As a teacher, you must have read a lot of students’ writing. What are some things you wanted your students to notice about their writing to either appreciate or improve?
I guess working with young kids I feel like it’s important to get them to recognize what they are doing well. Motivation is a good thing so if you get them feeling good about what it is they are doing in their writing, then it helps with that motivation and willingness to go back and work at it again and to do the revising. Revising is always a big hurdle with young writers, they aren’t always excited to go back and do that. If you get them feeling good about whatever it is in that piece, I think that is a big thing. I’m thinking about when I was using mentor texts. If I had taught a mini-lesson and they had gone ahead and applied that mini-lesson to their writing, such as vivid verbs, similes, internal dialogue…so many things, I’d want them to recognize that.
I would definitely start with what they are doing well. I think about working on my own writing and my own critique groups, the first writing critiques I received were very positive and encouraging. You need to keep going! They could have torn me apart early on for sure, but that’s not what I hung onto. Starting with that positive feedback and getting the writer to feel good about some part of it I think is pretty important.
In your Mr. Terupt books, you write from a number of different perspectives. What are some tips you could offer to young authors to try writing from perspectives other than their own?
One thing is; the better you know your character, the better you are going to be at writing them. You are going to have more success at voice and perspective. For me I didn’t necessarily know everything about these characters (in Mr. Terupt) when I got started. I had something about that character to get me going. So as I get working on the story and taking the character into new situations, I ask my character the questions, Why are you doing this, feeling this, saying this? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? And as you uncover answers to those questions you get to know more and more about your character. Then once you have a handle on that character you can think more about perspective and voice and how they might react to different situations. I think about, What is it that is important to this character? I use that to bring the character out. Then think about the vocabulary and the language that you use with that character.
Knowing that I don’t have it all figured out the first time I do it is important. There is a lot of going back and re-doing it over and over and over. Sometimes I write a scene and realize I need to change it to another character’s point of view or it is sounding a bit too much like somebody else and I’ve got to change some words and phrasing. There’s a lot of revising.
When you are working on a project and go back to reread your writing, what are you looking or listening for?
One of the things I might do is read it aloud to myself or to my dogs so that I can hear how it flows. One of the things I am looking at when I reread, consistently is that I am trying to pay close attention to make sure I haven’t been redundant with different words and phrases. Especially with seven different storytellers I want to make sure I haven’t used the same phrasing from one kid to the next. That’s tricky with voice. I am working at that all the time and no matter how hard I work at it, when my editor reads it, it will come back with places where I’ve been redundant and need to get rid of things! By reading aloud I can catch up on some of those areas.
I’ll also read it aloud and listen for transitions, either from one scene to the next or one paragraph to the next. It helps me in going from one character to the next character. If it is a funny scene, I’ll read it to see if I have done everything I can to make it funny or if it is suspenseful have I listen to see if I built suspense by slowing it down enough.
I’ll read it thinking about my reader. I have a goal that when my reader gets done reading this certain part, I want my reader to ask a certain question or make a certain prediction. That’s probably another lens that I have on when I am going back and rereading it.
What routines or habits have you developed that help you as a writer?
Here is something I recognized early on, when I started getting serious about writing and I was still teaching. This I think is important…I was a lot like these kids when I first started writing. I didn’t have a whole day to do just write; I had these short windows of opportunity. Part of my routine is that I like to start my day with writing; I’m fresh and I can get my ideas flowing. Then if I need to take a break to take my daughters to school or take care of the dogs, when I come back I find it easier to get going again. So I’d have this chunk of time and then I’d have to go and do something else, and that’s what its like for kids. They have this chunk of time and then they go do something else. I found what I called “process planning”. What is my next attack as a writer? I have my story mapped out, I kind of know where I’m going but when I sit down, what am I doing next as a writer? So I had this goal to know what I’d be doing next and I started doing this with my students. I would ask my kids What’s your process plan or status for today in writing? And they would articulate I’m going to be working on writing vivid verbs. Or I’m going to be working on internal dialogue, or story questions, whatever it is that I have done a mini-lesson on. They would verbalize it, and I found that their ability to then go and actually do it was so much better. By talking the talk they could walk the walk. They started talking like writers and then they could actually do it. For me I can think about where is a good place to stop because I know what it is I’m going to be doing next. I think that can be really helpful for kids in the classroom so that when the next day rolls around they aren’t twiddling their thumbs and wondering what it is they are going to do.
As a teacher, it takes time to have twenty different kids report what it is they are going to do, but in the beginning I found it very valuable. The kids could listen to each other talk the talk and they would piggyback on each other. Some of the weaker writers would benefit from hearing the stronger writers talk. Other options might be having the kids write it down on a post-it, or only check in with a certain number of kids or when they finish writing they write down their process plan is for the next day. So they are already thinking about it before they get to that next day.
Do you have any mentor authors or mentor texts that has inspired or supported your work?
The book Bat Six by Virginia Wolf is a book that I read about eight years before I even thought of Mr. Terupt. It really stuck with me; it’s a story with multiple characters. It’s a 6th grade school story that is post-WWII. It’s historical fiction with these multiple girls taking turns telling you about this 6th-grade school year. So that is a book that has really stuck with me about how I could go about telling a story that way. I am sure that reading experience helped me understand how I could tell my story the way that I did. Now Virginia Wolf has far more than seven characters and that was a little difficult for me to keep track of as a reader. Did that play into me only choosing seven? I don’t know. When my idea for Mr. Terupt first came to me, it came to me with only had seven characters, I never had more or less. I always had seven all along. There was another book I had read with multiple characters, Bull Run, by Paul Fleischman. It’s much shorter and not as many characters, but there were different voices. For my second Mr. Terupt book, one of the characters Jessica tells her story as a screenplay. I had never written a screenplay so I was rereading Monster by Walter Dean Myers and other screen plays so I could figure out how I wanted to go about doing it with Jessica. Sometimes, believe it or not, just using different punctuation or how I want to go about crafting a sentence, I’ll try to read a book where I know I’ve come across that sort of thing and I’ll look at it to see how that can help me.