On Setting and Sharks: My Research Trip to Nantucket

A little over a year ago, I put aside the novel I’d been working on during the first year of my MFA program to start something new.  After reading an inspiring blog post by E. Lockhart on Cynsations about where fiction comes from, I had the seed of a new idea.  I had a clear emotion in mind, and I wanted to explore that emotion through my story.

But I also needed to avoid the problems I’d had with my last attempt at a novel (mainly that there wasn’t a clear inciting incident or, well, plot, and my character wanted too many disparate things instead of having one driving desire).  I decided to set the novel within a summer instead of during a whole year to keep things simpler.  And drawing upon Robert McKee’s definition of an inciting incident in Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting, I came up with a true, world-shaking event to start my character’s story, and then I set her off on a journey to try to set her world right again.

That journey took her to Nantucket, a place I had loved when I was a child and we spent two weeks there every August.  I hadn’t been there in twenty years, so I knew my memories couldn’t be entirely accurate and the place had probably changed a lot.  But I figured if that was where my novel wanted to be set, I would do as much online research as I could to try to keep the setting authentic, and then later on, I could decide if I wanted to fictionalize the place.

Last weekend, on pretty much the best “working vacation” imaginable, I went back to Nantucket.  Except for the beach, which seems much narrower than it used to, the part of the island where we used to stay doesn’t feel that different from how I pictured it, but the town definitely does.  I just finished a full draft of the novel on Friday (yippee!), and I will have to take a careful look at whether or not it makes sense to fictionalize the setting as I start to revise.  I think it probably does, so that I can have more creative leeway to establish the feeling I want the town to have, but either way, my “research” trip will enrich my story.


Madaket Marina, near where we used to stay, where I biked on our second to last morning.

I had forgotten the violet puffs of cloud at sunset that look like chimney smoke, the way the marine smell hangs thicker at the dock than at the beach, the rocks and shell bits that jab your bare feet at the town beaches, and the way you have to slow down and veer to the edge of the bike path when people are coming around a curve from the other direction. As Sarah Sullivan said in a post on Through the Tollbooth about the effective use of setting in the adult book Olive Kitteridge, authors can choose “details in a setting to hold emotion, to transfer the reader’s eye off the point-of-view character onto something in the setting, thereby allowing readers to experience the particular emotion the main character experiences, along with that character […].”  We can have a character notice something in a setting that resonates with the character’s emotional state—one shiny, whole shell amidst a bunch of broken shell bits; nests of dark seaweed littering the smooth white sand; or a beach that has eroded to half the width it used to be—and leave the reader to feel the character’s emotions and make inferences about the connection between the character’s emotions and the detail she notices in the setting.  Whether or not I call the island in my novel “Nantucket,” I hope to be able to use the details I absorbed during my time there to enrich the setting of my story and increase the emotional resonance in some of my scenes.

Oh, and there’s something else from my trip that might make its way into my novel.  On the second full day of the trip, we headed two hours out into the ocean and saw five different blue sharks that came right up to our little boat.  If we wanted, we could climb down into a cage on the side of the boat to see the sharks up close underwater.  I was nervous, especially since there was an opening in the front of the cage and the plexiglass came loose from one side (but don’t worry—our guide rigged it back up), but realized that if I didn’t try it, I was going to be disappointed.  After I confirmed that someone could pull me right back out of the cage if I freaked out, I did it.  What a rush!  The sharks are this beautiful blue on top and white underneath, and it was so cool to see one shark’s white underside and its round black eyes as it chomped on the bait our guide had set up for it.  I don’t plan to randomly include a shark scene in my novel, but that feeling of doing something a little scary but exciting because I wanted to for myself, not because I was worried about what other people might think of me if I didn’t?  That could fit into my character’s journey for sure.


One of the blue sharks swimming toward our boat. (Photo taken by Mike Fabius)

LIAR AND SPY: An Excellent Read-Aloud Novel

I love to include read alouds in my middle school English classroom.  That usually means choosing an effective read-aloud novel, reading somewhere between five and fifteen minutes per class, and giving students some time to discuss their reactions and predictions as we go.  I find that read alouds increase students’ enthusiasm about books and lead to some very animated conversations.  Plus, students (and I) really enjoy them.

