Teaching Analytical Writing: Introductions and Conclusions

Now that I’ve described the way I teach students to write the core of an essay (by constructing an essay skeleton and crafting TIQA paragraphs), I’m ready to discuss the last two essay elements: the introduction and conclusion.

Yes, the introduction comes first, and when I write my own essays, I usually start with it. But when students are learning how to write essays, I find that it works best to tackle the introduction after the body of the essay is mostly set. That way, students don’t spend time getting the introduction just right and then have to scrap it if their main points change or if they end up repeating something from the introduction in one of their body paragraphs.

The way I see it, a traditional analytical introduction has four main elements: a hook, a link, some summary, and the thesis. Here’s a document I use to teach introductions. It offers more details about these four elements, breaks down some possible types of hooks, and provides an example introduction. Students can think of the introduction as an inverted triangle with the point at the bottom; it starts somewhat general and relatable and then gets more specific.

The conclusion, on the other hand, is shaped like a right-side-up triangle with the point at the top. (Although not literally, of course. Literally it’s just shaped like yet another blocky paragraph.) Conclusions are tricky because it’s boring if they merely repeat the points of the essay without offering anything new, but it’s confusing if they suddenly bring up a brand new topic.

Here’s a document that offers some specific strategies for conclusions and includes an example conclusion. Basically, a conclusion should recap the essay’s main ideas, ideally without being too repetitive, and then it should consider the broader implications of the essay’s topic, come to some kind of evaluation of the literary work in question, and/or come full-circle back to the hook.

When I talk to students about structuring traditional, five-paragraph-or-so analytical essays, I often think back to when I was in middle school, when we were working on essays and a classmate said he already knew how to write them. “You just tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em; then you tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em; then you tell ‘em what you told ‘em,” he announced.

Oversimplified? Definitely. But in a very basic sense, my middle school classmate was mostly correct. The introduction “tells ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em.” The body paragraphs “tell ‘em, tell ‘em, tell ‘em.” The conclusion “tells ‘em what you told ‘em.” The other resources I’ve provided here offer some concrete information about how to do all that telling, and I hope they’ve been helpful! I’ll have one more installment of this series: a post that asks the question “Why teach analytical writing?” and summarizes my thoughts.

Student-Author Interview 12: Rachel M. Wilson

Today I’m thrilled to welcome the smart and charming Rachel M. Wilson for our latest student-author interview! Rachel is a fellow VCFA alum, and her debut Don’t Touch came out in September of 2014 with HarperTeen. Rachel also has a short story called “The Game of Boys and Monsters” out as a digital short from HarperTeen Impulse. Don’t Touch tells the story of Caddie, a talented actress who is struggling with OCD. Caddie’s parents have recently split up, and she believes that if she can keep from touching anyone else’s skin, they might get back together. Caddie longs to play Ophelia in her school’s production of Hamlet, but that would mean touching—and kissing—a boy named Peter.

Don’t Touch is a powerful, satisfying novel that depicts Caddie’s compelling journey and features an endearing cast of secondary characters. It also ends with one of the most compassionate, informative author’s notes I’ve ever read. Lily, Olivia, Casey, and Mary read the book and had some great questions for Rachel.

lily and oliviaFirst, here’s what the students especially liked about DON’T TOUCH, with Rachel’s response:

Lily: I like that the book is realistic fiction but there’s a mysterious side because of Caddie’s sort of magical idea that if she keeps her gloves on and doesn’t touch anybody she can make her dad come home.

Olivia: I liked how much I could sympathize with Caddie and connect with her even though her situation is unusual. I know that situations like hers really do happen.

Casey: I like how the book introduces Caddie’s phobia and how the reader gets casey and maryto experience what she’s going through.

Mary: I really like how descriptive the book is and how it describes Caddie’s feelings, especially.

Rachel: Thanks so much, you guys! It means a lot to me to hear that the book connected with you.

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

Lily: Have you ever been in Hamlet, and if so what part did you have?

I’ve never been in Hamlet, though I do LOVE the play and have seen it many times. I’ve never acted in any full Shakespeare production. In acting class in college, I did scenes as Macbeth (yes, Mr. Macbeth), Helena from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and Lady Anne from Richard III. In high school I almost had the chance to play Juliet, but I went to a small school and all the boys who might have played Romeo played basketball instead of auditioning.

