Pitch and Query

I have been doing a lot of writing and rewriting of late. I have a handful of stories that are close to being ready to send out, but just aren’t polished up enough yet. But I am ready for the next step: the ever dreaded query.

Which means I get to labor just as long on the letter, if not longer, than I did on my picture book story and my fate lies not in my story but these few words I put upon the page. And then I get rejected, over and over, and I start to flash back to high school and not being one of the cool kids and holing up in the library with books because they will never reject me and…..

Okay, we will stop reliving the past and focus on the future.

If you are getting rejected, why might that be? To be honest, it is not any one thing, but a culmination of multiple factors.

  1. Marketability. This is a business after all. They need to be able to sell your book in quantity. Those quantities differ between different size publishers, so who can market your book makes a difference. Perhaps your book should be with a smaller press that can get behind your story.
  2. Saturation. It may be a great story, but there are already too many similar ones in the market. Or the agent or editor has already has one similar in the works and they don’t want to compete against themselves.
  3. Off Day. Agents and Editors pour through hundreds, if not thousands, of stories every week. Monday-Thursday, they would have checked out your story, but they read it on Friday and Friday was a bad day for them.
  4. Your Query letter is off. Maybe your opening isn’t polished enough. Maybe your pitch fell flat. Maybe you need better comp titles. Maybe your bio doesn’t make a connection.

We know you can’t control 1-3, though you can familiarize yourself enough to understand 1 &2.

So let’s look at what you can control.

When it comes to writing a query, I like the acronym K.I.S.S. Keep It Short & Simple. Think of it like speed dating. You have just a moment to catch someone’s eye.

Whether it is an agent or editor, make a connection. Keep it simple & short. My name is…. How do I know you…. How does this story fit your needs.

Example: My name is Matthew Lasley and we met at the SCBWI Spring Retreat in Alaska. I enjoyed your candor when you spoke about the future of the industry. I believe my story BLAH BLAH BLAH will fit into the super hero line of books you represent at These Guys Make Book.

You have made the connection, now you have to make the sale. Pitch your book. This is hard and is often the area where many of us (—> ME) fails. It is not always because it is written poorly, it may be we do not use our voice, or the character’s voice, or we put the wrong stuff in. Sometimes, we try to be clever…..remember K.I.S.S.

To understand what I mean, let’s look at three examples:

  1. In this 517 word picture book, Super Sam, despite his incredible strength, doesn’t know how to tie his shoes. His trusty sidekick, a tennis ball, has no hands and can not help him to tie his shoes. When he tries to leap tall buildings, he trips and the villain gets away. What is Super Sam to do?
  2. Super Sam has incredible strength and loves to save the day. But when his shoelaces come untied and he stumbles about, things go from bad to worse. This story is written like Scaredy Squirrel with the humor and pacing of Captain Underpants.
  3. Super Sam is super. He is super strong, super smart and super worried because he doesn’t know how to tie his shoes. Too embarrassed to ask for help, his day goes from bad to worse when he trips over his laces and lets the villain get away.

In the first example, we see two big problems. First, details about the book’s format are not necessary. That comes in the next part of your letter. Here, you want to keep it simple and short. This is where the agent or editor decides if they are going to continue reading. This is your idea, let it take the front seat. The second issue (and some will disagree, but it is my pet peeve) don’t end with a question. The only questions that belong are rhetorical, and those should be used sparingly to simply show writing style or establish voice. Let them come up with questions that they want answered. Let them feel involved.

Example 2, while short and sweet, is soulless. There is no voice or character. It is simply a plot. Also, comp titles do not belong here. This is another part of the story format. And if you are going to use comp titles, make sure they are from the right genre.

In Example 3, (while not the greatest…it is only an example) shows the writing style as being short and simple lines. There is a connection made with the character through empathy. Despite how super Super Sam is, he struggles and fails. I can see there is going to be a lesson in this story, so it does not need to be stated, or else it would appear to be didactic. This will lead the agent or editor to ask, how is Super Sam going to solve this problem? What growth are we going to see? How can I connect this to a child? Is there a big enough connection to market the book?

When you write your query, think about how it is going to be marketed. Who is going to read this book? Who is going to buy this book? They are not always the same.

The next part of the query letter is the dirty, technical stuff. This is where you give details about book format, word count, and comp titles. You might even tell who you see the market for your book. Sometimes there might be an unknown or untapped market the agent or editor never realized.

