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Posted in Great Middle Grade Reads, Pitchwars, Teacher Resources, Writing

Mentor Wishlist for Pitchwars ’17!

OMGoodness, it’s Pitchwars time! Writers, welcome.  I am thrilled to be a PW ’17 mentor for MG, and I’m so glad you stopped by! Good luck to everyone. 😊

BIO:  I’m a teacher and writer in Southwestern PA. My teaching career has taken me from public secondary schools to small private settings, and I’ve taught most grade levels from 2nd to 12th along the way. My most recent teaching “gig” was Language Arts, 5th through 8th grades, at a small Catholic school.

I decided to be a pitchwarsmg2bimageteacher by the time I was a middle grader, but I knew I wanted to be a writer a lot earlier than that. Instead of earning my permanent teaching certification credits in some education-related field, I went rogue and earned a Master’s Degree in Writing Popular Fiction from Seton Hill University. I learned how to structure and produce book-length works in popular genres at Seton Hill, but my favorite part of the program was the revision work we did in email Peer Critique groups and small group in-person critique settings.

Several of my creative non-fiction essays, literary non-fiction, and craft articles got picked up for publication after grad school, but my book goals got a little sidetracked with teaching, directing high school and middle school theatre, and having kids. Pitchwars ’15 was my incentive to start trying again—I finished my WIP and submitted! Then several mentors requested my manuscript to read—what a thrill! Then I got in—instant terror!

200But my awesome mentor Rebecca Wells quickly made me remember what I loved so much about peer critiquing in grad school: that revision is happily addicting, and that improving your story one sentence at a time brings a fulfillment to the writer that few other working processes can achieve.

I had over a dozen agent requests in the week after entries went live, and I later found my agent, Alyssa Eisner Henkin at Trident Media, as a result of that agent-finding process.

So! Hopefully at least some part of my writing path resounds with yours. I think there are a lot of parallels between writing fiction and producing a piece of theatre for the stage (as there are counterparts between many artistic forms), but the biggest one is also my favorite advice: trust the process. Everyone’s process is different—doesn’t matter if it’s taken you a while to come this far! Be proud that you are here, and working toward what you want.

Come follow me on Twitter–  @JennBrisendine   and Instagram — JennBrisendineWrites .

WISH LIST—

–I’m seeking upper MG historicals with or without elements of magic; time periods during the Fall of Rome, Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Restoration would be of special interest.

–I’m also seeking upper contemporary or historical realistic MG that takes place in interesting geographical locations (islands? polar regions? deserts?) that play a strong role in the book. Ecological/Environmental elements would be great to see.

–Upper MG mystery built on strong characterization would be great.

–Upper MG set in small or alternative school settings or having to do with theater would be good too.

–I love good use of literary techniques in the writing— sincere and organic prose that zings.

–I like interesting POV mixes and teachable books.

200wHere are some reads I’ve enjoyed lately and what I liked about them.

Counting by Sevens by Holly Goldberg Sloan – mix of 1st and 3rd POV, present and past tense works really well here.

Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes – more recent historical event combined with elements of magic for the win.

Olive’s Ocean by Kevin Henkes – interior monologue is well done and imagery sticks with you.

Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin – Voice and emotional “grippiness” here are standouts; interesting and original historical setting.

The War that Saved my Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley – kind of an unrelenting realism here that makes you keep reading.

My favorite writers include Rebecca Stead, Lemony Snickett, and Christopher Paul Curtis.

My favorites to teach include Bud, Not Buddy; Number the Stars; Maniac Magee; Holes; Fever 1793; Ninth Ward; and The Westing Game.

I’m probably NOT the best MG mentor for:

–high fantasy;

–animal stories;

–younger MG stories;

–sports stories;

–fairy tale or legend/folktale retellings;

–bathroom or lunch table humor.

Okay! So… good luck, and don’t stress about prepping your submission! Remember, it’s a process…and time and hard work will help you arrive.

If you get lost along the way, the Pitchwars site can offer guidance.

http://wp.me/p3YLhv-7Yc

And don’t forget to stop by #Pitchwars on Twitter.

Can’t wait to see what I get in the inbox…and thank you for considering me as a potential mentor for your MG work for PW ’17.

