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Showing posts from 2008

Memoir Piece - Left Handed Horror Story

Amazingly I learnt to write using my left hand. An achievement against the prevailing beliefs of the day. My very first teacher saw it as her mission in life to ‘fix’ the poor, wretched little boy suffering from what she clearly diagnosed as left handed disease. She must have thought to herself, "This child must be re formatted! If he remains left handed he will be forever condemned to writing in a scrawl that no one will be able to read. Ugly hand, ugly hand. "

...They tried to say it couldn't be done, it mustn't be done. They took the pencil out of my left hand and placed it in my right hand. It felt unnatural. It felt weird. It was not right. More to the point it was not left. I was not about to conform. At least they didn't try tying my hand behind my back. Watch me I said. I may be an oddball, left handed scribbler but I am a determined oddball. I mean how boring would the world be if everyone wrote with their right hand?

So I dug my toes in –and my hands too,…

Reading As A Teacher of Writing

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As teachers of writing we need to learn to read differently. We need to read for meaning as we have all our lives, but we also need to read to see how things are written. Seeing how things are written helps us to know what we need to teach our students about how to be viewed as successful writers.

The curriculum resources we need to accomplish this task are waiting for us on our bookshelves, on newsstands, and in bookshops. We need to realize that there are so many writers out there who can provide models of writing for our students. We are not isolated. We are not alone. We have an army of helpers.
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When we discover examples of good writing we begin to look more closely at that piece of writing. We start to visualize how it would be if we could teach our students to make the same conscious decisions about the shape of their writing. We begin to closely examine the craft of writing and this hopefully leads us to understanding as to how we can assist our students to more effectively inco…

Memoir Piece -The Incident of the Bicycle in the Dark

The imminent arrival of the festive season served to remind me of a Christmas Eve many years ago...


The room is pitch-black and I am sitting astride a brand, spanking new bicycle. I can feel the prickly sensation of pine needles rubbing against my left leg. It is very early in the morning and I am exploring Santa’s harvest.

Suddenly a voice booms out of the darkness and I recognize my father’s words, “Get back to bed, it’s far too early!”

The shock of his voice sends me sprawling and I lurch awkwardly towards the Christmas tree. I am trapped in a tangle of tinsel, baubles and pine needles. Wedged between the tree and the bicycle, I am stuck with my face buried in the tree and pine needles up my nose; unsure what to do next. I love the smell of pine needles in the morning...

Eventually, I untangle myself and crawl back to bed pulling pine needles from my pajamas as I go.

When I awake some hours later, daylight has pulled back the blanket of the night, so I gingerly creep back to the lounge-…

The Writes of Summer

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As we approach the end of the Australian school year, I am aware of the level of exhaustion that abounds in schools, -and the need to tie up a multitude of loose ends prior to school closing for the summer holidays. Teaching becomes a race to the finish line.

I am also aware that there is a period of time appearing on the summer horizon when teachers will have some free time to relax and regenerate their energy reserves.- A time for relaxation, holidays, family and recreation. For those of you who have intentions of adopting a new approach to aspects of your teaching in 2009, may I suggest that the summer holidays might present a great opportunity to embrace the inner writer and commence your very own writer’s notebook. I know many of you read extensively when you are on vacation. Free of the pressure of the classroom, it is possible to indulge in more personal reading; becoming re-acquainted with favourite authors, or to read that book you received as a gift. It seems logical to add a…

Memoir Piece -Silent Metal Monster

We ventured out on our bikes on summer evenings generally in that tranquil period between dinner and sunset. It is a peaceful time in summer evenings. The heat of the day is gradually fading.

Monbulk, my home town, was in those days a sleepy village. It had an expansive main street occasionally interrupted by shops that gave the appearance that they had been born there. The movement of cars in the main street was rarely constant.

Our bike riding on those summer evenings usually followed a set route. We cycled onto Main street via a path that ran beside the town’s tennis court. We then turned left beside the Mechanics Institute Hall and rode along another path that ran beside the school on Main Road. It was at this point that the road inclined towards Hefford’s Milk bar (drug store) situated at the very top of Main Road. It was indeed the last shop in the street.

