writing

#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: ogres and onions

When my students create characters for their NaNoWriMo novels, I push them to get super detailed: to hear the songs their characters will listen to when they plug in their earbuds; to picture the snack food they’ll pull from their backpack as they walk home from school; to feel the clothes they’ll grab from their closet on a Saturday morning. But those details don’t get to the heart of a character, to the backstory and soul that really drive a person.

So this year I added some layers to our character development lessons. I found this great article by Roxanna Elden on the three layers of a complex character:

  • the outer, protective layer, which is usually “socially acceptable but superficial”
  • the middle, defective layer, which we try to hide with our outer layer
  • underneath it all is our inner, human core, the part of us that helps explain our other two layers. This core is also the part of us that is most universal. Elden says, “If we can see the human core of a character, we will understand and care for them. If a character can find and learn to accept their own human core, they will achieve inner peace to the degree it’s possible.”

Middle school students (and many adults) are not usually fully aware of their own layers, but after just a brief lesson on the topic, along with examples of characters we know well, my students started crafting some deep, layered characters for their novels.

We started, of course, by watching the “ogres are like onions” scene from Shrek (click image to view):

“Ogres are like onions!”

This was meant to be just a fun introduction, but as we watched I realized that Donkey really helped to drive the point home. When he suggested cake or parfait instead of onions, he clarified another reason that an onion is the best metaphor. I put these images on the screen and asked my students what they noticed:

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It took them a little while to see what I saw (I’m learning to let it be quiet longer than is comfortable so they can THINK), but eventually someone got it:

“Oh! I know! The onion has a center, but the cake and parfaits don’t. They are stacked layers, not layers that wrap around and hide inner layers.”

And – BAM – that sweet little insight really nailed the concept for many of us. We looked at the character of Snape, from the Harry Potter series, and how in the beginning he seemed to be an angry man who unfairly picked on Harry. But throughout the series he becomes one of the most complex, layered characters of all:

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My students spent the rest of class detailing the three layers of their protagonist. At the end of class we shared our characters’ layers in a quick whip around the room, and the depth was staggering. I can’t wait to read the stories of these layered characters!

Bonus: I could see a chipping away of the façade that teens often wear as they heard their classmates speak of the deep, human core at the heart of their characters. This fresh understanding of human layers just might help my students develop empathy both for each other and for characters in the books they read (and write).

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Go ahead: ask your students what they want to write about. They will amaze you!

On my first-day-of-school survey, I asked my 8th graders:

If you could write about anything this year, what would it be?

Their answers remind me why it’s so valuable to give students choice in their writing. I never would have guessed they would want to write about so many interesting topics. Here are some of their plans:

I would write about…

  • a kid who is anxious about the future.
  • equal treatment for everyone. Or mental health.
  • social difficulties and internal conflicts in the modern times because I can easily relate.
  • my dog because he’s really goofy.

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    Photo by Justin Veenema on Unsplash

  • an imaginary island.
  • people who are stuck in the wilderness, like in Hatchet.
  • a realistic fiction novel

(NOTE FROM THE TEACHER: WHAT 8TH GRADER SAYS THEY WANT TO WRITE A NOVEL?!? Must be an 8th grader who knows she will be a NaNoWriMo novelist this year!)

I would write about…

  • the U.S. military because it is something I want to be a part of.
  • Disneyland!
  • owning a corporation and the crazy antics that would follow because one of my dreams is to own a company.
  • politics and feminism.
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Photo by Jerry Kiesewetter on Unsplash

  • the impact of a family that loves and supports you, compared to the opposite because I’ve always wondered.
  • natural disasters.
  • my friend Jack, who has Down Syndrome. He means the world to me.
  • history.
  • my puppy being able to talk. It would be really funny.
  • a family surviving in a bunker after the world ends.
  • different cultures. The stories we would learn would be very interesting and it would be nice to know about other people’s cultures.
  • having to evacuate my cabin over the summer due to the Carr fire. I think I can be very descriptive about what happened.
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Photo by Denys Argyriou on Unsplash

  • current events. It’s important to know what’s happening in the world.
  • politics. There are a lot of political issues that need to be addressed.
  • intentional and unintentional racism in public schools. It’s a real issue.
  • mental disorders, because it’s a topic that nobody ever addresses.
  • my trip to Niagara Falls. It was one of the most memorable experiences of my life.

