Yes, This Will Be On the Test

Writing, Reading, Laughing

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Holiday Spying

Tis the season when we get together with many of those we usually don’t spend time with, be they relatives, old neighbors, or far away friends.  Tis also the season to quietly note their quirks, faux paus, and missteps as tidbits to use in future writing.  Whip that notepad out before you forget the cousin who has the same name as the dog, or the gigantic mole on the side of “you know who’s” nose that you tried not to look at during dinner.

Here are the top ten notables of my holiday season:

#10: Format error
Blu-ray for regular DVD player – now mom will NEVER see the genius of Will Ferrell in ELF
 #9: Muttonchops
Please tell me they’re not back in style except for reincarnated civil war presidents
#8: Loss of personal space
No there is not enough room for you to join us on the couch
#7: Using salt instead of sugar in the Christmas cookies
Maybe to bake a fine salt lick for the neighborhood deer
#6: Ear picking with gusto
Enough said
#5: Leaving leftovers on the counter for 3 hours and declaring you can still eat them without dying of botulism
Just say no, or discreetly spit out the unfortunate bite when no one is looking
#4: Playing a version of Christmas carols that sound like a funeral requiem
You can feel religious guilt seeping from the speakers.  Is there an ABBA Christmas album?
#3: Spilling the Santa beans to someone else’s child because your kids have figured it out and you stopped being careful
Quick, break out the Santa GPS tracking on line and lie your head off
#2: How many husbands did you say you’ve had?
Turn your filters ON before holiday get togethers

And the #1 highlight of my Holiday 2010:
The singing, twitching, light-up elf hat
Especially inappropriate when placed in lap instead of on top of head

Love to hear some of yours.  I promise not to steal.  Cowabunga 2011.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

View From the 5th Grade Trenches - Special Holiday Edition 2010

The perfect story to teach kids not to judge a book by its cover is Barbara Robinson’s novel, THE BEST CHRISTMAS PAGEANT EVER.  From her first words, “The Herdmans were absolutely the worst kids in the history of the world,” to the heart-warming ending, our class was riveted to the delicious chaos of this story.

As a tribute to the book that brought my class crashing into the holiday spirit, the best kids in the history of the world have created this acrostic poem to remember the Herdman children.

H – Hilarious pranksters
E – Ears that grow pussy willow plants
R – Rambunctious kids
D – Dumb as a sock full of rocks
M – Mary and Joseph in the Christmas pageant
A – Always in trouble
N – Naughty, no manners at all
S – Smoke cigars

Alex, Aryanna, AshleyD., AshleyS., Ava, Cade, Caleb, Cameron, Cammie, Carlos, Fernanda, Gage, Hazel, Hunter, Ilker, Jerry, Kait, Kathleen, Kayla, Kyle, Lexie, Lisa, Mark, Melina, Pratik, Rian, Robyn, Rylee, Sal, Sierra, Tyler

I wish you all joy and peace.  Happy Holidays.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Designing a Character: Shape

Shape, an area defined by line or color, evokes emotional responses similar to line.  We are surrounded by both two and three-dimensional shapes in our world.  In writing we want to avoid two-dimensional characters, those with only length and width, like the plague.  B-0-R-I-N-G.  It’s that third dimension of depth that adds spice to our puppets.

The fun begins when we manipulate shape.

Are you asleep yet?  Balance can be a story device you employ as a baseline only if you’re intent on utterly destroying it quickly.  As an overriding plot element, it can be deadly.

Once upon a time there were little pig triplets with ungodly trust funds.  The loving pig brothers, all equally intelligent and motivated, left tail in snout to find their way in the wide wide world.  Using their unlimited Renaissance Pig talents, they build a compound with three identical houses where they could live together in harmony.  Best of all they had a bushy-tailed wolfy neighbor who refused to eat anything except stupid pigs who never wore clothing.  The End.     

I know which X you are looking at!

Once upon a time there were little pig triplets with ungodly trust funds.  The first pig made a horrendous investment due to his lack of online research, and was left destitute.  His brothers shunned him, and he had to live out his porcine existence in a cardboard refrigerator box under the forest overpass.  Since he was stupid and did not wear clothing, his brothers’ bushy-tailed wolfy neighbor ate him.  The End. 

