Improve Your Introductions and Conclusions in Non-fiction Writing

by Jeanette F. Chaplin

I recently discovered I’m a cruciverbalist. It’s chronic, incurable, and inoperable. Don’t worry, it’s not contagious. But it’s probably terminal. And it has absolutely nothing to do with the subject of this blog post, which is the whole point.

The purpose of this somewhat puzzling introduction was to get your attention. Using a word that is probably unfamiliar is one way of doing that. I “hooked” you in one of two ways: either you didn’t know the word and read on to learn the meaning, or you know the term because you are one. In that case, you decided to keep reading to see what I have to say about a topic that already interests you. Or, I may have lost you while you left to look up the word.

For your enlightenment:

cruciverbalist [ kroo-suh-vur-buh-list ] noun.  a person skillful in creating or solving crossword puzzles

Two of the most challenging aspects of writing non-fiction are effectively introducing the topic and wrapping it up satisfactorily when you’re done. The trick is to find a natural and interesting way to lead into the topic in the beginning and close it off at the end.

Movies do this quite well. A classic example is The Princess Bride. The opening and closing scenes have nothing to do with the actual story (although some might challenge that statement). The well-meaning grandfather comes to read to his ailing grandson. After watching the story that’s enacted, the viewer is returned to the modern-day scene and Peter Falk excuses himself with, “As you wish.”

Using a narrator to tell the story can be useful, but it has been overdone and doesn’t lend itself too well to non-fiction. One way to make this “bookending” happen is to connect a seemingly unrelated idea with the theme of your essay, article, or blog post. Then weave it in seamlessly from beginning to end.

To accomplish this, come up with an idea, a concept, or premise that seems far removed from your topic, as I did with crossword puzzles and introductions and conclusions. Nothing is off limits: waterfalls, RV life, grandkids, politics. Well, maybe not politics.

Make a list or a cluster chart of your ideas and think of any connections between those random concepts and the topic of your essay or article. Let’s try waterfalls as an example. Waterfalls flow, they are refreshing, it may be difficult to reach them, they could present a danger, are challenging to cross, and they can be inspiring—or frightening. Those descriptions could apply to any number of topics. Do any of them spark a connection? If not, keep playing with ideas until you find a comparison that works. Brainstorming with a friend or family member may help.

So, back to my off-the-wall, totally irrelevant introduction. What connection could crossword puzzles possibly have to with writing non-fiction?

crossword-146860_960_720For one thing, both follow a very specific set of rules. Crosswords must be square, they contain a specific number of squares and answers, they must be symmetrical, and they can’t duplicate clues in the grid. Clues and answers must match grammatically. Puzzles must have a theme. Now we’re getting closer to something writers can relate to: themes and grammar. For crossword creators, that means their answers must support the theme. Writers, on the other hand, must develop a theme that carries readers logically from beginning to end. Do I even need to mention that writing should be grammatically correct?

Non-fiction also needs an attention-getting beginning and an introduction to the topic, which may include why it is important to the reader. The author has to explain the concept in a way that is understandable to the reader, preferably in an interesting way, and conclude with a reminder of what was discussed.

In the crossword puzzle, the creator may attempt to misdirect the solver to make it more challenging. In the really difficult puzzles, generally scheduled for Saturday, creators often turn to wordplay, slang, unusual punctuation, or the ultimate twist of the knife: heteronyms (words that are spelled the same but have different pronunciations and meaning, Polish and polish, for example). 1

But ultimately, the creator wants the solver to succeed. According to crossword expert David Kwong, a New York Times puzzle constructor, “A good enigmatist makes the solver feel smart.” 2

newspaper-news-media-spectacles-53209But solving a crossword puzzle is far removed from the experience of reading an article. The solver of the former is looking for entertainment and a challenge. The reader of the latter wants to be informed, inspired, or educated. Or, at times, to be entertained.

The crossword challenge ends when the cruciverbalist either a.) solves the complete puzzle unaided, b.)  resorts to subterfuge to find answers, or c.) tears it up and tosses it into the trash.

In written work, the writers’ goals are accomplished when they convey the ideas to the reader as clearly and convincingly as possible and possibly even stir them to action. A good ending helps to achieve the desired result.

