Writing Club: Got Plot?

Last week I promised the coolest young writers in town that I would post our writing club lesson here. Then… well, then a lot of amazing things happened to me and I got a little distracted. I can’t divulge all of the awesomeness yet, but on Saturday I was elected president of Fiction Writers of Central Arkansas. I’m honored and incredibly excited to be leading this talented group of writers here in Little Rock. It’s going to be an exciting year! In the meantime, here is the lesson I promised you:

In writing group we discussed plot by diagramming a traditional plotline. I was surprised how many of our students were familiar with this tool and all of its major parts. Here is an example for those of you who need a refresher.

Plot Parts
Introduction - This is the beginning of your story where you are introducing your characters and the setting to the reader. You can give a little background, but the general rule among writers is to go straight to the action and fill in the backstory as the plot unfolds.

Inciting Incident - This is where the story really begins. What happens that starts the journey for your characters? The dog goes missing, the contest is announced, the dead body is discovered, boy meets girl, etc. are all moments that reveal the true goal of a story. If you do not yet know your character’s goal, then you should begin here. Define the goal and then give it a consequence. What happens if they don’t reach their goal? This is the crux of finding your plot. If you can answer those two questions, then you have a plot.

Rising Action - Here the characters move steadily toward the climax of the story, growing ever closer to reaching their goal. However, don’t make it too easy for them. Be sure to add obstacles along the way or else your story will be boring and predictable.

Obstacles - What will happen to keep your main character(s) from reaching their goal? If all they have to do is walk in and take what they want with nothing to stop them, then that isn’t much of a story at all! Show us what gets in the way. These obstacles increase the dramatic suspense, but they also offer opportunities for character development. When your characters are threatened, denied satisfaction, or in danger, we get to see a lot of how they think and feel in those situations. This will draw characters together or push them apart. Make the most of your obstacles by planning ahead and you will have less trouble with writer’s block.

Climax - This is the moment when your character(s) reach their goal. It’s the big scene, so make it count! Readers want to see the struggle, so bring on the action and the drama.

Denouement - This fancy French word is simply the period of a story where we wrap it all up nicely with a satisfying ending. That doesn’t mean it has to be a happy ending, but it should provide some closure. Love a good cliff-hanger? Go right ahead, but be sure you have thought it through and the ending leaves the reader wanting more instead of scratching their heads in confusion.

Our group had a lot of questions this week about character development and point of view. We’ll cover that in detail next week, but for now I leave you with this question:

 ”What is more important, the journey or the people on the journey?” 

Happy writing!

                                             ~ Heather

Writing Club: Describing a Setting

Yesterday I met with young writers at the Main Library in Little Rock, Arkansas for our first ever NaNoWriMo group. I was blown away by the diverse group that showed up to write with us. After a long day of school, kids between the ages of 8 and 18 trickled in to share their ideas and a little of their passion for books. I heard a fifth grader swapping book ideas with a twelfth grader and saw all kinds of genres represented from poetry to crime drama. Amazing! I know some people have a hard time working with kids, but I am constantly amazed by the creativity and talent demonstrated in some of the youngest writers. I heard a few lamenting that they are forced to write what their teacher’s assign instead of what they love, but I encouraged them to write anyway because every single opportunity to write is an opportunity to improve. Then, someday you’ll be able to write what you love all day long and that is an amazing treat!

Settings
Anyway, in our short time together I shared a few tips for description and reviewed some of the brainstorming concepts I shared with all of you here a few weeks ago. I asked them to come up with three different settings. They suggested a planet, a cave, and a battleship. We listed a few adjectives to describe each setting. Here’s what we came up with:

When I see the word “planet”, I instantly picture something else entirely. Mars with its red dirt and and expansive deserts, perhaps. A green swirling fog is so unique and utterly different from what I pictured, but isn’t that incredible? With just four words we have an entirely different picture in our minds. Now the trick is to show our readers the same image we have in mind.

Show vs. Tell
 We want our readers to be able to visualize our settings, our characters, and their actions as fully as possible so that they feel as though they were in the middle of the story with them. One way to do that is to describe the setting using your five senses. So, to our list we might add a few distinctive words describing the smell of the air, the feel of the dampness on our skin, or the shouts of soldiers on the battleship. Instead of saying the deck of the battleship was wet, we will describe how the main character nearly slips as he races across the deck or we’ll describe the spray of sea water or the raging wind and rain of an enormous storm. We give our readers clues that let them decide for themselves that the deck is wet instead of just telling them it is. This involves them in the scene as a participant and gives our writing a richer quality.