Olivia: Did you base the book of off your personal experience with OCD, theater, or both? Is Caddie based on any real people you know?

I do have personal experience with both OCD and theater, though the story in the book is very different from my own. My own OCD started around age 10, and at first it had a lot to do with a fear that I might catch a disease (sometimes a fantastical disease, like, I was afraid that touching a daddy long legs spider might make my legs start growing long and never stop). Later, I had some magical thinking of my own—I had rituals like focusing on a certain color while blinking, and if I messed those up, I’d worry that something horrible would happen to people I cared about. So there’s a lot of me in Caddie, but her particular fears and her friends and family situation are made up—all of that fiction has to do triple duty in being believable, serving the plot, and serving as metaphors for what’s going on inside Caddie.

I’ve always loved theater—I love it as a storyteller, and like Caddie, I love it as a way to experiment with a different way of being. I’ve always enjoyed playing at dramatic or extreme situations that rarely happen in real life. For my younger self, playing a character who was brave or outspoken or free was almost like practice for being that way in real life.

Mary: I read the Q and A part in the back so I know that you’ve had anxiety like Caddie. I was wondering if it was hard for you to write about anxiety since you have experienced it, even though the book isn’t about you and your personal experiences?

That’s a great question, and I’m going to answer it from two different angles. On the one hand, it was a pleasure for me to write about it because I know it so well and because it’s been a big part of my experience. It didn’t cause me anxiety to write about Caddie’s, though I sometimes felt along with her when I was into a scene. On the other hand, because I am close to it, it was challenging to make sure that what was in my head was getting across on the page. When you’re writing about something you know well, you sometimes have to do more research to ensure that you aren’t taking shortcuts and that what seems obvious to you will get across to a reader who may not have direct experience with your subject.

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

That’s hard to say. I wrote twenty pages about a girl named Caddie many years before I wrote a draft of the book. When I did draft the whole book, it took about a year, but that first draft was very different from the final version—at one point, Caddie was a ballet dancer and had a manatee friend that she visited in Florida. It was a whole other story. I rewrote the book over the next year and then spent another two or three years with revision.

Olivia: What was your writing process like? When you were writing this book, did you have a writer’s group? Did you outline it?

I was in the MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts while I was first drafting the book, and my first mentor made me outline it, which I found very difficult. The final book is nothing like that first outline, but it gave me somewhere to go, and I probably wouldn’t have made it through a first draft without the outline. I wrote the book in a pretty patchwork way, working on scenes out of order, exploring in different directions, and writing new outlines each time something major shifted in the plot … Basically, I made a big mess and eventually put it back together again. I didn’t have a steady writer’s group, but I did bring pieces of the book to workshops at Vermont College, where I received helpful feedback, and I had a few friends read the whole book and give me notes.

Lily and Mary: Did people suggest that you make big changes about how you wrote the book, and if so did you listen to them? Did the plot change, either minorly or drastically, throughout the process of writing and editing the book?

Yes! As you might already have been able to tell, the book went through several pretty drastic changes before I ever tried to sell it. My first draft included many big plot threads all tangled up together, almost like I was writing two or three different books at once. My last mentor at VCFA, Martine Leavitt, gave me great guidance in focusing the plot. She suggested I pull out the threads that felt strongest and most central to the story and rewrite around those. Then, when I worked with my editors at HarperTeen, they had tons of smart ideas, especially about spending more time with several of the relationships in the book. There were some suggestions for changes along the way that I didn’t agree with—I think that’s bound to happen—but sometimes what’s bothering a reader isn’t the choice you’ve made but that you haven’t executed or supported it well enough. Sometimes instead of totally changing a scene that I liked, I was able to revise so that it worked better and earned its keep.

Lily: Would you ever write a sequel to the book or a book from a secondary character’s perspective? If so, what character’s perspective would you choose?

I doubt that will really happen, but I’ve thought about it—I’d be interested to explore what happens between Peter and Caddie next, maybe even from his point of view. If I were choosing to write a spin-off solely on the basis of fun, I might choose to do a connected story from Livia’s point of view. She has a refreshing take on the world, and I’d love to play with that more.

