Author Archives: mcdonahue

Writing for the School Market

Tapping into the school market can be tricky. First, you must study the state standards for the grades you are focusing on. This is essential, for markets typically zone in on subjects kids are expected to learn about. Second, you must research thoroughly the subjects you want to write about — and that research must be up to date and reliable. Third, you must find publishers who have gaps that you can fill.

Ideally, writing for the school market will involve assignments. I wrote about fifty articles for Current Health 1 (younger kids) and  Current Health 2 (older kids). The subjects were assigned and could cover anything from replacing a lost tooth to bulemia. Sports articles and articles about good sportsmanship are also popular, as are pieces that talk about peer pressure and how to settle arguments.

The magazines I wrote for wanted nonfiction written with fiction techniques. In other words, I created characters who had problems, interacted with each other, learned new information, and felt better about themselves as a result.

If that sounds like a story line . . . it was. Sharing facts through story telling makes it easier for kids to absorb important information.

If you are thinking of writing for this lucrative market, remember those three rules: (1) know your subject; (2) research until you really know what you are talking about; (3) look for gaps that you can fill. Before long, you will be in demand as an expert on writing articles that fill requirements of state standards, and the checks will will come rolling in!


A Critique Group Surprise

Soon after my first novel, The House at Sutter’s Sands, was published, I was invited to sign books at a local bookstore. A woman approached me, and as we chatted, she told me about her critique group. “We would love to have you visit,” she said. “How about next week?”

That sounded OK to me. I had been looking for a group of writers to meet with. This would be a good chance to see how a critique group worked.

“We’ll have a nice luncheon,” she promised. “One of the writers makes homemade tamales.” My mouth watered as she gave me directions to an address in a nearby town.

On the day of the meeting, I arrived about fifteen minutes early. Cars were already parked up and down both sides of the street. It must be a larger group than I had expected!

When the hostess ushered me into the living room, I saw that folding chairs had been set up in every available space — and they were quickly filling. “I invited a few guests,” she explained. It was 10:00 a.m., and the aroma of steaming tamales drifted in from the kitchen. The hostess smiled. “Lunch will be ready at noon,” she said.”You’ll have plenty of time.”

Time for what? A suspicion began to grow at the back of my mind. Why did these people have notebooks in their laps instead of manuscripts ready to be read? Why was a chair placed in the front of the room?

“We have a special treat today,” the hostess was saying. “Our guest, Marilyn Donahue, is going to tell us everything she knows about writing a novel that sells.”

I staggered to my feet. People clapped. It was a short distance to the chair, but it was long enough for me to pray: Lord, you can see what a mess I’ m in. Please put words in my mouth that will open a door for somebody. Let me speak to their hearts.”

And so I began. I talked about what I knew. About getting up at 5:00 a.m. and sitting outside with God and a cup of coffee before I started work for the day. About trial and error and the joy of finding the right word. About my characters and how they interacted. About plot, and voice, and the importance of keeping your seat in the chair. Later, one guest said, “I felt like you were speaking to our hearts. It opened a door for me, and I can’t wait to get home and start writing.”

I learned that day that we can do unexpected things — with God’s help and guidance. Today, whenever I am about to give a lecture or conduct a workshop, I take time to whisper softly the words that have carried me through many a public appearance:

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer. (Psalms 19:14)

Don’t Edit Your Journal . . . until later

I often write about the Four Steps to Successful Revision. The advice still stands: add, subtract, substitute, rearrange. But it occurs to me that there is another kind of editing that adds an extra dimension to creative writing. The editing of ideas involves instant replay, form, and focus. In my case, it has always started with journaling.

Journaling is journeying . . . traveling through introspective space . . . a trip without reservations! When my husband and I traveled, I wrote, and Bob took pictures. I carried a journal (nothing fancy, simply a thick notebook), and I scribbled along as we rattled in questionable transportation along bumpy roads. There was no time for traditional editing. I recorded quick descriptions that consisted of mostly nouns and adjectives. I also wrote directions and necessary details, such as road names, opening and closing times for special stops, and entrance fees. We were, after all, planning Step-by-Step travel books and articles for England, Italy, and other not so familiar places. We had contracts, and up-to-date details had to be collected on the spot.

