Posts Tagged writing exercise

Garbage Writing Exercise



If you need a creative boost for yourself, your children, or students…Garbage Writing is the perfect solution!


*Set a timer for 15 minutes.

*Write, write, write…nonstop!

*No editing. (Your internal editor will hate this…but it’s such a great way to get past all those judgments and fears of words not coming out right).


This can be rambling nonsense. A rant that lets you get all your anger and frustrations out on paper.

Or…if you have a story you’d like to write, an issue you’re working through, etc. you can keep that in mind during this exercise. But if you choose this option…you still need to let the words flow and not edit. Yes, there will be lots of garbage to toss at the end, but you’ll discover gems that gleam so brightly that might not exist without letting your words gush out like this.

Garbage Writing is great to do with writing groups, classes, etc. And you can do it daily or on weekdays to stifle your internal editor before jumping into writing or revisions for the day.

Happy writing! I hope you discover tons of sparkly gems. 🙂

Interview & Two Book Giveaway with Fred Koehler and Sarah McGuire

I’m thrilled to interview Fred Koehler and Sarah McGuire—both of them had a middle grade novel released this month. Sarah’s is a fairy tale retelling called The Flight of Swans. Fred wrote and illustrated Garbage Island (The Nearly Always Perilous Adventures of Archibald Shrew).

Sarah McGuire and Fred Koehler were once both awkward teenagers who mostly grew out of it. Each draws on their unfortunate adolescence to write stories for young readers. They met at a writers conference and decided to get married. In common they share: love of travel and adventure, dogs over cats, and sci-fi movies. They most often disagree about Oxford commas, whether or not Florida has hills, and who gets the fuzzy blanket.

Huge congrats to both of you! Can you tell us how you met and how you celebrated two book launches in one month?

Sarah: We met three years ago at one of Lorin Oberweger’s fabulous BONI workshops. Fred lived in Florida. I lived in Virginia. And we met in Hood River, OR. The manuscripts that we were working on then both sold– and they released October 1st and October 9th.


Fred: We celebrated in pretty low-key fashion. Dinner out with a little live music. We’ll have a proper celebration with our local community this weekend. A book signing, writing workshops, and other fun shenanigans.



It’s amazing that you met at a writing workshop! How did each of you come up with the ideas for your middle grade novels—and were there any bumps along the way?

Sarah: I’d known for a while that I wanted to write a retelling of “Six Swans.” In fact, I had a really thin first draft by the time we met at BONI. And while I adored the story I was telling and the characters I’d discovered, most of the novel felt like one big bump. The original tale gave me a mute heroine, a six-year timeline, and not too much action other than the relentless suffering of the heroine. So there was lots of work to do!

Fred: As a lifelong fisherman and outdoorsman, I spend a lot of time on Florida’s coast and I pay attention to stories about water quality and pollution. When I learned about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, my first reaction was disbelief. But the more I researched it the more I could visualize how it formed, and I also decided it would be an intriguing backdrop to an animal adventure.


After writing and illustrating so many wonderful picture books, how did you decide to write an illustrated middle grade novel and how did it compare to writing and illustrating a picture book? Can you share a bit of your process, Fred?

Fred: I started with novels, always wanting to write long form fiction. Problem: my stuff was terrible. Picture books became a great learning tool for storytelling, because this format allows 500 words or less to tell a complete, compelling narrative. That word-count limitation permits you to fail fast and try again. Through the process of making picture books, my writerly brain eventually caught up with my artist brain, and I knew that I had the missing pieces to return to novels.

I like to see each chapter or scene as an independent story, the kind you’d pull your friends together and say “Guys you won’t believe what just happened.” Anytime a passage doesn’t grab me with that sort of excitement, I know it’s missing something. Then I’ll go back in and make something explode or someone almost die horribly and the scene improves. 🙂


We’d love to hear some tips for writing a great fairy tale retelling, Sarah.

For me, the key to a great retelling is figuring out what you love and what you want to change. Both let you tap into your deepest emotions about that story– and that, in turn, fuels your retelling.