Last year, I started a new teaching job and was getting used to a new school schedule and a new curriculum.  As a result, I wasn’t able to incorporate much reading aloud.  But this year, I am ready to integrate more read alouds again, and I’m excited to use Rebecca Stead’s new novel Liar and Spy, probably with my sixth (and maybe seventh) grade students.

Stead’s When You Reach Me is one of my all-time favorite read alouds.  Sarah on “The Reading Zone” recommended Liar and Spy as a terrific read aloud (and shared some excellent activity suggestions which I plan to use), and as soon as I started the book, I knew she was right.  But what characteristics make a book an effective read aloud?  Why do Rebecca Stead’s novels lend themselves so well to this format?

When You Reach Me and Liar and Spy are pretty different: When You Reach Me features time travel and takes place on the Upper West Side in the late 1970s, while Liar and Spy is a contemporary realistic novel set in Brooklyn.  But both novels feature a likable main character with a distinctive voice; deal with relatable family, friend, and school issues; invite readers to think about big, philosophical ideas; and encourage readers to piece together clues.  For me, these characteristics (a compelling protagonist/distinctive narrative voice, relatable themes, opportunities for abstract thinking, and opportunities for making inferences) lead to a very successful read aloud.

Liar and Spy tells the story of Georges, a seventh-grade loner who is teased about the silent “S” at the end of his name and who has to move from his beloved house to an apartment after his dad loses his job.  Georges is funny and smart.  He makes spot-on observations about his classmates, his teachers, and his dad, but he holds himself apart from other people until he gets to know a dog-walking, scrambled-egg-cooking, spy-enthusiast new neighbor named Safer.

Stead deals with bullying in this novel, but she does it with humor and without melodrama.  Georges knows that he is dealing with what his mom would call “classic bully crap” and is hurt by the way some of his classmates treat him, but he doesn’t feel sorry for himself.  He maintains his sense of humor, and with the help of his classmate “Bob English Who Draws,” he is ultimately able to create his own group of allies who refuse to follow some of the “rules” of middle school.  Rules are an ongoing motif in this story—especially rules that don’t work logically or consistently, like the rules of spelling, taste, or where people sit at lunch.

While Stead gets readers thinking philosophically with her veil metaphor in When You Reach Me—the idea that most people walk around behind an invisible veil that keeps them from seeing all of the beauty and pain around them—she encourages us to think about the benefits of focusing on the big picture versus the “dots” in Liar and Spy.  Georges is named after the French painter Georges Seurat, and his parents have a print of a Seurat painting that is made up of thousands of dots.  Georges can only make out the shapes if he stands back and looks at the whole thing.  “Like Mom says,” he muses at one point, “life is a million dots making one gigantic picture.  And maybe the big picture is nice, maybe it’s amazing, but if you’re standing with your face pressed up against a bunch of black dots, it’s really hard to tell.”  He tries to keep himself from fixating on the “dots” of day-to-day life, but in a poignant father-son scene he comes to realize that, “Life is really just a bunch of nows, one after the other,” so both the dots and the big picture matter.  Throughout the course of the novel, Stead also raises fruitful questions about what makes something a game and what it means to lie.

Liar and Spy encourages and rewards close, thoughtful reading, because Stead lets readers make inferences about Georges and Safer—what they aren’t quite honest about and what they don’t want to acknowledge.  Therefore, teachers can guide students through the process of inference-making and let students share their predictions, their evidence for those predictions, and their reasoning.  Reading this book aloud will let students practice analytical reading with some teacher support.

As an added bonus, Liar and Spy is fairly short, so it won’t take too long to get through as a class. What do you think makes a book an effective read aloud?  Any characteristics you’d add to my list?  Any other favorite read-aloud books to share (or for non-teachers, any books you’d choose to read aloud to a group of kids if you ever got the opportunity)?

On Learning New Things

During my third semester at Vermont College of Fine Arts, my wonderful advisor Mary Quattlebaum gave me prompts to spark short writing exercises she called wordplays.  At one point, she asked me to write a wordplay about a time from my childhood or adolescence when I was learning something that didn’t come easily to me, and at another point, she asked me to write a scene in which the main character in my novel was learning something from another character.

