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What you need to be a writer!

The things you need to be a writer are simple, and yet they are complex. Read along with me as we talk about the basics of writing. Feel free to play with the teaching tips and ideas along the way.


You need to write.

That's what it breaks down to first of all. But don’t let this obvious piece of advice deter you from reading the rest of this blog. Let me explain what I mean.


All authors start with a blank page, a new document, a new notebook. The blankness of the page can be exciting. A whole universe can live in those new pages, but so too does a lot of doubt and fear. I tell my students that the blank page is their enemy. Now, this is also because their grade needs words written on paper as I have not perfected mind reading, but mostly it is because the blank page is worrisome. It in itself is perfect, and how can we hope that by releasing our imagination on the page it will live up to it.


So the only solution is to write. Write whatever comes to mind. Personally, this is why I like writing on a computer as it makes it easier to go back and edit as you write.


How to Start:

Authors start in many places. Some start by filling pages and pages of background information of their story. These are the planners of the world. I like them. I aspire to be them. I am not them.


Some people start with nothing. These are the people flying by the seat of their pants. The pansters. I am not one hundred percent sure where this word has come from, but have seen it used most often in NANOWRIMO communities, so I will make a leap and assume it came from there.


Panthers just let the words come as they are. This can be scariest, and hardest for students. They have to believe not only will the words come when called on, but that the characters and the story will help you through.


More than a few students in almost a decade have looked at me like I was crazy when I tell them the characters tell me what they are going to do. “But you write them?” they’ll ask. And I nod. They don’t always do what I was expecting, and that is the fun of writing them. They live like real people and make decisions as they come.


One of the best tricks I have found for getting the words on the page, and the characters into life is to set a timer. I set a timer for ten minutes and I write as much as possible without stopping. I do not worry about spelling errors or punctuation. If I get a new idea in the middle of the ten minutes I begin writing that. When the ten minutes are up I no longer have a blank page, and I can go back and edit what I have created.


The speed of writing helps my brain to not think about the end result. It forgets about perfection and just dives into the deep end of writing. I am always amazed at what I have come up with during these moments, and, as an author, sometimes annoyed that I have to go back and change plot points because what I just wrote I like better than what I had planned.


In writing there are so many things to control, but draft one, doesn't need to be one of them. Our first thoughts are often tied to what others think about us. We worry about what others will think, before it is even written. We worry about how the characters will be received, before they even act. It is nice to give into the creative mind that does not fear a critique because they are so deeply entrenched into writing. It is when we are free to write.


Now I, myself, even after years of writing (and ADHD meds), can only turn off this editor for a maximum of twenty minutes. I find high school students max out around 10 minutes. But in that amount of time the average high school student (based on my averages over the years) has written around 200 words which is roughly two thirds of a double spaced page, and after a break can be repeated several times within a class period.


**Teaching note** I have kept class records of the average number of words written, and total by the class throughout the year and displayed it for the class to see. It gives students a way of seeing they are getting better as a group without having to call out a student who wrote a few words. As they get better at the practice of word sprints, I often report my word count and challenge students to beat it. In the past I have given out prizes for the most words when we first start to try and encourage students to not listen to their inner editors and dive in deep. I usually follow a day spent doing word sprints with another day working on revising (but that’s for another blog)**


I find that these exercises help me the most when I am a combination of a planner and a panster. The planster, if you will. I do like to have some of my characters pre-made. I like to have a direction to go with the plot, and generally an ending I am striving towards, but I like to let the characters take me on a journey.


Having the outlines of a plan allows for your brain to skip over things like the arduous process of picking names for characters, and just focus on what they are doing. It also allows those characters a little room to discover new things as your brain churns out content. And if you hate it, you can get rid of it later.


Drafts, like people, are always a work in progress.


But what else do writers need?


Writers need to read


Don’t know where to start? Read. Read. Read.

Read in the genre and age group you are trying to write. Read out of the genre and age group you are trying to write. Read popular books, read old classics. There are so many things reading can teach about writing.


