Blazing Pencils

Blazing Pencils by Meredith Sue Willis

Widely acclaimed for her novels, stories, and children’s fiction, Meredith Sue Willis has also gained recognition for her excellent guides to the writing process.  Among these books are Personal Fiction Writing, Deep Revision, and Ten Strategies to Write Your Novel. (Montemayor Press has issued the third of these books—see elsewhere in this catalogue.)  In Blazing Pencils: Writing Stories and Essays, Willis now provides systematic guidance on crafting short fiction and essay-length nonfiction.  She offers her own longstanding experience in writing these genres; she quotes student writers and literary masters alike as examples; and she coaches the reader through steps that will lead to complete stories or essays.  Young writers from middle school through the early college years will findBlazing Pencils a source of reassurance and inspiration, and teachers at all levels will value it as an indispensible classroom resource.

  • ISBN: 1-978-932727
  • Price: $14.95 (paper)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1
:  Where Do Ideas Come From?


Fiction writing and nonfiction writing start in exactly the same way—with a person remembering something, or thinking about a problem, or just sitting around feeling bored.

For example, I might be staring out the window with nothing in particular on my mind, and I see a woman in a red dress who reminds me of my grandmother. I recall the good times I used to have at my grandmother's old-fashioned country store where she sold everything from shoes and toothpaste to candy and chewing tobacco. I might start by writing some memories about that:

My grandmother's store sat at a curve in the road on the back side of Wise Mountain. It was a general merchandise store and mail drop-off for all the farms and hollows on that side of the mountain. People used to come down at noon and wait for the mail. They would pull wooden boxes and nail kegs near the iron stove, even in hot summer weather, and tell each other stories for hours and hours.

This is a type of nonfiction writing called a place profile. You can write a profile or portrait of a person, too, and if I had written the full story of my grandmother's life, that would have been a biography.

But there is more that could have started from that red dress. Instead of describing my grandmother's store or writing about her personality or life, I might start thinking about how she used to make quilts. I could do research on quilts at the library and museum and do a search online for images of quilts and then write a research paper about quilts for school or an article for a magazine.

Or I might decide to write about grandmothers instead of quilts. I could interview my friends about their grandmothers. Maybe my friend Edgar's grandmother is the same age as mine, but dresses like a model and owns a boutique. And maybe Susana's grandmother, who doesn't speak English, tells wonderful stories about life in Colombia. If I decided that one type of grandmother (probably mine!) was better than all the other kinds, and if I gave my reasons, I would be writing an opinion essay.

Another possibility would be to start with the grandmother or the store or the quilt or the red dress, and let my mind go and make up a story. I could write about a woman similar to my grandmother and then invent some things that happened to her. I actually wrote a short story that began this way. In my story, there is a grandmother like mine, who owns a country store and lives alone. Some men, who she thinks are escaped prisoners, come to her door.

She stood in the dark kitchen, peering at the shape on the steps, pressing at her outer door. No friendly voice saying, Hey, Mrs. Morgan. Nothing she could recognize as a Robinson or an Otis. The television was still going in the background. She made out another man down on the ground at the bottom of the steps, and at a little distance, by the garage wall, a cigarette ash glowing. Three of them, she thought, and that was when her blood ran cold. Three men, and she was sure they were convicts.

—Meredith Sue Willis

(If you wonder about the source of a particular quotation, check the Endnotes starting on page 107. If there is no credit there, it was from a work in progress or else something written especially for this book.)

In real life, my grandmother once told us that some men escaped from a prison near where she lived, but she never claimed they came to her house. She just talked about how scared she was. For my story, I did a sort of "Let's pretend" and imagined what might have happened.

Just letting your mind drift can lead you in a lot of different writing directions. Some of the directions might lead you to write stories, and other directions (especially if you have an assignment to complete) might lead you to write essays or articles. This book was written to help you wander into good ideas for fiction and nonfiction.

If you flip back a couple of pages and look at the table of contents, you'll see that the chapters about writing fiction are mixed in with the chapters about writing nonfiction. I did it this way because I don't think fiction and nonfiction are all that different. For example, that short nonfiction description of my grandmother's store is actually part of my fiction story about the made-up grandmother.
Descriptive writing is the same whether you are writing about something factual or something fictional. Both fiction and nonfiction writing use narration, action, description, and dialogue. Writing about something real can give you an idea for something made-up; the opposite is true too. You might write a story and then decide to write an opinion essay on the same subject. A made-up story can have as much (or more) truth about real life as a nonfiction piece.