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

Olivia: Did you like acting when you were young? Did you go to a special performing arts school?

Yes, I loved acting. I did my first professional play in fifth grade—I was in the angel choir in The Best Christmas Pageant Ever at Birmingham Children’s Theater, and even though it was a little part with no lines, I was in heaven the entire time. The size of the stage and the audiences, the social time with the other kids backstage, and working with adults who were pros all dazzled me. We did annual plays at school, musical ones with limited spoken lines where the whole class sang songs on risers. We would get out of class for rehearsal, and I looked forward to those every year. I didn’t go to a special performing school, but my high school did have an excellent director who chose really sophisticated and challenging plays for us to do—we did Lorca’s The House of Bernarda Alba and Pirandello’s Right You Are (If You Think So). I didn’t always understand them at first, but I learned a lot by trying.

Lily: Did you like to write when you were in middle school?

Sort of. I remember my seventh grade teacher had us keep a morning journal, and I really enjoyed creating characters and stories for that. Sometimes she would have us do creative writing to support larger projects, like writing our own myths or poems, and I loved that kind of assignment. As I remember it though, our opportunities for creative writing were somewhat limited, and I didn’t think to try it on my own. I was super into visual arts and theater at the time, so I sometimes wrote graphic-novel-style journal entries or short plays for fun.

Casey: Were you ever in a writing club or anything like that?

No, I was at such a small school through 7th grade that we didn’t have many clubs. We kind of all did everything. I did work on the class newspaper, though, and that was both fun and full of drama.

Mary: Did you have a nice teacher that inspired you to be a writer or helped you figure out your career path dream?

I’ve had so many nice teachers. Thinking about middle school in particular, I remember being pulled in different directions by several supportive teachers—I was on the math team, working on special projects with the art teacher and the computer teacher, doing theater outside of school, and working on the newspaper I mentioned … In 8th grade, I started working with my new school’s theater director and with the Forensics & Speech teacher. All of these teachers were super-supportive of me and offered me a multitude of activities to try. Even though most of those activities weren’t directly related to writing, they’ve all fed my writing in one way or another. In order to write, you have to have lots of experience to draw on, so trying out a lot of different activities is a great way to go. Even now, I’m not only a writer—I’m an actor and a teacher and a freelancer with lots of odd jobs. I still believe in doing and being more than one thing, and maybe that started back in middle school.596343

Thanks so much for joining us and for giving us such thoughtful, interesting
answers, Rachel!

Readers can use the following links to find out more about Rachel and check out
some great resources for DON’T TOUCH, like a book club guide and a REALLY awesome book trailer!

http://www.rachelmwilsonbooks.com

Publisher’s book page: http://www.harpercollins.com/9780062220936/dont-touch

Goodreads: https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/13597757-don-t-touch

Book Club Guide: http://www.rachelmwilsonbooks.com/blog/book-club-guide-for-dont-touch

Book Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qs1BolrrRyw

Author photo by Evan Hanover 

Teaching Analytical Writing: Essay Skeletons

Hi there! I’m back with the third installment of my series on teaching analytical writing. Last time, I explained the TIQA paragraph, which I see as the building block of an analytical essay, and described how I give students a lot of practice writing analytical paragraphs before moving onto essays.

When it’s time to move onto analytical essays, I lay the groundwork in a couple of ways. First, I tell students about the essay topics I plan to give them as we are reading the book they will be writing about. We look out for quotes that relate to those topics together, and I encourage them to look out for additional quotes on their own. That way they’re not starting from scratch when it comes time to find quotes for their essays.

Once we’ve finished the book, I have students choose an essay topic. I can provide scaffolding for students who need it by steering them toward one of the topics we found quotes for during class, while I can encourage other students to branch out to topics we haven’t spent much class time exploring or even to come up with topics on their own.

Next, each student creates an essay skeleton. The essay skeleton includes their thesis statement, their topic sentences, and the quotes they will use in their body paragraphs. (For eighth grade I require that at least one of the body paragraphs includes a second quote and follows the TIQATIQA format. For seventh graders I don’t require a double TIQA paragraph, but some students choose to write them.)

