Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Writing Lessons from Elementary School, part 2

This is the second post inspired by my amazement at the great writing in Don't Stay Up So Late, a collection of stories by Erickson Elementary (Yspilanti, MI) students who worked with volunteers from 826michigan. See yesterday's post here. And then go to 826michigan and get yourself a copy, if you can.

10 Things Elementary School Writers Know They Should Do
and Their Stories Are Much Better For It
(i.e. Things I Wish More Grown-Up Authors Remembered)

1. Something has to happen in your story. A list of things you like is not a story. A list of what someone did that day ("And then we went to Joe's. And then we played Wii. And then we ate dinner.") is not a story.* Neither is a 40 page treatise on your thoughts on the nature of fiction, even if you put it in quotes and write "he said" at the end.

2. Your story has to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. "End Book 1" is not an ending.

3. Use lots of juicy details.

4. Spelling and grammar DO count...

5. ... but not on your first draft messy copy.

6. Books with pictures are best.

7. In a good story, a character learns something or changes somehow. But you don't have to write "The moral is..." and beat us in the head with it.

8. Stories are meant to be read. By other people. Preferably out loud. So somebody besides you has to be able to sound out and understand your story, and enjoy it. It's not a good story if you have to sit next to the person and explain everything (or if I have to buy a "Reader's Guide" to understand what you were trying to say).*

9. Writing stories is hard. It takes a lot of work. You have to practice and you have to find somewhere you can concentrate. And you have to see it through to the end.

10. A book is not a real book if you only SAY you are going to write, but never start, or if you tell everyone about it but never finish, or if you finish it and are afraid to show the teacher. If you see it through to the end, and you revise it and edit it, and if you give it a title and make pictures for it, and if someone who is not you reads it and enjoys it, it is a "real" book, even if nobody ever buys it on Amazon.

* Unless you are James Joyce and the book is Ulysses

Monday, June 28, 2010

Writing Lessons from Elementary School, Part 1

This post and tomorrow's were inspired by Don't Stay Up So Late, a fabulous collection of bedtime stories written by students at Erickson Elementary in Ypsilanti, as part of 826michigan's work at their school this year. I helped out at Erickson last year and wrote the intro to the book. Come get a copy at 826michigan.

10 Things Elementary School Writers Don't Know They Shouldn't Do
and Their Stories Are Much Better For It

(i.e. Things I Wish More Grown-Up Writers Tried)

1. Name your main character after yourself. Make her fabulous or make her evil. Either way, do not worry for a minute about whether or not readers will think it's really you.

2. Write your fantasy.
Once upon a time there was a girl named Jacqui. She was very nice, but at school everyone was mean to her. She told on them and they all got in big, big trouble and had to miss the field trip and they never bothered her again.*

3. Establish character in the first lines. Don't overwrite this part. Move into the story.
Jason was a bad guy. He liked to beat up kittens and eat bunnies. One day...

4. Make stuff up. Like crazy stuff. Nobody ever put down a book and thought, "Yes! That was totally realistic!"
And then he turned into a butterfly and flew away.

5. Find yourself hilarious. Put stuff in there just because it's funny. In fact, write the whole story as if you were trying to make the kid next to you laugh or say "Whoa!"

6. Do not fear the absurd.

7. Write about everyday playdate drama. Making the stakes high doesn't mean every book has to be about life or death situations. Sometimes we all like to read a book about someone who reminds us of us, with the problems and worries that we hide inside us, and who makes it out of a normal childhood. Ask Judy Blume.

8. Have a moral. Better yet, have a moral we don't expect. At the end of your story of the produce thief who gets caught, write: "Moral: Don't eat all the bananas."

9. Don't wrap up every loose end. At the end of your story of the class field trip to a zombie house, write:
Lucy and John escaped. They went to tell their teacher. Then they realized their teacher was now a zombie! She ate them and nobody ever heard from Lucy and John again.
Do not worry about what happened to the rest of the class; we can guess. Or, it doesn't matter.

10. Rehabilitate your bad guys, instead of annihilating them. Sometimes we need to know there's a chance we can change.
But when Franklin saw how sad Lizzie looked about her puppy being stolen, he felt bad. He decided to give her puppy back. Lizzie was so happy she said she'd be his friend, if he promised never to steal again.

* All quotes are made up by me, and are similar but not as awesome as ones from the book.1

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Granny vamps

This week's Thursday inspiration is more ridiculous than anything.

We were discussing vampire books in critique group this week and someone pointed out that part of the allure of vampires in these books is that they all got frozen in immortality at the ripe young, gorgeous age of 16 or 17.

