I’m struggling with plotting in my middle grade novel. While I’m getting better at plotting, it’s still something that doesn’t come naturally to me. I wrote a post recently about the resources that I use when plotting. If you are struggling with plotting, these resources might help you too!
Words can not express how much I have learned from Renée. I have loved reading and writing poetry for many years, but when I took Renée’s The Lyrical Language Lab class, I loved poetry even more. She is an amazing teacher and she gives such valuable feedback. I continue to learn from her in the class’s Facebook group. I’m so happy to have her here sharing her knowledge with you.
When I began developing my online course The Lyrical Language Lab: Punching Up Prose with Poetry, I knew I’d need to provide a lot of examples of how poetic techniques can be used in prose.
The first place I turned to was MG and YA novels, particularly Newbery Medal and Honor winners. There are so many rich examples in the genre! What I specifically look for in mentor texts is not just lovely language that sounds pretty, but language that strengthens and supports every single story element, including mood, tone, setting, and character. And, since I am using these texts to teach, I want to be able to pinpoint the poetic techniques being used and show how they support the story elements.
My favorite example, and one that I use in my course, is from Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. (This is printed in other blog posts around the Internet, but it really bears repeating!) (Click to enlarge.)
In these few pages, Creech uses several poetic techniques that support other story elements, including:
- Figurative language and imagery (red)
- Diction (fuchsia)
- Repetition (purple)
- Sound devices (green)
- Hyperbole (blue)
What I particularly love about this example is that 1) it is so full of poetic techniques that I can use this text for multiple purposes, and 2) these are the opening pages to the novel, which is so important for me when I search for mentor texts. I want to see that magic from the moment I open the book, so I can then show students how important it is to pay attention to every word, starting with the very first one.
Because I rely heavily on first pages, I have found Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature to be a big help in my search for mentor texts. It’s the first place I go when I discover a new possibility, and often use this feature to find more models for lyrical language. Some first pages that I am adding to my growing list of texts are from
Because each lesson in my course is focused on one concept, I don’t really use whole texts; rather, I use short excerpts to illustrate and analyze the specific concept being covered. From there, students complete a writing exercise using the excerpt as a model for their own work.
Mentor texts play a huge part in my teaching, and I’m always delighted by the “a-ha” moments students can experience when they’ve read a really great example of a particular concept – and can then apply it to their own writing.
I highly recommend that writers start a collection of their own “snippets” – those wonderful words and phrases and sentences that stop us in our tracks when we read – to refer to again and again as guides and inspiration.
Renée M. LaTulippe has co-authored nine early readers and a volume of poetry titled Lizard Lou: a collection of rhymes old and new (Moonbeam Children’s Book Award) for All About Learning Press, where she is also the editor, and has poems in several editions of The Poetry Friday Anthology series as well as the upcoming anthologies The National Geographic Book of Nature Poetry and One Minute Till Bedtime. She developed and teaches the online course The Lyrical Language Lab: Punching Up Prose with Poetry and blogs on children’s poetry at NoWaterRiver.com..
Copyright (c) 2015 Renée M. LaTulippe.
Mentor Texts for Writers: Doors and Maps: Digging for Treasure in Middle Grade Mentor Texts by L.M. Quraishi
It’s time to dive into middle grade mentor texts. Like L.M. Quraishi, our guest blogger today, I love to read and write middle grade. In fact, when I’m stuck in any kind of writing, I particularly like to read middle grade novels because it always helps me savor words again. After reading this post, I’m sure you’ll be like me and want to run out and get your hands on the copy of the mentor text she walks us through.
© L. M. Quraishi, 2015
I cannot read without writing anymore.
When I’m half a page into a new novel and think to myself, Oooh, this is gonna be good! the reader in me loses herself in the story. And the writer in me keeps a detailed map of all the story’s doors to Neverland.
- How exactly did the author frame this door into her world?
- What grain of wood did she choose, so that when I place my palm against its texture and inhale its fragrance, I understand her characters with my very skin and senses?
- Where was the door placed along the path of story, at just the spot to entice my fingers to the knob?
- What did the door reveal as it swung open wide?
For me, a mentor text is any book that beguiles the reader in me, and rouses the writer in me.
When I find one, I slow down to savor it. I am looking for each curtain of Oz, because I want to peek behind every one.