David, my next door neighbor rode his bike along the shoulder of the road; the unsealed section between the bitumen and the gut…

Using Random Phrases -Another Version of Lift A Line

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I cannot take credit for this idea. It comes from David Morley’s Writing Challenges. But I did see it as a variation on the lift a line strategy that many teachers use. So I have made use of this idea to generate additional writing ideas. I place a phrase into my writing, or I write off the phrase. In that way the lifted line becomes a spark for more writing

The idea is that you open a book randomly and place your finger anywhere on one of the pages, without looking. Then select a phrase or a sentence that appeals, or you wish you had written. The selected phrase needs to be near where you place your finger. Transfer the selected words to the top of a new page in your writer’s notebook. Repeat this process using the same book (different pages) or choose different books each time –it depends on your access to books.

Here are some lifted phrases I harvested in a short few minutes from my library of books.

‘The sacred moment was turning into an agony’ (Ash Road)
‘A booming voice grunted’ (Th…

The Writer As Observer

Writers need to have a keen sense of observation. They need to notice things. Teaching students to be keen observers is not only critical to their writing development, but has implications for developing their world knowledge. A large part of writing is related to close observation of the physical environment in which the writer operates.

If we want students to notice their world we must teach into it. After-all, they are a strongly visual generation. Let’s assist them to grow as discriminating viewers. Developing a writer’s keen eye for observation will serve them well. The more we notice, the more we chip away at our individual ignorance

Let’s get started:

Such observation works best if the observer is not pre-occupied with other matters. Sometimes it requires self talk to refocus the energies on the immediate surrounds. -to observe consciously. Learn to clear the mind first.

Ralph Fletcher encourages writers to push beyond the sight of things and look at other less glamorous senses suc…

Sentence Salvation

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Stop pulling your hair out about the state of student sentence structure. It can be improved by using a range of simple, yet effective strategies.

Many of the same techniques used to teach fluency in reading can be used in writing. We need to highlight to students the importance and power of fluency. By exposing them to writing samples that flow easily, they will be more able to recognise good sentence structure and apply this skill to their own writing.

By working with students and sharing exemplary literature samples we can highlight such important features as sentence beginnings, sentence length, sentence combining, and run on sentences.

Sentence Beginnings:

Sample Student Writing 1

I have a bike. It is red. I like to ride it. It is fun. My friend and I like to ride in the forest. It is really cool there. We have a good time. When it is time to go home I have to put my bike in the garage. That is where I keep it

*Circle the starting word in each sentence
Notice the following
The sentences …

Slice of Life Story -Climbing the Subway Stairs

During my almost six years living in New York, I regularly travelled on the subway system. The experiences provided a rich vein of stories and recollections. I recall among my many trips, one particular occasion at Essex Street subway interchange. I was walking up the stairs when a little girl and her mother approached from the opposite direction.

As they descended, I noticed that the girl had her eyes tightly closed. Her mother held the girl’s right hand for support as they managed the steps. At first it appeared the child was sleep walking. Then it occurred to me that she had closed her eyes to experience the sensation of walking down the stairs unsighted. She was experimenting. The fact that she had her mother’s support gave her the confidence to take a step into the unknown. At that moment she became a risk taker- attempting something new and different.

This brief scene reminded me of the responsibility a teacher faces each time he or she enters a classroom. Supporting students to t…

Reminders From Ralph Regarding the Writer's Notebook

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I am grateful to Stacey Shubitz of Two Writing Teachers who re-acquainted me with a great little book by Ralph Fletcher entitled, ‘A Writer’s Notebook: Unlocking the Writer Within You’ . Stacey was trying to inspire a reluctant writers in her classroom and wrote about some of the pearls of wisdom she excavated from Ralph’s little tome that she intended to share.
I knew I had a copy of the book, and so I began searching the overflowing shelves of my library. After a short search, I found this slim, but valuable paperback wedged between two weightier volumes on writing. I began to scan the pages…

It was great to reread Ralph Fletchers words. The messages resonated in my mind like familiar mantras. Like Stacey I now want to share some of the pearls I found. Hopefully, you may find they resonate with your students. Afterall it was young writers that Ralph was aiming at when he originally wrote this excellent book.

