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A Writer’s Time…

 

…is precious. Watch it get stolen daily. Three questions to help you keep it safe:

  • What’s your freshest hour–or hours–of the day? Find them, use them, guard them. For me, it’s before 11 AM.
  • What device and which space will let you hunker down? I have to turn off Messages, Chrome, and Mail in order to write. My office is the best place, and I need wordless music or music that gets me in a trance. Oh how I adore the Hamilton soundtrack but the rich language distracts me.
  • What guilt do you need to shelve? Name the people, places, and things: For me: my cat, my messy house, and dishes/laundry/daily grind.

How do you protect your time?

 

Filed Under: Uncategorized, writing process  

Three Ways to Keep At It

Starting a story is daunting and many of us who write struggle to find enough hours in the week to go deep into a narrative. As I embark on a new novel, three quick ways I use to keep me in the game felt like ones I should share.pencil-918449_1920

  1. Find Your Passion, or Embrace the Pain. I know, sounds like a massively tall order, but you need fuel for the journey. If it’s not something you think about constantly, then I wouldn’t pursue it. Whether it’s a cool idea that keeps flooding your brain, a meltdown you’re having about politics, or a personal situation that keeps you up at night, it is the perfect source to keep you writing. Motivation. My test is this: if I can talk with friends or family about it, I can probably write about it, too. I am good at turning obsessions, anger, revenge, distress into a scene in a novel.
  2. Keep Paper Everywhere. I could also say, Keep the Phone Nearby and Use Your Notes app, but the moment I tap my phone, notifications from Facebook/Tumblr/Messages flood my view and I am off down a rabbit hole before I realize it. Blank sheets of paper have inspired me since childhood. Seeing blank space gets me jazzed to fill it. So when an idea strikes at an inconvenient time, like when I’m driving or tumbling into bed, I have the blank sheet nearby giving my brain a little jolt to Jot it down, jot it down! before I forget. Because I will. I always do!
  3. Gather Up These Notes and Head to the Computer. If I do one thing, it’s get rid of one of those notes in the pile every day. I tap in something, somewhere. It could be in one of three documents I start: the Character Profiles (a stream-of-consciousness study of each major player in my story–thank you, Elizabeth George, for that tip), the Synopsis (my outline following Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat principles and beats of a story), or the Manuscript (first draft). The idea gets dumped somewhere so it’s not lost. So even if I don’t write a full scene or even a paragraph today, I have done Something. And believing you have accomplished Something lets me move forward with some confidence in unmapped territory.

This is how we do it. Idea by Idea, piece of paper by piece of paper, line by line.

The Perils of Revision: Telling a Tale of Abuse

Image found here

I believe there is truth, black-and-white, good vs. evil truth. There’s wrong and there’s right. But the telling of it is often gray. That telling and its perilous navigation would be the purview of us writers.

Once upon a time, my YA novel, HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT, dealt with sexual abuse in the protagonist’s past. A 16 year-old girl, Wendy, is a survivor fighting to make sense of this horrible wrong, four years later.

In this current draft, the abuse happens in real time. My agent and I have discussed reasons for this rewrite–that YA readers if not many adult ones need current, suspenseful events to care about a character. Watching a character fighting to survive now is more compelling than hearing about the aftermath. The Hunger Games wouldn’t pack the same punch if Katniss told us how it all went down there in the woods when she’s sitting here in the present quite safe. A narrative frame such as that can lift you out of the action and remind you too much that you’re reading a story.

Author C. Hope Clark explores the plusses of making your reader uncomfortable–leaving your reader with a feeling of exhaustion. Conventional wisdom says in crafting your character’s plot, make something bad happen to your character, and just when you think, It can’t get worse–make it worse.

I’m following this advice. But these scenes of abuse, as you can imagine, are not easy to write. “Don’t go there” comes to mind. There is no joy writing scenes of murder, torture, or rape. And in this political climate where politicians use phrases like “legitimate rape,” it feels especially dangerous to turn the camera on a young girl being abused, a girl who is not sure she can call it that.

We live in a world where people across cultures ask if she was asking for it. Where questions of power seem to place a hot lamp on women’s unstoppable powers of seduction and apparently well-fortified reproductive organs. I don’t want to write scenes where young girls wonder if I’m asking if she was asking for it. I also don’t want to write scenes that predators would endorse.