I’ve learned to notice the different kinds of doors that authors build into their stories.
Sometimes when studying a mentor text I use an exercise I call Digging for Treasure.
- Keep smartphone handy while reading/re-reading.
- Copy sentences and page numbers that stand out into the Notes app.
- Email file to self.
- Take a closer look at the author’s craft.
Like invisible ink staining parchment with a secret map, the patterns of artistry reveal themselves under the heat of careful examination.
Most recently I’ve been enchanted by Tricia Springstubb’s new middle grade novel, Moonpenny Island (Balzer & Bray, 2015).
I couldn’t turn more than three pages of this book without wanting to dig out a piece of her writing and hold it in my hand. Treasures I found on Moonpenny Island:
© L. M. Quraishi, 2015
Relevant and compelling characterization…
When Flor was in the third grade and had to draw a spelling picture for secret, she drew a rock.
for ALL the characters…
Cecilia reaches for a towel and slowly dries her hands. First one, then the other, then the first one again, like her hands are precious objects.
Between that hat and the oversize clothes, approximately two percent of this girl is visible.
Characterization that reveals relationship:
Across the road, Mrs. Defoe calls her name. “Flor!” She makes it sound like something you step on.
Dialogue with minor characters that reveals deeper truths and themes of the story:
“People have been leaving home as far back as Adam and Eve,” she calls as Flor heads out the door.
Fresh and relevant language—images, metaphors and description that elaborate character…
Flor’s afraid of the dark, and out here, she can tell, the dark would be that thick, suffocating kind, the kind that runs against you like black fur.
…set the mood…
An empty chip bag skips across the sidewalk and hugs her ankle like it wants company.
…or hint at story/character arc:
The sun’s slipped a few notches, and when she stands up, her shadow wears stilts.
Outstanding sentences placed at the beginning or end of a chapter:
Life’s a crooked shelf, and things keep rolling off before Flor can catch them.
The water stops their breath.
…even when it’s just about the weather:
The rain is mean. Mean like cruel and mean like this means change is coming.
Change for EVERY character:
Mrs. Defoe steps outside. Her brown jacket is buttoned to her chin, but what is this? Around her neck is a yellow scarf….the pure yellow of buttercups.
The next time you’re reading a book and it gives you chills, try taking a closer look at the story’s doors. Draw yourself a map, and dig out that treasure for your own chest. If you have coin to spare, send it my way via link to your post. I’d love to read what you’re reading.
Born to a Pakistani father and American mother in California, L. Michelle Quraishi was raised on a steady diet of liverwurst, Madeleine L’Engle, and sitar music. After college, she spent two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Paraguay, before moving to the Mission District of San Francisco where she taught Spanish bilingual kindergarten. She now lives in the San Francisco East Bay with her husband and two children, finding inspiration for her children’s books in goddess lore, brain science, animal behavior, calculus and kung fu. You can connect with her at lmquraishi.com, or on Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest.
I have this novel that’s been pretty much done for several months. But the climax of the story was just terrible. I knew it would require some major rewriting and some rewriting of early parts to make it all come together. But I needed some big chunks of time.
I looked at the calendar for possibilities. There was a week where my 4 year old was going to camp for three hours every morning. And there was a new library close by. So for a few mornings, my daughter and I loaded up our bags and went to the library to work in front of this big window. She read and drew and drew and drew. I wrote and marked up my terrible chapters.
I went on a hunt for a tree. With my kids.
My daughter brought a sketchbook and a field guide to trees. My son brought four plastic screwdrivers.
My WIP has a Hawthorn tree that’s important in the story, and a friend brought me a Hawthorn branch last winter. But I really wanted some leaves because the leaves are also important in the story. So are these mushrooms.
We hiked on a few different trails on the hunt for the Hawthorn tree, even looked for some park rangers, but we didn’t find either one.
But we did spot some really interesting things on our walks, even if they weren’t what we were looking for.
I had the opportunity this summer to audit a class through the Hollins Children’s Literature program. I’m a two-time alumna from this program earning my M.A. and my M.F.A. I’m lucky enough to get to return each summer for the free public event featuring authors, illustrators, scholars, editors and agents of children’s books because Hollins is only a 15 minute drive from my house. But this is the first time that I’ve audited a class. I took a regional writing class with author, Candice Ransom. I took a picture book writing class with Candice when I was working on my M.F.A. In fact, she and I go way back to when I was president of our local reading council, and I asked her to come speak at one of our events. I’ve also attended two of her retreats in Luray, Virginia. My brother would call me a professional nerd, I mean, student. He’d argue that I have two masters degrees, why do I need yet another class? Well, because I do.