When I wrote my book, Pedro’s Pan, I shared about the local tourist market as well as the  diverse readership that may be found in other regions. Looking back, I totally missed the broader educational market and readership.

The final part of your query letter, the closing; your bio. Who are you? What makes you qualified to tell this story? What accolades or connections to the writing community do you have that shows you know what you are doing?

Remember, K.I.S.S.

Who are you and why are you qualified to tell this story? Tell them a little about you. Make it personal.

If you have gotten an agent or editor this far, you want to close strong. Your pitch and connection may have gotten them to consider you. The technicals may have made them consider the market. This last part may be the tipping point of which pile your story goes into.

Example: I live in Anchorage, Alaska where I teach first grade. Even as a kid, I wanted to be a writer, but no matter how good of a storyteller I thought I was, my dyslexia was a constant reminder that I struggled to read and write. I want to to tell stories that empower kids to overcome their struggles. I am a member of SCBWI and published my debut book, Pedro’s Pan, in 2019.

Keep it simple. You don’t need to talk about your kids, your pets, your job, your favorite color, or where you went to school….unless they are directly linked to why you are qualified to tell this story. Note that I shared my struggles with dyslexia as my link to telling this story.

If you so not have writing accolades or awards, don’t worry, the publisher and agent won’t really care if you have shown in this letter that you know what you are doing. Those are icing on the cake. But don’t over do it or embellish, they will know and it will stick to the top of their mouth like day old grocery store frosting.

Listing writing organizations that you are a part of shows that you are not just some Joe Shmoe at home who say his cat do a really funny thing and thinks that should be a story. These organizations are a link to your professionalism.

So the next time you get a batch of rejections, think about how you might tweak your story or your query letter. Remember, the editor/agent pond may be finite, but there are always new fish in the pond.

Wipe away the tears, eat a pint of ice cream (or a piece of good fruit) and do it all over again. And never stop believing that your story will find a home.




Writing With First Graders: A Look Back

Over the last couple of months, I have had the opportunity to work with some amazing first graders as they explored reading and writing. I appreciate all who followed my adventure (or came along later and read it), I hope you got something out of it.

My purpose has been to track what I taught and note the similarities and differences there are in writing in first grade and writing as an adult. The basics are pretty much the same, it is our approach that is different.

Sometimes, I think we forget that. Writing doesn’t change, the writer does. Sure, trends and styles and rules change, but the fundamentals of writing doesn’t change. That is because, as humans, we are social animals (just check out how many social platforms there are on the internet today!) and we are hardwired to share information. One of the easiest ways we do that is through storytelling.

What surprised me the most while working with these kids and guiding them on their journey, was the fact of how much I came to realize and learn.

I have been writing for a while….a long while….and it comes somewhat naturally to me. I am a storyteller. I knew the “hows” and the “whats” to writing, but what I didn’t clearly understand was the “whys”.

Why is the middle of a story so much longer and why the rule of three?

No one wants to hear a story without trial. Billy was hungry. He ate a hotdog. The end. 

Life is not easy and is full of trials. We want our characters to suffer and grow. That is how we connect with the character; their struggle.

It had been three days since Billy had last eaten. His stomach had given up growling and sat like a stone in the bottom of an empty well. He watched as people passed by, hoping his pitiful dirty face would convince one of them to stop for a moment and help him out. But no one dared look at him. He scavenged through a trashcan at the corner of the park, hoping that someone might have thrown away a hotdog or even an apple. He was not proud of digging through the garbage, but he was hungry and that overshadowed his pride. As he scrabbled through the trash, a man in a suit reading a newspaper on his lunch break, stood up from the park bench and walked away, leaving behind his wallet. Billy snatched the wallet and began to run. “Mister! You dropped your wallet!” The man turned and saw Billy running towards him, wallet held high. “Thank you young man. Let me reward you.”      Billy grinned as he took bites of his hotdog. It tasted like a million bucks!

The struggle makes you wonder if the character will succeed and want to know what is next. It builds empathy which allows the reader to be engaged in the story. An engaged reader is more important than any lesson you want to teach or story you want to tell.

Why can’t my story be didactic? (Have a moral or teach a lesson)

The truth is it can, but that should not be the point of the story. As you learn and empathize with the character, your character is going to grow and learn, and hopefully you will too.