But that’s the challenge of my job. Writers have to stand in limbo of shadowy, questionable gray. This horror happens and many people survive it. It’s an important story to tell and being afraid to tell it is part of the trauma people experience.

It’s not just politicians that motivate me to write this tale. I also feel sure I must do it when I see women snapping up the wildly popular Fifty Shades of Grey. What a strange light that shadowy work shines on our gender roles, desires, and the rules of power as they still play out. This wonderful rant by Britt Hayes makes me sure I am writing something that will challenge the crazy that’s made Grey’s author a multimillionaire. But I can’t say I’m enjoying the ride.

This revision is not fun, but it must be done. Now the veil is lifted on my worry that this writing is not going to do anyone any good, but yet something in me says, Go on, show how it goes, and maybe in the telling something pure and clear will emerge and maybe I and someone else could be able to see for miles.

As our students go back to school and search the hallways for friendly faces, and as they meet their teachers for the first time, there are some who will be hiding massive secrets. They will have horror to survive each week that no one knows. They could return home daily to Jerry Sanduskys and Mary Kay LeTourneaus and other tortured souls who call themselves parents, mentors, authorities in a child’s life. I write this book for all the youth who seek a trustworthy adult and find that trust abused; who didn’t know where the adult was headed with that first touch; who can’t speak for all the fears that choke them silent. I hope my book tells some to find a trustworthy soul they can tell and others–unknowing spectators–that survivors walk among them.

Back to the page. The way is foggy and often the page looks dim. But the purpose is sure like an arrow and somehow, I’ll emerge with something on the other side. Whether this is a YA novel remains to be seen, but I will file its genre under “GRAY” right now: adult themes, lived by youth. I’ll let librarians and booksellers work that one out.

Writing Prompts

  • Which books did you read in school or have you taught that deal with complex, traumatic events such as rape, incest, or abuse? How do you approach these works as a reader, a writer, or as a teacher? Do you call out these events as what they are, and speak of them? 
  • What works do you think are wrong for a high school classroom? Why?
  • What is gray about the telling of these things? How do authors make these issues gray, and in so doing, do both wrong and right to the subject and survivors?
  • How do you use journals and storytelling to help people explore issues that are highly sensitive? (Consult The Why and How of Writing Prompts for some assistance.)

Sunday Truce

In my favorite TV show that we’re following on DVD, The Wire, gangsters from both sides of Baltimore agree that whatever you do, you don’t shoot someone up on a Sunday.

Then Barksdale’s crew violates this rule. Omar, a gangster with his grandma on his arm, is in the sights of two incompetent henchmen. They call for permission to fire, and a distracted gang leader, in the middle of a mob meeting, gives the go-ahead. It’s slipped his mind that it’s Sunday.
Image found here.

They shoot Grandma’s Sunday hat–her “crown”–right off her head. Omar’s last-second dive, shoving her into a taxi, saves her. Except for some cuts and bruises, Grandma survives.

But the one rule the gangs held sacred–that one point of trust–is now broken among the gangs. All agree: what the Barksdale crew did was beyond the pale.

You don’t do that kind of business on Sunday.

I’ve failed the Sunday truce. Writers need a Sabbath, and lately, I struggle to find it. I’m talking about the ability to stop, rest, and cease and desist from picking at your manuscript.

Before I took a vacation, I sent my agent a draft of the novel, showing my efforts to address some issues. I knew this draft wasn’t perfect, but I had to submit it. I couldn’t sleep at night thinking I would just head off into vacation and just, well, you know, relax.

That would be wasting time. That would be less than diligent, focused, goal-oriented. Right? The rest of the world is busy pursuing passions. What are you, some kind of dilettante?

Agents need more than a few days to read a manuscript; you aren’t the only client, nor is reading manuscripts the only thing they do. I knew that, and understood when I returned from my brief vacation she would need a little more time. The problem was, I suddenly could spot a bunch of problems in my story–problems I would have seen if I had been patient and let the manuscript sit while I did the impermissible, relax.

But what if someone else publishes my idea before me? What if by the time I finish, My Moment has passed? What if, if, if, if?

Here’s what Seth Godin says about wasting time. And here’s what former agent and children’s author Nathan Bransford says about distractions.

In short: waste time and be distracted. Good authors do this and the writing soars because of it.

I took this manuscript back and asked for more time. My agent was willing to read it right then, but I said, No, I must make it better. With my typical zeal and impatience I dove back in.