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Posted in Pitchwars, Uncategorized, Writing

Time for Pitchwars! Or, Eeeek…Time for Pitchwars??

Flashback to PW’15: hitting the submit button was a thrill—I’d worked up the nerve to send my work to some very talented and successful mentor-writers. But it was also a huge relief—it had been an entry months in the making. My writing To-Do list self-destructed in a single click…and what an awesome feeling that was! Nothing left to do with the ms for the moment—done!

Mid-August, with the sub window about to close, I turned to prepping my classroom and attending in-services. The flood was imminent—grading and planning, researching and teaching, meetings and emails. Over and over I thought, Good thing I had the summer to finish my entry for Pitchwars. And I just wouldn’t have had the time in the school year. And Working more on the book will have to wait.

Then I got picked as a mentee, and I had to make time to keep going.

For anyone considering entering Pitchwars (or other contests), but worried about the deadlines and the time commitment, or anyone just struggling to fit in a few hours of writing in the week—I hear you. The frustration is real.

Time is a funngiphyy thing, though—you can never seem to have enough, but it is somewhat manipulable. Kind of like Hermione with her Time Turner, you can overrule the constraints that time puts on you.

One of the biggest lessons I learned during PW was that I managed significant revisions and rewritings despite being real-life busy. Pitchwars was motivating, and my mentor gave me awesome ideas and encouragement, but the improved book came about from work that I did. You can make the time to move forward on your book goals.

These tricks for making time are not new. You know them. You’ve done them. They work with varying degrees of success depending on your habits, day job, family, and personality. So maybe consider this list a self-check, or a calming take-a-breath moment to review some ways in which you can take control of the clock.

  1. Can you limit your screen time more? Cut down on FB and Twitter unless it’s book-related correspondence, until you reach a word or page goal. Try sticking to only a few hours a week or less of TV. Or use a streaming service to catch up after you meet a goal.

2. Can you be more efficient with your reading choices? Don’t give up reading altogether! But reading a new police thriller when you’re writing younger historical MG may not be the most time-saving choice. Read at bedtime if that suits you, and sleep well knowing you fit in a craft chapter, a bit of research, or a comp title into your day at the eleventh hour.

3. Can you wake up earlier (or go to sleep later)? Even a half-hour a day of added writing time can get you pages ahead by the end of the week.

4. What can you carve and whittle off the clock? Can you write on your commute? In the car-rider pick-up lane at your kids’ school? In the waiting room at appointments? Look at your day-to-day schedule and pry open some windows of opportunity. Take notes on your phone, bring along a reference book for research, or own the archaic with a red pen and a chapter print-out.

5. Leave work at work (said no classroom teacher ever, lol). Well, okay…to the extent possible. Try to get as much of your day job done at the office or the school or the business, to allow more writing hours evenings and weekends. When can you sneak in some extra time for work at work? Though I missed my colleagues at lunchtime the year I was a mentee, I used that 25 minutes every day to grade, copy, and plan. I’d try to stay a bit after hours, too, if it meant I could go home mostly unencumbered and have more minutes for revisions once the kids were in bed.

6. Give yourself a break. Don’t go for mom/dad of the year or employee of the month, right now. You’re trying to write/revise/publish a BOOK. That’s enough—because you will instruct, inspire, and entertain through those words. Your book may save someone in some way you may never even know about. You are already doing a valiant, noble, and very cool thing. So if it’s mac and cheese for the third time this week, so what? It’s just food. The living room’s a mess? More important things. You skipped a volunteer activity? Catch up next month. Many, many people say they should write a book. Many of them start trying to write one. But you and I and a small (by comparison) community of other writers are actually following those words up with the continued, forward-moving action that could lead to fulfillment and success.

One time as a mentee during PW revisions I tweeted the mac and cheese thing, out of wry guilt. Several awesome fellow writers sent links to quick meal ideas and make-ahead recipes. You’ll hear it over and over—writers comprise a highly supportive community. If you stress and struggle with time, you are not alone! Trust yourself that you too can become a skilled time-turner, and keep moving forward.