What is the difference? Stories have multiple intertwining arcs. You have plot and character arcs. Some books may have multiples of each. You may have mini arcs than build into larger arcs. When you write to a lesson, character arcs tend not to be developed or you get gaps in the plot, because they may be irrelevant to the lesson.

In my book, Pedro’s Pan, I never intended there to be a moral or lesson to my story. It doesn’t mean there isn’t one, or even multiple. People can take away from it what they want or need, depending on how they engage with the story.

If my story had been written with any lesson in mind, it is likely that 1) it would not have been published, and 2) it would have missed many of the opportunities for people to engage and enjoy it.

When is my story ready?

The truth is, a story is never finished. You can spend the rest of your life improving (or ruining) a story. The universe in your mind is so much greater than you can ever put down on paper.

You are also your biggest critic. You know that you could do a little more. The story could be better. If only…..

The story will be ready before you are. So how do you know? Ask other people. Have them read your story. When you are only making cosmetic changes, don’t fool yourself. Set aside your story for a month or two, then pick it up again and reread it. If it is cosmetic changes still, you are good to go. If you find areas you think you can do better, your story is not ready. Repeat and rewrite as necessary.

The last thing I learned that I want to share is to Share your stories and set your priorities.

Writing should be fun and exciting. I know it can be lonely at time, but the effort is wasted if no one ever gets to read it. Share your work with critique partners and friends. Let them give you strength and support.

Also, prioritize your time and effort. What good is it if you spend your days writing the next great novel or picture book if you miss out what is going on around you. Give yourself a chance to laugh and read and enjoy life. Even God took a day to stop and enjoy His creation.

I hope you enjoyed reading this series and took at least one little thing away that might help you in your writing (or teaching) career. I will follow up in June to find out if any of my kids placed in the contest.

Also look forward to my next writing adventure. You never know where it might turn up!

Writing With First Graders: Writing to a Deadline

This may seem to be a bit of an odd topic for first grade writing, but it is relevant. Oh the stress and the humanity!

Writing to a deadline, whether real or artificial, can actually be good for your writing. It helps you focus and decide what is important enough to go into your writing.

Putting the stress aside, having deadlines for your writing commits you to getting work done. Some of it will be good, some will not. The important thing is that you have reached a goal.

So here are some tips to writing to a deadline:

  1. Set an attainable goal. Whether your deadline is artificial or publisher driven, be realistic in what you can accomplish.
  2. Map it out. Set smaller goals to reach over time that will help you attain your deadline.
  3. Don’t wait until the final hour. When you do this, your work becomes about quantity rather than quality.
  4. Buffer. If you have a month to finish up a work, do it in three weeks. Use that extra week to let your work sit for a few days and then reread it one last time.
  5. Life matters. Make sure you give yourself time to enjoy life. Don’t push aside responsibilities and family and you time for a deadline. Deadlines will come and go, but you only get one chance to live.
  6. Be flexible. Life happens. Know that the best laid plans will always find a way to unravel.
  7. Practice. Set yourself goals, even if there is not a hard deadline. If you act like there is when it doesn’t really matter, when it does, you will be able to handle it better.
  8. Reward yourself. This is the most important tip. When you are done, do something that you enjoy. Release that stress and be proud of what you accomplished. Don’t focus on the problems or shortcomings, be happy for what you did do. (For me, I like to enjoy a bit of cheesecake.)

With a shortened schedule in my class, my three-week deadline became a one-week deadline. Many of the kids have been working hard on their stories, even outside of our class’s writing time. They are excited to see their stories finished.

So my original plan was space out the writing, do a final rewrite and edit, transfer to a story format page (for the contest), illustrate and bind the pages into a book.

New plan: Edit, space out writing (beginning, middle, middle, middle, end) and prep for contest.

Many of the kids have already don the editing and spacing part, so it is on to final edits to correct spelling, basic grammar and neatness.

Prepping for the contest is not unlike your own writing career. Each genre and form of writing has rules. Some are general rules or guidelines, others are industry standards and expectations. If you write outside of the expected parameters, it is unlikely your work will even get looked at. There is a reason that publishers and agents have guidelines for queries or ask specific questions. They want to see if you know the rules for the genre you are writing in.

For my first graders, there were two basic rules: word count had to be between 100-200 words, no more, no less. They also had to draw at least 5 illustrations.

