Wednesday, May 22, 2019

Kate Messner - Writing Wednesday

In June of 2009 I attended a professional development session in my district. The presenters were talking about Twitter and how important it was for their teaching life. At the time all I knew about Twitter was that Ashton Kutcher had challenged either Larry King or CNN to see who would have more followers first. It didn’t seem like it was for me. These teachers, who I respected, went on about how important it was, so I joined.

I began poking around, finding other educators to follow, and that brought me to Kate Messner. Kate was teaching seventh grade and I loved what she was sharing from her classroom. After connecting a few times on Twitter, I remember reading a tweet that Kate was publishing a book, The Brilliant Fall of Gianna Z. Just a few months later in the fall, I went to my local bookstore and Kate’s book was on display. I tweeted it to her, so excited, and she said it was the first time she had seen her book “in the wild.” I was beyond thrilled for someone in my profession to be following her dream. I loved the book and we developed our family reading night around in that fall with Kate Skyping in. It was magical.

Over the years I’ve met Kate several times, had her Skype with my class more times than I remember, and seen her present all over the country. I’m thrilled to welcome her to my blog so she can share her writing life with us all. Welcome, Kate!

Talk to me about your writing life - what does it look like?

I tend to do my brainstorming, scribbling, and planning in a notebook (or on big sheets of paper, with colored pens) and then when it comes to actual drafting, I switch to my laptop and Scrivener software. I always do some kind of outline, but what it looks like depends on what the story needs. Sometimes it’s a traditional sort of outline, sometimes it’s more of an idea map or story web, and sometimes it’s something else entirely.

When I’m not traveling for school visits or research, I try to keep a pretty regular writing schedule. On a typical day, I get up at 6 or 7 and answer emails and do other work until my daughter leaves for school at 8. I write from 8-11:30 or so and then take a break to go to the gym until about 1 or 1:30. When I get home, I have lunch and visit with my husband for a while, and then I’ll get back to writing by 2:30 or 3 and write until it’s time to make dinner at 6 or so. The rest of the night is family time, and then I get up and start over.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Everywhere - and that’s why I’d be so lost without my writer’s notebook. I’m always collecting things - character traits, setting details, little bits of dialogue.

What was your journey into writing?

I absolutely loved writing as a kid, but I didn’t realize that being an author was an actual job you could choose. I grew up in a really small town, and no one I knew wrote books for a job. We never had an author visit our school, and we didn’t have Skype back then, so being an author just wasn’t on my radar as a possibility. I went to college for journalism and spent seven years as a TV news reporter before going back to get my teaching degree, and then I spent a wonderful fifteen years teaching 7th grade English. That’s when I really rediscovered how much I loved writing stories, when I was writing alongside my students, and my first six books were published while I was a full-time teacher.

Were you a writer in middle school? A reader?

I was both - and I went through phases in both reading and writing. For a while, I only wanted to read sad books, and then only poetry, and then only nature books. And I went through similar stages with my writing, so I got to experiment a lot. I still do that, really, which is one of the things I love most about my job. I can write about whatever I choose, and I never get bored.

What was your publishing journey like?

Long? I spent seven years querying for my first book and collecting rejections before it was finally published by a tiny regional press. Later on, my first nationally published book, THE BRILLIANT FALL OF GIANNA Z, was rejected 26 times before I found a wonderful agent and editor.

What is the best writing advice you’ve received?

The best writing advice I’ve ever received actually came from a surly anchorman, when I was a nineteen-year-old aspiring news reporter. I was interning at his tv station and had just submitted a news story to him for review. He pointed to one of the lines -- one that I thought sounded especially journalistic -- and asked, “Why’d you write it like this? Why not just say what happened?” I told him the truth -- that I’d been trying to sound like Sheryl Nathans, an investigative reporter at a competing station whose work I admired. He nodded and said, “Oh! There’s your problem. The job of being Sheryl Nathans is taken. By Sheryl Nathans. You’re going to have to figure out how to say things your own way.”

He was talking, of course, about voice. And his advice has followed me from my career as a journalist, through my life as an educator and into my world as a creator of children’s books. Our voices really do define us.

What is some writing advice you’d like to give either to my students or to other aspiring writers?

Carry a notebook! It’s not only great for collecting ideas; it teaches you how to see the world like a writer. You end up noticing things that other people miss, and in addition to being great for writing, that’s a lovely way to live.

Best thing about being a writer?

My favorite things about being a writer are research (because I love spending my days learning and exploring) and connecting with young readers (because they’re the reason I do what I do).
Hardest part of being a writer?

The middle. Every time I write a new book, I hit that place in the middle where it’s still a crummy draft, and the shine of the new idea has worn off, and all I can do is slog through those in-between chapters. I always have to remind myself that when I finish, I’ll be able to revise and really make it shine. But middles are so tough.

What do you do when you’re stuck?

Go for a walk or run. It shakes ideas loose.

Do you have an “inner editor” voice that is unkind?