Can’t wait to mentor this year…don’t worry, future prospective mentee. We’ll both make the time.

Posted in Free Study Guides, Great Middle Grade Reads, Teacher Resources, Writing

Great MG Reads: Number the Stars

number-the-stars-cover Free, printable teaching materials: Here are 3 free sets of questions to assess or review plot, character, and deeper-meaning components of the great MG novel Number the Stars by Lois Lowry. Feel free to change the documents to suit your needs, and please share with others!

chapters-1-to-5-reader-questions-for-number-the-stars

chapters-6-to-11-reader-questions-for-number-the-stars

chapters-12-to-17-reader-questions-for-number-the-stars

Kristallnacht happened on this night 78 years ago. So many important stories have been written with the Holocaust as a subject or historical backdrop, many of them YA and MG works. Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars is not just a great MG read, with a well-crafted main character and positive themes; it’s also a delicate yet gripping introduction to the Holocaust for younger readers. When I taught this last year, not many of my fifth graders had a clear grasp on what the Holocaust was, and several had it pegged incorrectly in the wrong era of history. The experience of introducing them to the subject of the Holocaust taught me of the importance of being reminded, staying mindful, and never forgetting the events and facts of this dark, dark time for humanity.

Lowry’s Newbery Award-winning MG novel works on so many levels—a springboard for historical timelines, a perfectly-suited storyline for teaching the Plot Triangle, a moving and realistic character and thematic study. In the language arts or homeschool classroom, you can do as much or as little with this novel as your students are ready for. If you are lucky enough to teach multiple grade levels, it’s the kind of book students will recall easily year to year, making it a valuable tool for comparison and exemplification in more mature lessons down the road.

Posted in Free Study Guides, Great Middle Grade Reads, Teacher Resources, Writing

Great MG Reads: Bud, Not Buddy

Bud Not Buddy front coverTeachers — Here are three free resources for your use when you teach Bud, Not Buddy, a great historical choice for the classroom. Just click to open, and save and print as needed! Feel free to share these freebies with a teacher who might use them. There’s an editable  Word version followed by a pdf for each.

Reading quiz for use after Chapters 1-3:

 Bud, Not Buddy Chapters 1-3 20 pt. Quiz  

  Bud, Not Buddy Chapters 1-3 20 pt. Quiz

Planning worksheet for young writers to use in crafting their own story “pitch”:

Original fiction pitch worksheet after Bud, Not Buddy  

  Original fiction pitch worksheet after Bud, Not Buddy

Character trait/proof from text chart:

Bud, Not Buddy Character Analysis worksheet  

Bud, Not Buddy Character Analysis worksheet

The indomitable Christopher Paul Curtis came to speak at a writers’ residency I attended years ago. He talked about the importance of keeping the story at the heart of the book (as opposed to the history) when you write historicals. Bud, Not Buddy has excellent attributes for instruction: character voice and development, the “quest” or journey plot structure, great morals and themes…and history as a vivid backdrop that impacts the story without taking over.

I used this book in a 5th grade Language Arts classroom, but it would fit into a variety of grade levels and content areas, and it would be a great choice for homeschool audiences as well.

Fast summary: Ten-year-old Bud escapes a not-so-nice foster situation, but instead of heading back to the “home,” he decides to find his father. He’s never met him, but he’s certain the clues in his suitcase left by his mother before she died will be all the help he needs in finding the man. Set against the background of the Great Depression, the various lifestyles Bud experiences (as an orphan, a vagrant, a traveling musician) take the reader solidly into another time and place.

Genre: Historical Middle Grade

Note for teachers/homeschooling parents: Bud, Not Buddy has so many teachable moments! You can sidebar social studies, writing, morality, and arts topics with every chapter: What’s a Hooverville? What’s a worker’s union? Find some examples of people caring for others in the book. How does jazz music differ from music of other genres?

Real (modern) world connections: The book centers around Flint, Michigan. Students may bring up the current status of Flint, which might spur a discussion of other American cities and how they have developed over time.

Any alarms/flashing lights? (Potentially controversial facets of the book): There’s a brief scene in which Bud gets a kiss from a girl he doesn’t see again. Some discussion of race relations in the 1930s would deepen students’ awareness and understanding of Bud’s decisions and emotions. Bud imagines using a rifle he finds at the foster home, but doesn’t.

