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.

 

 

Those OTHER Blogs on Writing

signHow many blogs besides this one do YOU read regularly (daily, weekly, monthly)?  Yes, you can confess. We don’t mind. Reading them will help you become a better writer.

Of course there are thousands to choose from. Just Google a topic and you’ll see. Bloggers will give you tips on everything, from where to get ideas to how to publish and market your final product, be it a book, short story, poem or article.

Some writer magazines and blogs publish lists of the Top 50 or 100 from the previous year.  Here’s a link to the Top 50 Blogs in 2018

I have THREE blogs that I read daily and usually take notes on. Okay, sometimes I only peruse them, if the topic is not relative to my needs right then.

  1. Mia Botha’s Writers Writehttps://writerswrite.co.za/

Every day, Mia posts links to articles on a wide variety of subjects. Each article will offer other links to follow on related subjects in an Alice In Wonderland type trail that is positively addicting! And time consuming.  Watch out!

Her daily Writing Prompts will tickle your imagination and sometimes get a story going.

There are usually cute (or smarmy) writing cartoons to make you chuckle.

Finally, there is a list of “famous” authors whose birthday is that day. Each gives his/her advice on some aspect of the writing life.

Writers Write also hosts the “12 Short Stories Writing Challenge” each year beginning in January.  Using a monthly prompt that they supply, you write, finish and polish a 1500 word (exactly) story to submit. You comment on 4 other stories and receive feedback on your own piece. One a month for 12 months. Whew!

Writers Write also offers a variety of online classes which you need to pay for.

 

  1. Edie Melson’s The Write Conversationhttp://thewriteconversation.blogspot.com/

Each day Edie, or one of 10 or so guest writers, presents short articles that inspire, encourage, inform, and teach you all facets of the art of writing and publishing. It is a Christian site, but usually only one in seven posts talks about the author’s beliefs in her writing process.

Here are some topics on recent posts: (You can click on these to go to the blog.)

YOU HAVE A GREAT SCENE, BUT WHAT TO DO WITH IT?

7 TIPS TO MAKE YOU A MORE OBSERVANT WRITER

WHEN AN AUTHOR SHOULD SEEK PERMISSION FOR QUOTES

QUOTATIONS—HOW WRITERS FIND THE ORIGINAL SOURCE

WRITING SO THEY CAN’T PUT IT DOWN

GET YOUR BLOG READY FOR 2019

Edie also uses a technique for readers to easily sharing her posts on Twitter. She types the title of the post or another phrase that describes the topic, and gives it a hyperlink. Readers can click on this and it takes them to their Twitter account. The title and ping-back to the blog posts are already there. They click on “Tweet” and voila’, they have effortless shared your message!

She calls them TWEETABLES.

I tried it in a blog post I wrote on The Writers In Residence about a year ago. It takes a little effort the first time you do it, but it’s a great tool!

 

  1. Tara Lazar’s Story Writing for Kids with January’s StoryStorm Challenge https://taralazar.com/storystorm/

What is StoryStorm? It’s an amazing, month-long, story idea brainstorming event. It’s designed for children’s books mostly, but can be useful for any genre. The weird and whimsical, and sometimes serious topics by a new author each day, are really wonderful!

The Challenge is to create 30 story ideas, one or more each day in 31 days. Maybe it will be a clever title idea, or a lovable character, or a skeleton of a plot. If you follow through, you’ll have a list of at least 30 new, fantastic ideas to flesh out at the beginning of February.

And…. if you read it each day and post a brief comment, you are eligible for a bunch of prizes and free services.

From the topic “Double Story Lines” …. I came up with “I know an old woman who lived in a shoe…store. She had so many shoes she couldn’t fit in any…more.

Enter Old Mother Hubbard who went to the display case to buy some soft slippers for her poor aching “dogs.” But she found nary a moccasin or “mule”.

Enter a Fairy God Mother who felt sorry for the old ladies and turned every shoe into a slipper.

Ms Hubbard bought all 365. The Old Woman sold her shoe store and moved to Tahiti, where NO ONE wears ANY kind of shoes at all!”

From the topic “Stop, Look, Listen” …. I came up with a tale of a musician who paid for an extra seat on an airplane to carry his very valuable and fragile guitar in its case.  But his seatmates complained – I can’t see over the top of it, it’s on my armrest, etc., and caused a near riot. Crew and pilot intervened so the plane could go up on schedule. Ends with the man strumming and all the cabin requesting songs and singing along.

StoryStorm is a really fun Challenge, one of many throughout the year on a colorful, kid-friendly, idea-stuffed blog.

 

And then there are blogs that are more like OUR blog – The Writers In Residence – where multiple member writers and the occasion guest, wax eloquent on some aspect of their writing life.