I do - but I’ve also learned to turn it off so that I can draft. Otherwise, I’d never get past the first page of anything.

What are you reading now that you’re loving?

I just finished a second read of Laurie Halse Anderson’s SHOUT, which is so powerful it felt like it might catch fire in my hands.

Finally, do you want to share the inspiration for your most recent project?

I just finished work on a my newest novel for kids, CHIRP. It’s a mystery set on a cricket farm as well as a coming of age story about family, entrepreneurship, power, and secrets. The cricket-farm element was inspired by a real cricket farm I got to visit in Vermont as well as by this 2013 report from the United Nations Food & Agriculture Committee, suggesting that eating insects might be one way to solve our food crisis and minimize global warming.

Thanks again to the amazing Kate Messner for giving of her time to share her thoughts with us. If you'd like to find Kate online, here are some links. And, side note, I’ve read an early draft of CHIRP. It is amazing and a book to put on your radar for certain.

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Writing Wednesday: Teacher Burnout

Over my lunch hour today I watched a video from John Green:

While I thought the video was great overall, there was a part at the end that really made me stop and think. 

John says his brother Hank talks about the need to diversify your identity. In this case, meaning that John isn't only a YouTuber, he's a husband, dad, writer, etc. That if you don't look at the bigger picture, everything can become about work. John says that no career can healthfully support all of our identity.

I feel I was in danger of this trap several years ago. I taught and, as is the case for most teachers, I was always working more than eight hours a day. When I wasn't teaching, I was writing about teaching, presenting about teaching, or reading books to share with my students. My brain was constantly working on how I could become a better educator. 

It was too much.

Teaching will always be a job bigger than the time we have to complete it. There is never a day I look around my classroom and think that I'm all caught up. I'm always analyzing what I did in a day, what worked, and what could have gone better. 

I never stop thinking about the kids.

What's changed is that I've added in time for myself. I prioritize my family. While I still read books for my students - my latest favorite is The Mighty Heart of Sunny St. James by Ashley Herring Blake - the majority of my reading is for me. I write still for reflection on the classroom here, but most of the time I write it is on the romance series I'm creating.

Teaching is not my sole identity. 

I'm trying hard to put myself first, though I fail at that each time. But now, my family is typically in first and I'm second or third, depending on the day.

It's a work in progress.

So I just wanted to draft this post as I sit in my classroom at lunchtime with eleven days left in the school year. You teachers that are dragging to the end of the school year, I see you. Take time for yourself this summer. And remember to strive for a diversified identity as we move forward. 

You deserve it. We all do.

Wednesday, May 1, 2019

Writing Wednesday: Writing Crisis

This weekend I had what I term a crisis in writing. I hadn’t written much last week and I was already stressed about that. Lately I’ve been able to finish two, maybe three, chapters a week, or around 6,000 words. Last week I hit maybe 1,000. It had been Easter and Liam’s birthday during my prime writing time and I just couldn’t do it. This past weekend I was certain I would make up for it.

Saturday morning I headed to Starbucks, ready to write. I know what the current chapter needs to be about. I know where I need to take it. I sat down, the beginning was in Sully’s perspective, then it would switch to Maggie, then back to Sully. I had it, but then I didn’t.

When I began writing this series I chose to write the heroine in first person, the hero in third. I have no idea why, other than the book I just finished did that. I liked the alternating point of view (POV). I liked that the idea that one was 1st, one 3rd, because it made me a little closer to the heroine. It is tricky, sometimes, to switch back and forth, but I soldiered on.

This Saturday I hit a wall. When I switched to Sully’s POV, I wrote it in first. Realizing my mistake, I went back and changed several paragraphs. Then I had my crisis of faith. Should both POVs have been first all along? Did I need to go rewrite the entire first book, and the 50,000 words I’d written so far to make that happen? What the hell was I doing?

I left Starbucks and sent Voxer messages to my two friends who had read my book already. They both told me to calm down, take a step back. I took Sunday off and thought about it.

Today I’m supposed to be driving about an hour each way for my writing group that meets once a month. I went for the first time in March, but had to miss in April. I need to be there, to talk to other writers, but I simply can’t. Too many track meets, too much going on, and I am completely exhausted. I cannot drive safely there and back when I’m this tired, so I have to skip. All day I thought about how much I wanted to go, how much I needed to talk to other people about writing, how much I wish it was closer. I felt stuck.

And yet, I left school feeling ok about my writing. I think I will leave the POV switch after all because of the reasons I wrote it that way in the first place. I sat today, surrounded by student writers, and was reminded of the fun of creating a story. My seventh graders are writing some short fiction over the next few days. During my last period of the day, I watched as they settled around the room on couches and chairs, keys clicking away as they wrote. Kids would whisper, “Mrs. S, come here,” and then tell me about their story. The room was filled with a hum of energy and I caught it, ready to return to the world of Sully and Maggie, to watch their story unfold however it is meant to. As has happened in the past, my students gave me just the push I needed. Writing crisis averted.

Now I just need to get some words out. Wish me luck.