The essay skeleton provides the core of the essay that students will be writing. It isn’t too difficult for me to give prompt feedback to each student on a thesis statement, topic sentences, and quotes, and I find that it’s worth it to look at these elements of their essays before they move forward with drafting. The bottom line is, it’s impossible to write a successful essay without a decent thesis or with quotes that don’t match up with the thesis.

So how do you teach students to write a good thesis statement? Here is my explanation of thesis statements, adapted from a handout I made for seventh graders writing essays about Howard Fast’s novel April Morning. If students are struggling to grasp thesis statements, it can work well to create some faulty thesis statements, model the process of fixing one, and then have students work together to fix another.

Interested in tips for explaining topic sentences? Here’s my explanation of topic sentences, using the same example thesis from the April Morning thesis resource. It can work well to have the class practice breaking down a model thesis into effective topic sentences before students try to write their own.

Once students have their essay skeletons, they draft their body paragraphs, using the TIQA format, and then after that, we move on to introductions and conclusions. Next time I’ll explain my reasoning for leaving the introduction and conclusion until the end, and I’ll share handouts I use for those two parts of the essay.

Teaching Analytical Writing: The TIQA Paragraph

Welcome back to my series on teaching analytical writing! Before I assign an analytical essay, I give students plenty of practice with the main building block of an analytical essay: the analytical body paragraph. I’ve tried a few different acronyms for the analytical paragraph format, such as PIE (point, illustration, explanation) or TEE + T (topic sentence, example, explanation plus transition). I now use TIQA (topic sentence, introduction of quote, quote, analysis of quote) and recommend it for students who are in seventh grade or older.

First, I remind students that analytical paragraphs show opinion, but without using first or second person, and that the convention is to use present tense to discuss the events of a literary work. Then I break down what each part of the acronym means (the starred elements are optional):

T: The topic sentence must lay out the main point for the whole paragraph. It is an umbrella sentence for the paragraph, meaning that everything in the paragraph fits underneath it.

I: The introduction of the quote establishes what has just happened before the quote, what is happening now, where the characters are, who’s involved in the conversation, etc.

Q: The quote must make sense on its own and be properly punctuated, with a signal phrase (such as “Mabel narrates”) or signal sentence (such as “Mabel explains what happens next”) before it and a page number in parentheses after it. The quote is the core of an analytical paragraph, not just an example that’s wedged into the writer’s thoughts. It should ideally be under four lines of text to avoid dealing with pesky block quote format.

A: The analysis of the quote should be the longest and most detailed part of the paragraph. In the analysis, the writer should focus on specific words and phrases from the quote and carefully explain how those words and phrases support the point from the topic sentence.

T*: The transition sentence offers a transition between the writer’s first and second quote.

I*: Introduction of quote 2

Q*: Quote 2

A*: Analysis of quote 2

With middle school students, I think it’s worth the time investment to do several practice analytical paragraphs before asking students to write a literary essay that includes multiple analytical paragraphs. I tend to follow the “I do, we do, you do” rule of teaching writing, so usually I will provide an example of a paragraph that I have written, then we will write one together as a class as I project it on the board, and then I will have students write their own. Lately I have also been doing some partnered paragraphs so that students can help each other grasp the concept.

I also provide scaffolding by providing options for topic sentences at first, because some students have a difficult time coming up with a statement that includes enough opinion and sets them up to analyze. Usually I don’t have students try TIQATIQA paragraphs with two quotes until they have mastered single TIQAs. Once they have started to practice writing these paragraphs, it’s a good idea to brainstorm lists of good verbs for analytical writing (such as show, convey, portray, depict, emphasize, hint, suggest, reveal, etc.).

It tends to take a lot of practice before students really grasp how to break down quotes into key parts and analyze them. We practice doing this in class discussions as well as in writing, and in my experience, this is a skill that most students are ready to work on in seventh grade, but in sixth grade I stick with a format like TEE + T (topic sentence, example, explanation plus transition) and don’t worry quite so much about introducing quotes with correct signal phrases or sentences or writing truly analytical explanations of quotes.

Here is a color-coded Example TIQA about the novel April Morning. Next time I’ll explain how I use “essay skeletons” to get students ready to write essays.

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!)