Tuesday, December 4, 2012

And That’s Why

Here's one more thing about character needs that needs to be addressed: Motivation. Why do our characters desire the things we have so thoughtfully attributed to them?

You may remember an earlier post in which I said the nursery rhyme “Little Miss Muffet” was a good example of a story except that I would prefer to know why she was so frightened by the spider. In a nursery rhyme it may not be that important; but in a story, the “reason why” can be a major force in shaping the course of the story.

In his book Creating Characters, Dwight Swain calls this process rationalization. He defines it this way:
“Rationalize: to provide plausible (but not necessarily true) reasons for conduct. To attribute (one’s actions) to rational and creditable motives without analysis of the true and especially unconscious motives.” (p. 9)
“Without analysis of the true and especially unconscious motives.” This is the key phrase here. When we rationalize, we make up excuses for why people behave the way they do... even though we have no way of knowing the real reasons. Their behavior confuses us, so we try to think up a reason that makes sense to us. That reason may not be their real reason, but it makes sense to us... so we accept it.

Swain says the same is true of fictional characters.

Since we don’t really know why our characters are doing what they do, we can just make up a reason that makes sense to us. And the beauty of it is that it’s perfectly alright to do so; just as different people might do the same thing but for different reasons, so might our characters:
“Not that any of these people’s beliefs, estimable or otherwise, were necessarily wrong, you understand; quite possibly they were right on target. It’s just that there was no way, no way whatever, that you could prove or disprove them. Indeed, it was entirely possible to advance other, equally plausible hypotheses to account for each individual's behavior... it meant that, within the bounds of my imagination, I was free to create any kind of character I wished, and have him do anything I might conceive, provided only that I rationalized the character’s behavior in such a manner that readers believed it.” (p. 10)
When you create a character, any motivation is acceptable so long as it is plausible to the reader. Perhaps your character acts a certain way because he had a good childhood; then again, she may act that way because she didn’t have a good childhood. Either reason is acceptable as long as it makes sense within your story.

Don’t make the motivations of your character a sticking point in your writing. Just choose a reason, any reason for your character’s actions; all that matters is that it’s a plausible reason. If you find a better one later on, you can change it then.

After all, you’re the storyteller. And ultimately, that’s why your characters do anything at all.

This is going to be my last post for a while. I've got a lot of projects to finish -- not easy readers -- and something had to give, so I'm putting this blog on hiatus for a while. I plan to get back to it later in 2013. In the meantime, the existing posts should help you get your own writing in gear. And if you leave any comments, I've set up the blog to notify me. I'll answer your questions as quickly as I can.

In the meantime, write some good stories!

Friday, November 30, 2012

Fifth: It’s What’s Inside That Counts

And last but not least:
5. The best character needs aren’t external needs, but internal ones.
This final reason for knowing every character’s driving desire is important because so many writers simply don’t get it.

My last post hinted at this aspect of character creation. McClane’s need to reconcile with Holly is an internal need that is expressed through external action. People may enjoy all the action, but for the most part it’s way outside their experience. Rather, it’s the internal need that people relate to and identify with.

You might not realize it, but even Gruber is motivated by an internal need. It shows up in many ways during the movie, but perhaps the most direct statement of it comes near the climax. Gruber has realized who Holly really is and has taken her down to the vault with him. As Holly watches Gruber’s men and realizes that the “terrorist plot” is little more than a farce to cover their true intent, she remarks that Gruber is just a common thief. In a rare moment of anger, Gruber jumps in her face and says, “I am an exceptional thief, Mrs. McClane, and since I’m moving up to kidnapping, you should be more polite!”

Gruber holding Holly hostage

It appears that Hans Gruber has an internal need to be the best at something, to prove that he is superior to everyone else, doesn’t it? It’s this inner passion that makes his character sizzle onscreen, that makes him a fitting villain to challenge John McClane’s “cowboy.” It creates the chemistry between the two that made Die Hard a box office smash.