"Where are the books about old and ugly vampires?" someone said.

Which got us started giggling. Can't you see the cover of the book? With three or four seriously old vampires glaring in the "I know you think I'm sexy" way over the top of their bifocals? Vampires who have to have their blood pre-sucked and put in a cup with a straw. Vampire early bird specials. Vampires in house slippers.

Oh, the video I would make you, had I endless time and technical skill: I keep picturing Bella Swan's voice from the movie previews saying, "You're impossibly fast" and seeing a vampire played by Tim Conway from the old Carol Burnett shows. But, alas, I cannot make it, seeing as how I have much kitten-watching to do today. So who will write me the book?

And because I cannot pass up Tim Conway...

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


This is Tink's new kitten, Tulip, whom we brought home yesterday from the Huron Valley Humane Society (thanks in part to Diane who chose Tink "the cuddliest, cutest one.").

She is 1.8 pounds of cute and all we could do all afternoon was stare and coo.

"How long have we been sitting here watching her?" Tink asked.

"An hour," I replied.

Tink sighed. "Oh boy," she said. "This is going to ruin my writing career."

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

And this week, we are obsessed with...

Have you seen this book?

A Birthday for Cow, by Jan Thomas

We are totally obsessed with this one this week, me and the kids. It's cow's birthday and Pig and Mouse are going to make him the best birthday cake ever. Duck, however, has other ideas. Hilarity ensues.

There's something of the pigeon in Duck's humor, so this would be a great gift for a kid who loves Mo Willems, too. Plus, your kid might ask to try a turnip...

Monday, June 21, 2010

Take a different path

In which I discuss running, writing, and goose attacks.

So I am training for this marathon, which is partially to blame for my lack of regular blogging. Friday, I set out for an 11 mile run. I charted myself a course along trails, down near the mighty Huron River. I had my little belt full of water bottles and my half a size too big shoes and yes, I was seriously dorkalicious.

At mile 5, the trail narrowed to about 6 feet wide as it ran between the river and a little pond. As I came around a bend, I heard the flapping and honking of Canada geese. I had scared a gaggle of about 20 of them (with my feather-light footsteps and delicate breathwork). They were heading from the pond to the river, so I jogged in place to let them by. Then they stopped. The babies sat down, right in the middle of the trail. I could not pass.

"Excuse me!" I called pleasantly and started jogging around them. The mama geese hissed and snapped at me. When I got closer, they tried to whap me with their wings.

"Okay, okay!" I called and ran back down the trail. I stood and watched them for a minute, sure they would move on. The babies put their heads down and the adults stood guard, watching me.

"Move!" I yelled. I hid behind the bushes and screamed, "Vroom! Vroom! Big truck coming!" I tossed small rocks and sticks at the trail just in front of the geese.

Nothing. No movement. And every time I got close, the mamas started hissing.

I stood there, like an idiot, waiting for someone smarter or braver to come along. Nobody came. I hunted for a side route around them. I tried to cut through the campus of a factory and got stuck behind a barbed wire fence. I circled back in front of the factory and ended up crossing a loading dock in front of 17 unloading truck drivers (again, remember the little belt with the water bottles and did I mention the pigtails?).

And here is where it relates to writing: I could have taken a different road. A road that could go anywhere in Ann Arbor was 300 yards away, but it would have lead me on a different route. So instead of turning around and taking it, I considered scaling a 20 foot high fence. I was so stuck on the idea of getting back to MY path, and so unable to stop thinking about the geese, that I wore myself out stubbornly trying to get back to the original plan. The original outline. Are you seeing the metaphor?

I admire perseverance and doggedness and effort. But sometimes the reason a scene or a chapter or a whole book is hard is simply because it's never going to work. We have to turn around and let the failure take us on a whole new path.

I finished my 11 miles and it was a lovely run, minus the geese. Sure, I was bummed to leave my pretty path through the woods and run on the pavement in the exhaust. But the real tragedy would have been if I'd never let it go and kept running.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Snap back to reality

I went on a real bona fide kid-free vacation last week. Yup, four nights in which I got to sleep the whole night through, eat dinner slowly, and not have to do dishes. It was lovely, but the fact is, it could've been the HoJos around the corner and I would've been satisfied with the sleep part.

Three questions:

1. Do you come home from vacation all full of "things are gonna be different around here, yessiree we are gonna make some changes" ideas? I do.