It’s difficult, I won’t lie, but something we should continue to practice if we want to be better writers. So, why don’t you give it a try? Brainstorm a few settings for the story you are working on and list as many descriptive words as you can using your five senses. Then, use those words to help you create sentences to show the reader how it feels to stand in your setting. What will they see, hear, smell, feel as they enter your world? When you’re finished, come back and leave us your favorite sentence. I would love to see what you came up with as you try your hand at the Show vs. Tell technique.

                                                                       Happy Writing!

                                                                                                                ~ Heather

Brainstorming in Action

Yesterday I demonstrated a brainstorming technique called mind webbing. Well, today I’m going to show how we use brainstorming to help us develop our ideas into actual sentences or entire stories.

My best advice is to try to focus on creating a clear image in your head of either a scene or a character. As you look at the words you’ve added to your web, what comes to mind? I tend to think in settings first and characters second, but many great writers find themselves building a story around a solid character. Either way, the point is to find a good starting point that inspires you and to go from there, adding bits and pieces until you have a story forming.

So, here’s today’s challenge:  A Short Story

Use your mind web to write a short story. This should be a very short story, just one or two pages of a scene to help you practice writing from a mind web. As you look at your mind web, try to picture the scene or a character. Then, use the words you’ve listed to help you write strong sentences. When you’re finished, come back and tell us all about it. Visit us next Monday to see what we’re up to next time in writing club.

Happy writing!

Heather

Friday Friends: Christine Locke

Christine Locke, author of Open Door, is our guest today. She shares her tips for making your stories unique and exciting.

All my kids are writers—well, all the ones over the age of 10.  There’s something about being young and exerting your personal power through words that resonates with a bright, creative soul.  Our oldest crafted realistic fiction peopled with her friends & acquaintances; her sister wrote poetry.  Our older boy wrote a fantasy fiction series set in “Dragon World.”  My younger two girls write realistic tales about young people, one in the vein of Christian fiction and the other creating screenplays for videos she acts out using her dolls and stop-motion techniques.  I can’t wait to see what my youngest two will write!

Heather has asked me to describe my own process for young writers seeking inspiration.   I’d love to help, so here are three goals I strive to meet to make a story original and entertaining.

 

 1. Make it different.

There are so many stories out that that you already know and love; how do you make your story different?  You’ve probably heard that all good stories start with the question, What if?  That’s important to ask; just don’t stop with the first twist.  Take your favorite story and give it the “What if?” treatment.  We have a name for this now: fan fiction.  It’s a great thing that sometimes leads to new writing careers.   But I encourage you to take the story born from your first What if? and ask again, What if?  Do this enough times and your favorite story and its characters drop away while an original one with new people moves in.  This story is all yours: your plot, your characters, your setting.

For Open Door, I did this with the twin ideas of power and evil (and, ok, at first my process involved a certain popular vampire storyline…).  How does power become evil?  Is power evil in itself?  Even more interesting, how does something evil get powerful?  I went on to ask, What if evil did not wear a human face?  Voldemort, Darth Vader, and Angelis: these are fantastic fictional examples of evil, but all have a familiar, distorted, almost-human form.  What if evil were just as real, but more a potential than a personification?  What if the physical form that evil wore was NOT human-like in any way?

2. Make it Personal

Only you can decide how to make your tales personal.  For Open Door, I cast a young girl as my heroine.  I’m in the middle of raising 5 of them.  I remember feeling alone, confused and isolated when I was my character’s age.  I also set my story in the 1980’s (my own adolescent years) partly to help myself remember those feelings.

Then, I decided to use a real city as my setting.  I love writing about my native Arkansas, but for Open Door, I wanted a unique location.  It had to be isolated, recently a wilderness, full of natural beauty, and a place respecting individuality and creativity.  It delighted me to “find” Eureka Springs, AR a few years ago.  Since then, I’ve visited as often as I can (you will have seen it if you watch the show “Ghost Hunters”).

The small city of Eureka Springs looks, feels, and smells like a place where magic lives.  I read somewhere that Eureka Springs is the only city in the United States where no two roads meet at right angles.  I don’t know if that’s true, but it’s believable.  When we stood in the parking lot of the hotel and looked at the church next door, we were actually looking at the church’s roof.  That’s how steep the hills are there, and it seems every structure is on the side of another hill.  To get to the church next to our hotel, we walked down steep flights of stairs built into the hill on which both the hotel and the church stand.  It’s beautiful, unique, interesting, and mysterious—and it’s great exercise!

