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).

The Importance of Setting

Guest Post by Patricia Smiley*

michael-discenza-331452-unsplashYears ago I bought a novel written by a well-known author because it took place in Seattle, a city where I’d lived, went to school, and worked for many years. A few chapters in, I was dismayed that the descriptions of setting were so generic that the story could have taken place anywhere. It was almost as if that the author had never set foot in the city.

Setting matters. The place of your novel includes the broader vistas into which you set the story, such as the culture and customs of the people who live there, history, land, floral and fauna, and even the shape of the clouds. It’s also where each scene takes place, be it the backseat of a Mini Cooper, an English garden, a Federal prison cell, or a home kitchen.

We were given five senses for a reason. Detail specificity enriches your writing. Don’t just say the kitchen was messy; describe the smell of spaghetti sauce oozing down the wall, the feel of that sticky green substance puddled on the floor next to the baby highchair, and the tick tock of the antique grandfather clock in an otherwise silent room. Descriptions should not just be an inventory of the space. Each one must illuminate an element of plot, theme, or character and, in the case of this kitchen, raise a myriad of dramatic questions about what happened there and to whom.

Description as fine sauce. Descriptions need not be long and rambling, but a writer must persuade the reader that the story is real. Even people who’ve never been to a location should feel as though they’re experiencing it firsthand. This also applies to imaginary settings. To prevent long passages of boring prose, take Elmore Leonard’s advice, ”Don’t write the parts people skip.” Instead, distill the essence of a place into a fine sauce. Below is an example of reporter Jeffrey Fleishman’s brilliant and evocative description of Port Said, Egypt, from the Los Angeles Times:

“This shipping city of factory men, with its whispers of colonial-era architecture, was once a crossroads for intellectuals, spies and wanderers who conspired in cafes while the Suez Canal was dug and Egypt’s storied cotton was exported around the globe. Rising on a slender cusp in the Mediterranean Sea, the town exuded cosmopolitan allure amid the slap of fishing nets and the creak of trawlers.”

Don’t trust your memory—verify. Get the specifics right. Nothing takes a reader out of the story faster than getting hung up on inaccurate details. If you can’t visit the location, read travel blogs, talk to friends with knowledge of the area, consult Google Maps, online photos, and YouTube videos.

People like to “travel” when they read. Effective use of description creates atmosphere and mood, and stimulates emotions. Anyone who is familiar with the cold, bleak settings in Scandinavian crime novels or films knows how integral “place” is to every part of those stories. So, give your readers a compelling setting and then wish them a bon voyage.

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patty-smiley-250-shadow

Patricia Smiley is the author of four novels featuring amateur sleuth Tucker Sinclair. Her new Pacific Homicide series profiles LAPD homicide detective Davie Richards and is based on her fifteen years as a volunteer and a Specialist Reserve Officer for the Los Angeles Police Department.

The third in that series, The Second Goodbye, is set for release on December 8, 2018.

Patty’s short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Two of the Deadliest, an anthology edited by Elizabeth George. She has taught writing at various conferences in the U.S. and Canada and also served as vice president for the Southern California chapter of Mystery Writers of America and as president of Sisters in Crime/Los Angeles.

PatriciaSmiley.com

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Photo by Michael Discenza on Unsplash
*This blog article is posted for Patricia Smiley by The Writers In Residence member, Jackie Houchin

 

Free WRITING For Free

WinR profile picJackie Houchin is a Christian writer, book reviewer, and retired photojournalist. She writes articles and reviews on a variety of topics, and occasionally edits manuscripts. She also dabbles in short fiction. “I’m a wife (52 years in Feb/2016), a mom, and a grandma (of adults, sigh!). I enjoy creating Bible craft projects for kids; growing fruits, flowers, and veggies; and traveling to other countries. I also adore cats and kittens and mysteries.”    Follow Jackie on Morning Meditations and Here’s How it Happened

What comes to your mind when you think of free writing?

Do you think of finding a word, idea, scene or photo, and putting your pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) and… writing whatever comes to mind? (I did that once about salt from a photo of a vintage restaurant saltshaker, giving the condiment a personality. It turned out pretty cool, I thought!)

Or does free writing mean penning something “on spec” which is a fancy way of saying that no money is involved. Or, if you are a newbie writer, maybe you volunteer your services for articles, blog posts, interviews, fillers, etc., for experience and to accumulate “clips.”

Freeing Willie

“Free Writing” – that mind-over-matter, staring-into-space writing that begins with a prompt – is often used by writers and novelists who experience writer’s block, as a way to prime the pump. However it happens, once you get your creative juices or muses moving, your other WIP seems to suddenly take on new life. (And no, my muse’s name is not Willie!)

FREE writing3This kind of free writing invigorates your thought process, sparks ideas that catch fire and burn down forests of paper!! (Sorry, I got a little carried away.)

You don’t have to be “stuck” to make use of free writing. Some writers write from a prompt daily in a journal designated for that purpose. Not only does it kick start their writing, but they archive a huge number of ideas in the process to use later. (See a list of websites at the end that feature prompts for writers.)

