Sunday, February 18, 2018

Shortest of Short: Haiku! by Claudia Mills

I love writing middle-grade books for kids. And I love writing poetry. So if I can have kids in my books writing poetry, it's double the bliss for me. As we are celebrating "all things short" here on this blog in this short month, I'm giving a shout-out to the shortest poems of all: haiku.

In my recent middle-grade novel, The Trouble with Friends, the third book in my Nora Notebooks series, the kids in Nora’s class are writing haiku for a poetry unit. In one chapter I gave myself the treat of writing a haiku for each kid that expressed his or her character.

Emma dotes on her cat, Precious Cupcake, so I gave Emma a cat-loving haiku:

My cat is the best.
White, soft, fluffy, blue eyes. tail.
She is the cutest!

Critter-loving Amy is disappointed that her mom won't let her get a pet snake. So she wrote:

When I'm a mom some-
day, my kids can have ten snakes
and I'll say "Hooray!"

Class dancer Tamara shared her love of dance in her  haiku "Hip Hop":

When I start to dance
My feet have their own ideas.
My body follows.

Ant-loving Nora writes her haiku about ants, of course:

The ant is smaller
Than the cracker crumb. But she
Carries it so far.

And poetry-hating Mason wrote this one:

How I Feel about Poetry 

No no no no no
No no no no no no no
No no no no no.

In addition to my own self-indulgent pleasure in writing poems for my child characters, I've also found having some little "round up" exercise like this a satisfyingly simple way to show character. If each kid has to come up with, say, a word problem for math class, or a persuasive essay topic for language arts, or choose a character to impersonate in an Oregon Trail reenactment, how can each character's choice be mobilized to reveal his or her character? 

Now I'm off to meet the challenge I've given myself of writing a poem a day for each of the 28 days in February!

Thursday, February 15, 2018

A Child of Mine

Beau, Grandbaby

In lieu of recent events, you’ll forgive me if, instead of writing about short stories, I offer this short poem instead.

A Child of Mine


I will lend you, for a little time,
A child of mine, He said.
For you to love the while he lives,
And mourn for when he's dead.
It may be six or seven years,
Or twenty-two or three.
But will you, till I call him back,
Take care of him for Me?

For all the joys Thy child shall bring,
The risk of grief we'll run.
We'll shelter him with tenderness,
We'll love him while we may,
And for the happiness we've known,
Forever grateful stay.
But should the angels call for him,
Much sooner than we've planned.
We'll brave the bitter grief that comes,
And try to understand.

-- Edgar Albert Guest (1881 – 1959) 
This poem was first Published in a newspaper circa 1930, and reprinted in "Living The Years" 1949 publ. Chicago, Reilly & Lee Co. For the full poem, see here

Guest was a popular poet in the first half of the 20th century, often called the People’s Poet. He wrote over 11,000 poems, syndicated in over 300 newspapers and 20 book collections.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

As Simple As Possible (But No Simpler), by Chris Tebbetts

As someone who writes a lot of middle grade material that is meant to be fast-reading and narratively compact, this month’s blog theme has gotten me thinking about what goes into the economy that I try to bring to my writing.

One of my guiding principles echoes the famous Einstein quote, that “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” For me, that means keeping my prose as clean and focused as I can, while also making sure that I don’t overdo it with the economy. I don’t want to be stingy with my storytelling. Rather, I want my stories to be dense and flavorful, and I want everything I include to be there for a reason. To that end, here are three things I watch out for:

1) REDUNDANCIES. This can be deceptively tricky. Some repetitions and unnecessary passages are obvious when I read through a draft, but others can take a while to uncover. Consider this line and see if you can spot the redundancy:

“Burton was asleep on the bed, his closed eyes twitching lightly and his arms wrapped around a pillow."

Do I need to mention the closed eyes of a sleeping character? I would say probably not. And then, how about a line like this:

“What happened next changed everything.”

That might be a perfectly good setup, depending on the context. On the other hand, am I just telling my readers something that I’m about to show them, anyway?

Those are just two smallish examples, but I find that the more deeply I read in the revision phase, the more redundancy I tend to find.

2) TOO MUCH OFF-CAMERA TIME. For the style I write in (and, I would say, for middle grade in general), it’s important to keep the story moving along, and to keep things happening on-camera, so to speak.

Off-camera moments, as I think of them, include anything outside the events of the scene itself: description, internal monologue, narration, flashback, reflection. These are all important ingredients, but I try to keep my proportions weighted heavily toward the on-camera side of things. My own rule of thumb is that I only allow myself one or two off-camera passages per scene or chapter. That doesn’t include descriptive phrases or momentary asides, but it does include any multi-sentence diversion from what’s happening in the here and now of the story.