A satisfying conclusion should in some way reflect the introduction. It can be a restatement, an echo, a contrasting statement, or an illustration of the point. Or as in our example in this blog post—a bookend. Which means, at this point, I’m expected to return to the original crossword puzzle illustration.

Just as puzzle solvers come to a crossword with certain expectations, so do readers. Construct your non-fiction writing to smoothly lead them into your topic, cover the main point clearly, and tie it up neatly at the end. Make your reader feel smart.

Unlike the crossword creator, your goal is not to bewilder or stump your reader. You want to skillfully lead them from the hook to the denouement. Directly from 1. Across to 31. Down.

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JFC_RomyBestSemi-retired college English and Spanish instructor. Self-publisher, editor, and entrepreneur. Jeanette has been writing, teaching, editing, mentoring, and publishing for the past four decades. Now she is available online to help writers around the world with their writing ventures.  When she’s not writing, she enjoys enjoys traveling to visit family and friends, especially her two grown daughters and her two young grandchildren.

Jeanette F. Chaplin, Ed.D.


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1 Amlen, Deb. “How to Solve The New York Times Crossword.” n.d. https://www.nytimes.com/guides/crosswords/how-to-solve-a-crossword-puzzle?module=inline

2 Kwong, David. “How to Create a Crossword Puzzle.” WIRED MASTERMINDS  S1  E3. n.d. https://youtu.be/aAqQnXHd7qk

 

This article was posted for Jeanette Chaplain by Jackie Houchin

Conferences and Writing

by Linda O. Johnston

RWA2019_FINAL LOGOI attended the Romance Writers of America National Conference last week in New York City.  Am I glad I did?  Yes, mostly because of the wonderful people I saw, meeting up with those I knew professionally and as friends–or both.  I’ve been attending RWA conferences for many years and for different reasons, but that’s the most important.

I also attended three other conferences this year, some of which I have mentioned here.  One of the others, California Dreamin’, was a local romance writers’ conference.  Two of the others were mystery writers’ conferences: Malice Domestic, and the California Crime Writers Conference.  Yep, that’s a lot of conferences.

So why do I do it?  Yes, to meet up with those kinds of people I mentioned.  And that’s the most important reason for me these days.  But I also attend workshops and meals and other related events.

Do they help my writing career?  I think so, or I wouldn’t go.

But if you’re a writer, should you attend conferences?  Why not?  At least those for the genres you write in.  I always tell other writers, especially those just starting out, to join writers’ organizations in their genres and attend local meeting of their chapters.  Conferences help you meet others in different stages of writing and sales, which can also help your career.

Did I enjoy the RWA conference this year?  Yes, but I had some issues with it, too–one of which was the hotel we were in and its horrible elevator service. But I did get to visit the AKC Dog Museum.

Plus, this year, I hardly attended any conference workshops. No time, thanks to the various Harlequin meetings and workshops. I also had less interest in most of the topics than in the past, although the ones I did attend were helpful for research purposes. My favorites were, one on creating  series, where I got some other people’s takes on how they do it, another workshop on forensics in fiction, and another on twists in stories.

Will I attend RWA next year?  Most likely.  I’m under contract for four new Harlequin Romantic Suspense books, some of which will be published by then, and it’s always good to make contact with the editors and others at a publishing house in person like that.  Plus, it’s in San Francisco, which is a lot closer to LA than New York is.

Maybe I’ll see you there!

lindaphotoLinda O. Johnston, a former lawyer who is now a full-time writer, currently writes two mystery series for Midnight Ink involving dogs: the Barkery and Biscuits Mysteries, and the Superstition Mysteries.  She has also written the Pet Rescue Mystery Series, a spinoff from her Kendra Ballantyne, Pet-Sitter mysteries for Berkley Prime Crime and also currently writes for Harlequin Romantic Suspense as well as the Alpha Force paranormal romance miniseries about shapeshifters for Harlequin Nocturne.

 

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This article was posted for Linda O. Johnston by Jackie Houchin. 

 

What Did You Say?

By Miko Johnston

I’ve been thinking a great deal about words lately. Part of the reason is that I recently pitched a story I’d written almost two decades ago to a producer who’s shown some interest in the project. It contains language that would be inappropriate for this blog, but while the comic murder mystery at the heart of the story is meant to entertain, its satirical backdrop illustrates society’s relationship with certain words over the last half-century.

