Friday, September 30, 2011

Magical Sentences Come in Many Varieties

Week of September 25—Magical Writing Wizards
Friday, September 30—Magical Sentences Come in Many Varieties

I critique lots of manuscripts. One of the things I often see is a lack of sentence variety. Every sentence looks the same, reads the same, sounds the same. This, of course, is not pleasing to a reader or listener and the lack of sentence variety also often impedes the pace of the story. In my writing camps I try to help student writers learn to identify various kinds of sentence structures authors use, and then I encourage them to do the same in their writing. Let the list below be your beginners guide to sentence variety.

Magical Sentences Come in Many Varieties
Using some sentence variety makes your writing magical, unique, and enjoyable to read. Here are just a few ways to add magical sentence variety.

Sentence Interrupter

Harry Potter is, as many of you know, a sorcerer in training.

Sentence Opener

However, if you have never read a Harry Potter book you might not understand.

Sentence Closer

We all know that J.K. Rowlings is a fabulous author, a real trailblazer.


“If you ask me,” Ms. Moltisanti said, “a better set of books has never been written.”

Titles such as Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone are always in italics.

All Caps

I will soon graduate from the Hogwart School of Magical Scribes. WOO-WHOO!

Thoughtshot in Parentheses

If you think I’m a great writer now (and I know you do) just wait until you see how great I become!

Dash to add details

J.K. Rowling—author of the Harry Potter series—has always loved to write.

Commas in a Series

The Harry Potter series includes Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, Harry Potter and the Half-blood Prince, and Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.

© Rob Sanders, 2011

It’s Your Turn!
1. I have another revision challenge for you. Pull out your latest piece of writing. Read over it. Are you using a variety of sentence structures? If not, use at least three ideas from the list above to revise your writing to add sentence variety.

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Magical Scribes Use Attributes to Add Details

Week of September 25—Magical Writing Wizards
Thursday, September 29—Magical Scribes Use Attributes to Add Details

Details are often communicated through attributes—weight, color, texture, direction, and so on. We’ll spend one session at The Magical Writing Scribes camp learning about attributes and using them in our writing. Use the helpful chart below to see how you can incorporate attributes into the details of your writing.

Magical Scribes Use Attributes to Add Details
Attributes = Qualities or characteristics
inches                         feet                             yards              miles
            millimeters                centimeters               meters            kilometers

            larger than . . .                      as small as . . .
            tall like a . . .             so tiny you could . . .

            lilac                             bottle green               fire-engine red
            pastel yellow cinnamon                   terra cotta

            reddish                       almost green             black as night

            round                          oval                             cube                square
            column                       triangle                      square            circle             

            roundish                    tube-like                    triangular     
            boxy                            circular                      ball-shaped   

            smooth                       rough                          bumpy                        lumpy
            soft                              fuzzy                           slippery                      sharp

            Add –er or –est (smooth, smoother, smoothest)

            0ne                              fourteen                     twenty-four               a thousand
            many                           some                           several                       a few

            more than                  fewer                          nearly (+ number)

            up                                down                           left                              right
            under              over                            beside                         backward
            forward                      around                        across                         around

            46 degrees                 three below zero
            Fahrenheit                Celsius

            broiling                      freezing                      cool                             chilly

            hotter than                coldest                        hot like a . . .

            ounces                        pounds                       tons                             grams            

            as heavy as . . .          the lightest . . .

© Rob Sanders, 2011

It’s Your Turn!
1. Go an Attribute Hunt today! Look in your favorite picture books to see how authors use attributes. Then examine a piece of your writing and revise to add in attributes.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Secrets to Specific Nouns and Vivid Verbs

Week of September 25—Magical Writing Wizards
Wednesday, September 28—Secrets to Specific Nouns and Vivid Verbs

If you’ve followed my blog, you know that I'm a nut for making nouns specific and verbs vivid. I am not one to flower up my writing with adjectives and adverbs, but rather I like to choose the strongest nouns and verbs to tell my stories. In her book, Revision Toolbox, Georgia Heard writes:

If verbs are the engines of sentences, then nouns are the wheels on which that engine rides. Nouns need to be sturdy, solid and specific.

And may I add that verbs need to be precise, active, and draw pictures in readers minds?

