Designing a doorway to Storyville

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I’m just at the tail-end of a tour of schools in the cities of Kelowna and West Kelowna. The schedule has been intense, as I’ve been often delivering four workshops a day spread across two different schools.

At each school, I delivered a different brainstorming project, depending on the age of the audience and my allotted time. For the youngest students (the kindergartens and Grade 1s) I led a round of Monster Design 101, while for the older students we either mapped a hero’s journey across a fantastical landscape or designed a magical doorway. Any of these activities serve as an excellent springboard into a story. In each case, the students complete their own individual brainstorming sheet while simultaneously contributing to an overall group one.

The result is always distinctive and unique . . . and always a concoction of wonderful ideas.

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Even though part of my brain was exhausted by week’s end, another part was percolating with ideas. In my very last visit of the week, the students and I group-designed this particular door:

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I decided to take inspiration from it and write my own story, which I present below. It doesn’t match the door design exactly, but, as I always tell my workshop participants, brainstorming isn’t your boss. It’s just your guide and you need to feel free to veer off in different (and hopefully better) directions.

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Time for Dinner

Tom raced down the street, school bag clattering on his back as he headed home. Coach had kept them behind for extra time and now he was going to be late for dinner. Again. And tonight Mom was making his favourite: spaghetti.

He was salivating over the thought of those home-made meatballs when he passed by the alley and came to a screeching halt. His older brother Daniel had warned him to never go down there, but that was Daniel for you. He thought he was the Boss of Everything. Besides, the alley was a shortcut home. Tom didn’t hesitate—meatballs were waiting for him!

He scampered into the alley and found himself in a narrow space with moody shadows clutching at him from either side. But other than that, it really wasn’t that scary. It was even pleasantly—and surprisingly—warm.

He was halfway through when he came upon the door.

That brought him to another stop. Because this wasn’t the type of door you encounter in everyday life. To begin with, it had a peculiar shape. The bottom was normal enough, starting in a rectangle, but at the top it branched off into different directions before tapering into five distinct points. Taking a step back to gain a better view, Tom realized it looked just like a claw. The door’s slats of wood appeared as if they had been once painted a bright red, though now very little of the color was left—just a tattered and peeling curl here and there. Otherwise, the door was mostly bare and grey, though two ornamental hinges danced whimsically across the wood in the curling shapes of dragon tails. They looked like they had once been a bright and proud black, though now they were so corroded by rain and time that long streaks of green dripped from them like poison tears.

There was a small doorknocker set in the middle of the door. It was in the shape of a face and was clenching a heavy ring of metal in its teeth. It had a wide-eyed expression; Tom decided that it looked surprised to see him. Then he looked down at the door handle. It had a round knob with a curlicue pattern.

Tom reached out for the knob, only to hear, “Mrumphff rumff rphray!”

Tom dropped his school bag and leapt backwards, eyes darting. Who had said that? The alley was completely deserted. Then Tom’s eyes wandered back to the door and he saw the doorknocker quivering, its lips contorting desperately around the heavy metal ring its mouth.

“Mrumphff rumff rphray!”

It was as if it was trying to talk—though all too ineffectually.

Tom tugged at one of his ears. This can’t be happening, he thought. He stared down towards the end of the alley, where he could see the sun beginning to set overtop the rooftops in his neighborhood. Just around the corner and down the street was his house. And spaghetti and meatballs.

Better to just go home, he thought.

“Mrphymmmhhh . . .” the doorknocker said with a sigh.

Then again, spaghetti and meatballs happened every week. A talking door? That could be a once-in-a-lifetime event.

No wonder Daniel warned me to stay away from here, Tom told himself. Maybe he wanted to keep this magical door to himself.

He reached for the handle again. The doorknocker grunted and grimaced, still trying to talk, still making no sense. Tom turned the doorknob and yanked. It screeched in complaint and held fast; no one had surely opened the door in ages. That’s when he noticed the keyhole below the knob.

“Hmm,” Tom murmured.

He stepped back and contemplated the door anew.

Suddenly, there was a metallic creak. It came from a metal letter slot that Tom had not yet noticed, set a few inches below the doorknocker. Something was working its way through the narrow flap. Tom furled his brow and watched in curiosity as a piece of paper edged out. When it was all the way through, it fluttered to the ground.

Tom stooped to pick it up. It was old and thin, scorched and torn around the edges. In ragged writing, someone had scrawled in dark red ink: HELP ME.

“What the!?” Tom gasped. He let the paper dropped back to the littered ground of the alley. “Who is me?

