Teaching Analytical Writing Series

Ah, the analytical essay. Whether it’s five paragraphs or not, whether it’s called an essay or a paper or even a “theme,” it’s pretty much the default major assignment in high school and even college English classes. Because I teach middle school, and because I work at an independent school, I have quite a bit of flexibility in my writing curriculum. I can assign a lot of varied creative writing assignments, and I very happily do! But I also need to teach students how to write solid, carefully structured analytical essays about what they read. Both my seventh and eighth grade classes are working on essays now, so I’ve been thinking about how I teach students to do this kind of writing and what seems to work.

The thing is, this kind of writing isn’t intuitive, so students need a lot of explicit instruction and examples. They need to be told that they can’t use first or second person, and then they need to see examples of how to write a sentence that shows their opinion without using “I” but also without a whole lot of confusing passive voice. They need to be armed with helpful verbs for analytical writing (depict, convey, portray, imply, reveal, etc.). A cheat sheet of good transition words helps, too (first of all, in addition, therefore, however, etc.). They need to understand the structure of a solid essay, and they need a lot of scaffolding to grasp how to structure an analytical paragraph and how to deal with quotes from the text they are analyzing.

I don’t blame them. I can clearly remember a moment when I was in ninth grade and had been assigned to write an essay with at least three quotes in it. I had been taught how to structure an essay in general, but not what to do with the quotes. So I wrote the whole thing and then asked for my mom’s help to sandwich in some quotes somehow.

I had always read a lot, so I had soaked up all kinds of unspoken rules of writing by reading. But it’s not like I was reading other people’s five-paragraph essays, so I had no way to soak up the rules of using quotes. After that assignment, my ninth grade English teacher wrote an essay in front of us, in marker on a transparency sheet that she projected on the board. I saw how she handled the quotations, and after that I knew what to do. But that experience has stuck with me. Students need to see good, accessible examples of the kind of writing we want them to do, and many of them need more than just examples. However, I don’t want to simplify essay writing to a meaningless formula in which students are simply filling in sentences rather than developing their own ideas.

I’m only teaching seventh and eighth grade this year, but when I have taught sixth grade in the past, I’ve asked for a modified version of analytical writing from sixth graders. They can still use the first person in their essays, which I’ve referred to as reader’s response essays rather than analytical essays. I’ve had them write responses with three body paragraphs that discuss three different points, and I’ve asked for one quote per paragraph, but I haven’t worried too much about how they integrate or format their quotes or how detailed their discussion of the quotes are. For seventh and eighth graders, I ask for essays that follow all of the conventions that students need to have mastered by high school, but I break essay assignments down into several manageable steps.

I haven’t done many teaching-related posts this year, so I thought I’d start a short blog series on teaching analytical writing in a way that gives students the support they need without encouraging overly formulaic writing. Over the next couple of weeks, I’ll post about the following topics:

-Essay Building Blocks: The TIQA(TIQA) Paragraph

-Preparing to Write an Essay and Essay Skeletons

-Introductions and Conclusions

-Why Analytical Writing?

I hope this series proves helpful, and I have some more student-author interviews in the works, as well, so those will keep coming, too!

Student-Author Interview 11: Jen Malone

It’s time for another student-author interview, and I’m very excited to feature the tireless and talented Jen Malone! Jen’s debut novel, At Your Service, came out in 2014, and she is one busy author. She has several books for tweens and teens on the way, and you can find out more about them at jenmalonewrites.com (and in her interview below)!

In At Your Service, thirteen-year-old Chloe Turner already knows exactly what she wants IMG_1320to do with her life: she wants to follow in her dad’s footsteps as the concierge at a fabulous New York City hotel. After Chloe manages to entertain Marie, the extremely difficult daughter of one of her dad’s important guests, she earns the job of Junior Concierge. It’s up to Chloe to show a prince and two princesses around the city. But cute Prince Alex, unimpressed Princess Sophie, and mischievous Princess Ingrid might be more than Chloe can handle…especially since Ingrid has an uncanny talent for disappearing and goes missing on Chloe’s watch.

This is a fun, humorous, fast-paced story that takes readers on an exciting tour around New York City. Abby, Juliana, and Lucy read the book and had some great questions for Jen!

First, here’s what the girls liked best about AT YOUR SERVICE with Jen’s response:

IMG_1322Juliana: I like that Chloe works at a hotel as the Junior Concierge and gets to help with the kids who stay there. She has a really unique job.

Abby: I liked how Ingrid, the littlest princess that Chloe was in charge of, wants to get all of the souvenir pennies in the city!

Lucy: I liked the point of view that the book is written in and the way the characters are described.

Thank you, girls!! I love reading these so much- you’ve made my day!