Here are a few examples, check them out:

Make Mine Mysteryhttp://makeminemystery.blogspot.com/  –  Mystery writing ladies.

Ladies of Mystery https://ladiesofmystery.com/  –  Mystery writing ladies.

Pens, Paws, and Claws http://penspawsandclaws.com/  – Animal loving ladies and gents writing about pets, mystery and other topics.

eat poto

 

I hope this post has whet your appetite for reading OTHER blogs besides ours.  If you already indulge in this “sweet” pastime, will you share some of your favorites with our readers?  Or… if you write one of your own, please share a link to it. Our readers might like to “read you” too!

 

PS: I’m adding a few “OTHER” blogs that I remembered after posting.

Creative Writing Nowhttps://www.creative-writing-now.com/  –  They offer Writing tips, Ideas, Courses (free and paid)

Penny Sansevieri’s  Author Marketing Expertshttps://www.amarketingexpert.com/book-promotion-blog/   –  Wonderful articles about promoting/marketing your book.  You can also sign up for a free weekly “5 Minute Book Marketing Tip” via email or more extensive and personal, direct coaching on selling your book (for a fee).

Learning the Basics "Chapter One" at a Time – Part 5

WinR MK Johnston brings you Part 5 of her tutorial, “Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time. MK is a former print and television journalist and served on the board of the Alameda Writers Group. She is a current member of that group as well as Sisters in Crime and WIWA.

PART 5 – DIALOGUE

You can’t judge a book by its cover. You judge it by its words. The same is true for dialogue. You learn a lot about characters by what they say. And while sometimes a character will say one thing and do another, that discrepancy, and the reasons behind it, tells us a lot about that character as well.

If you write great dialogue, consider yourself lucky. Many writers cite it as the most difficult part of a novel to get right. However, there are ways to improve it.
Tips for writing dialogue:

First let’s understand the function of dialogue in a novel. It’s a way to break up exposition, convey information, hear the characters’ voices, and communicate more directly with non-POV characters. Speech patterns, mannerisms, and vocabulary can inform us of a character’s heritage, education, values, and personality, or they can be used to mislead us.

Good dialogue sounds natural; authentic, but not realistic. Actual speech patterns can be too wordy, too vague, or just boring. For inspiration, listen to people talking in airports, restaurants, shopping malls, and parties for speech patterns, key words and phrases that are different, or go beyond what you’re used to hearing.

When writing dialogue, it’s important to hear it spoken out loud. You can do this yourself, but if you can get someone (even a computer) to read it to you, that’s even better. If the reader stumbles over your dialogue, it usually indicates the writing is awkward or doesn’t mean what you intended. Listen not only for how it sounds, but also the meaning behind the words.

What can dialogue do?

• Slow down a scene without slowing the pace, like a zoom lens that brings you right into the moment.

• Give readers a close-up of moments of passion, conflict, or danger

• Show purpose or define a scene; focus the story

• Inform us of the connection between characters – using shorthand or brevity shows intimacy or awareness in a relationship. (Use M dashes when a speaker is interrupted and ellipses when a speaker’s thoughts fade out.)

Recognizing bad dialogue is easier than figuring out why it’s bad or how it can be reworked. If you’re not happy with your dialogue, try this exercise:

FREE-FORM WRITING

Writing free-form dialogue releases you from linear thinking by using the right brain instead of the left. (The left brain is the logical, organized half, perfect for plotting or editing.) Select a scene from your first chapter that includes conversation. You can start the dialogue from scratch, or continue the existing one. Then write as quickly as you can; don’t bother with punctuation, tags, or details. Keep writing until you’ve relinquished your control over your characters and let them take over – continue until they’ve had their say. Then review and add tags; identify speakers, place, etc. Add your sensory details.

When you’re done, revise, revise, and revise! It’s like peeling an onion. You have to get past what’s always been said (the surface) to reach deeper levels of understanding.

I have found that this writing exercise is very helpful if you’re stuck in other ways. We tend to fall back on left-brain logic to solve problems in our writing when what we need is the emotional punch that comes from right-brain thinking. If any part of your story isn’t working despite outlines, index cards, or editing, try free-form writing a conversation between your characters, whether they appear in the scene or not. Chances are you’ll garner at least a nugget, if not more.

If the exercise doesn’t work for you the first time, try again. Use a different mix of characters, or put them in a different setting if necessary. For example, lets say your scene involves two characters arguing in a restaurant and free-form writing their dialogue isn’t helping. Try using two background characters, like a couple sitting at an adjacent table, or the waiter and busboy, and let them chat about your characters’ behavior or conversation. Or, take your arguing characters out of the restaurant and put them on an airplane, in line at a taxi stand on a stormy night, or at a party.

