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Sunday, July 17, 2005

The Palace Storeroom: Teachers Who Write


January 2005: This is drawn from a web page of, originally made in August 2004. It is now being retired to the Palace Storerooms. No doubt some things have changed since then...

Update, July 2005: I'm revising and adding to this collection for my 2005 students. This time I'll leave it up as a post for a while.

Questions from Teachers Who Write
From teachers at my 2004 writing seminar
at the North Carolina Center for the Advancement of Teaching

This class is rather a rarity for me, as I long ago decided that teaching and my writing did not go together. I don't object to anyone else combining the two, and this seminar is especially for people who want to work in the public school system and also do some writing. As the mother of three, my summer hats are all off to them.

The week’s seminar takes place in my North Carolina home, Cullowhee, and it is a prize and reward for state elementary and high school teachers. I like the idea of spending a little time with the teachers who work with our children.

Here is the place where I answer questions that we didn’t cover in seminar.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Q: Once I’ve written my book, how do I find an agent? ---C. T.

A: Word-of-mouth is a good source. I suggest looking for books that feel kindred to your own, then “googling” the web to find their agents. Cautionary site: You might try or, the site that made the industry mad!

Q: If I want to quote a copyrighted source, such as song lyrics, how do I get permission to use them? --C. T.

A: Let your editor-to-come help you with that one, but remember that song lyrics not in the public domain can be expensive.

Q: What is your “writing journey”? --E. B.

A: Hmm. I think all writers worth their salt start out as rabid readers. That’s more important than almost anything else. I was a poet first. I started writing fiction during a depressed time when I couldn’t seem to write a poem. Now I write stories, poems, novels, and children’s books—the latter a result of having children who asked for fantasy.

Q: What comments do you have about so many writers who have been involved with substance abuse, isolated lifestyles, serial marriages, etc.? I ask this question because my high school students notice this pattern, and some of them seem to believe a writer must be somewhat neurotic in order to be successful. I believe that is the wrong message for teenagers. Sober, sane, family people also make good writers—right? --E. B.

A: Wild and tormented souls have made hot copy for reporters, and they have received more attention than the contented ones. Often a writer’s manic depression or disorder or injured child or some other sad element becomes a hook by which a publisher will attract attention to a new publication. I don’t like this mode, but there are a number of things about publishing that I don’t particularly care for.

A great many writers turn for refuge to the world of books in childhood, often because of some deep and unhappy accident or wound to family or self. These are the grains of sand around which the pearl of a writer’s self may be created.

Such injuries may also lead to darker realms as well. In addition, there are the difficult facts of rejection, the lone nature of the art, and the possible lack of recognition; that’s hard—too hard for some.

Q: How do you organize the “skeleton” of your novel? --D. D.

A: I’ve published quite a few books without ever establishing the sort of outline your question suggests. Being whimsical, I may try one next time around! I do often keep a list of where I’ve been—I jot down ages and dates as I write, just so I have a record and don't get confused.

Q: How do you get started on a piece? --A. K.

A: Here are a few things that have started me dreaming on my way to a story or poem in the past few months: an anecdote about an upper crust luncheon; the northern lights hung like spears over the lake behind my house; a painting of an old house with wispy ghosts in the yard; a tiny house with a ceiling with plaster pomegranates and lions; a broken Tiffany window; three hypnogogic dreams; a dare from writer Howard Bahr; the malign machinations of Rufus Griswold, Poe’s executor.

My family homes in Collins and Lexsy, Georgia have been a great resource to me; they are touchstone places that draw me back to childhood. The mountains of North Carolina, where I attended high school and still spend time every year, have a similar pull.

Q: I’d like to know more about framing a story—what are some methods for finding a workable structure? --A. S.

A: You can find oodles of books that will give you advice on building stronger plots; there are also plenty of resources on the web. The other day I bumped into a website that uses a snowflake fractal as a model for organizing a novel. Most sources tend to build the traditional pyramid, moving from inciting force to rising action to crisis and climax, ending in resolution.

Being perverse, I have not done any of these interesting geometric patterns but have rambled as I pleased, then cut and tightened and organized. This is a highly wasteful mode of proceeding which involves much ruthless slashing; I do not recommend it, though it is my own.

I’m still thinking of repenting and attempting to be organized. I’m also still thinking about the need to pick up my office . . .

Q: How much time do you typically spend on your novels? --A. H.