Now for some questions about the book and about writing in general:

Lucy: What inspired you to write this book?IMG_1318

Two things were my big inspiration for this book, and both were jobs I once had. One was managing a youth hostel in Baltimore not long after I graduated college. It was nowhere near as fancy as the Hotel St. Michèle (guest slept in bunk beds and shared one big bathroom!) but I did get to put together fun itineraries of my hometown for visitors from all over the world and I loved sending them places where I knew they’d have fun. I also used to work as a publicist for the movie studio 20th Century Fox and part of my job was acting as a personal assistant of sorts for any visiting movie stars. I would set up all their media interviews and walk down the red carpet with them at movie screenings, but I also had to do really silly things, like make sure they had their favorite kind of bottled water, which was only available in France and had to be shipped in special. Writing the scenes with Marie were really fun because I have dealt with movie stars who were only slightly more reasonable in their demands!

Juliana: Did you grow up in New York City? How did you decide to set the book there? Did you do any research about the city to write the book?

I grew up in horse country, about 40 minutes outside Baltimore. But I visited NYC several times as a kid and now I go three or four times a year from Boston, where I currently live. I think it helped that I don’t live in NYC because I still see the magic of the city every time I go and could write about it with that sense of awe. If I lived there, I might be more ho-hum about it and that could have snuck into the story. I did have to do a lot of research for the book- I interviewed a Rockette to find out what a rehearsal was like, I spent a day “shadowing” a concierge at his hotel, and used Google maps streetview to trace all the steps my characters took. My husband was in NYC on a business trip when I was writing this, so I had him visit every penny machine in the city and take lots of photos of their surroundings so I could write the part where the characters go to the penny machines realistically. He got extra hugs for that! And then my editor and one of my close friends who read my first draft both live in New York City, so I relied on them to fact-check for me.

Abby: How did you get the idea for Ingrid wanting to collect the souvenir pennies?

Directly from my three kids, who all have collections of them! We have fun seeking out those machines on vacations. I was really stuck on how to give Chloe clues about where Ingrid might be when she disappeared and I just couldn’t figure out how to write the next part of the story once Ingrid made her getaway. One day I was driving and the idea of the pennies just came to me! It ended up working perfectly because it let Chloe and the others have a roadmap of sorts for where to look and also allowed me to write about all the great tourist spots in the city.

Juliana: Is the Hotel St. Michèle a real place? If so, how did you choose to write about that hotel, and if not how did you come up with it?

It’s not a real place and it was actually named by my editor, but when I worked for 20th Century Fox I spent a LOT of time in fancy hotels throughout Boston because a lot of the visiting actors’ interviews were done in hotel meeting rooms (or sometimes in the actors’ suites). Also, part of my job was to check into the hotel ahead of the actors and make sure all the room’s lamps worked and that the toilet flushed- all so the movie stars wouldn’t encounter any hassles when they arrived. Silly, right? The good part was that sometimes they would finish their interviews early and hop a flight back to LA and I would get to stay in their fancy suites since the room had already been paid for. I once spent the night in the Presidential Suite at the Four Seasons in Oprah Winfrey’s bed when she left early- she even left all her yummy food in the fridge! So I had lots of good fancy hotel experiences to draw from when coming up with the Hotel St. Michèle.

Lucy: How did you choose to make Chloe the age she is?

Her age actually changed from what it was in the first draft. She started out as thirteen going on fourteen, but my editor wanted to leave room open if there were ever to be a sequel and thirteen is sort of the top age a character would be before it would cross into YA and be in a different section of the bookstore. But we couldn’t make her too young because then it wouldn’t be believable that she’d be allowed to roam the city by herself and/or with her guests. So we settled on making her twelve at the start of the story and then having her turn thirteen just before the royal family arrives.

Abby: Is there going to be a sequel to this book? If not, what else are you writing?

No sequel yet, though I do have some ideas for one, if the publisher decides to go forward with it! It really comes down to how many copies of the first book sell. But in the meantime, I have six more books coming out. The next one is a series called You’re Invited, which I’m co-writing with one of my good friends. The first book in that series comes out in May and it follows four girls who live in a tiny beach town in North Carolina and decide to entertain themselves over the summer by forming a party planning “business” in their abandoned-sailboat clubhouse. They throw some rather, er, unique parties and everything that can go wrong does, but their friendship is really what the story is about! It’s perfect for kids who might have liked The Babysitters Club and not yet be ready for Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants- it falls right between those two series. Book 2 comes out next year and I also have three Young Adult books coming out with HarperCollins, one per summer starting this July.

Juliana: What inspired you to become a writer?

I skipped kindergarten because my mom had taught me to read already and I think that made me latch on very early to the idea that my reading skills (and soon after, my writing ability) was what made me special- it was “my thing” and the part of me that I had the most confidence in, even when I was a disaster at other things (gym class- I’m looking at you!). In 3rd grade I won a school-wide award for Best Halloween Story and that cemented it. After that though, I stopped writing fiction because I thought I wanted to be a newspaper reporter. I was an editor on my school paper in high school and college, then switched to advertising (writing the copy for ads) and then public relations (where I wrote press releases). So I was always writing, just not fiction. It wasn’t until my youngest daughter showed a huge interest in reading as a kindergartener herself that I even thought about writing fiction again. I had an idea to write her a short story that she could read to me at bedtime and I set aside a few hours to work on it. A month later I had written an entire book (oops!) That was in 2012 and I haven’t looked back—it quickly took over my life! Part of me wishes I hadn’t taken such a long break between 3rd grade and now, but when I realize how much of my other life experiences make it into my stories, I don’t regret the zig-zag path to get back to writing one little bit!