Candice was kind enough to let me sit in and absorb her class. And absorb, I did.
There’s nothing like basking in regional literature creative writing class taught by someone who writes children’s books with a strong sense of place. Check out Candice’s regional novels including: FINDING DAY’S BOTTOM, REBEL MCKENZIE, IVA HONEYSUCKLE DISCOVERS THE WORLD, and IVA HONEYSUCKLE MEETS HER MATCH. She’s written over 100 books, though. So be sure to check her out.
If you peruse Candice’s blog, you’ll also see that she is master of photography that takes you to abandoned places that beg for their stories to be told.
David Almond encouraged us to embrace our own regionalism when writing. Sometimes there is danger in regionalism where the story becomes only about the place, so the story still needs to be universal. Both Candice and David spoke about filling their writing space with physical objects for their books. Creating a space for their novel in their work area helps ground them to the tangible places.
Every novel that I’ve written (and I’m currently working on number 3) the place has been vitally important to the story. So taking this class enriched my understanding of place and how to embrace the traditions, the food, the weather, the landscape, and use it to its fullest potential, while still telling a good story.
This summer, everything fell into place for me to attend this class, with the exception of the three classes I missed because my husband was in the hospital. But my mom was able to do childcare, and Candice was generous enough to let me attend. I delved into my new novel, dipping my toes into scenes while still finishing revisions on my other middle grade novel.
This artist date was a lengthy one, and one that required work on my part. But it also helped fill my writerly cup.
I know many writers will disagree with me when I say that I sometimes use my own kids as a “test audience” for my books. One of the arguments against this is that kids aren’t going to tell you that they dislike your book because they don’t want to upset you. But the way I see it, I have my own little house of potential readers. I would never tell an agent or an editor that my kids loved my book because that would be a big NO-NO.
But it would also be a lie. They don’t always love my books. And this is good.
Because I learn what doesn’t work.
Sometimes, my kids have questions or get bored. And finding this out makes my writing stronger.
Picture Books—Testing Them Out on the Artist
My daughter is an artist. One summer I was taking a picture book class with Candice Ransom and we had to make picture book dummies to help us with paging out our books. There wasn’t supposed to be any artwork—just words. I use this technique with all of my picture books. My daughter picked one up when she was five and asked if she could draw the pictures. No one else will probably ever see these dummies, but it helped me. What pages did she have trouble coming up with a different drawing? These are the pages that don’t work and need to have new images created with words.
Picture Books—Testing Them Out on the Squirmy Boy
I have a 3 year old squirmy boy. One day we were waiting to pick up his sister. He was still buckled into the car seat and I knew I had him right where I wanted him. I started reading him my picture books that I was revising. He didn’t know they were mine. He’s used to me reading to him. What I did notice is this: it’s very different reading out loud to a squirmy three year old than reading aloud to oneself in the privacy of an office. I heard mistakes I didn’t hear before. I noticed where things seemed to drag. Where did he start to squirm? I made notes as a I read.
Picture books, especially beloved picture books, begged to be read aloud again and again. Reading mine out loud lets me test them on for size. Would I want to read this book aloud again and again and again? If not, it’s time to make some changes.
Middle Grade—Embracing the Questions
Recently I was really struggling with the opening chapters of a middle grade I loved. But I couldn’t figure out a way to make it work. My daughter and I were in the car (again) waiting to go somewhere. I asked if I could read her something. I had it on my Kindle. I read her the first chapter then asked her what questions she had. At this time, she didn’t know it was my book. She was full of questions. Some were questions that I was okay for her not to know the answers to yet. But some where the types of questions I needed—places where she was confused, places I didn’t set up enough for the reader. I wrote everything down and went to work on rewriting the beginning chapters of the book. And it’s so much better because of it.
My Own Worst Critic
I am my own worst critic, and reading some of my books (or parts of them) out loud to my kids (AKA potential readers) helps me be realistic about what’s wrong with the book. These little critics help me make it better.