“Writers are like other people, except for at least one important difference. …

Teaching About the Vitality of Verbs

When you write you use words to create pictures or mind movies in the reader’s mind. Words that express action make a big difference in the kind of visualizing that occurs in the mind of the reader.

In the story “Fox “by Margaret Wild and Ron Brooks there is a part where Fox is running away with Magpie on his back.

While Dog sleeps, Magpie and Fox streak past coolibah trees, rip through long grass, pelt over rocks. Fox runs so fast that his feet scarcely touch the ground and Magpie exults, “At last I am flying. Really flying!”

Verbs are without question, immensely valuable to the writer. When used effectively, they can make sentences vibrate with energy. They are the life support system of the sentence. Mark Tredinnick in his book , The Little Red Writing Book says this about verbs:

“They are where a sentence moves, where it gets up and runs or walks or means or changes or loves or hates or talks or recommends or concludes or speaks its mind. It is the breath of thought, it is the heart t…

Saved by a Child's Words

I found myself talking to a group of enthusiastic grade one students who were keen to commence their writing pieces. As they stood up from the carpet to return to their seats to commence their writing, I realized that the spark of imagination that would fire my writing ideas had suddenly snuffed out. The students all seemed fired up and ready to create the miracle of meaningful marks on paper. I felt completely blank and could not conjure up a single thing to write about. I was trying to will my brain into action. Writer’s block had descended upon me like a damp,foggy mist

A boy stood beside me at this critical moment and said, “I’m going to write about the first time I went fishing which was on Saturday with my Dad”
“Oh thank you” I said and uttered a huge sigh of relief.
The bemused child looked at me unsure what he had done.
“You just gave me a wonderful idea for my writing this morning. Like you, I’m going to write about the very first time I went fishing. Maybe we can share our s…

Writing About Issues -Big and Small

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I spent some time during the recent September term holiday scanning newspapers, magazines and the Internet for articles related to current issues in the news. The issues covered everything from local, to state, to national and including, global issues. I had to choose articles that had some significance to sixth graders as they were the target audience. Issues ranged from articles on adolescent health, use of mobile phones among children, world poverty, environmental degradation of the coral reef, to endangered animals, to supermarket levies on plastic bags, to the effects of global warming. I needed a minimum of ninety articles as I was working across three Grade 6 classes at Karoo Primary School in Rowville, Victoria. As you can imagine, I spent quite some time hunting and gathering these pieces.

Students were asked to read an article that attracted their interest. Following this, they were asked to identify the issue, and then identify what their personal stand was with regard to th…

Grammar In Isolation Never Works For Writing

As recently as 2005, Professor Richard Andrews of York University conducted the largest systematic review of existing studies on the teaching of grammar and found there was no evidence that teaching grammar as a formal stand alone exercise helped 5-16 year old write more fluently, or accurately.

It is therefore surprising that news reports indicate the proposed Australian national curriculum will be reviving the practice of formal grammar. As a result, media headlines scream the tired old catch cry ‘back to basics’ and the conservatives among us salivate. I see red every time the headlines scream ‘Back to Basics’. Teaching the so called basics has never gone away. Teachers confront the basics on a daily basis. It is at the core of what they do. It is insulting to suggest that re-inventing the past is the way to go. Suddenly, educators need to cast their collective eyes backwards with regards to spelling, grammar and phonics. Gee, thanks for that.

This is not to say that the teaching of …

Visual Imagery -Great for Mind Movies!

In the course of twenty four hours I received emails from two mates in vastly different parts of the world. Colin Murray wrote about an experience en-route to Budapest to conduct teamwork and safety training for oil workers. Chris Lowery wrote about his wonderful vacation experience on the Trans Siberian railway, an epic journey that took him from Moscow to Beijing. I was immediately struck by the strong visual imagery both writers conveyed through their choice of words.