And finally, some questions about when Jen was in middle school:

Juliana: Did you know you wanted to be a writer when you were in middle school?

Yes, but I thought I would be a journalist. Most of what appealed to me about journalism was that I loved getting to know a lot about one specific subject and then moving on to the next interesting thing for the next article (I’m really curious and I love to learn new things, but I also get bored sort of easily). However, I’m finding that to be completely possible with fiction writing too. Right now I’m writing a book that takes place during Hurricane Katrina. I’ve read probably twenty books on the storm and New Orleans and I love that part of the process. I’m even booking a trip there this winter so I can better describe the places I’m setting scenes. That kind of “formal excuse” to explore any subject that piques my curiosity is definitely something that would have appealed to my middle school self as much as it does my adult self.

Abby: Where did you live and what school did you go to?

I lived in Jacksonville, Maryland, in a really normal subdivision that happened to be surrounded by horse farms (I took riding lessons, but I never did get my wish of owning a pony!) and had to take the bus thirty minutes to the closest middle school. We sarcastically called our town “Actionville” instead of “Jacksonville” because nothing much happened there! We did get a McDonalds when I was in middle school, though. That was a big day.

Lucy: Is Chloe like you when you were in middle school at all, and if so how? Or are any of the other characters like you when you were in middle school?

Chloe is like me in middle school in that I sought approval from adults a lot and I always wanted to be seen as capable and mature, even when I didn’t always act that way. She has a good sense of adventure and I did too, but she’s much more confident in herself than I was. I wasn’t popular and I wasn’t unpopular- I was fairly “average,” if there even is such a thing. But I was so intrigued by the popular girls and I could never stop watching them (I think this trait is what makes me a good writer today- I people watch A LOT, but now I get to put those observations to use in developing characters) and I don’t think Chloe would care that much about popularity. For example, I definitely would have been much more intimidated by Princess Sophie than Chloe ever was. The times that I did hang out with the really popular kids were fine and no one was making fun of me or anything, but I just never had as much fun as I did around my other friends because I was never relaxed and being myself around those kids. I don’t think Chloe would have wasted five minutes trying to be popular—she was already looking to the future in a way I wasn’t at that age. However, I was totally boy crazy so, just like Chloe, I would have had a thing for Prince Alex and I also would have been so, so nervous and thinking things like, “Did I remember to turn off my curling iron” when he leaned in to kiss me!

Thank you, Jen, for visiting with us! We loved finding out about how you became a writer and how AT YOUR SERVICE became a book, and we’re looking forward to your upcoming releases!

Student-Author Interview 10: Dianne Salerni

18635086Here it is—student-author interview number 10! I’m really excited to bring you this interview with Dianne Salerni, author of two YA novels and a smart, fun, imaginative, and suspenseful middle grade fantasy series. The Eighth Day, the first book in the MG series, introduces Jax Aubrey, a thirteen-year-old boy who has been sent to live with a very unlikely guardian: eighteen-year-old Riley Pendare. Jax is not impressed with his new life with Riley…until he wakes up one morning to a world without any people.
It turns out that Jax is in the eighth day, an extra day between Wednesday and Thursday that is linked back to Arthurian legend. Jax and Riley are Transitioners, which means they have connections to clans from Arthurian days and can live in all eight days. But there are other people, like a mysterious girl named Evangeline, who can only live on the eighth day. With Riley’s help, Jax suddenly has to deal with greedy people who want to use him to access the eighth day and dangerous people who want to use the magical Evangeline to destroy the regular, seven-day world and everyone in it.  22206715

The Eighth Day is a fantastic book. I devoured it, and so did several of my students. And lucky for us, The Inquisitor’s Mark, the second book in the series, is out on January 27th, and it’s just as terrific! (And a third book is forthcoming, too!)

Two seventh grade students, Silas and Jonah, and two fifth graders, Abby and Miles, interviewed Dianne about The Eighth Day and The Inquisitor’s Mark. I hope you enjoy the interview! When you’re finished reading it, you can find out more about Dianne and her other books at diannesalerni.com.

First, here’s what the students especially liked:

silas and jonah

Silas: I really like the idea of an eighth day that only certain people can get to.

Jonah: I like the concept of an eighth day, too. I really like how it doesn’t seem like any time has gone by for the kin who are only in the eighth day, but really a number of days have gone by for everyone else.

Abby: I really liked how Jax had to get a tattoo to represent his clan and make his magical abilities stronger.