He tried to open the mail slot with his finger, but it didn’t offer any view of what lay beyond. He put his ear to the surface of the door and felt heat radiating from the wood. But he could hear nothing except for the desperate pleading coming from the doorknocker.

I guess it’s asking for help—that’s what it’s trying to say, Tom thought. He could see a very intense look in that doorknocker’s eyes—well as intense as you could get for something that wasn’t exactly . . . alive.

Tom began to pace the alley. What to do . . . what to do . . .

He was just about to give up on the whole venture when he noticed the oddly-colored brick in the wall, next to the door. Most of the other bricks were grey and rough. But this one was blueish. Upon closer scrutiny, Tom decided that it was even glowing slightly. He reached out, hesitantly, and touched the brick.

“Mrumphff rumff rphray!”

The brick slid outwards, coughing with dust as it did so. Tom had to stand on his tip-toes to see the top of it. There, nestled in a perfect coffin-like hollow, was a large brass key.

“Cool,” Tom murmured as he reached in and tugged the key loose. It was heavy and old-fashioned, and felt cool in his hands. Tom decided to not waste another moment. He plugged the key into the door and cranked the knob, allowing himself a self-congratulatory smile as he did so.

Yes, he was very clever, he decided. He had discovered the hidden key in the bricks. Could Daniel have done that? Well, he hadn’t, because otherwise Tom would have heard about it. For once, Tom was going to be the hero. For once, he was going to reap the reward.

Slowly, the door groaned inward. Craning his neck, Tom peered inside. All he could see was a murky black tunnel.

It did not look inviting—certainly not as inviting as spaghetti and meatballs.

“Mrumphff rumff rphray!” came the muffled cry from the doorknocker from what was now the other side of the open door.

Tom took a step backwards. Maybe this wasn’t a good idea after all. Then, from the depths of the tunnel, came an unearthly, sibilating rumble. A sharp and stinging odour reached his nostrils; it smelled like soot or burning metal, like a car trying to screech to a halt with warn-out brake pads. Tom took another step back, only to suddenly feel the door whack him in the back as it slammed shut. Tom tumbled forward, into the pitch black, and landed roughly on ground littered with what felt like pebbles and sharp sticks. He could feel the tiny shards digging into his skin. He clutched one of the sticks and held it up to his face for closer inspection, but he couldn’t discern any detail in the darkness.

Then he heard the growl again. It came thundering through the tunnel, so loud and ominous it was like being grabbed by the pit of the stomach and turned inside out. Tom quickly scrambled to his feet and pressed himself against the now-shut door. He was still clutching the stick in one hand, but with his other, he reached behind him and fumbled for the doorknob. His hand found it, jiggled it, but it was locked shut.

Then, out of the blackness, a pair of amber eyes, appeared. They were shot through with red veins and punctuated by two knife-blade irises. Tom gulped. He may have even tried to scream, but no sound left his throat. Those eyes grew larger, closer. They cast a dim light in the cavern. Tom slowly lifted the stick he was clutching in his hand, as if it might somehow protect him.

It was only then he realized that it was a sliver of bone.

* * *

A few moments later, a wet and satisfied belch reverberated out of the alleyway and through the streets of the neighborhood. It was so loud it could be heard all the way to Tom’s house.

“What was that?” Tom’s mother wondered as she sat down at the dinner table.

“Who knows in this town,” Daniel replied as he plowed into his heaping plate of spaghetti and meatballs. “The better question is: What happened to Tommy this time?”

Tom’s mother sighed. “Late for dinner. AGAIN.”

Though, from a certain point of view—and, for the sake of argument, let’s just call that the point of view of a certain doorway lurking in a certain alleyway—Tom wasn’t late at all.

He was right on time.

Quiet moments as a writer-in-residence

Whew! It’s been quite a week, weather-wise. I’m not sure what that groundhog was doing, but I’m convinced Jadis the white witch had wormed her way into our world to spread winter strife. I can’t remember ever having to postpone or cancel a school visit due to weather, and this week I had to do it twice.

That’s turned what was supposed to be a busy week of hustle-bustle into one of hunkering down in the studio to catch up on some personal writing and blogging.

Even though I was supposed to spend today at the inner-city school for my third session as writer-in-residence, instead I’ll show some of the work that my kids did last week.

With my grades 6 and 7 groups, we continued working on our main project based on the idea of a character visiting a market in search of a specific object. I was pleased to see that they had worked on their brainstorming in earnest in the time between my visits.

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This one detail particularly amused me:

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Pesky trolls, always causing problems in the kitchen. Though, I guess the food still smells good, so maybe I’m doing trolls a disservice.