Notes for writers/readers: Study this book as a great example of voice! My fifth graders were quick to point out all the grammar “mistakes” on page one, which immediately prompted a good lesson on voice and style, what voice means for deep characterization in a novel, and descriptions of POV.

A great MG read — can’t wait to teach this one again.

 

Posted in Writing

When even a great metaphor won’t do

I’ve been trying to come up with a catchy literary comparison for  how grateful I am to have been a part of the Pitch Wars 2015 crew. But no figurative language seems capable of producing a worthy enough description. Pitch Wars–and particularly my mentor Rebecca Wells-motivated me to make a fiercely better book out of ideas, questions, moods, and images.

You always hear that writers must persevere toward publication and must believe in the story they are telling. This is especially true in the quest for a literary agent, when fear and rejection can easily paralyze one into inactivity.

Today, I’m thrilled to be able to stand with other newly agented writers and say, You know all that stuff about perseverance and belief in your story? Well, it’s all true: I am now being represented by Alyssa Eisner Henkin of Trident Media Group. She is an amazingly talented agent with beautiful insight into the children’s book market. I can’t wait to dig in to improvements and revisions as we begin to work together in the New Year!

 

 

 

Posted in Writing

PitchWars Revision — the beginning

Well, not really the beginning of revisions. My PitchWars manuscript is on something like Draft #3 with a couple significant restructurings and line edits already. But when you are lucky enough to have a great mentor suggesting improvements, you welcome the whole process with an open mind and heart, as if it is a new beginning for your book. My excellent mentor Rebecca Wells gave me the perfect assignment to get started with: a chart that tracks each major character’s motivations, goals, and consequent actions. Mine is already filled with highlighted notes of details and scene ideas I want to rewrite! Here’s a blank so you can see what I’m talking about… feel free to use as is, or modify to suit your style and manuscript!

Blank character motivation chart

Good luck to fellow mentees and everyone in the PitchWars camp!

Posted in Writing

PitchWars!

A Quick Bio:

Hi fellow potential mentees for PitchWars! I’m Jenn Brisendine, mom of two boys and a full-time lit/language arts teacher.

I love novels with theme ideas of resilience and renewal, and those are the driving forces behind my middle grade manuscripts. I currently have a fantasy/time travel out to agents and a mystery/historical in Pitchwars.

I earned a Master’s Degree in Writing Popular Fiction years ago from Seton Hill University and it was the best thing I could’ve done — learned so much about publishing and marketing as well as plotting, characterization, and other craft subjects.

This blog contains reviews on my favorite books on writing, as well as great MG reads that I love and teach. I’ll putting some of my original teaching material on here to share for free, so please spread the word!

For example, here’s my free study guide for Jewell Parker Rhodes’ excellent novel Ninth Ward, great for classroom or homeschool use – please feel free to share with a teacher you know:

Ninth Ward Study Guide

Thanks and good luck to everyone!

Posted in Free Study Guides, Great Middle Grade Reads, Teacher Resources, Writing

Great MG read: Ninth Ward by Jewell Parker Rhodes

ninth-wardTeachers! Check out this chapter-by-chapter reader’s study guide I’m sharing — free for classroom or homeschooling use! Hope you find it helpful!  Ninth Ward Study Guide

Ninth Ward is a great choice for classroom or homeschooling use. It will spur at least a quick study of the events surrounding the disaster that was Hurricane Katrina and the ensuing tragedies that affected thousands of people.  Or it may inspire more in-depth research projects to prep for or react to a reading of the novel.

I used the book in a class of 6th graders. My students found the reading level easy but the content much harder to mentally grasp–mostly because they didn’t have much prior knowledge of Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans before we discussed it in class. They loved the characters and the pacing of the book, and I loved that it was a historical MG novel set only ten years ago. I think many kids, parents, and teachers tend to think of centuries-old eras, long-ago wars, and distant past events when we hear the label “historical novel.” Ninth Ward is recent history–history that has had a clear impact on the world in which they are living.