I found both of those exercises extremely useful.  For the first, I wrote about learning to drive, when I couldn’t get the hang of how hard to turn the key in the ignition and it seemed like I’d never remember all of the things you were supposed to do before pulling out of the driveway.  As I wrote, I felt that anxiety and frustration rush back—that worry that I might not be able to do something everyone else in the world seemed totally capable of.  I saw myself squeezing the steering wheel too tight, hunching forward in the driver’s seat, and whipping around to tell my brothers to shut up.  And when I wrote the scene in which my main character was learning something from a boy she’d recently met (how to hit a baseball at the batting cages), I drew upon my sensory memories of learning to drive when they were appropriate, and I found out all sorts of interesting things about my character: what she does when she feels vulnerable, how she uses humor to stay in control, and how determined she can be to get something right.

While it was very helpful for me to remember what it was like to learn to drive, I hadn’t been a true beginner at anything for a long time…until I enrolled in a scuba diving class this summer.  The class was a lot of fun and I’m excited for future scuba adventures, but there was a moment during our second pool session when I got completely frazzled in a first-few-times-behind-the-wheel kind of way.


Scuba divers who are not frazzled beginners. (Photo taken by the talented Mike Fabius, who also gets credit for encouraging me to try diving.)

I was behind because I had accidentally put my wetsuit on inside out and then couldn’t get my snorkel attached to my mask.  Because I was flustered, I didn’t absorb what the instructor was demonstrating.  We were supposed to do a “tired diver’s tow,” and when it was my turn, I knew where to hold on to my buddy, but I had no idea what to do with my feet.  If I’d kept my cool, I could have figured out that the only logical possibility was to kick my fins underneath her body as I leaned back, but I froze and the instructor had to come over and demonstrate for me again.  Everyone else knew what to do, it seemed, but I just hadn’t gotten it.

I’ve been thinking about that experience at scuba class and about how much I realized about my character and remembered about myself when I wrote those wordplay scenes in which she or I was learning something new.  I think one of the best ways you can get to know a character is to place her in an unfamiliar situation to see what she does.  This idea is especially true for those of us who write for children and young adults, because young people have to learn new things all the time.  (In fact, I associate that flustered, why-can’t-I-get-this-right feeling from scuba diving class with being a teenager.)  And remembering what it was like for you to learn something new–or, better yet, leaving your comfort zone to become a beginner at something–can help you get inside your character’s skin when he or she is dealing with an unfamiliar situation.

As an added bonus, learning something brand new is also great for teachers. With the school year about to begin, it’s helpful for me to remember how uncomfortable it is to attempt something difficult, especially in front of a group.  Reading and writing didn’t give me anxiety when I was young, but certain spatial tasks (like parking a car or solving a geometry proof or figuring out what to do with my feet while dragging someone else in the water) still cause me stress.  I can be more compassionate with my students if I can stay in touch with that vulnerable feeling that arises when you do something you’re not an expert at.

How about you?  What have you gained from experiences that are new and maybe a little unsettling?  What types of tasks give you anxiety?  What do you remember about learning something that was hard for you, and what might you find out about your characters if you write scenes in which they learn something new?

Writing by Hand

I set an ambitious writing goal this summer.  Spurred on by my enthusiastic MFA classmates, I decided that I would try to complete a draft of my young adult novel Rebound by August 31.  I think I’m going to make my deadline, but if I’d counted on sitting in front of my computer and banging out words, I wouldn’t even be close.

Earlier this summer, I spent a lot of time typing out sentences that were stiff and dead and altogether wrong and then worrying that I wouldn’t be able to write anything else with any life in it now that I don’t have an advisor to steer me in the right direction anymore.  But then I changed my writing routine and began to make some progress.  I’ve been able to push through several chapters of my novel this month because of a high-tech, super-secret technique, and now I’m going to share it with you!

Except, well, it isn’t high-tech or super-secret at all.  What I’ve been doing is: I write out a scene or two longhand in a notebook, and then the next day I type out what I wrote the day before, editing it a bit as I go, and then I open up my little notebook and start in on the next scene.  That’s it. That’s the system.

I didn’t feel the need to question why this process was working—I was just relieved when my daily writing output began to increase. On some level, I figured it had to do with taking the pressure off.  I know I’m going to take another look at everything I write in my notebook before it ends up in my draft, so I can relax a little and leave a sentence I’m not crazy about in its flawed form rather than agonizing over it.

But when I recently read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, the assigned book for middle school teachers at my school, I began to think there might be more to this system than I realized.  One of the points that Nicholas Carr makes throughout this book is that technology impacts how we think.  The map changed the way people perceive geography, the clock changed the way we experience time, and word-processing devices change the kinds of thoughts we commit to the page.