My meager brainstorming worksheet wasn’t enough for some students. They had to gleefully expand into their notebooks to develop their ideas. Whenever I see that, I’m greatly pleased.

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My next phase with the grade 6 and 7 group was to work on world-building. I delivered a workshop on some of the key aspects of creating a world from scratch and, specifically, had them design symbols for the world in which their markets appear.

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The overall goal is that the students will ultimately write a story based on this project, but, truthfully, my main desire is to see them trek carefully through the creative process so that they can understand how a story is developed. It’s not simply a lightning strike of inspiration and then you have a book. You have to take that lightning strike, find many more bolts, then develop, develop, develop.

Of course, I do want the students to do some writing as well, so I gave them the specific assignment of writing a scene in which their character finds their desired object in the market. This is also a new concept to many of them—writing out of order. By concentrating on this one scene, I hope they won’t be distracted by the overall plot and will just focus on good description of their objects, and how it makes their characters feel.

For the grade 4 and 5 group, we are working on a project about doorways. I’ve done this project several times with much success. It’s a fun way for young writers to feel invigorated by an idea. Here is some of the brainstorming that they produced last week . . .

One of my students knew we would be talking doors, so she brought in a key as an inspirational prop. (This girl gets my process!)

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This student leafed through my personal brainstorming book, with my blessing, to steal some ideas for character and place names.

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So, this week is an unexpected break from the school and I’ll head back next week.

I do really love having the opportunity to do repeated visits at the same school. It gives me time to really connect with the students and develop a rapport. I’ve been spending my lunches in the library instead of the staff room, which also gives some students the opportunity to come sit with me and work on whatever they please. This hasn’t been an official part of my residency, but I know there are always those kids who just want to be in a creative space and doodle, brainstorm, and write alongside someone else. In many ways, these times are my favorite part of a residency—those quiet moments working with one or two kids and not really doing anything other than creating.

To cap off, here’s a couple of snapshots of my own brainstorming from this week. I didn’t expect to have so much writing time this week! But when the opportunity arrived, I seized it.

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A unicorn, a gladiator bunny, and an epic adventure

This week, I started my work as a writer-in-residence at an inner city school. The school was awarded a grant to bring in two authors, and chose me to work with the intermediate grades (4-7) and my friend and colleague Kallie George to work with the primary grades.

I’ll be going to the school one day a week until the end of February. It’s a great opportunity for me as writing mentor. I do many writer-in-residencies, but often times they are compacted into a short period of time. When the school is in my proverbial backyard, it allows me to go over a sustained period, allowing me to really help the kids practice patience and percolate on the process.

I started today by leading my entire group in an introductory presentation, telling them about my own desire to write and create when I was their age, then described my current process. Finally, I engaged them in a visual plotting exercise. This can be quite the challenge, especially when you have 200-plus kids in a cavernous and echoing gymnasium, but they were amazing! Their enthusiasm and creativity lifted me up and we ended up producing a wonderful story map that included a winged unicorn, a gladiator bunny, and a quest for a missing brainstorming book.

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Each of the students also created an individual visual plot. The purpose of this activity was to introduce them to my process and to get them to approach writing in a way that was different and unexpected for them.

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Afterwards, I led two sessions, one with the Grade 6s and one with the Grade 7s. In each session I set them up to write a story based on the idea of “Mischief in the Market.” In this writing prompt, a character enters a magical market to buy a certain something, but doesn’t have enough money to do so. And, so, the story begins . . .

They began brainstorming ideas for their market settings and the characters and objects found within. Of course, they already had their story maps from the morning session, so just within one day, we’re already beginning to build a catalogue of ideas.

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To further inspire them about their market, I brought in many of my own props and magical items.

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Next week, I will be working with the Grade 4s and 5s, but we’ll do a different topic: Secret Doorways!

 

Build the world you want to live in

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Today was a tough day. The day after the US election. The day after the climatic cap of so much negativity, hostility, and virulence.

Like so many people, it was another day of work for me. And that meant I was doing my previously-scheduled day at a school as part of my four-week writer-in-residence program.

Today’s topic? World building.

It seemed a strange thing to talk about today, of all days.

The workshop was meant to start with an icebreaker in which the kids take a fun and humorous quiz called “What type of ruler would you be?”

I didn’t have the emotional temerity to lead it today. So I cancelled the quiz and instead started by talking about how, as a kid, escaping into fantasy worlds was an important part of my life. Whenever I felt stuck or confused by the world, or events around me, reading and writing gave me certain succour.

So, I told my students, “Build the world you want to live in. It’s your world. You can do what you want in it.”

