Monday, March 10, 2014

Writing with Kate Messner & Jo Knowles

Many thanks to Kate Messner and Jo Knowles for joining us on March 8th to host a writing workshop. They gave us stories, examples, and ideas that apply both to our own writing and to teaching writing. We covered a lot of ground in just over an hour.

To save a little space in this follow up post, we've updated our initial post about the workshop to include more background information (see it here) and created a list of recommended writing books on this Pinterest Board (or, as we like to call it, our virtual book display). 

Kate's Writing and Revision Process: 

Kate's books start with an idea that, she says, "usually hangs out with me for a few months." She spends those months reading, researching, brainstorming, taking notes and generally playing around with that idea. It may involve field trips, like a recent one to Grand Isle to ask ice fisherman to tell her more about their sport.

After the hanging out with ideas stage, Kate makes a rough outline that she knows will change regularly, possibly daily, but that gives her a starting point to work from. Then she starts to write. Both Kate and Jo use Scrivener as their writing software (there's a free trial if you want to check it out).

Kate loves revising but is "terrified" of drafting. Which might explain why she wrote an entire book on the revising part (Real Revision). She has a lot of tools she uses to shape the revisions, depending on the situation. She shared as examples:
  • A timeline tracking important events from now to 2050 for Eye of the Storm
  • Short timelines to follow all the characters through 48 hours in Capture the Flag
  • Idea maps as well as regular old maps to track characters through chase scenes
  • Very, very large charts to track important characters and objects and where they appear in a book and whether they appear regularly enough for readers to know that they're important (or at least not forget anyone). 

Kate Messner is serious about charts
Three to four drafts later, Kate is ready to share her work with a critique partner and then get the book ready to go to an editor.

Jo's Process for Read Between the Lines (yes that is a book about the middle finger)

To illustrate her writing process, Jo took us through the creation of her most recent, not yet published, book Read Between the Lines.

This book began in a journal she kept a decade ago, when an aggressive driver gave her family the finger when driving through Norwich (presumably other things were also happening in her life a decade ago, but this is the one that led to a book). The idea of the middle finger as a way to express anger and also a way to cause anger stuck in her imagination. Over the years, when she had any ideas for middle-finger-related stories Jo added them to a file for this book idea that was "just for fun."

Jo also likes having an interesting structure for her books. The structure of a book taking place in one day, with 10 chapters and 10 points of view, all related to giving someone the finger (of which we have 10), appealed to her. She began to write chapters to share with her critique group.

At the same time that Jo played around with her book idea, she also had a contract for an unnamed second book that came from a previous book deal. She decided to turn the pieces she'd collected into a full manuscript.

Putting together this manuscript required new writing tools. Usually, Jo writes a "discovery draft" without an outline, then uses a storyboard sketch to think more systematically about her manuscript. 

Each box is a chapter with a picture of the strongest image that comes to mind from that chapter. The writing on one side is the strongest emotion in that chapter, the writing on the other is a brief phrase saying what the chapter is about (everything in the chapter should drive towards that purpose)
Read Between the Lines, with its many different points of view from characters with overlapping lives, didn't fit into the storyboard system. Instead, Jo made pages for each character in a notebook and filled it in with relevant details (when they show up, what time of the day their point of view takes over, other characters that appear, etc.). On each page she also listed each character's primary Want, Obstacle, and Way to reach the "want" or overcome the obstacles (W.O.W., borrowed from Cynthia Lord).  

With so many different characters, and a book intended to show how their lives overlapped, it also made sense to do a chart like the one Kate shared, mapping out when each character appeared throughout the book.

Both Kate and Jo agreed that every book is different. Both authors learn tools from what they've tried themselves, or what other writers share, then match the tool to the writing project at hand. 

Writing Exercises:

Writing exercises can provide a framework that, by asking you to look at something new or look at familiar things in a new way, unlocks memories, creative ideas, and stories that might not otherwise have occurred. Jo uses writing prompts as a warm up exercise.

In our workshop on Saturday, Jo took us through a writing prompt about kitchen memories - recalling the appearance, objects, people, events, sounds, smells, and both most and least favorite things, from a childhood kitchen. But you don't need to use just that one. She posts a new prompt every week on her blog under the tag Monday Morning Warm-Up

While Jo took us through a detail-oriented writing exercise, Kate introduced a fun exercise for exploring new story ideas. You can try this one too:
  • Divide a piece of paper into three columns
  • 1st column: Things I love / want to know more about / that scare me
  • 2nd column: List of Setting (places you know well, want to visit, wish were real)
  • 3rd column: Big Ideas (themes to explore, genres)
  • Now, brainstorm for each
  • And then, mix and match
So, for example, you might end up with a ghost at school with secrets. Or fossils in the kitchen with a theme of memories replaced over time (from Jo's prompt). Kate does this exercise for about half an hour every few months to generate new ideas.

Learn More

Kate and Jo both have great resources available online for exploring more about writing and teaching writing. See examples from this earlier post.  

And there are many great books to read about writing and teaching writing. Here are a few of our picks.

Join us for our next Author-Educator event in the Children's Room on March 22nd at 11:00 am from Grace Greene from the Vermont Department of Libraries discusses the brand new Dorothy Canfield Fisher list. 

1 comment:

  1. This workshop was so motivating but WAY too short. I left energized and excited about the writing. I had meaning to read "On Writing" by Stephen King so I bought that and have almost finished it. Great morning.