Miles: I liked how The Eighth Day connects the legends of King Arthur to the present time. I also liked how the book was told from both Jax and Evangeline’s perspectives but more from Jax’s, and I liked the descriptions of the characters because I could really picture them.

photo 1 copy

And now for the students’ questions about the books, and about writing in general:

Silas: How did you come up with the idea of an eighth day?

The idea came from a family joke. Whenever my daughters asked my husband when they could do something (like go to Hershey Park, or the beach, or ice skating) and he didn’t have a specific answer for them, he’d say, “We’ll do it on Grunsday!” And they would groan because that wasn’t a real day. Once, while they were making the usual joke, I thought to myself, “What if there really was a Grunsday, but not everyone knew about it?” And that’s how it all started!

Jonah: How did you come up with the name for Grunsday? We know that some other days are named after Norse gods–does this name have any meaning like that?

Grunsday is often used as a joke name for a day that doesn’t exist. As far as I can tell, it comes from an old Beetle Bailey comic strip. In one episode, Army private Beetle Bailey is on kitchen duty all week. In each frame, he eagerly crosses off days on his calendar. When he gets to Saturday, he says, “I’m glad there are no more days in this week!” Then he looks at the calendar, sees another day, and exclaims, “GRUNSDAY?!?!” I assume cartoonist Mort Walker made it up.

Abby: I really like Evangeline. How did you come up with her character?

After I got the idea for a secret day, I had to figure out a story to go along with it. Jax was the first character who came to me, then Riley. I knew Jax would be an orphan who discovered the secret day by accident and Riley would seem pretty clueless and not a good guardian at first — then turn out to be more important than Jax thought. (And a good guy.) I started planning out different events and characters. The bank robber and the twins were planned early on. Believe it or not, Evangeline was the last (important) character who came to me. I had an idea about Jax finding a girl who lived only on Grunsday – then started wondering who she was, why she was trapped in that day, where she came from … Once I invented Evangeline, the whole story came together, and I was ready to start the first draft. She was the key to the whole book!

Silas and Jonah: We read both The Eighth Day and The Inquisitor’s Mark, and we know that there is going to be a third book, too. How long did it take you to write the first book versus the second and third book? Did you write them all at once, or did you take a break between the books?

I started writing The Eighth Day (which I originally called Grunsday) in April of 2012. I finished the first draft in July of that year, then started revisions. That August, I went to Mexico to climb the Pyramid of the Sun so I could make sure I had that scene right. I shared the story with my agent in September, and by October, we had a deal with HarperCollins. (3 books, with a possible 4th and 5th if the series is popular)

I started writing The Inquisitor’s Mark not very long after signing the contract. It took me 11 weeks, the fastest I’ve ever written a first draft! By contrast, the third book took me about 7 months. I got interrupted a lot while working on it because of things I had to do for the other two books, like revisions and proof-reading. I didn’t take too long a break between writing each one because I had a pretty tight schedule for deadlines.

Miles: I like to write and my teacher tells me I’m a good writer, but I don’t know how you can just sit and write a whole novel with hundreds of pages. How do you do that? Are there any tricks?

When I was your age, I couldn’t write stories that long either. My stories gradually grew in length the more I wrote and the older I got. I don’t think there are any tricks I can recommend except to keep writing AND reading to learn everything you can about story-telling. More complex stories will come to you with experience. Writing short stories is a good way to begin!

Jonah: How did you come up with all of the names for the different families in the books? I noticed that some of the present-day families are named after ancient families’ last names, but then it seems like other families like the Morgans are named after the first names of the ancient people they’re descended from. How did you decide to do that?

I figured names would change over 1500 years, and some families might change their names to make them modern-sounding. For example, Sir Owain’s name was changed to Owens (although I gave Owens a first name that could also be a last name just so you wouldn’t know who he was when you met him.) As for Morgan LeFay, “le fay” means “the one with witch powers” so it was more of a nickname than a family name. Some legends say Morgan was Arthur’s half-sister; others say she wasn’t. None really give her a definite family name. Morgan made a good last name for a modern family, so I decided that Morgan LeFay’s line decided to use Morgan as their surname somewhere between Arthurian time and now.

Silas: Why did you switch from alternating Evangeline’s perspective with Jax’s in the first book to alternating another character named Dorian’s perspective with Jax’s in the second book? Will it be a different character’s perspective alternating with Jax’s perspective in the third book?

Such a great question! No adult reviewer has ever asked me why there is an alternate POV, let alone how I decide who it will be!

In each case, the alternate POV has to be someone who can provide the reader with information Jax doesn’t have – otherwise, there’s no reason to give them POV. In The Eighth Day, Evangeline gives the reader a glimpse of what life is like trapped in the eighth day. She shares the history of her family and her race, the Kin. Evangeline is the major focus in that book, because everything Riley and Jax do revolves around her.