Memories are flighty things, and I often heard fellow travelers ask, “What was that place we visited yesterday?” “What were those spreading trees called?” “Can anybody remember the story about the castle?”

We couldn’t afford that kind of faulty memory. But details in my journal weren’t enough. That’s why every evening, without fail, we collaborated, practicing instant replay. We talked about the day, tried to recapture moments in time — visions, smells, sounds — before they got away. Remembering, brainstorming, checking the journal for accuracy, and brainstorming again was not easy — or convenient. But it was a must.

We discovered that our best, and most easily sold, articles were those that were formed on site. On one trip, we visited the infamous Devil’s Island, the former French penal colony about 11 kilometers off the coast of French Guiana. After hiking from shore to shore through the overgrown jungle, we wanted nothing more than to relax with a cold iced tea, maybe even two. We did get the cool drinks, but we didn’t relax. The island was fresh in memory. Beauty and brutality. Hell in Eden. We sat under a coconut palm and, without even taking out our notes, we began to discuss the feelings, impressions, locations that had assaulted our senses and taken us back in time to when this tranquil place was filled with sickness and pain. A rough outline emerged (form). Then we brought out the journal and compared our memories to what I had written on the spot. These memories served as fillers, the joints that connected the whole. But the meat of  the story, the form, was in the emotion of the moment.

Of course, we used traditional editing methods. But I believe that editing our ideas by zeroing in on instant replay (recalling sensory experiences that captured moments in time), form (using journal memories to connect emotional impressions with factual details), and focus (finding the heart of the story) was what made the difference between a journal entry and an article in print.

Contributed by Marilyn Donahue

The Swamp

Two weeks ago, I wrote about my messy workspace. I promised to separate the wheat from the chaff, to dig for gold amidst the clutter. In the process of progress, I took time out to create a “found poem” that I want to share. First I took my original blog and cut it in half, then in half again. The idea was to save significant words and phrases, rearranging them until I had the essence of what I was trying to say. In other words, I “found” a poem in the midst of all those words. Here it is:

The Swamp

Clutter beyond panic,

desk piled high:

a calendar, manuscripts,

colored folders, paper clips,

last week’s mail.

I work in a swamp

where paper prospers

like tropical plants.

I wonder — could I enter some day

and never be seen again?

Besides writing a poem, I did get around to attacking the mess. First I picked up all the papers in my office and put them on my bed. This became, and still is, the general sorting area. Chaff went in the trash. Wheat went in colored, labeled folders. Label is the key word. When you find a category for something, other somethings soon follow. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was dropping papers into file folders and getting them off my desk, off the floor, and out of my hair.

I’m not digging for gold yet, though a few nuggets have rolled my way. I found some half-written stories, a few passable poems, and a query that I thought I had mailed. This week I’m trying to find a place in my office to put all the colored file folders. Oh no! What’s that in the corner? It’s a laundry basket, full of loose papers waiting to be sorted!

Sigh. I wonder if I can start sleeping in my bed by Christmas!

Contributed by Marilyn Donahue

Creating the Multi-dimensional Character

From my forthcoming book, A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Fiction for Young Adults. E & E Publishing:

Most commercial fiction, including series stories, is plot driven.  This means that “the plot’s the thing!” Such books are often adventure stories — page turners — in which readers can hardly wait to find out what happens next. The protagonist is a character a few years older than the reader and usually has qualities the reader admires: curiosity, bravery, good looks, and the ability to get in and out of trouble without a scratch.

Literary fiction, on the other hand, is character driver. This means that everything that happens hinges on who the character is. I don’t mean name and address. I’m talking about what goes on under the skin. The protagonist will operate on a deeper level than in commercial fiction, and the change that occurs in this character will include a loss of innocence that is directly related to coming of age.

In literary fiction, voice is crucial. Voice is more than the noise the vocal chords produce, though tone and inflection are part of the effect. Voice is the total value system of a character, delivered to the reader through narrative description, dialogue, dialect, interior monologue, outside observation, and action and reaction.

Not only must the main character have a strong voice, but important members of the supporting cast, as well as walk-ons, should be recognizable by physical description, action/reaction, and the way they put words together.