Anyone who’s lived more than a few decades has seen a loosening of standards in the media as well as in general life. While this blog – and  I suspect some of you – may eschew using certain words, I’ll bet your standards have changed along with the rest of our world. I’ve seen words in newspaper articles I’d never expect to see in print. I rarely watch TV except when I travel, but even with my limited exposure I’ve heard language in television programs – and I’m talking network TV, not cable – that wouldn’t have been permitted in the past.

Do you recall George Carlin’s Seven Words you can’t say on TV? Lately a few have slipped by. I recently heard a TV news anchor say a word I never expected to hear, having to do with bovine excrement, without a peep from the network or FCC. One of the Democratic candidates uttered another Carlin no-no during the first debate. A few words are still off-limits, and by my account we’ve added a new one to the list (hint: it starts with an N).

I’m not only thinking about obscenities. I’ve also noticed how many ‘ordinary’ words have been redefined or had their meaning augmented. Take the word average. It’s a mathematical term, yet it’s taken on social connotations. We hear about the average person and equate it with falling straight down the middle of a ranking system, not being good or bad. No one aspires to be average anymore; it has become something to avoid, either as a person or as an opinion.

As a writer, I find I must be more precise in my usage of certain words because of this. It concerns me that something I say or write could be misinterpreted. As a former journalist, my goals in reporting were ABC: Accuracy, Brevity, Clarity. Let’s not get into accuracy in news. Brevity translates into sound bites – catch phrases and such, or interrupting a speaker who takes more than a microsecond to get a point across. These days Clarity must include weighing a word’s intended meaning against what it’s perceived to mean. Social shifts, political correctness, and cultural rebranding have all contributed to this landscape, opening up new possibilities for writers as well as new dangers.

On occasion I’ve read lines of writing that could be misinterpreted. In each case I had close ties to the author, so I knew better than to take offense at what they wrote. However, readers who lack that personal advantage might not see it that way. I also worry a great deal about doing that myself and have on more than one occasion censored my work rather than risk the possibility of having someone take my words to mean something I never intended.

Have you thought about this as well? Are you concerned with the possibility that something you’ve written could be taken as insulting or offensive even if that wasn’t your intent?

 

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Miko Johnston is the author of the A Petal In The Wind Series, available through Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Miko lives on Whidbey Island in Washington. Contact her at mikojohnstonauthor@gmail.com

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(Posted for Miko Johnston by Jackie Houchin)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Late Night” At The Writers Room

Jill Amadio

JillAmadioSlogging away as we do on our mysteries, enjoying making sure we’ve planted subtle and not-so-subtle clues and fascinating red herrings, it’s a marvelous feeling to write The End and look forward to working on the second draft.

After the third or fourth draft and you’ve decided that your manuscript is publication-worthy, how often has the thought flashed through your mind of it being picked up by Hollywood? Have you sat and imagined the different scenes coming to life, your characters personified by, say, Meryl Streep and Anthony Hopkins? I’ve always dreamed of Emma Thompsonplaying my amateur sleuth, Tosca Trevant, but she’d have to dye her hair dark and grow it to her waist. 

A few days after I tried to picture Emma thus transformed and realized it probably wouldn’t work unless I switched Tosca’s dark hair to Emma’s blonde locks, I received an invitation to Fox Studios. Charlie, a screenwriter and author friend who lives nearby, is a member of the Screenplay Development Group at Fox. Each month the group is supplied with the script of a current movie, urged to see the film, and invited to critique both forms of entertainment. At the meeting we were to discuss and voice our feedback while comparing the two genres.

Coincidentally, our script last month was “Late Night,” a comedy starring Emma Thompson and Mindy Kaling who produced and wrote it. Be still my heart! The first three pages of the script were evaluation sheets for discussion at the meeting. Charlie pointed out to me that the script itself was held together by only two staples, the middle hole left empty. If a third staple was added the writer would be considered an amateur and the script immediately dumped in the rubbish bin.

We decided to drive up early to LA for lunch, see the movie, and then go on to Fox.  We had both read the script and discussed it between ourselves a few days earlier over coffee and found we agreed that the premise was excellent, the execution of the idea rated a Very Good, and the dialogue was spot on and very funny.  We were to rate the character roles, settings, visuals, writer intentions, relationships, plot, etc. We also had to consider the cost of making the movie and were provided with amounts ranging from $5-200 million. Charlie and I figured we’d need only $10 million because there were very few set changes. Most of the action took place, coincidentally, in a studio’s Writers Room.