During The Magical Writing Scribes camp we’ll be working on making our nouns and verbs strong and specific. And since we’re using Harry Potter and the other sorcerers at Hogwarts as our inspiration, I’ve written some special spells we’ll cast over our papers. Oh, come on, it’s just for fun!

Vivid Verbs
Lifeless verbs on the page,
listen to this haggard sage.

Verbs so dreary, nearly dead,
now draw pictures in each head.

Instantly spring forth vivid.
Do it now—or I’ll be livid.

Specific Nouns
Nouns! Nouns! Nouns!

People, places, things—I wail.
Now’s the time, your names, do tell.

Oh, poor noun. Don’t live in shame.

Be specific.
Say your name.
© Rob Sanders, 2011
It’s Your Turn!
1. Read back over your most recent manuscript. Cast a spell over your verbs and conjure up some specific nouns. It’s magical!

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Writing Ideas Coat of Arms

Week of September 25—Magical Writing Wizards
Tuesday, September 27—Writing Ideas Coat of Arms

One of the most difficult things for most writers—young and old—is deciding on an idea to write about. Many writers draw a blank when trying to think of a writing idea. Others think of ideas, but forgot them before the pencil touches the paper (or the fingers touch the keyboard). I always help writers collect ideas for writing. The more ideas you list, the more writing possibilities you have. And a funny thing happens when peoples write down one idea, suddenly two or three more pop into their heads.

For The School of Magical Scribes I’ve developed a coat of arms on which to gather ideas. I’ll distribute the sheets and then I’ll give guidance as to how to fill in idea. Why not try it out for yourself?

My Writing Ideas Coat of Arms

Step 1: Write your name in the ribbon below the coat of arms.
Step 2: In one rectangle write down memories of places you visited for the first (first day in kindergarten, first time at the dentist, first time in NYC, and so on).
Step 3: Choose another rectangle and jot down scary and creepy memories (people, places, things, events).
Step 4: In a third rectangle write down your most embarrassing memories. (They may be embarrassing and humiliating or embarrassing and hysterical.)
Step 5: In a fourth rectangle jot down things that someone taught you to do. (Baking a favorite recipe, playing a game, learning to play piano, etc.)
Step 6: Now write down good memoires of times with friends (having fun, getting in trouble, going on an adventure).
Step 7: In your last rectangle, write down other memories that have popped into your head that don’t fit anywhere else.

It’s Your Turn!
1. I challenge you to collect some new ideas for writing. Then put those ideas in your writing notebook. (If you don’t have a writing notebook, start one today). The ultimate challenge: Choose one of your new ideas and write about it today.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Magical Scribe Chant

Week of September 25—Magical Writing Wizards
Monday, September 26—Magical Scribe Chant

I truly believe writers become what they think they are. When a parent says, “Our little Susie hates to write,” I stop them dead in their tracks and ask them to never say that again. If Susie even has that thought in her mind (or hears the thought come from someone else’s mouth), she may never reach her full potential as a writer. My job is to make student writers think they can write and then to teach them how.

Just like “our little Susie,” when picture book writers say, “I don’t know that I’m cut out for this,” they open themselves up to self-doubt, which often leads to throwing in the towel prematurely. What you feel is usually what you believe, and what you believe is usually what you become. So we all need to feel, believe, and become the writers we are capable of being!

For that reason, I developed a writing pledge that every class I teach repeats together before we begin our lesson. (You can find that pledge on my web site at For my new School of Magical Writing Scribes, I’ve developed a new pledge . . . better yet, a chant!
Take a minute to read it aloud . . . and believe the words you’re reading!

Magical Scribe Chant
I am a Magical Scribe,
part of a mystical tribe.

I write stories and wishes and dreams,
making readers delight and beam.

I am a Magical Scribe,
part of a mystical tribe.

My writing improves as days pass by.
Others are awed and wonder why.

I am a Magical Scribe,
part of a mystical tribe.

© Rob Sanders, 2011
It’s Your Turn!
1. By the way, the sub-title to The School of Magic Scribes is: Where the magic of writing is no secret at all. The first step to becoming a great writer is no secret—believe you can be a great writer.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Coming this Week!

