Six Word Stories Part 2

Who doesn’t love good six word stories? They are short and sweet.

I am so lucky to be able to visit classrooms and hang out with kids. As a writer, there’s nothing more valuable than learning from and listening to your target audience. So when I had a chance to go into my son’s sixth grade class, I decided the topic would be “brevity.” Now, I didn’t tell them that, but it gave me a framework.

Picture Books

First,  I read a short but very skillfully done picture book. You’re never too old to read a picture book and really learn about the essence of story. A picture book needs to tell a story in very few words.

ABCs

Then, we worked on a 26 word alphabet story about sixth graders. There were some funny parts, like when we included eating and farting. We had tech, including iPhone, video games and memes. One girl suggested we delete “sleeping” and write “Zzzz” – which was GENIUS. We had a lot of sports like gymnastics and karate and soccer.

 

Six Word Stories

Finally, we got to dessert: the six word story.

As I took them through the first two parts of the visit, I explained how stories build to a climax of emotion and action and then offer a resolution. I challenged them to include all of those elements in their six word stories.

Here’s what we came up with:

Kids

Last man on earth heard knock.

I am cool, you are not.

Roasted, toasted marshmallow on the fire.

Learn something!

I really loved hearing their stories. And since the main character in my current project is in middle school, I decided to write some six word stories for her.

Mine

She quit everything, until she didn’t.

She botched everything except dreaming big.

For Fun

Do you agree that a lot of six word stories sound so ominous? I love to laugh and have fun and wanted to write a humorous six word story.

Apology accepted. Now explain the bird.

Play Coin Capture!

Coin Capture

Coin Capture is a fun game that can be played on a rainy day with easy to find household materials. It also gives the players a chance to do some simple math and can be played over and over again. It’s fun for adults and kids to play together.

Ages: 6-adult

Players: 2

screen-shot-2016-10-17-at-12-46-43-pm

Object of the game

Players try to push their coins into their Score Zone. Players earn points based on the value of the coins from their team that land in their Score Zone. The player with the most points wins!

Materials

A white board

A ruler

2 different color erasable markers

8 coins (2 quarters, 2 dimes, 2 nickels and 2 pennies)

Game Setup

Use a ruler to find the middle of the white board. Draw a two lines, one of each color, down the middle of the board. coin capture game

 

Use the ruler again to divide the two halves of the board into equal sized zones. Mark off the Score Zone and Push Zone for each color.

coin capture game

 

Play

Each player gets four coins, 1 quarter, 1 dime, 1 nickel and 1 penny.

One player uses heads, one player uses tails.coin capture game

Flip a coin to decide your color and Score Zone. 

Start in your Push Zone and try to push your coins into your Score Zone.

Don’t take coins off the board until the game is over! They will get bumped and pushed around into different zones. 

Coins on the middle line don’t count for points but can be pushed into a Score Zone. 

If your coin stops in the other player’s Push Zone, they get to capture it, flip it to their team, and use it.

 

Scoring

A penny is 1 point, a nickel is 5 points, a dime is 10 points and a quarter is 25 points!

coin capture game

Winning the Game

When all of the coins have been pushed add up the amount of your coins (heads or tails) in your Score Zone and see who wins.

Advice for Writers from an Agent

In May, I attended the SCBWI Western PA Agent Workshop. I learned a lot and got some excellent advice for writers on pitches, storytelling, and revision and I wanted to share it with you!

Pitching Advice for Writers

While they need to be short, they still need to include the main character, the obstacle and some sense of resolution.

This was my pitch and it was well-received.

Short and sweet!

Short and sweet!

Storytelling Advice for Writers

  • Mirror, Mirror. Please don’t use the tired device of describing your character’s physical appearance by having your your character look into a mirror.
  • Too Much Telling takes away from action.
  • Why Should I Care? This is the feeling that readers get when they confront too much backstory. Weave it in, don’t dump it.
  • Bubble Boy or Girl. Or Alien. Make sure your characters don’t exist in a bubble. Describe the setting and use all five senses!