3) STARTING A SCENE OR STORY AT THE RIGHT MOMENT (AKA, AS LATE AS POSSIBLE). One of the most common mistakes I see in student manuscripts is over-long beginnings. It’s not uncommon for me to point out to another writer that their drafted story doesn’t actually begin until page three, or chapter two, or whatnot. This is often the result of the author working through her own discovery process, which can mean putting down a lot of ultimately expendable exposition as she drafts through. When I write, I try to bear in mind the slippery difference between what I need to know in order to tell the story, and what my readers need to know in order to enjoy it.

It’s the same thing with scenes. Do you ever notice on t.v. how often characters skip the “hello…how are you” and “goodbye…see you later” parts of their conversations? When you notice, it can seem unrealistic, but overall, the story moves more gracefully along when the storyteller lets go of those ultimately static moments. Take a look at a few scenes you’ve written and ask yourself: where does this scene really begin? And, while you’re at it, where does it really end?

As a caveat, let me add that none of this is about hard and fast rules. Context, style, and the individual needs of a given story all need to be taken into account. But I do find that deeply combing my manuscript for expendable material can really pay off. Bit by bit, it may not seem like much, but in the aggregate, it can add up to a significantly smoother, more engaging reading experience for your audience—and a better book for you.

I’m sure there are more examples I could offer, but…well, you know… I have to keep this brief.

Happy reading, and happy writing!

Short and Sweet Sentences, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

Happy Valentine's Day! In honor of this sweet holiday, I thought I'd talk about one of my favorite writing topics -- the power of short sentences. I LOVE short sentences and use them in my writing often. Sentences that have just a few words can pack a powerful, emotional punch. I'm a fan of one-word sentences too, especially when they follow a longer sentence. That creates a nice rhythm and variation in the text. Here are some heart-stopping examples.

In the middle of because of mr. terupt by Rob Buyea, there are several short, powerful sentences. It's at the point when Mr. Terupt has been hit with the snowball and the kids are reacting and sharing their feelings. The sentences are simple, heartfelt, and real, such as Peter saying, "I didn't know Mr. T was going to be right there. I didn't want to hurt anyone." And Anna: "Please let my teacher be okay." I love the way they're structured in the book too, with each narrator's sentence on one page. That format makes the sentences even more dramatic.

Flora & Ulysses is another one of my favorites because of Kate DiCamillo's ability to convey emotion with humor, surprise, and short sentence "zingers" that can make you laugh, cry, or both.

Here's an example:

"Have you lost your mind?" said Mrs. Tickham.
Flora ignored her.
She breathed into the squirrel's mouth. She pushed down on his small chest.
She started to count."

I adore the lyrical rhythm of these few sentences, and the alternating longer/shorter word length.

DiCamillo also periodically uses one word sentences, one right after the other, such as: "Capacious. Random. Heart. Universe. Flora felt dizzy."

I have to mention The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate since it is perhaps my favorite middle grade book. Just the opening sentences alone -- "I am Ivan. I am a gorilla. It's not as easy as it looks." -- grab onto my heart and don't let go for the entire story.

 This amazing book is filled with so many short, emotional sentences that make you stop reading, sit back, and just say, wow. I'm talking about:

"I don't know why. I never know the why of humans."

"I pause, and then I say it. 'It's a cage.'"

"I can't let Ruby be another One and Only."

I used a lot of short sentences in my middle grade novel, The Summer I Saved the 65 Days.

The opening lines are:

"It starts with Mrs. Chung.
And flowers.

Later in the book, in a particularly poignant part, I describe the action in brief, almost choppy sentences, which matches the mood of that scene, as the family is trying to come back together after a period of distance and misunderstanding. Here's an excerpt:

"Scrambled eggs. Burnt pancakes. Slightly expired orange juice, which Dad says is still drinkable. Strawberries on the rims. The four of us at the kitchen table. Small talk. A joke. Dad cutting pancakes like he used to cut spaghetti. Not perfect. A little rusty. But still a family."

Wishing you lots of short and sweet writing, and of course, tons of chocolate today!

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of several middle grade novels. Her newest will publish this coming fall from Simon & Schuster/Aladdin. Find out more at

Monday, February 12, 2018

Let Me Be, Brief. by Darlene Beck Jacobson

Here we are in FEBRUARY: the "short" month.  What February lacks in number of days, it makes up for in letters...having the same number of letters as November and December - the big holiday months.  Things are tough for February though.  It's stuck in the middle of winter.  And it gets an extra day only every four years.  Maybe that's why Valentine's Day is in February - everyone needs love...even a short month.

I've been thinking a lot about the word SHORT and what it means.  Here's a "short"list:
- short of stature
- short tempered
- short note 
- short pants
- short-sleeved shirt
- to be short with someone
- shortcoming
- short sighted
- shorthand
- short-lived
- shortage
- shortbread
- shortcake
- short circuit

Think about this list.  In every case except one, short describes something lacking or missing, or less than.  Not my definitions...Websters Dictionary and Roget's Thesaurus.

