Writing, writing advice, Writing Club, writing exercise

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

Brian Clopper, elementary, Friday, Indie Authors, inspiration, writing exercise, writing games

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 starters, Uncategorized

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 starters

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, writing advice, writing exercise

Writing Exercise: Describing a Setting

I had a friend ask me today, “How do [writers] come up with all the details? When I’m reading something and the author is describing every last little detail about something, I’m just in awe because I never would have thought of it.”

What a wonderful question!  I think there are probably several good answers to this one because writers don’t all write the same way.  Still, I am happy to offer two ideas here for you who are interested and I’ll challenge you to try a little exercise with me at the end.

1. The Movie Reel

So far, in my own writing, I find that scenes appear as a sort of vivid movie in my mind.  I work as frantically as I can to describe what I’m seeing as the movie plays on, trying to capture it all while it’s fresh in my mind.  This is both good and bad.  It means that my scenes are vivid and often filled with natural movement or dialogue.  The hardest things, then, are trying to translate the emotions I can feel coming from my characters and also trying not to rush through it.  I often have to go back and do several revisions trying to fill in the blanks because I was hurrying the first draft as I attempted to capture it before the movie moved on without me.

There is a calmer way to do it, and if you aren’t lucky enough to see movies in your head, then it is how you will want to describe your scenes.

2. Twenty Questions

As a writing teacher, this is what I tell my students.  When you are describing a scene, ask yourself a few questions.

  • How does it feel there?

Weather can affect this, but so can other forces like housekeeping or strong emotions.  Ask yourself, Is it windy, warm, mild, sweltering, stuffy, scary etc.  Make a list of the words that come to mind as you imagine how it feels.  Textures can be good in a description, too.  For instance, the wall paper was smooth, the car’s paint was shiny, the cat’s fur against my cheek was soft, the carpet was thick and fluffy, etc.

  • What does it smell like?

Most every where we go has a distinct smell or two, especially when you first arrive somewhere or when something special is happening.  Does your character smell flowers, fresh bread baking, the sweat of a dog or a person, a cloud of perfume, fresh laundry, cookies in the oven, dead fish?  Just this short list of phrases draws to mind a set of images!  Imagine how describing the smell of your scene could help your reader to see your story better.

  • What do you see?

If you were standing in your character’s shoes, what would you see?  Take a look around.  Describe what would stand out to that character.  If they walk into a new house and are thinking about buying it, they will look at the details differently than if they are walking in just to deliver a package or watch some t.v.  So, try to think from your character’s perspective and ask yourself What do I see?

  • Do you hear that?

The tiny buzz of a gnat, the drip of a faucet, the whir of a fan trying to cool a room.  These are sounds that could help the reader to understand your setting better.  What does your character hear?

Try to focus on giving the reader just a few very strong visuals like these as you describe your setting.  It shouldn’t be pages and pages of you describing in painful detail every single thing you would hear, see or smell in a setting.  Just choose the ones that you think would best give the reader a real feel for the place.

Now, Try This:

Choose a setting and place a character there.  If you have a story you have already worked on, then choose one scene and try this with your character.  Close your eyes and enter the scene in your mind.  Take a good look around.  What does it feel like?  What do you smell?  What can you see?  Did you hear that?  What was it?  Then, make a list of your observations.  Choose three or four that you like best and put them together into a short paragraph, describing the scene from your character’s point of view.

Gotta Write,

Heather

Writing, writing exercise

Writing Exercise: Inanimate Perspective

>***Congratulations to Amy B! She won the Barnes and Noble gift card prize from Sarah Treu! Watch on Wednesday for a new book giveaway!***

Did you ever imagine your toys were secretly alive? Dozens of well-loved books (The Velveteen Rabbit) and movies (Toy Story) make me think I wasn’t alone in this childhood fantasy. Well, now that you are a little bigger, let’s use that imagination to help you become a better writer.

Writing Exercise: Look around the room. Choose one object and imagine that it could tell you it’s thoughts.

Ask yourself the following questions: What did it see today? How does it feel? Does it like it here? Does it enjoy it’s “job”? What does it dream of doing? If it could escape, where would it go and why?

I’m sure you can think of more questions to ask your chosen item. Now, write a short story from its perspective. Tomorrow, come back to try our Tuesday Story Starter and you’ll be glad for the practice.

story starters

>Story Starter Tuesday

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If you missed the lesson on how to get more out of your story starter fun, click here



 Here is this week’s story starter:

I was so excited to be his assistant for a day that I accidently dropped the cup he had given me.  The liquid spilled out onto the grass, forming a small puddle at my feet.  But then I noticed something strange …

story starters, writing exercise

>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