Revision Advice for Writers

More advice for writers covered how to revise your manuscript. Envision your manuscript as a road that your readers will travel on a wondrous journey. The first draft is like that rocky, dirty, bumpy path carved out by construction equipment. Each stage of renovation makes it smoother, easier, more pleasant to travel.

As you read your manuscript, look for places where you’ve left out setting details, where you’ve used passive voice and -ly words, and if your main character is changing. If not, go back and call in that construction crew.

Advice for Writers of Picture Books

Did you know 60% of the story should be told through illustration? That means for non-illustrating writers like myself, I should only write 40% of the tale in the text. This is an interesting way for me to examine my texts, even though I never considered myself particularly mathematical. I like the idea of making sure the larger part of the tale comes through in the art, even if that does make writing harder.

Protagonist v. Main Character v. Antagonist

protagonist

A bumble bee, cousin to my characters, hard at work

 

Protagonist v. Main Character

I’m struggling with characters in my story and their jobs. I think I have one main character and one protagonist. But I was thrilled to find this post from elements of cinema that provides great examples of stories where the main character isn’t always the protagonist, or the protagonist isn’t clear until deep into the story, or even complex stories with an ensemble cast  each going through their own struggle.

I’m working on my bee story and I want my protagonist, the one who chooses, to be my queen been.

I loved finding this post online outlining the differences between MC and Protagonist. The post author says that the main character of The Great Gatsby  is the narrator, Nick (who isn’t even mentioned in the Amazon review!!!!) while the protagonist is of course, Gatsby.

What is the job of the main character? Is just it the narrator? Not exactly. According to another writing blog I found, the main character is the one through which the reader experiences the story. The protagonist is pursuing the story goal.

So with that distinction clarified, I have decided I want my main character to be a worker bee, one who has the job of Forager. She can do tasks that set my protagonist up for the choice that is essential to the story. My main character will also have a choice or two.

Ensemble Cast

I love the idea of an ensemble cast. I’m not looking to create anything as epic as Game of Thrones, but I think I could possibly produce something approaching the Breakfast Club, where the different honeybees come together to save their Hive, which is sort of a character on its own.

http://www.publishingcrawl.com/2014/02/17/tips-for-creating-an-ensemble-cast-of-characters/

Antagonist or Villain

Now I have a problem when it comes to antagonist. I had several problems facing my sweet sister honeybees:

  1. Winter
  2. Food source disappearing
  3. A strange new kind of bee that is out to destroying them

But I didn’t actually develop a character as antagonist. I have nameless foes. I have internal conflict and external conflict, but no villain. I’m thinking I need one.

I found this site gives three good elements: vulnerability, believability and invincibility.

Part of me is thinking a drone might make a good villain. A drone would want the natural order of the hive disrupted. A drone is born only to mate with the queen and then lives off the food produced by the workers and then kicked out to die as winter arrives. A drone who likes the sweet life might not want to be kicked out to die as winter arrives. He might look for a queen who is willing to change the way she lives so that he can live his lazy, luxurious life a little longer. He might feed her desire to make her own decisions. I think he could be a good tempter who tries to entice her to give in to her selfishness…which would lead to the end of the Hive. Ok, I think I have my villain.

For more lists about villains, here are five elements. I like intelligent.

Is the Problem Bad Reading or Bad Writing?

reader symbol bad writing or bad reading

Is this innocent reader to blame?

Let’s say you’re reading a book and the author makes a reference to something and you just don’t get it. It could be a phrase, a symbol, a name. Whatever it is, it doesn’t make sense to you. Some readers might feel confused and give the book a bad review. Some readers might just skip over parts they don’t get, finish the book or story, and go on with their lives. Some intrepid readers might do a little research online to try and understand what they read. I think the worst scenario is the reader who doesn’t even know they didn’t get some understand some reference, finishes the story and says, “huh? didn’t make sense” and then leaves a bad review.

Is the problem bad writing or bad reading? Is it the writer’s fault? When is it the reader’s fault?

Binge Watching

I’ve been watching a lot of The Good Wife lately. Yes, I’ve been binge watching. But this is a darn good show. First, I love the focus on female characters. Second, the story line is strong and compelling. Third, it also explores a lot of psychology and motivation of people. Many episodes also explore the concept of blame and responsibility.