An added bonus to giving students choice in their writing is how it affects our relationship. When I ask them to tell me about their topics, their faces light up with enthusiasm as they share about the puppy they rescued, the rally they went to with a friend, the business they started over the summer, or the post-apocalyptic world they’ve created. What better way to get students invested in their writing (which means they are more likely to write thoughtfully, proofread carefully, and invest in the final product) than to let them write about their passions? Go ahead, try it! What would YOU write about?

 

#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Holiday Meals!

What’s a holiday movie without a dozen relatives (and a newcomer) crowded around a food-laden table, trying to dodge conversational land mines (or in some cases, hit them) as they settle in for a chaotic, tension-filled meal? Those annual feasts bring together so many elements that make for great scenes: people of all different ages (who have known each other forever) trying to get along; fancy food dishes that may or may meet Grandmother’s expectations; significant others new to the family and unfamiliar with the traditions and family histories; and generations of relationships, resentments and regrets that surface and collide when families gather in one room. Add alcohol and meat to be carved, and the set-up is complete.

Holiday meals are fraught with high expectations and great potential for conflicts. (Photo by Allie Milot on Unsplash)

So how about adding a holiday meal scene to your NaNoWriMo novel? My goodness, the potential for increased conflict, fresh character details, and snappy dialogue is so great! And any holiday will do – it doesn’t have to be the traditional turkey-stuffing-and-gramma’s-pie holiday. Your scene could be set at a 4th of July BBQ, a Mother’s Day brunch, a birthday picnic at the park, or a welcome-to-the-family wedding rehearsal dinner in a fancy restaurant. As long as you seat lots of people around one table, you are sure to find a novel-worthy scene.

When my students return from fall break this week, we’ll talk about why big family meals can provide us with such great material for stories, and then we’ll watch some movie scenes for inspiration:

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But not every meal has to be chaotic to add tension and depth to a story. This awkwardly quiet dinner scene from My Big, Fat Greek Wedding makes a great contrast to the loud Easter scene.

And it doesn’t take a holiday to make a meal memorable. This dinner scene from New in Town introduces a big-city girl to a small-town Minnesota family, where she manages to offend nearly everyone at the table. It’s often that fish-out-of-water that makes a meal scene sizzle with tension.

So set the table, light the candles, bring on the food, and let your characters dig in!

 

#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Whip it!

Most of our class time during NaNoWriMo is spent in silence (except for the tap-tap-tapping of the laptop keys), as my students need a quiet environment to focus on their writing. Many of them use earbuds to listen to music while they write, but they know that the room needs to be quiet so we all can concentrate.

But we have also learned that talking about what we are writing helps us get clear on our story while also giving us ideas for our next chapter. So we schedule in times to share aloud with one another. One of our favorite ways to do that is with a whip, which is simply a whip around the room, with each writer sharing just a sentence or two about their novel-in-progress. First I have students write a quick response to a certain whip topic, and then we move our chairs into one huge circle so we can all see and hear each other.

Photo by Steve Shreve on Unsplash

Here are some whips we have enjoyed:

  • Synopsis: Tell us about your main character and his/her status quo, the inciting incident that launches the story, and how the character reacts: My main character, _______________________, is ________________________ until ______________________ so then ________________________.
  • Tell us about your main character’s big dreams/goals and what is getting in the way of him/her achieving them: My protagonist, ______________________, wants ____________ more than anything, but __________________________ so _____________________________.
  • Status of the story: Tell us what just happened in your story, what will happen next, and what your “long game” is.
  • What is one secret in your story? What is it that a character does not want anyone to find out?
  • How has (or will) your character change throughout the story? In the beginning, my protagonist was ___________________________________, but in the end, he/she will be ________________________________ because ______________________________.
  • What has surprised you in your story? What is one plot idea that came to you that is changing the original direction of your story?

The best part about doing a whip at the start of class is that students go into writing time with some specific ideas about what they will write today. But whips work any time – in fact, if your writers are having a hard time concentrating during writing time, that’s also a good time to break up the silence with a quick whip.