When I begin a middle grade or young adult novel, I create a cast of characters, using as many pages as I need to record information about each one. I start with their names (which often change as the book develops), then go on to vital statistics, their likes and dislikes, their desires. As they begin to take shape, so do the individual voices begin to emerge. If I have trouble with a particular voice, I ask that character to write something.. For example, when I was writing Straight Along a Crooked Road, Luanna wrote in a journal and told me how she felt about leaving her home in Vermont. Sometimes I interview characters by asking questions about things they like or dislike. Other times, I ask them to write blank verse telling what people think they are like, followed by what they believe they are like.

Developing characters is an adventure in which there are many surprises. I don’t like to be a stage director; instead, I like to put my characters on the stage and watch what they do next. That’s what makes fiction writing fun!

Imagine That!

From my forthcoming book, A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Fiction for Young Adults. E & E Publishing.

A number of years ago, when I was shopping in the journal section of Barnes & Noble, I saw some small notebooks with colorful covers. I opened one and rejoiced in the satiny, empty pages. I bought two. One is my Word Notebook, the other is my Image Notebook. No, they are not journals. They are simply blank pages waiting for words.

That night, I began writing a word or expression at the top of each page in the Word Notebook. I recorded something that made me laugh or sigh, something that filled my thoughts with images to write about. I wrote such words as gibbous moon, zepher, a soughing wind, dandelion clocks, sawny, and quark. Each word filled my imagination with sensory images, and my pen filled each page with sentences, paragraphs, poems featuring that word. I still record new words, tantalizing words, words that make pictures in my mind and fill my senses with warmth and humor.

The second book is my Image Notebook. For me, sensory details combine to create images – word pictures that conjure up memories of sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. These are of two kinds: (1) an image that contents the reader by comforting, reminding, satisfying; or (2) an image that challenges the reader by combining sensory details that are not usually linked, thereby tweaking him out of complacency and enabling him to experience unexpected word pleasures.

Here is an example of Image # 1 from the poem Star Search:

We counted stars and named their patterns

zillions of twinkles

like Fourth of July sparklers

in the night-blue sky.

            It is a simple description likening twinkling stars to sparklers and using the inversion “night-blue” to enhance the image. (Noun followed by adjective rather than the usual adjective plus noun.)

            Here is an example of Image # 2 from the same poem:

Looking at stars today is not the same

as when we were kids,

thinking they were forever.

We didn’t notice while they all dried up and blew away.

            This description is more complicated. Stars do not dry up and blow away. The reader knows this, yet is jolted out of reality into the world of metaphor. The result is an unexpected visual image and enhanced enjoyment

Star Search


Marilyn Cram-Donahue

Soaring on Eagles’ Wings

“Do you not know? . . . Have you not heard? . . . those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.” Isaiah 40: 28-31

Those of us who have taken up the pen understand what a challenge it can be to capture the right words to describe, the best images to inspire, the perfect rhythm of a sentence. When our work is going well, we rejoice. Narrative, dialogue, and descriptive passages seem to flow from brain to paper — or at least to computer keys. At times like these, I feel that I no longer have both feet firmly on the floor. I revel in the sheer beauty of words. I feel bathed in a sea of sound.

The trouble is, euphoria is temporal. Left to its own devices, it doesn’t last. And eventually I not only have my feet on the ground once again, but they are very likely buried in the mud. What happened? I was riding the crest of a wave that reached its peak and crashed, tossing me head over heels into foaming surf and bruising wet sand.

It’s downright depressing when a writer loses momentum. It’s even more depressing to come to a sudden stop. Some call this writer’s block and turn away from their work. But I have been here before and I realize that the problem does not lie in lack of talent or the need to put aside my work for a time. It lies in a lack of focus.

And I ask myself some questions: From whence did my talent come? Am I remembering to give thanks for this gift? How long has it been since I rested in the Lord?

Then I open my Bible to the book of Isaiah and read passages about the valleys being lifted up, the wilderness bursting into bloom, streams of water in a thirsty land. The poetry of this book calms me and excites me . . . reassures me and challenges me. Finally, I come to what I now think of as the eagle verse. I read the words, and they are as new to me as if I’m reading them for the first time. They are as old as the mountains, and the skies, and the seas.

And I pick up my pen, or put my fingers on the keys, and I begin again, knowing that even if I grow weary, even if I stumble, I can always look forward to soaring with the eagles once more.

Contributed by Marilyn Donahue