(See, binge watching can be good for writers!)

I think it would be really cool to have a courtroom style drama to explore whether bad writing or bad reading is to blame when certain parts of a story are not understood.

“You Honor, the book didn’t make any sense. No writer can expect a reader to understand the phrase Plumtree’s potted meat.”

“Objection, your honor! Any well-read reader knows that a home without is incomplete!”

[the above is excerpted from my not-yet-written one-act stage play in which James Joyce is charged with obstruction of instruction.]

Yes, I’ve been reading Ulysses and learning a massive amount from his densely symbolic writing. Let me just say it’s been quite an education. But seriously, Ulysses is an excellent example.

I don’t have the grounding in the daily life of early twentieth century Dublin to get all of his references, just as much as I didn’t get all of the references in T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland or those short stories by David Foster Wallace.

Is it really Joyce’s fault if I don’t quite get all of the things he has to say in his really excellent, moving, comical, intellectual, insightful story?

Is it bad writing or bad reading? I think in Joyce’s case, it’s not bad writing.

The condom and the burka

(Here we come to another interesting question. Do symbols really have meaning once they leave the hands of the writer? Once a writer puts a symbol in the story, they are leaving the symbol open to the interpretation of the reader. As a reader, I can imbue those symbols with something that matters to me and that something could be quite different from what the writer intended. I did this recently at my critique group where I applied a much deeper meaning to a condom and a burka than my fellow writer had intended. This is a longer discussion.)

pyramid reader symbol bad writing or bad writing

Fraught with symbolism

Bad Writing or Bad Reading?

But back to the main question. Let’s say it’s important to the story, When is a failure to understand a reference a problem with the reader’s background, or with the writer’s writing?

At a recent critique group, we faced a problem I often hear when reading someone’s work and we have the chance to question the author.

I used the name “Selene” as the name a Moon base, used the phrase “star sailor” to describe a Greek astronaut, and had a character make a claim to another character that “we are all made out of stars.”

More than one person didn’t get my references and suggested I take them out of the story. But my story is about a child celebrating Christmas in his home on the Moon. Is it my fault as a writer that they didn’t get my carefully chosen words and phrases? And if it is writer error, how can I address that?

This story about Christmas on the Moon is intended for kids and it’s meant to be a short story. I have word limits, and I think adding in things like “the moon base was named Selene because that’s the name of the Roman moon goddess and NASA has a history of naming their space projects after mythological deities” is a bit awkward for story flow.

How else do readers figure out symbols and meanings when they aren’t in English Literature classes writing papers? Maybe they won’t get it. But if they don’t get it, then they might not enjoy my story as much. But is that my problem? It could be, if it gets bad reviews or if people feel I’m a terrible writer because of it.

Maybe it’s question of finding the right audience. But wow does that feel like a gamble.

(P.S. – I just asked my husband about this and he said, “it’s your fault.” Then he said, “know your audience!”)

(P.P.S. – Then he just made a huge claim that not every symbol needs to be gotten! Then I countered that it feels so disheartening to think people would read my story and miss out on some of my favorite little symbols. And he said, “Some will, some won’t. Those that do get it will enjoy a happy accident, a little serendipity.” So I said, “it’s not serendipity when I put it there on purpose.” And he said, “touche.”)

Now what do you say?

2016 Writing Goals

Ready for some writing goals? I’m gearing up for another year of reading and writing (and running, because that helps more than you might think!) I’m not setting resolutions per se, but I do constantly set goals and work on them. I like to set a mix of short and long term goals, that way I can feel good about meeting short term ones along the way and keep up my momentum on the long term goals.

Reading helps my writing goals

Reading helps my writing goals

Reading Goals

For my reading goals, I’m going to aim for 100 books again in one year. You can find me on Goodreads and see what books I’m reading, but I generally don’t write reviews of books. I just move on to the next book. I do love working off of lists and I think this year I’ll find the list of Newbery Award winners and see which ones I’ve read and seek out the ones I haven’t. I also don’t know the criteria for the Newbery, so that will be something good to learn.

 

writing goals

Brainstorming ideas. Go crazy!

