Don’t Fear the Core!

    by Sean McCollum In the last decade, the Common Core State Standards have been both a source of anticipation and hand-wringing among parents, educators, and yes, writers for children. As a long-time freelance writer of children’s nonfiction and educational content—and a HUGE lifelong fan of children’s literature in general—I want to go on record that CCSS offers some cool opportunities for upgrading the curriculum in many school districts. And young readers and children’s writers stand to benefit, as well. The Common Core State Standards are exactly that—standards. Teams of experts and educators developed grade-level benchmarks for what kids are expected to learn and skills (like effective writing!) they are expected to have developed in core subject areas. The standards are targets for schools, teachers, and students to aim for in terms of knowledge and skills. There are valid criticisms, in my opinion, that classroom teachers themselves were not as involved in the process as might seem sensible, and that some of the standards are overly ambitious. However, the adoption of CCSS moved the U.S.—or at least the 42 states that adopted the initiative—toward a shared vision of what a quality, well-rounded education looks like. As with all big initiatives, Common Core has its significant faults. For one, I think it places too much emphasis on college-prep and neglects students whose learning styles are not well-served in the traditional classroom. Secondly, CCSS quickly got co-opted by the testing industry that saw dollar signs first and student development significantly lower on the balance sheet. The conflating of CCSS with high-stakes testing has been one of the biggest misconceptions about Common Core,...
Comforted by Dreams

Comforted by Dreams

  By Laura K. Deal A friend of mine from dream retreats shared this link to Maria Konnikova’s piece, “How to Beat Writer’s Block,” in The New Yorker. As a dreamer and a writer, it resonated with me on several levels. I highly recommend the full article, and I also want to share my response here. Konnikova tells us that Graham Greene found solace in keeping a dream diary during a period of writer’s block. I’ve felt that comfort too. Even if my waking life doesn’t feel particularly creative, my mind still offers scenarios, with unexpected visitors, repeated themes, and always the invitation to imagine something different from my waking life. My fiction, too, contains unexpected visitors, repeated themes, and the invitation to imagine my own world. Dreams and stories arise from the same fountain of creativity at the heart of being human, and sometimes my mind craves one expression over the other. Konnikova also explores the history of the idea of “writer’s block” and its treatment by psychoanalysts and psychologists. At the root is the question: Why do we get blocked? I would argue that we unconsciously block ourselves for any number of complicated reasons, but the article doesn’t go that direction. Instead, Konnikova describes four types of unhappy writers and treating their writer’s block with a two-week intervention of guided imagining. Though not a panacea, creativity often flowed and many writers cheered up. Addressing the symptom of writer’s block itself proved therapeutic for emotional distress. From a practical standpoint, what matters is that we writers can find ways through these blocks. Personally, my favorite way is pulling half...

Whiney Gets Mobbed by Ideas

  By Whiney Writer   I thought having lots of story ideas would be a good thing. As soon as I open up one document, a million–well, okay, five or six–other ideas push into my brain. For instance, I’m working on a new opening scene for The Body Under the Bed, a murder mystery set in 18th century, or maybe 17th century, France, possibly with paranormal elements. The scene needs to be full of foreshadowing, but not so obvious that Marguerite looks stupid for not figuring it all out by page 15. You know what else is hard, besides ideas? This whole question of balance. So, here we are at a court ball, introducing main characters (one of whom is not long for this world) and I get another idea. “Hey, how about Bertie Wooster in space?”  In case you don’t know, Bertie is the classic upper-class English fool with a good heart and very little brain. P. G. Wodehouse invented him, and Jeeves. Not now, I mutter, and go off to do some research for BUTB. Huh, maybe I won’t refer to it by initials after all. Bertie In Space! Not now. Back to the research. Hey, Louis XV nearly didn’t live to be King, or even to grow up. His mother, then his father, then his older brother all died of measles, or maybe smallpox. Sources vary. The royal doctors treated them with bleeding and enemas. When poor little Louis showed similar symptoms, his governess and under-governess barricaded themselves and Louis in the royal rooms and wouldn’t let the doctors in. If he’d died, they would have...

Character Strengths and Flaws

  By Ceil Boyles   We love to fall in love with the strong, handsome hero, or admire the beautiful, brave heroine, but while appealing, those qualities alone do not make for a very interesting story. In Deborah Halverson’s wonderful book, Writing New Adult Fiction, she provides a detailed discussion on the importance of giving your characters both strengths and flaws. Not only do flaws make your character more believable, they can be used to set up stumbling blocks that trip the character up on their quest to reach their goals, both internal and external. Imagine the climber who has a fear of heights, or the writer who has a fear of rejection – no wait, that last one is just too far fetched. The point is that overcoming flaws set the stage for rounded, exciting characters who must do things that are uncomfortable for them, or difficult physically, possibly even life threatening. It’s the flaws that make the book exciting and that stretches your characters, taking them on the ride at end of which is the pot of gold writers know as achieving their character arc. Of course, as Ms. Halverson points out, the age of your characters comes into play. New Adult characters fall in the18-25 year-old age group. They’re not fully grown up, but they’re beyond the high school teen years. They’re experiencing a new freedom to choose what they want to do and who they want to be which is simultaneously exciting and scary, and which presents the writer with an interesting assortment of strengths and flaws to choose from. I suspect I’m not alone...