That was the serious part. I still tried to inject some fun by bringing them my museum of magical artifacts to show them how they can use prop-building as another way to work on their projects. I tasked them with finding or building artifacts from their worlds. I guess you could call it homework (though I prefer the term “dreamwork”).

Here’s some of the photos I took of their brainstorming: maps, symbols, names, creatures . . . you name it.

They are building. And that is a positive thing.

 

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Making friends with Canadian authors in Seoul!

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I’ve been back from a dynamic trip to Korea for a couple of weeks. I discussed some of my adventures around Seoul last week, but am finally getting round to posting some details about the exciting event I participated in at the Canadian Embassy with fellow authors Kallie George and Dan Bar-el.

The event took place on Saturday, July 23rd at the Embassy’s Schofield Hall, with over a hundred students and parents from Canadian curriculum or international schools in attendance. Dan, Kallie, and are each involved with the Creative Writing Society of Canada, based in Vancouver, so our company as a whole was hosted by the embassy.

Dan, Kallie, and I had just landed the night before, so it’s safe to say we were a little bleary-eyed from the eleven-hour flight and the seventeen-hour time difference! In my experience from traveling abroad, however, I find it’s best to get right to it. And, after all, that’s what adrenaline is for!

I’ve done many presentations and workshops before, but there’s always something a little tricky about speaking to audiences with different cultural and linguistic backgrounds. Even though the kids attending our event were fluent in English, I knew it didn’t necessarily mean that my well-rehearsed jokes or anecdotes would connect. So I will admit to having some trepidation as I was preparing for the event. Thankfully, I had many friendly faces in the audience; since I’ve been to Korea many times before, I knew some of the students in attendance.

I did have the unenviable task of speaking first. Though, in retrospect, that was probably a good thing. My colleagues Dan and Kallie gave such amazing speeches, I didn’t have to fret about trying to outshine them. (If you have ever seen Dan Bar-el in action, you know that he is particularly difficult to outshine.)

Two other speakers were interspersed between myself, Kallie, and Dan. These were two of my long-time creative writing students, who each spoke a few minutes about the power of creativity and how writing has played an important role in their lives. It was pretty humbling to hear their words to imagine that I had played some small role in their exploration of creativity. I plan to post the transcript of their speeches in future posts!

After the speaking part of the event, the students in the audience broke into three groups and Dan, Kallie, and I each led one in a short creative writing activity. I had carefully packed and transported my dragon egg prop all the way to Korea for this very event and asked the students to imagine what would hatch out of it—and how. As you can imagine, there was quite the variety of descriptive responses!

This was also an opportunity for me to show the students some of my brainstorming journals (which, of course, go everywhere with me).

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The final thing was to do a book signing. Here’s the three of us busy at work!

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After the Embassy event, we were chaperoned to the KF Global Center where we were hosted by the Korean Reading Foundation, and spoke to a second audience of parents and students. This group was not fluent in English, so we had to deliver very different types of presentations, with each line being translated for us. Of course, so much about presenting is about timing, but when you need to accommodate the translator, it can really throw you an extra curveball or two! Still, I’m happy to report that everything mostly went without a hitch.

Dan, of course, made sure to greet the audience in Korean and then demanded that the translator translate his words into English! That’s Dan, for you. He can make anyone laugh!

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It was a real honor to get to participate in these events, and I am really thankful to the Canadian Embassy for hosting us.

Note: All photos featured in this post were taken by the Canadian Embassy.

Secret Doorways: designing mysterious portals to other worlds

Today was Day 4 as writer-in-residence at Charlie Lake Elementary in Fort St. John. Today I worked with the Grade 3s on a project to write stories based on the idea of a character discovering a secret doorway.

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The initial part of this project was to work on a brainstorming sheet so that the students could develop some ideas, including some designs for different doorways. I also designed the project so that the young authors have built in problems for their stories—as soon as their character goes through the secret doorway, it collapses or locks behind them, leaving them trapped in a strange new world.

Here are some photos of a few different brainstorming sheets. I love all the doorway designs!

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One more day to go! It’s hard to believe how quickly the week has gone by.

Enchanted trees to make your imagination blossom

I just completed my second day as writer-in-residence at Charlie Lake Elementary and today involved a lot of magic! I worked with the Grade 1s and 2s to created enchanted trees.

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Some students chose to use my template tree and just populate it with creatures, produce, or other magical items. Of course, some students did not want to be limited by the template, so they drew their own enchanted trees from scratch . . .

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I love them all, but I have to say, one of my favourite trees is the one that grows doors!