Writing Goals

For my writing goals, I plan to continue to submit my existing stories (including Dare Club, The Red Deer of Fal and Mission: Compostable!) But I want to have a new manuscript ready to pitch at conferences. I have two drafts of middle grade novels I can revise, and I think I’m going to work on my magical realism one and get that ready for the spring.

My process for the magical realism novel has been a little unusual. Here’s a brief outline:

Step 1: Write the novel during NaNoWriMo 2014.

Step 2: Let it sit for over a year.

Step 3: Ask myself “what’s funny about gaining the ability to read people’s thoughts?”

Step 4: Ask myself “what kind of character would get himself into trouble from hearing people’s thoughts?”

Step 5: Read books like Wired for Story: The Writer’s Guide to Using Brain Science to Hook Readers from the Very First Sentence and think about what people love to read.

Step 6: Attend conferences, like Pennwriters, and learn about brainstorming 20 ideas of things that could happen to your character.

Step 7: Accumulate rejections for other stories.

Step 8: Try not to think about how long it took to revise Dare Club to something I was proud to share.

Step 9: Finally sit down and brainstorm ideas in my super-creativity-enhancing notebook.

Step 10: Read a Reddit post about the pros and cons of mind-reading.

Step 11: Take a nap.

Step 12: Wake up and decide to go to Target. Suddenly get inspiration for a starting point while driving!

In this story, which doesn’t have a great title but I’ve been calling Buyer Beware, a middle school boy finds a piece of magical technology that allows him to read people’s thoughts. I know I want to tell a story that follows the lines of “what starts out seeming like an amazing discovery that will solve all of his problems and make his dreams come true eventually gets him into trouble.”

See, the story can’t be about the mind-reading device. It has to be about the kid. And for it to be something I love, the kid needs to be funny and likable, and the kid needs to mean well but screw up, and the kid needs to win in the end. I’m not the person to write about child refugees and kids dealing with horrible experiences. I’m the person to write about ordinary kids (like myself) who thought they wanted to be extraordinary and made some dumb mistakes as they figured out how to get through life.

I think I’ve got a plan, now. I think I have a problem and a desire for my main character, and a framework for things that my character will do, and how it might culminate into an interesting climax with a satisfying conclusion. If you’re interested let me know and you can critique my next draft – when it’s ready!

 

 

 

Pitching Your Writing

pitching your writing

Every day should be Coffee Day!

Pitching your writing doesn’t come easy to every writer. In fact, I have a friend who just shared on Facebook that she recently sent out her first query in a long time and “didn’t die.” Of course she didn’t die. Sending out queries should not be life threatening. But for many writers, pitching your writing is super stressful and not something that can be done everyday.

I don’t pitch every single day, but I try to pitch something every week. And sometimes I get on a big tear and pitch a lot of things in one week that keeps my monthly average high. For instance, September was a mighty busy month for me. I submitted several non-fiction pieces to children’s magazines, my novel manuscript to some carefully selected agents, and finalized my new children’s ebook for it’s October release.

Maybe you like pitching your writing is something special, that you should save up and do it big, do it right.

But I suggest you think about National Coffee Day. National Coffee Day happens once a year. If I treated National Coffee Day like some amazing holiday, I might plan a huge party, decorate my house, invite my closest friends, raise my expectations and demands to incomprehensible levels. And when the day finally arrived, if the roast was a little weak or the water not quite hot, or no one showed up at all, I could be sorely disappointed. Hopes dashed, coffee grounds strewn across the counter, stumbling around blinded by my caffeine-headache in despair.

Which is why I drink coffee every day. I don’t wait for one special day a year to enjoy it.

And that’s why pitching your writing should be an every day, or at least every week event. It doesn’t have to be the most perfect cup of coffee/article idea you’ve ever written. It should be GOOD. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggested you go about pitching your writing crap. But you shouldn’t wait for that perfect moment. Work on it as often as you possibly can. Pitch frequently. Pitch to new places. Pitch to your old favorites. Put it out there.

