Diving into our imaginations at Dragon Masters camp

Diving into our imaginations at Dragon Masters camp

I had the joy of starting off the new year in a fun way: by leading a “Dragon Masters” camp for tweens.

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The camp was hosted by the Creative Writing for Children Society (CWC) and involved sculpting dragon scales, painting gemstones, drawing fantastical creatures, and—of course—writing about dragons, too!

One of the best aspects of this three-day camp is that I had only 15 students, which meant that we could really immerse ourselves in the activities and I had a lot of one-on-one time with each one of the kids. Many of them had worked with me in the past, so it was a fun way to reconnect with them.

“I Am” poetry

The first activity we worked on was a pair of point-of- view poems. Students brainstormed two characters, one a thief trying to steal something from a dragon’s lair, and the other a dragon who was being threatened by the theft. The students wrote one poem from each perspective.

To help with this activity, we sculpted our own dragon scales, prompting many of the students to choose this as the item that the thief would steal from the creature. Of course, the students had to come up with a reason for the theft and the response from the dragon.

One thing about sculpting, is that it’s good thinking time for writers! While the kids sculpted, they could work out some ideas for their writing. But, of course, the sculpting project in itself was a lot of fun.

Sculpting dragon scales

Here are some photos of the scales in progress. We started with plastic shapes cut from a soda bottle, then plastered them. Some students opted to sculpt ridges or shapes into their design; others decided to do a flat surface, leaving the detailing for the next phase.

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We actually had to let the scales dry overnight, but by the next morning they were ready for the students to add more detail by bejweling them (if they chose). By using acrylic gems, the students were able to add intricate detail and give their scales texture. By using the strips of acrylic gems (available at any dollar store), you can gain some uniformity, too.

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Afterwards, we painted the scales with mod podge, to help bind everything together.

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The last step was painting. I find that painting everything with a black base provides a rich undercoat; once this coat is dry, students can dry brush on a variety of metallic colors to help achieve that dragonish feel.

Of course, each student had a very specific idea for what their dragons looked like, or the type of environment they lived in, so their scales were design to match these concepts.

Here are a few of the completed projects:

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Developing a story

After the students had explored the point-of-view poems, I had them choose one of the points of view, either the dragon or the thief, and then develop that perspective into a longer, more conventional story.

The poems were more about capturing character emotion, but the story provided the students with an opportunity to flesh out a plot.

I led the students in some brainstorming exercises and provided them with some vocabulary words to help invigorate their stories. (Honestly, I’m tired of my students overusing the word “run” so we worked hard on developing a list of alternate ways to describe how characters such as dragons and thieves might move.)

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Gems of sorcery

One of the other projects that we worked on was painting glass cabochons to look like magical gems. The idea here was that these gems could be found in a dragon’s lair or a character could already be in possession of them and use them to train or communicate with a dragon.

The project is pretty simple; all you have to do is paint on the backside of the cabochons with fingernail paint. Abstract designs work well and are easy to do, though some of my students tried their hand at painting dragon eyes.

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Welcome to the Dragon Races

One of the challenges of teaching a camp is making sure students always have something to work on. Everyone creates at a different pace, and I like to have everyone work organically, which means instead of developing a checklist of projects that MUST be completed, I just have a cauldron of projects to choose from once we start getting close to the end.

For the final day of our camp, I brought in my own custom-made dragon eggs to inspire extra stories about dragon’s hatching.

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And, finally, for those students who had written, sculpted, and painted everything I had them finish off by imagining there was a dragon race coming up and had them illustrate posters.

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This turned out to be a really successful camp. I want to thank the organizers and my two assistants, Jamie and Chelsea, who helped the kids work on their art projects and did a lot of the clean up. Jamie and Chelsea have been students of mine in the past and it’s really gratifying to see them step into a different role.

Next step? We’ve collected all the students’ writing and drawings and we’ll be publishing them in a short anthology.

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Propping up our stories: creating characters with prop-building

Propping up our stories: creating characters with prop-building

I’ve been doing a lot of prop-building lately—for example, crafting dragon eggs. Since prop-building is such an important part of my writing process, it’s something I like to bring to my students as well.

Getting away from the screen

One of the great things about prop-building is that it allows me to work on my book without staring at the screen. Let’s face it: Writing is hard and often exhausting. Sometimes, I feel like I have no words left in my brain, but I still have the desire to playin my world.

I’ve found that prop-building is a way to accomplish that. Working with tangible objects, working with my hands, has helped me to sort out plot problems. It’s kind of like doing the dishes and being suddenly struck by a eureka moment. Of course, when you wash dishes, all you get is clean dishes. When you build a prop, you get a tangible item from an imaginary world.

Nightmare Bottles

I’ve been working with a group of tween and teen writers this spring and one of the things I’ve tried to do is bring in the prop-building angle.

One of our first projects was to build “nightmare bottles.” This involves creating a character and metaphorically putting their fears in a bottle. Of course, this could provide fuel for a story in its own right, but the main purpose here was just to coax the kids into some brainstorming time.

Here’s some of their creations . . .

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Character Kits

The main prop-building project I introduced this term was to create a personal kit for each character. This could also be metaphorical or could actually appear in the students’ stories. I’m big on inventing interesting “tools” for my characters and, especially if you are writing a fantasy book, I think you have a lot of opportunities to add extra sizzle to your story.

For this project, the students get to decorate and paint the kits themselves, then fill them with a variety of mini-props that fit their specific characters’ journeys.