A number of problems are fixed now–I’ll give myself that. But this tendency to dodge the quiet spaces in my writing life…this is something I must look at. There’s a bearing down, a gritting of teeth, a self-flagellation that isn’t any part of the joy of writing.

What’s that I’ve said before? Huh?

If a tree falls…?Go super-slo-mo until it’s time…?

Breathe. Wander away from words and say, “It is what it is now–and it will be something different someday.”

The dark side of passion is perfectionism. Zeal can lead to beautiful phrases and pages as well as neurosis, obsession, and single-mindedness.

Next Sunday, I’m going to church. I’m going to a movie. I’m going to slow down, back off, and let the mind wander away from the work that will always be there.


Writing Prompts:

— Where in your life are you most impatient? Where do you bear down, stress out, demand things be immediate, chop, chop?
— Write about a time where impatience or patience served you well. Write about a time where it did not.
— If you were raising a five year-old, an eight year-old, a 13 year-old, and a 17 year-old, what advice about patience would you give each? When should one be patient, and why?
— Is impatience ever a virtue?
— What is your Sabbath? Where does rest enter your life each week? How do you protect it?
— Do you rest too little or too much?
— In your writing, are you a Mozartian or a Beethovian?
— In your favorite story or novel, which character is fueled by endless energy, impatience, or excessive devotion to work? What type of journey does this character take, and what kind of end results? Is there a moral to this story about patience, work, and rest?

What Do You Do When No One’s Looking?

“Champions are made when no one is looking… To me it means that if you want to excel, you have to do a lot on your own, outside the limelight. Over the years, I have learned how to work away from everyone else.”
–Justin Smith, NCAA championship golfer

Don’t call yourself “writer” if you ain’t writing new stuff or destroying old stuff in the quiet of your room and the chaos of your brain.

It’s easy to think writing is editing fully-formed pages, fanned out before an impressed audience that never believed you’d write that book. It’s easy to think that writing is submitting finished pages to a critique group or an editor, or that it’s querying. Some believe writing is taking down copious notes, even on the worst comments you get. But none of this is writing. These are the business tasks, the communication tasks, the prettying tasks–and all of them dependent on audience and human interaction. Writing, in its purest sense, is creating brand-new pages and ripping those up while you, one, remain the loneliest number.

When summer hits, when leaving the bed in the mornings is like bench pressing 50-plus pounds, when all you want to do is slouch through the heat with a margarita, you ask yourself, When will I find the energy to write? Will I ever write something new again? Do I want to write something new again? And even if I think my pages are crappy, do I dare rip them up

It’s hard when the limelight is off you–when no one remarks on your blog, when the agent is deep in your pages but not able to respond, when the submissions are in literary magazine inboxes but no

After six months of writing a novel and a year of revisions, I let HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT take a breather in the hands of agents and readers. I let my short stories on submission and my collection in the hands of the University of Georgia’s Flannery O’Connor contest rest there. And I make myself get back to work.

The sequel to my novel is already rearing its mischievous head. It wants to be all exploratory scene and snappy dialogue but devoid of character want–that hard yearning after ONE THING that makes a story race and carry its readers along.

Filed Under: writing process, writing truths  

Top 10 Reasons You’re Not Done With Your Novel

1. You have a day job.
2. Your codependent cat has an eerie, human-baby cry.
3. You are a sensitive soul who gives a darn about the important (tsunamis and earthquakes) and the unimportant (office drama).
4. AMC has a new series called “The Killing.” (So, you said you’re “sensitive”?)
5. You believe you can conquer the Everest of laundry while writing.
6. You believe that perfection can be achieved in this lifetime.
7. You love revision, a little too much.
8. It has come to your attention that you should socialize, at least once a month.
9. You eat and sleep.
10. You have a blog.

Filed Under: just for fun, writing process  

Big Girls Don’t Pride

Big girls don’t cry, they don’t whine, and they sure don’t pride. I need a new verb to reform those of us with active egos (and who happen to be overhauling novels).