Colin in the course of explaining his in flight experience wrote:

“My flights here were sprinkled with the usual array of personalities. From Singapore to Frankfurt, a mere 13 hours, I had a stick insect perched next to me. She came from India I suspect and was facially quite beautiful. She was also stunningly slim. She arrived onboard quite late, had no carry-on save a miniscule plastic bag, sat mantis-like in the seat next to me, said nothing, ate nothing, drank nothing, moved minimally and simply slept in the linear …

Ah Grasshopper! - A Slice of Life Story

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I recall in my initial year of teaching drawing a huge grasshopper on the chalkboard labelled with the correct grasshopper parts. Spiracles, abdomen, thorax. An example of incomplete metamorphosis I told my students. I wonder if that impressed them?

The drawing took up a third of the blackboard space and stayed on display long after the interest in grasshoppers had passed. I was most reluctant to erase my gigantic grasshopper, given the time and effort that went into creating it. Chalk dust in the lungs, hands stained with purple and black (deadly, but effective colours).The arrival of dustless chalk seemed a fortuitous advancement at the time. I knew a teacher who even went to the trouble of sharpening chalk before using it. Now that's kind of behaviour is a worry.

I eventually replaced the grasshopper with a pirate ship which was less impressive. From the back of the room it listed a little too much to one side. As a chalk artist I never quite recaptured the grandness of my grassh…

Getting Our Youngest Writers Started With Personal Narratives

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What are personal narratives?

Personal narratives are chronological stories about one’s own life experiences. The central character is the author. They contain a plot
(a number of events occur over a time period) and they take place in a setting. The plot frequently involves a problem that requires solving, a tension or complication that needs resolving. Some change may take place as well.

The personal pronoun “I” is frequently used and the writer usually injects a sense of emotional response to the events taking place in the text.

Helping Young Writers Construct Effective Narratives

Developing writers sometimes find it difficult to travel back into their memories to gather details, but the effort is worth it. As teachers, we need to make it clear that their readers need these details to understand what actually happened.

Our goal is to teach young writers to relate a sequence of events with accurate detail, so that a reader may follow the events.

Initially, young writers will tend to w…

A Moment For Memoir

BIG MISTAKE
From a list of significant events in the process of growing up I now recall that I missed a few. I didn’t go to kindergarten and I didn’t join the cubs because the waiting list was so long. I would have been too old by the time my turn came round anyway. I never had my own paper round and I never got conscripted for national service. I did however have my first cigarette at the age of nine. Along with some other boys we went through a packet of cigarettes one Saturday morning whilst walking through the Elster Creek drain. It ran underground between East Bentleigh and Carnegie, making it an ideal place for clandestine pursuits. I returned home that afternoon to be greeted by my father who viewed me suspiciously before asking ‘Have you been smoking?’

-A fairly simple and straightforward question. To which I answered succinctly and without hesitation ‘No.’ My father followed up with ‘Well, what happened to your eyebrows, they’re all singed and burnt?’ to which I replied ‘I don’…

Effective Editing

We sometimes lament that our students are not great editors of their written pieces. Let's face it, we are generally speaking, the worst proofreaders of our own work. To compensate for this we need to approach editing in the same way as we approach any other aspect of writing. Editing needs to be taught just as we teach into drafting and revising. It also needs to be clearly separated from the act of revision to be most effective.

'I learned from Donald Graves (1984) and Nancie Atwell (1998) that writing is best taught as a process, and it is by writing that young adolescents develop as writers. I felt that I was doing a good job with teaching my students to use the craft of writing through drafting and revision. After all, my students wrote a lot and were learning ways to re-enter their writing and deal with sensory detail and leads. But where was the editing part of the process? Editing wasn’t fitting in the way I wanted and was often getting overlooked.'
So said Jeff And…

A Slice of Life Story - Italian Style

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Asciano is a small town in the heart of the Tuscan region steeped in history dating back to the Etruscans. When we finally arrive there, having driven from Rome, one of the first things we spy is a ATM secreted in a medieval wall. What a contrast.