A: I’m afraid that I draft quickly, because while I am reasonably sane and sober (see prior questions!), I am obsessive. I get a lot of joy from writing and have a hard time letting go at the end of a bout of writing. I also like the tinkering that comes after a draft.

Q: Do you revise your poetry or do you usually do one draft only? --A. H.

A: While I draft in a swoop, I often revise for many years. Some of the poems in my collection, Claire, were revised over decades. I suppose that I’ll quit fooling with them now that they’re in a book, although the three typos are still bugging me!

Q: Do you ever have to get over a “hump” of feeling as if a story isn’t yours to take a thread somewhere new? --M. B. B.

A: No, because I tend to make almost everything up. That eliminates a lot of problems!

Right now I’m thinking about using one historical figure, but already in my dreams he is becoming something else entirely . . . I did pilfer and use Edward Taylor, Puritan preacher and poet, in Catherwood, but nobody noticed that he existed on both sides of the looking-glass.

Q: I was so moved by your “orange” story from The Wolf Pit, I think because it was so mindful, which is something I’m interested in and working on. How do you balance fantasy, imagination, creation, and invention with the practice of mindfulness? --M. B. B.

A: I’m not sure that I know the answer to this question, because I haven’t thought about making stories from this angle. (Again, I believe that the “way” you proceed doesn’t matter—just that it’s right for you.)

Perhaps it’s simply that when one reaches the fount from which new things pour, they already possess their own rightful details.

Q: How do I tell a story without getting too emotionally involved in my memories, which could get in the way of my writing? --S. D.

A: Sometimes the patina of time is needed, I suppose, to separate us from the original scene. While I sometimes use fragments of reality, I tend to dream about them until they have changed and appear far from the details and events of my life: this makes another kind of distance.

Q: How do I fit writing into my busy life as a counselor? --S. D.

A: It is hard to weave time to write into a busy day. I wrote The Wolf Pit at night because I had no time without young children, but I don’t recommend that method. An ability to concentrate and to jump into dream whenever one has free moments is helpful; that can mean that breaks and lunch and doing dishes and drive time become useful, though you may appear a tad dotty to colleagues and family. I’ve often started a poem just after dropping my three children at their various schools.

Another thing that has helped me is developing my ability to do more than one thing at a time, so that I can talk to children who burst into my room, say, while I write. If you can't do this, don't worry about it; I think that I do have an ability to concentrate beyond the norm, a quality that is terribly irritating to other people!

It’s helpful to remember the simple fact that if you can only average one page a day, you will have 365 in a year.

Q: How do I know when a piece is completed? --L. P.

A: Keep putting it away and taking it out to read again: time tells! If you don’t want to wait, a circle of trusted readers is a benefit.

Q: How do I develop character? --L. P.

A: Ms. L. P. already has a ton of character; she must be talking about the paper kind . . .

When new characters appear, I find that they are already themselves and “full,” though I may not understand them completely at first. However, I know perfectly well that some of my friends who write don’t feel this way but go about building a character—they make charts with lists that detail the physical, mental, and spiritual traits of a person, the family background, the childhood trials, etc. I suppose that they plot cross-relationships between characters. Lee Smith is somebody who makes charts, and it works well for her.

I have a more mystical sense that it’s all there, but I don’t grasp it all immediately. This tendency may clash with my attempt to portray myself as “sane” and “sober.”

Again, I don’t think that one way of proceeding is superior to another.

Q: What would be the best steps or process for getting my writings read and possibly published? --L. P.

A: It’s lovely to have a group of peers whose opinion you trust, whether you have an official writing group or not. While you are sharing your work and getting helpful criticism, you might keep lists of books that you find congenial with your own.

My first book was published after I read a strange, wonderful piece of prose called Salar the Salmon. The thought came to me that the narrative was--in some subterranean way--kindred to mine. Knowing nothing but how poets published poems, I stuck my manuscript in a manila envelope and mailed it to David R. Godine, Publisher. That led to Little Jordan, my beginning in book publication, and I think it is an innocent, old-fashioned start that should be encouraging to a beginning writer.

Q: I’ve read so many Serial Romances that have errors; do they hire folks as readers who would check for errors? --L. A.

A: They should! The sort of thing that you’re talking about is in the domain of the copy editor, and a good one is a prize. When books are treated as “product,” some of the niceties of editing are neglected, especially in mass-market imprints.

Q: How do you get the average 7th grader beyond the fact that right now writing is somewhat just preparation for the March writing test, but that it can and should be a lifelong skill, love, and outlet?