Carr includes quotes from Frederick Nietzsche and T.S. Eliot, who both switched from writing by hand to using a typewriter and then noticed major differences in their work.  When a friend remarked that Nietzsche’s writing had become more concise and more “forceful,” Nietzsche agreed.  “Our writing equipment takes part in the forming of our thoughts,” he wrote.  T. S. Eliot, meanwhile, shared this observation in a letter: “Composing on the typewriter, I find that I am sloughing off all my long sentences which I used to dote upon.  Short, staccato, like modern French prose.  The typewriter makes for lucidity, but I am not sure that it encourages subtlety.”

So maybe there’s a good reason why my sentences don’t sound so stiff when I write them out in my notebook before I transfer them to the computer.  Maybe typing does shape my prose in a way that’s good for structured essays but not always so great for fiction.  It’s not that the sentences I write by hand are longer, like the ones Eliot used to dote upon, but they’re more consistent with my main character’s voice, and I often surprise myself with a word or a gesture that comes to me as my hand moves across the page.

When I’m teaching, I usually feel guilty if my students are working on a writing project and I’m not able to reserve computers for them.  But maybe they’re not really wasting time if they have to write something by hand before typing it up later; maybe they can actually write subtler, more vibrant sentences that way.

How about you?  What tricks get you going when you are blocked, and do you notice any difference between what you write out and what you type?

Commonplace Books: A Tool for Writers and Teachers

As I’m gearing up for the school year to begin, I’ve been doing my summer reading assignments.  First, I read Moying Li’s Snow Falling in Spring: Coming of Age in China During the Cultural Revolution, which is required reading for rising seventh and eighth graders, and then I slowly made my way through the required reading for middle school teachers: Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains.

On the surface, these two books don’t have much in common.  The first is a memoir written primarily for young readers; the second is an academic tome that touches on the history of technology, the evolution of reading and memory, and the science of the human brain.  But I found a surprising point of connection between the two: the idea of commonplace books.

In Snow Falling in Spring, Moying Li’s education has been disrupted by political chaos.  She’s seen her teachers and relatives tortured, and she’s had to give up her dream of pursuing higher education to perform the job she’s been assigned.  Amidst all this chaos, she finds comfort by waking up at dawn each day to walk around a park while reading out loud from a makeshift textbook.  Because she no longer has regular access to books, she has to be creative if she wants to continue her learning.  She explains, “I made up my own textbook with loose-leaf papers—filled with passages copied from my favorite authors.”

In The Shallows, in a chapter about memory, Nicholas Carr describes commonplace books, which sound a lot like Moying Li’s makeshift textbook.  The Dutch humanist Erasmus proposed the idea of commonplace books in 1512.  He encouraged students to keep a notebook, divided by subject, and copy out striking passages from their reading.  He thought of these passages as “kinds of flowers,” picked from books and then cultivated in an individual’s memory.  (How lovely is that?)  These “commonplace” notebooks allowed students to individualize their education, because each person’s notebook was unique, and they helped students to synthesize what they’d learned.

I sometimes copy out quotes from books I read, but rarely in the same place, and I often incorporate my own commentary, too.  But I like the idea of a physical notebook, divided into sections, in which I could pull together ideas, beautiful language, and maybe even photographs or photocopied images from different sources (or sketches, if I were at all artistic).  I might have a section for craft books, a section for teaching ideas, and a section for fiction, but other people could have very different sections in their commonplace books.  I’m not sure I trust myself to walk while reading, as Moying Li did, and I’d be a little embarrassed to have people hear me reading aloud to myself while strolling even if I could stay on my feet.  But I might like to read through my commonplace book before taking a meditative walk, and I like the idea of encouraging students today to make their own commonplace notebooks, just as their Renaissance counterparts once did.

What do you think?  How could you see using commonplace books with students, or how might you set up your own? (Also, thanks to my friend and colleague Dan for telling me about commonplace books in the first place, so that I paid extra attention to them while doing my summer reading homework.)

Literary Meat or Poison?

A little over a year ago, I read Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande, which was published in 1934 but still feels timely. There are many things I appreciate about this book (and if you’d like you can access the full text of it here), but I especially love the frank and funny life advice Brande offers.

