Teen Writers Bloc

A Blog by the New School Writing for Children MFA Class of 2012

Archive for the ‘Question of the Month’ Category

Jean-Paul’s Tips for Writing About Places You Know Nothing About

Posted by JeanPaul Bass On March - 12 - 2013

camel caravan in libyan desert wallpaper 300x187 Jean Pauls Tips for Writing About Places You Know Nothing AboutMy book is a fantasy novel and I wanted every location to feel rich with details to make it seem like a real place. Because I wanted to give my fantasy roots in reality, I had to make it seem like I knew what it’s like to live in a desert region, even though I had never been there. I knew I could only make up so much before the reader loses the ability to suspend their disbelief, so I had to do some research.

I come from the Midwest, where it snows and rains and the temperatures can reach in the triple digits, but it’s accompanied by humidity. We have tons of trees and grassy hills, not sand, sand dunes, and more sand. At the beginning, all I knew about deserts was that they are hot and sandy. I had a lot of work to do. The only way to write the desert sections of my novel with any sort of authenticity was to immerse myself in the desert as much as I could from my apartment in NYC.

Tip #1: Use Google. Google image search became my best friend. Not only could I see the desert, but I found images of villages and the people who live there. I used these images to give myself a visual and then I turned to texts and movies for the rest of the experience.

Tip #2: Movies and books are fun ways to do research. I watched Sahara (starring Humphrey Bogart), Lawrence of Arabia, and Walkabout, a brilliant Australian film about two children who must survive in the harsh outback after their father dies. Then I watched dozens of documentaries on television that dealt with deserts, from Biblical stories to lost desert civilizations. If it had anything to do with the desert, I watched it.

I researched the foods desert people eat, which crops they grow, and which plants thrive in arid conditions. Then I learned about the types of building materials they use, where they get water, and which animals are native to the desert. I learned how people travel across the desert, what signs to look for when searching for water, and realized that the desert was a much more interesting place than I had first assumed. I read graphic novels, like Habibi by Craig Thompson and Cairo by G. Willow Wilson, to see how others dealt with the desert in a visual and text medium.

Tip #3: Take notes from unexpected resources. What surprised me most during my research was the odd places where I found useful information. While reading a book about Alexander the Great for my own personal enjoyment, I learned that he traveled through the desert by following birds as they migrated from one oasis to the next. And in a show about ancient battles, I learned about caravans and how they survived for weeks at a time in the desert.

Tip #4: Put yourself there. Once all of the researchwais done I had to imagine myself in the desert in order to write about it. I thought about the sights, sounds, and smells that would overwhelm my senses if I was dropped on top of a sand dune in the middle of the desert. If I can’t imagine it, then neither will my reader.

Writing about a place I’ve never been is daunting, but it can be done. With a bit of research and a great imagination, no one will ever know that the only time I’ve ever been to the desert is when I write about it in my novel.

Image courtesy of wallpaperpassion.com

Jean-Paul Loves a Good Jerk

Posted by JeanPaul Bass On February - 18 - 2013

VALENTINES DAY JERKS Jean Paul Loves a Good JerkI love jerks. Especially those with a tortured past.

Not only are lovable jerks fun to read, but they are also fun to write. They say and do anything as long as it suits their purpose, they are quick with the witty put-downs, and they make scenes more lively and fun just by being in them. Of course, the best jerks are those who, despite their epic jerkiness, do what’s right in the end.

I get excited when the jerk character makes an appearance in my stories because I know that, if I do my job well enough, the reader will fall in love with them as well and will be waiting for the moment when the jerk can put his jerkiness aside and help save the world. Because there’s nothing better than when characters who hate each other realize that they can’t do it alone.

Here are some of my favorite jerks in literature:

The Mysterious Jerk: Gentleman from Fingersmith by Sarah Waters

Gentleman is the epitome of jerk. A smooth-talker, he can play both sides without missing a beat and make you trust him even though you don’t even know his real name.

The Jerk with a Heart of Gold: Gilly Hopkins from The Great Gilly Hopkins by Katherine Paterson

She curses, she steals from old blind men, she’s a racist, and she bullies emotionally damaged children. But you can’t stop yourself from falling in love with her. Gilly learns what it means to love and care for others and in the process, you learn that her big heart is what makes Gilly great.

The Reformed Jerk: Eustace Scrubb from the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis

With a name like Eustace Clarence Scrubb, can you really blame him for being a jerk? But, by the end of the series, Eustace has appeared in three books and been the honorable hero of two of them. Not too shabby.