By now I hope you understand why it’s so important to know what every character wants in your story. A properly-chosen personal passion can make even the most outlandish plot seem plausible. By knowing this one thing about your characters, you could conceivably revolutionize your ability to write powerful, gripping stories.

The photo came from the IMBD image database.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Fourth: Are You Sure That’s What You Want?

Here's the fourth reason you need to know what a character wants more than anything:
4. What a character appears to be after isn’t necessarily what they’re actually after.
In the movie Die Hard, the villain Hans Gruber is involved in a very complex theft, one that he has camouflaged as a terrorist act. All is going well except for one thing: a cop named John McClane. For some reason McClane has set his sights on thwarting Gruber’s plans... and Gruber has no idea why. Gruber spends most of the movie tearing his hair out, trying to figure out why McClane won’t give up. It’s only at the climax of the movie that Gruber figures out what’s really going on: McClane’s wife Holly, going under her maiden name of Gennero, is one of his hostages.

Of course, movie viewers know this from the beginning of the movie. Part of the excitement of the movie comes from wondering when Gruber will figure it out.

Why does this little bit of subterfuge work so well? Why doesn’t it come across as being contrived? Many movies using a ploy like this would fall flat.

The reason is because what McClane appears to be after isn’t what he’s actually after. Many writers would have made McClane’s reason for action a simple matter of a quest for justice — or, to use Igor’s line from the last post, “It’s what I do.” This is a common mistake writers often make; namely, that the hero’s goal is simply to accomplish the plot points of the story.

The writers of Die Hard chose instead to give McClane an unexpected passion: to mend a fractured relationship with his estranged wife. When Holly winds up as a hostage, McClane must rescue her in order to achieve his true goal. McClane’s motivations are now totally believable; the rescue of his estranged wife is a personal goal that all moviegoers could relate to, yet it was big enough and strong enough to explain why he would endure the ridiculously hard challenges he was required to overcome in the movie plot.

This is a useful technique to remember in your own writing. It’s logical to assume that your character’s biggest need is to achieve the goal of the story... but it’s not particularly realistic to do so. Giving your character a need that sends him or her in an unexpected direction also helps with plotting, since accomplishing an easy-to-understand goal can send us into complex situations.

Many of us pursue a course of action in our lives that makes no sense to anybody... maybe not even us. The reason is that what we appear to be after isn’t we’re actually after; a lot of psychoanalysis is focused purely on helping us connect the two. The irony is that even children can understand that, and it's fairly simple to make sure that they do. After all, if Holly is McClane's wife and she's in trouble, he needs to rescue her, doesn't he?

Our characters, when they seem most real, are struggling with the same issues as the rest of us... which brings us to reason #5 in the next post.

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Third: Villains Need Love Too

Here's the third reason you need to know what a character wants more than anything:
3. When I say “every character,” I mean every... with some minor exceptions.
As a general rule, since you want every character to seem real, you need to know what they all want. Yes, all of them.

Even the bad guys.

This is one place where most writers fail at one time or another. It can be very easy to invest yourself in the hero, to give him a passion that you identify with, and make him seem very real... and then make a two-dimensional villain. Or perhaps you find the villain to be the most interesting character in your story, so you turn him into a fully-rounded character... and then turn him loose to face a boring hero with a paste-on smile.

Either case is a sure ticket to a failed story.

Every character in the story wants something. You don’t have to put anywhere near the work into a secondary character that you put into a main character, but knowing what each character wants goes a long way toward making your story more gripping and your characters more memorable. (Remember this, because failure to do so — to give each major character in the story a passion — is responsible for maybe 80 to 85% of our difficulties when it comes to developing a story idea.)

Now, there is one exception to this rule. This minor exception is, appropriately enough, the minor (or walk-on) character. This is a character who appears only briefly in the story, perhaps as part of the background, or is a character that we don’t really want people to care about. An obvious example might be someone whom our main character meets on the street and asks for directions. But on occasion this character plays a larger part, which requires a defter touch.