Each chapter in this book has suggestions for getting ideas and then ways of taking these raw ideas and cooking them. If you do at least one writing assignment from each of the nonfiction chapters (chapters 2, 5, 6, and 8), you will complete this book with four compositions of different types. If you do all of the "Seven Steps to a Story" spread through the fiction chapters (chapters 3, 4, 7, and 9), you will end up with fairly long short story. Yes, that's right, in only seven easy stages! If, on the other hand, you're the kind of person who doesn't like following instructions too closely, each chapter has other ideas to get you started on your own.

Many of the assignments in this book were suggested by students. Sometimes they didn't even know they were suggesting assignments— they just wrote what they wanted to instead of what I told them to, and I thought, "Hey, that's even better than my idea, I can try that on some other classes." Students who read parts of this book while I was writing it gave me other ideas.

You might find yourself at the end of this book with a stack of beginnings that don't seem to go anywhere. There is nothing wrong with fragments. I have drawers full of them. Every once in a while, I go back to them and finally finish something. Chapter 9 in this book has a special section on ways to get yourself to finish something. But old fragments can give you new ideas too. Or, they can just be fragments. Everything doesn't have to be finished.

Each chapter concludes with a section called “Looking Again.” It’s about looking back at your work or revising by making your piece longer, giving it suspense or surprise, adding an interesting lead, and making sure it tells enough but not too much.


Collecting ideas

First we need the raw materials. Where do we get our ideas for writing? Where do we get ideas for anything? The man who invented the essay, Michel de Montaigne, said he started with himself. Another way of saying this is that writers get their ideas from everywhere. You get your ideas from assignments teachers give you, from books and movies and television, from things you observe on the street or at the beach or at home or at the mall. You use your memory too— experiences you've had as recently as this morning, as long ago as when you were a baby.

It's a good idea to collect your ideas for writing. People collect statues of elephants and banners of athletic teams. When we were very little, my sister and I used to collect sheets of toilet paper from different bathrooms we visited! Why not collect writing ideas? Some people keep a little notebook in their pocket to write in. Others write on scraps of paper and store them in a box or envelope or in a special computer file. I have what I call an "idea journal" that I keep on my computer, but it really doesn't matter what you call it, as long as it is a place to write. It’s especially good if you can take it with you.

● Get something to write in. Sit down with it in front of you, or with you in front of it, if it’s your computer. Have beside you a kitchen timer or stop watch or other clock. Choose a period of, say, ten minutes, and write anythingthat comes into your mind. Don't write too fast, but do write steadily, repeating a word or phrase if you have to rather than stopping. This is called free writing.

● When the time is up, read over what you wrote. Underline the sentence or phrase or word that interests you the most (it doesn't have to be the "best written," it just has to attract your attention). Skip some lines in the idea journal and copy the part that caught your attention. Now, starting with that phrase or word or sentence, write again for another seven minutes (or whatever amount of time you choose). This is called directed free writing. The rules are the same as in free writing. Write steadily, without stopping, and if your mind drifts from what you began with, go where your mind wants to go.

● Try free writing and directed free writing several times, or—even better—on several different days. Try it at different times of day and in different places (outdoors; in a public park; in a parked car).


The Man Who Invented the Essay

The man who invented essays was called Michel (French for Michael) de Montaigne (of the Mountain). Michel de Montaigne lived around five hundred years ago [1533-1592] in a violent time when people killed each other viciously and brutally over religious differences. Montaigne decided to get away from the violence and moved to his house in the country. He began to write what he called essais (French for "something I'm trying out"). He wrote about any subject that caught his attention, but he always started with himself.

● Write a self‐portrait. Try to be reasonably honest, but donʹt dump on yourself. Include your physical appearance and what you are good at and not so good at. Tell something about what you think are qualities you have that aren't obvious to someone looking at you. For example, you might look to the world like a normal boy who likes to hang out with his friends, but maybe you have another side, inside, that likes to be alone to think about things in your own private way. Here is a little bit of what Montaigne said about himself, followed by a student example:

Now, I am a little under middle height . . . . In dancing, tennis, or wrestling I have been able to acquire only very slight and ordinary ability; in swimming, fencing, vaulting, and jumping, none at all. My hands are so clumsy that I cannot even write legibly enough for myself . . . I do not read much better . . . cannot properly fold up a letter, nor could I ever cut a pen, nor carve at table worth a hang, nor saddle a horse, nor carry a bird correctly and let it fly, nor talk to dogs, birds, or horses.