You need to pitch often for one important reason: so you can practice. Because pitching your writing isn’t something you’re going to be great at the first time. And if you don’t practice you’re not going to get better. I certainly was not any good at pitching when I started back in the early 2000s. But I’ve experimented, learned, practiced, learned more, taken classes and practiced even more. And I force myself to write pitches even when I’m not sure the editor is going to bite because the act of practicing pitching your writing is an essential part of being a freelance writer.

(Just like you have to practice running to get better).

So if you don’t want to send out what you think are weak pitches to editors, send them to your writing partner. But send them. Force yourself to hit send. Then celebrate with a cup of coffee or your beverage of choice. And get ready to pitch again tomorrow!

Creativity and Goals

I’m not sure what’s in store during the dog days of summer, but I definitely went through a “spring slump.” In early May after the completion of some big road races and writing conferences. Although I had plenty on my plate and managed to meet the deadlines for client projects, I wasn’t feeling the love I usually need to boost my own projects.

I didn’t fight the slump. I slid into it. And then after an indecent amount of time slumping, I slid back out. Right at the time my laptop suffered water damage. So there I was without my main means of creativity just when I’d managed to wake up my muse.

I’ve got my laptop and my energy back. And I’m tapping into two things that help me make good things. I’m hitting halfway on my book reading goal and it’s day 180 out 185 in the year. I’m running again and boosting my energy. I signed up for an art class called Zentangle that truly allowed me the chance to create a lovely little piece of art and reinforced my feelings of positive accomplishment.

How do you boost your creativity?

zentangle creativity

Getting a little creative

New Food at Pittsburgh’s Farm to Table

Open wide! New food

Open wide!

It’s almost time for the ninth annual Farm to Table Conference here in Pittsburgh! This is one of my favorite events in the city because I get to meet new people and try new food! I’m really thrilled to participate this year for several reasons. As usual, I’ll be hosting a table and selling copies of My Food Notebook, but I’m also going to unveil a new game for kids called “TASTE or TEST.” When kids visit my table they can choose to TASTE a Mystery Food or take a TEST and answer a really tough (wink, wink) question about Pennsylvania farms and agriculture. If kids are really brave, they can tackle both challenges! When a child does a TASTE or TEST, they will earn an entry into a raffle drawing for a basket of fun, healthy prizes.

I’m also going to bring this fun TASTE or TEST game into the first grades at my local elementary schools to coincide with the Farm to Table unit in the curriculum. As I work on different projects and books for children, I find that taking a look at the standards really helps. I use the PA Standards Aligned System site to see what teachers need to cover in the classroom. Then I try to make sure that the information in my games, activities and books matches the needs of the teacher.

Just because information is required doesn’t mean it can’t be fun! I know kids love learning about healthy foods because I worked with the folks from Farm to Table to create the Super Fun! Local Food Challenge assembly and have performed it in front of screaming crowds of school agers.

I think the TASTE or TEST game is going to be a hit for parents and kids, because trying a new food is a tough challenge for many people.

Trying New Foods

When’s the last time you ate a new food? And I don’t mean trying a new flavor of Triskets. I mean a new fruit or vegetable, maybe a new kind of cheese, or even a new kind of grain.

We get into habits (or ruts) where we eat the same things every day. I know personally it’s easier for me to cook familiar foods. I know how to cook them and (usually) don’t ruin or burn them. But it’s important for parents to model trying a new food if they want their kids to try a new food.

Here’s a challenge. Try to eat one new food every day. Could you do that two days in a row? Could you do it for a week? I’m thinking the next time I go to the grocery store, I could grab five new kinds of fruits and vegetables and give them a try once a day. Sounds intimidating but also a little exciting!

Parents want their kids to try new foods. I asked friends on Facebook what new foods they wished their kids would try and got a great variety of responses. Here are some of the foods:

  • Kiwi
  • Spinach
  • Peppers (red, yellow, orange, green)
  • Tomatoes (twice)
  • Rambutan (I don’t even know what this is!)
  • Mushrooms (twice)
  • Eggplants (twice)
  • Mangoes (I’m allergic)
  • Lima beans
  • Roasted brussel sprouts
  • Oranges
  • Bananas
  • Grapes

That’s a pretty good list of new foods to try! Some of those are delicious. But what the heck is a rambutan? Sounds like a new food I need to try.