In The Inquisitor’s Mark, Evangeline is still important, but her perspective doesn’t add anything to the story that Jax doesn’t already know. (FYI — One of my editors really loved Tegan and asked if I could make her the alternate POV character in Book 2, but like Evangeline, Tegan doesn’t have information to share that Jax doesn’t already know.) On the other hand, Dorian, as a member of Jax’s long-lost family and the Dulac clan, is full of information Jax doesn’t have but the reader needs. It was weird writing from his perspective at first, but the more I got to know him, the more I liked him. One of my favorite scenes in the book is the one with Dorian and Billy and the garbage chute!

Yes, in the third book, there will be a new alternate POV character who’ll give readers a perspective Jax doesn’t have. Based on the end of Book 2, you might be able to guess who it is, but rather than post a spoiler in this interview, I’ll tell your teacher who it is, and you can ask her if you want to know if you guessed right!

Miles: What does it feel like to spend a really long time working on a book and then wait to see if other people like it and if they think it’s a success or not?

It’s nerve-wracking!!! Since the popularity of the books will determine whether HarperCollins lets me write Books 4 and 5 (or if I have to end with Book 3), it’s scary, too. Also, because the books are written so far in advance of publication, I’m a walking, talking spoiler machine. I have to be careful what I say to people. The first draft of Book 3 was written before Book 1 even came out, but I can’t talk about it much. I can’t even share the title, because it hasn’t been officially approved yet!

And finally, some questions about when Dianne was in middle school:

Jonah: We heard that you were a teacher for a long time. When you were in middle school, did you want to teach, write, or do something else? 

When I was growing up, the only two jobs I ever wanted to have were teaching or being an author. I am really lucky that I got to live both dreams!

Abby: What was your favorite book when you were in middle school?

I loved fantasy, science fiction, and mystery. (Still do, actually.) I read the novelized version of Star Wars a thousand times. (Yes, I was in middle school in 1977 when the first Star Wars came out.) I also loved mysteries written by Mary Stewart and Agatha Christie. Katherine Kurtz and Piers Anthony were my favorite fantasy authors.

Miles: How long were your fiction stories when you were in middle school? I want to know if you taught yourself to write for a really long time or if you could just do it even when you were a lot younger.

8th grade story cover page copyI’m so glad you asked that! I went digging in the back of a closet and found a story I wrote in 8th grade that won a creative writing contest at my school. Personal computers were only just getting invented back then, and I didn’t own a typewriter until I was in high school, so all my stories were handwritten. The Andromeda Treaty was a science fiction story, and it’s 37 notebook pages long, written in cursive.

If that was typed out, it wouldn’t be very many pages. So, as you see, I had to work up to writing novel-length 8th grade story pg 1 copyworks, just like you will some day!

Thank you so much for answering our questions, Dianne, and for showing us a glimpse of your middle school writing!

Dianne lives near Philadelphia and will be visiting our school for a Local Author Day this spring, which we’re very excited about. We highly recommend both THE EIGHTH DAY and THE INQUISITOR’S MARK! (And this is a great time to get and read THE EIGHTH DAY if you haven’t already, since you’ll be able to get your hands on THE INQUISITOR’S MARK at the end of this month!)

Student-Author Interview 9: Caroline Tung Richmond

Welcome to the ninth student-author interview! I’m very excited to feature debut author Caroline Tung Richmond and her fabulous novel The Only Thing to Fear. The Only Thing to Fear takes place in an alternate reality in which the Nazis won World War II, thanks to their genetically engineered “Anomaly” super soldiers. Sixteen-year-old Zara, a stubborn girl of mixed heritage, longs to live in a free America and is eager to join the rebel group that is plotting to overthrow the Nazi leadership. She just might have the power to help bring down the Führer, if she’s allowed to join the rebels and if she can manage to survive.

I tore through the novel this summer and knew it would be a hit with students who like fantasy and dystopian novels as well as students who love history…and it certainly has been! It’s also been a pleasure connecting with Caroline since I read her book because she is such a friendly and generous writer! In addition to her great first novel, Caroline also has a wonderful blog with a very helpful “After the Call” series for agented writers; you can check it out here: http://carolineinspace.blogspot.com/

Now let’s get to the interview! Four eighth grade students–Geno, Casey, Jack, and Rudyard–read The Only Thing to Fear and had some terrific questions for Caroline.

photo (11)

First, here’s what the students wanted to tell Caroline about what they liked most about THE ONLY THING TO FEAR, with Caroline’s response:

Geno: I liked the fantasy part and how some characters had special powers. It was unexpected but cool. 

Jack: I liked how there were so many plot twists, especially related to Zara’s character. I also liked that Zara is a powerful girl and that females in the book have positions of power. 

Rudyard: I liked how the book was new and fresh. There were places where I thought I could predict what was going to happen or what a character (like Bastian) was going to turn out to be, but then there was a surprising plot twist instead.

Casey: I liked the alternate history. I loved how you thought about what if the Nazis had won WWII because it’s not something that many people would think about. I also liked how you made Zara really powerful, but she wasn’t too powerful and her powers couldn’t magically fix everything because it’s no fun when the main character is too powerful.

Thank you so much, you guys! This makes me so happy to hear, and I’m so glad that you enjoyed the book!