I want to add another definition of SHORT:  Concise.  Nothing wasted.  A good thing in a small package.  Just like February.  How could you not love a month that celebrates love, a sleepy rodent, presidents, black history, and the Olympics every 4 years?

Have you guessed the one "short" where nothing is lacking?  Shortcake?  No, it's much better with strawberries and whipped cream.  But, shortbread is perfect just the way it is.  

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Yes, This Is Short

from Jody Feldman

Sorry for the extreme brevity, but that’s all it takes to tell you this:
The little book that could,
and still can,
and still does
is now 10 years old. 

To celebrate, I'm giving it away. I'll be drawing 10 names from all entries received by February 28. 

GRAND PRIZE (1 winner):
A Gollywhopper Games challenge designed especially for you 
(or instead, your choice of all the prizes below)
   * Class set of The Gollywhopper Games
   * Free Skype visit (or in-school visit if local)
   * All three books in The Gollywhopper Games series 

To enter, comment below OR send an email with your contact info to GollywhopperGames@gmail.comWant a double chance to win?
Simply list the 3 titles in The Gollywhopper Games series with your entry.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

SHORT CUTS -- by Jane Kelley

Can you take a short cut?

No. There aren't any.

Sorry. You've got to write each word. You've got to rewrite most of those words. You must start at the beginning, slog through the mushy middle, and conquer the climax before you reach the end of your story. It's word by word, or Bird by Bird, as Anne Lamott wrote in her stupendous book.

Should you take a short cut?

Absolutely. In fact, you must.

Writing word by word doesn't mean that you must describe in intricate detail every moment of your hero's life. Choosing when to linger and when to jump ahead is one of the most important decisions a writer must make. In her book, Steering the Craft, Ursula K. Le Guin calls those choices "crowding and leaping."

Sometimes, as she says, we need to keep our stories "crowded with sensations, meanings, and implications." To do that, you can't rush through those moments. Leaping is different. "What you leave out is infinitely more important than what you put in.

A narrative is a journey which is best experienced at different speeds. Sometimes you walk through the village. You might even need to slither through a field on your belly. Sometimes you should pick up the pace--ride in a car or maybe zoom in a jet. And sometimes you should take advantage of a tesseract and bend the space-time continuum to get to those deliciously crowded parts.

Will you take a short cut?

My dad always did. He always thought he could find a better way to get where he was going. He hated the conventional route. Those were the days before an automated voice told you when and where to turn. Since he was making his own path, we never knew where we would end up. Once we were visiting family in Indiana and somehow or other ended up in Michigan. "Dad!" we teased him mercilessly. Now I see that journey as testament to his creative spirit.

To sum it up:  I don't cut corners. I skip the dull parts. I seek out any trail that leads where I might want to go---even though it's rarely the most efficient route.

My husband and I found this sign while hiking in Vermont.
Did we take it? You bet!

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Show Us Your Shorts!

By Charlotte Bennardo

I'm going to keep this short - because that's the theme.

Do you write short stories? No?

I know the excuses:

     I can't write anything under 20,000 words.

     I don't know what to write about.

     The word limit is too... limiting.

     I only write novels. (Or picture books. Or anime. Or screenplays.)

When I first started writing for children, I wrote picture books. But since I couldn't keep to a word count under 1,300 words, I gave that up and found my niche in novels for young adults and middle grade.

Then I saw an intriguing call for submissions for an anthology by Leap Books celebrating the 150th anniversary of Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.

And I thought... why not?

Photo by from Pexels

A word limit of 3,000 to 5,000 words must be observed, the story had to employ three elements (Alice, the White Rabbit, and a journey) and of course the work must be submitted within the deadline. If accepted, I would even be paid a small honorarium (hey, it's still money).

I thought and I thought. When an idea hit, I ran with it.

It was rejected- and I recognized that yeah, it deserved to be. But I was determined and wrote another submission- which was accepted (Alice Through the Wormhole is my story, and the anthology is Beware the Little White Rabbit. It's still available through Amazon or Barnes & Noble.)

I forced myself to stay in the word count (actually, I misread that part; I thought it was up to 3,000 words, but it was a minimum of 3,000).  Writing that short story not only helped me sharpen my skills by learning to make judicious word choices and a streamlined plot, but it built confidence that I could write shorter pieces.

Since that success, I've had a short horror story, Faces in the Wood, included as part of a charitable anthology, Scare Me to Sleep, and I've submitted a gothic-style short for Leap's newest anthology celebrating the 200th anniversary of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. The contest deadline is February 14th, and is titled Strangely Are Our Souls Constructed (a line from the book). More details can be found on their website. There's still time!

I've seen a number of colleagues branching out from novels into short stories. If you're intimidated by writing a 50,000+ word novel, this is the perfect starting point. Even if your story is not accepted, once you read it over (and you will) you'll see places where you could have improved, but you'll also see sections that amaze you.

I've gone on  long enough... See you next month!