I started teaching a new class at the Loft Literary Center this week for adults who want to write children’s books. I began teaching classes over fifteen years ago as a way to bring in some extra income, but I’ve discovered that I really love teaching for itself! Along with helping me build my writing community, it reminds me of several important things. It brings me back to why I feel passionate about writing for kids, even if I’m at a point where my own writing seems to have stalled out. It’s pushed me to learn more about writing craft and technique—so that I don’t just say to my students, “Do it this way because I say so.” And it gives me a chance to pay forward some of the great writing advice I’ve received over the years.
On the first evening, I shared with my class a fantastic writing exercise that I learned when I took a mystery writing class from Ellen Hart, one of the writing teachers I’ve been enormously privileged to learn from over the years. With the goal that we would create a story opening that truly served as a hook to drag readers instantly into our stories, Ellen had us rewrite our story opening several different ways. Each opening would be based on the story we had in progress, but we weren’t supposed to just take out the first lines we’d already written and then tweak them. Instead, we wrote five completely different opening sentences (all based on that same story concept). Then we took the three sentences that we felt were strongest, and expanded each one of them to a new opening paragraph.
That’s when an amazing thing happened. I had taken the class in the first place because I was trying to write an adult mystery, but I kept stalling out around Chapter 5. The story kept falling lifeless to the ground, and nothing I could do revived it. I was pretty much convinced that I just didn’t have it in me to write a whole novel. So I took the class (honestly, as kind of a last resort), and in one of the very first sessions, Ellen assigned this exercise. I wrote my five different opening sentences, all (I thought) based around the 34-year-old female professional who was then my main character. Then I selected my three favorite sentences, and turned to expanding each one into an opening paragraph.
And here’s what came out in paragraph one:
“See, there’s this certain kind of catfish that can actually shimmy on out of its pond and walk around on land until it finds a better place to rest its little fishy head. You can find the thing somewhere in Asia, I think, or maybe it’s Florida? I guess I didn’t pay enough attention in Biology, but the point is, it’s a real fish, and the sucker really walks. I swear: you can catch it on ‘Animal Planet’ if you don’t believe me. Anyway, if its pond dries up, then this catfish just up and boogies on to the next pond over. I mean, wouldn’t you? If you started to feel like the place you’d lived your whole life had turned into the Mojave Desert, and you’re a freaking fish, what else could you do? Turn yourself in to the closest sushi bar? Not me, dude! I was all ‘Look, Ma, no gills!’ and I was outie. So you can just blame everything that went wrong after that on that stupid walking fish.”
Wait—what? This wasn’t the voice of my established professional woman! A completely different character had jumped in and commandeered the paragraph. I finished out the exercise by writing two paragraphs that did feature my original character, but I couldn’t ignore that surprising voice that emerged in the first paragraph. Something told me that if I let that voice—with its young teen male energy and anger take the lead—he would manage to push me through an entire novel.
And I was right. Turn Left at the Cow now features the same setting and other similar elements to that earlier novel I failed to write, but the main character who got me through to the end was indeed a 13-year-old boy. The first paragraph changed over time, but the attitude and energy with which he infused the story didn’t. I’m so grateful that I listened—first to Ellen, and then to this voice that popped up seemingly out of nowhere. So I make a point of passing along this exercise that proved so critically important to me.
Who knows? Maybe one of the students in my new writing class—or you?—will find a similar surprise waiting for them.