The contest provided preformed pages for the kids to write on. Each student go pages numbered 1-5 and they wrote their story.

Some of the students quickly picked up that we had already spaced our story into five parts, so one part went on each page. Some students tried to fit their whole story on one page, then couldn’t figure out how to do five illustrations.

And then some students changed their story midstream and wanted to write a new idea or did not have a strong middle or ending. I pulled back the stress to let them know that this week was my deadline, but the contest gave them two more weeks. This is why it is important that you give yourself some space and not write to the last hour.

Not one of the stories went over the two hundred word limit, but many came in below the one hundred word limit. For most of the students, it was about adding in details or writing one more sentence.

As they finished and turned in their final product, their faces beamed and they were excited to have written and published their first story. Unknown to them, I copied their stories and created a generic cover (Title and name) for them to decorate later, and bound their book. I will give it to them in a few weeks when all the other students have had a chance to finish theirs and I have submitted their work.

As you finish your manuscript, take time to feel proud about your accomplishment. It is a big deal. You finished what you set out to start. Now it may only be one of many steps, but you did it!

I remember finishing my first real manuscript. It was a 42,000 word middle grade manuscript that will never be published. At the time I did not know that, but even after discovering that, the feeling of pride over accomplishing what I set out to do did not fade.

Hold on to that feeling. Let that power you as you send out your story to find its home or as you write a new one.

Next week I will wrap up this blog series with a look back and some introspective thoughts on the journey my students took, I took as a teacher as well as a writer.

Writing With First Graders: Return to Writing

So the kids were off a week for Spring Break. Many of them had completed a draft of their story. As I reviewed them, some were as short as 4 very short sentences while a few were a couple of pages.

As I reviewed their work, I had to be mindful that I was not grading their work, but finding ways to encourage them.

That is important to you as  a writer yourself. This is not about judgement. Your story is not merited based on how much you wrote. Real merit is found in how well someone else can read and engage with your story.

We began by looking and discussing their stories as a group. I do this by having them tell us their story. Each child is given another child’s story to read as well. The author gets up to tell their story, while the reader takes the story into the hallway. Once the author is done, we quickly recap the character, the problem, solution and setting.

We then invite the reader back in to retell the story. They are allowed to have the story in hand, but I do not ask them to read it out loud. Instead, they recount what they remember about the story. Then we recap the character, the problem, solution and setting.

I kept notes on both so that we could compare the tellings of the stories side by side. I also open up the author to taking questions and record those as well. In the end, the author has information and feedback to help them improve and clarify their writing.

What a lot of the students came to understand is that there is still a lot of information about their story in their head.

While most first graders tend to skip details in their stories, as seasoned writers, we can make the same gaps in our writing.

Example of a first grader: The girl went to the beach. She forgot her swim suit. She bought a swim suit. Then went home.

The story was actually about a girl losing her cat. She had searched for it and was sad, so she went to the beach because the beach makes her happy. She wanted to go swimming, but did not have a bathing suit. So she went to the store to buy one. She went home to change into her swim suit because there was no place to change at the beach. When she got home, she heard her cat meowing under the porch. Her cat came home and she was happy.

Her telling of her story is much better than her writing the story. Her story makes logical sense, but most of the story is irrelevant to her story. We ended up with a second problem (no swim suit).

So we had to figure out what the story was about. What did we need to tell that story?

For her, she needed to understand her plot.

For you and me, it may be something more complex like a flat story arc. We may have a good story, just not a great one.

When I wrote Pedro’s Pan, my issue stemmed from not understanding all the nuances to the  market I was writing too. But even when I did, the story was flat. My character lacked an arc. That was solved by writing the story from a different perspective. The new character POV made a good story into a published story.

Over Spring Break, I took a story I have been working on for a couple of years and again changed which character was going to tell the story.

And it was some of my best writing to date. Telling the same story, but changing the driving character helped me write a more complete story. I now had my new voice reacting to the old voice.

But what I think made the story so much better, is it filled in many of the gaps that I could not see. I had to anticipate how another character might react or feel about the actions of my original character.

It is a good practice to change up your focus. After you have written something, turn to viewpoint around and write it from a different character in the story. What would the sidekick think and say? How about your antagonist? What happens if you introduce a completely new character?

You may choose to keep your original POV, but with luck, it will help you enrich and define your main character’s voice.

