Story Bite 32: Words On a Page

For many students who struggle to write, coming up with an idea—or even a sentence—feels like one of the biggest challenges. Often, writers are told to just get words on a page, and the rest will come. But what if your initial words look pitiful and nothing else comes? Bolstering your confidence is a crucial part of getting started. And here’s one way to do it:

Write a simple, three-word sentence. Then ask yourself questions to figure out what might come next.

Let’s come up with a few sentences (remember just three words!):

Snow is falling.

My dog snores.

Music is loud.

In general, you don’t have to stick to just three words. But in doing this exercise, trimming sentences to just three words will make the writer think about what’s most important in that sentence. Each trimmed, three-word sentence will sound a bit like poetry, like a haiku. The simplicity of such a sentence holds so much promise too.

Once you have your three-word sentence, start asking yourself questions about it, questions like these:

Snow is falling.

  • What does the snow feel like? Is it cold? Light? Wet? Heavy?
  • Who is feeling the snow? Why are they out in the snow?
  • Or is someone watching the snow from inside? Where? What does it feel like where they are?
  • What are they thinking while watching the snow or being in the snow? Do they need to go somewhere? Or are they happy, about to play?

My dog snores.

  • Where is the dog? Where is the speaker? Is the speaker in the same room, or watching from another place?
  • What’s going on around the dog?
  • What does the dog look like? Fur? Size?
  • Is the dog having a dream, or sleeping peacefully?
  • Is the dog about to wake up? From what?

Music is loud.

  • Does the speaker like the fact that music is loud, or not? How would the speaker describe music, in positive or negative terms?
  • This is a general statement, so bring it to the present. Who or what is playing music right now?
  • How is the speaker, who has already observed that music is loud, reacting to music in the present?
  • Where is the speaker now? How does the speaker feel being in that space?

There are so many directions to go with these questions, but once the writer has them, they should provide some help in getting started, and hopefully help the writer begin to think of a story.

Come up with your three sentences, ask yourself as many detailed questions as you can about them (feel free to use variations of my questions if you’re stuck), and then add the answers after the sentence. For example:

Heavy snow is falling. A thick white carpet covers the ground, and it’s calling to me. Inside, at the warm table, I rest my chin in my hand and focus on the snow, not my homework spread before me. I wish I could go out. But I can’t. Not until I finish. Mom says my grades have to be better before I can go out and play.

I hope this writing tip is useful! Happy writing!

Story Bite 31: Mentor Books

As I always say at my school talks, mentor books are crucial for me as an author. I read widely, but these favorites always encourage me, teach me, or just lift my spirits when I’m struggling for inspiration. Mentor texts can be useful for writers of all ages, so I hope this story bite will be helpful for everyone!

A boy looks up in fear yet with a brave pose to a huge black horse rearing over him, the red-haired rider looking down, with rooks ringing the trees. The title: The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper.

The Dark is Rising by Susan Cooper has always been one of my mentor books. I love how Cooper builds tension and a sense of pure menace, starting with the very first chapter.  Here’s the book’s  incredible new cover art by Justin Hernandez, which represents the story’s feel perfectly.

So let’s talk about mentors books! Start here:

Choose a book you love, one that inspires you, that makes feel excited or full of ideas when you put it down. Write down three things you love about it. (For instance, the characters, the pacing, and the prose.) Go into those topics a little deeper: What do you like about the characters? Which was your favorite and why? What are some of your favorite sentences?

Once you’ve gone deeper into your answers, think about how you could apply those qualities you admire to your own writing.

Did you love the story? What excited you most about what this author did? Was it a character? A twist of the plot? Family relationships? What made this book so wonderful for you? Write down what you love about your mentor book. Add as many details as you like!

Next, ask yourself about the characters. Did you love a character because they were brave or funny or had a wonderful distinctive voice? Think of a character from your own imagination (including books you’ve read, movies you’ve seen, people you’ve known) who is brave or funny or whatever hooked you with your mentor book’s character, and think about their distinctive voice. Try writing a paragraph in that voice.

Did you love how particular sentences describe a scene or advance the action? Examine those sentences in your mentor book. Look at the author’s word choice. Notice the author’s technique and write down what it is (short sentences to build tension? a few words of lush description to set a scene?). Copy your favorite sentences in your notebook. Now examine them closely. Practice writing something similar yourself.

Paying close attention to what made your mentor book special for you is a perfect way to find inspiration if you’re struggling to come up with an idea or are stuck in the midst of a piece of writing. Once you’ve written why a mentor text was so powerful to you, you’ll have a sense of how you can improve  your own work.

Good luck, and happy writing!

Story Bite 30: To an Empty Page

I hope this writing tip is especially fun for students who struggle to get started on writing assignments.

