Swirl and Spark for Grown Ups too!

I created the swirl and spark website just over eight months ago. I can remember sitting on the deck in my backyard writing my very first blog post. The sunshine had exploded that August afternoon, but the oak and maple trees towered over me, providing just enough cover for me to write. And just like the sun, I was exploding – with ideas for the site for kids who like to write.

I envisioned a website where kids could hang out, in a virtual place, with other kids who loved books and writing as much as they did. I pictured a bunch of kids submitting the beginnings of their stories for other kids to critique. I pictured kids stopping by the site to check out the latest book recommendations and writing tips. And then more recently, I pictured lots of kids sending in their short stories to be showcased on the blog!

The problem is this. I’ve noticed that my posts get a lot of traffic…except when I put out a call for kids to submit their stories. And on top of that, I haven’t gotten many stories from kids. Hmm. So I’m thinking that either kids ARE reading the blog and checking out the site often, but they’re just not ready or interested in sending in their work…or its mostly adults who are reading the blog!

Either way, I’m okay with that. I mean we’re all writers, right?

So here’s the thing…I think it’s time for me to expand my focus a little bit. I’m still going to focus on kids, but I’m going to focus on adults who write too. I’ve changed the subtitle of the site to the site for kids and kids at heart who like to write. The way I see it, if you write for kids, then you’re basically a kid deep down anyway!

I’m going to be changing a few more things about the site too. I’m now going to open up Critique Corner to adults too. I‘ll hold critique rounds specifically for them and at other times I’ll hold critique rounds specifically for kids or teens.

I’ll keep the Book Nook the same and the reason is simple. Adults who write for kids need to be reading children’s books. I have many more books to post so stay tuned.

If you’ve been following the blog, you know that Short Story Showcase opens today! I’ve had a few kids contact me and tell me they have a story to submit, but it’s not ready quite yet. (We all can relate to that, right?) So here’s what I’ve done to kick it off… I’ve posted a story that I wrote several years ago when I first started writing. It’s not a perfect story. It’s not a published story. But it is a story that’s meant to be shared, and so I’m sharing it! I hope you like it. 🙂

As I receive short stories from kids, I’ll post them, without warning, so keep checking back. I will however mention it on my weekly post when we have a new one showcased.

I want this site to be helpful for writers, whatever their age. It would really help me if I knew if anyone was interested in having another critique round- either for kids or adults. So…if you’d like to see one, leave a comment below or you can email me at swirlandspark.com. I’d love to hear from you. This information would really help me to know where to focus my efforts!

And so today ends April. That means that May flowers should be arriving soon. I really hope it’s soon, don’t you? The colors of spring always bring me inspiration, and I can use some now. I’m juggling many writing projects! I’m busy working on final revisions for my middle grade novel. I’m really anxious to send this out to agents and see what they think. I’m also working on a short story for a sweet little girl who’s battling leukemia. I’m not able to do much to help her but I’m hoping my story can bring her some hope and a smile. I mean that’s why we write, isn’t it? To bring happiness to someone else.

So with the change in season, I’m looking forward to the changes to swirl and spark. I hope you are too. Again, feel free to comment and let me know what you think!

Look in the Mirror!

I have a mirror on the wall- right next to my front door. After I get dressed for the day, before I walk out of my house, I look at myself in that mirror. It’s not that I’m vain really, but I would rather not step out into the world with oatmeal stuck in my teeth or toothpaste on my face. Can you imagine running into an old friend looking like that? It would be even worse if you had buttoned up your coat the wrong way. You know what I mean. You’ve buttoned the buttons in the wrong holes and now they don’t line up the right way. Somehow the left side of your coat is hanging lower than the right. Yikes!

You’d look like a mess right? What would your friend think of you? She’d think you were careless and sloppy. She might still like you on the inside, but she would think you looked like a mess on the outside!

I look in the mirror because it’s a reflection of who I am. My reflection is the first thing people see when they meet me. Looks aren’t the most important thing, but they are something. I care about what people think about me. I want them to know that I take care of myself- that I have respect for myself.

I do the same thing with my writing. Except the mirror I use is grammar.

What?

Yeah, my mirror is grammar.

You see, grammar can be the first thing people notice about your story…if you have grammar mistakes. Like the toothpaste on your face. If you misspell a word, or forget to add a period at the end of your sentence, your readers will notice- and not in a good way. They’ll notice a run-on sentence. They’ll notice the wrong spelling of same sounding words.