Next week we will be wrapping up writing our story and preparing to submit it for a writing contest.

I also found out this week that we will be readjusting the groups I have been working with to finish out the year.

I still had three weeks planned, so I will be throwing out some things and cramming other things into the week that I have left.

So next weeks theme: Writing to a deadline!

Writing With First Graders: Editing

This week the kids are off for Spring Break, so I have taken the time to edit their work and look at what they have created.

On Friday, when I collected their work, one kid asked why they were going to have their stories edited. I told them that we were going to look at their stories and make them better. He said, “You mean I have to write it again!”

For kids, the idea of the rewrite is strange, until you have them tell their story out loud. A five sentence story can turn into a five minute story.

As an aspiring or published author, we tend to have the same reaction. We know how to write. right? Our story is good. Why edit?

The problem is that it is difficult to edit your own work. You have the backstory in your head. You don’t see the holes, because to you, the details are there.

To help students in the past to understand this, I gave some of them one minute to write about a picture of a house in the woods that I showed them while the rest waited out in the hall. Then we switched, but I gave the new kids ten pictures to choose from to match it to the writing.

The typical response is that most can not figure out which picture is the match. They can only guess. When the writers come back, their response is that they would have described the house with color better or some other detail.

When someone else reads your work, you never know what perspective they are going to use. You do not know what details are going to be important that you left out.

When they do it again, most kids complain that a minute is not enough time as they try to include more details to help the others pick the correct picture.

Editing does the same. It allows someone else to view your story and give feedback. If you can’t find a group or it is just to hear how a part of story is going, you can record yourself reading the story, then listen to it as you read it. This won’t fix little issues, but can often help you find the little ones.

When looking at editing, the focus you want should be expressed. Do you want someone looking for grammar and punctuation? Maybe the character arc or flow of the story? Maybe you need feedback on word choice or where you an cut?

When I am at this stage of editing, my biggest concern is if the story works. You don’t need a professional editor for this, you can use a good writing friend or critique group. Many writing organizations have critique groups you can join.

And just because I am having them look for gaps in the story flow does not mean they can’t edit grammar or spelling, it just isn’t a concern at the moment and I don’t need them to use our time to talk about it.

If I had spent time editing my students’ work for grammar and spelling, I would not have time to rest over Spring Break.

Target the purpose of your editing, whether you are editing someone else’s work or you are asking someone else to edit your work.

Take the edits for what they are. They are not a personal attack on you or your work. If someone asks a question, don’t feel you have to justify why you wrote something the way you did. Remember, they do not have the benefit of creating the story and holding the answers. It could truly be a gap in your story.

Often, as you reflect on those questions later, you can see where your story maybe isn’t clear enough or a gap you have.

Here is an example from one of my students: ….and they lost their cat. Then they found their cat. The end.

I asked her how they found the cat? They looked. Where? Outside. Where did they find the cat? In the tree. What tree? The one in their neighbor’s yard. (looks at me like I lost my mind) Why didn’t you write that down? I did, see, “Then they found their cat.”

And she thought I had lost my mind before…..

To her, the details were there. Just not on paper.

You may laugh at this gap or think it is outrageous, but since I have started on this writer’s road and critiqued online and in person, gaps as bad as these still happen to good writers. (points finger at self and hides middle grade manuscript)

When the kids come back, we are going to sit down and I will read aloud their story and edits with them so they can hear how to improve their stories. Then we redraft the story.


Writing With First Graders: Drafting

We have covered a lot in my class. We have written small stories. We have brainstormed. We have learned the parts of story. This week, we begin writing our final story for the year. We are going to put together our ideas, write out a story, revise and rewrite before publishing our stories.

Then, if the kids want, we will enter their stories in a nationwide writing contest! Pretty exciting stuff!

A goal that goes beyond yourself can be highly motivating, and highly frightening. If you only ever write for yourself, then the bar will be low and you will only do well enough to please yourself. When you write toward a deadline and/or a goal, you are more focused and seek to write at a higher level.

I encourage you all to create a goal. It may be for an upcoming conference, critique group, contest, submission opportunity, or so on.