Imagine that you’re having trouble writing. Write an angry letter to your blank page. Let it all out!

an empty lined page with a black pen

How do you feel about the writing assignment that you’re struggling with? Do you wish that you could find an idea? Or do you wish that you could toss this assignment out that window? Share that, in as colorful words as you like!

What does the page look like to you? Describe it—and describe how you feel about it. Does it seem to be mocking you? Is it haughty in its blankness? Or is it pristine and beautiful, hopeful and pure? Feel free to be as earnest, angry, or sarcastic as you like.

What is this blank page doing to you? Think of hyperbole (an exaggeration of what’s really happening). Is it holding you hostage? It is hypnotizing you? Is it ignoring you? What do you want to do in response?

Pick any or all of these to write about, and then add a conclusion. Make this a farewell, a wish…or maybe the first line of a hypothetical assignment!

Happy writing!

Story Bite 29: Word Inspirations and Character Creations

This month’s writing tip involves taking a delightful (and perhaps unusual) word and creating a wholly original creature based on it.

The word is crepuscular.

A twilight scene, trees with a misty blue sky

This word is used to described an animal or another kind of creature that’s active in the twilight. Your task: Invent an animal (a monster, if you like) that represents this.

What’s the first thing that comes to mind when you hear or say that word? How does the sound of that word make you feel?

What does the definition make you think? (And what does the night, or twilight, mean to you?)

Is this a scary creature, something dangerous? Or a kind, friendly creature?

What kind of features does your creature have that enables it to belong in the twilight or night? (Think about characteristics of nocturnal creatures in our world.)

Come up with your creature, and then write a description:

  • What it looks like (its skin, fur, or features; general shape; number of legs, etc.)
  • What it sounds like (its call or the sound of its walk)
  • How it moves
  • What it eats
  • What it cares about most in the world (what does it want?)

Now, that last part turns this creature into a character (that happens once you bring in wants and needs). And that could be the start of a story.

Care to keep going? I think you should!

Happy writing!

Rough Times and Reader Impact

(Content warming: suicide)

I originally wrote this post (and shared it in my enewsletter) close to the start of the school year, when a tragedy struck my small town:

A teenager had disappeared and was found dead. It had a huge impact on everyone in my community, even those of us who didn’t know the boy or his parents.

As we’re nearing the end of this school year, I’ve been thinking about that poor boy, and all the other kids in communities nationwide who are struggling with something. This time of year is tough for many kids for a lot of reasons. I’ve been thinking about how that pertains to writing and, specifically, writing for children.

When I start musing like this, I often think of  John Gardner’s The Art of Fiction, a book I read when I was a teenager. I’m paraphrasing, but it was along the lines of: Write stories that help people who are a crisis point in their lives find ways to live.

As a children’s author, I’m always thinking about the impact my work will have on its readers. I want it to be a positive one. I want kids to see themselves in my characters, and to feel that someone understands.

I’m finishing up the final revision of a new novel, which includes a scene that I’m very pleased with: one in which my young protagonist, who has done some things that once made her proud but which she now realizes could be evil, has to come to terms with her actions. I remember that when I was first writing this novel, I’d struggled with that scene to get it just right. I ended up making two big changes to it: One, I have her come out and say what she was thinking to an adult; and two, I have multiple adults, at different times and in different ways, tell her that it’s okay to make a mistake, that she’s of value, and that she’s loved.

My son (now in high school) often remembers details and scenes from middle grade books he read years ago. I hope these scene and the message they convey will, in a similar way, stay in my readers’ minds for years to come. I want these scenes to be something that my readers can call up during rough times in the future and remember: It’s okay. There are options. They are loved.

Libraries and Bookshop Runs

Books are crucial in Secret of the Shadow Beasts. They provide an essential escape for Nora and the Order of the Hawk whilst they’re on duty, but also during training. Library time is an important part of every day, and Nora often uses this time to read up on her new world and try to learn.

Midway through the book, Cyril takes Nora to a bookshop to try to help her feel better about something horrible that’s just happened. Archie, the bookshop owner, choses books for her fellow knights. In later scenes, the Order of the Hawk talks about their books.

For each of those books, I had an author in mind. I’ll let my characters speak (from page 205) and share what books in this real world might have been these much-needed reads:

“So far, most of the characters in mine have died and turned into zombies, except the heroine, who’s been ripping them apart.” Eve grinned. “It’s fabulous.”
—For Eve’s grimdark fantasy, I was actually thinking about Justina Ireland’s Dread Nation, so this is a pretty accurate description!

“Mine’s about Vikings invading a bug-infested town that uses bugs in its defenses. It’s the grossest thing I’ve ever read and I love it.”
—Cyril’s graphic novel would absolutely be written and illustrated by Ben Hatke. I had the humor and heart of his Mighty Jack series in mind when I wrote this description.

“Mine’s sweet and powerful. The protagonist’s trying to run her family’s bakery, and everything’s going wrong.”
—Tove’s gentle romcom starring a trans girl was, in my mind, a variation of Kevin Panetta’s and Savanna Ganucheau’s graphic YA Bloom.

