New Student, New Slogan?

Posted: February 25, 2014

I received an introductory email from a new student this morning, and it really made me smile. He writes:

“I like the subject reading and writing. I like writing because I have so much stuff going on in my head. I write so my head does not explode! I like writing.”

Ms. Scribbles’ Workshop: Keeping kids’ heads from exploding since 2011.


Posted: July 29, 2013

I received this on Sunday, July 28, 2013. It made my day!

Ms. Scribbles,

I hope your summer is going well!  I just wanted to thank you for all your help with my essays, especially the SAT practice essays.  I have taken 2 practice SAT test this summer through a tutoring program and the first time (early June), I received a 530 on the writing portion.  The next test (a few weeks ago-after the workshop) I received a 690.  What a drastic improvement in scores!  Thank you for your assistance; I had no idea how to write a good SAT essay until your help this summer.  Thank you so much!

God bless,

I am teaching my students about narrative structure in my seventh grade Language Arts class, and they have begun writing short stories of their own. This week, I invited them to share the beginnings of their stories. Two of them could not wait to read theirs aloud, and I should have known why: Their obsession with The Hunger Games has been clear since day one, and they co-wrote a story in which Katniss Everdeen is the protagonist.

“Nooooooooo!” I thought. “Why didn’t I make a rule? I should have said: No fan fiction!”

It seemed like cheating, albeit unintentional. I was tempted to ask these girls, and any other student who had written fan fiction, to start over and use their imaginations this time to come up with something original. But as the girls began reading their story, all I could think was, “Wow. This is really good.”

Fan Fiction

Illustration by Kagan McLeod, “Watson is a Woman” | My Dear Miss Watson by bravehearttegan | Sherlock Holmes’s famed sidekick Watson is reimagined as a woman who struggles to be taken seriously by other investigators.

I think I’ve come around. If you think about it, it is very difficult to create — out of thin air — everything that is needed for a story: a compelling character, a world in which that character lives (setting), and the plot (what happens).  The beauty of fan fiction in a creative writing class is that it gives students a familiar character and setting to work with. Those are givens. They can then focus on plot, which is quite helpful when the whole point of the exercise is to implement what one has learned about narrative writing, and to write a story that has a clear beginning, middle and end. In fact, next year, if I teach this class again, I may actually recommend that students write fan fiction. I think that by doing so my two Katniss-obsessed students were able to focus more on the plot and the details that would help their characters and setting come alive.

The more I think about it, the more accepting I am of the fad. Was Homer, our first poet, cheating when he composed The Iliad and The Odyssey? Most scholars agree that the story of Helen and the Trojan War had been around for a long time before Homer created the rivalry between Achilleus and Agamemnon, and the tale of Odysseus’ subsequent journey home to Ithaca. We don’t know for sure that they were even written by the same person. It is possible that The Iliad was “fan fiction” based on an oral tradition and that The Odyssey was “fan fiction” based on The Iliad!

Not to mention, as the Wall Street Journal article “The Weird World of Fan Fiction” reports: “Several publishing stars got their start in the genre [of fan fiction]. Meg Cabot, the best-selling author of the ‘Princess Diaries’ series, started writing ‘Star Wars’ fan fiction when she was 11 years old. Young-adult fantasy author Cassandra Clare, whose books about teenage demon hunters have sold 12 million copies, wrote Harry Potter and ‘Lord of the Rings’ fan fiction before she broke into professional publishing. Novelist Naomi Novik, who writes a best-selling fantasy series about dragons that’s set during the Napoleonic Wars, started writing ‘Star Trek’ fan fiction when she was a college student at Brown in the 1990s.”

Who knows? Maybe my students’ fanaticism for The Hunger Games could be a stepping stone. They could be the publishing darlings of 2027! So, ladies, “cheat” away!


Writer Knows Best

Posted: May 15, 2012

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One of my students is writing a short story. It involves a motley crew of people who escape from a town taken over by zombies. It is really, really good (if I don’t say so myself). Anyway, they have been riding away from the city in a Humvee, headed toward a house in the country which one of them remembers from sometime in the past (and which may or may not still be there), and they have been in this Humvee, riding, for several chapters. I was beginning to wonder if they would ever arrive at the house. Not that it wasn’t exciting! It was. Some interesting developments have taken place en route, but still, I was getting anxious.

I wrote to the student (age 11) and said, “Russ, how much longer are they going to be in the Humvee? Shouldn’t they be arriving soon? We have to move this story forward.”

He responded, “I haven’t put much thought into how many more chapters of the story they will spend in the Humvee… And currently, I’m still not sure… Basically, they’ll get there, when they get there.”

I’ve worked with Russ for almost three years now. It’s pretty great to see your students start to take ownership of their work, to the point where they can (respectfully but assertively) tell you to back off! There was only one response for Russ: “Well then, Russ, proceed!”

Everyone always talks about what makes for good writing. Well, I gave a 20-minute workshop at CHS last weekend on “How to Destroy a Piece of Classic Literature in 20 minutes or Less.” We took the opening passage from Willa Cather’s “O Pioneers!” and rewrote it in the worst way possible. This is what we learned about bad writing:

– Don’t use creative figurative language like personification.
– Don’t be specific when you describe things. If there are buildings in the town you are describing, don’t say what they are. Better yet, don’t mention them!
– If the story takes place in a certain era and in a certain place, don’t say specifically when or where.
– Leave out as many details as possible.
– Use boring verbs and only the most basic diction.
– Write like you talk, i.e. “some random guys.”
– Don’t use interesting details about the physical world to convey information (“There would not be another train until night.”). Just tell the reader the information.