Fast Summary: Lanesha is a 12-year-old girl living in the Ninth Ward neighborhood of New Orleans. She weathers the hurricane using strength, resolve, and quick-thinking skills…then she must survive the floodwaters, too.

Genre: Historical MG with a nice dose of magical realism

Note for teachers/homeschooling parents: Such a great and teachable book! Rich in plot and character details, great opportunities to discuss characters’ motivations and author’s purpose. Themes of hope, resilience, and gumption with plenty of evidence in Lanesha’s words and actions.

Real world connections: Have students ask older folks (parents, teachers, friends, relatives) what news stories they recall from the days of constant media coverage surrounding the storm and its aftereffects.

Any alarms/flashing lights? (Potentially controversial facets of the book) Well, the magical realism comes in the form of ghosts… Lanesha can see the bodies of dead people from a variety of eras, and she can communicate with some of them. One of the ghosts she can see is her mother, who died after giving birth to her. There is only the faintest tone of creepiness regarding this trait ; Lanesha treats it as something normal and natural.

Mama Ya-Ya is the woman who cares for Lanesha, and though she keeps statues of Catholic saints handy, she also believes in “faiths born in Africa”… she believes in “many gods… (that) gods live in everything, in the whole wide world.” This is briefly mentioned and has little impact on the plot, though my students (in our small Catholic school) discussed how this trait contributed effectively to Mama Ya-Ya’s overall characterization.

Posters from the 1960’s with the motto Make Love, Not War are given one mention to detail a setting. This has no other role in the book.

There aren’t any instances of profane or questionable language in the book.

Notes for writers and readers: This book is an excellent study in POV and voice–immediately the reader will connect with and know Lanesha, and know and understand her existence in the Ninth Ward.

Great read! I look forward to teaching it again this coming school year.

Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter Five: Many Genres, One Craft (edited by Michael A. Arnzen and Heidi Ruby Miller)

This summer marks the four-year anniversary of the release of Many Genres, One Craft, and I’m still thrilled to call myself a contributor. My essay on writing for older kids, “Keeping It Real: Mixing Truth and Fiction in YA,” is included, but it’s only one of 82 pieces–82!–that explore the craft of writing by addressing it from multiple angles. I can’t find another writing book out there anything like this one, and it’s fun and exciting to be a part of a volume so innovative. Beautifully designed and published by Headline Books, MGOC offers up both the practical and the inspirational in each packed section: Craft, Genre, and The Writer’s Life. Articles on the writing process and story elements fill the Craft section; popular genres like sci-fi, romance, suspense, and others (in addition to YA and children’s) are each addressed in turn in the Genre section; and the pieces in The Writer’s Life section, probably my favorites, clue you in to methods that working, earning writers use to overcome challenges and achieve the overall goal of more and better writing.

The book is crazy big and weighs as much as a newborn. It’s done awfully well this past year; it won the 2012 International Book Award in the “Business: Writing and Publishing” category, and the “Education/Academic” category of the 2012 Next Generation Indie Book Awards. It won the General Non-Fiction Award in the 2011 London Books Festival Awards. It placed 5th in The Writer magazine’s “This Year’s Ten Most Terrific Writing Books,” earned a spot as a finalist in an impressive list of other awards and honors, and–as of yesterday–won Silver in ForeWord Reviews’ 2012 Book of the Year Awards in the category of Adult Nonfiction–Writing.

MGOC‘s contributors are all connected with the MA/MFA writing program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University as graduates, faculty, or guest presenters at writers’ residencies. We all draw from what we learned or what we teach at Seton Hill in these essays, so the book also provides a pure glimpse into what this degree program has to offer. As Dr. Mike Arnzen, one of the editors, says in his intro, “this book is the writer’s residency in a bottle.”

Try  MGOC’s blog  for excerpts and more info.