Here’s an example of three words that sound the same but have different meanings and are spelled differently.

There
Their
They’re

Homophones. People mix up homophones all the time, but they shouldn’t. And neither should you. Especially if you’re a writer!

“There” is the spelling to use when you’re showing a location. Ex. The car is over there.
“Their” is used to show possession- that something belongs to another person. Ex. Their car was filled with balloons.
“They’re” is used as a contraction (combination) of the words they and are. Ex. “They’re” going to drive the car to pick up the balloons.

When you mix these words up, it’s like getting caught with toothpaste on your face. And you don’t want that do you??

As you know from reading this blog, I’m all about writing creative stories…using your imagination to dream up amazing things. Many times writers will free write the draft of their story without thinking about misspelled words and punctuation. They do it because all the grammar rules can get in the way of creating real life characters that live in a made up world. Teachers encourage this in fact. They will instruct kids to free write for a time about anything they want. This is awesome because it allows writers to get into their story without getting stuck on words they don’t know how to spell, or worrying if they forgot a comma or two.

The thing is though, after you free write, you need to be sure to pull out your mirror. Take a good look at what you’ve written. Your words are a reflection of yourself. Go back and re-read your writing. Proofread for spelling errors. Make sure you’ve begun each sentence with a capitol letter. Add any periods you may have left off the ends of your sentences. Check your grammar.

It’s just as important as looking in the mirror. You want your reader to notice the cute, fluffy puppy in your story that floats up in space on a scooter, not the fact that you forgot to capitalize his name throughout your whole story. You don’t want your reader to be distracted by that stuff. You want them to focus on the story you’ve written.

Creative writers don’t have to focus all their time on grammar, but they do have to focus some time on it. So learn about punctuation. Learn about spelling. It’s not boring stuff. It’s the stuff that makes our words flow together in harmony. And next time you write an amazing story, don’t forget to pull out your mirror before you let the world see it. Your story is a reflection of you. Make it the best it can be!

And as a side note…Short Story Showcase is open next week! Stories can be about anything you want, so be brave. Send yours in this week. Details can be found on the Short Story Showcase tab.

Until next Wednesday, have a great week of springtime writing, reading and exploring the outdoors. Just don’t forget to look in the mirror before you step out the door!

Let’s Hear Your Voice!

There’s more to writing a story than just the words you say. There’s also how you say them. Yes, your story consists of the words you choose. But in order to catch your reader’s attention, it also needs to tell the reader something about your character too.

That’s called writing with Voice.

Voice can be described as the way an author chooses words and strings them into sentences -all in order to ensure the reader really gets to know the character. After reading just a few sentences or paragraphs, if an author is good at creating voice in their writing, the reader will know something about the character’s personality.

So how do you get good at writing with Voice?

Writing with voice is tricky- mostly because there’s no instruction manual on how to do it. Not really. There are some tips that can help, but writing with a real memorable voice only happens by practicing. It takes time to write this way.

Confused? To make it clearer, here’s an example of two passages—one with very little voice and then another with good voice.

I saw a bug crawling down my bedroom wall. I put it into a tissue and flushed it down the toilet.

I saw a bug crawling down my bedroom wall. I flew to the stairs and screamed for my brother. No answer. I screamed for him again. Nothing. Uggh! He’s the one who’s supposed to kill bugs for me. Where is he? I raced back to my room. The creepy stink beetle was now traveling dangerously close to my pillow! I knew it was up to me to get rid of it but ick… it’s so gross! I took a deep breath and grabbed a tissue. I smashed it over its disgusting shell or whatever it was, and ran into the bathroom in like two seconds flat. The flush of the toilet was the best sound I heard all day.

In the first passage, the author gives the facts. We know there’s a bug crawling down the main character’s wall and we know she kills it with a tissue and flushes it down the toilet. However, we don’t know anything about her. The author uses verbs that have no voice at all like saw, put and flush.

In the second passage, we know those same facts, but we also learn more about the main character. We know she’s petrified of bugs. We know she thinks they’re disgusting. We know she relies on her brother to kill them for her. We know that when she finds herself in a crisis, with no one to come to her rescue, she can find the strength to overcome the obstacle. We also know a little something about her personality.

Wow! That’s a lot of information.

So how did the author show this? She showed it by word choices, descriptions, and by showing the world through the character’s eyes instead of her own. The author’s job is to use words the character would use, and use them with the character’s own particular flair. She does this well by using words like, ick and gross and disgusting! Her verb choices show voice too like flew, raced, grabbed and smashed.

