Picture Perfect Covers

Picture Perfect Covers

This past season, I taught a creative writing class for tweens and teens that took inspiration from art history.

I described many of those classes, activities, and inspirations on this blog. The result of all that hard work by the students was that they each were given the opportunity to make their own book. That included not only producing all the words for the book, but any illustrations and artwork—including the front covers.

Here are the final covers that the students came up with. They did the artwork and I helped them with the design and typography.

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The books are professionally printed with perfect-bound spines. Yes, I’m biased, but I think they turned out pretty well!

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Cool creative writing activities—pirate style

Cool creative writing activities—pirate style

Last week author and colleague Kallie George and I finished up a two week creative writing camp for kids aged 9-12 through CWC. The theme was one of our faves: pirates!

Kallie and I have taught many camps before, but we wanted to try and do something a little different this time. Even though the goal of the camp was to just immerse kids in creative writing, we decided we needed to give them a goal.

So, we decided to have them produce handmade pirate “journals” that would chronicle the adventure of a character who ends up sailing the seas.

Once we had that decided, it was just a matter of developing and fine-tuning some topics . . .

Day 1: Introduction – What kind of pirate are you?

For the first day, we just warmed up the kids by introducing them to our theme, having them take a fun quiz (What kind of pirate are you?), and doing some writing warm-ups.

Day 2: Plot me a treasure!

We introduced our overall goal, to make a pirate log book and began the project by drawing treasure maps. One of my goals in all of my writing classes is to have the kids work hard on developing better ideas. To this end, I had them complete a brainstorming sheet before they began drawing.

The brainstorming sheet outlined various features they might include on their map and come up with inventive names for them. I find that many young writers will just pick the first name that pops into their head and not give it a second thought. The brainstorming sheet helped them come up with a much more imaginative and evocative world for their journal.

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This was also the day the students began handwriting their journals. Many of them chose to do rough copies that they could then copy into their final booklets (after a quick edit, of course).

Day 3: Pirate Particulars

Pirates love clothes, so on Day 3 we had the students approach character design through a strong visual approach. The kids designed a complete pirate wardrobe for a character, including clothes, tools, tattoos, and the ultimate fashion accessory—a pirate pet.

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Day 4: ARG! Pirate Lingo

One of the most fun things about pirates is the way they talk, so we led an activity to help students practice pirate lingo.

Day 5: Settings that Sail

This day was all about the ship and the flag. We showed the students diagrams of famous ships from film and literature (my personal favorite being The Dawn Treader), and went over the flags used by real-life pirates.

Afterwards, the students brainstormed and designed their own pirate flags. Once again, I had the students do a few thumbnail designs before committing to a final since this does always seem to turn up the best ideas.

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I ended up designing my own pirate flag, too . . . one to go with a book I’m currently writing.

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Day 6: Treasure Ahoy!

We had started the camp giving the kids miniature treasure chests loaded with gold, rubies, and pears. On this day, I brought in other pieces of treasure—mirrors, kaleidoscopes, ancients coins, pots, and so forth. Each student picked an object (and many of them were actual antiques) and were asked to describe it using the five senses.

Once we shared our descriptions, the next task was to invent one magical or unusual thing about the object. So, for example, one student decided that a kaleidoscope showed the true path to the pirate treasure and the other decided that the mirror had captured the soul of a wayward sailor.

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Afterwards, we did a visualization activity in which the students all shut their eyes and we played the sounds of a ship at sea during a storm. Afterwards, the students wrote about the experience, concentrating on the five senses.

The purpose of this day was to just make sure the students understood the concept of show-don’t-tell and to help them invest more description into their stories.

Day 7: Sea Shanties

This was one of the most fun days in the camp, as we had the students listen to a cargo of sea shanties then craft their own. Some were ballads, some were call-and-response songs, and others were more free form. Also, most of them were about how to drop me, “Cap’n Wiz.”

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Day 8: Legends & Lore

This was a day to bring on the sea serpents! We explored real legends and myths of sea creatures and then asked the students to think about their own monsters by drawing and sculpting them out of clay. Of course, afterwards, they could incorporate these creatures into their pirate journals.

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Day 9: Message in a Bottle

By now, it must be obvious that we like buidling stuff in our creative writing camps! On this day, the students wrote messages and put them in bottles, which they painted to make them look like they had been adrift for awhile. The story prompt here was that the students’ characters could be sending out a cry for help.

Day 10: Seal ‘Em Shut

This was the day the kids finished up working on their journals. We had a plan to tea-stain the journals, but then were a bit worried about some of the ink smudging. In any case, this is something the kids could do at home.

The main task we wanted to focus on was making sure the covers look interesting. We procured some brown cardstock and had the kids draw on them with metallic markers. We also got some wax to drip overtop so that they could “seal” them with an impression of a skull or some other design.

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I’m pretty impressed with the final products and, considering this was the first time we did this project, it turned out rather smoothly.

Well, now it’s time for me to switch gears and turn my attention to my next summer creative writing workshop series: Galaxy Camp!

 

 

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.

* * *


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.

The dragon hatchery expands

I’m continuing my work as an artist-in-residence with a group of teens at a local specialized learning center. A key goal of the residency is to provide a safe and fun place where the participants can create and do some art therapy.

In the first few weeks, we worked on building and sculpting dragon scales. This quickly migrated into the creation of dragon eggs—a far more ambitious project, and one that requires a great deal of patience.

The students have shown that patience and have enjoyed coming up with the styles, textures, and shapes to go with their eggs. There are many different approaches to this project, as is shown in the photos below . . .

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Many of the students have ambitious ideas and plans for their eggs, so there has been a lot of problem-solving required. Depending on the student’s plan, I’ve had to go and fetch very specific materials or tools to help them achieve their vision. As part of this process, we’ve decided that we should now build “nests” for these eggs. That’s going to be tricky, since I’m sure everyone is going to have a completely different plan . . . but oh, well! That’s what I’m here for.

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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Art therapy, dragon style

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I’m currently working as an artist-in-residence with a group of very creative teens at a local specialized learning center. A key component of my program is to provide a safe and fun place to get creative—in other words, it’s a sort of art therapy program. (Though, for me personally, I rarely think of creating art as anything other than therapeutic.)

For my first few sessions, I decided to introduce a theme of dragons and magical creatures. I recently was able to roll out a workshop to build dragon scales in Korea and it worked so well, that I thought I would get these teens to try there hand at the same activity.

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I knew the dragon scale project would serve as a nice warmup for us before we get into the more ambitious endeavor: dragon eggs.

Scale or egg, the process requires a lot of patience and attention to detail, but I have personally found it wonderfully cathartic.

We’re still finishing up the scales, but many of the students have now moved on to the egg building project. Along the way, we are sketching pictures of what will come out of the egg and we may even get to sculpt baby creatures as well.

Yep, we’ve got our own little hatchery going!

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I’ll be sure to post more photos of these creations as they progress. So far, they are looking great.

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!