The Single-Minded Jerk: Little Bear from The Indian in the Cupboard by Lynne Reid Banks

Little Bear wants to fight. Little Bear wants weapons. Little Bear wants to protect his people and will do whatever it takes to win, even if it means shooting his best friend in the chest with an arrow.

The Jerk with Daddy Issues: Draco Malfoy from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling

Poor Draco. No matter what he does, he will always be a disappointment to his father. But that doesn’t stop him from trying to impress Lucius Malfoy anyway. Even though, deep down, he knows what he is doing is wrong.

Images courtesy of Warner Bros., Walden Media, BBC, HarperCollins, Paramount Pictures, and the mad Photoshop skills of Shyla Bass.

 A RANT: The End of the Year Best Teen/Kids Books Round Up Lists Lack One HUGE Thing    DIVERSITY!DISCLAIMER: This post is full of YA and MG blasphemy. Read at your own peril.

I hate it when the end of the year book lists or the best books of the year come out.


Publishers and agents love these lists if their authors are on them. It’s great press. And I’d be lying to say that I wouldn’t want to be on one of these lists one day. But these lists reveal something sad and ugly about the children’s and YA book market — it’s still lily white. The lack of racial diversity reflected on these lists is heartbreaking, disappointing, and above all, annoying. And I know many will say: “There’s more books written by minorities nowadays,” “There are more books featuring people of color,” or “Maybe the books written about minorities or for minorities aren’t that good,” and “Get off my soapbox!”

Here goes that black girl again, same complaint. That’s fine. I hear you. But I am still going to shout about it until it changes.

There aren’t enough books that make those lists that reflect diversity (and I am specifically looking at racial diversity versus other types). These lists show YA and MG’s dirty little secret — mainly white teenagers are written about.

If aliens were to use our libraries and bookstores as indicators of our society, and take a look at what the human offsprings are encouraged to read or what materials are celebrated, what would be reflected? What would they glean about our realities? Whose culture would they learn about? Who would be forgotten? What kind of children get to see their lives reflected on the page? Who is left out?

Earlier in the year NPR published the 100 best or favorite Teen Books. I was eager to see what they picked since I read exclusively children’s and teen books and I’m a teen book librarian.

I was appalled.

I was irritated.

I was disappointed.

There are only THREE titles on the list that feature people of color – Nancy Farmer’s The House of Scorpion (love this sci-fi book that takes place in a futuristic America near the border of Mexico, featuring a Mexican kid), Sandra Ciscernos’ The House on Mango Street, and The Absolutely True Diary of a Part Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. 

Here’s my take:

Adult Classics (that happen to have a child or teen protagonist) Shouldn’t Be Included

I don’t think classics like To Kill A MockingbirdThe Hobbit or The Lord of the RingsFahrenheit 451, Dune, etc, should be included. These pop up on other lists — do they have to show up again? Put them somewhere else. Don’t get me wrong, I love these texts and think every teen should read them, but do they need to occupy a space on this particular list?

I don’t think so. These books aren’t even shelved in the teen section of any library or bookstore, so for them to make this list is kind of annoying.

And some may argue with me and say that To Kill A Mockinbird  has diversity. Yes, it has black people in it, and shows the evils of the Jim Crow south, but I don’t consider it a diverse book. It’s a book about a certain time period told from the viewpoint of a white child who is figuring out racism. I’m still debating whether it’s a book black children need to read. It may be a book for white kids to figure stuff out. I don’t know. That’s another blog entirely.

The John Green Problem

Why does John Green need to occupy 5 slots on the list? Is this really necessary? John Green fans please do not send me death threats or nasty email messages or comments. I get it. I respect his writing and story-telling abilities. But I don’t think he deserves FIVE slots on the list. Can he get one slot and a mention of all his titles? Geez. All FIVE of his titles? I still can’t get over it. People might label me a John Green hater, but he doesn’t NEED FIVE slots. No author does. One slot should be enough to give other authors opportunities. I feel like the YA/MG real estate is getting gobbled up.

Multiple Titles by the Same Author

Like above, I wish that an author can be recognized once on the list. So that means Laurie Halse Anderson, Cassandra Clare, Sarah Dessen, and others who pop up once or twice, you should have one slot only for the canon of your work.

What is the criterion for these lists?

I think the list-makers should let readers in on how they selected these books. Maybe this will shed some insight into how a list like this is complied and maybe seek to answer the diversity question. Is it sales? Is it a poll that they send out?

I plan on analyzing other lists, like The Atlantic Wire’s Y.A./Middle-Grade Book Awards, 2012 edition, for PART II of this rant.