Things like structure, pacing, characters, etc. I can generally tell after the first writing assignment of the year which of my students read a lot. Not that their peers are not good writers, but right out of the gate those that have spent a lot of time reading have an advantage. They generally understand the rules of dialogue, pacing, etc. They pick up new ideas faster as they have a reference point in their minds. Everyone can be a writer, just as everyone can be a reader.


**Teaching note** In past years I have had students compile lists of what kinds of stories they like, characters they like, genres, etc. Then I have made them each a personalized reading list of books I think they might enjoy. I try to make these books stretch themselves in one way or another. For instance, if I have a student who generally reads slice of life fiction stories about LGBTQIA+ characters, I might introduce them to a book like Six of Crows where they can find characters they enjoy, and see a new type of genre. Note: I tend to recommend Six of Crows by Leigh Bardugo to all of my students at some point. It is fantastic as a mentor text and most school libraries have it, and with the Netflix adaptation it can also hook some reluctant readers. If this list seems hard don’t fret, many of my students' lists were VERY close to each other. You can also work with your librarian (if your school is lucky enough to have one). I then have students read at least one of the books from the list as their own mentor text. There is a ton you can do with reading and writing. Let me know if you want more ideas.


Reading and Writing are the obvious, any blog will tell you that. But what else do you need?


Creativity:

Notice I did not say imagination. That is part of creativity, but creativity is the amazing ability to do the following things.


Think on your feet

Adapt

Commit

Be bold


So how does one improve their creativity? Just like anything you want to improve, creativity needs practice. Practice in a million different ways. And it should be FUN.


We play a lot of games in my classroom. We call them creative breaks, and I love to explain to kids how they are flexing their creativity muscles and actually changing their brains when they participate. These games are things you can start outside of a classroom setting too!


Easy starter games are things like:


  1. Looking at a basic shape and completing the drawing. Students have turned circles into noses, bikes, flowers, planets, musical instruments, birds, you name it.


  1. Writing challenges such as, “start 15 sentences with the phrase Green is…. And see what you come up with,” “Write a paragraph without using the letter E,” or “write a story where every sentence is a different amount of words”


  1. Rolling a story die or using story cards to tell a story on the spot.


  1. The instant hit game “ummm actually” Umm actually is a game where I show them an odd object (often from history) and they have to come up with a convincing answer. I tell them the more details, the more I believe them. An answer might sound like this: “ummm, actually Ms. Bray, that is a 1834 hair regrowth system. After wearing all of those powder wigs, hair actually began falling out in chunks, which was embarrassing to say the least to the court. To combat that they wore these on their heads while they slept to encourage air flow to the scalp.”


These games take less than a minute and they work on all of the strategies above. As a lover of theater, and maybe you are too, I love that these same strategies are improv strategies. Improv teaches us the rule “Yes, and” and that rule works wonderfully in writing. It means that we say yes to whatever come up and we build on it. We adapt, we move forward. It is a skill that has not only helped me in theater and writing, but in life.


Now, no one is saying that a writer has to take an improv course. Many of us are introverts after all, but improv games can be spectacular for jump-starting your creative mind.


Not ready to hit the stage yet? Try some of these activities


  1. Try = Love is like _______________ because…

    1. This activity works best with random words in the blank. Then you have to come up with a reason that love is like that thing. *Love can be swapped out for other things (life, death, school, war, etc.). It will look something like this: “Love is like a blackboard, cause even after years of cleaning, there are still remnants of everything that has ever touched it.

  1. Characters in an elevator:

    1. This works best with a partner. Have two characters from different stories get stuck somewhere together. How will they react? How will they adapt? Find out! *Teaching Note: This is a fun game to play with students sharing google docs to create their conversation. You can have 3-4 students writing on the same document. It is hectic, but can be a lot of fun to hear the giggles across the room. Always have them share with you as well so you can monitor (and join in on the fun)


It may seem simple: Write, Read, Create, but all of these things take time.


No draft is perfect the first time.


No creation is wrong.


No writing is pointless work.


Writing is a marathon. (Personally I want it noted that I have never, nor will ever, run a marathon. I will cite severe asthma as a cause, but really I just hate running)


I do not hate, however, the writing journey.


Keep it up.

Write me a comment or contact me if you want to talk more!


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