Sunday, September 30, 2012

October 1 Creative Writing Assignment

Again, great job! I am enjoying working with such a talented group of writers. It is fun to see how you are strengthening your skills. I can tell that some of you are stronger in using your creativity in the marketing and journalism field, while others of you are going to be part of the next generation of novelists. And of course, you can always do both! Never limit yourself as a writer.

Now, on to work…did you notice how each assignment had you use fewer and fewer words? Last week we were down to mere taglines and slogans. No, it wasn't because I didn't want to grade a lot of papers! I am trying to show you how each word matters. Even if you are writing a novel, a misused word can affect how the readers feel about your book. I picked up a book by a new author this week, but I never got past chapter two. For me, the descriptions were weak and uninteresting. I was not drawn into the story enough to relate to or care about the character. The images fell flat.

Similarly, someone recommended a book to me that I checked out at the library. For me the downfall of that book was the foul language. The story and images drew me in instantly, but then I kept coming up to a word that strongly offended me (and caused me to quit reading the book). The story could have been just as powerful without the foul language.  You can express anger, pain, frustration, loss or grief through strong, well-chosen words without using words that may be offensive to your readers.

If you are a Christian author, you are not limited to what types of books you write. You can write wonderful mysteries, love stories, family dramas or espionage tales if you choose fiction.  You can choose to write historical fiction or nonfiction also. Whatever path you take, the words you choose become your identifying style to your readers.

David McCullough’s nonfiction books become best sellers quickly. If you read through the NY Times fiction and nonfiction best seller list every weekend on their website, you will soon recognize author’s names that have a large following. Either their book stays on the best seller list for weeks, or they publish books quickly with each one hitting the best seller list as it is released. That’s not to say you need to imitate their styles. You have your own voice that you need to stay true to. But you can see that they have a consistent style that draws their readers back again and again. You can also see what is already selling if you want to study the writing market.

Now I’m going to ask you to think about your own writing style. Pablo Picasso once said, “Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain as artist once he grows up.” Here are some questions I want you to answer just for yourself. Do you consider yourself an artist or a writer now? Do you think you will be an artist in five years? Ten years?

Not all of you will answer these questions the same. Many people who go into other professional fields as a career still enjoy keeping alive their creative hobbies such as painting or writing. Others of you have expressed an interest in pursuing a career in writing. I am going to give two assignments for the next few weeks. You can choose which assignment will nurture your writing goals the most. Read both assignments to get a feel for your options.

Assignment 1:
Well, since this is October…Make a list of three “monsters” that kill your creativity the most (example: the time “monster” because it eats up your spare time and you never have time to write creatively; the blocked mind “monster” because your mind becomes blocked and the ideas and words just don’t flow like you want them to; the ink “monster” because you don’t have any supplies when you want to write or the sleepy “monster” because you think of your best ideas when you are trying to go to sleep and can’t write). Choose one of these “monsters” and write a story for children (about 300-800 words or so) that portrays this “monster.” How does the other character in the story defeat the monster? How does creativity win out? This can be somewhat scary or can be just funny.

Assignment 2:
Write a summary of a book you seriously want to write. Make the summary about 500 words. Think of this as if you are writing a book proposal to an editor. A good book proposal includes a brief overview of the book, like a summary that you would read on a back cover. It should be interesting with strong words (remember your last assignments) and informative. Tell the editor what the book is about and who your audience is. Break your audience down by gender and by age group. Make sure that you are clear what genre this book will fall into--is it a mystery, science fiction, historical fiction, etc.? Tell me why you want to write this book and why you think someone would want to read this book.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

September 24 Creative Writing Assignment

Great job so far! I had some really good results from last week’s assignment. I’m enjoying reading your works. Remember: editing is never personal. If you work in any field that requires writing, someone will edit your work. Also, my one middle school student has been able to keep up with the high school assignments, so I am only going to post high school assignments each week.

Quotes from last week:

“…a healthy option for a kid’s favorite meal…”

“…stringy cheese covering up all the delicious noodles…”

“Stop worrying if you have time to make something …”

“…the smell of cinnamon and sugar mixed together floated up to my room…”

We are building up to a couple of longer writing assignments that I think you will enjoy. For a couple of more weeks, however, I want us to continue working on some fundamentals that will lay the foundation for your longer pieces. We have worked on descriptive language--text that paints a picture of a product or object. This week we are going to work on communication that relates more to underlying messages or feelings.

In business, this comes through what is known as the tagline or slogan. With taglines, an image is put into words. These words shape how people feel about a product, a company or a service. Example: Hallmark: When you care enough to send the very best. These few words convey a lot to an audience. Who doesn’t want to care enough to send the best? Why not make sure you buy the best? This is a special time or a sad time in life--someone needs a card--I need to make sure it is the best.

Why doesn’t Hallmark say, “You’re on a budget, so buy an affordable card,” instead of using their slogan? That is not consistent with who Hallmark is. They aren’t Dollar Tree offering cheaper cards. Their cards and gifts cost a little more. So you have to justify to someone why they should come spend a little more.

This goes hand in hand with what we talked about last week: using a few memorable words to say a lot. A tagline or branding slogan is a phrase that sums up the feelings about a company, product or service. Sounds easy coming up with one, but it can be really hard work.

For a product, you need a phrase that is easy to remember and sets your product apart from other similar products. You have to convey feelings that help a consumer desire or need your product over another. Your words have to be credible--you can’t imply you have family-friendly prices if you know your product costs more than others. People will lose trust in you.

Effective business slogans (some of these are older slogans):

Allstate: You’re in good hands (implies that they may not be the cheapest, but they care about you and are going to take care of you--they are dependable)
Coca-Cola: It’s the real thing.
Disney: The happiest place on earth.
FedEx: When it absolutely has to be there on time.
Ford: Built for the road ahead.
Kodak: Share moments. Share life.
Nike: Just do it.
Raid: Kills bugs dead.
Skittles: Taste the rainbow.
Dell Computer: Get more out of now.
General Mills: The company of champions.
Wheaties: The breakfast of champions.
Target: Expect more. Pay less.
Staples: That was easy.
Nestle: Good food. Good life.
Home Depot: More saving. More doing.
Dunkin’ Donuts: America runs on Dunkin’.

If you are writing or producing a movie, you won’t necessarily have a slogan or tagline. You will, however, want one really good memorable line to represent your film. People remember “just when you thought it was safe to go back in the water” from Jaws 2 or “to boldly go where no man has gone before” from Star Trek. I’m sure you can think of a memorable line from your favorite movie that was used for advertising.

With books, authors want short quotes from readers and reviewers on the back cover. Turn over a paperback book you have at home and see if you can find examples of short quotes from people (other than the author) used to sum up the feeling and purpose of the book. Teen and adult books have this more than children’s books. Here are a few examples I found here at home:

“…abounds with tales of motherly wit and wisdom…”
“… she has not only packed a lot of useful information in this book, but she’s also an entertaining writer…”
“…spirited and humorous…”
“…real kids in real places…”
“…a thrilling story of disaster and incredible heroism…”
“…her fans won’t be disappointed…”

Books also have longer plot summaries and reviews on the cover or inside pages, but they know that readers often just take a quick glance in a store before deciding to read more, buy a book or walk on.

Do at least two of the following options. If you have time, feel free to submit answers for all of them:

Assignment 1:
Take two of the company taglines above and tell me in 200 words or less why you think these are effective and what they would mean to you as a customer. I gave you a short hint of how to do this with the Allstate slogan. Why did the writer choose the words they did? How do the words make you feel about the product or company?

Assignment 2:
Think of the meal you wrote about last week. Give me three possible slogans you could use for the meal if you packaged it to sell (or you could create taglines for a restaurant that would sell your type of meal).

Assignment 3:
Let’s sell homeschooling! You can think of the umbrella school you are registered under or homeschooling in general. Let’s think of slogans that we can put on an ad in a magazine that covers traditional schools and education in general. (Go to a few school websites if you want to see their slogans. My college alma mater uses: Dreamers. Thinkers. Doers. ) Write at least two taglines that would go with a picture of students who homeschool or pictures of homeschool books (or any other picture that represented homeschooling).

Assignment 4:
Create an original quote that could be put on the back of your favorite book you are currently reading (or have just finished). Do this for three of your favorite books. Look at the examples above to see that these have to be short, but still say a lot. These entice the reader to find out more.

What’s the point of this assignment? To help students see how specific word choices bring about specific feelings with people. Every word matters when you write. If I say something is “cheap,” some people will immediately put it down because it implies to some people that it is lower quality or not up to their standards. Restaurants are trying to get consumers to stop thinking of “fast” as unhealthy. In the past, if you told me you were going to pick up fast food on the way home, I wouldn’t picture anything healthy. So if your audience reads health-food ads, you would never want to imply that your product was “fast food.” Words make people feel a certain way. The trick is to put together the right combination of words to make your audience understand what you are trying to tell them.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

September 17 Creative Writing Assignment

Welcome back to our creative writing class! Hope you enjoyed last week’s assignment. If you have any questions, don’t forget to e-mail me. Quick reminder based on questions: you can cut and paste your assignment into an e-mail, or you can save it on your computer and attach it to the e-mail as a Word document--whichever one is easier for you.

Let’s look at some basic writing reminders:

*             The goal of writing is communication. As writers, however, sometimes we say a whole lot of nothing. We use too many words or “empty” words that sound impressive but don’t tell the readers much. We also tend to overuse words. For example, if I am telling you about a product or describing a person and I use the word “special,” what does that really mean to you as a person who may not be familiar with that product or that person? The word “special” has been used so much that it really doesn’t always mean a lot to the reader (unless you’re telling a parent, child or other relative that they are special, then that can mean a lot!). You have to tell us what is extraordinary about your product, person or belief rather than say they are special or extraordinary. Example: Mike is an extraordinary cyclist! Buy his book today to read about his wonderful adventures. (This is weak and empty writing.) Mike amazed the cycling community when he completed the 2,007-mile bike route in three months. Buy his book to read about his trek along the Underground Railroad Bicycle Route. (This is specific and communicates details.)

*             Always think of your objective to decide if you are communicating effectively. Why are you writing this? Do you want to sell something? Are you explaining a belief or a thought that you want people to agree with? Do you want people to take a class or answer a survey? Are you writing something to entertain people or teach people? Do your words match your objective?

This week we are going to use two writing styles to communicate to your audience: persuasive and descriptive. Persuasive writing encourages the reader to do something (support an organization, donate money, buy a product, vote for a candidate, etc.). The language actively encourages someone to do something. Descriptive writing, however, uses words to paint a picture or relay a thought or feeling to someone. In descriptive writing, you may choose to use more adjectives or more emotions to tell your story.

Examples of persuasive writing:

Vote for John Smith!
Buy today while prices are reduced!
Donate online today or send your check to______.

Examples of descriptive writing:

“…the old, ivory piano keys and the brass harp from underneath the worn structure cried out the soft notes that her every finger touched within the seconds, her foot pressing lightly on the dampening peddle, making the notes she played even more forlorn…” From one of our student assignments from last week
“…a sweet and perky yet diva-like personality…” From one of our student assignments from last week

Assignment 1 for all students:

As a writer, you can’t just tell me that something or someone is special or extraordinary or unique. You have to choose descriptive words and active verbs to convey the same meaning. If you are in marketing (writing ads and website material), you have a limited amount of space to do this. Look at ads this week to see how effective ones use 5 to 50 words to capture your attention and sell an idea or a product.

Find one ad (in a paper or magazine or on a website) that caught your attention and seems to use effective communication to get an idea across. Send me the best quote from that ad. It doesn’t matter what the ad is for, and it doesn’t matter how short or long the quote is. This can be from a church ad or a nonprofit group flyer. It can be an ad for a product or asking you to support a person You can search a newspaper or a magazine or a website.

The more you read “good” writing, the more you strengthen your own skills.

Now to the next assignment for all students:

This assignment has two parts. First, think of your favorite homemade meal. This can be a dish you make or one that another family member cooks for you. (Take a few minutes to jot down notes on what you like best about this particular dish or meal.)

Part one: Now you have to market this meal or dish. In 60 words or less, tell me about your product and try to convince me to buy this dish as if you had it for sale in my local market or restaurant. This assignment will be persuasive writing.

Part two: Now you have to write about this dish as if you are including it as part of a short story or novel. In 100 words or less, describe this meal as if a character in your book is cooking it or eating it. Make the reader picture a scene with the food in the kitchen or just coming out of the oven, or write as if the food is already on the table with a character tasting, smelling and enjoying this food. This part of the assignment will be descriptive writing. (I don’t have to know anything about the character or your “book”--I just want to have the food scene.)

Notice how your objective will be different for each part of the assignment. In the first part, you are trying to market or sell your product. You want someone to take action. In the second part, you are entertaining your reader and drawing your reader into a story with specific details of a meal. Your word choices will be different in each part.

How does this help me at all? Each assignment helps you strengthen your writing skills overall by just getting you to write. As with any skill, the more you practice, the better you become. Also, this assignment helps you identify your objectives for writing. At times in life, you will need to use persuasive writing to convince someone to hire you or consider you for a scholarship. You might be trying to influence someone to publish your book or hire your band. At other times, you are going to be writing to convey an idea or entertain a reader.

This assignment also forces you to choose strong, active, specific words to convey your idea in a limited amount of space. If you write a newspaper or magazine ad, you aren’t allowed to use many words. Same thing goes for a resume or a job application--you don’t get much room to tell someone about yourself.

Quote for the week:

 “The only thing worse than being blind is having sight but no vision.” - Helen Keller

Example of persuasive writing from a university website:

“It's never too late. Increase your earning potential. Each year hundreds of adults complete their degree program at the University of ______ leading to increased salaries, better jobs and greater satisfaction with their lives. We're here to help you succeed. Let us show you how to reapply, help you decide what courses to take and, together, we'll map out a plan for you to graduate. For additional information about the Back on Track program, please contact …..”

Example of persuasive writing from another university website:

“_______University offers an intellectually challenging academic program with a commitment to continual spiritual formation while engaging the world. For more information…”

Both are very descriptive, with neither using “empty” words such as great, special or extraordinary. They give details that will capture the reader’s attention.

Designer’s note selling a kitchen design to a future homeowner or someone remodeling a home:

“Dark walnut cabinetry builds a modern foundation for this kitchen. Materials such as stainless steel, custom glass backsplashes and granite further the modern aesthetic while remaining elegant. Butter yellow hand-tipped leather stools add the perfect accent to a very monochromatic color palette. This kitchen is anything but cold.”

Monday, September 10, 2012

Southern Writers: Suite T: Reassessing My Reassessment

Southern Writers: Suite T: Reassessing My Reassessment: by Chris Pepple, Staff Writer for Southern Writers Magazine  Recently, I felt as if my writing and marketing projects weren’t he...

Sunday, September 9, 2012

September 10 Creative Writing Course Assignment

Greetings! Welcome to our online creative writing course for the 2012-13 homeschool year. This course will run from September through May with a minimum of three lessons per month. Why study creative writing? How will studying writing affect my personal or career goals? If you want to see my thoughts on this, you can read my notes from this blog post:

Some key notes and tips as we begin:
  • Creative writing is just that--creative. I will note problems with grammar or spelling that affect your message, but I will not be working with you to perfect your grammar or spelling. That needs to come through other language arts materials you are using. (Some assignments will actually require you to break certain grammar and spelling rules.)
  • Your assignments will vary each week. Some may seem difficult for you, while others may seem ridiculously easy. Each assignment has a purpose, however. If I ask you to write a poem one week, I am not assuming that each student will go on to be a poet. However, practicing a variety of writing styles helps you think through creative options for other assignments and strengthens your overall writing skills. 
  •         If you get stuck, try 30-second free writing exercises. What does that involve? Set a clock alarm or timer for 30 seconds. Write about your subject in pencil without stopping for the entire time. If you are writing about birds, for example, your writing may look like this:
         Birds are colorful and musical. They live in my backyard. I saw an owl when I was hiking last week.      My grandmother had a pet bird that was yellow. Some birds migrate depending on the season. Big Bird lives on Sesame Street. Robins live in our backyard. Our birdfeeder attracts hummingbirds. I can’t think of anything else to say. I don’t know how to identify bird calls. I saw a pelican by a pier on vacation. It ate a flounder. (Notice that I kept writing even when I had no thoughts on birds--the topics change frequently--some thoughts are about food while others are about children’s TV shows. But now I have some thoughts down on paper that may lead to paper ideas, poetry ideas, story ideas or ideas for an ad.)
  • Think of your intended audience. Are you writing for friends, for potential customers, for unknown readers, for church members, for siblings? Your word choices will be different for different age groups and different social groups.
  • Think of your purpose. Are you trying to inspire someone, cheer up someone, make someone laugh, make someone think deeply about a subject? Your tone affects your purpose. 
  • You may have heard that some writers got paid by the word, but in today’s market, concise writing wins the prize. 
  • E-mail questions during the week if you need more information. When you are done--e-mail the assignment to me. 
  • It’s hard to proofread my own work even though I proofread for several organizations/magazines. Please pardon any errors on my part!

We will discuss more of these topics each week, but now for your first assignment--something just for fun:

Each of these assignments should be written in paragraph form with complete sentences. You can choose the tone (funny/serious/inspirational). You can write in first or third person (saying I/we/me or he/she/they). Students can choose which assignment they want to complete. You do not have to stick with your exact grade level--these are just suggested grade levels.

Skills you are working on: descriptive character development and exaggeration.
You are going to create a larger-than-life, idealized version of you. See below to see why I started with this assignment.

High school:

To help me get to know each of you, tell me about yourself as though you were a larger-than-life character in a movie you are writing the script for.  Write as if you are selling this character to me-- a person who might fund your production. The character must stay true to who you are (your gifts and talents) and what your interests and beliefs are, but must have exaggerated characteristics. In other words, if you are a scout, your character should be the best scout in the nation--more badges and more leadership than normally expected. If you are a singer, your character should shock the audience with the beauty of your voice. In 500 words or less, answer the following questions.

1. Where does your Movie Self live? A rural area? A City? Another planet? All three places? Near a church or a gym?

2. What five adjectives describe Movie Self? Adventurous? Charismatic? Introverted?

3. What are the spiritual practices or motivation for Movie Self? Reflective prayer? Modern worship? Teen retreats? Silent retreats? Intense study? Inspiration of others?

4. What will you title the autobiography for Movie Self after the film is a success? Travels of a Restless Mind? Following the Heart of an Athlete? Path of a Peaceful Heart? Adventures of an Avid Angler?

5. What two other things should the audience know about Movie Self?

If you have trouble answering these questions, think of movies that have been popular lately that were inspirational, yet entertaining: Courageous, The Blind Side, Fireproof, etc. Think of the characters that were based on reality, but still seemed larger than life in the films. Write yourself into a similar movie based on the reality of your life for this assignment. Are you more determined than others, more motivated than others, more talented than others, more faithful than others as your Movie Self?

Middle school:

To help me get to know each of you, I want you to tell me about yourself as though you were in a television show based on your life. In 500 words or less, answer the following questions, adding some details that are fictional, but would be interesting to the story:

1. What would the title of the TV show be?

2. What type of setting would your character live in?

3. What would your signature clothing be? A leather jacket? Jeans? A bonnet?

4. How would the show always end? With music you play? With your favorite quote? With a joke? With a prayer you say daily?

5. What two things should we know about your character in the show?

If you have trouble answering these questions, think of TV shows that have been popular that were inspirational or targeted for families, yet entertaining: Little House on the Prairie, Andy Griffith, I Love Lucy, The Waltons, etc. Think of the characters that were based on reality or seemed realistic, but still seemed larger than life in the shows. Answer these questions as if you are selling this character and show to me-- a person who might fund your production. 

How could this assignment possibly be helpful to me?

Writing a character profile can be helpful in many ways. First, many of you will be writing college essays one day. You can begin by sketching out your strongest gifts and traits. You will need to magnify (never exaggerate as we did here, however) your strengths. Also, you may choose to write family biographies for a genealogy book or profiles for a website or magazine. If you interview someone, you will need to learn to identify the traits and talents that should be highlighted in a feature. Most features are limited to 850 words. Shorter profiles run from 250-500 words.

Here are some examples of features articles I wrote:

Quote of the week just to make you think:
“Art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.” --Thomas Merton