Category Archives: Teachers

Tips for November Writing Challenges

It’s almost November—do you know what that means? Many writers are getting ready for fun challenges, like NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month). The goal is to write at least 50,000 words of a novel in November. When I first learned about NaNoWriMo, I didn’t think I’d be able to participate because I was finishing a revision on a middle grade novel. On November 7th, I completed my revision and thought of a shiny new idea. By the end of November, I ended up with over 60,000 words! As awesome as that was, I’ve learned that it’s better to have more than just an idea. Fleshing out my concept and making sure I have important plot points in mind really helps (even though it’s possible they’ll change as I get to know my characters better). Some people love to outline, but I’ve never been a huge fan of it for my work. My favorite tool is Joyce Sweeney’s Plot Clock. Here’s a post about it, and here’s another post that shows a picture of the Plot Clock.

ywp_logo-NaNoWriMo

Calling all teachers—did you know that there’s a NaNoWriMo Young Writers Program? Check out their Resources for Educators, where you’ll find their free classroom kit, lesson plans, and Virtual Classroom how-to. You can also find out how to connect with fellow educators.

If you want to participate in NaNoWriMo, but don’t know what to write about yet, here’s a post that can help you come up with new ideas.

Here’s a link to a helpful interview with author Dorian Cirrone. She has fantastic advice for brainstorming high concept ideas, how to come up with a great beginning, plus a writing exercise. Check out Dorian’s blog for her series on Ten Ways to Generate Ideas.

A lot of middle grade novels are way less than 50,000 words…so how can you write a middle grade novel and still be a NaNoWriMo winner? Well, I think anyone who makes great progress on a novel is a winner. Reaching the end of a first draft in one month is definitely a reason to dance around the room and treat yourself to some kind of special celebration (maybe delicious chocolate, a fun outing with family members you haven’t spent much time with because you were so busy writing, or possibly a massage to un-hunch your shoulders after all that hard work). After celebrating, I like to dive back in and hit that 50,000 mark. Here are a few ways that I’ve accomplished that:

  1. My first drafts used to have lots of dialogue, but only a small amount of description. To beef up my word count and add important sensory details, I’ve looked for areas that could use fleshing out and added more description to them. I’d often have to cut a lot of it in the first few rounds of revision, but loved how many gems I was able to keep. Find what you often lack in your first drafts (maybe it’s dialogue, you don’t increase tension enough, etc.) and see where you can add it into your draft.
  2. If you think a sequel could work for your story, jump in and start writing it to reach your 50,000 word goal. Just try not to get too invested in it, because any changes you make to the first novel could cause huge changes to any future ones—but it can’t hurt to play around with it. You might find ideas that could enhance your first book!
  3. Beginnings are so hard to get right, that I’ve gone back to write a bunch of different beginnings. Don’t be afraid to start in a completely different place. If you’re not sure which one is best for your novel, polish your favorite beginnings up after NaNoWriMo is over, then share them with your critique group or writing friends and see if there’s a clear winner.
  4. You could also start a new novel! Hopefully, you’ll have some ideas fleshed out and ready to go.

If you get stuck while working on your new project, here’s a link to Tricks to Defeat Writer’s Block.

For those of you who also write picture books, check out Tara Lazar’s PiBoIdMo (Picture Book Idea Month) where the goal is to come up with at least thirty shiny new ideas during the month of November. Then, you have plenty of ideas to choose from whenever you want to write a new picture book throughout the year.

If you have any tips to share or questions to ask, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you. Good luck with whatever goal you’re working toward this November. I hope the words flow!

Mindy Alyse Weiss writes humorous middle grade novels with heart and quirky picture books. She’s constantly inspired by her two daughters, an adventurous Bullmasador adopted from The Humane Society, and an adorable Beagle/Pointer mix who was rescued from the Everglades. Visit Mindy’s TwitterFacebook, or blog to read more about her writing life, conference experiences, and writing tips.

Day of the Girl Child

Last year we were very happy to help  Katie Quirk celebrate the publication of her wonderful middle grade novel, “A Girl Called Problem”.  Set in Tanzania, the story centers on a 13 year old girl who longs to help her family and people by becoming a healer. In a starred review, Kirkus said   “Quirk’s debut novel for children gives readers an intimate view of rural Tanzania in the early 1970s through details of daily life, folklore, family dynamics and spiritual beliefs.”

GCP cover high resKatie is back today to celebrate  a day declared by the United Nations as The International Day of the Girl . Here’s Katie:

October 11th marks an exciting day for young people. It’s the third annual United Nations International Day of the Girl, and it’s not just the UN that is celebrating girls. Increasingly, development organizations around the world are learning that if you want tofight injustice or poverty in communities that are struggling, don’t waste your time trying to enact change with local government, or even with adults in general. Instead, empower the girls in those communities. Provide them with access to quality education and healthcare, and before you know it, those same girls will be paying their privilege forward, making life for everyone better.

unThis notion that girls are one of the most powerful forces for change in the world makes for a pretty compelling story, a story which is increasingly popping up in middle-grade literature. A Girl Called Problem is set in late 1960s Tanzania, right after that country achieved its independence from Britain. The main character, Shida, is a spunky, 13-year-old girl. Shida has dreams of attending school and becoming a healer, but she also faces some pretty formidable odds: her father is dead; hermother is so depressed people label her a “witch”; everyone reminds Shida that no girl has ever grown up to be a medicine man; oh, and her name translated from Swahili literally means “Problem.” To make matters worse, when Shida starts going to school, fellow villagers and even one teacher say girls shouldn’t be there. These naysayers go so far as to blame girl students for cursing their village and causing the death of a child. Fortunately Shida isn’t a kid who easily gives up, and when the village is on the brink of collapse, Shida and another girl student prove critical to their community’s survival.