Don’t write right

Another method of free writing (I love this one and have recommended it often, but no one ever tries it… or at least has told me they’ve tried it) is to use a left/right brain strategy.  (You have to use a pen or pencil for this one.)

Choose a photo, or even an advertisement from a magazine with at least two people in it, and some background. With your dominant hand, write a brief account of what is happening in the scene (other than the obvious ad line). Include background, clothes, colors, expressions, relationship possibilities, etc.

NEXT, switch hands and write about the same scene with your non-dominant hand.  I was told that your brain will notice different details and story possibilities from the “other” hand’s POV. I didn’t believe it, but I tried it. I was amazed! I did it again using a painting of a village scene this time and the same thing happened!

Try it.  Do.  Then email me (or comment below) the results.

Money Ain’t Everything

FREE writing5The other type of free writing that most wordsmiths don’t like to consider, is writing FOR FREE; not charging a fee, gratis, a lot of work for no pay. Some do it for the experience and to get a name and byline which they can later barter. They think of it as a rite of passage, paying their dues, a necessary evil. (Hey, I love clichés.)

But I bet you’ve done free writing and didn’t even realize it. How about that guest blog? (Okay, you pumped your book.) What about being so wowed by a book you just read, you ran to Amazon or Goodreads and posted a glorious review?

Unless your own blog has a commercial aspect, every post there is virtually free.

FREE editing1How about volunteering to critique or edit a friend’s manuscript? (I edit papers by seminary students in Africa and it is very gratifying.) Or mentoring a newbie writer? (I’m doing that for a friend who’s attempting her first memoir.) How about writing a note of encouragement to an author who’s just lost her editor or publisher, or gotten a stinky review?

These kind of projects are definitely in the “feel good” category but they are still writing. They are lucrative in a non-monetary way, and sometimes the payoff is astounding.

The Bottom Line

Writers write… however and whenever, for whomever, and for whatever pay. They write. WE write.

So WRITE FREE and see what happens.

 

Websites with writing prompts: scene setups, situations, words, and photos:

http://www.writersdigest.com/prompts – scenes

http://thinkwritten.com/365-creative-writing-prompts/ – brief suggestions

https://dailypost.files.wordpress.com/2013/12/365-days-of-writing-prompts-1387477491.pdf – each day

http://www.writingforward.com/writing-prompts/creative-writing-prompts/25-creative-writing-prompts –  brief ideas

http://writeshop.com/creative-writing-photo-prompts-imagination/  – photos

http://writingexercises.co.uk/random-image-generator.php – very cool! a new photo prompt with each click of your mouse.

 

Do the Details Matter in Series Writing?

I remember an author on a panel saying that writers MUST get every detail right, from street directions to building descriptions. If not, readers would riot and complain.

I admit I’ve run into this scenario. I used bolero instead of bolo for a tie description. I didn’t catch it. The editor didn’t catch it. Three proofreaders didn’t catch it. But one reader caught it and left a nasty note on Amazon reviews. He said I was “just sloppy”. I immediately changed it and uploaded the revision, but I couldn’t thank the guy who had caught my mistake because he didn’t leave contact information. So, it does happens.

However, I would like put up an argument that, if readers love the books, they aren’t going to stop reading if they catch an inconsistency, and as my example, I’ll use Rex Stout, author of the Nero Wolf/Archie Goodwin novels.

In the course of reading every novel, novella and short he ever wrote, I’ve discovered many contradictions. Archie Goodwin smokes in one novel and says that he doesn’t smoke in another. He also says that he’s never seen  Inspector Cramer actually light his cigar, yet in earlier stories, Cramer puffs away.  The list goes on.

It gives me a giggle to be so immersed in his world that I catch these things. It seems as if Mr. Stout was so involved in the world of his current story that what came before (or might come after) didn’t hit his radar. I don’t consider them sloppy mistakes. They just feel like one more eccentricity of the characters coming down through the author.

One of the reasons that these changing details don’t bother me is that they don’t affect the core of the characters. Archie still complains about Wolf, while at the same time admiring him. He easily falls for females, makes smart-mouthed comments, and loves being the right-hand man of the smartest detective around. Wolf is still an Immovable Object  (Archie’s words, not mine), and he continues to take delight in cuisine and no delight women. (Though he claims to be neutral in the latter.)

I’ve put a disclaimer in the beginning of my Frankie Chandler, pet psychic, novels.  Breeds are not always capitalized, and grammar  aficionados would be quick to jump on how I capitalize all breeds. I do it intentionally out of love and respect for my furry characters.  I wouldn’t recommend that writers ignore the details, but if the world they create and the characters who inhabit that world are intriguing enough, I think that readers will let the occasional slip-up slide.

If your memory is a sieve (it will happen eventually to most of us), you can always keep those details in order by using a chart, or a style sheet. In fact, I recommend that you do. Track locations, names, dates, and anything else that you’ll need to refer to at a later date. If you have the skill of Rex Stout, discrepancies can be charming. For the rest of us, well, we might be considered “just sloppy”!