 3. Make it perfect.

When I say to make your story perfect, I mean come as close as you can to a grammatically and visually perfect manuscript.  You want your creation to be a pleasure to read: the reader won’t notice how different & personal your story is if there are too many typos!

 

I hope you have the chance to read Open Door, and I hope you love it.  I want to wish you the very best of future success with your own tales.  Above all, I urge you to keep those pens moving across paper, those cursors blipping across screens, and those stories flowing from your own heart out into the waiting world.  Good luck and happy writing!

Brainstorming Tips with author Brian Clopper

I was delighted to discover Brian Clopper, an author I shared with you earlier this week in my review of his book, Graham the Gargoyle.  Brian astounds me with his clever writing, but my kids are even more impressed with his artwork.  Brian is also a teacher and I bet his 5th grade students are just about the luckiest kids I know.  How cool to have a teacher who is also a writer and comic book artist!  Today, Brian shares with us some fun tips and tricks for creating new story ideas.  Enjoy!

* * * * * * *

Coming up with story ideas has never been a problem for me. There are three techniques I teach my students to help them gain confidence in brainstorming. All three are quick, fun and easy to do.

Odd Pairings: Take two or three ideas that are wildly different from each other and put them together. For example, I created MONSTERS IN BOXERS, a book about kids who put on magical boxer shorts and transform into superhuman monsters ready to do battle with evil, by pairing monsters with boxers. How can you go wrong with that?

Here are other examples:
MY BIG TOE TALKS TO ME
MY SOAP, THE COMEDIAN
SNOWMAN SHOPPING TRIP
THE CAFETERIA COW
UNDERGROUND ASTRONAUT

Changing Expectations: this technique has some overlap with Odd Pairings. When brainstorming Changing Expectations, you use animal, professions, and objects and think of where you’d expect to find them or how they would act and turn the expectation upside down. Most of us assume an elephant would be large, clumsy and prone to stampeding first and asking questions second. But what if you change the expectation and imagine an elephant that is graceful and delicate. You have yourself an elephant ballerina and world of story possibilities.

Here are some more:
A gargoyle afraid of heights (sorry, already taken in my series GRAHAM THE GARGOYLE)
A noisy Bigfoot
An angry butterfly
A very well-spoken caveman
A vampire who wants to be a lifeguard (Sorry again, already used that in NORTON THE VAMPIRE)
A mummy who flies

The final idea generator is Randomizing. This was shared with me by a couple of cartoonists who like to get together and use Pictionary cards to help them generate story ideas. That’s exactly what you do. You randomly draw three Pictionary cards and select three or four ideas and string them together to form a story. It’s a lot of fun and is actually another use for Pictionary at parties, especially among the younger set who really love this.

Here’s how it works:
I select scarecrow, race cars and trophy from the Pictionary cards in front of me. Inspiration strikes and I whip up the story of a scarecrow that races cars, but has a natural problem in that when the car goes too fast, he loses his straw due to the excessive winds. He has to win back a trophy to save his farm from going belly up. All the other farm animals don’t have faith in him, and he must dig deep to solve his dilemma.

You can see changing expectations and odd pairings at work in the summary of my word play novel written to inspire young writers, STOMPER REX.

WITH THE OPENING OF A HATCH that appears on his ceiling, a troubled mortal boy, Stomper, is enlisted to save the fractured land of Crawlspace and reunite the magic. Trouble comes from all directions once he sets foot in the magical world of the written word. If Stomper can master alliterations, homophones, rhymes, similes and idioms before they do him in, Crawlspace might just have a fighting chance.

STOMPER REX is a romp through a magical world of dangerous word play. In the vein of THE PHANTOM TOLLBOOTH, this whimsical fantasy is a tale with lethal homophones, alliteration gone acutely awry and a host of hideous puns let loose that will disgust and confound.

Brian Clopper is a 5th grade teacher who dreams of a day when he too can set foot on a magic ladder and ride his way into a world where when hens fly to turn back time, skewer cougars hunt for unsuspecting children to shish kabob and boxing slugs engage in the rowdy gentleman’s sport of slimy fisticuffs.

Skewer cougars and boxing slugs are odd pairings, while when hens are a changing expectation. Who would think that riding atop a flock of harmless-looking birds would allow you to travel back in time? It’s all part of the magic that makes the world of Crawlspace come alive.