Voice is a tricky writing skill to master. It takes awhile to find your own. It takes practice and it takes really knowing your character. What words would she use in a situation? How would she react? Would she react calmly or would she freak out? Would she scream or would she take matters into her own hands with confidence?

Refer to the Scribble Tips tab on the site. Read Scribble Tip # 4 about Fifty Facts. It’s a great way to get to know your character. Check it out and then try using it to write with Voice.

And on a side note…
Our Short Story Showcase is coming! (Check out the tab for details.) If you have a short story that you’d like to see up on the blog, send it in! I’m hoping to have a few stories to post by April 30, so please email yours to swirlandspark@gmail.com and tell your friends!

Set it Up!

When I think about my favorite books, I realize that every single one has something in common. They have a cool setting. There’s an actual place inside the author’s world that intrigues me. I actually want to travel there! I want to live there or take a vacation there or hang out there.

In the Last Song by Nicholas Sparks, the story takes place along the coast of North Carolina- much of it in a small beach house that belongs to Ronnie’s dad. The house and surrounding beach are described so well that I can see myself spending the summer there, listening to the crashing waves and watching the baby turtles scurry through the sand. Nicholas Sparks has created a setting that draws the reader to it.

In the middle grade novel, Breadcrumbs, Anne Ursu has imagined a forest so magical, the characters practically pull you into the story with their bare hands. They’re fanciful and scary and sad and I want to see it all for myself! In The Prince of Fenway Park, cursed creatures actually live underneath the pitching mound at Fenway Park, the stadium where the Boston Red Sox play baseball! There, the sights and smells and sounds are so real any respectable fan would trade their most prized baseball card for a chance to see it for them self.

Sometimes there’s a place I read about that I don’t want to visit though. At all. Like the setting of the Hunger Games arena. That’s one place I will gladly stay away from. But… even that arena and the District 12 setting and the Capitol setting still intrigue me. District 12 is desolate and poor and depressed. Food and safety are luxuries that none of the residents there take for granted. The Capitol district is just the opposite with its over- the- top carnival atmosphere. Residents live well. The hairstyles and makeup are colorful and the food is presented as works of art rather than nourishment. Suzanne Collins describes just enough detail to let the reader use their imagination but still reveals sights, sounds, scents, textures and tastes that make you feel a part of the story.

And that’s what great storytellers do. They use all five senses to describe a scene. They create a place where readers want to go. Whether it’s a house or a barn or a stadium or a town, great story tellers make those places come alive. They make the reader wish that it was a real place. They set up the story and make it feel very real.

When you’re writing your story, strive to do the same thing. Create a place that your reader would love to go…if only they could! Maybe one day the setting you create will be a place readers think about long after the story ends.

So what about your favorites? What are some of the cool places you’ve read about lately?

Wanted: Stories Written by Kids and Teens!

One of the reasons I originally created this website, was to give young writers a place to showcase their work. There are so many talented kids all over the country with stories to tell! Finally, they have a chance to show the world. Short Story Showcase is now underway!

The difficulty I’m finding in hosting something like this is not coordinating the whole thing, but reaching the kids! And that’s where you come in. I hope. 🙂 If you’ve stumbled upon this blog post today, I’m asking you to help me. Are you a parent or a teacher? Are you a coach of an Odyssey of the Mind team? Or another type of coach? Do you see kids on a regular basis? If you do, please help me spread the word! Kids write stories in school, and given the chance, many kids write stories in their free time too. They write about their families. They write about their adventures. They write about their break ups. They write about hidden treasures and hidden worlds.

Participating in Short Story Showcase is easy! I’m now accepting stories (800 words or less) written by kids and teens ages 8-18. Please email the story (no attachments please) along with the title and the author’s name to swirlandspark@gmail.com.  I will post the first and last name as a by-line. Otherwise a screen name or first name and last initial works too. I’d also like you to include the age so that I can set up categories for our readers.

I don’t want to set a limit on the number of stories I receive. If a young writer wants to submit their work, then I am more than happy to put it up on display! Short Story Showcase will officially open on April 30th.

So please encourage any tween or teen writers you know to participate! The more stories we get the better. I’m hopeful that Short Story Showcase will be a place where kids and teens from all over can go to read stories written by other writers their age. What better motivation is there to write amazing stories, than to read other amazing stories?

Thank you in advance for spreading the word through whatever means you can. Twitter, Facebook, in person—however! I can’t wait to see the stories we get, and share them on the site!