*****

The purpose of this series is to help polish your first chapter. Once that has been done, don’t stop. Work on each subsequent chapter until it shines. Good luck.

Learning the Basics "Chapter One" at a Time – Part 4

WinR MK Johnston brings you Part 4 of her tutorial, “Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time. MK is a former print and television journalist and served on the board of the Alameda Writers Group. She is a current member of that group as well as Sisters in Crime and WIWA.

PART 4 – SHOW, DON’T TELL

This aspect of writing is difficult to explain because it’s so subjective. We know it must be done; but where, when, and especially how to do it is the challenge.

Sol Stein, author of “How To Grow A Novel”, points out that from the time we’re very young, we become accustomed to hearing stories, whether it’s our parents reading to us, schoolmates repeating tales, or gossips in the workplace. The ones we enjoy the most are the ones we can best envision.

Our desire to “see” stories also comes from watching visual media such as television and films. We all know how engaging they can be even if the content is hollow. As our culture becomes more accustomed to watching stories, writers must follow suit, making our novels even more visual. That’s why so many contemporary books are written in a “filmic” style, where the plot and action are laid out like scenes in a movie. It’s also why the descriptive style of novels from earlier centuries is no longer in favor.

The “show, don’t tell” complaint is often attributed to writing that is:

o Too passive – is, was, were; he said/she said

o Too vague – it lacks sufficient or crucial detail

o Too secretive – it’s important but the writer holds back

o Too detailed – it’s unimportant but the writer goes on at length

o Too repetitive – often stated many times, or in different ways.

o Too informational – a fact dump that reads like a manual

o Too one-dimensional – we hear it but we don’t see it (dialogue)

When we begin to write, we tend to focus on laying out the plot and introducing our characters. However, people want to read stories, not reports or a catalog of events. Once you’ve completed your first draft, go over it, starting with your first chapter, and look for places to illustrate your story with words.

HOW TO FIX THE PROBLEM

• Close your eyes and imagine the situation you’re describing. Then write what you “see”.

• Think of yourself as the director or actor in the scene. What would you tell the character to do, or what would you do, feel, or experience in that scene? Think body language, emotions, external factors (cold, bright, musty?).

• Imagine you’re a set dresser, lighting person, or costume designer. What would the setting look like? How would the character be dressed, and what statement would it make about him? Pick two details that would symbolize the look or atmosphere you want to create in the scene.

• Examine how you’ve introduced your protagonist and any other characters that appear in your first chapter. How should your readers feel about them at this point and will those feelings change in the course of the story? Do your words generate that impression?

• Don’t flesh out minor characters. Describe them in a sentence or phrase, or if their “title” is enough for us to visualize them, one word. What characteristic would be most telling about them, relating to their role in the story?

• Look for those passive dialogue tags – he said, she uttered, Jane asked, Bob queried – and think about how you could substitute a small bit of action instead. This can help us visualize the character at that moment, move the story forward, or do both.

Here’s a chance to use that passive description. Sum up your main character in one declarative sentence:

o Barry wants respect, not pity

o Lisa has low self-esteem

o Jack’s tough exterior hides an emotional Achilles heel

o Edmund’s weak social skills prevent acknowledgment of his scientific genius

Next, create a scenario that would illustrate this trait:

o Barry would rather search through dumpsters than beg

o Lisa accomplishes 98 percent of her project and berates herself for not doing better

o Jack snaps at everyone but shows extraordinary sensitivity when interviewing a child abuse victim

o Edmund tries to explain his breakthrough to top management, but they ignore him and direct questions to his lab partner

Now expand that scenario. “Show, don’t tell” involves more than just seeing the action. Go beyond the visuals to include other senses – smells, sounds, tastes, and tactile feelings. Demonstrate emotional responses with physical actions, especially when they relate to the characters’ external and internal goals. Whatever keeps them from the one thing they want most should elicit the most powerful descriptions, for this conflict is the core of your story.

Compare the results of this exercise to what you currently have written in your first chapter.

EXCEPTIONS TO THE RULE

There are times when passive descriptions are appropriate in fiction:

• A simple statement of fact: It was June 12; my teacher’s name is Mrs. Lopez, George Washington was our first President

• Situations where list-like descriptions are called for, like a police interrogation (“He was short, stocky, about 150 pounds, with red hair….”).

• Dialogue that suits the character (a character who speaks passively will come off as a boring, colorless individual, which is great if the character is boring and colorless – just don’t make him a primary character!)

• When a report is preferable to poetry. There will be times when you’ll want to describe the blazing sun beating down on his already reddened face, sending rivulets of sweat streaming from his brow. Then there will be times when you’ll want to say it was hot.