Week of September 25—Magical Writing Wizards
Quote of the week:
Enter the writing process with a childlike sense of wonder and discovery. Let it surprise you.
—Charles Ghigna

Just about every Saturday between now and the end of February (with the exception of the month of December) you’ll find me leading a writing camp in a school media center, cafeteria, or multipurpose room. This will be the most ambitious schedule of writing camps I've ever undertaken, and I can’t wait!

I’ll alternate between two camp themes (based on the preferences of each school). One camp is entitled The Wonka Writing Factory and uses Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl as the mentor text. The other camp—newly developed and written—is entitled The School of Magical Writing Scribes based on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Each camp focuses on building enthusiasm and passion for writing, teaches how to gather writing ideas and plan writing, and focuses on writing crafts and elaboration strategies.

This week on Picture This! I’ll be sharing some of the resources I’ve recently developed and written for The School of Magical Writing Scribes. I hope you’ll find some inspiration in each idea and that you’ll also be learning more about the craft of writing.

Monday—Magical Scribe Chant
Tuesday—Writing Ideas Coat of Arms
Wednesday—Secrets to Specific Nouns and Vivid Verbs
Thursday—Magical Scribes Use Attributes to Add Details
Friday—Magical Sentences Come in Many Varieties

Friday, September 23, 2011

10 Commandments for Writers

Week of September 18: Writer, Examine Thyself
Friday, September 23—10 Commandments for Writers
The Ten Commandments (Or, Strong Suggestions)
for Picture Book Writers

1. Readeth everything you findeth in your genre.

2. Immerse thyself in the classics of children’s literature.

3. Researcheth market trends and learneth all thou can—then forgetteth it all, and write the book on thine heart.

4. Sitteth thine butt in thine chair and write.

5. First getteth thine ideas on paper—and then thou can revise.

6. Readeth thine writing aloud.

7. Yoke thyself to a critique group and participateth.

8. Getteth thyself to an SCBWI conference.

9. Diversify and be prolific. (If thou hast been working on the same picture book for two years, moveth on.)

10. Thinketh of thineself as a writer. Call thineself a writer. As you think and believe, so you are.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

10 Never-before-seen Story-starters to Spark Your Writing

Week of September 18: Writer, Examine Thyself
Thursday, September 22—10 Never-before-seen Story-starters to Spark Your Writing

A teacher friend I know once was exasperated by a student who kept saying he had nothing to write about. Any open-ended question she asked was met with, “I dunno.” Finally, the teacher said, "Fine. Just write about bears,” and walked away. Soon the boy raised his hand. When the teacher went back to him, he said, “I don’t want to write about bears. I want to write about . . .” The teacher said, “Fine. Write about that!”

Read through the story-starters below. If one sparks your imagination, grab it and go for it. If one sparks another idea, go for it. If you say, “These ideas suck, I’m going to write about . . ." Then I say, “Fine Write about that!”
1. Write a story about how cupcakes were invented.

2. Imgaine a half-mythological-half-school-kid character. Now populate a school with these hybrid kids and write about them.

3. Write a concept book that shows different kinds of weather.

4. Create a story about the animals on display at a county fair.

5. Write a story about a main character named Booger Davis. Make this a character-driven story that reveals who Booger is. Remember, if he’s the MC, we need to love him.

6. Choose a household object to personify. Now write a story about that character.

7. Write a story that incorporates a recipe.

8. Imagine if a classroom teacher had an invisible pet. Write about it.

9. Write an entire story using only onomatopoeias (or sounds).

10. Write an interactive story—one that causes the reader to turn, touch, hold, shake, and move the book based on the text.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

10 Questions to Ask Yourself

Week of September 18: Writer, Examine Thyself
Wednesday, September 21—10 Questions to Ask Yourself

No commentary today, just questions. Sometimes reexamining where you are, how you got there, and where you want to go are the most important things you can do. So have at it! Answer each question honestly and quickly. Don’t overthink. Just answer.
1. Why am I writing?

