Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Make It Quick: Good Beginnings and Short Attention Spans, by Chris Tebbetts

Story beginnings are hard for me to nail down. It’s usually when I have the most information I want to impart to the reader (by way of exposition), but it’s also that key moment in my relationship with the audience, where I really want to pull them in with story. As they say, you only get one chance to make a good first impression. 

Everyone talks about having a strong hook at the top of your novel. Often, that starts with a great opening line. The classic example in my mind is from CHARLOTTE’S WEB:  “Where’s Papa going with that axe?” Talk about immediately established interest, stakes, and story!  

But don’t stop there. A good hook might take the form of an immediate problem a character is facing; an action sequence; a simmering promise of something about to happen; a compelling voice; or even a prologue, which is one way to jump right into action and then backtrack for exposition a bit later. Whatever you do, remember that your young reader is sitting there on page one, wondering whether or not this book is going to be worth her time. It’s our job as authors to answer with a resounding yes, and then to keep that promise. 

Next question: Where does your story (not your novel, but your story) really begin?  Once you know that, see how close to that moment you can get on page one. Some amount of exposition is going to be necessary, of course. But you might be surprised at how much information—things that might seem essential to you, especially in the first draft phase—can actually wait until later. It’s very easy to get attached to everything you want to say up front, but that doesn’t always mean you have to say it right away, or, sometimes, at all. One of the most common pieces of feedback I give in manuscript critiques is about making cuts at the beginning and starting the story more quickly.  Sometimes that means cutting a few sentences, a few paragraphs, or even (more often than you might think) a chapter or two. 

Is all this focus on fast beginnings the product of a short-attention-span generation?  Maybe so, but in practical terms, it is what it is. Linda Sue Park talks about how young readers today come to story first not through words, but through imagery (i.e., on the million screens we have in our lives now), and how it’s up to us, as writers, to keep up with that fact, and to reflect it in our storytelling. 

AND MY CAVEAT, ALWAYS: To borrow from Robert McKee's book, STORY, these kinds of writing guidelines are about "form, not formula." Which is to say, if you have a dynamite manuscript with a quiet start or a slow-burn of a beginning, and you're sure that's what the story really needs, then by all means, follow your gut. For every truism and market-driven consideration, there are some countless number of fantastic, convention-breaking books just waiting to be the exception to the rule. 

Happy writing! 

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

I Got A Brand New Pair of Roller Skates...

By Charlotte Bennardo

When I was around 9 or so, on Saturday, while my parents worked, my mom dropped my brother and me off at the roller skating rink. For half the day, we skated with tons of kids, retirees, and people who had Saturdays off. Whenever I hear certain music, it brings me back to those days when my brother would hold my hand because it was couples only. He would do it just to continue skating. Now, I don't know where a single rink is, although I've heard some still exist.

Roller skating, whether on a smooth driveway or in rinks or skate parks, has been a big part of so many people's lives and most people know so little about it. Some of the highlights of the history of roller skating are:

*  In 1735, John Joseph Merlin brought the first pair of roller skates (basically a pair of shoes with wheels) to a party in London (and he crashed into a mirror).

*  Monsieur Petitbled patented roller skates (which had 3 wheels and looked like a low tricycle) in 1819.

*  The first 4-wheel roller skate that most people were familiar with was introduced by James Leonard Plimpton.

Photo courtesy of The Collab, Pexels

*  Roller skating became the rage when waitresses skated food to customers (think American Graffiti).

*  Skating had its heyday in the 70's - 80's with roller disco.

*  Inline skating made a comeback thanks to the modern design of Scott and Brennan Olsen (who patented 'Rollerblading'), and the sport of trick skating was born.

*  A National Museum of Roller Skating is located in Lincoln, Nebraska.

*  Today, there are dance, figure, and speed skating competitions, roller hockey, and extreme skating. And roller derby is making a splash again.

So go tie on a pair, don't forget your helmet (and maybe knee and elbow pads) and skate to some memories.

Photo courtesy of Craig Adderly, Pexels

Charlotte is the author of the middle grade trilogy, Evolution Revolution, and co-author of the young adult novels, Blonde OPS, Sirenz, and Sirenz Back in Fashion.

Monday, October 28, 2019

That Time My Friend Accidentally Dumped a Celebrity

When I saw that the themes for this month were roller skating and plotting, I immediately thought of a hilarious story I heard in college.

