Better Beginnings and Endings

I’m over at The Write Practice today on Three Quick Ways to Improve Beginnings and Endings. My students get frustrated sometimes in rewriting their stories, especially the beginnings and endings. They want the first draft to be the final draft, but professional writers rarely get it right the first time. Why do we expect anything different?

J.K. Rowling rewrote the opening chapter to Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone 15 times.

Hemingway famously rewrote the ending to A Farewell to Arms 39 times!

If you aren’t sure how to make your beginning or ending stronger, take a look at this article and then research the first and last pages of several books in your genre.

On Do-overs

I first learned that magazines lie when I was thirteen. My sister and I would spend a couple weeks at my grandparents’ house each summer, and my Granny Helen always planned projects for us. We learned to sew, crochet, cross-stitch, dry flowers, and play the piano. When I was thirteen, my grandmother decided that she and I would tackle a quilt, while my sister crocheted rugs from RIT-dyed gym socks. Granny Helen had an issue of Woman’s Day, and the title of the magazine article for her inspiration was “The Eight-Hour Quilt.” While I am sure an experienced quilter could have made the quilt in a day, it took us two weeks.

The quilt pattern was for a round-the-world quilt, using blocks in different colors that create diamonds from the center out—a pattern where the placement of colors makes errors glaringly obvious. We gathered material, read the directions, and cut our pieces. I vaguely remember sewing strips of fabric together in mostly straight lines. Next, we began to assemble the strips to make the pattern. That is when the trouble began. The blocks had jumped out of order. There were black blocks where the blue ones should have been, and pink in the green’s place.

“Is this right?” I asked, standing at the ironing board, pressing the seams and frowning at the miscreant blocks.

“Hm? No, no, that can’t be right. How did that get there? Here’s the seam ripper,” Granny said. I hated sewing it wrong, and often felt like I had failed somehow. Granny was never condemning or mad, she just handed me the seam-ripper and shrugged her shoulders. Do-over.

I sat down and pulled out the thread, releasing the blocks. Then I  realigned the blocks correctly, and sewed another straight line. Do-over.  After the tenth time or so, I realized where I had gone wrong, why the pattern was off. By shifting one block, the rest of the pattern fell into line.

I’m pretty sure the cutting alone took eight hours. The piecing (putting together the blocks) took most of a week. Then the border and backing took a few days, and Granny and I crouched on the hard living room floor together tying off the corners with embroidery thread.

When we finished, the quilt was beautiful. It had taken two weeks and more do-overs than I could count. Sometimes things don’t come together in the time I planned. Sometimes they don’t come together in the way I planned. I hope more often than not I can shrug my shoulders and say “do-over” until I get it right.


Why Poetry?

I have two reasons for poetry in honor of National Poetry Month:

Slow Down

Reading poetry forces us to slow down, pay attention, and connect with our world. To read poetry well, we have to listen carefully, submerse ourselves in the words, swim awhile in the emotion, and step into the speaker’s shoes for a minute. Dr. Salma Jayyusi, said, “If we read one another, we won’t kill one another.” Listening is rare in our shouting culture. I read poetry with my students to help them hear and appreciate voices different from their own.

Grow as a Writer

Reading poetry aloud is one of the BEST ways to develop as a writer. Poets rely on precise word choices, strong images, gripping emotion—all crammed into a few lines. Students can read or listen to a poem in a few minutes, even if they don’t read much outside of class. Voracious readers tend to stick to certain genres or authors, which limits exposure to language. Poetry opens up a world of words to the writer.

But Poetry Isn’t For Me…

One of my favorite teaching memories happened the year I taught remedial English to fifth year seniors who were tired, disinterested, and mostly absent due to suspensions or hangovers. We read poetry that spring—almost every day. No dissection, we just let the words wash over us. Students’ attendance improved. Fewer spent time suspended. Students would stop in my room after lunch and sit on the sofas scouring every poetry book I had, reading poems aloud to each other. I don’t know if it was the poetry or just a fluke, but all my poetry books were stolen that year. I’ve never been so pleased.

