Archive for November, 2014

Ruby Red Pens

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on November 21, 2014 by writersintheschools

By Michael Overa, WITS Writer-in-Residence

How do we describe certain characters? The first words that spring to mind are inevitably generic. A character is a boy or a girl, young or old. But, if we want to be specific we have to say that a character is a self-conscious orphan with unknown magical powers. Or something like that.

At TOPS K-8, I start our discussion of character by handing out three by five cards and instructing students to write three adjectives about themselves (or adjective phrases) on one side of the card. They are not to put their name anywhere on the note card.

And then I collect the cards, shuffle them, and explain the rules of the game.

Rule 1: Once I read the three adjectives aloud the class will have three guesses to identify the card’s rightful owner.

Rule 2: There are to be no criticisms (i.e.: That can’t be so-and-so, he’s not smart).

Rule 3: The owner has to admit as soon as his/her name is guessed.

Perhaps not surprisingly the students enjoy this get-to-know you game. As they guess each other’s names, I write the student’s name on the back of the card, which gives me one way to begin to learn the students’ names. It also helps me get an idea about the unique chemistry of the class.

At the same time, I have started them thinking about character. How do we explain a character? What is the difference between a generic character and a dynamic character? And from there, we delve into the creation of their own original characters.

The note cards have given us a way to start to talk about character and a way to get to know each other.

So, when we get to the creation of unique characters the students have another frame of reference from which to create their fictional characters. Granted, that frame of reference is themselves. Eventually they end up surprising themselves (and me) with what they’ve written.

And that’s my favorite part; it’s what I think of as the Wizard of Oz moment. I get to stand back and say: “You’ve had that power all along.”


For this exercise students were asked to take a newly created character and create a short scene in which the character would be embarrassed. This stems out of our work creating dynamic characters by taking into account not only the character’s strengths and weaknesses, but the character’s wants, desires, and needs.

“The room was nearly obliterated. Gregory was slumped in the corner of his room, tracing the scratches etched into the dusty floor, avoiding the occasional clump of hair or feathers from the pillows. He felt his oddly shaven head and thought about how his mom, or his friends, or worse – the class – would react to this. He’ll be the laughing stock. I’ll never get Lily’s attention, he thought.” – Kenji N, Grade 7

“Charlotte walked along the dusty path toward the lunch area. She wiped sweat of her brow and quickened her pace. She hated this lonely walk. She didn’t mind being friendless in class where she could list attentively, or at lunch where she could sit hidden in the shade of the willow tree by the gurgling brook, but in the bright sunshine there was nowhere to hide. Charlotte felt a tap on her shoulder. She jumped and whirled around. There stood Beth, the nicest girl in school.” –Evelyn C, Grade 7.


You Call It the Fall; We Call It the Autumn

Posted in Uncategorized on November 3, 2014 by writersintheschools

by Jeanine Walker, WITS Program Manager


“What I want in a novel is for every character to have more than one characteristic,” Irish author Colm Tóibín told a room of sixty rapt 10th graders at Roosevelt High School this morning. He clicked his red glasses closed, which connected and separated in the middle to allow them an easy hang around his neck. If a character is mostly “bad,” he said, he should have a moment “of extraordinary kindness,” and if a character is mostly good? “I want them to steal.”

Supporting in his person what he demands of his characters, Mr. Tóibín gave a talk that highlighted opposites, the surprising side: the well-lit, filmed disappointment of not winning a prestigious literary prize he’d been nominated for; how a writer should do the cutting of words as he’s writing, not after; because there are too many novels already, no one will notice if you don’t work—but “no one else will write the book you will write.”

Responding to students’ questions, Tóibín revealed that his experience in not winning the Man Booker Prize—his first nomination, in 1999—heavily informed the first chapter of The Master, which the students, under the tutelage of their teacher Adam Karl, had read in preparation for his visit. In that section, the writer and protagonist Henry James learns that the opening night of his play has been a failure. “The build up of excitement,” Tóibín said—“I was using that experience of not winning the prize, and I gave it to Henry James.”

Further into the topic of how to create memorable and realistic characters, Tóibín used the example of a house. Instead of inventing a house, he said, use your own house or that of a friend, which will help you think about where the car is parked, what the doorknob looks like. And what are you doing when you do this? According to Tóibín, “You are anchoring emotionally by using details that are real.”

Due to Tóibín’s details—his comical imitation of an English accent, his story about finding the opening for The Master in a walk up the street in Italy, and even that he “still write[s] with one of these. It’s called a pen.”—the room of 15 and 16-year-olds became emotionally anchored. They asked questions about his inspiration, about how he structured a novel, about his daily routine, and about writer’s block.

To the last question, he said, “I think writers’ block is a kind of laziness…. It’s an invention, and there’s a way out of it: just simply describe yesterday and give it to your character.” Sometimes, half way through a book, Tóibín said, he’ll feel himself lagging. No one else will write the book if he doesn’t, though, so he has to, and sometimes deadlines, even self-imposed deadlines, work to that end.

At that point, he told the 10th graders, it can often feel like finishing a paper for school. “You can actually under pressure do an immense amount of work if you have no choice.” He adds, laughing, and with affirmation that this is easier said than done: “I just finish everything I start.”

Colm Tóibín will finish an inspiring day at Town Hall tonight, 7:30 p.m., as part of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ Literary Arts Series. He will speak on the subject of the Irish Renaissance. Tickets are $15, $5 for students, and will be available at the door.