Kelly was the women's counselor for our college ministry, and she had a great story about how she accidentally broke up with Christian singer Steven Curtis Chapman when she was in high school. When I was in college, Chapman was kind of a Christian heartthrob, and girls who heard Kelly's story were aghast that Kelly had let him slip through her fingers. (I'm sure Kelly's husband Wayne, who is a swell guy himself, just loved all those groans about Kelly's rotten luck! But Wayne was not chopped liver, I assure you!) But to me, the story was funny for a couple of reasons: one, Kelly is a great storyteller (seriously, read it for yourself here), and two, the plot thickened at the roller rink. How delightfully 70s is that?

I find that writing for teens is difficult because keeping up with how they communicate is just exhausting. When I wrote my first novel, I had a character who was a mover and shaker in NYC. At the time, a character like that would've had a Blackberry. But imagine how lame that would sound to readers now!

Also, I've always loved plots that involve misunderstandings or lack of information (Shakespeare is with me on this). If Steven Curtis Chapman could've just texted Kelly before she met the cute guy at the roller rink, none of this would've happened, and Kelly would have a much less interesting story. Of course, she might also be married to a bazillionaire and I'd never have met her. But did I mention that Wayne is a great guy? He really is.

Ginger Rue is the author of the Aleca Zamm series from Aladdin and the Tig Ripley series from Sleeping Bear.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Out of Order (Holly Schindler)

A few years ago, I never would have thought I'd say this, but as far as plotting goes, I'm a big believer in writing non-chronologically.

Sounds counter-intuitive. Like it'd be a big mess.

I've found the exact opposite to be true.

Here's the thing: I'm not a fan of first drafts. And we all know that we write our best work when we're able to tap into the joy of writing.

So how do you maintain joy through a process you generally don't like, a process you want to push through so you can get to the fun stuff (revision)?

By writing out of order. At least, I do.

To be fair, this often works after you've planned out the book by writing some kind of outline. With the outline in hand, you can feel free to simply write scenes. Any scene, that comes at any point in the book. One after the other. Once the scenes are written, you can simply slide them into chronological order, connect them with a narrative thread, then jump into the fun of revising.

When writing out of order, I get to sit down each day to writing I'm excited about. What scene intrigues me the most? That's the scene I'm going to write. It allows me to tap into that feeling of fun, of play. It also keeps me from feeling like every sentence I put down needs to be good. I'm exploring; it's not supposed to be perfect.

The next time you feel like you're having a rough time with a draft, give it a shot: pick a scene you know you want to get to, and just write that. See if that little step doesn't help get you excited about your project all over again...

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Imaginary Friend Fiction: Smack Dab in the Imagination by Dia Calhoun

When I was little, I had an imaginary friend who wasn't allowed to play with me.

I've had more gasps of astonishment, laughter, disbelief over that line than almost any other. Try it at a cocktail party sometime. I've had so much reaction from the line that I used it as a story prompt at school visits.

I made that line up. It isn't true. I didn't have an imaginary friend who wasn't allowed to play with me. But what interests me is people's reactions to the line/setup. An imaginary friend is supposed to be . . . a friend. Why else make one up? And who in this imaginary world is not letting her play with me. And why not? Story naturally flows. Possibilities open.

The line/setup is so interesting because it seems to contradict conventional ideas about the purpose of imagination as what . . . consolation? Pablum? Doesn't the person doing the imagining have control over what she is imagining?

This is fun. This is imagination.

Sunday, October 20, 2019

The Plot Whisperer by Martha Alderson

When it comes to books on writing, like most authors, I have plenty - here are some of my favorites.

But when it comes to plotting, hands down, for me the best book around is Martha Alderson's The Plot Whisperer.  As an author who often struggles with plot, I have found Alderson's book to be invaluable in my writing process.  Starting with the basics on story structure itself, Alderson breaks down the whole process of plotting.  Her use of examples from well-known literature helps readers gain a clear understanding of the plotting techniques she encourages writers to use in order to create a rock solid plot.

So, if you're an author with plot problems or just want to make the plot of your current work-in-progress stronger and better, pick up a copy of The Plot Whisperer, and like me, you'll likely find yourself returning to it over and over again.

Happy Reading & Writing,

Saturday, October 19, 2019

Plotter or Pantster…Planner or Not?

I often slot writers into one category or the other - as most of us tend to fall into one camp or the other. We either plot, or we don’t. We plan it, or fly by the seat of our pants. 