2. Why aren’t I writing?

3. Where do I hope my writing with take me?

4. Is this what I want to be doing?

5. What is working for me?

6. What is not working for me?

7. What do I like best about writing?

8. What do I like least about writing?

9. What am I going to do next to make a difference in my writing?

10. What is my writing goal?

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

10 Tasks to Help You Find Daily Inspiration

Week of September 18: Writer, Examine Thyself
Tuesday, September 20—10 Tasks to Help You Find Daily Inspiration

I hope you’re not one of those people who say, “I’m just not the creative sort.” If that’s really true, you would never have boarded the Writing Train. Creativity doesn’t mean that you’re a painter, or can knit, or that you dream up wild inventions. Creativity simple means you make something new. Each time you write, you are a being a creative genius. But even geniuses can feel like they are slowing down and creaking to a halt from time to time. That’s when we need a bit of inspiration. So, consider today’s inspirational task suggestions your oil and lube job to get your creative engine moving.

1. Commit to daily creativity. Do you know about Abbey Ryan? Every day (repeat—every day) since 2007, Abbey Ryan has painted a still life in oils. Every day. Every single day!  ( This is a commitment to creativity. What is your daily commitment? A new manuscript? An hour of work? Three new ideas? Whatever it is, make the commitment and stick with it. Commitment to creative leads to inspiration.

2. Routines and rituals. Maybe you get up in the morning and have two cups of coffee to start your day and then you’re ready to write. Perhaps you read (or reread) two picture books each day as part of your morning ritual. Maybe you take a walk to get your body and mind aligned and moving. Perhaps you visualize success and repeat a phrase over and over.  Find the routines and rituals that launch you into your writing day. Then follow them.

3. Find your creative spot. Two weeks ago, Lisa Wheeler told us how gardening, pulling weeds, and swimming laps were places she goes when needing ideas. I love cultural outings—a museum, an art fair, a flea market (ok, so not all that cultural). I also have a favorite beach that’s about forty-five minutes away. Just driving over the drawbridge to Pass-a-grille rejuvenates me and gets my creative juices flowing. Find your inspiration spot(s).

4. Breathing, meditation, and exercise. In my mind, Jamie Morris (, is the reigning yoga queen (she holds other titles, too, however). Jamie knows more breathing, meditation, and stretching exercises than anyone I’ve ever met. She uses these exercises to get centered, focused, and to allow inspiration to bubble to the surface. (She uses the exercises for other reasons, too, for example good health and wellbeing!) So breathe. Meditate. Exercise. Be inspired. Be creative.

5. Visiting inspiration. I mentioned this above, but let me say it again . . . being around creativity and inspiration can lead to more creativity and inspiration. Maybe you see a touring Broadway show, watch a local production of Seussical the Musical, visit a craft fair, explore a new exhibit at the local college, or participate in an author talk at an independent bookstore. Find inspiration. Visit inspiration. Be inspired.

6. Daily readings. Getting centered through reading each day allows some writers to find their inspiration and creativity anew. I love quotes. So reading a few quotes from a collection works for me. Perhaps it’s reading the next chapter in a book about writing, such as Ann Whitford Paul’s Writing Picture Books. I highly recommend Today I Will: A Year of Quotes, Notes and Promises to Myself by Eileen and Jerry Spinelli. Inspired by 366 quotes from children’s literature, the award-winning authors offer insight and advice for every day of the year. You look inside the book, turn to the page with today's date, read, and make a promise to yourself.

7. Accept inspiration on its terms. When and where inspiration strikes will always be a mystery. So always have to be ready to accept it and grab it in when it occurs. Always have paper and pen within reach to jot down your inspiration. When inspiration sparks a question, write down the question and mull it over. Don’t rush to an answer . . . ponder. Part of the inspiration process may not be finding the answer, but searching for all the possible answers.

8. Don’t let anyone "steal" your inspiration and creativity. I seldom tell the details of my writing. I only speak about my books in the most general of terms. I usually don’t let people look in my writing idea notebook. It’s not that I think someone is going to steal my ideas, it’s that these are special, sacred things. They came from my mind and heart. When they’re ready to be seen, they’ll be on a bookshelf! Until then, I keep them safe. (Exceptions are, of course: my critique groups, my mentors, my agent, and any and all editors interested in seeing my work!)

9. End the day with inspirational energy. For many years, I went to sleep with music playing—and to tell you the truth, it was the same song set on repeat so the song played over and over throughout the night. The song lulled me into a state of calm, released my brain from the pressures of the day, and freed me to think and dream. Other people leave their writing in mid-sentence so the next day they can pick up quickly and move on. Others have a nightcap, pray and meditate, or take the dog for a moonlit stroll. Inspiration can happen every minute of the day and night—even when you’re sleeping.