Image retrieved at Pride & Prejudice Blogspot

Active Ego says, “Your novel is fine as is! It’s character driven, it’s full of good scenes, it’s got that slow, realistic climb to the crisis.” Ego thinks I can argue this because I was raised by Harper Lee, who according to author of Mockingbird, Charles J. Shields, handed her editor a massive mess of anecdotes, not a story. When I say, “raised by Harper Lee,” I mean it: not only did this book become my instant favorite at age 14 but I read and re-read it many, many times to teach it to students over the years. So it’s a bit of a Bible to me. You can tell looking at the finished novel that Lee loves character and a thoughtful unraveling of plot. She loves every tiny moment that every secondary or tertiary member of Maycomb offers. How about Walter Cunningham; how about Calpurnia? Mrs. Dubose? Aunt Alexandra? How about townsfolk who serve up local flavor full of incisive themes, such as Mr. Dolphus Raymond: a man “guilty” of miscegenation and pretending drunkenness because “it helps folks if they can latch on to a reason” why a white man would marry a black woman.

I adore those languourous passages of character development, slowly unfolding like a humid summer day. She has many a side trail to show us Scout and Jem’s little world, rich with love and hate and courage and racism. Active ego says, “Lee’s your literary hero; it’s okay to follow her lead!”

But I’m not writing an adult novel with a child protagonist. I’m writing YA. So what do the people want? Big girls must ask.

What the YA reader wants is story, glorious story, moving quickly, and not one you have to hunt or wait for. Quests and missions must move at a good pace–not necessarily breakneck–then head somewhere satisfying. Even if my protagonist plows along in some general direction with lots of interesting side trails, most of us aren’t going to stick around to see the end of that journey. What with our limited time and attention spans, the average reader is more likely to prefer speed, high drama, and compelling action. Plus, I haven’t heard rumors of a Slow Read Movement just yet.

Big girls must face this fact and follow good advice. I’ve called upon the talents of several excellent, critical readers–friends, family, writing group members–many of whom are quite well-read in a variety of genres. I had my economics and history and nonfiction reading crew; those who prefer thrillers and sci fi; those who like more amorphous, character-driven narrative. Literary readers. Whatever they’re calling chick lit now readers. I heard from a few that the throughline needed clarity; that the story didn’t really take off till a certain point, while hearing from others that the quirky band of characters and its ringleader, Wendy, kept them occupied. Then a new reader took up my manuscript with fresh eyes and said two key words: external conflict. And I went back to my story and saw that there were various clashes that surged like sparklers and soon burnt out.

If you commit to an E.C., there must be a significant clash. It must motivate the character and direct the narrative. stream through the narrative, keeping readers there to find out what happens next.
YA demands a clear narrative that clings to the big E.C. and doesn’t let go.

Now I’m mapping internal and external conflicts of the protagonist in every scene using index cards I can revise and shuffle. I pose the conflicts as questions Wendy must answer with her actions. I color code the E.C. and the I.C. inside my manuscript as Wendy faces both throughout the narrative. I’ve moved key scenes from the middle or last third to the front. I’ve written new scenes. And through it all, Wendy’s making a commitment to her goals with more intensity and follow through so that readers will want to follow her.

Some authors would have outlined from the start, but that’s not how my mind works. I tend to write and think in concrete, random ways: specific scenes and reams of dialogue inundate me, and they all connect to one another in one beauteous, tangled web. So if I start all webby, I must end sequential. And Ego may say, “That’s just not my style to outline,” but guess what? I’m using the concrete, fluid method of index cards, which feels more tangible and full of possibilities, which is how I like to write my scenes. Now there is method in my concrete random madness. Now there’s an outline, slowly growing on my terms.

Ripping a manuscript limb from limb is, to say the least, humbling. Ain’t no room for ego in that mess. First I cut the 40,000 words, and for that, I patted myself on the back. But that wasn’t enough. What I’m doing now is what big girls must do if they want to finish strong.

Writing Prompts:

— Who is your literary hero, and how has s/he influenced your writing? Find a passage that still rings in your head when you’re talking or writing. The quotable passage may well be speaking to your writing. How?
— How do the characters of your favorite novel both express personality and “local flavor” while also pursuing a compelling goal? Find a moment in the story when characters are expressing these three elements of story (characterization, setting, plot) simultaneously.
— Flip through To Kill a Mockingbird or another favorite classic novel and land on a scene. List the external conflict, the internal conflict, and the two answers that the scene gives.
— Do you outline or do you free write? Do you web, draw, color code, or use cards? How do you structure a large piece of writing? Why do you think this method works for you?
— What is Scout’s internal and external conflict throughout the novel? Atticus’ and Jem’s?