In my friendships and family, I am known as The Planner. Sometimes, detrimentally so. I’m not often good with being spontaneous, and I appreciate knowing what to expect and be prepared for. I tend to panic if things don’t follow a certain routine or plan. 

As a writer, and in my writing relationships, I am still often known as The Plotter. I prefer to write out where my novel is going - a roadmap of sorts. I follow along with the mile markers, knowing when I’m hitting the right spots and if I’m taking detours so I can correct myself. 

Which isn’t to say detours aren’t just thing a novel or a road trip need some days. They are often are - the roads less traveled are the ones we’d never know or see if we don’t take a turn down them. 

In my last novel, which I had not planned to be a novel, but rather a side writing project to release some pent up energy and frustration, was entirely pantsed. I told myself it didn’t matter, as it wasn’t a novel, it wasn’t anything. I could just write to write. No plan. I had no roadmap, no idea where it was going. But the next thing I knew, I was leaving Short Story Ville for Novel Land. To this day, I feel it’s the best piece I’ve written, even if it isn’t going anywhere in particular at the moment. 

Detours can pay off. 

I recently moved farther away than I have ever lived from home. My new running route depressed me a little - all city and concrete. On the way up the hill, I’d often give the side eye to a slight mud trail that went up into the woods. A deer trail. One day, I followed it. And found a river trail through the woods. Had I stayed the path, I’d never have found the nature I’d been craving. That little new running route that reminds me of why I like to be alive when the seasons are changing, for better or worse, tying on my running shoes. 

Writing is much the same, and so is life, or so I’ve learned. Keep your map if you need it. But don’t be afraid to shove it aside here and there. Enjoy the ride. Enjoy the trail. Enjoy the unknown. You never know where it’ll lead you. 

Happy Reading!

A.M. Bostwick is the author of the award-winning THE GREAT CAT NAP and its sequel, THE CLAWED MONET as well as the young adult BREAK THE SPELL. She is a newspaper journalist and blog writer in the northern Midwest.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Plot, Schlmot!

Warning: this is a heretical post!

I don't consider myself to be very good at plotting. But plot is also my least favorite part of any book I treasure. When I reflect on the books I've loved best, what I tend to remember doesn't have to do with the construction of the overall story line - that urgency to keep on turning pages - but with individual scenes, individual moments, individual lines.

When Mary Lennox turns the key that opens the door to the secret garden.

When Miss Minchin asks Sara Crewe, "Don't you intend to thank me . . .For my kindness in giving you a home?" and Sara replies, "You are not kind. And it is not a home."

When Anne Shirley breaks her slate over Gilbert Blythe's head.

When Kenny Watson's big brother kisses his reflection on an icy car window and gets his lips frozen to the glass.

When Ramona asks Miss Binney how Mike Mulligan went to the bathroom when he was digging the basement of the town hall.

When Trotter tells Gilly Hopkins that "Life ain't supposed to be nothing, 'cept maybe tough," and Gilly asks her, "If life is so bad, how come you're so happy?" and Trotter replies, "Did I say bad? I said it was tough."

Many of my most beloved books are episodic in structure, where a character grows and changes through a cumulative series of events and experiences - you know, sort of like the way change happens in real life? When I write my own books, I think first and foremost not of overall plot, but of individual scenes - each one as a shining bead threaded onto a string. I also think of crucial bits of dialogue, where characters finally tell each other what most needs to be said. And small insights into the human condition, like those fabulous lines from the end of The Great Gilly Hopkins that I quoted above.

So, yes, let's read books on plotting and mine them for helpful strategies to strengthen a story. But I can't see myself ever making a "beat sheet" for one of my books and structuring it so rigidly - even though I have writer friends who have produced brilliant books in this way. I want to write the kind of book I love to read: books memorable above all for details that sparkle, insights that illuminate, and moments where I burst out laughing or wipe away tears.

Wednesday, October 16, 2019

Building a Sand Castle, by Michele Weber Hurwitz

Through my years at this writing thing, I've read and heard many creative techniques for plotting. Think of a plot like a skeleton (the bones of your story), where every element has a purpose and is connected. Or, imagine an old-fashioned paper chain on a Christmas tree where each circle is a plot turn that's linked to the previous and the next ones. I like both of those.

But perhaps my personal favorite is a sand castle analogy. You have an idea of your story -- or your castle -- when you start out, and then each shovel, each bucket, each pat of sand and drizzle of water, shapes and reveals until it's whole, completed, a work of art where nothing existed before. That to me is the essence of building a plot -- bits and pieces that together, create a structure.