Now for some questions about the book, and about writing in general: 

Casey: What inspired you to write the book? 

Hi Casey! Thank you so much for reading my novel! To answer your question, I’m a big history geek and so I’ve always been interested in alternate histories and asking myself ‘What if?’—like what if Lincoln had lived and was able to oversee Reconstruction? Or what if Franz Ferdinand had never been assassinated before the start of WWI?

Then, back in 2010, I was looking for a new book to read and my husband recommended The Aquariums of Pyongyang, a memoir written by a North Korean refugee. I read the book in one sitting, and afterward I couldn’t stop thinking about it. What would it be like to live under such a cruel regime? How could someone fight against all of that oppression? I started imagining a girl living in such a place—and wanting so badly to fight back against her government. My imagination sort of went wild from there, and that is how Zara and The Only Thing to Fear were born!

Jack: How long did it take you to write the book?

Hi Jack! Thank you for reading my book too! Gosh, this novel has a strange backstory. I’m usually a very slow writer—my husband’s nickname for me is ‘the baby sloth’!—but I hammered out the first draft of The Only Thing to Fear (back then it was called Revolutionary) in about two months. This was really fast for me. But then it took me a LONG time to revise the novel—over a year!

Geno: How did you think of including Anomalies with special powers in the book? Did the book always have Anomalies with special powers, or did you add that part in later on in your writing process?

Hi there Geno! Thank you for your question! I’m a big fan of X-Men, and ever since I was in elementary school I’ve dreamt about having a super power. (I’d pick telekinesis! How about you?) And so, I’ve always envisioned having Anomalies in this book because I thought it’d be fun to write about people with super powers.

Rudyard: What process did you use to design the alternate history? Did you go back and make a chart of all the things that would have happened if the Nazis had won and then make a timeline for everything, or did you do something else to figure out the alternate history setup? I create alternate histories myself, and I use charts and timelines.

Wow, if I write another alternate history, maybe you can give me some advice on using charts and timelines, Rudyard! :)

To answer your question, I’m far less organized than you are! I wish I had created a cool chart but mostly I just jotted down notes in a Word document to keep track of dates and events. When I was revising the book with my editor at Scholastic, we also created a timeline to make sure that everything made sense and that the events fell in a logical pattern.

Jack: We don’t remember much about the concentration camps in the book. In your vision of this alternate history, what happened with the concentration camps?

In an earlier draft of the book, there were a few mentions of a “work camp” where people were sent if they did something that the Nazis didn’t like. But as for concentration camps specifically, I’ve envisioned that they existed very much in the same way in Zara’s world as they did in our own—with the Germans setting up camps like Auschwitz and Dachau where they killed so many innocent lives. Ultimately though, I ended up deleting the mentions of the camps to streamline the story, but now that you bring it up, I wish that I had kept them in because it’s an important point to address.

Casey: Did the book always have a romance element, or did you figure out that you wanted to add some romance partway through writing the book? Have you thought about what happens with Zara and Bastian after the ending, and would you ever write an epilogue or a second book to tell about what happens? 

Yes, I always wanted there to be some sort of romantic element in the book! I had a lot of fun writing the kissing scene between Zara and Bastian—and my editor made sure that it wasn’t too mushy. Haha.

I’ve actually thought quite a lot about what happens to Zara and Bastian after the story ends! Originally, I had envisioned this book as the first in a trilogy. The second book would center around Zara and the Alliance pushing the Nazis out of the Eastern American Territories; and the third book would focus on Zara traveling to Germany to help Bastian stamp out the Nazis for good. So yes, the two of them do meet again, at least in my brain! There aren’t any plans to write a sequel for now since my publisher only bought The Only Thing to Fear, but maybe one day I will finish Zara’s and Bastian’s story!

Jack and Geno: Was Zara based on you in any way? Were any of the events in the book based on anything that happened to you?

Ah, that’s such a great question! I’ve never thought about Zara in that way before. I would say that I didn’t purposely base Zara on me—for one thing, I think she’s much braver than I ever could be!—but I do think we’re similar because we’re both stubborn and we don’t like people telling us what to do. :)

As for the second part of the question, I didn’t base any events in the book on my life either but I wouldn’t mind having a cool super power and using it to fight evil.

And finally, some questions about when Caroline was in middle school:

Casey: When you were in middle school, were you part of a writing club or anything like that?

Unfortunately, my middle schools (I attended two middle schools because my family moved between my sixth and seventh grade years) didn’t have a writing club, but I think I would’ve joined one if it had been available to me! My mom did send me to a writing camp one summer though. Does that count? :)

Jack: Were you ever bullied?

I was teased and made fun of at times from elementary school to high school, but I consider myself lucky because it didn’t happen to me too often. I think bullying has gotten worse since I was in school, maybe because cyber bullying is becoming a bigger and bigger problem. Have you ever felt bullied? Do you have any advice on how to counteract bullying? I have a nine-month-old baby daughter, and I’ve already started worrying about sending her to school because I know bullying can be a big problem! Maybe you can give me some pointers to give her when she’s older?