I am a short, stocky, not-so-imposing person. I have brown hair, brown eyes, or hazel, depending on what they want. Your first impression of me would probably be that I am a generally nice person, though my friends know that I get into some mischief. I am plump, and I have always been that way. I have a weird body—too fat for regular, too thin for husky, and I can't wear jeans because of my thick legs. I am an avid soccer player, though I am not gifted with the game. I have no special talents, I cannot draw, paint, or play an instrument. I can sing somewhat, though I do not feel it to be my heart's calling, and can read music somewhat. I am quite bright, and while I may be somewhat slow in the getting of something, I can immediately use it. I am agreeable, have no vices or bad habits, and am happy.

—Tyler Shaw

Montaigne used to like to set himself a topic as in a directed free write. You might like to try one of his topics, but if you do, don't get concerned over whether or not your writing makes sense or stays on the topic. Some of my best writing happens when I leave my subject and realize that what I started to write wasn't nearly as interesting as what I switched to. Here are some of Montaigne's topics:

Of sadness

Of idleness

Of sleep

Of fear

Of cannibals

Of smells

How we cry and laugh for the same things

Of drunkenness

Of cruelty

Of thumbs

Of anger

Of a monstrous child

Cowardice, mother of cruelty

Of presumption

Man is no better than the animals.

   ●  Try writing about one of these topics each day for a week.

   ●  Make up a list of your own.

   ●  You might exchange "assignments" with a friend and see which ones inspire the best writing.


Other Ideas

● There are many other kinds of journals or diaries. Lots of people, of course, keep diaries in books or blogs online. You might also try a:

Commonplace book. You write down sayings and quotations and passages from your reading that appeal to you. You can include lines from songs, things you heard on television, etc.

Scrapbook. For a scrapbook, you cut out and paste in objects you like: programs from events, news clippings, dried flowers, post cards—anything that represents events in your life, along with writing describing the events.

Sketchbook. Instead of writing in a journal, draw what you saw or what happened to you.

Dream Book. Write your dreams every morning.

● Read the diaries of some famous people and some diaries that made their writers famous (like Anne Frank). Take a look too at some of the diary—like writing from the distant past—by people like Jonathan Swift or Samuel Pepys. You can even read the work of eleventh- century Japanese court ladies Murasaki Shikibu and Sei Shonogan.

● Here is the diary entry of a young girl many years ago who had recently moved to New York from Spain:

I brought my diary to school so that I could write a few words. We are reciting geography but I can't follow it. I am going to describe the classroom, that place that I detest. The classroom is a large square room with gray woodwork, a glass door, and on the right, a big cloak closet with red curtains. After hanging up my coat and hat, I go to the 4th yellow desk in the 3rd row. Before that, when I come in, I say, Good Morning Miss Bring. I get out a pencil, a pen, an eraser and a ruler. I take a book and study. The teacher goes bing on her bell, we stand up and say a prayer made up of an Our Father, Glory to God, Hail Mary, and the blessing of the day. After that we recite the catechism, then geography, then we do arithmetic until noon. At 1 school starts again. We do dictation, composition, reading, and grammar. At 3 it's finished. There are 24 boys, 12 girls in our class. The teacher is stern, but not mean, but there are many unfair things because she has a favorite who is the meanest girl in the class and accused everyone else very unfairly. The teacher is watching me, so I have to close my notebook.

● Try writing a special lunch hour journal at school, or one that you keep on the school bus, or in some other place where you go regularly.


Looking Again

All professional writers look back at their work and make changes (revisions).

● If you have a suggestion for a change or an addition to this book—like a particularly good assignment you made up and would like to share—please email them to me at [email protected].

The next chapter will suggest ways of collecting and using descriptive writing.

Praise for Blazing Pencils

I recommend it highly to teachers who write, writers who teach, and the students who keep all the others honest.

David Berry — Merlyn's Pen

Blazing Pencils is a wonderfully clear "how-to" guide to writing fiction and essays. The more than 150 writing ideas in Blazing Pencils will help the aspiring writer every step of the way in writing a complete story or essay.

Wisconsin Bookwatch

A fine balance between text, exercises, and examples.

Kliatt Young Adult Book Guide

Blazing Pencils will help shape and channel all [the] practice so ardently advocated [in the book] to its most productive and rewarding end results.

Midwest Book Review

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