2. And then do your kids do their best to ruin any relaxation or motivation you've brought home?

3. Can you guess which of the following my children did NOT fight about today?

a. Whether or not the sugary pixie stick Tink got at her end of year party is magical,
b. Whether or not said pixie stick gives Tink the power to turn Destructo into a giant pile of poop, should he choose to blow another raspberry at her,
c. Whether or not blowing a raspberry at someone, in the absence of flying spittle, still constitutes a violation of the "No Spitting" rule
d. What specific sound a giant pile of poop makes,
e. Whether or not the previous question refers to poop in the toilet or on the floor,
f. Who gets Dada to do his/her bedtime (and, therefore, who gets stuck with me), or
g. Who gets to give Mama her next backrub.

Friday, June 4, 2010

At Least She's Honest, part 2

We were punchy at bed time last night. A visit to the school end of year party, complete with cotton candy, Hawaiian Punch, and ice cream, will do that to you, especially if your mom usually controls your sugar intake enough that strawberries are dessert.

When it came time to tell stories, I told a whopper, the climax of which involved Tinkerbell convincing a gaggle of geese to rescue Destructo and her from the Huron River.

"How did they know what I was saying?" she asked.

"You spoke Geese, of course," I explained. "You learned it in Heb-goose school."

That got a good laugh from everyone. "Oh boy, " I admitted. "That's like the stupidest pun I've ever made."

"No, Mom," Tink assured me. "You've made lots of much stupider ones."

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Morbidia meets the grim eater

I REALLY REALLY want this week's Thursday News of the Absurd Will Someone Write Me This Book Inspirational Moment (ThNoftheAWSWTBIM) to exist for reals and for trues.

From YahooNews and Reuters:

Funeral home steps in the stop the "grim eater"

Apparently, a funeral home in New Zealand had to step in after noticing a man who attended up to four funerals a week, despite obviously not knowing the deceased. Why? The guy carried a backpack full of Tupperware; when mourners weren't looking, he'd steal the funeral food and bring it home.

This is awesome. Genius. You gotta love someone who says, "You know who deserves to be ripped off? People with recently dead relatives! Heh heh. Mourning suckahs."

But I don't want him to be a bad guy. Here's what I want:

Elaine is a "normal" high school student who dresses all in black, permanently in mourning over the stupid problems caused by stupid people in the world. She's so full of angst and drama that her parents (who are good parents but who don't take her seriously) have started calling her "Morbidia." One day, she wanders into a funeral. Nobody bothers her, nobody looks at her strangely, and everyone is dressed in black. So Morbidia starts going to funerals whenever she can.

But after a while, Morbidia notices this other kid, the one with the backpack. He's often there too, and Morbidia can tell he doesn't know the dead people either. She sees him pretending to pay his respects and then filling his Tupperware. Morbidia is fascinated.

And so they meet, Morbidia and the Grim Eater. And what follows is a quirky, darkly humorous, bizarrely romantic story (like Six Feet Under* in a YA).

It must be written. No! I am already writing two books. One of you has to do it.

Crap. Now I'm obsessed. Save me.

*Oh, how I (who watch next to no television) miss Six Feet Under and my six free months of HBO. Sigh. Peter Krause, where have ye gone?

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Why You Should Not Read To Your Children

We hear all the time about the benefits of reading to your children. The book-loving, library-using establishment wants you to think it's all fun and games. It's NOT. I know from ACTUAL EXPERIENCE. Here are just a few of the possible, disastrous consequences reading to your children, or, indeed, letting them read to themselves, can have on your health and the health of your children.

1. Children may decide it is hilarious, every time they hear the sound of fingers snapping, to strip down to their underwear, don their shirts as capes, and run around wherever you are screaming, "Tra la la!"

2. Children may ponder ingesting worms, fried or otherwise.

3. Head wounds may result from repeatedly opening the doors to and trying to fit inside of a cabinet that resembles a wardrobe.

4. You will be spied upon. And your actions will be recorded in a notebook. Depending on whether the perpetrator is Harriet or Nancy, such records may contain an overabundance of exclamation points.

5. Sever brain atrophy is a definite possibility.

6. Certain books may carry multiple deleterious consequences.

7. Your child may demand, in public, that you outline the geneology of the line of gods and half-gods descended from Cronos. Without Wikipedia.

8. Your child may threaten to punch you in the head.*

9. Child may demand a pet prairie dog.

10. Your child may learn that there are people who are different from her, that sometimes women fall in love with other women, and that the world is not the black and white moral checkerboard she has been led to believe. Also, what a scrotum is.

There is only one solution: ban them all. Ban them all, I say, and let kids engage in safe things like skateboarding and their 1,680 minutes (average) TV watching a week.

Bonus points if you know what books caused all of the above in my children...

* Sorry. So very, very sorry.