We spend the next hour trying to find our accommodation. We do laps of the narrow streets and only arouse stares from bemused locals. We seek direction from a young man at the Carabinieri station. We struggle to communicate so I show him the address and he immediately gives me the directions in Italian. We smile at each other and part. I feel as useless as a fur lined teapot. We drive roughly in the direction he gestured and wind up driving back through the same streets as before. This time things are different though. We are now behind a funeral procession, which naturally has right of way. We don’t wish to offend the recently departed on our first day in town. A supervising Caribinieri officer takes pity on us and we again seek directions. …

How Does Your Classroom Environment Support Learning?

Every environment implies a set of values or beliefs about the people who design and use the space. For example tables arranged in rows rather than clustered in groups suggests the teacher believes children learn best in isolation from one another, and values individual work over group activities.

Thoughtfully designed environments influence the inhabitants in subtle ways. An environment may bore, may over stimulate, calm or agitate those in it. Spending large amounts of time in an environment deemed unpleasant will eventually exact a toll.


Classroom environments reflect the values and beliefs about children, families, the social construction of knowledge held by teachers.The layout of the physical space of the classroom needs to be welcoming, to foster encounters, communication, and relationships. The arrangement of furniture storage should encourage choices, problem solving, and discoveries in the process of learning.

Creating Connections and a Sense of Belonging
Children spend the majo…

Persuasion and the Writer's Notebook

This week I was planning with teachers as they made preparation for the next term’s work. Their major writing focus will be persuasive texts and the question arose as to how to make a strong connection with the writer’s notebook and the persuasive texts. This set me to thinking.

I have harboured a concern that many teachers are not sure how to use the writer’s notebook across the genres. It seems okay when the focus is narratives or poetry, but they appear uncertain as to how to best use the notebook as a resource for developing ideas. It is important to see the notebook as launching pad for writing. So, how do we make the notebook our starting point?

I started to think about the ways I could support the teachers with whom I was planning. What could I be doing as a writer to model for them and their students?

It was then that an idea came calling! For the next three weeks I intend to link my reading of local, national and global issues such as global warming, drought, poverty, education,…

A Slice of Life Story

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True Dinks- this really happened...New York 2003

Bizarro World Visitor

At the risk of sounding like I am beginning to lose my tenuous hold on reality, the longer I live in New York, the more I believe in the existence of conspiracy theories. I am increasingly of the opinion that some perverse being from a parallel wacky world keeps sending individuals through a time portal to manifest themselves in my everyday life. These individuals, whilst generally harmless have a definite leaning towards the fruitcake category. These half -baked fruitcakes crop up regularly in the course of my travels around this place. I am yet to work out why.

Before you dismiss me, I invite you to recall Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘Bizarro world’ where everything was the opposite of what you knew. –And where was that centered? – New York of course!

To support my theory I cite W.E. #327 (That’s Wacky Experience number 327) I had on the No 38 bus whilst traveling down DeKalb Avenue in Brooklyn’s Fort Greene area one workday …

Take Home Writing Kits!

Another Way To Improve Writing In Your Classroom –Mission Possible!


The idea of developing a “Take Home Writing Kit” is a chance to enhance the home school connection, AND at the same time assist your students in their development as writers. As teachers we place tremendous emphasis on children reading at home to encourage their literacy development.Unfortunately, we have not been as passionate in our efforts to develop the home- school writing connection. Writing is frequently viewed as an individual activity where the parent plays the role of supervisor, rather than a support person.

Through the idea of the “Take Home Writing Kit, we can assist students to develop a positive self image about themselves as writers as well as providing extra opportunities to practice the skills and strategies necessary to improve their writing. In this way we promote writing as an essential partner to reading in the home.

To set up your writer’s kit you will need to acquire a small carry case, or back …

Rereading For Ideas

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I know from experience that I am forever rereading writing pieces from my notebooks. It is amazing how often such rereading assists me to dig up a new idea to feed my writing addiction. Virginia Woolf defines rereading as a chance to find diamonds in the dust-heap. I am definitely covered in dust and constantly looking for precious gems.