It’s All a Dress Rehearsal

“…we soothe ourselves during these waiting times with assurances about what we’re going to get at the end of it all. We are going to get exactly what we want, right? That’s the part that makes the waiting bearable, isn’t it? Otherwise Lent and Advent are just a big waste of time. Why do all this waiting and practicing and yearning if there’s no prize at the end? We like results in everything from our exercise programs to our business plans to our religious practices.”

–Marcia Mount Shoop, “Waiting”

So my novel is in the hands of agents, some of whom have requested partials and fulls, and it’s slimmed down to 86,000 words. So my short stories sit in various literary magazine inboxes, and my novel sits in the hands of Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and James Jones First Novel Fellowship judges. I tell myself I’m waiting for their results.

Image found at Oilcrash.com

Then yesterday I reminded myself I wasn’t waiting. I’m living. And on that note, this morning I began the sequel to ST. MICHAEL, PRAY FOR US. HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT.

Yes, I did the typically American thing: got myself back to work. Got busy creating again. My husband and I often discuss the healthiness of this approach, my tendency to fabricate brand-new deadlines for myself. I tell him artists fight for creating time, and then agree with him that sometimes life feels like nothing but an endless round of work for different masters, never mind the cleaning that’s not getting done while I write. (The tumbleweeds of cat hair are declared victorious.) And how do catch ourselves before that workaholicism devolves into a gross pursuit of the Rusty Old American Dream?

This is how I deal with waiting. I get on with the next project, and I dream more words till something new emerges. I guess you could say I don’t like waiting, so I make new work for myself.

Is it because I obsess and grasp after the perfect result–contract, book deal, movie deal? We are at our skinniest, loveliest, most charming when courting a new love, which is why so many people get tangled up in illicit affairs, escapist hobbies, endless deadlines, and any other pastime promising perfect happiness at the end of the road. As if the road has an end.

Of course there’s death, but I mean this life road: there is no full stop at which heaven will embrace us and we get that perfect balance of ready cash, loyal friends, svelte body, and riotous fun–or whatever we authors want when we achieve celebrity status.

I loved writing the first pages of the sequel. They’d been in my head a while, and what was wonderful about today’s writing was there was no pressure for them to be perfect. I understand from the long road ST. MICHAEL has taken and other novels before that how a manuscript morphs many times till it’s shaped just so. Today I saw the excesses, tangents, and questions in my new story right as I wrote them and thought, “No problem; I’ll deal with this later on down the road.”

That’s because I love the journey and for today, for a hour, nothing’s mattered but that. I cast not one thought the direction of the prize at the end of the road. Because there is no prize. There’s no amount of money, beauty, and fame that can replace the health and wealth of this unsullied moment of creativity.

Wow, I sound like a highly-evolved creature. Who’s that talking? That would be Lyn in a costume somewhat askew, not-quite-right stage face, who occasionally forgets key lines this last night of rehearsal. Because it’s all a last night before the show, all a dress rehearsal, since we don’t know what day the fullest stop of all may come and the show must go on into the spirit realm.

Writing Prompts

— Are you a process or a product person? A journey or a boon person? What do you most want to be, and why?
— What frustrates you most about the waiting?
— Writing needs audience, and if our writing stays underground, authors can suffer. How do you find ways to get an audience now while you’re waiting for bigger projects to ferment?
— How do you balance students’ need for audience and their need to learn about the writing process with its many stages? Do teens in particular need more prizes and gratification than long experiences of process? How can we give them enough boons along the road to keep them engaged while teaching them to commit, to delay gratification, and to revise again?
— How much process has your manuscript experienced? Do you feel in your gut you’ve shopped it out to agents too early?
— Read about a few of your favorite authors and find out about their process to getting published. What’s the average amount of years? Revisions? What obstacles did these writers use to fuel the next stage of the journey? How did they overcome disappointment, keep eyes on the prize, and not care about the prize too much, all at the same time?

It’s All a Dress Rehearsal

“…we soothe ourselves during these waiting times with assurances about what we’re going to get at the end of it all. We are going to get exactly what we want, right? That’s the part that makes the waiting bearable, isn’t it? Otherwise Lent and Advent are just a big waste of time. Why do all this waiting and practicing and yearning if there’s no prize at the end? We like results in everything from our exercise programs to our business plans to our religious practices.”