Amar doesn’t talk very much about his book, but it’s all about Brannlandian history by an authority in the subject. Amar likes his history strong, and so Magnus Magnusson’s Scotland: The Story of a Nation is the parallel I had in mind.

I created Nora’s book—The Umbrae: Nature’s Perfect Revenge— to tie into her world, so there’s no real equivalent in ours. But I’m sure you’re see covers like this: pink, sparkly, and over-the-top. Maybe some of those in our world are hiding secrets too.

Outtake 1: Secret of the Shadow Beast

“Everyone talks about my first battle when I became a Legendary. I was only seventeen, but no one got bit. I was so used to fighting out there with them as their senior knight, and then there I was, sitting in the car, telling them how to manage, but not out there with them, which…” [long pause] “…I managed.” [pause] “As I said, no bites.”

—Sophie Moncrief, Legendary, Order of the Oak, The Noye’s Hill Interviews (internal)

In a later draft of Secret of the Shadow Beasts, I had a snippet like this at the start of every chapter: interviews with every knight and every Legendary at Noye’s Hill, the training ground. I did this to deepen characters and highlight aspects of the world. And also to flesh out these characters and that world. Part of my goal with this novel was to depict every character as real, to know clearly who they were and what they cared about. These snippets helped with that.

The problem, though, with snippets like these for every chapter, is that they slowed the action (assuming people read them!). And so I cut nearly all of them, keeping only the interviews with the major characters (the Order of the Hawk, including Lucy Ahn, the knight Nora was replacing, and Murdo).

I was sorry to cut this one, though. This gives voice to a character that some readers may find challenging. I originally had this quote late in the novel, after the reader learns secrets about Sophie that would create that opinion. In writing this, I hoped that readers would better understand the pressures Sophie was under, what her world was like, and, hopefully, gain a little sympathy for her. This snippet shares an aspect of Sophie’s character and what she carries. If you’ve read the book, you’ll know what I mean.

World Read Aloud Day is Coming!

World Read Aloud Day with Diane Magras: Wed, Feb 1, 2023

I’m so excited to once again be offering virtual visits for World Read Aloud Day: Wednesday, February 1, 2023! It’s been a joy each year to meet your wonderful classrooms and connect with your students. I have a full-time job, so I can’t afford a complete day of visits, but I’m taking a bit of time off to meet with a few classes or library groups.

This sign up form will give you a chance to sign up for a visit from me! Just pick a slot from the list and let me know when will be the best time for you (first come, first serve). The actual visit will be 15-20 minutes, and will include a read-aloud from one of my books, a Q&A with students, and a few book recommendations from me. My WRAD presentation is best for grades four through seven.
To make the most of WRAD, please share the book you choose with your class beforehand (or at least the trailer, which you’ll find on the linked pages below). I’ve found that students who are familiar with my work get the most out of these visits and really enjoy asking detailed questions about the book. Having such questions answered by the author can be very powerful for students.
Thank you, and I’m looking forward to meeting with your class!

Coming Event: The Bath Book Bash!

On Saturday, September 17, 2022, I and other New England authors will be appearing in person at the Bath Book Bash at the Patten Free Library in Bath, Maine. From 11 am to 4 pm, this will be a fabulous day with authors and illustrations giving talks and presenting on panels, as well as signing books and chatting with readers. (And there will be food trucks, music, and more!)

I’ll be presenting a monster-building writing exercise, as well as participating in a middle grade fiction panel. If you’re in the area, I hope you can join me!

Secret of the Shadow Beasts: Teachers’ Guide!

On this busy weekend, I’ve been getting a lot done. As well as the trailer  for Secret of the Shadow Beasts (see this post), I’ve finally managed to finish up my Teachers’ Guide for the book:

I decided to do something a bit different this time around. Secret of the Shadow Beasts is packed with themes—so many, in fact, that in the months running up to its publication date, I was often thinking about those themes and not the absolute fun of the book. I wanted to list those themes on paper, once and for all, in a productive way. It turns out that naming the biggest of those themes (Leadership, Environmentalism, and History) made for some fantastic discussion questions or writing prompts. And there was room for some fun themes (Books and Food) in there too. I had great fun posing questions for each one.

I also wanted to honor my son’s creation of Warriors of the Frozen Bog, the video game that features so prominently in Secret of the Shadow Beasts. I made that into a creative writing exercise, inspired in part by some incredible writing on gaming that I’ve seen from kids. The ugly-cute caps that feature in the book provided a place for a creative (and potentially quite wild) art exercise. And there’s even a recipe for a literal “taste” of what the characters eat!

This Teachers’ Guide has, I hope, enough weighty content to be useful in a rigorous classroom, but also enough relaxing and fun content too—rather like the book itself! I hope it’s useful in the classroom—traditional and homeschool too.