A: I have a rising 7th grader at home; she’s the one who begged me into writing some fantasy. She liked to sit in my lap with a book as a baby, and she saw early on that books were building blocks of the world around her—that they were an essential part, important and capable of giving deep pleasure.

What can you do with a child who missed all that? Focus on reading. Let children see and meet adults for whom books and writing—journalists, travel diarists, journal keepers, family historians, etc.—are important. I’m a big fan of memorization; two years back I made a little anthology of poems for my daughter’s teacher, and her class memorized a surprising number of poems by Shakespeare, Kathleen Raine, Blake, and others. The reading that resulted thrilled them all.

Find out what sort of writing appeals to each child. I have a friend at Princeton Seminary who works on rap with troubled black teenagers. My daughter writes fantasy and is drawing and writing a manga story; my oldest son has created an imaginary empire with hundreds of pages of notes, stories, and drawings. (Then there’s the youngest, who is not convinced that he likes school! 2005 update: That child is now 8 and reading more, but I have definitely thought about the "Guys Read" lists and programs. Right now he's reading Roald Dahl and Jon Scieska.)

That’s just common sense advice; I don’t know what else to say. My years as a mother of schoolchildren have taught me the value of a good teacher—a being above price.

Q: Do you work on multiple projects at a time or work on one until you’re done? --L. A.

A: Oh, I like to have a number of things rolling about at once. Right now I have a revision on a novella to do, plus I’m doodling about with a new idea for a novel; I have new poems I want to redo as well. And I just wrote a picture book text for my editor. (2005 update: I guess I'm not a picture book writer! I've been asked to turn that one into a novel.)

Once you start publishing, you’re automatically doing a lot of different things, because comments or galleys will appear and break into what you’re doing.

Q: Do you need to send proposals out—or send manuscripts? I’ve heard that some editors accept both, but prefer proposals. –L. A.

A: When you are a big fat cat with a large audience for your novels, you may send a tiny proposal. If you have a magazine article idea, you may send a short proposal. If you have ideas for a nonfiction book, you may also send a proposal. Otherwise, you need to have a complete manuscript before you send, even though an agent or editor only wants to see a query and then a summary plus a few chapters at first.

Q: Any suggestions for good quality short plays for children I could read? –L. A.

A: Try,,

Q: How can I prime the pump if I enjoy writing and can “go with the flow” once I get started, but only occasionally feel that I have something I want to say? --G. A.

A: Never wait for something to say! If I waited until I had “something to say,” I might get creaky in the joints before I found a subject. Describe your Aunt Lil’s Sunday outfit, the home place, a puppet show: anything! Just start moving your hand and push the words around . . .

Q: What might I think of doing for a newspaper or magazine? --K. B.

A: What about starting with book reviews in your area of interest and training? Then see if you can come up with some feature proposals to do with local education, since you’re a teacher. Look into your regional magazines—mags like Adirondack Life or Carolina Gardener—and propose some topics. Why not?

Q: Did you feel the need to write just for yourself? --P. P.

A: It all started with a rage to read.

Q: How important is quiet time to your creativity, or can you work among chaos? –-P. P.

A: I like quiet time but don’t get all that much. It’s important to me to be able to write anywhere, anytime. I want to be ready to write whenever I stumble into a chair. Yes, chaos is acceptable. As a mother of three rambunctious children, I don’t have the luxury of retreating to some tastefully-appointed haven at the same hour every morning—a thing I heard a writer (male) describe on NPR yesterday. Would I like quiet? Yes. Do I expect it? No. Will I get it? When my children all are grown, perhaps; then I’ll think it too calm and dreary, no doubt.

Q: How do you deal with rejections or negative comments concerning your work? --P. P.

A: Google-eyed twits is a good epithet. P. G. Wodehouse, I believe. Great steaming radish ditto. Shakespeare and other dramatists are full of grand curses and putdowns. I have a list of allowable Shakespearean epithets which my children find useful. Sighs and shrugs are also helpful. Occasionally one learns something from comments, so it’s good to take them with more than a grain of salt. Sometimes.

It's also good to consider the source. (2005 update: Here's an example. I have one forthcoming review that I dislike and reject, but I have many others of my new book that I see as stellar or very good. I felt just as bad when I saw that one lousy review as if Harold Bloom had flown down in the guise of a bad fairy and tapped me on the shoulder to say that I was lacking. But should I give this one review more weight--it's by a young librarian--than others by longtime books editors and by writers whose books I respect? No, I don't think so. Yet I have to remind myself of that little fact.)