10. Get busy with it. Today’s post has been about actively pursuing inspiration. If you sit and wait for it to come, you may be sitting a long time. So get busy with it!

Monday, September 19, 2011

10 Ways to Get Out of Your Writing Funk

Week of September 18: Writer, Examine Thyself
Monday, September 19—10 Ways to Get Out of Your Writing Funk

1. Stop and start. Chances are if you are feeling stuck, you just might be. Stop that piece you can’t seem to finish, or the one you keep revising, and start something new. The break may be a breakthrough in terms of a new manuscript and in terms of giving your brain some breathing space.

2. Reread your five favorite picture books. Pull out your favorite picture books (or go check them out). Sit in a comfy chair with a glass or mug of your favorite beverage. Then read each book aloud. Stop to savor each word. Find anew the joy of these books.

3. Type up the text of your five favorite picture books. Yes, you’ve done this before, no doubt. But do it again. Typing up the text allows you to feel the flow of a manuscript, the pacing, the forward momentum, the plot building and building to the climax, and more. Let your fingers feel the text, let your eyes see the text, and read aloud as you’re typing so your ears can hear the text again.

4. Go be around kids. You’re writing for kids, right? So get up and go be with them. In the process, you may find some inspiration and you certainly will find some distraction. Volunteer at your local library, public school, church, temple, or synagogue. Be aware, that most organizations that work with children require a background check. Don’t worry, it’s just part of the process.

5. Go walk the book aisles. Go to your local library and/or your favorite book store and walk through the picture book aisles. Most often books are alphabetized by authors’ last names. Find the slot where your books will sit when published. Put your hand in the space where your books belong and say to yourself, “This is where my books will be. This is why I’m writing.”

6. Look through your file of manuscripts started. Many times when I feel stuck on a project, I go back and scroll down through my saved files of pieces I’ve started. Often I find something I’ve completely forgotten and I reread the piece and go at it again. Starting to work on something in the middle is much easier than starting with a blank screen.

7. Get out of the house and do something fun. A funk may just mean you need a break. Walk the dog. Go to the park. Do some retail therapy. Tour a museum. Play bingo. Go to the track. Whatever gives you enjoyment may refresh you and restore your writing energy.

8. Talk about it. Find someone who actually cares (for me it’s my dog, Baxter) and moan and groan, whine and complain, cuss and discuss until you have expressed your feelings enough to move on. Note: This approach rarely works when chatting with a non-writer.

9.Change your writing location. Take your computer out on the deck. Set up a new workspace on the kitchen table. Find one of the many coffee shops or restaurants with free Wi-Fi and grab a cup of coffee as you work. Often a new space brings with it new energy.

10. Use Funk-be-gone Spray. Head to the store and buy your favorite scent of room-freshening spray. Make a label that reads FUNK-BE-GONE SPRAY. Slap the sticker on the can of spray. Any time the ole Writing Funk rears its ugly head, spray a liberal dose of FUNK-BE-GONE around your work area. Yes, it’s silly. But trust me when I say that the silliness of this act will get you out of your funk!

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Coming This Week!

Week of September 18: Writer, Examine Thyself
Quotes of the week:
If things look hopeless, look and see if you aren’t facing the wrong direction.
—James Everett

Tomorrow is always fresh, with no mistakes in it.
—Lucy Maud Montgomery

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I sense people (picture book writers in particular) are feeling down these days. The excitement of summer conferences is over, Borders actually did close its doors, and our routines of school and work are back in full swing. We’ve mailed or emailed off manuscripts to all the editors and agents we met during the summer and they have yet to respond. Oh, woe, are we.

So this week I am sharing 50 tasks, questions, ideas, suggestions, and commands to get you off the woe-train and back yelling, “Woo-whoo!” So jump on the Picture This! train and let’s hit the rails.

Monday—10 Ways to Get Out of Your Writing Funk
Tuesday—10 Tasks to Help You Find Daily Inspiration
Wednesday—10 Questions to Ask Yourself
Thursday—10 Never-before-seen Story-starters to Spark Your Writing
Friday—10 Commandments for Writers