So tell me – what’s happening in YOUR novel?

[Get more tips and tricks for using NaNoWriMo in the classroom from my NaNoTeacher website.]

#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Houses & Hamburgers

The first few years that my students and I wrote novels with NaNoWriMo, I neglected settings. This wasn’t intentional, but my main concern was helping my students plan enough of a plot that they would be able to keep writing for the full month. My lack of novel-writing experience caused me to miss the fact that settings make a big difference in adding more story, more conflict, more ways to move the story forward while also revealing more about our characters. Last year we discovered a great way to detail settings for our novels before we start writing.

First, though, I want my students to see why settings matter. They read The Outsiders in 7th grade, and since it is a story that most of them love and remember, it serves as a great reference when we plan our own novels. The settings in S.E. Hinton’s classic novel show us just how valuable our own stories’ settings can be:

  • Ponyboy’s home and neighborhood, where we see the bond of the brothers who try to support each other without their parents; plus we see the fear and danger of walking the streets of their neighborhood, and the support the Greasers give each other when one of them is jumped by Socs.
  • The drive-in theater, where we see Cherry take on Dallas, and where she and Ponyboy begin to get to know each other.
  • The abandoned church, where Johnny and Ponyboy hide, and where we see their friendship develop. Later we see how courageous and generous the Greasers are when they risk their own lives to save children who are trapped in the burning church.
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Photo by Harry Miller on Unsplash

Looking back at these settings helps my students understand why they need to decide which settings will be important in their novels. But where do they get ideas for settings? How do they create settings that are realistic? #TinyTip answer: the Chamber of Commerce.

After my husband and I enjoyed a vacation in Grand Lake, Colorado, I decided to set my next novel there. I loved the tiny mountain town, the beautiful lake, the downtown boardwalks, and the live theater. But as a California native, I didn’t know much about living in Colorado. Thank you, Grand Lake Chamber of Commerce, for providing ideas for not just places, but also local hangouts, activities, festivals, and weather. After all, a novel set in Colorado must have some snowy winter scenes, and that is far outside my own experience.

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Photo by Alisa Anton on Unsplash

Even if my students want to set their stories in fictional towns, using a Chamber of Commerce site for that area of the country will help them plan settings that will improve their stories. Writing science fiction? Fantasy? Your characters still need places to live, to travel, to hangout, to enjoy a burger… and Chamber of Commerce sites are gold mines for setting ideas. Students can even visit Chamber of Commerce sites all over the world with this international list.

Where do you get ideas for your novel’s settings? How do you make them realistic?

#NaNoWriMoTinyTip: Ask & Suggest

My students are deep in the planning stages of NaNoWriMo, which means they have crafted their main characters and plotted some main events. But we are all a bit foggy about where our stories might go. Brainstorming ideas and bouncing them off our friends only takes us so far. So today we tried something new, and my students (and I) were so excited about the results that we knew it must be shared.

First I should confess: my own novel plan this year is painfully thin. I’ve got a main character and her dad, I’ve got a setting, and I’ve got a touch of mystery, but that’s about it. So my reason for today’s lesson is a bit self-serving: I needed my students’ help.

Photo by Callum Chapman on Unsplash

So I wrote a couple paragraphs about the story I have so far, and then I read them aloud to my students. I told them I wanted two things from them: questions about and suggestions for my story. As they peppered me with questions, I didn’t try to answer them. I just wrote down exactly what they said, using my laptop and projector so my students could see that I was writing down their exact words: “Where’s the mom?” “Why did they move?” “Who’s in the photograph?” Whether or not I could answer the questions didn’t matter; the ideas sparked by the questions would.

Then I asked them for suggestions, and that’s when they went crazy! I think we love to tell others what to write because we know we won’t have to actually make those ideas work. And again, as students shouted, “They live in an RV!” “The mom is a spy!” and “Her dad is actually her older brother,” I dutifully wrote down everything they said, smiling and nodding as if every suggestion would save my story (and some of those ideas really did!).

After I modeled the exercise in front of the class, my students partnered up and did the same. I had to remind them a couple times to just write down whatever their partner said and not worry about whether or not the ideas even made sense, and by the end of class they were glowing with excitement.