A shape we recognize and are able to assign meaning, is always dominant.

One upon a time there were two amorphous blobs and one pig with ungodly trust funds.  The blobs had no hands or faces and therefore no means to access their riches.  The pig opened a small bookstore under the oak tree with his money and was wildly successful since animals who wear clothing, also read.  The indefinable blobs could not communicate with the non-blob world so no one in the forest had any clue what they were thinking, doing, or planning.  They hung aimlessly in the air below the branches of the oak tree, doing nothing, for the rest of all time.  The End.

Note: If you speak “blob” and can order the last mini-story in their original tongue, “blob,” thus being able to identify their unique culture and language, you’ll find the journey of the blobs hanging in the forest is actually an epic to rival Tolkien.  Who knew?

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Designing a Character: Light/Purpose

Why do we need light?  Illumination, right?  Ding, ding, ding…correct.  Ah, but illumination has a myriad of subtexts.

DIRECTING OUR FOCUS: We look where the light is strongest.  It guides our line of vision.  Is your current action bathed in the brightest light?  Are distinct pools of light guiding your reading through moments?

CONTRAST:  We may be looking at the light, but who or what is lurking in the shadows.

MOOD: A character walking out in the midday sun projects a different purpose than a character strolling through the dappled sunlight filtering down along a tree-lined path.

STABLE VS. UNSTABLE: Dependable electric lights shining in a room at night give a secure feeling, safety from the darkness.  The light of a candle or the fire in a fireplace is not so constant.  What are we missing in a character’s face lit sparsely by a flickering light?

STRONG VS. WEAK: Are you exposing your characters with sharp, crisp rays, or do more diffuse beams gently reveal them?

Play with the concept of light.  Let it be a tool to bring an added layer of dimensionality to your characters and scenes.  Try visualizing light that would not be expected in a given situation.  How does that change intention or outcome?

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

View From the 5th Grade Trenches - December 2010

One of the hardest lessons to teach a child is to celebrate and value their authentic self.  There are so many messages in the media, movies, and on television of what we “should be,” that sometimes who “we are” pales in comparison to all the larger than life examples.  This is especially true of children who are still puzzling out their unique place in the world. 

In his book, LOSER, Jerry Spinelli, gifts the reader with a joyful guide to celebrate one’s true self through his character, Donald Zinkoff.  This awkward, out of step hero teaches us that everyone has their own distinctive note to sing in our global symphony, and that note is a precious treasure.

Here are some insights from the 5th grade trenches on the extraordinary story of Donald Zinkoff. 

Zinkoff never gave up, he’s sweet, and doesn’t get discouraged by what people think or say about him.  JERRY, LEXI, SIERRA
Zinkoff is a true hero.  CADE
It is amazing to see such a positive person.  KAIT
The lesson, don’t judge a person without knowing them, is plain awesome. PRATIK
I love the old lady and the sandwich.  CALEB
If I got stuck in the snow, I wouldn’t put used gum in my mouth.  CARLOS
The best part is when Zinkoff went looking for Claudia.  I almost cried.
Zinkoff is always joyful.  KAYLA
Zinkoff is very responsible to his friends.  If he were real, I would be his friend.  SAL

To quote Jerry Spinelli, from LOSER:
“And the Z shall be first.”

Thank you Jerry Spinelli for bringing Zinkoff into our lives.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010


Happy Thanksgiving to everyone.

Enjoy noting down a generous portion of family conflict for future writing projects, followed by a dollop of delicious potential dialog from the dinner table.  Enjoy the effects of tryptophan and have a relaxing, yet productive story-fodder gathering, day.

See you next week with another view from the 5th grade trenches.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Designing a Character: Light/Direction

Reveal your characters with light.  Illuminating people differently will project their qualities.  In particular, changing the direction from where a light originates can model a figure in a variety of ways, each creating a unique specific effect.

FRONT LIGHT: Car headlights.  No secrets.  Let it all hang out.  Projects a huge shadow behind.  Character revealed.