I like to use the S.M.A.R.T. Goal system.                                                                                        Specific goal. I want to do _______ for _________.                                                               Measurable. If your goal is too general, you can sell yourself short. I want to have done _______ by _______. Critiques and Conferences give you a built in measure.            Attainable. Make sure your goal is attainable. Goals are meant to be steps in your career. If your goal is to have an editor buy your book at the conference, while not impossible, it is not the measure of your goal. Completing your manuscript and submitting might be your goal.                                                                                                                                 Relevant. This goes with attainable. Make sure your goal matches that step in your career. If you make a goal of submitting your work and your measure of success is that you will have five books published in the next 5 years, that goal and measure of success are too many steps apart.                                                                                                             Time Bound. Your specific goal should have a realistic time expectancy. They should be short term so you can see progress. Things with deadlines can help you set those timely goals. But don’t rush yourself. Don’t try to write a novel for a conference with a submission deadline 2 weeks away! On the other end, don’t plan to go to an exciting conference in two years to submit your picture book! We all know life throws us curveballs.

Okay, I am way off topic, but not really. Back to my students.

Over the week, we took some of our brainstorming ideas from last week and began to create stories. This week has been about writing a draft of our story. Many of the kids asked what the difference of a draft and brainstorming are?

Brainstorming is coming up with ideas. I explain it to them that it is like planting a seed.

Drafting is putting those ideas down, watering them and taking care of them. It is often messy as you try to make your story grow.

Drafting and Brainstorming are not separate from one another. Often, in drafting, you are still brainstorming. You are creating your story arc, developing your character and asking questions.

As they draft their ideas, they may use a chart or graph. I often have the kids use a five finger chart or a beginning/middle/end chart.

A five finger chart reminds the kids that a story has three main parts. The beginning (thumb) is short and the fattest of the fingers. It has to introduce the character and the problem (and setting) in short space (First three sentences in a picture book). The three middle fingers shows the meat of the story. We talk about the rule of threes (I did not use a specific mentor story, but looked at many of the old tales like the 3 Little Pigs) in which the character tries and fails before succeeding. Then we end with the pinky, which is also short and shows that the ending of the story is quick revealing the solution and the character build.

After drafting, we begin the critique. I start with their opening. We read the first 2-5 sentences and see if they have  accomplished the task. I help them identify what really needs to be there or what is missing and then they revise their opening.

I do not focus on grammar or spelling during this critique. If I have to ask the student about a word, I will make the correction, but this revision is about getting the best opening down.

Then we move on to the ending. We read the whole story again and make sure that we have a resolution for the problem we identified in our opening. Then I help them make sure that they have the resolution and ending down to 1-3 sentences.

There are two common mistakes I see in their writing:

A) ….and they saved the cat.        They solved the problem, but resolution is different than solution. They need to wrap up their beginning. If they were worried about their lost cat, then they need to show how they felt about finding their cat.

B) ….and they saved the cat. They were so happy they went out to dinner to celebrate. And they went to the movies and saw Frozen. And then they went to the store to buy cookies for breakfast.  And….     The story doesn’t end. This stuff is great, but it is irrelevant to the story.

Finding the right ending is tough. You want it to end just so, but finding that balance can be difficult. Word choice is so important, especially in a picture book or short story.

Once we have it trimmed down, they go and rewrite just the ending.

Then we get to look at the meat of the story. What three things did the character do to try to solve the problem before they were successful?

Most of the time, with kids, they jump all over the place. Only 25% of the story ever makes it to the paper. So I spend a lot of time asking questions. Mostly how and why questions.

It is not enough to say they tried and failed (or succeeded). What exactly did they do? How did they do it? Why did they do it? How did they feel? What did they do next? Who could help them?

We tackle each attempt on their own. We look to make sure it makes sense. Then we retell the story out loud from the beginning to make sure it makes sense. I reuse the finger chart to make sure we have covered everything.

Then they go back and redraft their story on a new piece of paper.

It is a long process and I did not get through all the kids in this four day week. Next week is Spring Break, so the kids will have the week off. Not me, I will take their stories home and edit them.

So next week’s blog will be about the editing process.

Writing With First Graders: Brainstorming

Every day we have ideas; thousands upon thousands of them. So how come when we sit down to write, we can’t always seem to come up with an idea?

This week, my class is exploring their own ideas. As a class, we came up with an idea, and worked on creating a story together. We have studied what a story needs, but how do we put that all together to create a story? What comes first: character or plot?

The truth is, ideas come from everywhere. Sometimes ideas come from experiences. Others come from our imagination. And sometimes we mash the two together.

