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?

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Learning from Common Core Standards While Revising CHARLIE'S PLACE

This Vermont home is like the one I picture for Charlie's new friend John.
Yesterday and today have been revision days for one of my books in progress, Charlie's Place -- the third-grader story set at Ben Thresher's Mill in Barnet, Vermont, underway with co-author and teacher Sue Haven Tester. In addition to tightening the story and making the action as clear as possible, I've been following Sue's suggestion to wrestle with making the book's vocabulary more varied and rich. Along with this is the skill of embedding more challenging words in multiple ways in the text, so readers become familiar with their usage in varied context.

Today's adults looking back fondly at Grade 3 may be surprised at the actions that third graders are expected to take as they read new material in school. This is part of what I see as the improvements we're invited to make in teaching, and therefore also in the books we write for the kids to enjoy: The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are a teacher-led and state-by-state adopted set of goals to work toward, one after another, so that our graduating high school seniors can tackle life at an adult level. So, here's what third graders need to be doing with the story they're reading (in addition to enjoying it!):
Assess.
Critique.
Formulate.
Hypothesize.
Cite evidence.
Develop logical arguments.
Today I took great pleasure in reshaping this paragraph to develop text with more depth, including several ideas that Sue contributed:

Charlie looked way up at that boy’s face and worried. The boy made clown-like faces. He pushed close to John and said more things. John covered his ears. John said No! Charlie got angry. The mean boy was scaring John. Charlie hit the massive boy. Stop! No!
But I also paid attention to this passage, weaving back into the text some special terms I'd introduced earlier:
There was water everywhere, with pieces of wood floating in it. It was too dark to see the turbine or the penstock, but the little bit of light flickered on the moving water. Was Old Ben shining a flashlight while he repaired the turbine? No, nobody could fix things in the cellar with this much water, not even Old Ben. The stairs kept shaking. Now Charlie felt scared. 
And it was also a good day to outline the nonfiction material for the end of the book, where (me being me) I suggested a timeline to organize the information and investigations that readers might add to their experience of the story. 

Have you guessed yet from the way the text paragraphs here are written? Charlie is deaf ... at age eight, in about 1956 in Vermont. Things were very different then. I'm enjoying painting in the details, along with things that haven't changed at all, like the chest-quivering sensation of thunder, the comfort of morning pancakes with Grandma, and the satisfaction that comes from being as brave as possible, in a scary situation. Know what I mean? 

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Learning the Downy Woodpecker's Call(s): Why That Matters in Writing Today

I watch for when this spring's robins start tidying up last year's nest.
Walk for 20 minutes in the morning and your brain lights up with oxygen delivery in the areas that feed the writing process. The brain scans are quite clear about this effect!

But it's a bit more complicated to say why I am so excited that I learned the call of the downy woodpecker a few days ago. (You can hear it -- in fact, you can hear three different calls, the "pik," the "whinny," and the "drum" -- on the Cornell University ornithology site: http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/downy_woodpecker/sounds.) When I first starting trying to notice birds more deliberately, I realized I had an odd assumption left from childhood: If I already recognized a bird by its plumage and knew its name, I believed the bird was "common." And if it was new to me, I assumed it was "rare" because I hadn't become acquainted with it before. Wow, was I wrong! The birds I already "knew" turned out to be the ones my mom could name, so she taught them to me when I was a child: robin, sparrow, chickadee, bluebird, cardinal. My mom always wanted to see a hummingbird, but never had, and she considered them exotic.

Turns out that hummingbirds are common! I can see a dozen or more in a summer, now that I pay attention to them. So are woodpeckers, and in the trees around my home there are downy woodpeckers and pileated woodpeckers (the ones that remind me most of "Woody Woodpecker" from cartoons, because of the tall red crest of feathers on their heads). I think there are hairy woodpeckers, too, but I'm not yet good at differentiating them from the downy ones.

How do you learn to "see" a woodpecker? For me, it came from learning to hear one! Not just the rap of the beak on the tree -- that could be any of the three I've named, or even a "sapsucker" (more on those, another day). But the downy woodpecker has a distinctive call, and if I notice it and look up right away, it's so easy to see the black-and-white bird after all.

How different a lilac bud looks, compared to the eventual flowers!
Bringing the invisible, the unnoticed, the mysterious and marvelous, into a poem or novel makes a huge different to how vivid and memorable the writing becomes. It also helps me reach more fullness of characters, and to question, in the best of ways, why I'm choosing a particular path for a work. So each day, on my 20-minute walk, I question what I'm seeing and hearing, asking names, changes, explanations, and yes, seeking the invisible within the story at the same time. It matters to me.