I am acutely aware that rereading is vitally important to me as a writer. Apart from the possibility of finding a new writing thread, I am also reliving the moment in time when I first captured a particular entry. On some occasions rereading connects me with previously over looked memories or ideas. So apart from reading to revise or proofread, I would also add rereading for the express purpose of excavating ideas. This rereading is akin to rummaging through a toy box as a child and discovering a lost treasure

Ralph Fletcher in his great little book, ‘Breathing in Breathing Out’ talks about this very act of rereading:

“Some writers claim they never revis…

Celebrating 26 Letters

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It is National Literacy Week in Australia (September 1-7) –A time to celebrate all things literate! I'm going to start at the very beginning with my celebrations. I want to celebrate the basic building blocks of our literate society –the alphabet!

In my reading about writing I often come across passages that make me sit up and really take notice. The writing of Carl Leggo had me reacting thus. Carl Leggo, is a poet and associate professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver where he has been teaching, reading, researching and writing for more than a decade. The following brief writing exercise that Carl devised for his students provided renewed awareness of the immense power contained within the alphabet.

Invite your students to write down the 26 letters of the alphabet. Then ask them to circle their five favourite letters. Following this ask them to write five words that begin with each of the five favourite letters. Some students will gasp with horror because the…

A Trip Down Memoir Lane

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A memoir is not a review of an entire life. It is merely a piece of that life – a snippet, a chunk, an event that has taken place during that person’s life. It's the snapshot, not the album. The events are told from that person’s point of view.


“The writer of a memoir takes us back to a corner of his or her life that is usually vivid or intense.”
Zinsser,W (Ed). (1987). “Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft Of Memoir”


A memoir incorporates a sequence of feelings, thoughts and observations surrounding the chosen event. Often the writer comes to a personal reflection on this event.

How does this event reflect my life?

What feelings, thoughts and observations are keys to this event?

In teaching students to write a memoir piece, it is important for the writer to narrow the topic before commencing the task of committing words to paper.

To begin, it may prove beneficial to read examples of memoirs or have examples read to them before they begin to generate their own potential topics.It allow…

Excavating Writing Ideas

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Try This!

Find an old diary or writer’s notebook. Open it to any page and reread the entry. Let that be the inspiration or launching pad for a new piece of writing. Even if it’s not what you thought you’d ever write more about, give it your best shot, and see what happens.
Ah,the value of rereading your entries!


Lifting A Line -Two Examples

Lifting A Line from a text –Example 1

Here is a writing idea I picked up from listening to David Morely’s Writing Challenges, (Warick University UK). Those of you with technological pretensions may choose to download these writing challenges as podcasts. I found this link in the Itunes store but there is also a link through David's webpage.

For those of you who wish to contact David Morley’s web site, check out the Writing links to the right of this post, and it will take you directly to the place you are seeking, -It's as easy as that!

David challenged me to randomly open a book and point to any part of the facing page without sneeking a peek before hand. Then he asked me to choose a line from somewhere in the text near to where my finger landed. I had to choose a phrase that caught my eye. I was then asked to lift that line and write it in my writer’s notebook. David directed me to repeat this process until I had gathered approximately a page of random phrases. In the end my li…

The Challenge of Teaching Effective Endings?

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Let’s face it, as teachers of writing we have been much better at teaching students about effective leads and introductions than we have about constructing effective endings. It has certainly been a feature of the way we teach expository writing, where the conclusion is promoted as a careful restating of the writer’s viewpoint, but generally we have devoted more attention to introductions. Our students need to understand that the energy they devote to writing an effective lead needs to be evident in the endings they create.

Endings are the final contact the writer has with the reader. It is the last opportunity to make an impression.

For this reason young writers should be encouraged to take time with their endings and write them carefully. A great ending will not only make reading a satisfying experience, but prospective audiences will be more likely to want to read more of your work!

Endings matter! How many times have you as an adult reader been deeply involved in your reading only to…