Posted in How-to Guides, Writing

By the Book, Chapter Four: The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers

Back in college and grad school days, I knew several chemistry majors who, when they got a few weeks inside Organic Chem, suddenly felt like they were hopelessly sinking. You could read their worried expressions like pages in a story: I’m in the wrong major. I picked the worst career ever. I can’t do it, because I don’t get it. Same thing with the Pre-meds when Anatomy and Physiology hit them like a bus, and same thing again when Library Science wanna-bees opened their textbooks on MARC records. The content itself in these classes threatened to kick even the most determined and intelligent students the heck out of the discipline where they thought they’d always belonged. Many students were “weeded out” during these classes and other particularly challenging ones; the ones who made it through shivered with relief. And every now and then a student came out the other side the clear victor, making once-threatening ideas now serve their needs instead.

Christopher Vogler’s The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers has a similar effect on some storytellers. I watched it happen in grad school and I felt some of the panic myself: What? Huh? Who? Slow down. Maybe this writing thing isn’t for me after all. It’s not that the text is hard to read; it’s not at all, it’s easy reading. It’s clearly explained. It’s a friendly tone. The examples are all stories we know and love well. So what’s the problem?

Maybe it has something to do with the basic premise: that all stories–every book you’ve ever read–are all really the same story. (At least, the good ones.) And that not only are all stories basically the same, but that your life and my life and pretty much every life ever lived or being lived or going to be lived is the same story too.

Vogler’s book, pictured here, is a guide for writers. It’s a spin on the work of Joseph Campbell, myth theorist extraordinaire. Joseph Campbell’s ideas “run parallel” (Vogler’s phrase) to those of Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist who discussed the role of archetypes in our real lives. Joseph Campbell wrote a book called The Hero with a Thousand Faces in which he analyzed both the archetypes themselves and the archetype-besprinkled path we all follow through life. (Stay with me.) And Vogler used Campbell’s ideas in his days as a writer and consultant for the movie-making industry, ultimately writing about this Hero’s Journey mythic structure in a seven-page how-to-use-it-well memo. He calls The Writer’s Journey a “descendant” of that memo, and describes how writers of stories can use Campbell’s ideas not only in their pages of fiction or their screenplays but also in their real lives as writers.

So what are these archetypes? And what Journey does every Hero supposedly go on? Here goes (and if you’ve never heard of this before, don’t worry. Vogler’s message is that even if you’ve never read Jung or Campbell, you already know this stuff. Because you are already living it.):

A Hero (main character/protagonist/person living a life) starts out in the Ordinary World. He hears the Call to Adventure but initially might hesitate (Refusal of the Call). He Meets with the Mentor (an archetype) and decides to heed the call. Next comes the Crossing of the First Threshold; what follows are Tests, Allies, and Enemies; eventually he Approaches the Inmost Cave in which there is a final Ordeal. The Hero gets some Reward, takes The Road Back, experiences Resurrection, and Returns with the Elixir. Other archetypes the Hero encounters along his path include Shapeshifters, Threshold Guardians, Tricksters, and Shadows. (All the capitalized phrases here are Vogler’s or Campbell’s labels.)

Some students love literary analysis so much in high school that they become high school English teachers. As a teacher, when I read Vogler’s book, my reaction was “Well, yeah. Plot Triangle Diagram 101.” But as a would-be writer, this book blew me away, and lots of other writers in my fiction program too, and caused us to question the choice to devote a good portion of the rest of our lives to being writers. It’s overwhelming to think that every story–including the ones you haven’t even dreamed up yet!–are going to fall into this iconic, mythic structure that also parallels each and every life ever lived. Whew.

Then, there were those who debated and I’m sure still debate the merits of Vogler’s ideas, saying it’s just a lengthy description of a formula, and why should anyone settle for thinking about plotline via formulaic means. I’m anti-formula too–unless it’s more of a map to the whole meaning and purpose of the quest that is life, which Vogler suggests the Hero’s Journey is.

Chapters are devoted to each archetype and to each stage of the Journey, complete with many  examples from great movies and books. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll never again watch so much as an episode of Blue’s Clues in the same way. And you might find yourself analyzing the journey you are on, thinking, “Oh, yeah, that ex-boyfriend. Definitely a shapeshifter.” Et cetera.

It’s a great read. It’ll get your wheels turning down paths you may never have considered. But if you’re a fiction writer, it’s a little…daunting. Fascinating, but daunting. A writer may have to figure out how to best tame these ideas for his or her own use.