In one of my favorite parts, Brande insists that if you are serious about writing, you must structure your recreation time in a way that feeds your writing.  That means that you can’t spend too much time with people who leave you feeling discouraged or creatively dried up, and you have to read things that stimulate your writing.  She explains that she’s known people who are inspired to write after reading dry medical reports, scientific magazines they can’t understand, or novels they dislike, but who are paralyzed by reading the works of authors they admire.  “Watch for a while,” she instructs, “and see which authors are your meat and which are your poison.”  I suppose that advice doesn’t work so well for vegetarians, but you get the idea.

I’ve been thinking about my literary “meat” and “poison.”  Recently, two novels spurred on my writing in a way that others haven’t, and they happened to be written by the same author.  I was completely charged up to get back to work after reading Morgan Matson’s Amy and Roger’s Epic Detour and Second Chance Summer.  In both books, I saw Matson doing things I was trying to do, such as exposing a flaw that the main character has to overcome and showing how two people come to know and care about each other in a short time.  Seeing how Matson accomplished these things gave me these zinging realizations about how I could accomplish them in my book.  Plot-wise, I’ve found myself psyched up to write after reading Kate Messner’s middle grade novels The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. and Sugar and Ice because I get this sense that Messner doesn’t get in her own way—she sets up a dynamic situation and lets it unfold, and that makes the process of structuring a novel feel manageable to me.

(The only problem is, if I let myself think about how Messner has been able to teach middle school English, be a parent, keep a blog going, and crank out book after book, I start to feel completely overwhelmed and inadequate, and she becomes my poison instead of my meat.  So I am excited to read her new book Capture the Flag, but I will be sure to read it when I am feeling especially secure.)

How about you?  Which authors are your meat and which are your poison?

Top Fives

As you’ve probably seen, NPR recently compiled a list of the top 100 best-ever teen novels.  NPR came up with this list after inviting people to nominate YA novels and then select their top ten from the nominations.  The list has generated plenty of controversy—for instance, some people have objected to the imprecise criteria NPR used to decide what does and does not count as a YA novel, and others were disappointed that their favorite authors didn’t make the cut. (ETA: Laurie Halse Anderson raised another legitimate concern with the list in this blog entry: the lack of diversity.)

Personally, I appreciated the blend of classics and recent novels on the final list, and I think it will be fun to share with my students.  I’m glad it exists as a jumping-off point for reflection and conversation, but I understand people’s concerns and have one of my own.

My big question is, how do you define a “top” book?  Does that mean a personal favorite, or does it imply some level of literary merit?

I did vote on my top 10 for NPR, but I found it difficult to choose because I kept blurring the criteria.  I’d think, “Oh, this book was formative for me, so it should be there.  But is it actually any good?”  Or, “I really admire this novel…but it took me two weeks to slog through.  Is it honest to give it a spot in my top 10 over a book I love, even though I can find fault with aspects of the writing?”

In my last packet of work for my MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults, my advisor asked me to do something similar to what NPR asked.  She asked me to decide on my top-five books I’d read in the program in addition to the top-five books for young readers I thought everyone should read.

I liked the distinction she made between those two categories; I could feel okay about deferring to my personal preference in the first category since I was going to attempt to be more objective in the second.  Plus, the context of her question helped me.  I was thinking of my top-five books I’d read as I was studying the craft of writing, so I should give some consideration to how much a given book inspired my own or other authors’ writing.  In the second category, top five books for everyone, I chose books based not only on their literary merits but also based on the reflection and discussions I think they encourage.  (The Alexie book, for instance, made my list after my students read it because it generated such interesting discussion.  I included Khan’s book because it challenged my own ideas of what a picture book should be, and because it facilitates discussions of identity, family, and culture for all different ages.)

So here are my two top-five lists. They are certainly subjective, but I feel more comfortable with my choices here than when I picked my top-10 YA books for NPR because I was clearer about my own criteria.

My personal top five:
Lockhart, E. The Boyfriend List Series.
Lowry, Lois. The Giver.
Marchetta, Melina. Saving Francesca.
Montgomery, L.M. Anne of Green Gables.
Moriarty, Jaclyn. The Year of Secret Assignments.

Top five books for young readers that every human should read:
Alexie, Sherman.The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.
Khan, Ruksana. The Big Red Lollipop. Illus. Sophia Blackall.
Lowry, Lois. The Giver.
Lynch, Chris. Inexcusable.
Paterson, Katherine. Bridge to Terabithia.