Be honest now: Which of those foods have you eaten yourself? Which have your kids eaten? If you’re going to tackle this list of new foods with your family, let me know which ones they taste!

Do you think the TASTE or TEST game would be a hit at your child’s school?

 

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The Pitfalls of Freelance Writing in Pittsburgh

freelance writing pittsburgh
Pittsburgh is home to lots of creative types!

Freelance writing in Pittsburgh isn’t always perfect. In fact, it can be full of pitfalls. But what if there was a cushy landing waiting at the bottom? I love doing freelance writing in Pittsburgh. Over the past four years, I’ve enjoyed working the organizations like Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon, Cancer Be Glammed, and teli. Right now I am enjoying my freelance writing work with Farm to Table and Greater Pittsburgh Community Food Bank, as well as writing for national magazines.

Why I love Freelance Writing in Pittsburgh

I have learned a lot in my time as a freelance writer and not all of it pertains to writing. There are lots of extras, both good and bad, that come with a corporate position. Here is a quick list of seven potential pitfalls of doing a freelance writing in Pittsburgh that aren’t so bad after all.

  1. No organized community service. I miss blood drives! In my previous work in the non-profit world, the office manager always organized the blood drives and volunteering was part of my day job. It was easy and a no-brainer. Now that I’m a freelance writer I have to make my own volunteering opportunities. That could be a con, but now I have a chance to pick which causes really matter to me. I’m starting a creative writing club at our elementary school, I’m volunteering with the Food Bank and promoting healthy eating for kids.
  2. No office kitchen. I have no where to take leftover party food! When I worked in an office, I could keep extra sweets and snacks out of my pantry by donating it to the office kitchen. Problem solved. Now as a freelancer, a lot of those leftover pieces of cakes and cookies stick around the house. But as a freelance writer, I’m also not tempted to eat treats brought in by other people. No 4:00 sugar rush! And I can usually avoid the guilty obligation to buy popcorn and chocolate and wrapping paper from co-workers who are fundraising for their kids.
  3. No chit chat. Not working in an office means no water cooler talk. That’s good and bad. It means I don’t have people to bounce ideas off of easily. It means I have to use the phone, social media and scheduled meetings to share ideas and get feedback. That does require extra effort on my part. But losing the water cooler means also means I get to avoid hurtful gossip and misinformation. A definite pro!
  4. No suits. Working from home means there is no need for a business wardrobe. This feels like a real pro for me most of the time. I can do my freelance writing in my workout gear and make sure I have no excuses when it comes to running, cycling or lifting weights. It does make it hard sometimes when I need to dress for a presentation or networking event, but I think this feature has helped my budget and my overall health. I haven’t worn high heels in several months and I don’t miss that at all!
  5. No sick days. As a freelance writer, I still have to work when I’m sick. I’ve taken time off when I’ve felt really bad, but if it’s a bad cough or a sore throat, that doesn’t stop me from writing. That mean seem like a con, but the good part about not working in an office is that I don’t have to work around other sick people. Why do people insist on coming into work sick? No one’s handing out medals for coming into work on your deathbed! And since our nation has really failed to support families with excellent parental sick leave rights, I can now stay home with my sick children and keep working. That’s a real pro.
  6. No carpool. I don’t have anyone to carpool with to work. No HOV lanes for me. When I do have to drive somewhere, I am on my own. But I also don’t drive to work everyday. There are many days I don’t drive at all. That has to be a pro.
  7. No trivia club after work. It is harder to socialize now. It’s very easy to stay home, tuck into my work, and neglect personal relationships. But I am a social person and I make an effort to get out to different kinds of networking events and community activities. And I’ve also tried to prioritize friendships with people that really match my personality instead of gravitating towards someone who just happens to work in the next office. It’s been good to meet a variety of new and interesting people through my numerous freelance writing contracts but it’s also been good to explore friendships that are not related to work. I think in many ways, non-work friendships can be healthier and less stressful. There are so many great people in Pittsburgh, I don’t think I’ll ever truly lack for excellent socializing!