For Sona, the Proof Is In the Proofing

Posted by Sona Charaipotra On January - 30 - 2013

Conjunctions main Full 300x136 For Sona, the Proof Is In the Proofing

So I have impeccable grammar, if I do say so myself. Yes, I’m a bit overly fond of the em dash, and I like to start sentences with conjunctions. But (and there I go again!) those are all purposeful decisions. The basics, I like to proudly declare, I’ve pretty much got down. It’s versus its. There, their and there. Whose and who’s. And I can really rock a comma. I know all of that like the back of my hand.

But here’s the thing (and again!). In this day and age, when I’m frequently writing something and then instantly sending it out into the Internets, things get a little sloppy. When you’re whizzing through text just to get to the end, mistakes are made. You put something out there — and then, reading it over three days later, you notice a typo here or there. Something that could have easily been fixed if you took a moment after spilling your guts to just clean up a little.

What’s happened in these days of insta-everything is that we forget to proof our work. And that makes us look less smart. I like to think I turn in clean copy every time, but I’m just as guilty of the slap dash as anyone else. That’s the thing I’ve got to remember — not just in the long run, when I’m focusing on a novel or story — but also in the everyday, when I’m putting my thoughts out into the world. As the title says, the proof is in the proofing. I have to remind myself: Spellcheck! Read through. Take a minute before you post. Put your best self forward. Even if you still use conjunctions to start a sentence.

Jean-Paul’s Past is Not Perfect

Posted by JeanPaul Bass On January - 14 - 2013

past present future Jean Pauls Past is Not PerfectI have a problem with the past. I didn’t know I had a problem, though, until I started writing. The majority of my stories are told in the past tense. Writing in present tense just isn’t my style and a story told in future tense would make me crazy. So there are a lot of she was, he went, they looked, etc. My problem comes when I get into flashbacks and memories. There, I seem to get caught up in the narrative and forget to keep it in the past perfect tense which indicates that it had all happened before the present story. Which causes my readers to get lost in time and makes me cringe when someone points it out to me.

It all starts out fine, but halfway through I inevitably drop the ball. My had hads turn into just had; instead of she had found it becomes she found, and so on. I thought the problem was that I was writing too fast and not paying attention, or that my schooling had failed me by not teaching me proper grammar, or perhaps that I was just a tense doofus. Then I learned about the historical present tense. Most English speakers have a tendency to begin a story in the past tense and finish in the present tense and linguists call talking about past events in the present tense using the historical present. We begin in the past to orient our audience with the who, where, and when, and then move into the present when the action ramps up. To steal an example from Lexicon Valley, the podcast where I learned about the historical present, check out the episode of Seinfeld where Kramer is telling everyone what happened to him on the bus when he tries to take a woman’s severed toe to the hospital to be reattached. It starts in the past “I found the toe…” and switches to the present “So I’m driving the bus…” So, if Kramer can get away with shifting tenses in the middle of a story, then why can’t I?

Well, there are a few reasons why I can’t – the most important ones being consistency and not confusing the reader – but I don’t let it bug me too much anymore. We all do it at some point, mine just happens to show up in my writing. And when I notice the flashback moving out of past perfect into the past, that’s when I know I’m writing something really exciting.

Jane Gets Tense Over Tenses

Posted by Jane Moon On January - 7 - 2013

tense changing TWB 300x52 Jane Gets Tense Over TensesFor the New Year, the topic of my post
Is writing mistakes that I make the most.
There are small things that don’t bother me,
Like when I type “teh” instead of “the.”
Errors like these are a pain in the neck
But I know I can catch most of them with spell check.
If I write “form” when I really meant “from,”
I remind myself that I shouldn’t feel dumb.
Mistakes can happen and I shouldn’t be annoyed,
But there’s one problem I can’t seem to avoid.
Sometimes when I write, I tend to change tense,
From present to past, to me it makes sense.
Others see my error and they’ll point it out.
And I know they’re right, I have no doubt.
I don’t notice when I move between present and past,
When friends point it out, I am aghast.
How do I fix this? Where do I look?
I couldn’t find answers in my grammar book.
I searched online but found little support
On how to fix a problem of this sort.
So if there were any changes in tense this time
I hope you’ll forgive me since it was all in rhyme.

Sona Needs A Resolution, Right?

Posted by Sona Charaipotra On January - 1 - 2013

january 1 2013 Sona Needs A Resolution, Right?So here I sit again on January 1. Another year, another resolution, right? You knew it was coming. It’s always inevitable — and then I inevitably break it. So this year, my resolution is not to resolve at all, but rather to evolve. It’s time to give up the gung ho race to the finish line and reassess what might actually work for me. After all, I’m in this writing thing for the long haul, right? Not just for the quick sale and the even quicker burn out.

