In the writing room right now ...

In the writing room right now ... I have taken down the brown "butcher" paper that held ideas, photos, drawings, and my hand-drawn maps and plot outlines for the past five or six books. I've placed all those items into three-ring binders, and cleared the deck for paintings and photographs that involve courage, as I move forward in GHOSTKEEPER, the new novel set in Lyndonville, Vermont. My 1850 Vermont adventure THE LONG SHADOW is under contract with Five Star/Cengage -- I will give you a publication date as soon as I know! Scribbling lots of poems, too. And there's a possible route to publication of the "Vermont Nancy Drew" novel I built on Wattpad (see right-hand column). Yes, I guess I do like multi-tasking! How about you?

Sunday, March 16, 2014

When My Grandson Was 4, and Other Common Core Standards Reflections on Writing

A real papermill, like the ones in the book my grandson read.
... Waiting for supper is short but your stomach rumbles like the mill does. (from Charlie's Place, in second draft)
When I know there's going to be some writing time fitted into my day, I'm elated. I race to get the newspapers for my husband's morning, sing as I swing through kitchen chores, and struggle to stay "on task" for the day's other labors, heading toward the magic hour I've promised myself.

It's "rich vocabulary" day. I'm planning to go through chapter 4 of the first draft of Charlie's Place, the book my teacher-co-author Sue Tester and I are writing for third graders. Sue, a teacher, has already "tested" the chapter with some students, and they're on board -- they've embraced Charlie, with his challenges and his eight-year-old courage. In other words, our plot and character are strong and we're confident in them. So the next step is to test every sentence, looking for how much we can evoke with the words we are choosing. Sue has penciled her suggestions for where we can push the wording to be more precise and to ask more of our future third-grade readers.

And that, to me, is where my own "take" on the Common Core Standards -- that they are daring us writers to lure kids into growth, so they'll be able to reach adult levels by grade 12 -- gives an exhilarating push to what fascinates me, the power of story to reach all of us. I want to make Charlie's Place into the best possible story, and that means endowing it with words that matter.

In fact, as it's now written, the first paragraph of this "chapter book" introduces a word that most third-graders won't yet know. Most adult readers won't know it, either. Penstock. It's an important piece of the out-of-sight machinery of a working river mill, and how Charlie interacts with the way the river water pounds through the penstock tells something important about this boy. And it gets us moving into the mill itself, with its intricate and sometimes dangerous machinery.
Volunteers reconstruct the penstock at Ben's Mill, Barnet, Vermont.
(The penstock is at the heart of this diagram -- looks like a giant wooden screw the way it's drawn.)

This brings me to my grandson Ian, who was only four years old, living in a major city, when he asked me on the phone one day, "Grandma, do you know about paper mills?"

The mill in Charlie's Place is for making items out of wood and metal, and I know it very well, but yes, I also do know about paper mills -- not quite as much, but I've been inside a couple of them. Ian and I had a great conversation about paper mills. At age four, thanks to his teacher and his mom and dad, Ian already knew a lot about how trees become pulp and pulp becomes paper, and what a mill looks like. And he knew there would be REAL paper mills up here in Vermont. His folks and I opted to not take him to a paper mill last summer, because they are incredibly noisy and scary, even for adults. But it's something we'll do later. Meanwhile, what I carry into today's revision is this: At age four, you can be fascinated by complexity and detail, and you can learn the words that go with it.

And then you are rewarded with conversations that are memorable, and images that stay with you. You savor the richness of your experience. And you can do this at age four!! and eight!!! and while you are working on revisions of the book that's meant for those kids, and for the teachers and parents who'll accompany them on their books journeys.

See what I mean about writing time? I am SO ready for this day.

PS -- Interested in how "rich vocabulary" gets introduced? Check out the kids' novel Hope Is a Ferris Wheel by Robin Herrera (my enthusiastic review of it here): There are actual lists of "use-this-word-in-a-sentence" assignments that make up part of the plot. I especially loved the way the trailer-park life of the protagonist makes her wrestle with the word derelict.