I knew that the Writers Room was where the magic happened, having seen Writers Rooms on TV shows. Reminded me of my first job in the newsroom of a newspaper. To me, both magical places. At Fox I envisioned all those creative types sitting around thinking up jokes, sex, violence, and crazy dialogue. I remember a movie wherein two writers were locked in the Room until they came up with a better script. On the other hand, I need complete silence and solitude when I write but I hoped being thrown into this new environment might spark some new book ideas.

Charlie and I drove down Pico Blvd to make sure Fox Studios was still standing, then headed off in the opposite direction to the Westside Pavilion, a large shopping mall, for lunch. We found an entrance to the parking garage and Charlie, for some reason, said it was best to drive up to the roof. We noticed no cars parked anywhere and decided the mall had not opened yet, must be too early. We proceeded blithely up the ramp, saw boarded up windows everywhere and realized the Pavilion was closed. Permanently. We turned the car around and drove down but were stopped at the exit by a large wooden barrier arm that refused to raise. Charlie pressed all the buttons and finally shouted into the ticket slot. Eventually a guard came out, shook his head at us for not knowing the mall had closed a year ago and let us out, no charge.

On Sunset Blvd we found a coffee shop that sold lattes and blueberry muffins for outrageous prices.  Charlie pointed out that the meeting would be catered. In Hollywood language that meant tons of food. Slightly fortified but poorer we drove over to the Landmark cinema to watch the matinee of  “Late Night.”  We noted that the first several pages of the script had been scrapped and the action began in New York, not London. Emma, in the script, is depicted as something of a loose woman, married, with lots of lovers. In the movie she indulges in only a single one-night stand. Wonder who changed that around? Also, the ending was entirely different, so we knew there’d be lots of pro and con at the meeting.

Along Pico Blvd we spotted the Fox Studios sign. Exciting! We’d received two pages of instructions on how to enter and what to say to the guard at the studio gate, where to find the Steven Bochco Building, where to park, and told in VERY LARGE BOLD LETTERS not to enter any other building on the lot.  No sir!

Pretty soon several others arrived and we went inside to register and find a seat at the immensely-long writers table. Must have been carved from a redwood tree. My blood pressure rose, I am sure, because this was such an adventure and we were in a real, real movie studio. Despite my many years interviewing celebrities and a bit part in “Dr Zhivago” that was filmed in Spain when I lived there, this sent my heart racing. It’s one thing to be on an outside set, fun but okay, and another to be on a lot where several movies are filmed simultaneously and buildings are named after the famous.

There were about 38 of us sitting around the table, average age was, surprisingly, 40s with a few maybe in their 30s. Several older men and women were there and were veteran writers. Long-time producer Bill Taub led the discussion and we went around the table describing what we were working on. Blatant but truthful, I announced I was an author and had just finished adapting my third script to a book after my clients had been told to Write the Book First. Everyone else was a screenwriter. One person had adapted her novel to a script, and three attendees were in film school at UCLA. No one had a movie in production but three had sold to studios.

The actual discussion was lively, a little argumentative, and revealing. I kept quiet most of the time, making notes for a possible future murder in a Writers Room. The changes between the “Late Night” script and the movie, of course, were the subject of much talk as well as a learning curve and a warning that such cuts were typical. We all wondered why Emma’s persona was cleaned up and agreed that cutting the first ten pages unfortunately eliminated the set-up of how Brit Emma came to be a famous late-night TV talk show host in New York and was married to some old chappie.

Charlie and I continued our discussion driving home, me still high with excitement, and decided we would join the group again at a later date. I’m not sure if any of the talk helped me with my own writing because the genres are so different. Even so, input about dialogue was valuable as far as getting to the point of a scene and knowing that instead of a character being described in a script simply as Female Comic, 19, nervous, I can flesh her out in my book, paint word pictures, and endow her with thoughts and emotions I want her to have rather than a character re-created by a film director who probably hadn’t read my book.

Still, when all is said and done, getting your sleuth onscreen must be very special indeed.