Casey and Rudyard: Did you like history class when you were in middle school? Did you like WWII history, specifically?

Yes, I’ve always loved learning about history! One of my favorite classes in high school was Ancient History because I loved learning about people who lived thousands of years ago. I’ve always been interested in WWII history too, because it’s one of those rarer instances in history where there definitely was a Good Guy versus a Bad Guy. I also admired the courage and bravery of the men and women who fought against the Axis powers—from soldiers to nurses to everyday people who fought however they could.

My new book is set in Occupied France (when the Nazis overtook a part of France during WWII) and it focuses on a group of spies who uncover a top-secret German operation that can turn the tide of the war. It was very much inspired by the courageous men and women I learned about in my history classes!

Thank you so much for answering our questions, Caroline! Your new book sounds fabulous and we can’t wait to read it! For anyone looking for holiday gifts for readers who are history buffs or who enjoy action-packed fantasy novels with fascinating premises and great characters, we definitely recommendTHE ONLY THING TO FEAR! 

Bigger Isn’t Always Better (but “big” books can be pretty great)

Last week, a couple of other teachers and I took the seventh grade to an author event with Holly Goldberg Sloan, the author of three fabulous middle grade and young adult books: Counting by 7s, I’ll Be There, and Just Call My Name. The event was part of the Free Library of Philadelphia’s amazing Teen Author Series, a program that’s funded by the extraordinarily generous Field family. Seventh to twelfth grade classes at schools in the area can reserve seats for these events. Participating students get their own copies of an author’s book, and then they hear the author speak and get their books signed.

When I found out that Holly Goldberg Sloan was going to be a part of this fall’s Teen Author Series, I was eager to sign up for her event. Some students had read Holly Goldberg Sloan’s Counting by 7s over the summer, as part of my summer reading book pair, and they loved the funny, poignant, and sweeping story as much as I did. I knew those students would love getting to see the author in person, and I had a feeling that many other students would enjoy the book, too.

When we’ve attended Teen Author Series events in the past, we’ve gone to the Central Branch of the library, but this event was at a different branch, a little bit farther away from our school. Because the events at the Central Branch have had such large audiences, I warned my students that if the event was too crowded, we might not be able to stay long enough to get our books signed. “If there are too many people in line ahead of us, we’ll have to leave our books instead of waiting in line,” I told them. “But don’t worry–I’ll go back to pick up the signed books later.” And I didn’t want them to be disappointed if they didn’t actually get to talk to Holly, or if they didn’t get a chance to ask a question during the Q and A, so I tried to keep their expectations in check. “There will probably be hundreds of people there,” I explained. “But it will still be great to hear her speak!”

So imagine my surprise when we made it to the other branch of the library and were guided into a small room that was completely empty except for around 50 chairs and a table at the front. It ended up being just us and the students from one other school! My students refrained from asking me what the heck I’d been talking about, but they were delighted when Holly perched at the edge of the table in front of the room and talked to them–just casually, personably told them stories and talked! They got to ask all of their questions, and they each got a special moment with Holly when she signed each book. The larger library events we’ve attended have also been wonderful (I mean, you really can’t argue with a free author event that includes a free book for every student!). But I loved the intimate tone of this smaller gathering.

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Counting by 7s is a big, ambitious book, both in terms of its length and in terms of the scope of the story. There are many point of view characters whose ages span many years, and the story begins with a big, devastating event. Holly Goldberg Sloan was a screenwriter before she became a novelist, and Counting by 7s is going to be a movie; reading it, you can see how the cinematic story will work beautifully on the big screen. Holly’s YA books are similarly big and sweeping.

But during Holly’s informal talk, she not only talked about writing screenplays and novels, but she also spoke about how she enjoys poetry. She mentioned that the titles of her books can lead to some great book spine poetry and encouraged students to find books and stack them in different orders, to create small poems with the titles. She explained that sometimes, with an activity like book spine poetry, the small scope of the task (you only have book titles to work with) can lead to a lot of creativity.

As I’ve mentioned on this blog before, I’m a fan of giving students structured creative writing assignments because an assignment with tight, clear instructions can often yield amazingly creative results. I left the event thinking about the benefits of small events and small, tightly focused writing tasks and the awesome power of big programs like the Teen Author Series and big stories like the ones Holly tells.

What Works…and What Doesn’t

The first quarter of my school year ended recently, so I’ve been talking to my seventh grade advisees about how things are going so far in their classes: what they’re proud of so far this year; how they learn and work best; and what strategies they might try out in this next quarter to improve their homework, test-taking, proofreading, class participation, etc.

Those conversations have led me to do some reflection of my own. I’m currently working on the first draft of a new novel, and while it’s slowly but surely coming along and I’m  excited about it (most days), I know I could find new ways to maximize my productivity and make my drafting process go more smoothly. So I’ve been thinking about how I work best and what new strategies I might try out as fall moves into winter.