For my money, the classic example is Igor in the movie Van Helsing. Igor exists primarily as comic relief and the writers didn’t want us to like him; in fact, they wanted us to enjoy it when he met his end during the climactic fight at the end of the movie. So how did they do this?

They avoided giving him any depth by making him a character with no goals; he just does what he’s told.

In one particularly humorous moment early in the movie, Igor is seen with what I can only describe as a gigantic electric cattle prod, and he’s using it on a werewolf. When Count Dracula asks him, “Why are you torturing that poor creature?” Igor replies, with a shrug that implies it should be self-evident, “It’s what I do.”

While such a two-dimensional character may work well as comic relief, it’s unforgivable to treat a major character with the same lack of respect. Give all your major characters a driving passion, and you’ll have gone a long way toward making your characters come alive on the page.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Second: Using The Internal Compass

Here's the second reason you need to know what a character wants more than anything:
2. What a character needs is what drives his actions in the story... all his actions, not just the external conflicts in the story.
As the story goes on and the character’s path gets tougher, the character moves from:
  • interested in getting his desire to
  • must get his desire to
  • obsessed with getting his desire.
The character takes bigger and bigger risks as he goes, simply because he used the easiest routes to goal attainment first and they failed. (Don’t you do the same thing?) This results in that miraculous aspect of fiction writing sometimes referred to as rising action.

A character’s pursuit of his heart’s desire will automatically cause the stakes to rise as the story goes along. This is both important and useful to know if you struggle with ratcheting up the tension as the plot progresses.

But it doesn’t stop there.

Everything that the character does, and all of his thoughts and choices, are shaped in some degree by that one desire. It acts as a compass, directing him on a daily, almost minute-by-minute basis. And because of that, it also acts as your compass, helping you decide what to include and what to leave out of the story. Your story is, after all, about your character’s pursuit of his heart’s desire... and it makes no sense to include things that don’t further his attainment of that goal. That's especially true in an easy reader, where the number of words you use are at a premium.

I know you probably think I’m beating this “compass” idea to death, but it’s so vital to staying on track in your writing that I have to. Most people, once they set their mind on something, filter out all distractions and set a laserlike course toward their goal. Some of those “distractions” are things that shouldn’t be ignored, but everything is sacrificed in the pursuit of the goal. (These ignored “distractions” often provide some of the more interesting complications in your story.)

So remember this “law of increasing obsession” when working with your characters. Your writing will be much stronger for it.

Friday, November 16, 2012

First: The “Grab Me” Factor

In my last post I said that the one thing you must know about each character in your story is what that character wants most. I listed five reasons you needed to know this, and that we would look at each in turn. Today we start...

The first reason should be almost intuitive:
1. No matter whether your story is inspired by a character, a world, or a plot (all are valid starting points), it's the character who fuels the emotional dimension of the story, who causes your readers to identify with and hook into your tale.
Some people start writing a story because a certain character grips their imagination; some people naturally create worlds and wonder what kinds of adventures might happen in them; and still others have an idea for an adventure and set about creating characters and worlds in which it might take place. There is no single right way to develop a story idea but, when all is said and done, it’s the characters in the successful story that the reader ultimately remembers.

This should come as no surprise. No matter how novel the world is or how gripping the plot, we are “characters” ourselves and so we tend to identify with other characters whom we find appealing. For that reason alone, we owe it to our readers -- and especially our youngest readers, who may struggle with the very act of reading -- to make our characters as “identifiable with” as we can...

And what readers generally identify with is a character who wants things that they can sympathize with.

Think about that for a minute. Think about the stories (or series of stories) you’ve enjoyed most. Isn’t it the characters — or frequently, one particular character — that you most relate to? Or think about TV and movie series that have developed huge, almost cult followings. Don’t the fans usually identify with one specific cast member’s character? (If you see them at a fan convention, you probably don’t even have to ask which character that is; you can recognize the character’s costume, which they are most certainly wearing. Beam me up, Scotty!)