Although A Girl Called Problem is quite simply a coming-of-age mystery about an unyielding kid, it is also a celebration of exactly what the U.N. is honoring on October 111th: the world waking up to the notion that when girls are empowered to learn and lead, everyone benefits.

Other Books and Videos to Celebrate International Day of the Girl

Because many of the challenges faced by girls around the world involve them having their childhoods eclipsed through early marriage and sexual violence, books about girls facing and overcoming injustice tend to be for the young adult audience (Sold by Patricia Cormick, for example). Nevertheless, there remain a number of other great resources for middle-grade readers.

Fiction: 

The Breadwinner by Deborah Ellis is the story of an eleven-year-old girl in Afghanistan who, under Taliban rule, is forbidden to go to the market, attend school, or even play outside. When her father is hauled off for having a foreign education, Parvana is forced to disguise herself as a boy and to take on the task of breadwinner for the family.

breadwinner

Also Known As Harper by Ann Haywood Leal is the story of a fifth-grade girl and poetess who is forced to skip school when her alcohol-abusing father walks out, her family moves into a motel, and her now-desperate-for-work mother needs her to stay home to watch her little brother. It’s a good reminder that kids in developed countries face challenges that keep them away from school, too.

 Beatrice’s Goat by Page McBrier and Lori Lohstoeter is a picture book based on a true story of a girl in Uganda who longs to go to school, but whose family doesn’t have the money for schools fees. Then her family receives a goat, and with the milk and the bits of income that follow, good health and even Beatrice’s dream of going to school come true.

Non-Fiction

 I Am Malala: How One Girl Stood Up for Education and Changed the World (Youth Edition) by Malala Yousafzai with Patricia McCormick is the inspiring story of the world’s youngest ever Nobel Peace Prize Nominee. Encouraged to stand up for her belief that all children should have the right to attend school, Malala was shot in the head while riding home on a bus after school but, as we all know, even that shot didn’t stop her.

malala

Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists by Jeannine Atkins profiles six women, including Rachel Carson and Jane Goodall, who became important scientists, writers and teachers. The book describes how they were sometimes discouraged from pursuing their interests, but how they persevered and went on to play an important role in how we think of the natural world today.

Fatty Legs: A True Story by Christy Jordan-Fenton and Margaret Pokiak-Fenton isthe tale of a brave young woman who in the 1940s leaves her Inuit village for a residential school to pursue her dream of learning to read. There she is relentlesslyharassed by a nun, but she manages to stand up for herself.

Let’s Celebrate!

So on October 11th, help us celebrate girls everywhere: delve into an inspiring story or video about girls facing insurmountable odds, write a letter, make a donation, grab the hand of a girl you know who could use a little encouragement, and celebrate the power of girls to transform our world.

Mentors that matter

This morning I started working in the ASPIRE program at my local high school to mentor juniors and seniors through the college application process. It’s much more daunting to get into college these days and since I’ve been through the process with three of my four children it seemed like a natural fit. It has also gotten me thinking about all the people who have mentored me and my children over the years.

The one person who has mentored me more than anyone in my professional life is my cousin Kathleen Delaney. She has spent her entire teaching career in some of the lowest income schools in the Chicago area. She has told me stories about her students my entire life–stories about the ones that have inspired her, worried her, made her laugh, made her cry, and sharpened her understanding of the injustices so many face every single day. This August as she was preparing for the school year she stepped across the hall to introduce herself to a new teacher in her building. She was met with a shout of joy and a warm embrace from this new teacher.

The woman had been an 8th grader in my cousin’s school decades ago. Kathy taught 6th grade and after school she coached the girl for the district speech competition. They chose the address of Chief Seattle from 1854 and worked on it together after school for several weeks. Before the competition my cousin gave her the picture book version of Seattle’s speech written by Susan Jeffers. What she didn’t realize at the time was that the girl’s family had come to this country illegally. The mother was struggling to raise five of kids on minimum wage. That book was the first one the girl had ever owned. The first book anyone in her family had owned. They read it until it fell apart. 61gaPRmd8hL._AA160_This girl decided to become a teacher, in part because of my cousin’s example. Her younger brothers and sisters who had Miss Delaney in 6th grade reported that she was the “hardest” teacher in the school, the one who assigned the most homework. She was the one who believed that they could do all that work, even though they were new speakers of English.

This former student took her college classes one at a time over many years because her immigration status made her ineligible for financial aid. But she stuck to her goal year after year and now after all this time, she and my cousin will be teaching side by side. I’ve done author visits for my cousin in recent years and her students are quick to tell me that she is still the hardest teacher in their school. They feign agony in reporting all the writing assignments she’s given but it’s easy enough to see their pride underneath all that complaint. Some of them come voluntarily to school an hour early every day to work in her room before school starts.images

I mention all this at the start of the school year because my cousin cheerfully points out that there is nothing unusual about her. Most teachers mentor students before and after school. Many have very high expectations for even their most impoverished students, and almost all of them give away hundreds of books over a teaching career. So this is my thank you to all of you for all you do to change lives, to raise up one literate generation after another, and encourage those who enter school powerless to leave it with something to contribute to the world. It’s easy to get discouraged and in the minutia of daily work and lose sight of your power.

You make history every day. When a child learns to read, you change that entire family’s economic fortunes forever. Our economy cannot function without you.  I’m grateful–to my own teachers, my children’s teachers and all of you everywhere who work with students wisely and generously every day. Thank you!