BACK LIGHT(Directly or offset to one side)/DOWNLIGHT: Sunlight/Moonlight/Streetlight.  Separates the character from their surroundings.  Allows them to pop out and be distinct.  No one melts into the scenery.

UPLIGHT: Unnatural direction.  Burning sewer grate.  Candle under the chin.  Creepy.  Monstrous.  Beware the up-lit character.  

SIDELIGHT: Room lamps.  Sunrise/Sunset.  Adds dimension.  Fills out the form of your character.  Depth, complexity.  Brings out the folds in their clothing.

What type of light is catching your characters?

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Designing a Character: Color/Schemes

Individual colors each have their own subjective emotional impact, but start putting them together and you can create dramatic, sympathetic, or powerful structures.  Assign your characters colors and then play with combining them into scenes to create discord, harmony, mystery, or chaos.   

Monochromatic – This is when you take a single color and add either black or white to it.  Think of it as the shadings of your character.  Your protagonist might start out their journey as a primary blue until the obstacles they face darken them into a more mysterious midnight shade.  On the other hand, a character may lose burdens and lighten into a powder or sky blue, moving closer to the white end of the spectrum.

Triads – Play colors like chords on the piano, three notes of different hues.  The color triad of red, yellow, and orange stimulates appetite.  Think about the color scheme of many fast food restaurants.  These three colors are also high value, suggesting energy and vitality.  I imagine three teen friends on an adventure when I think of this triad. (Probably all boys, stopping to eat often at fast food restaurants)

The triad black, white, and red radiates power, and may suggest villainy.  Picture the flag of Hitler’s Third Reich.  

Complimentary – Colors in opposite positions on the color wheel work against each other in dynamic harmony, red/green, orange/ blue, yellow/purple.  Complimentary schemes may signal conflict between characters.  Picture a romantic entanglement where opposites attract and join for an exciting relationship.

Analogous – Any neighboring colors on the color wheel – ex: purple/magenta/red or blue/turquoise/green.  You feel them fading in to one another and getting along.  An analogous scheme may signify the calm family life of a character before their quest/problem throws their life into turmoil.  At journey’s end analogous colors reflect the happy well-balanced land to which a hero returns in triumph after slaying literal or figurative dragons. 

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

View From the 5th Grade Trenches - November 2010

One of the hats I wear is that of fifth grade teacher.  Yes, I am deep in the middle grade trenches, and there isn’t a better place to be.

In August at the SCBWI, Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, summer conference, I had the delight of breaking bread (well actually folding fajitas) with the inspiring author, M.T. Anderson.  I asked which of his books would be a good choice to read aloud to my fifth grade class, winning me the title of “Cool Teacher.”  He suggested the middle grade science fiction adventure, WHALES ON STILTS, from his PALS IN PERIL series, and boy oh boy, was he right.

The class and I LOVED it.  We laughed at his clever voice, bigger than life situations, and delicious craziness.  Best of all, it fired the kids up to read more of his awesome works.  It is a privilege to fill my class library with the works of M.T. Anderson. 

Here are some of the comments from the trenches:  (SPOILER ALERTS)
·      My favorite part was when Larry wrote on a piece of paper, “My mom is a fish.” ASHLEY
·      I was very interested in three amazingly intelligent kids.  KAITLYN
·      Jasper Dash made me laugh, he never made fun of anyone, and his bubble suit was hilarious.  HAZEL, FERNANDA, CALEB, ARYANNA
·      Half whale/half person, what gets more gross than that?  KYLE
·      It kept me hanging in suspense. CARLOS
·      I hope a whale with laser beam eyes never goes after my gramma. MYSTERY STUDENT

Thank you M.T. Anderson for making me a “Cool Teacher.”  

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Designing a Character: Color/Hue

Of all the elements of design, color has the greatest psychological impact.  It is also the most subjective.  How many times in your life has the answer to the question, “What’s your favorite color?” changed?

Generally speaking warm/high value hues, yellow, orange, and red, energize us, while cool/lower value hues, blue, green, purple calm us.  There are commonly accepted perceptions to specific hues.