 

Late Night – Official Trailer | Amazon Studios

 

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(Posted for Jill Amadio by Jackie Houchin.)

 

 

 

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Four P’s for Independence Day Writing

by Jackie Houchin

Patriotism

What authors come to your mind as you think of Patriotism? First in my mind are David Baldacci and Tom Clancy for action, suspense, and adventure. I also love David McCullough (1776), and Joseph J. Ellis (Founding Brothers) for making American history come alive. For kids, who could forget Esther Forbes’ Johnny Tremain.

These books make me love my country and stand proud when I hear the national anthem sung or see our flag pass by in a parade.

flag.libertyWhen returning home from a recent trip in April and touching down in Washington D.C., the South African pilot announced, “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the United States of America.”   I have to admit, I got a lump in my throat and tears welled in my eyes. So often I take the privilege of living in “the States” for granted. So many in the world would change places with me in a heartbeat!

Privilege

Along with all the abundance and freedom we have and love, come the costs. We commemorate some of them each Memorial and Veteran’s Day…. lives and limbs lost by brave young men who freely took up arms to defend our way of life.

The other “cost” of living free is not free at all. Yep, it’s all those income, sales, and property taxes that keep on coming… until we die. (There is even a death tax!) But yeah, you have to admit, highways, police and fire protection, security, courthouses, judges and jails that assure our rights all come at a cost. And we pay it, even if grudgingly, because America is the best place in the world to live.

And where else can we write what we will without fear (as long as it does no harm to others or plagiarizes).

Posterity

Those who follow us; whether our own children and grandchildren, or as writers, our faithful readers. What sense of loyalty and passion are we inspiring in them for our country? Or gratitude for our way of life?

Here’s a challenge. Why not write a short (short) story, article, or poem this week that promotes some good aspect of America. Research a monument, a funny law, one of the Rights, or interview a policeman or fireman for the reason they became what they are.

IMG_2221In a church in Florence, Italy, I discovered (along with the burial place of Michelangelo and Marconi) a statue that very well could have been the inspiration for the French gift of the Statue of Liberty. Softer, more feminine, but amazingly similar!

And for a contest, I once wrote a short story about an immigrant man who loved “another woman.” His wife was heartsick as he visited her often and sighed in admiration for her beauty. It was a happy day for her when she discovered her husband’s ‘love’ was “Lady Liberty.”

Peace

Usually, unless you are writing Literary Fiction, your stories will end with some sort of resolution, some sense of justice done or won, and things restored to a peaceable if not perfect situation.

Usually there are many struggles and conflicts that your protagonists must face in your mystery or romance or adventure. Horrible things happen to them (at your hand), but at the end? Law and order reigns, and your readers can sigh in relief. (And maybe write a cool review!) Peace in a story or in a country is worth the struggle.

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As we celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks, hot dogs, macaroni salad (Yankee Doodle called that feather in his hat, macaroni after all) and red, white, ‘n blue paper plates, streamers and clothing, remember to look around for possible story ideas or characters who would die for their country … and the villains who will try to make sure they do.

God has blessed America so much! Be a writing patriot.

 

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Teaching Writing in Africa

Ah, the stories they tell!

IMG_0643MeTeachOn a recent short-term mission trip to Malawi for my church, I had the opportunity to teach Writing classes to two groups of home schooled MKs (Missionary Kids). These were children from American, Canadian and South African families. There were nine in the 3rd-4th grade group and seven in the 5th grade and up group.

Two years ago I taught most of these kids “How to Write A Short Story.” Their creations were marvelous, and in fact, I posted some of the stories on my blog, Here’s How It Happened. (See the mystery, “The Tay Diamond”,  the action-packed, “The Adventures of Timmy, the Squirrel”,  and the creepy, Twilight Zone-esque “The Mirror”)

IMG_1133Booklet coversAfter reviewing the stories and talking to the other home school teachers, we all agreed that the kids needed help in character development. The action was amazing; the worlds they created were vivid, but the heroes, helpers, and villains were flat and hard to imagine.

This would be my topic then. I prepared workbooks for each of the classes. We did some work in them in class, but there were “homework” assignments for them to do at home as well.