Q: I was thinking of publishing my first children’s book through Apex printing, after having had the book rejected by a number of agents? $2000. Is there another way? How do I distribute my book? Could I teach and work on the distribution or is there so much involved—would it be like having a second job? --S. M.

A: Distribution is a hideous burden for an author. Go not that way! Yes, it would be a second job. Find some publishers who publish books “like” yours, check to see if they accept submissions without an agent, and send. They should pay you.

(2005 update: Some of my writers from last year have fallen into the PublishAmerica net. Always google your publishers! You'll find a mountain of warnings about PA on the worldwide web.)

Q: How does a teacher bring out the best writing in an elementary 4th grade student? --S. H.

A: Try some enjoyable oral tales. Have them tell stories after planning out the order of events.

Children that age adore making up and telling riddles, which demand cleverness and engagement with words. (My older ones still like it.)

Dig up the counting-out rhymes and sidewalk songs of your youth—our children don’t get the free outdoor play that was once a normal part of childhood. (My husband does a lot of these things with Cub Scouts, and they love it.)

Make written collections of what is done first orally. (Oh, I don’t know—I’m not a 4th grade teacher! But these are things that work for me.)

Q: What can a teacher emphasize to parents of 4th grad students to help them be successful writers? --S. H.

A: Check for passers-by before chucking the t. v. and Nintendo and such out of the second-story window? I have those pernicious items at my house, but they are controlled. Actually I don't have television reception, so the t.v. is just for movies.

Ask parents to limit screen time, read to children, have their children read aloud, and listen and respond as the children tell imaginary stories or stories about what happened at school. It's surprising how many parents don't bother to listen.



Here's the list; I've added a lot since last year. I've checked them, but send me a note if you find a broken link. Of course, many more things could be added, but a number of the sites mentioned--Beatrice, Mumpsimus, and others--have comprehensive lists of links.

Favorite useful sites for writers of children’s books: Harold Underdown’s “The Purple Crayon,”; (Society for Children’s Book Writers & Illustrators); (Diana Wynne Jones);

Favorite site for young writers: Look for listings of web zines and magazines, contests, artists’ sites, resources for teachers, etc.

Favorite editorial checklist for writers: “10 Mistakes List for Writers,” at Repeats, flatness, adverbs, dialogue, suffixes, etc.

Favorite very rude advice to writers list: Topics such as “There is always someone less talented than you making more money as a writer” and “Did I mention life’s not fair?”

Favorite way to get questions answered for a writer who is interested in genre: The genre mags like Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction all have their own web sites and include bulletin boards that are active and give lots of advice.

Favorite writers’ links collections:;;

Favorite agent and editor sites:;;;

Favorite 2005 tell-all agent's site: Miss Snark, at

Favorite 2005 tell-all editor's site: Agent 007, at

Favorite writer-bookseller sites: the G. O. B. at;
Fresh Eyes: A Bookseller's Journal at

Favorite places to start:

Favorite for self-publishing: I don’t know a lot about this area, but I have a friend who archives any unsold manuscript with, and he thinks they’re the best.
Favorite poll for young readers: (from Sharyn November, an editor at Vintage)

Favorite place to search for chickens and the meaning of life:

Favorite book marketing and PR sites: Susan Raab’s (children’s books); Robert Sawyer’s (scifi but useful to all); John Kremer’s (‘100 Best’ Lists)

Favorite formal poetry site: (Look for my name under the Contemporary Poets section if you want to see some of my poems from Claire.

Favorite “mythic arts” site: (lovely); (best fairy tale source);; (encyclopedia of myth)

Favorite art news sites:; (Arts & Letters); (“Poets & Writers”)

Favorite review & dour essay site: Alex Good’s

Favorite commentator teetering back and forth between literary fiction and fantasy: Matt Cheney has a great links list for people interested in sites literary or speculative.

Favorite over-stuffed literary blog:

Favorite academic writer’s blog: Dan Green’s “the reading experience,” (Smart and demanding and often against the grain of received opinion.)

Favorite essay links:,

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Alas, I must once again remind large numbers of Chinese salesmen and other worldwide peddlers that if they fall into the Gulf of Spam, they will be eaten by roaming Balrogs. The rest of you, lovers of grace, poetry, and horses (nod to Yeats--you do not have to be fond of horses), feel free to leave fascinating missives and curious arguments.