Grade “M” Advice with Lisa Graff

August 16, 2011

Stuck in the Middle with Lisa Graff

Dear WiCM,

Guess what I found? A blog post…from the past. Here’s an excerpt:

August 16, 1909

Weblogging is a tough business. When the latest exploits of the Prussian aristocracy find their way through the telegraph wires, it’s difficult to beat the newspapermen to the punch. Even if I could “scoop” them, their mass-production printing machines would surely outpace my quill and parchment.

“Extra extra! Blogging a waste of time until computers are invented!”

In the future, technology will level the field. Mark my words: Edison’s ideas will give rise to astounding computing contraptions that will enable information to travel faster than a motor-coach!  Why, in the future, bloggers—the most revered of all citizens—will be able attend events from a fortnight’s horse-gallop away! Zounds!

-J. Phinneas McGillicuddy


He was right. This week I was unable to physically attend the WiCM Writers’ Group due to geographical difficulties (i.e., me being in California and WiCM sticking with New York). But true to Mr. McGillicuddy’s prediction, I was able to Skype into the event. So WiCM members got to share their event with a floating head.

Here’s my report:

Lisa Graff, a California native, moved to NYC to complete a kids’ writing graduate program at The New School. After some work as an assistant editor, Lisa launched her writing career. Lisa’s books include The Life and Crimes of Bernetta Wallflower, Umbrella Summer, and the magnificent Sophie Simon Solves Them All. She loves writing for kids because they’re such honest, challenging critics who don’t accept insincere phonies (yeah, you know who you are).

Lisa shared many aspects of her writing process, including the challenges of particular media (television versus books) and the balancing of narrative and emotional arcs. She demonstrated many of her points with writing exercises and excerpts.

Here are the big notes:

The First Chapter

Young readers will drop a story that doesn’t grab them quickly. As a result, the importance of the first chapter can’t be overestimated. Here are the guiding elements:

Main character

The reader needs to get to know the main character, and this must start right away. S/he should have a strong voice and must be relatable (though not necessarily likable). The first chapter is the reader’s first glimpse of the protagonist’s internal and external motivations and the first hints of the desires and challenges that will drive the character’s actions. First chapter tip: show your character doing something, ideally something s/he loves.


The first chapter needs at least two hooks, one on the first page, and one at the end of the chapter. The aim is to get that reader into the second chapter.


This has to start nice and early. The first sighting of conflict can be one of the hooks.


The author needs to establish the story’s world. The reader needs to see how the protagonist lives.


It’s important to set the tone of the story early. A slapstick first chapter to a somber tale will confuse readers. Honestly, think about it. It would infuriate you.

Lisa shared an example of a great first chapter in Barbara O’Connor’s How to Steal a Dog. But you don’t have to take my word for it; visit your local library.

“Yep. Read every single one of them. Only took me a summer.”


Lisa starts by writing a full draft of her story and then attacking it with outlines and redrafts. She is a big-time reviser. In case you don’t understand what this means, Lisa wrote 14 complete drafts for Umbrella Summer. Fourteen drafts. Fourteen very similar complete books. That’s a lot of revision, but the value of this hard work is apparent in the end product.


Lisa showed us that it’s important to pay attention to detail and to work hard. The process of writing a good book presents endless challenges; Lisa displayed an impressive thoughtfulness in describing some of her solutions. She also showed us how passion can lead to a rewarding and fruitful career. Thanks to Lisa for an enjoyable, informative event, and thanks to WiCM (especially Karen Halpenny) for making my virtual attendance possible.


Next up: The Ohmies (they live under your bed! Ah!!!!)