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This project has also tasked my students with a different approach to creativity. I’ve been trying to make sure they solve some of the problems they face.For example, one of my students wanted to build a spy kit with a gun. I looked around for toy guns and felt the creativity being sapped right out of me. I decided we could do something more original and unique. So, instead of buying a pre-made toy pistol, I bought tiny water guns and told the student to use it as a base for building something more unique.

He took one look at the brightly colored water guns and scoffed. I couldn’t convince him what a little paint a few cannibalized odds and ends could do. There was nothing I could do to change his mind, so I went home and built my own gun.

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Admittedly, my gadget turned out part steampunk, part alien ray gun, but I hope I’ve made my point! And, now, I have something more unique and interesting that I can use—yep, I decided this can belong to a character who’s currently running around causing havoc in one of my own stories.

That’s the power of prop-building!

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!

The Unexpected Mummy: combining creative writing with art history

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I’m continuing to lead a series of workshops through CWC called Picture Perfect: Exploring Creative Writing through the Lens of Art History.

We started with prehistoric cave art and moved on to ancient Egyptian art. The students built miniature mummies out of clay. Then, after letting them dry for a week, they “embalmed” them with plaster and decorated them with paint and jewels.

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These props inspired the students to write short stories about characters who die unexpectedly and go through the mummification process. The hitch was that they had to write the story from the first person point of view, which meant describing what it feels like to die and enter the Egyptian afterlife.

Here are the final version of their props. In addition to many human mummies, we ended up with a falcon and a couple of cats. Some students chose to do mummies with luxurious decoration, while others took a more humble approach. It all depended on the character situation in the individual story.

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The dragon and the thief

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Had a fun day at Mulgrave School today, working with the Grade 2 classes on a fun writing project to do with personal perspective and point of view.

I started by reading a scene from my book The Box of Whispers, in which Kendra faces off against Rumor the Red Dragon and they have an argument of ownership about the box.

I designed a brainstorming sheet in which the students planned to write a story about a thief sneaking into a lair to steal a dragon’s egg. The idea is that they will write in the first person, and choose a specific perspective—either the dragon or the thief.

As it turned out, most students decided to write from the dragon’s perspective, but we still ended up with enough thieves to create an interesting classroom dynamic.

We then brainstormed some reasons why the thief needed to steal the egg. Was it for pure greed? Was the thief forced to steal it because if he (or she) didn’t the thief (or the thief’s family) would be punished?

We also had fun brainstorming aspects of the characters that made them dangerous in a confrontation between the two sides. The dragons, of course, had different abilities, such as poison or ice breath, or different features to do with their claws, fangs, and scales.  As for the thieves, I took swords and guns OFF the table, forcing the students to brainstorm more creative and magical items, such as camouflage or invisibility cloaks and other special “tools of the trade.”

I even brought in my dragon egg props to further inspire the kids. Some of the kids decided that their thieves could use fake dragon egg props to try and trick the dragon and more easily steal its egg.

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The students will now set to work on their stories. When they share them, they will be able to hear similar stories, but from different perspectives, provoking (hopefully) some good conversations about point of view and perspective.

It’s a big world out there . . .

Last week, I taught a creative writing camp for the Creative Writing for Children Society on the theme of “Secret Worlds” with author Kallie George. We’ve both written books that involved secret settings, so it was a perfect fit for us to teach. In particular, we decided to focus the topics on characters who get miniaturized and have to survive in what is now a giant world.

We began by having the kids construct miniature peg figures and writing a short poem about being small. This was a great exercise because these peg figures served to be their scale models for the week. They never had to remember how big their characters were—they were right in front of them!

 

After this project, the students began writing stories about characters who discover a shrink ray machine and accidentally (or in some case, purposely!) get shrunk down. To help with this part, we built shrink ray props. So, now, everyone in the class had a miniaturized figure and a shrink ray gun. The kids were off to the races, writing their stories.

 

The next step was to have the students imagine a single room in the house as an epic landscape that their miniaturized characters had to cross. So, for example, a pile of dirty laundry became Mount Clothes, and that sort of thing. This was a fun way to get them to think about perspective.

Then, as the characters crossed this landscape we introduced the problem of an attack by a creature. The kids picked critters from a bag, receiving things such as spiders, cockroaches, and centipedes (these were plastic critters, of course, but there was still much screaming). We then had the students pick items from a second bag, and these were things that their characters might find on the floor and use to survive the creature. I call that particular workshop “Big Problem, Small Solution.”

Here are some photos of their brainstorming sheets, which the students used to figure out their plan of attacks against their critters.

 

As you can see by the photos,  items the characters had at their disposal included stamps, toothpicks, birthday candles, bottle camps, spools, and miniature cocktail decorations! The result was a lot of fun solutions.

A second major  project we had the students do at the camp was to take all their props and produce a short script and storyboard for a four-minute movie about how they themselves got shrunk down at camp and had to survive. They loved this creative process and, of course, they all had props ready to go.

What’s the key to writing?

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How about a . . . key?

In my recent creative writing class, I had my young writers “pimp” some keys by adding some ornamentation to them and then creating key tags that could go with them.

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The idea is that a character in a story finds the key and the cryptic message and then needs to work out the mystery of what the key opens. In some cases, students have written riddles, while others have just written the name of what the key might open (for example “Monster World”).

Here are some of their final key designs . . .

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