IMG_0645MeTeach Young classBefore I arrived I asked that the kids (both classes) bring the first several paragraphs of a story they had written to class. In class, I had them each read their paragraphs aloud.  There were Captain Jack, Commander of a Starship, twin girls named Peace and Harmony, and a 20-year old girl named Ella who wanted to become a princess (and a dozen others).

I asked the listening students how they “pictured” each of these characters. There was either confused silence or vague and differing descriptions.  I then asked the authors to describe how their characters looked in their own mind’s eye. They came up with a lot of colorful descriptions that were not in their stories. Suddenly they “got the picture,” and from there I showed them ways and examples of taking the images of their characters from their minds and putting them on paper for their readers.

IMG_0640MeTeach Micah,TylerFor the younger class, I had them draw in their workbooks a circle for a face, then slowly add features (eyes, nose, mouth, ears, hair) and write a description of each as they went. Next they drew bodies with any kinds of clothes and shoes (or not) they wished.  I had them write why these “characters” were smiling, wearing… glasses, a soccer jersey, a swim suit, a long dress, a tutu, and had on sandals or swim fins. They began to see how to show what their story characters looked like by writing descriptions, and in the process developed more interesting information about them.  (I could see “light” dawning in their eyes!)

We talked about what a boy’s face and posture would look like if he were angry, sad, or excited, and how to describe that in words.  Then I had volunteers come to the front and walk like someone angry, sad, sick, old, or excited. The class called out descriptions of the body movements (facial features, arms swinging, shoulders slumped, stumbling, skipping, marching etc.) that portrayed the emotion.  Suddenly they began to see how they could “show” these actions in their stories instead of simply “telling” the reader that the character was sad or happy.

We talked briefly about similes (and metaphors for the older group). Wow, did they come up with some doozers! At this point I had to remind them not to overload the story with these, but to sprinkle in descriptions as the story progressed in action or conversations.

Character traits 71T4QNm+soLNext, we had fun with thirty-six Character Trait cards (ten seen at left) that I purchased from Amazon.  I had them each choose a positive trait and a negative trait and to explain their choices. I asked them to describe the animals in the picture illustrating the trait.  We talked about how they could write about the kind of person (animal) their character was by using these traits (such as, mischievous, responsible, persistent, mean, honest, loyal, etc.)

As an exercise I had them use these two opposite traits and write a short paragraph in their workbooks, describing how that character trait would look in actions.  “Harmony was dishonest because she….. or  Timothy was peculiar because he….”

For another exercise, I had them draw a large “T” diagram on one page, labeling the left side “What a character looks like” and the right side” How a character behaves.”  They made a few comparisons from their own story characters. At home, they would make more of these diagrams and fill them in for other characters, or ones from books they liked.

IMG_0654 Older writing classFor the older class (all boys, and most writing sci-fi or fantasy) we delved a bit deeper into making their characters memorable by using various ways to describe physical as well as personality traits. They practiced describing a character in an action scene (showing fear or bravery without actually using those words) and played around with using an occasional quirk, flaw, or unconscious mannerism to reveal hidden traits.

We talked about body language and how personal beliefs and moral standards could affect their characters actions and words in certain situations.  These t’weens and teens also enjoyed acting out emotions and physical limitations while the rest of the class called out descriptions. It’s a great exercise in noticing small things and putting them into words. Their favorite was imagining a large magnet across the room, and a piece of iron stuck on various parts of their body (forehead, stomach, etc). They were to show being pulled by that force and trying to resist. (Some were hilarious!)

IMG_0651MeTeach MatthewIMG_0653MeTeach AndrewThese boys also wanted to read from their stories, using some of the descriptions they’d learned inserted here and there.

I think they got it! By George, they got it!  

(I can’t wait to read the complete exciting, imaginative tales!)

At the end of the two-hour sessions, I sent both groups home with assignments to sharpen their skills. Hopefully they will follow through and I will have a new pack of stories to post on my blog, with characters you can clearly imagine, love, or love to hate.

I love these kids, and I really had fun…. as you can see!

IMG_0667MeTeach fun

 

Post Script:  I used several limericks in the classes, to illustrate teaching points, add humor, and keep the class attentive.  One of the kids in the older group took one of these limericks, combined it with a vocabulary assignment from his home school writing class and came up with a HILARIOUS story – The Virtuous Walking Fish.  Check it out too, and leave a comment for Jacob K.