I remember watching my kids during beach vacations constructing sand castles. Their diligence and patience, how they paid attention to the initial plan -- exactly where each bucket should be turned over to create the ultimate castle. But what I thought was most intriguing was how the castles changed as each of my children added their own touches. One wanted super high towers. Another thought there had to be not just one moat, but two (in case of multiple invasions). The third always insisted on decorating with seashells. Did the castles turn out as originally envisioned? Probably not. But they were always beautiful.

And that's the best advice I can share when it comes to plot techniques. Have an idea of what your story is when you start writing, but allow yourself the creative freedom to shape it as it unfolds.

Your characters may do something you didn't plan for, or an unexpected event can suddenly throw everything off balance. Keep going, keep building. Put your plan aside when you need to. Your subconscious is at work, sifting through grains of sand.

The story may not turn out exactly the way you envisioned from the outset, but what you discover along the way can lead you to beautiful towers and moats and seashells.

Michele Weber Hurwitz is the author of four middle grade novels, from Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House. Her fifth novel, HELLO FROM RENN LAKE, debuts May 26 from Penguin Random House. More at

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

It's All About the Biscuits

I’ve been enjoying our current discussion on plot. Two terms that many writers use to define their writing process include plotters and pantsers. Pantsers let the characters guide the writing, i.e. they fly by the seat of their pants. Meanwhile, plotters plan out their novel to the nth degree.

I offer that the writing process is more organic than a simple either/or choice. The reality is, the plot is one of the most challenging aspects of writing. The nuts and bolts, twists and turns, reversals, supporting a sagging middle, creating an ending that no one saw coming. That’s hard work. That requires planning. Because I tend to integrate historical and mythological aspects to my writing, I find that I need to outline to keep track.

And yet, too much of a good thing can quickly turn sour. Too much planning creates stiff characters, and a stiffer plot. Creativity becomes trapped as writers try to fit characters into pre-destined squares and circles.

Agent Donald Maass states that a story needs to "provoke a visceral and emotional experience in readers.” According to Maass, the language of emotion makes the difference to a reader’s experience. And plot can be understood as a sequence of emotional milestones... “Because that’s the way readers read. They don’t so much read as respond. They do not automatically adopt your outlook and outrage. They formulate their own.” In other words, as Maass suggests, you are not the author of what readers feel. You are the provocateur of those feelings.

The character’s motivation creates empathy between herself and the reader. After all, readers can empathize with a character’s motivation, especially if it’s like her own. Readers want to know why these characters are in the mess they are in. They what to know what happens to these characters.

If the plot is what happens to your character, then her motivation is the force that sets the plot into motion and keeps it going. It’s why she goes after her goal in the first place.

Everyone’s process is different. A pinch of pantsing, a dash of plotting. What works for one story may not work for the next. What’s important is how well you combine the ingredients to create a strong story.

Because, in the end, it’s always about the reader and if the reader engages with your character and follows her journey. Readers can’t tell whether your story was pantsied or plotted. Readers don’t see the biscuit-baking, only the biscuit.

And if the biscuit is good, they won’t care about the baking.

--Bobbi Miller

Saturday, October 12, 2019

It Came to Me in a Dream: An Unusual Plotting Technique

Usually, when it comes to plotting a novel, I struggle with getting it all to come out the way I envision. I have a strong beginning and knowledge of how I expect it to end. It's what comes in between that throws me for a loop. I'll write down possible scenes, things the character(s) need to do or potential conflicts that could arise. Most of the plot ideas that end up staying in the story are ones that I discovered after many revisions.

I expect there are many of us out there with this same kind of problem.

For my new novel in verse WISHES, DARES, AND HOW TO STAND UP TO A BULLY, plotting was a totally different animal. The main character Jack spoke to me in a voice so loud and clear. He was insistent that I tell his story the way he spoke it, which turned out to be free verse. So, instead of plotting what might happen, I began to compile a list of words that would spark a conversation between Jack and me. ( The title for the story at this stage was Fish, Wish, and Other Four Letter Words...hence the list of four-letter words).

