaret.

I wanted two kids working together and I wanted the basis of the books to be their friendship. It was important that they be realistic with relatable middle school problems and while I knew they were going to be exceptionally clever, I wanted that cleverness to be fair to the reader. I hate it in a mystery when a detective just happens to know some arcane piece of trivia that solves the case or when coincidence and happenstance are the linchpins to the solution.

I wanted Florian and Margaret to solve the cases based only what was on the written page so that the reader could play along. To do that, I came up with TOAST, the Theory of All Small Things. It’s the method of observation and deduction that they use and it’s a skill that any kid could develop.

TOAST led me to Florian. I asked myself what type of kid would come up with this and it dawned on me that it could be a survival technique developed by someone who moves all the time and is constantly trying to read changing social landscapes. Florian’s parents work in museums and he’s grown up in Boston, London, Paris, and Rome. Each time, he has to solve the mystery of being in a new place, avoiding the bullies, and looking for safe harbor in a social setting. Now he’s moved to Washington and must do it all again, but luckily this time the first one he meets is his neighbor Margaret.

 I wanted them to have a yin and yang quality in that he’s more European while she’s very American. He’s socially awkward and she’s confident and athletic. But the most important part of the dynamic is that she’s the first kid who’s ever realized that he’s amazing. She sees greatness in him that he doesn’t and she brings it out.

Speaking of TOAST (Theory of All Small Things). Tell us about how you developed that concept–and the great acronym.

I developed TOAST during endless airport layovers. To pass time, I got in the habit of trying to see what I could figure out about the other people waiting at the gate with me. It’s really amazing how much we broadcast about ourselves without saying a word. I would come up with backstories based on everything from clothes, to luggage, to hairstyles. I actually got kind of good at it, and when I decided I wanted to a middle grade mystery series I knew where I wanted to begin.

I thought the technique needed a name that readers could hold onto so I decided to come up with an acronym. I wish I had a great story like I was eating breakfast and looked at a piece of toast, but the truth is, I came up with it in about thirty seconds as a lucky fluke. I said to myself, “TOAST, the Theory of All Small Things.” I liked it because it felt like an acronym that a kid would devise.

A funny side note has been translating it into other languages because the acronym only works in English. I asked that they be food related like the one that’s used in the French translation which is GRATIN, which stands for the le Guide de Recherche et Analyse de Tout Indice Negligeable. (I always knew I was a cheesy writer.)

I get the idea from reading about you and talking to you in person that you never have a shortage of stories to write about. Where do you get your ideas?

My mother was a great storyteller and from an early age I learned that the key to finding ideas was in small details. (No wonder I came up with the Theory of All Small Things.) I’ve always been attracted to the little unnoticed development that turns into something more important or the small action that is a microcosm of something much larger. As a result, I’m always looking for them.

I’ve also learned that it’s important to be empathetic and look at situations from other perspectives and to not take yourself too seriously. I have stumbled and bumbled my way through fifty-one years of life and more often than not I’ve been the punch line. If I couldn’t laugh at myself, I don’t know that I’d have many stories to tell.

Can you tell us a little bit about the process of how you get from the kernel of an idea to a complete story? Do you think about theme at all in the beginning or is it something that develops as you write?

I don’t consciously think about theme, but I think a theme of outsiders trying to find their place in the world is at the heart of everything I write. (I also think it’s at the heart of virtually all MG fiction because that’s what our readers are trying to figure out.)

If I think of a potential story, I usually start asking questions to try to tease it out. Hopefully these questions lead to ever more interesting questions and when I feel like I have something workable, I’ll run it by my wife Denise to see if she thinks there’s something to it. If it makes it past the Denise test, I’ll try to write three to five chapters. If at that point I still think it’s interesting the real fun begins.

How did you get into writing for kids, and how has writing for television influenced you as a novelist?

I knew I wanted to be a writer, but I didn’t think I would ever write novels because I was always a slow reader as a kid. My first love was movies, so when it was time for college I majored in screenwriting at the University of Southern California.

I ended up writing kids television for Nickelodeon, Disney Channel, and PBS.  I loved it and I loved writing for that age so when I finally decided to try my hand at novel writing it seemed only natural to stay with that same audience.

My television career has dramatically impacted my writing style in many ways, most notably pace, structure, and dialogue. My first two series have been told in first person and I think that’s an extension of scripting dialogue.