“Did this help?” I asked. They clutched their notebooks and grinned up at me. “Yes!” “I got so many great ideas!” “Mrs. Bradley, listen to this….!” Writing is usually a solitary endeavor, but the benefits of participating in a writing group are touted by many. We don’t need to (and shouldn’t) make this journey alone!

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Photo by Nik Shuliahin on Unsplash.

Sometimes the best lessons come out of our own desperation, and sometimes we just need our writing friends to inject some inspiration into our stories. My protagonist doesn’t live in an RV, but that suggestion triggered the idea of a mysterious friend who walks miles home from school every day because she doesn’t want anyone to see that she and her mom live in an RV on the outskirts of town…

This is what the Dare Machine on the NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program website does for us when we struggle with writer’s block. With one click we’re given a suggestion that might make no sense at all in our story, but if we just try writing about it, chances are our creative juices will start flowing again and our stories will get right back on track.

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Where do you get ideas for your novel? What’s your best strategy for developing your plot? Please share!

Teach writing? Then you’d better BE writing.

I told my husband that he needed to come with me for an evening canoe ride. We were vacationing at our cabin, and although I was working very hard at not working, I was also working on a piece of writing that had to get done. And I needed to bounce some ideas off of him.

We paddled up the lake a bit, the late sun bright and low, the water calm and clear. My mind was racing with an idea that had come to me in the middle of a sleepless night, and I thought it might work but I needed to verbalize it first, needed to hear it aloud before I could be sure.

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Fortunately my husband is used to this, as I often ask him to just listen while I try out an idea on him; sometimes it’s my writing, often it’s an idea for a lesson for my students. We reached the end of the lake and he listened while I ran through my idea. Saying it aloud not only helped me get clear on what I was thinking; it also gave me the opportunity to get feedback from someone else. And by the time we tied up the canoe at our dock, I was confident and ready to get these new ideas on paper.

I’ve been doing a lot of writing this summer, far more than usual, and it has reminded me (again and again) how important it is that, as a writing teacher, I am also writing. It seems so obvious: how can I really understand and teach the writing process if I am not experiencing it myself? But for many years I taught writing without actually writing myself. I gave students assignments; I gave them graphic organizers; I gave them feedback on their drafts; and I gave them grades. But what I didn’t give them was honest writing practice based on my own writing struggles. And, yes, writing is a struggle. Every time we put pen to paper (or, let’s be honest, fingers to keyboard), it is a struggle. It is making something out of nothing. It is creating something new. It is an art and a science and a production.

So when I tell my husband, “I’m going for a walk. I need to get away from my writing in order to find my writing again,” it’s only fair that I make a mental note: how can I let my students “go for a walk” so they can find their writing again, too?

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The writing classroom needs to be quiet, of that I’m sure. Writing is hard work, it requires concentration, and when writers are interrupted by noise, it takes a Herculean effort to find the writing again. So during writing time, I insist on a quiet writing classroom. So how can I give my students opportunities like I needed to go for a canoe ride or a walk, or to talk out their ideas with someone? Here are a few ways I try to support their writing needs:

  • in our flexible seating classroom, students are able to get up and move when they need to. They know that they need to be quiet, but they also know the value of movement as part of the creative process. Our furniture is on wheels, which allows them to move even as they write, but they are also free to get up and move, to walk around, even go outside (weather permitting) to walk a little.
  • we use Google Docs for most of our writing, so my students are able to bounce ideas off their friends via comments on their Docs. I also jump into their Docs during writing time so I can give them feedback as they work, rather than waiting until an entire draft is written and turned in.
  • homework: debate rages over whether or not homework is beneficial or even necessary for our students, but I am certain that writing for homework is critical, if only because it allows my students to figure out how they write (work) best. During NaNoWriMo, I have my students reflect on what they are learning about their own writing preferences; their answers help them see how they can work best on any assignment. They discover if they work best with music, with quiet, with snacks, and what time of day is ideal. These are discoveries that will help them now and in future work endeavors.

I may not be able to send my students out in canoes when they need a writing break, but I can learn from my own writing needs so that I can help my students find theirs. How about you? What have you learned about writing from your own writing experiences?