• When it’s preferable to using substitute words – uttered instead of said, or queried instead of asked. ‘He said’ may be passive, but many writers consider it less obtrusive than other alternatives.

In our final installment, we’ll give our left brain a rest when we channel our creative side to write DIALOGUE

Learning the Basics "Chapter One" at a Time Part 1

Learning the Basics “Chapter One” at a Time is a tutorial brought to you by Miriam Johnston

Part 1

Sure, you can write. You’ve created a logical plot and interesting characters. You’ve even been praised for some of your passages. However, your work lacks the professional polish of a best seller or critically acclaimed novel.

Welcome to LEARNING THE BASICS “CHAPTER ONE” AT A TIME, a self-help tutorial designed for writers who want to take their work to the next level.

Most writers aim to improve their skills by taking classes, attending writers’ conferences, reading books and subscribing to journals. All tend to emphasize the same points – and we’ll cover many of them in this tutorial. What’s unique is that we’ll focus on our own first chapters as a way to identify common mistakes and correct them with a two-fold approach:

• tips and advice gathered from the best instructors, editors, and writers
• DIY exercises to help identify weaknesses and correct problems

We’ll review basic methods for beginning a story – what they are, how they’re done, and what they should accomplish – and evaluate them in relation to our novels. In addition, we will discuss modifiers, telling instead of showing, and dialogue, using our first chapters to illustrate the strongest and the weakest elements of writing. Each tutorial will offer writing exercises to help slim down and tone up your chapters. Once you get your first chapter in shape it can serve as a guidepost for the rest of your novel.
Let’s begin by reviewing some fundamentals every agent wants you to know:

PART 1 – PRESENTATION

Nothing screams amateur more than a manuscript that is sloppy and substandard.

Can’t read that? Neither can an agent.

Submitting work in an unreadable font guarantees a rejection. How many deals collapse for something so petty and preventable?

It’s one thing to economize by using recycled paper or printing two-sided copies for an informal writer’s group or for your own use. However, it’s never acceptable to submit pages to an agent or other professional that don’t follow acceptable standards such as margins, font type and size, spacing, chapter headings, spelling, and grammar. It shows disregard for the work, as well as for whomever you’ve asked to read it, whether it’s a fellow writer, proofreader, or prospective agent. Get in the habit of using professional formatting whenever you write. That attitude should begin on page one and never waver.

FORMATTING AND TEXTUAL ERRORS IN MANUSCRIPTS

1. Using a non-traditional font or font size
2. Cheating margins or line spacing
3. Starting a new chapter on the same page as the previous chapter
4. Submitting streaky photocopies or poorly printed copies of your work
5. Flawed, stained, or mutilated pages
6. Typos

HOW TO FIX THE PROBLEM

1. Pick a classic, easy to read font such as Times New Roman or Courier in 12 point.

2. Double space your copy and allow for one inch margins all around. Never break that rule, even if the last word in the chapter falls on a new page. Try editing out a word or two instead.

3. Always begin a new chapter on a fresh page and halfway down (some blank page gives the illusion of a faster read).

4. Use a good printer, preferably laser, although a high quality inkjet may be acceptable. If you’re not using a fresh cartridge and there’s any grey in the text, switch it out and reprint as many pages as necessary. Use only white paper.
5. If you encounter any of these problems on a page – redo it. You don’t want your manuscript rejected because of a smudge or crease on page 7, but it happens.

6. Proofread your manuscript at least twice before sending it out. If possible, get fresh eyes to proof it as well.

Before you send out pages or a manuscript to an agent, always verify whether a hard copy or electronic copy is preferred. Then give them what they want.

I’m always shocked by writers who think they can flaunt the rules. Perhaps the most arrogant are those who say they don’t concern themselves with proper spelling, punctuation, and grammar. Writing, like any vocation, has its tools. Can you imagine a doctor, teacher, or auto mechanic boasting about their lack of the most basic of skills?

We all begin with the 26 letters of the alphabet, which are used to form words, then phrases. Then, with the help of grammar and punctuation, we create sentences, paragraphs, pages, scenes, chapters, and novels. Our tools should also include a dictionary, thesaurus or synonym finder, and various books on style and grammar.

Anyone can write, but to write well, you must spell your words correctly, so we can recognize them. You must understand what those words mean, so they’re used in the proper context. You must learn the correct use of punctuation and grammar, so we can understand what you’re writing. Finally, if you choose to break the rules, have a valid purpose for doing so – spell a word phonetically to highlight the speaker’s accent, or incorporate poor grammar into a character’s dialogue to show his lack of education, for example.

The next installment, OPENINGS, will cover that important first paragraph of your novel.

Photo: Gary Phillips, Marilyn Meredith, and Marci Baun at California Crime Writers Conference