Odd pairings, Changing Expectations and randomizing are excellent ways to fill up your idea journal with tons of story possibilities. So what are you waiting for, get off your tuckus and get creating. There’s a zebra plumber or an ornery unicorn waiting for you to bring them to life.

Just so you know, I loaded a new book, STOMPER REX, onto the Kindle and Nook. It’s a perfect book to engage young writers with how to improve their writing using a variety of narrative techniques. Piers Anthony sung its praises, as he has all five books I’ve sent him over the years, in his most recent newsletter. I’m so proud of what he said, I just feel compelled to share it with you.

“I read Stomper Rex, by Brian Clopper. Bradford, nicknamed Stomper, is a fifth grader who has issues at school. He lives with his mother, his father having walked out. His mother is understanding but firm about his need to shape up. She gets him a tutor, Wanda, a teen girl he has a crush on, so he does pay attention as she reviews the material. This setting is competent, as the author is a fifth grade teacher; the secondary characters are well rounded. Then two odd men descend from his bedroom ceiling to take him to a fantasy land where he is needed. They are Ruffloon and Strivelwunk, who put him on a ladder which then flies into the land of Crawlspace, where there are many monsters, and much of the magic is made by figures of speech. Yes, the very thing he is having trouble with in school. I suspect this novel was a female dog to write, because coming up with relevant figures of speech when you need them can be a challenge, as I have found in my own writing. For example, when he is threatened by multiple snakes, he says “Fake snake!” and they merge into one pretend snake. That’s pretty simple, but others aren’t, such as “Try knocking loose those lox.” That’s homophone magic to make locks give way. It seems he has been summoned to defeat the cruel mistress of this realm, Stigma, a girl who visited but then decided to stay and rule, and they need to be rid of her. They have many adventures, requiring different figures of speech. Naturally there’s a climactic showdown, and strange things happen as they fight with whatever figures of speech they can think of under pressure. This novel represents a kind of course in figures of speech, and fifth graders who read it will surely develop a better understanding and possibly become better students. That may be the hidden agenda. This author continues to be a writer who deserves better attention in the literary world; this novel is anything but mindless.”

 

Story Starter Tuesday

Today is my son’s birthday!  So, in honor of his special day, I thought we could have some fun with a birthday themed storystarter.  I asked the birthday kid to help me out and here is the story he wanted us to tell:

story starter

I just had the most crazy birthday party EVER!  My parents took me out to dinner and on the way home they were acting sort of funny.  As we pulled up to the house, I started to suspect something was up.  We walked up the front steps and my parents hung back a little.  ”Go on,” they said. “Open the door.”  So I reached out and twisted the doorknob, pulling it open with a jerk.   “Surprise!”

Boy was I surprised!  You will never guess what happened next.

 

How does your story end?  Birthday boy here says his story includes a portal to another world!  Leave a comment and tell us what awesome thing happened in your own story.

Story Starter Tuesday

Today’s story starter is a chance for you to practice yesterday’s exercise in describing the setting.

story starter

I crept silently up the marble staircase and down the carpeted hall.  At the end stood two massive oak doors with brass handles.  Reaching up, I tugged on the door handle until it came open with a groan.  I gazed into the massive room, awestruck.  It wasn’t what I had expected at all!  This room was like nothing I had ever seen.

>Writing Exercise: Story Starters

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***Congratulations to Becca Campbell who won a free copy of Island of Fog!***



Ask yourself this question…. How to get more out of story starters.
My kids say I should be offering more ways to get kids writing.  I completely agree.  They suggested a few fabulous ideas and one of them is the classic “story starter”.  So, starting tomorrow, I’ll be offering up a story starter each week for you writers out there who need a little jumpstart.  Share them with friends, make a game out of it.  See who can write the most fantastic story from one little sentence.  But first, I want to teach you how to make a story starter more fun and more effective.  

Let’s say I give you a story starter like this one: You are riding through the woods with a group of friends.  Then, suddenly….

Well, that should be an easy one, right?  But wait!  Before you start writing ask yourself this question – What are you riding on?  How many of you read that story starter and instantly pictured your friends on either a horse or a bicycle?  What other things could you be riding through the woods?  Could you be riding a motorcycle?  Inside a car or even a royal carriage?  What about riding on a unicorn?  A dinosaur?  A giant spotted leopard?  A mutant plant?

Do you see how asking yourself that one question could change the entire direction of a story?  It could change the genre from classic fairytale to alien space adventure!  Write the unexpected.  Imagine something new.  Tomorrow I’ll give you a new story starter to play with, so come back and this time… bring a pencil!

Gotta Write,
Heather