In “Six Swans” (retold as The Flight of Swans) I loved that a girl did the saving. That was so huge to me when I first read it as a child. I loved how all the siblings looked after each other. I also became fascinated by stinging nettles! On the other hand, I didn’t like that the heroine’s main role to was to suffer in silence. I wanted her to push back. And I really didn’t like how her husband just steps aside at the end when her enemies want to burn her at the stake. Knowing what I didn’t like let me “fix” it. I was able to write a heroine who had agency, not just endurance. And I made sure that she ended up with guy who would appreciate such an amazing heroine.


What do each of you love about your spouse’s novel? What surprised you the most?

Sarah: This is an awesome question! I love the adventure in Garbage Island–the near misses, and the moments when you wonder whether the characters will make it. And I also love how the characters surprised me. Fred is definitely an explosions and mayhem sort of guy, but his characters also have heart and depth and … how can you not love that?


Fred: Anytime I can see the story someone is telling, I know it’s going to be a good one. Sarah paints a world of words that I want to live in. Without any visual art, she inspires the imagination to create gorgeous landscapes filled with intricate detail, characters whose faces I can see in my head, and dynamic lighting that matches the magical mood of her story.

Both of your responses made me smile! I can hear the excitement and appreciation you have for each other’s work.

Can you share a writing exercise?

Fred: Stealing Jon Maberry’s “What’s the Story?” game. It’s brilliant, it works for every genre, and it goes like this: Walk around until you see two things that don’t belong together. A cat in a pizza box. A flip flop on a rooftop. A businessman on a swing set. Then ask yourself, “what’s the story?” By the time your imagination creates a dozen scenarios that could have gotten those two mismatched items together, you’ll have one or two really fun beginnings.

Sarah: I always hear and write dialog first. I can’t help it. I don’t delve much into the physical surroundings or body language until I’m revising. So when I hit dialog-heavy portions of my book, I’ll ask myself what the speaker is holding, touching, or looking at. (This is a variation on advice that Hannah Barnaby once gave me.) What’s in her pocket? What does he hope someone won’t find in his satchel? What’s the one gift she wishes she’d never received? These objects don’t always show up in the story, but they’re a great way to help me understand and develop my characters.


Thank you so much! These are fantastic writing exercises that I’m sure writers and teachers will love to use. I’ll definitely play “What’s the Story” to help me come up with a bunch of future book ideas during Storystorm in January. And I also hear and write dialogue first and can’t wait to delve deeper using Sarah’s suggestions.  

What are you working on now?

Fred: The sequel to Garbage Island is due, um, yesterday and I’m about 80% finished. I’m calling it The Sailing City. It’s got the same loveable, flawed, adventurous characters with even more mayhem, misguided inventions, and deadly peril.

Sarah: I’m working on a YA retelling of a Russian fairy tale, “Finist the Bright Falcon,” where a princess in iron shoes and an eagle huntress embark on a quest to save an enchanted prince.


Those both sound wonderful! I hope we’ll have the chance to read them soon.

Is there anything else you’d like your readers to know?

Fred: A positive Goodreads or amazon review is always super-helpful and encouraging.

Sarah: I’ll be offering free Skype visits to classes and book clubs- look for information on my website.


Thank you both for this wonderful interview and your generous giveaway. The way you two met and have middle grade novels coming out the same month feels magical, and I can’t wait for our readers to learn more about you and your awesome books.

You can find out more about Fred on his website and Twitter.

Learn more about Sarah—including her FREE Skype visits on her website and follow her on Twitter, too.

Enter the Rafflecopter widget below for a chance to win signed copies of The Flight of Swans and Garbage Island (The Nearly Always Perilous Adventures of Archibald Shrew).  One lucky person will win both books on Thursday, November 1. Good luck!

*This giveaway is only available in the United States.

The Flight of Swans

Princess Andaryn’s six older brothers have always been her protectors–until her father takes a new Queen, a frightening, mysterious woman who enchants the men in the royal family. When Ryn’s attempt to break the enchantment fails, she makes a bitter bargain: the Queen will spare her brothers’ lives if Ryn remains silent for six years.