Let’s take a quick peek at some associations with primary colors:
Red: violence, lust, hatred, blood, love, passion
Yellow: youth, health, vitality, action, happiness
Blue: truth, loyalty, sincerity, peace, calm

Go to the secondary hues and you’ve added a layer of complexity, after all it takes blue and yellow to make green.  Go down to the tertiary hues and we have a full palette of possibilities as we mix a primary and a secondary.  Yellow-greens will not have the same emotional impact as a nice kelly or forest green.  Suddenly a bright vibrant yellow becomes sickly when infested with touches of green.

What qualities of color do your characters project?  What hue associations tie in to what drives them through the story?  Are they a primary color, pure in nature or something as complex as a blackened magenta?  Does your character blend cohesively with their setting and other characters, or are they a living mismatched outfit worn out in public, like Professor Trelawney in Harry Potter?  Try mixing some bold, unexpected color combinations to define your character.

One last thought.  When naming colors in your writing, remember the paint chips at the hardware store.  It’s a great place to research interesting color names.  Blues run the gamut from sapphire to midnight, reds dance from crimson to cherry, and even browns span root beer to toast.     

I give you permission to buy the BIG box of crayons and explore. 

Thursday, October 21, 2010

A Gift from the Blogosphere

This sounds like an awesome contest.  Go for it.  I triple-dog dare you.
Guide to Literary Agents - 7th ''Dear Lucky Agent'' Contest: Young Adult

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Designing a Character: Texture

Texture connects us directly with our senses of sight and touch.  Discovering the feel of hard vs. soft, smooth vs. rough, or shiny vs. dull, gives us information about the world, through our fingers and eyes.  As a general perception, we are drawn to soft, smooth, and shiny, while hard, dull, and rough aren’t always as desirable. 

How does imposing texture add dimension to your character?  Do you want them to be appealing, or dangerous?  Is their texture deceptive to their true nature, or an affirmation of who they really are?  Every character has an exterior and interior landscape.  Are these layers of their texture contrasting or complementary?  Do your character’s textures come out in touchable form, such as clothing, or are they reflected in speech, action, and expression?                         

Back to Harry Potter for a peek at texture.  I see Voldemort as a black charred core, surrounded by a slick metallic coating, covered in gashes with knife-sharp edges.  

Be a texture seeker.  Mentally sculpt your character with materials that reveal them.  See what nuances you may discover.   

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Designing a Character: Line

           Line is one of the essential elements of design.  The type of line used in a drawing or composition creates a psychological impact on the viewer.  Imagine the theoretical spine of your character as a certain type of line.  How does that impact their personality and actions?
Vertical lines, especially substantial mechanically drawn ones, convey strength.  In nature, we relate the vertical line to trees or buildings that define a city’s skyline.  The horizontal line cannot help but be associated with the horizon, where sky meets sea, i.e. peace, tranquility.  The diagonal line needs support to keep it from toppling, but is oh so exciting to slide down.
            Let’s not forget our friends the curved lines.  The half-circle, not so thrilling, but the spiral conjures the power of a tornado.  The meandering curved line takes us on an easy but not always purposeful journey, like the course of a river.
            What kind of lines do your characters represent?  I am a huge Harry Potter fan.  I’ve always seen Harry as an active spiral, sometimes loose, but having the potential to pull in tightly at any moment.  Harry can also be a straight line that rapidly changes direction such as the readings on a seismograph.  Hermione is definitely a vertical, and Ron, meandering.
            Time to share.  What kind of lines do you see in some of your favorite characters?

Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Creative Core

Ever heard of the creative core?  I’m sure I didn’t invent it, but I thoroughly believe in it.
Time and time again at UCLA, I noticed my students that were especially talented in acting, showed great flair and originality in the scenic designs they created in my class.
  I myself was an actor up until college, where I learned I had a knack in the magic of painting with light as a theatrical lighting designer.  I went on to enjoy success as a playwright as well.
Odd crossovers?  I don’t think so.  Once a creative soul learns the skills and vocabulary of another artistic discipline, it opens up a new avenue for expression.  The right brain is a fantastical storehouse of artistic potential in us all.
Ready to try?  All you writers out there should dash to the bookstore and pick up DRAWING ON THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE BRAIN by Betty Edwards.  Nudge the talents you have to make words come alive and channel them into sketching.
I dare you to tickle your own creative core.