The next time you are in a library—check out the poetry section (usually in the 800’s). If you have a Bible, take a look at the big book in the middle—Psalms. Read a few aloud this week. Read silly poems with your kids or read Psalms over breakfast, and see if you don’t notice a few new things around you today.

Why We Gotta? Here’s Why:

I’m reposting here from my school blog in case anyone else ever wonders “What is the point of sticking with _(insert difficult thing)_?”

Every year it comes up. I’m waiting for it. Excited to hear it asked.

Mrs. Weems, why we gotta learn words we’ll never use or read hard texts or (or insert whatever you think you won’t use later)?

I get excited, because here’s the answer:

How do you know?

You have no idea what you are capable of accomplishing, and therefore you have no idea what you might need. Why limit yourself? If I had limited myself to what my seventeen-year-old self thought I would need for the future, well, I’d have an impressive collection of Aqua Net hairspray and Michael Jackson albums to go with my jams and jellies (which are not food by the way- super-bonus-points-that-don’t-exist if you can come show me a picture).

You are taking challenging classes. You may not see all the applications. You are tired and working and overwhelmed. You don’t see how this is something you will need. But learning to work through challenges is EXACTLY what you will need.

You’ll also need compassion and the ability to ask questions.

You will need to face words, people, and situations you find foreign.

You’ll need to understand multiple perspectives, especially those different from your own, so you can make empathetic, educated decisions about your family, community, and world.

You will need to continue to learn how to learn, because you will create jobs that do not even exist today, and for those, you’ll have to teach yourself.

Growth is never easy– the moment when things are hard is the moment you are on the threshold of something new.

When you think you cannot learn one more vocabulary word? Don’t give up.

When you are sure you can’t study ten more minutes for your history test? Don’t give up.

When you have split three pencils trying to work that equation for math or physics? Don’t give up.

(Side note: Snapchat streaks? I give you permission to give up on those.)

Otherwise…don’t give up. Astonish yourself and us with your hard work. Do it.

P.S. for my fellow parents: Allow me to give myself a public pep talk and feel free to hum along:  If I have to hear my son or daughter gripe about Spanish or Geometry (or insert the whining flavor of the day) just one more time I feel like my eye sockets might burst. What I want to do is tell them how to do it right. What I want to do is jump in and help. But what I need to do? Take a deep breath. Tell him he has what it takes. Tell her I love seeing her stick with something difficult. Tell them I’m proud when they work hard and don’t give up. In short, I need to let them own their learning. (WARNING: THIS IS NOT MY DEFAULT SETTING.)

Parents, we’re doing great, and our kids are nearing the finish line for this chapter of their lives (*cue tissues please*). Let’s run alongside them as their biggest fans. We’ve got this. Don’t give up.


January Prompt: Interruptions

This post is part of the Weems Fiction Monthly Prompt series. My goal this year is to send out a prompt and an original short essay or fiction piece to my email list. Subscribe in the box to the right, or just check back each month under the tab “Prompts” to read the prompts only. If you write to the prompt, I hope you will share your writing in the comments below and be encouraged!

How do you feel about interruptions? I read a book a number of years ago about seeing interruptions as opportunities. I tried really hard to put that mindset into practice, but nothing shortens my fuse quicker than interruptions piling up on me. (This is coincidentally why I struggled as a preschool mom— which can best be described as one long season of interruptions, some delightful, others not so much.) Sometimes interruptions are valuable though because they alert us to something new, perhaps something we miss when our heads are down and buried in our own work.

The prompt: The next time you are interrupted, take that complication and use it as the heart of a story. Interruptions can help a character see something with new eyes, leading to change. And change is always at the heart of story.

If you decide to write to the prompt, I hope you’ll share your writing with me in the post comments here. Encourage each other!

One Simple Truth That Will Get You Writing Today

Think you need just a little more preparation to be the writer you want to be?

I’m over at The Write Practice today, with a quick post on how to know you are ready. Don’t skip the the quick practice at the end!

Click here to read One Simple Truth That Will Get You Writing Today

Writer friends, The Write Practice is a terrific place to begin to build and nurture a writing community. I hope you’ll check it out.  A huge thanks to Joe Bunting and his team for this opportunity.