Ryn thinks she freed her brothers, but she never thought the Queen would turn her brothers into swans. She never thought she’d have to discover the secret to undoing the Queen’s spell while eluding the Otherworldly forces that hunt her. And she never thought she’d have to do it alone, without speaking a single word.

As months as years go by, Ryn learns there is more to courage than speech . . . and that she is stronger than the Queen could have ever imagined.


Garbage Island

Mr. Popli, the mouse mayor of Garbage Island, is always at odds with Archibald Shrew, a brilliant but reckless inventor. When Garbage Island, their home in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, splits apart, they are trapped together in Mr. Popli’s houseboat, desperate to find their way back home. At first, they only argue, but when they face a perilous thunderstorm and a series of predators, they begin to work together and recognize – in themselves and in each other – strengths they didn’t know they had.

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Interview with Dorian Cirrone and Two Great Giveaways

Dorian Cirrone author photo - The First Last DayI’m thrilled to interview Mixed-Up Files member Dorian Cirrone! She always shares a wealth of writing knowledge, and I’m excited to celebrate her new middle grade novel, The First Last Day. Congratulations, Dorian! I’d love to know how you came up with the idea for this novel.

First, let me say thank you so much for giving me the opportunity to talk about my new book and my favorite topic, the craft of writing.

I got the idea for the novel during the summer of 2007, when I was lying in bed thinking about how it was probably the last time both my kids would be home together. My daughter was going to start her senior year of college, and I knew she might not be living with us ever again. At that moment, I wished summer didn’t have to end. When it occurred to me that I’d had similar feelings about summer when I was a child, I decided the whole premise might make a good children’s book. I thought about the novel A Portrait of Dorian Gray, one I was very familiar with because my mother named me after the character. In the novel, Dorian Gray’s image in a painting grows older while he stays young. For that reason, I decided to make my main character an artist. But because that novel’s ending was way too gruesome, I changed the plot and made it so Haleigh’s painting causes her to live the same day over and over, like in the movie Groundhog Day.

How did The First Last Day change during revisions?

The novel that’s being published barely resembles the original version. I revised the manuscript over a period of about seven years. During that time, I would have my agent send it out once in a while, and then after a few rejections, I would revise and/or let it sit for long periods of time before going back to it. Even though I had already published four books, getting this one right was tricky. While the manuscript sat idle in my computer, I read a lot, wrote other things, studied tons of books on the writing craft, attended workshops, and put together material for workshops I taught. Finally, I came to the conclusion that the whole thing needed to be overhauled. The first version, which was written in third person past tense, was not a mystery at all. Once I decided to change it to first person and make it a mystery, things started to come together. The voice became more engaging in first person, and the plot became more complex. I added three major characters and a few minor ones as suspects who might have given Haleigh the magic paints. And in the final version, the person who gave Haleigh the paints is totally different with different motivation. Much was taken out of the original version of the novel, and most of the second half was added. Even after that major revision, I kept refining the language over time so it was true to Haleigh’s voice.Brett in a cow suit

I also made Kevin a little more quirky, and turned him into a sci-fi film buff. And I added his cow suit and the cow puns that he and Haleigh exchange. It might seem unbelievable, but Kevin is slightly based on my daughter’s best friend, Brett, who used to wear a cow suit for fun—all the way up until college!

I absolutely loved The First Last Day and can’t believe it didn’t start out as a mystery! All your hard work over the past seven years definitely shows. Your characters are beautifully fleshed out and you had so many sensory details, I definitely felt like I experienced the Jersey Shore. As a writer, I know details like this don’t appear in a book without putting a lot of thought into them. Do you have any tricks to share about adding details like these to a book or story?