One great thing about my MFA program was that I worked closely with four different advisors, and they gave me lots of different writing techniques to try out. As I experimented with various ways of brainstorming and plotting and drafting, I learned plenty of things that work well for me, such as freewriting backstory scenes, determining a character’s controlling belief and vacuum, and figuring out a crossroads scene that my main character is moving towards.

But I also tried out some techniques that didn’t work so well for me. I like to plot out what will probably happen around the midpoint and at the end of a novel, but it just doesn’t work for me to write scenes out of order. I’ve tried to write those midpoint and ending scenes before I get to them, and I can’t do it. I know lots of people swear by writing out of order, but it makes me anxious and gets me stuck. The dynamics between characters are so important for me that I can’t seem to put my characters into a scene if I haven’t accompanied them through every stage of their journey to get there.

Similarly, I have a really hard time pushing forward with a draft if I have a new idea that influences something earlier in the story, or if I’m just feeling disconnected from a character’s voice. In both of those cases, it’s my very strong impulse to go back, re-read from page 1, and rework what’s already on the page before I keep writing new scenes. (I was relieved when I listened to Sara Zarr interview Siobhan Vivian on this excellent episode of This Creative Life and learned that Siobhan Vivian, whom I greatly admire, does something similar!)

There are times when this impulse doesn’t serve me well and I have to fight it. Sometimes I tell myself that I need to reread a bit from the beginning of my manuscript when really I’m just avoiding the next scene. But for the most part, I’m okay with this part of my process.

I’ve been talking to my students about how they learn best, and I think this is part of how I learn. I need to reconnect with the voice I’m going for from time to time, and I’m not able to say, “Oh, when I revise I’ll go back and change that, but for now I’m going to keep drafting as if I’ve made that change.” Some writers are, and that’s great. But I can’t write the later scenes as well unless I’ve had the physical experience of revising the earlier ones first.

I’m glad that I’ve come to understand some things about what works for me and what doesn’t work for me as a writer. The challenge, though, is to make sure I don’t fall into a rut and resist trying new strategies that might be difficult or tiring at first but ultimately really great (kind of like the Pilates classes that I stopped going to when my 10-class card ran out).

I know some writers who are pushing through 50,000 words of a novel for NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) right now, and I really admire them. I make modest monthly word count goals when I’m drafting, but it doesn’t feel feasible for me to write that quickly in November because of my teaching workload (and my whole I-need-to-reread-this-from-page-1-again-now compulsion). But maybe I’ll get back into the habit of trying some early morning writing sessions here and there to switch things up, and I’m going to come up with a list of things I can try if I am feeling stuck before I give in to the impulse to reread my draft from the beginning. Things like writing by hand instead, or doing a quick relaxation exercise first, or trying a timed writing sprint.

How about you? How do you work best? What does and doesn’t work for you? What new techniques could you try?

777 Challenge

I’ve been challenged by fellow VCFA alum (and Philadelphia area resident) Nicole Valentine to participate in the 777 Challenge. I’m supposed to share 7 lines of text, 7 lines down, on the 7th page of my work-in-progress. Here’s the link to Nicole’s post, where she shared seven lines from a smart and poignant middle-grade time-travel novel I’ve heard her read from a few times and can’t wait to read in its entirety!

I’m working on the first draft of a humorous middle-grade epistolary novel tentatively titled NOT SOME TRAGIC HEROINE, which features two very different main characters, Juliet and Claire. Claire is a PK (a preacher’s kid), and Jules is the daughter of two artistic parents with an unconventional relationship. Jules and Claire have been best friends throughout middle school, but now, in the spring of eighth grade, their friendship is falling apart. They used to dare each other to do silly things all the time, and in their first big fight, they each dare the other to do something huge, and completely uncharacteristic.

I’ve actually been feeling a bit discouraged and exhausted lately and have let myself take a couple of weeks off of drafting with the hope that I’d start to feel more energized before November, when I want to set a clear word-count goal and make some real progress. Nicole’s challenge came at a good time because I was just feeling ready to turn back to my draft (phew!), and this weekend I’ve been enjoying reading back through what I have so far and asking myself questions about what I want this story to be. Here’s the seven-line excerpt from page 7 (the last sentence cuts off because it continues on to line 8, which felt like cheating, and any of you who know me will know that I am nothing if not a rule follower):

           “But, I mean, it was Lucas’s idea, right?” I asked.

            She sighed and shook her head again. Her neck was probably getting achy. But that’s Claire for you. All about forgiveness. Except when it comes to herself.

            “I knew it was wrong,” she said. “I should have been a better…person.” She paused before person, and I knew what that meant. She wanted to say “Christian,” but she’d censored herself for me, because she knows it weirds me out when she gets all Jesus-y. I’m trying to be less visibly weirded out by that kind of thing, though, because…

I’m supposed to tag other writers, but I’m not sure who’s already been tagged and who hasn’t. So please consider this an open invitation to share seven lines of text, seven lines down, on the seventh page of your work-in-progress if you’d like to!