You were born in Italy and so was Florian. How did that influence his character?

I wanted Florian to have an outsider’s viewpoint because I think that really helps give a detective a fresh perspective. At first I imagined that he was British and when I told my brother Terry he said that detectives are always British, and said I should make him Italian like me. The second he said that, I knew that’s what it should be. So I gave him my background only I flipped it. I had an American mother and Italian father and was born in Italy but grew up in the United States, so I gave Florian the opposites – an Italian mother and American father, but he was born in the states and grew up in Europe, most recently Italy.

The mystery in Framed! involves the National Gallery in Washington, D.C. and in Vanished! it’s the Kennedy Center. Could you give us a tease about the location or premise of Book Three without it being a spoiler?

I love famous locations as settings and from the beginning knew that I wanted to tap into the cultural institutions of Washington, D.C. as backdrops for these mysteries. I like them for a number of reasons including the fact that they give you colorful settings populated by a broad range of characters. I also love that readers can look up the places and if they’re in Washington they can visit them. I think that makes the story feel that much more real.

I wanted the third book to be a bit of a love letter to all the librarians who’ve been so supportive of my books so I decided to make the mystery library based. All of the suspects are librarians who are named after actual librarians I know. This led me to picking the primary setting as the Library of Congress and additional settings at the Folger Shakespeare Library and DC Public Library. I went and visited them all for research just as I had for the National Gallery and the Kennedy Center.

One last question that I know the answer to but would be remiss in not asking, given the name of this blog: What was your favorite book when you were growing up and how did it influence you?

I was an incredibly reluctant reader as a kid, but one book managed to slip through the cracks and that was From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. I loved it and it imprinted on me in a significant way. I have always loved museums and the thought of exploring one on my own at night was the greatest fantasy I could think of. I think that the influence can be found in the fact that Florian’s parents work in museums and that realistic big city settings are part of both book series I’ve written.

When I decided to take a crack at writing kids books, the first one I picked up to read was The View from Saturday, also by E.L. Konigsburg. And when I wrote Dead City, I wanted to send her a copy with a note saying that I couldn’t have written it if it weren’t for her. To my amazement, throughout my life we’d been living in the same Florida beach community where I grew up.

Thanks so much, James, for taking the time to give us such great answers.

Readers can learn more about James at his website, Facebook, and Twitter.

Teachers and librarians interested in curriculum guides, as well as an interactive mystery game, which students can play in their school library, click here:

Read all about the books below and enter a raffle to win an autographed paperback of Framed! by leaving a note in the comments section before midnight on Oct. 1. I’ll pick a winner at random and let you all know who the lucky reader is on Tues., Oct. 3.

So you’re only halfway through your homework and the Director of the FBI keeps texting you for help …What do you do? Save your grade? Or save the country? If you’re Florian Bates, you figure out a way to do both.

Florian is twelve years old and has just moved to Washington. He’s learning his way around using TOAST, which stands for the Theory of All Small Things. It’s a technique he invented to solve life’s little mysteries such as: where to sit on the on the first day of school, or which Chinese restaurant has the best eggrolls. But when he teaches it to his new friend Margaret, they uncover a mystery that isn’t little. In fact, it’s HUGE, and it involves the National Gallery, the FBI, and a notorious crime syndicate known as EEL.

Can Florian decipher the clues and finish his homework in time to help the FBI solve the case?

 

Middle school is hard. Solving cases for the FBI is even harder. Doing both at the same time—well that’s just crazy. But that doesn’t stop Florian Bates!

After helping the FBI solve an art theft at the National Gallery and uncovering a DC spy ring, Florian’s finding life at Alice Deal Middle School a little boring. But that’s all about to change! His FBI handler, Marcus, has a job for him! Is it a bank robbery? Counterfeit ring? International espionage? Actually it’s middle school pranks…

Sounds pretty ordinary except that the pranks are happening at a prestigious private school attended by the President’s daughter who may—or may not—be involved. So Florian and Margaret are going undercover to see if they can use their TOAST skills to figure out what’s going on before the media gets hold of the story. However, once the crime-solving pair arrive at the school, they discover that there’s a lot more than a few pranks going on and the conspiracy of silence reaches all the way to the top. Then a student vanishes in the middle of a concert at the Kennedy Center and things take a sinister turn!

Can Florian and Margaret save the day? Or are they about to get toasted?