Thursday, February 19, 2015

New Ideas - Creative Jumpstarts that Work in the Classroom (Kate Messner)

Gary Lee Miller and Deb Fleischman presented their approach to using writing prompts in a talk at the store this past Saturday (read the post here). They design prompts to teach a range of fundamental writing skills in workshops and classrooms, and provided a close look at crafting lesson plans around a 7 minute writing prompt.

One thing Gary and Deb noted about prompts is that, however else they're used, they fundamentally offer a way to set aside critical analysis and tap into unfiltered, creative thinking. That sort of brainstorming can come in different forms, and at different points in the writing process. Popular children's author and educator Kate Messner, who has led writing workshops at Bear Pond Books before, has a lot to say on this topic. In addition to her books for young readers, she has written books for educators: Real Revision and (newly published) 59 Reasons to Write. In the summer she conducts Teachers Write!, a virtual writing camp for teachers, through her website And during her her recent book tour for the children's novel All the Answers she spoke with students about taking a project from idea to published book

Kate is a good person to talk to about anything writing-process-related. Here are a few more ideas from her about using brainstorms.

The Writers Notebook

First off, creative ideas don't only happen when you're sitting around thinking about things to write. Many of the writers who have come to the Bear Pond Books educators' series have talked about the writers' notebooks they carry to jot down whatever ideas come, whenever they occur. Kate brings a show and tell to her book tour talks. It's a small notebook full of notes (including to do lists and other not-book-related items) with "Magic Pen - All the answers" written in it. . . at the moment when she wrote it, she wanted a pen that would give her all the answers. Later, that starting thought turned into a new book.

Here is a lesson on Writers' Notebooks Kate posted as part of the 2013 Teachers Write! program. A very short version of the lesson?
There are some very strict rules for having a writer’s notebook. Here they are:
Rule #1: Write in it.
Rule #2: There are no other rules.

Local author Linda Urban wrote a whole series of blog posts on her writers' notebook this summer:
And for your amusement, here is a series of photos of famous writer's notebooks from Flavorwire.

Charts and Other Prompt Structures

Okay, the idea "Magic Pen - All the answers" is a good idea - but where do you go from there? For one thing, the pen becomes a pencil because a pencil requires sharpening, which creates a problem that eventually all the answers will be gone again. And then the story needs a solution for that problem. And so on.

This is just one of the problem-tension-solution type scenarios Kate developed to turn an idea into a novel. When speaking to schools, Kate shares a simple chart that can prompt students through coming up with the basics of a story with something magic in it (we mean actually magic, not figuratively). The chart is linked here.

Kate also talked about a simple story idea generator exercise when she came to Bear Pond in 2014. Anyone can try this approach when they're stuck for new ideas to play with. Here is the description taken from our post about that workshop:

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 [from earlier exercises] fossils in the kitchen with a theme of memories replaced over time. . . Kate does this exercise for about half an hour every few months to generate new ideas.
Brainstorming During the Revision Process

Brainstorming doesn't happen at the start of a project then disappear after the "serious" writing gets underway. Kate talks about the ongoing utility of brainstorming in her book Real Revision. In fact, she has a whole chapter called "Back to Brainstorming."

Sometimes the brainstorming feels close to starting over - or at least fundamentally rethinking the project. Here is how Kate explains the start of her Marty McGuire character:
In the winter of 2007-2008, I had just finished a chapter-book manuscript called Princess Marty Frog Slime and the Nutcracker Ballet. It was about a girl who liked catching frogs and crayfish and her parents made her try out for her town's holiday production of the Nutcracker. . . I sent the manuscript to my agent. . . she read it and sent me a nice e-mail about how much she loved the main character, Marty. But then she asked if the story really had to be about The Nutcracker ballet. Couldn't it be about a school play or something universal so kids could relate to it more easily? My first thought was 'Is she serious?'. . . But somewhere in my whining brain I heard the echoes of a lot of students I'd taught over the years. What would I say to them? Just try it -- and see how it goes. So I tried it.
The story changed fundamentally, but the main character did not, and Marty McGuire was the result.

Of course, brainstorming isn't always for a change that drastic - it could be around any sticking point in a story to figure out what isn't working and what could work. Or simply playing with ideas to keep the project fresh.

In Real Revision Kate shares Kathi Appelt's strategy of keeping a project journal. She says her journal is primarily filled with "What if?" questions. What if the main character changed? What if someone made a different decision? Even what if the story switched genres? You can try out a series of What Ifs? to bring new perspective to a project.

On the topic of What If as the origin of good stories, Kate recently wrote a Nerdy Book Club post "How a Bad Case of the What Ifs Turned Into a Book"

More Information

Kate now has two books on writing published through Stenhouse Publishers:
Take a look at these for lots, and lots, of lessons for you and for the classroom.


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