Willa Cather used some awesome verbs in her passage, like anchored, curling, eddying, straying, huddled, straggled, flashed, and shivered.


“One January day, thirty years ago, the little town of Hanover, anchored on a windy Nebraska tableland, was trying not to be blown away. A mist of fine snowflakes was curling and eddying about the cluster of low drab buildings huddled on the gray prairie, under a gray sky. The dwelling houses were set about haphazard on the tough prairie sod; some of them looked as if they had been moved in overnight, and others as if they were straying off by themselves, headed straight from the open plain. None of them had any appearance of permanence, and the howling wind blew under them as well as over them. The main street was a deeply rutted road, now frozen hard, which ran from the squat red railway station and the grain elevator at the north end of the town to the lumberyard and the horse pond at the south end. On either side of this road straggled two uneven rows of wooden buildings: the general merchandise stores, the two banks, the drugstore, the feed store, the saloon, the post office. The board sidewalks were gray with trampled snow, but at two o’clock in the afternoon the shopkeepers, having come back from dinner, were keeping well behind their frosty windows. The children were all in school, and there was nobody abroad in the streets but a few rough-looking country men in coarse overcoats, with their long caps pulled down to their noses. Some of them had brought there wives to town, and now and then a red or a plaid shawl flashed out of one store into the shelter of another. At the hitch bars along the street a few heavy workhorses, harnessed to the farm wagons, shivered under their blankets. About the station everything was quiet, for there would not be another train until night.”

We, on the other hand, used two was’s and five were’s!


The wind was blowing through the town. The snow was falling on the houses. There were some houses. The dull houses were falling apart. There was a road that went through the town. People were in their houses. The kids were in school. Some random guys were in the street. Ladies were shopping. Cold horses stood in the street. No visitors came often.

Pretty bad, eh? We gave ourselves a round of applause. Thanks to all who participated!

One final note on the Catholic Homeschoolers of Georgia conference, which I had the honor of attending yesterday: On my website, I say that in the workshop, “teaching points arise organically.” Here is one good example of what that means.

Now I should have know that when I picked three kinds of magnetic poetry to bring to the conference — the haiku edition, the genius edition, and the zombie edition — it could make for some pretty crazy poems! Exhibit A:

Zombie poem written by a group of five very cool siblings

the vicious undead zombie
destroys the mindlessly wild world
an obtuse dandelion mushrooms grotesquely
she cried in mellifluous blood zeal

(I decided to replace “blood” with zeal to make it a little less scary!)

A group of five delightful siblings convened around my table, and we had a blast working on this poem together. We were trying out all kinds of combinations, when one of the children, Tom, put together the combination “mindlessly wild world” and said it aloud. All six of our faces lit up, and we all smiled and said, “Yeah!” So, there was the teaching point.

I asked them what they thought it was about that combination that made everyone react the same way, what it was in the language that we were all responding to. I pointed out the music in the words: the internal rhyme of long i’s in “mind” and “wild,” the alliteration with the w’s in “wild world,” and the consonance of the “ld” endings in “wild world,” not to mention the l’s and d’s in “mindlessly.”

THAT, I said, is poetry, and look: It came naturally once they started working with the words.

In a typical writing class, students might study the concepts first, reading famous poems that demonstrate them, and then attempt to apply the concepts by writing verse. There’s nothing wrong with that. It is one way to learn. But in a workshop, these things often happen naturally, and when you discover what it is that you did that made your writing “work” or “click,” there is something extremely satisfying about that.

Well done, Tom!

Meet Selah!

Posted: April 29, 2012

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I met another young writer at the Catholic Homeschoolers of Georgia Conference: Selah, age 9. Selah was hard at work for over 30 minutes composing a fictional narrative. The magnetic poetry didn’t provide her with all the words she needed, so she started using the marker. Very resourceful!

Selah hard at work.

When her family said it was time to go home, Selah said, “But I can’t. I need to finish my story.” (The mark of a true artist!) Her family kindly obliged while she added those finishing touches. In the end, it was something she could be proud of.


Here it is if you’d like to read her story. By the way, I was wondering where she got her writing chops, until her mom told me about her blog: Use Your Momstinct. It’s pretty cool. You should check it out!

A Story by Selah

Meet David!

Posted: April 29, 2012

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I had so much fun at the Catholic Homeschoolers of Georgia Conference yesterday. It was a real treat for me to be able to talk with some homeschoolers face-to-face. As an online writing coach, I don’t often get that opportunity. I was very impressed with a few young writers who stopped by my table to compose “magnetic poetry.” Meet David, age 13.

David loves long words, adjectives, and word play.

David composed a haiku, a limerick, and a poem in free verse. His haiku was probably my favorite:

wet, wretched concrete
must the wind always wander?
then cicadas laugh

Things I learned from David:

1. The prefix “un” looks the same if you flip it upside down.
2. Paradoxes always come in two’s. (Get it? “Pair”-adox?)
3. Nothing rhymes with the word “orange.”
4. The heart of a tree and the tail of a dog have something in common: They are both farthest from the bark!