Each day I'd sit down with the list, choose a word and let Jack tell me his thoughts on it. The list expanded as we got further into the story and the final version that became the book veered from the strict four letter word format. But that list is the plot, sure and true. Every crossed out word is a poem in the story. I am so intrigued by this idea, that I am ruminating on another story in verse and have started compiling my list of words.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Skating: A Declaration by Jody Feldman

Yes, I had the old-fashioned kind.
Roller Skating Month.
So much I could write with that as inspiration. My biggest memory comes from my childhood where
it was necessary to own a pair of roller skates if you wanted to keep up with the neighborhood kids. One minute we’d be playing Red Rover or Spud or Uncle Sam, and the next, someone would race off to get her skates, causing a chain reaction.

Grand Basin, Forest Park, not skate-safe.
Or there was the winter so cold that officials deemed the lakes in Forest Park safe for skating, which is when my parents scrambled
to find ice skates I could borrow for the day.

It’s this neighborhood that’s the inspiration behind my work-in-progress. As I write the story that pays homage to the friendships and foibles and fun and fables there, I also need to be mindful of something that can be my writing downfall...

...skating by.

Don’t misunderstand. In the moment, I’m focused, doing the necessary work. I don’t intend to take the easy road or shortchange the story. It’s more that I picture the scenes and the emotions so vividly, I don’t always communicate the urgency of the situation or the deep-seated stakes of my characters. Then I’m faced with the same notes from my patient agent. And I feel, for a bit, as if I’ve skated by – or tried to – again.

Therefore, I hereby declare this October 2019, Anti-Skating Month. And furthermore, I declare forevermore and to the best of my abilities, an Anti-Skating policy. My readers deserve the most from me. I deserve the most from me. We all deserve the best from ourselves.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Supportive Plots -- by Jane Kelley

Hey, everybody! I've decided to change a name.

From this point on, I will not call them "subplots." Sub has so many unfortunate connotations. Subpar. Subhuman. Subordinate.

Labeling those plots as "less than" encouraged me to skip over them as I write. My Main Plot was, after all, my MAIN plot. As I focused on it, I ignored the wants and actions of the other characters. Then everything suffered.

The famous theatre director Konstantin Stanislavski said, "There are no small parts, there are only small actors." That sentence has been used to comfort those of us who didn't get the starring role. It has a deeper truth. For a drama to work, everyone on stage must be a complete character. The smaller part is actually a bigger challenge. Despite fewer lines and fewer moments on stage, that actor must still make the character compelling enough to hold their own against the star.

In other words, the smaller part demands more attention from the writer. Not less.

As I rewrite a novel, I asked myself why the protagonist's best friend would do what my main plot needed her to do. And when I found the answer, I had another plot. One that, as I said, I'm calling the Supportive Plot. Because it supports the other action––and enhances it.

Mary Nohl's sculptures outside her home in Fox Point, Wisconsin
Mary Nohl was an artist who created many large outdoor pieces out of concrete. Her training was not in construction, however. As she made the sculpture above, she discovered that the dinosaur was leaning. Luckily necessity was once again the mother of invention. Mary added the other fellow. The two seem quite delighted to be connected. Think how much more interesting the artwork is because of the addition.

And think how much better my novel will be because of the supportive plots!

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Because Plot is a VERB

There are probably as many ways to plot a novel as there are novels. Some of the ones I've dabbled in are the 3 act structure, Hero's Journey, MICE Quotient, Blake Snyder's beat sheet, story maps, scene-sequel method, etc. – and they're all great. 

But what I've learned is that it's easy to get distracted by plot when what I really need to do is spend more time getting to know my characters... and then let plot evolve out of that. And that's hard and can take a long time and is often discouraging – because getting to know my characters is hard and can take a long time! 

Eventually, the time comes for me to remind myself of the key to it all:  

Plot is a verb. Think hatch and thicken. Plot is not an element of a story so much as an action. The goal of the writer is to plot, to create that movement. Whenever your story drags, remember it is up to you to jumpstart it, give it a shove, make it tick and tumble. 

This can be difficult, so I keep a postcard next to my desk that declares “PLOT IS A VERB.” Some days it even helps me remember. :)

Happy plotting!

IreneLatham lives on a lake in rural Alabama. Winner of the 2016 ILA Lee Bennett Hopkins Promising Poet Award, she is the author of hundreds of poems and nearly twenty current and forthcoming poetry, fiction and picture books from publishers including Penguin Random House, Macmillan, Lerner, Boyds Mills & Kane, and Charlesbridge. Her books have been recognized on state lists and honored by NEA, ALA, NCTE, SIBA, Bank Street College and other organizations.