I’ve often lamented here about my dilettante ways, how I’m always juggling three projects at once, rushing to get things done — and therefore not really moving forward at all.

So this year, I’ve decided to really focus. Focus on what my big picture goals are, focus on getting things done — but really, to focus on slowing down the pace, enjoying the process, and therefore actually managing to finish my projects, one at a time.

I’ve also decided to not jump into the querying process after I finish the first project, which is already quite near completion. Many of my fellow writers don’t understand the why behind this, but I just have to keep reminding myself of my long-term goals, rather than the short-term impatience — and believe me, I’m amongst the most impatient people I know. As a writer who works in two different genres, I’d like to be well-prepared, when seeking representation, to have a completed project in both areas, so that I can find an agent who really knows what she’s getting into, who really understands what my work is all about, who really sees the same big picture I’m seeing.

In the meantime, now that I have my lovely (if petite) desk and my awesome peacock blue velvet tufted chair to return to in a few short days, I do want to make one real, tangible plan-of-action and stick with it — and that is to put my butt in said gorgeous peacock blue velvet chair and spend some quality time with my WIPs at least five days a week. I won’t set unattainable word counts or ignorable deadlines. Instead, I’ll take my time, keep those eyes on the prize, and remember, for once, that the only person I’m racing is myself.

What’s on Alyson’s 2013 Wish List?

Posted by Alyson Gerber On January - 1 - 2013

wish list Whats on Alysons 2013 Wish List?

You might remember that I am a New Year’s resolution failure. Well, that hasn’t changed. When it comes to creating a routine and sticking to it, I am awful. Absolutely incapable.

I envy people who order the same salad for lunch everyday, who consistently check the forecast and leave home (all responsible) with an umbrella and a weather-appropriate jacket, who do the same things over and over again (or at least more than once). I wish I could be that way. It looks so much better, especially when it rains. But I am not. I can’t help it. Maybe I need things to be a little chaotic. I am pretty sure no matter how hard I try, I will always be a little bit of a hot mess. Or at least, I will see myself that way. It is part of my charm. I hate routines, and I don’t thrive on them. So, why have I been pushing myself to write the same amount of words, at the same table, with the same cup of coffee everyday? It makes no sense, and I am done doing it.

There is only one thing on my 2013 Wish List—I am making a resolution that won’t fail. I am giving up trying to be someone I am not. I am going to be okay with the fact that I am someone who writes best on my phone, and on random post-its, and on paper table clothes, and on the subway, anywhere but on my computer. Except, of course, when I have finally given up on staring at my computer, given up on my 2,000 word goal for the day, when I have accepted that I can’t write anymore, that is exactly when I can’t stop typing. It makes no sense, but it is me. It’s what I do, and this year, I am going to be okay with it, because my chaotic way of doing things is actually working. I can feel it every time I work on my new book. Every time I send pages out to be critiqued. Just being me is working, and I’m not going to stop.


Because it’s the most wonderful time of the year, apparently, here’s what’s on my to-be-watched list, in no particular order:

festivus.jpg.scaled500 300x225 Jess’s Recommendations for the Best Holiday Themed Movies and TV Episodes EverThe Festivus episode of Seinfeld

Actually titled “The Strike,” this episode of Seinfeld first aired December 18, 1997 and made Festivus a worldwide sensation – and a holiday that people (myself included) actually celebrate! The secular holiday Festivus is celebrated on December 23, and traditionally features a metal pole set up in one’s home (in lieu of a Christmas tree or menorah) and a practice known as the “airing of grievances,” in which everyone tells everyone else all the ways they’ve disappointed them throughout the year. Ha!

Adam Sandler’s “Chanukah Song” from SNL

This just might be my favorite thing ever. I was 13 when this aired for the first time, and I think it may have been the very moment I first fell in love with Mr. Adam Sandler. “The Chanukah Song” is a hilarious-but-true song that lists the names of famous Jews and reminds the kids who are jealous of their Christmas-celebrating friends that they’re in good company. Love it love it love it. Check it out:

A Christmas Story 300x167 Jess’s Recommendations for the Best Holiday Themed Movies and TV Episodes EverA Christmas Story

It’s not just one of the best holiday movies ever, it’s one of the best movies ever, period. Based on Jean Shepherd’s short story collection In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, this ABSOLUTELY GENIUS film is almost not really about Christmas at all (I mean, it is, but also not really), but rather a very simple, yet very real look at what it’s like to be a nine-year-old in late ’30s/early ’40s middle America. It covers so many of the universal issues of childhood: bullies, fear of disappointing your parents, jealousy, schoolyard pranks, and the dream of growing up and showing everyone who picked on you when you were a kid just how wrong they were. And the acting and writing is some of the best I’ve ever seen.