–Marcia Mount Shoop, “Waiting”

So my novel is in the hands of agents, some of whom have requested partials and fulls, and it’s slimmed down to 86,000 words. So my short stories sit in various literary magazine inboxes, and my novel sits in the hands of Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award and James Jones First Novel Fellowship judges. I tell myself I’m waiting for their results.

Then yesterday I reminded myself I wasn’t waiting. I’m living. And on that note, this morning I began the sequel to ST. MICHAEL, PRAY FOR US. HOW WENDY REDBIRD DANCING SURVIVED THE DARK AGES OF NOUGHT.

Yes, I did the typically American thing: got myself back to work. Got busy creating again. My husband and I often discuss the healthiness of this approach, my tendency to fabricate brand-new deadlines for myself. I tell him artists fight for creating time, and then agree with him that sometimes life feels like nothing but an endless round of work for different masters, never mind the cleaning that’s not getting done while I write. (The tumbleweeds of cat hair are declared victorious.) And how do catch ourselves before that workaholicism devolves into a gross pursuit of the Rusty Old American Dream?

This is how I deal with waiting. I get on with the next project, and I dream more words till something new emerges. I guess you could say I don’t like waiting, so I make new work for myself.

Is it because I obsess and grasp after the perfect result–contract, book deal, movie deal? We are at our skinniest, loveliest, most charming when courting a new love, which is why so many people get tangled up in illicit affairs, escapist hobbies, endless deadlines, and any other pastime promising perfect happiness at the end of the road. As if the road has an end.

Of course there’s death, but I mean this life road: there is no full stop at which heaven will embrace us and we get that perfect balance of ready cash, loyal friends, svelte body, and riotous fun–or whatever we authors want when we achieve celebrity status.

I loved writing the first pages of the sequel. They’d been in my head a while, and what was wonderful about today’s writing was there was no pressure for them to be perfect. I understand from the long road ST. MICHAEL has taken and other novels before that how a manuscript morphs many times till it’s shaped just so. Today I saw the excesses, tangents, and questions in my new story right as I wrote them and thought, “No problem; I’ll deal with this later on down the road.”

That’s because I love the journey and for today, for a hour, nothing’s mattered but that. I cast not one thought the direction of the prize at the end of the road. Because there is no prize. There’s no amount of money, beauty, and fame that can replace the health and wealth of this unsullied moment of creativity.

Wow, I sound like a highly-evolved creature. Who’s that talking? That would be Lyn in a costume somewhat askew, not-quite-right stage face, who occasionally forgets key lines this last night of rehearsal. Because it’s all a last night before the show, all a dress rehearsal, since we don’t know what day the fullest stop of all may come and the show must go on into the spirit realm.

Writing Prompts

— Are you a process or a product person? A journey or a boon person? What do you most want to be, and why?
— What frustrates you most about the waiting?
— Writing needs audience, and if our writing stays underground, authors can suffer. How do you find ways to get an audience now while you’re waiting for bigger projects to ferment?
— How do you balance students’ need for audience and their need to learn about the writing process with its many stages? Do teens in particular need more prizes and gratification than long experiences of process? How can we give them enough boons along the road to keep them engaged while teaching them to commit, to delay gratification, and to revise again?
— How much process has your manuscript experienced? Do you feel in your gut you’ve shopped it out to agents too early?
— Read about a few of your favorite authors and find out about their process to getting published. What’s the average amount of years? Revisions? What obstacles did these writers use to fuel the next stage of the journey? How did they overcome disappointment, keep eyes on the prize, and not care about the prize too much, all at the same time?

The Why and How of Writing Prompts

This blog offers writing prompts each month, ones for teachers and students. I also include several journal prompts in my three books, The Compassionate Classroom (with Jane Dalton); Teaching Romeo and Juliet (with Delia DeCourcy and Robin Follet); and Teaching Julius Caesar. I provide these because teachers need and request them. I’ve always assumed we know why writing prompts are worth the time, but that’s not always true. It’s good to revisit why they matter in the classroom.

Still ringing in my ears is the only parent complaint I’ve ever heard on the subject. “What’s this touchy-feely stuff? What’s this got to do with academics?” While I did convince this parent I wasn’t wasting his child’s time, the complaint gets to a misinformed opinion–that writing prompts are a flights-of-fancy indulgence we can’t make time for. I figure it may also help teachers to have this argument in their back pocket should parents, administrators, or pacing guides approach.

(This image found at Darton College’s Writing Lab site.)

Why You Should Use Writing Prompts in Your Classroom

Writing prompts are great dress rehearsals for deeper thinking, the critical analysis required by most literary interpretation, argumentation, and research.

Writing prompts tap into what I call the Big Ideas–the concepts and abstract topics that need fleshing out in an essay. In the low-stakes dress rehearsal area that is a journal, students can discover what they think as they see what they writeSo Romeo and Juliet is about the Big Idea of Love; that claim is no thesis statement yet. Do you believe in true love? Love at first sight? Platonic love where there’s once been lust? What is more important–the love of family or romantic partners? It’s these interesting questions that come from journaling on a Big Idea.

Students need to make affective, personal connections with the literature before they can delve deeper into analysis. Why are we reading this? radiates from every student pore, every adolescent ‘tude entering your classroom. When students write journals on prompts that at first glance seem to be all about them, that thinking leads to better, deeper conversations when you put the lit front and center. Big Ideas are always relevant to students’ lives: Love, Justice, Jealousy, Revolution, Change…

Writing prompts tap into metacognition, sparking reflection about the writing process. They allow students to mull over the complex stages of thinking that lead to a finished draft and develop a perspective on their own writing strengths, weaknesses, and methods.

Writing prompts allow creative forays into personal, imaginative writing such as short stories, novels, poetry, even lists–every genre and type–that again, serve as great dress rehearsals if not companions to the academic writing we teach. Some schools assign creative writing before assigning literary analysis. If a student can develop a character, create a narrative thread, or craft a symbol in personal writing, isn’t it that much easier for students to approach literature where they must analyze character traits, track a plot’s trajectory, or explicate the connotations of an image?

Writing prompts help our kids access difficult texts, from Twain to Shakespeare to Swift. Old school becomes new school when our kids realize that these authors grappled with very modern problems and timeless emotions. In some ways, not much has changed with humanity, and journaling can get our kids seeing that.

How You Should Use Writing Prompts

How do we integrate this type of writing practice into the average class period, burdened as it is with other reading and writing tasks and the demands of pacing guides and standardized tests?

Opening & Focusing Activity. When students hit the door certain days, they can see their first task–that writing prompt on the board–to focus their thinking. Allow 7-10 minutes. This can be followed by a pair-share or a brief class discussion where students share thoughts. You might collect these journals randomly.

Anchoring Activity. This is a go-to assignment when students finish a task early in order to prepare for the two uses described below. Journal prompts can be listed alongside other tasks that students can pick up for ten or twenty minutes and return to at any time. They are particularly helpful when you have a range of abilities in your classroom and are trying to conduct mini-lessons with tiered groups, conference with students, and interact with several students within a class period.

Essay Preparation. These journals allow students to explore and experiment with a range of essay prompts before making a final selection. Students can contemplate the entire work just read and call up evidence in a more casual writing foray to see if they have enough ideas, supporting examples, and passion about the topic to commit to it. Assign at least two of these before students conference with you or before they identify their choice. This task also allows you to offer more than one or two essay prompts and give students a wider choice.

Pre-Socratic Seminar. Planning on an intensive discussion? Writing on the discussion topics before speaking aloud is important rehearsal for more retiring students as well as those who speak extemporaneously and fearlessly.

Homework. Journal writing on Big Ideas or creative writing prompts offer great homework options. Students are more likely to be alone and more reflective, and, after a busy school day, their minds are freer, rambling, and needing open expression rather than serious drill assignments.

There are many other places to integrate prompts; these are just a few of the most obvious times to integrate them.

Other General Tips:

— If you use hard-copy composition books, allow students to fold over pages of their journal that they don’t want you to read. I always say, “Please don’t fold over every page; I’ve got to read something.” This offer does make the journal the student’s domain first and foremost and encourage ownership.

— Don’t spend a lot of time grading journals but do focus on whether students have done one or two of the following: offered specific and rich examples or discovered some interesting insight or interpretation. I usually give 10 out of 10 points, with one or two points deducted for poor effort. We know a half-baked journal when we see it.

— Tell students that if they do tackle tough subject matter, such as personal dilemmas or crises, that you will feel compelled to assist them by referring them to a school counselor. If students hint at eating disorders, abuse, and other trauma in their lives, it’s impossible to turn our heads.

The best reason for assigning writing prompts is getting to know your students better. I’ve formed better relationships and understandings with my students because of what they have shared with me in their journals.