During the writing and revising, I paid a lot of attention to what I thought Haleigh would smell, taste, touch, and hear. I had spent some time at the Jersey Shore one summer and visited a couple of other times, so those things were something I experienced personally. There’s really no trick except to put yourself in your character’s shoes and figure out what he or she might be experiencing at each moment. The tricky part is that you have to take your adult author self out of the equation and be true to what the character would honestly notice in each scene. Sometimes that’s harder than it seems. One thing I paid attention to in this novel was the sensation of touch because I think it’s one of those overlooked senses that can make a story more vivid and help the reader identify even more with a character. I looked for opportunities where Haleigh would realistically experience tactile sensations. And I don’t want to sound all English major-y, but I also tried to incorporate a lot of the sensory imagery into the novel’s themes. For example, Haleigh’s fingertips tingle when she runs them across the rough surface of the mysterious blank canvas for the first time. This not only gives readers a chance to feel what Haleigh is feeling, but it also creates tension. Since readers already have an idea from the flap copy that the canvas is magical, they know even more than Haleigh does what that tingling sensation foreshadows. In addition, when she traces the outline of a fish imbedded in a rock with her finger, the action connects with her being an artist. Later when Kevin’s grandmother talks about fossils being nature’s way of reminding us to remember the past, the relationship between nature, fossils, art, and memory all come together.

Those were some of my favorite moments in the book! I especially loved what Kevin’s grandmother said about fossils. It gave me chills.

You’ve done a great job writing middle grade, chapter books, and young adult novels. What advice do you have for people who are switching between categories?

The thing about switching is that you have to read many more books to familiarize yourself with not only what’s already been written in a specific category but also what the characters care about and what their issues are at certain ages. For example, in my young adult novels, the characters are much more concerned about romantic relationships and future plans for college and a profession. While Haleigh in The First Last Day is also worried about what will happen in the future and whether her relationship with Kevin will change, it’s more about friendship and family rather than love and success. I’ve read that kids in elementary school and early middle school are more concerned with fitting in and finding their place within the family and school, whereas teens care more about being independent and finding an identity apart from family and other institutions. I think that’s pretty accurate. Then, of course, there’s voice. And the only way to really get the distinction between a middle grade voice and a teen voice is to read—a lot.

Thanks, Dorian! You always give great advice. Do you have a writing exercise to share with everyone?

Before I even start to write, I like to know about my main character’s backstory and how it will relate to his or her motivation for taking the journey toward a specific goal. That backstory is so important for understanding why a character does certain things and acts certain ways. It also helps your audience identify and empathize. Here are three questions to ask your main character:

  1. If you could go back in time and change one incident in your life, what would it be?
  2. How would you change it?
  3. How do you think your life would have been if that incident hadn’t happened or if you’d reacted in a different way?

I love this exercise, and can’t wait to use it. Thank you so much for all your great advice and for celebrating your new middle grade novel, The First Last Day, on the Mixed-Up Files.

Dorian Cirrone worked as a door-to-door survey taker, a dance teacher, a choreographer, a journalist, and a college writing instructor before writing books for young readers. She is also the author of several poems, stories, chapter books, and young adult novels. She has never been trapped in a time loop, but because she has lived in south Florida most of her life, sometimes she feels caught in an endless summer.

You can find more of Dorian’s advice on her blog (she has great giveaways there, too). Plus you can find Dorian on her website, Facebook, and Twitter. Teachers and librarians can contact Dorian via her website to request an Educator’s Guide for The First Last Day.

Great news! Dorian has generously donated TWO amazing giveaways. Enter the Rafflecopter widgets below for a chance to win: 

  1. A signed copy of The First Last Day. If a teacher or librarian wins this, Dorian would be happy to send up to 30 bookmarks, too!

The First Last Day Cover

When Haleigh finds a mysterious set of oil paints in her backpack, she uses them to paint a picture of her last day at the Jersey Shore. The next morning, she wakes up and discovers that her wish for an endless summer has come true. She’s caught in a time loop, and nothing has to change.

But Haleigh soon learns that staying in one place and time comes with a price, and she has to make a choice: do nothing and miss out on some good things the future has to offer, or find the secret of the time loop and possibly face some bad things. As she and Kevin set out to find the source of the magic paints, Haleigh wonders if she’s making the biggest mistake of her life.
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  1. A critique of up to 10 pages of a middle grade novel, young adult novel, or picture book.

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Winners will be announced on June 14th. Good luck, everyone!

*Anyone can win the 10 page critique, but the signed book is only available in the United States.

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s TwitterFacebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.