The Family Stone 300x199 Jess’s Recommendations for the Best Holiday Themed Movies and TV Episodes EverThe Family Stone

I feel like this movie never really had a chance. It was advertised as a feel good romantic comedy in which Sarah Jessica Parker starts off dating one brother and ends up falling for the other… and hilarity ensures. Except that’s not what the movie is at all. Rather, it’s an incredibly touching drama about a close-knit family celebrating what very well may be their mother’s last Christmas (she’s battling cancer). If you haven’t seen it, I recommend it. If you have and didn’t like it, I urge you to watch it again — without the rom-com expectations this time.

A Charlie Brown Christmas 300x183 Jess’s Recommendations for the Best Holiday Themed Movies and TV Episodes EverA Charlie Brown Christmas

Usually when people describe something as “a classic,” that’s just a nice way of saying that yeah, whatever it is is pretty lame, but it’s been around forever and makes us feel all warm and nostalgic, so we love it anyway despite its lameness. But A Charlie Brown Christmas is one of those rare productions that actually lives up to its “classic” status. It’s hilarious and witty and touching and simple and beautiful. And the soundtrack, performed by the Vince Guaraldi Trio, is magical. And you know what’s sad? It would never be made today.

Jean-Paul’s Three Easy Steps to Becoming a Better Writer

Posted by JeanPaul Bass On December - 13 - 2012

three fingers Jean Pauls Three Easy Steps to Becoming a Better WriterHow to become a better writer in 3 easy steps (or, what I learned this semester):

1. Be open. Sometimes, the story just isn’t working. Don’t be afraid to start all over. Putting glitter and a bow on a turd makes it pretty, sure, but it’s still a turd. All of the editing, rewriting, and revising in the world isn’t going to make a story better if the core of it, meaning the characterizations, the plots, the dialogue, is all clichéd and uninspired. I had an idea and wrote pages and pages and pages on it; over three hundred pages, in fact! And I had to throw them all away. On the second attempt, I wrote about five chapters and I had to throw them away, too. It wasn’t until the third try did everything start coming together. I changed the location, the ages, and personalities of the characters. The main story stayed the same, but the events leading up to it changed. Instead of a rambling prologue, I inserted the most relevant parts into the story, allowing the information to unfold naturally. And now, finally, the story is becoming what I always imagined it could be. So, be open to letting things go. Be open to giving up on something if writing has become a punishment instead of something you enjoy. Be open to starting fresh if that’s what it will take to make the story a good one.

2. Try new things. A few months ago, I had never done an outline, or written chapter two before writing chapter one, or done any sort character development exercises, such as figuring out a character’s like and dislikes, what scares them and what excites them, etc. But after rewriting the same story three times (see No. 1), I knew I needed help. So I gave outlining a try. I found some different outlines that seemed to work for my story, cobbled them together into one perfect outline, and filled it in. Now I could see the bigger picture. I knew why each chapter, each sentence was important. Everything fell into place.

And when I got to the sections that I just didn’t feel like writing, I took some advice from my friends and skipped them so I could get to the parts that excited me. Forcing myself to write the sections I thought of as boring was only going to make those sections boring. So I decided to write them later and work on the parts I couldn’t wait to write. If I hadn’t skipped ahead, I’d probably still be working on that missing section, stuck in an endless loop of trying to turn lead into gold by editing, rewriting, and revising something that just wasn’t working.

As I was working on the third attempt, I noticed I was writing my characters in ways that worked for the plot but made them act out of character. So it was back to the drawing board because I didn’t know my characters well enough to keep them consistent. I had to try some exercises to get to know them better and it worked. Now their reactions are authentic and they don’t come across as weak when I want them to be strong. I needed to spend more time with them, get to know them, outside of the story so that I would know how they would act in the story.

3. Share. I cannot express how much sharing fuels creativity and makes you a better writer. Sharing what you’ve written or ideas and talking them through with someone lets you see the flaws in your story and come up with ways to fix them. In class, someone pointed out a clichéd scene and while we were discussing it, I came up with a brilliant new idea that was totally fresh and made the story exciting. If I hadn’t shared the scene so that we could discuss our thoughts, I would have never been able to see it from someone else’s perspective or had that epiphany. And sharing with another also gives you feedback on what you’re doing right, so that you can do it again and again and again, all the way to the end.

pixel Jean Pauls Three Easy Steps to Becoming a Better Writer

Get every new post on this blog delivered to your Inbox.

Join other followers: