About Writing, Expository, Narrative

Creative Nonfiction

writingOne of the writing genres we teach in sixth grade is personal narrative. A narrative is a story, or fiction, but a personal narrative is based on a real event. The struggle is getting students to write good stories about an event in their lives.

Now personal essay, or memoir, is supposedly a different genre. It is defined as an actual memory or experience that is enhanced by imagination. Sounds the same to me.

When we remember something from our past, we tend to remember the important part, the climax, the culmination. For example, we remember opening a present and getting something we wanted, or falling off our bike, or swimming in Hawaii. In order to make that a good piece of writing, you need to add details. Who else was there? What was the weather? What happened before that led up to it? What happened afterward? What did you feel before and how did this event change it? What did people say? These details, however, are what is usually forgotten. You are left with a story like this: I went swimming in Hawaii. It was cool. Bad story.

To enhance the memory of the experience, you need to add details. If you don’t remember what the weather was like, it’s safe to assume it was warm and sunny since Hawaii is usually warm and sunny (and you’d remember swimming in the rain). If you were on vacation with your family, you can safely assume they were there with you, even if you have to make up dialogue on what they most likely said.

So where is the line between fiction (personal narrative) and nonfiction (personal essay or memoir)? Nonfiction stories serve up just the facts, like a newspaper article. And many novelists  do a lot of research into facts to help make a novel believable. Remember, too, that memories are colored by our age at the time, and they fuzz a bit over time. When I compare childhood memories with my brother, we are often amazed we are talking about the same event. Our brain already adds creativity.

You may ask, why is it important to know if the story is nonfiction or fiction if it’s a good story? One of an author’s duties is to give the reader what they expect. If a book is billed as memoir, the reader expects that everything in it actually happened. If it’s sold as fiction, the reader assumes it’s all made up. Some people are using the title ‘creative nonfiction’ to bridge this gap. In creative nonfiction, a reader can assume that historical facts are checked and still accept that some of the characters or events are made up. My own book, Under the Almond Trees, I call historical fiction because most of it is fictionalized based on very little information. What about you? Do you like your nonfiction to be factual, or are you a fan of creative nonfiction?


About Writing, Narrative, Teaching Writing

Writing Exercise

anpencil4This week in a writing class, we have a fun assignment. Try it yourself!

*It needs to be one paragraph, exactly seven sentences. No dialogue.

*It should be the first paragraph or the last paragraph of a Young Adult novel, meaning the main character should be a teenager.

*It can be in first person, but you can’t use ‘I’ more than three times. It can be close third person, but you can’t use the character’s name more than three times.

*The paragraph must start with a long sentence and end with a short one, OR it can start with a short one and end with a long one.

Before you decide that I’m waiting for YOU to write MY assignment, here is a first draft of mine:

I love this computer, my dearest friend, closest companion, and hardworking colleague. Flipping open the lid, the screen lights up, notification icons blink. On Facebook, I stare in horror at a photoshopped picture of me, barely dressed, in the arms of some skinny nerd. Four of my closest friends have ‘liked’ it. Change to email before anyone sees me online. An English teacher didn’t get my final paper, some refugee in a third world country needs money, and no message from Thomas after last night’s wonderful date. I hate computers.

Put your paragraphs in the notes below! Feel free to offer me encouragement…

Narrative, Teaching Writing

Personal Narrative or Personal Essay?

anpencil3One of the writing genres we teach in sixth grade is the personal narrative, and that hasn’t changed with the Common Core State Standards. (Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, relevant descriptive details, and well-structured event sequences. W6.3) Personal narratives are defined as stories about something real that actually happened to you. Students write on topics like a special person, how they acquired a special object, the first time they rode a bike, or an important event. Everything they write about is true. It actually happened. So what’s the difference between personal narrative and personal essay?

Essay writing is also not new for Common Core. (Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content. W6.2) So if you are writing a personal essay about your life–a special person, an event, etc.–can you use the same paper you wrote for the narrative?

While both genres may have the same topic, the purpose is quite different. In a personal narrative, the writer focuses on the elements that make a good story: sensory details, character’s emotion, and a strong beginning, middle and end. A personal essay, however, focuses on personal growth. It is less about the scene and more about the reflection.

Personal essays, of course, can have great details and description, as personal narratives can show character growth. In short, a personal narrative is more about the story and a personal essay is more about the reflection. A popular topic my students write about is riding a roller coaster. Their personal narrative may go something like this:

The hot sun bounced off the pavement and wrapped my bare legs. Thank goodness for the snow cones my brother and I had just bought. 

“Let’s go on The Ripper!” he said as he finished the icy goodness.

“The Ripper?” My heart dropped. It was big. It was fast. It was scary.

“Come on, it’s just another roller coaster.”

Reluctantly I followed him to the line. Minutes passed and we creeped toward the loading platform. With each step, I had to work harder to swallow my fear. My hands were damp with sweat when they finally grasped the cold metal bar of safety that crossed my lap. 

“Wahooo!” my brother yelled as we started off.

I smiled weakly as the coaster began its click, click, click to the top of the hill. My stomach twisted. I felt like I was going to throw up, but if I did that my brother would tease me forever. The roller coaster reached the top and we had a split second to view the entire park. Then the wind snapped my hair straight out in back of me as the coaster whooshed down and around and around and around. My eyes teared up. I screamed, but with exhilaration not fear. 

The roller coaster slid to a smooth stop at the landing platform. I turned to my brother with a big smile. “Let’s go again!” 

That is a short example, but it has the elements of a personal narrative: It’s a true incident that happened to me. There’s a clear beginning, middle, and end. Sensory details and character emotion give it interest and draw the reader in. Now let’s try the same scene as a personal essay.

The sun blazed down on my brother and I as we walked around the park with our snow cones. I thought we were having a good time, but actually we were there for two very different reasons. I was there to eat grape snow cones and go on the log ride to cool off. My brother was there to bring me to the brink of terror. 

“Let’s go on The Ripper!” he said as he finished the icy goodness.

“The Ripper?” My heart dropped. It was big. It was fast. It was scary.

“Come on, it’s just another roller coaster.”

I knew better, of course. There was a reason I stayed with the slower, more reasonable rides. I didn’t like the height and speed of rides like The Ripper. But some sort of brotherly challenge in his tone made me agree. I refused to consider what we were about to do as we waited in line. Finally my sweaty hands gripped the cool metal of the safety bar, and we were ready to go. No turning back now–as if I could turn back and have any shred of dignity for the rest of my life.

The coaster clicked its way up the giant hill. Each click felt like another rock added to my stomach. At the top, the park spread out around us for an instant too quick to appreciate.Then we were rushing down and around the flips and turns. To my astonishment, I screamed in delight. What had I been afraid of? This was great! 

When we reached the end, I turned to my brother with a smile. “Let’s go again!” On the second ride, I racked my brain to remember all the huge roller coasters in every park I’d ever been to. My summer was going to be busy!

While you may have enjoyed both examples, you should be able to see that the second one showed more reflection on the part of the narrator. So could a student turn in either example for a personal narrative? At the sixth grade level, of course.

About Writing, Narrative

National Novel Writing Month


National Novel Writing Month, or NaNoWriMo, is well under way in my classroom. This is the fifth year I have undertaken this event with a class. It is an incredible experience for the students!

During October, students plan their novel. When November 1 dawns, they leap into the novel. This is only November 6, and they are still typing madly into the computer. Most adults are used to composing as they word process, but this is a new experience for my students. Usually they are required to type from a handwritten rough draft.

Next week their enthusiasm will begin to fade. NaNoWriMo is about stamina. It is a marathon rather than a sprint. Students will encourage each other and me (my word goal is 50,000 words!) and celebrate each 10% completed.

By the third week, fingers will hurt and brains will be tired of writing. We will have to push each other to hit each milestone.

The fourth week is Thanksgiving week. Some students will be going on a trip, others will be busy with family and food. In past years, the last day or two of November fell on the Monday or Tuesday of the week following Thanksgiving. This will be the first year that my students will be responsible on their own to validate their novels on November 30. I hope they all remember!

December, which seems so far away at this time, is a time for celebrating our novels and polishing them into shape. Accomplishing a novel in a month is an extremely empowering event. It gives confidence to students that they normally wouldn’t have. That is why I participate in National Novel Writing Month each year with my students. It’s worth it!

So far, almost a week in, my students have written 92,996 words! All but one met their 20% goal today, and many are already 40% or 50% done. I’m only at 20% on my own novel, so I’d better get writing! I can’t have my students beat me!

Keep track of my NaNoWriMo progress here.

Narrative, Teaching Writing

Emotion in Narrative

At the beginning of the school year, I teach Personal Narrative. Students who are reluctant writers always do well in this unit because Everyone Has a Story. They learn how to take a memory with impact and turn it into a story that can impact a reader.

To begin, I ask students to remember an incident with a person close to them. Usually they choose a parent or a sibling, and the event is always a special time: fishing with Dad, snorkeling in Hawaii with family, getting lost in a mall. Wait! Getting lost isn’t a special time! The events students remember always center around great emotion: excitement, anticipation, joy, grief, or fear.

Every story has emotion, but the event they remember is really the climax of the story. For example, when we use Think of a First Time as a story prompt, many students write about the first time they rode a scary ride at Great America. They were terrified, and the terror is what they remember. Without the buildup of growing fear, the realization they can’t change their mind, the thrill of the ride itself, and getting back in line to ride it again, you don’t have a story.

So starting with the memory, I take the writer back in time to when they first heard someone suggest the ride. I never allow them to write, “I was scared.” They must convey the emotion by Showing How They Feel, what they did and how they looked, or use metaphors/similes. That’s how I get a paragraph with wide eyes, dry mouth, swallowing, nervous toe tapping, or knees knocking like trick-or-treaters at neighborhood doors on Halloween.

From that first suggestion, events move forward as the group of family or friends agrees to go on the ride, gets in line, discusses previous rides and their anticipation, gets buckled into the seat, hears the ride rev up, chugs up the first big hill, zooms down into the swirls and dives of the ride, screams, laughs, gets off the ride, and gets back in line to go again. I never allow a simple recitation of events because that results in a diary entry, not a story. Each step of the process, as listed, has emotion. The fear heightens, then there’s resignation, then delighted terror, then joy, finally eagerness to do it again. Showing the emotion of the narrator, set against the obvious confidence and eagerness of the rest of the group, is the most important part of the story.

Once students master the story arc of the emotion and can weave that into the story arc of the plot events, they begin to see themselves as real authors. They enjoy writing narratives, and they enjoy reading each others’ narratives. More importantly, I look forward to collecting a class set of narratives and sitting down to read them!

♥ On my Kindle: Walking the Dog by Linda Benson


Everybody Has a Story

Republished from the archives because of its relevance to a new crop of students! Enjoy!

Personal Narratives are probably the easiest type of writing to do because everyone is full of stories.  Maybe the stories in your life aren’t as exciting as Harry Potter’s, as romantic as Bella Swan’s, or as frightening as Anne Frank’s, but they are stories.  So how do you decide what events in your life are good stories?  The best ones come from your most vivid memories of a special person, a unique event, or a time you felt a strong emotion.

One mistake people make when they are choosing ideas for personal narratives is that they want to tell the story of a week at Disneyland, or a summer spent in another country.  Those events have hundreds of stories in them!  Choose one piece of that vacation to develop into a story.  For example, when our two sons were very young we took them to Disneyland.  One son was afraid of the costumed characters, but the other one ran right up to them (His favorites were the mice from Cinderella).  Contrasting the two boys’ reaction to the characters might make a nice story.

When you’ve chosen your topic, brainstorm every detail you remember about that time.  Think of the senses: what did you smell, hear, see, touch, taste?  How did you feel?  What was the weather?  Who was there and what were they doing?  Close your eyes and pretend you are watching the event happen.  Notice all the details.

Now take that twenty or thirty minute event and write it out in descriptive sentences.  Make sure you include your emotions and those of the people you were with.  Describe the setting and the event thoroughly.

Stories are much better when they are shared.  Post your personal narratives here!

On my Kindle: The Swan Maiden by Jules Watson

Narrative, Persuasive

Narratives vs. Persuasive, Part 2


By definition, all writing taps into the creative side of the brain. My nearly-seventh grade students believe that narrative writing, however, is much more right-brain that persuasive.  As Nitya says, “Some students may feel that persuasive allows for you to express your opinion; however, most students agree that narrative writing lets your imagination run wild!”


Expressing feelings, through inner dialogue or actions, has been something we worked hard on this year. Anthony says, “Narratives are a better way to express feelings and communicate at the same time. People can easily tell about events that already happened, or make up fantasies that others can enjoy.” Albert goes on to say, “Unlike persuasives, which are limited to only one side and keep you constrained to a single style of writing, narratives can be used for a wide variety of expressives; pushing opinions, emotions, and other things that make something real.” Rheya praises the two types of narratives that we wrote this year when she says, “Personal and fictional narratives are both equally fun and have their own style. You can make your own stories and get lost in their wonders when you write fictional narrative and you can remember old memories in personal narrative.” The last word on expressiveness in writing has to go to Sahith. He says, “Fictional narratives allow writers to express their creativity and emotions through a fictional form of writing that shows others how you are feeling. Persuasive does not give you that kind of luxury. This kind of writing makes writers forced to write about the topic given, attempting to persuade the reader of a topic they have no clue about.”


“Narrative lets your imagination go free!” says Aline, and Fernando agrees, “Narrative is the best form of writing because it unleashes your imagination.” Imagination is a big factor in their approval of narrative writing. Samantha claims, “Narrative just goes with the flow. It can bend your mind. It can do amazing things with your personality if it’s good enough!” Anaisha compares the two types of writing by saying, “If you are doing narrative you can make up whatever you want! From characters, to setting, to plot, anything you can imagine can be a narrative. But in persuasive, it’s all the real life, which is boring.” According to Kassandra, “In narrative, you can look at the world as something more than just a piece of paper. You can look at it as a world that you created.” Chris adds, “You can stretch the story from being really realistic to a story that is about aliens invading the world.” Michelle sums it up by stating, “Narrative is so complex, and you can do almost anything you want. You can let your imagination soar, and there are huge varieties of ideas. “


My students also like the creativity of narrative writing. “Most people feel this way,” Catherine explains, “because it expands student’s creativity, it helps students use their imagination, and it helps students with their use of descriptive words.” Raymond says, “Creativeness can allow you to express your feelings. You can be free in writing and jot down whatever pops in your mind. While persuasive, you have to focus on the prompt limiting your ideas in your brain.” Caitlin agrees, saying, “Narrative is more creative and enjoyable,” and Tyler adds, “It brings out your creative juices.” This time the final statement is Sean’s. He says, “It’s like you’re in your own creative world of fantasy when you write a narrative.”


Clearly I have my work cut out for me. Next year, my challenge is to create students who love writing expository essays as much as they enjoy narratives! Do you think I can do it?



Narrative, Persuasive

Narrative vs. Persuasive

Recently I asked my class of sixth graders (well, it’s May—they are almost seventh graders) whether they preferred writing narrative or persuasive pieces. It was a fair question since each type of writing offers different structure and thought processes. This year’s class is awesome at writing persuasive essays; however, they almost unanimously chose narrative as their favorite type of writing. They elaborated so thoroughly on their reasons (a wonderful persuasive skill) that it will take me two posts to share it all with you. So here, from the minds of 31 almost seventh graders, are the reasons why narratives are better writing assignments than persuasive essays.

First, the narrative format gives the writer more freedom. Quentin compares the two by saying, “The only real format for narrative is that there has to be paragraphs. Persuasive is a certain format that you must always follow. Students might not have fun with having to follow the same paragraph format every time when writing. “ Valerie says, “Narrative writing only has a beginning, middle, and end. Persuasive needs a topic sentence with reasons and why the reasons help the topic sentence.” Jordan also prefers the less structured narrative. He says, “Narrative stories are very easy to plan out. Instead of wasting time thinking of reasons for a main idea in a persuasive, you can be very creative about things and make up interesting problems in a narrative.” Caitlin says, “In persuasive you have to come up with multiple reasons to support an opinion that you don’t even feel strong about. “ Wasting time? An opinion you don’t care about? Clearly Jordan and Caitlin prefer narrative.  Amrita is the most passionate when she writes, “The freer format of narrative gives fewer opportunities for errors as well as providing more ways to add detail to a story. Crafting a story unleashes the power of the imagination, opening up new possibilities.”

Another reason students prefer narrative is that they believe it is easier. Andre says, “Narrative is easier than persuasive because persuasive has more steps than narrative. It also makes us feel tired.” Other students acknowledge that they had to learn how to write narrative, and maybe the learning itself wasn’t easy. According to Jordan, “Once you know how to do the little things in narrative, they will be very easy to write because all you have to do is write what you are picturing in your head about the story.“ Quentin goes on to say, “The fact that you have to think about the other side makes persuasive harder and take longer.“ I know students have been writing narrative far longer than they’ve been working on persuasive essays, so it might just be that they need to practice writing persuasive before it gets easier. At this time, though, Cristina sums it up by saying, “Narrative is a lot easier to write, and more people would rather write narrative than persuasive.”

Today’s last reason in support of narrative writing is that it is fun. I am proud that my students so firmly believe that! Julia says, “Narrative books are fun to write and come from the soul. With persuasive writing, the reader or writer gets bored! The readers want to put the persuasive writing down as soon as possible. There is no action, romance, or thrilling moments in persuasive writing, making it boring to read or write. However, narrative writing has all of these things, making it fun and exciting.” Marina says, “Narrative is much more interesting to read, more fun to write, and makes the writer feel proud after it is written. When you read a persuasive, you can get bored. Every persuasive has the same format, the same structure…narratives may be based off of some main principles, but each one is different and unique. Also, a narrative is more fun to write. You can put yourself in a situation and watch what happens. In a persuasive, there is no excitement, no interesting problems to watch characters solve. It is simply a message in your head stretched to a multi-paragraph essay.” I may be biased, but I totally agree. Maybe that is why my students enjoy writing narratives so much!

Tune in tomorrow when my student continue trying to convince you that narrative writing is much better than persuasive! In the meantime, if you have objections, make sure to put them in comments!

In paperback: Ramses: Son of Light by Christian Jacq


Holiday Stories

The holidays are a festive time of year, perfect for writing about sensory details. There’s the scent of pine trees and pumpkin pie, the laughter of children and jingling of bells, and the taste of Christmas confections that only appear once a year, like maple fudge and peppermint bark.

Everyone knows that sensory details make a story rich and interesting, but first you have to have a story. The holidays are filled with memories of family get-togethers and fantastic presents. Maybe your family goes caroling or visits a neighborhood light festival. All of these are potential stories.

At our house we have a wooden Advent calendar. It is shaped like a Christmas tree, and has numbered circle magnets 1-24. Each day, you place an ornament magnet on the numbered circle. When the tree is filled, it’s Christmas Eve. My boys loved this calendar when they were growing up. They arranged the little ornaments in some undisclosed order, and were very precised about which ornament was put up on which day, and where on the tree it was placed.

Since they have grown up and moved out, the Advent calendar sometimes goes days without an ornament. They come home to visit in mid-December and are horrified, quickly placing the magnets to catch up. They are also disgusted when I place the magnets in the wrong order or in the wrong place. (Remember, I said they had a secret system known only to the two of them). All I know is, Santa is the last ornament, placed on the tree on Christmas Eve morning.

I know you have Christmas stories, and I’d love to hear them. It can be about family, traditions, or a great present you got once. Let’s get festive!

On my Kindle: Laid Out and Candle Lit by Ann Everett


NaNoWriMo Plot Planning

National Novel Writing Month is upon us once again. Two years ago, I discovered this phenomena and introduced it to my class. I was greeted with open-mouthed shock, but they all went on to write a novel in thirty days. As did I. Over the next two years, I revised and rewrote that novel, polishing it until it shone. Now I await its publication.

But November looms, and November is not about basking in the success of a completed novel. It’s about cranking out the sequel. I am more than a little terrified, since I don’t think I will have the luxury of two years of revising to polish this one. I envision legions of fans demanding the sequel by next summer. I’m sure I will be inundated by their requests!

So I must plan carefully. The idea of outlining the book and assigning a chapter to each of my students crossed my mind (while I was under the influence of mild panic), but I rejected it. My students are too eager to write their own novels! So, like I did two years ago, I worked through the character planning with them, planning the three main characters in excruciating detail. But characters are no good alone. I need to give that protagonist something he wants more than anything. Then I need to give my antagonist a reason to get in the way. Then I need a role for the sidekick. It has to make sense. And it has to be a minimum of 50,000 words. (more if I want it to be closer to publishable)

So what goes into a good NaNo plot? (Good being defined as potential for a lot of words) It needs a solid beginning, middle, and end. And it needs to have the potential to add more scenes to make the word count, if necessary.

One way to do this is to write the EPIC QUEST. Introduce the protagonist and his sidekick in the beginning. Set the world (setting, time period), and write the inciting event that sends our hero on the quest for…the Jewel of Youth, the Fountain of Power, the Triforce of Everlasting Beauty…whatever object he must have or the world ends. This is a good plot because you have a built-in climax when the protagonist struggles to achieve the item once he/she reaches it. You also have a built-in ending when the hero triumphantly returns. In between, a myriad of possiblities for adding scenes exists as the protagonist makes his/her way to the item and back.

Another option is to write the TWISTED PLOT. In this one, you have multiple characters, each with their own story arc, interacting in a story that has an overall arc of its own. For example, On a Wing and a Dare is about a town that is striving to save its herd of winged horses. The horses are poisoned and begin to die, so they must save the horses and find out how they were poisoned. The protagonist, Emma, assists in that effort, but she has her own arc, too. She doesn’t want to become a rider in her father’s barn as tradition demands. She wants to ride a winged horse in a rival barn. Her boyfriend, Evan, is a junior rider in that rival barn. He wants to be a leader, to have his own barn with riders that look up to him. Evan’s brother, Davyd, is in love with Emma. Davyd is scheduled to become a rider with Emma, but he is secretly afraid of heights. Then there is Tristan, Lady Margery, and Lord Farley, all with their own arc, weaving into the overall story about the horses. Complicated, but lots of words.

I’m sure there are other ways to organize a NaNo plot. I know you have story ideas. What organizational device are you going to use to make sure you meet your word goal?

On my Kindle: The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (which, by the way, started out as a NaNo novel)