For our mentor text this week, I used my own story, Pedro’s Pan. Pedro’s Pan originated as an idea based off of someone that I learned about as I grew up. He was a prospector, not unlike my own dad, and I wanted to share his story.

I wrote a biography and while it was okay, it was not the story I was looking for. After revising, then rewriting it, I came up with a new story to honor my family’s past as well as tell about prospecting. I brought the story to life using anecdotes from my own childhood panning for gold with my dad.

So, the story came out of my own experiences meshed with a real person and his talking gold pan.

I did not set out with the idea to include STEM data or be didactic to tell the lessons of perseverance, friendship or self identity, but those themes do pop up in the story.

It all started with an experience and an idea.

So we brainstormed ideas together. Everyone does this differently. I have heard of authors who carry a little notebook and squirrel away any idea. Others are very methodical and set aside time each day to stare at their computer until they come up with an idea. Some use devices or the internet to find ideas while yet others do research or participate in idea generation sessions like Tara Lazar’s Storystorm.

I like to think of characters, sometimes issues, events in my own life, or my favorite, a phrase. Who would say this? Why?

With my class, it was pretty straight forward. Each student thought of an idea, wrote it down on a piece of paper and we listed them on the board. We explored the ideas and looked at how some of them might be connected. We talked and laughed and asked questions.

Then we let them sit overnight and came back the next day and started forming a story. We blended ideas together, borrowing plot from here, a character from there until we had a start to our story.

Next, they had to decide how to solve the problem and where the story should take place. They wrote down their ideas and we shared. And let them sit once again overnight.

We came back and agreed on how to end our story and where it should take place. Then we popcorned out ideas of how to get from the beginning to end. “Our character did this….then that happened so he did this….”

On the last day, we had our story. It was still rough, but it was there.

Now, not all stories are created this way. After all, you don’t have a classroom full of first graders. You do, however, have those creative voices inside you that ask lots of questions.

Whenever you have an idea, write it down. You don’t have to flush out the story yet, but you don’t want to forget it either. When you do sit down and write your story, don’t worry about word count or perfect grammar (or spelling), but tell the story. Then go back through and feel out each part of your story by asking questions like:

-What will happen next?

-Why did they do that? OR How did they do that?

-How do they feel?

Then you look on to the next section of your story and see if it was answered. If not, you might want to write it out. Whenever writing a picture book, this may be where an illustrator answers the question, but you need to be aware of it.

Here is an example of asking a question from one of the kids I worked with this week:

Farmer Asher was playing tag with his friends. The animals got loose. He broke his foot. His friends found the animals for him.

Please remember, this is a first grader who wrote this…..and when they told their story out loud, it took them 5 minutes.

Questions for segment one: Why was Farmer Asher playing with his friends? What was he supposed to be doing? Where they at the farm?

Questions for segment two: How did the animals get loose? What kind of animals got loose? Did all the animals get loose? Where did they go? Why did the animals want to get free?

Questions for segment three: How did Farmer Asher break his foot? What did his friends do? Did he go to the hospital? How did he feel?

Questions for segment four: Why did his friends help? Where did they look? How did they find them? How did Farmer Asher feel?

And this is the next draft of their story:

Farmer Asher was feeding the animals when his friends came over to play. Asher really wanted to play and thought he could finish feeding the animals after he played. So he did. While he was playing, the chickens and cows snuck out of the gate that a hungry fox opened for them. Asher saw the animals were missing and asked his friends to help him find them. While looking, Asher slipped on the hill and tripped over a rock and broke his foot. He screamed because he broke his foot and his friends ran to help him. They carried him back to the farm and wanted to call the ambulance but Asher was worried about his animals. And then his friends went looking for them and heard a cowbell that was coming from a hole in the ground. One friend sounded like a chicken and the fox came out of his den to look for it. His friends rescued the animals and Asher was glad his animals were safe. His friends took him to the hospital where the doctor said his foot would be broken for 4 weeks.

Now that is a change in the story! We wrote this story in groups, so the kids were able to brainstorm and ask questions as they wrote.

As storytellers, we know there is a lot more in our head than we ever get on paper, but we need to stop and make sure our story is complete. Brainstorming does not end with the idea, but should continue through the process.

Next week, we are going to be talking about rereading a story with a character/story arc in mind.