Knowing that readers tend to identify with characters who share the same passions as they have, doesn’t it make sense that the most important thing to know about a character is what he or she is most passionate about? Any time you find yourself stuck and unable to decide what a character should do in the scene you’re writing, you should immediately stop and ask yourself:
What is this character most passionate about? What does he want most, and what is the most logical choice he could make at this point in this story to bring him closer to that goal?
Nine times out of 10, I bet the answer to those questions will get you unstuck.

There is no more important thing that you can know about a character than their heart’s desire. This one piece of information serves as the character’s compass... and yours as well.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The One Thing You Must Know About Every Character

In many ways, writing easy readers is no different from writing fiction for adults. You use the same basic "blocks" to build all stories. You need to simplify the blocks when writing for children -- you have less space, fewer words, and less complicated plotting -- but good storytelling always uses the same techniques.

One of those "blocks" is particularly essential to good storytelling. And if for some reason a story "isn't working," this is the first thing I check.

In all likelihood, you have heard teachers say that conflict is the guiding principle of all fiction. You may have been taught that fiction is conflict. You may have even heard the old saw, “Conflict is two dogs and one bone.”

There’s a lot of truth in all those sayings... but it’s a bit misleading as well. An over-emphasis on conflict can actually cause your story to fall flat. Conflict isn’t a cause in fiction; rather, conflict is the result of characters doing what comes naturally.

And what comes naturally to characters? The same thing that comes naturally to all of us human beings...

Going after what we want.

So it follows that the one thing you absolutely must know about every character in your story is... what does she want more than anything else?

“Ah, yes,” you say. “That’s all well and good. Each character wants something, and I should know what that something is. But I don’t see anything so revolutionary about that.”

But it is revolutionary because there’s so much more to this than just “every character wants something and I should know what it is.” In fact, understanding this one concept can completely change your approach to writing.

There are several reasons why this is so, and we’ll be looking at each of them over the next few posts. They are:
  1. No matter whether your story is inspired by a character, a world, or a plot (all are valid starting points), it's the character who fuels the emotional dimension of the story, who causes your readers to identify with and hook into your tale.
  2. What a character needs is what drives his actions in the story... all his actions, not just the external conflicts in the story.
  3. When I say “every character,” I mean every... with some minor exceptions.
  4. What a character appears to be after isn’t necessarily what they’re actually after.
  5. The best character needs aren’t external needs, but internal ones.
I think you'll find that knowing what your character wants immediately improves your storytelling.

Friday, November 9, 2012

A Use for the Useless

Today's plot sparker is a simple concept that you've probably heard people joke about from time to time. The quickest way to explain it is probably this movie clip.

Before there were movies like Dumb and Dumber there was Airplane. Airplane was fun because it took so many "serious" actors -- like Lloyd Bridges, Leslie Nielson (yes, he used to do serious stuff), and Robert Stack -- and put them in a comedy. The bit I'd like to call your attention to happens around the :20 second mark in this collection of clips from the movie, starring the childlike Jonny and a newspaper:



"Jonny, what do you make out of this?" Bridges asks, and Jonny replies, "This? Well, I could make a cap, or a broach, or a pterodactyl..."

I call this sparker "uses for the useless" because it reminds me of Jonny's useless suggestions. A pterodactyl? Why would you even try?

But suppose your character came across something useless but she was so captivated by it that she decided to do something with it. That could make a good story, especially if that "something" was completely useless and the use your character came up with was somewhat bizarre.

Jonny's suggestions for the newspaper don't sound very promising, do they? A cap, a broach... wait, did he say a pterodactyl??? Oh, I'm seeing a story idea already! Don't you? No? You can't figure out how you get a story out of pterodactyls and newspapers? Well, I'll give you this one for free, just so you get the idea...

Suppose little Jonny decided to enter a science fair and, being a dinosaur geek (maybe like Dinosaur Dan on Nick Jr.) he decides to create a dinosaur model. But not just any dinosaur -- a pterodactyl. And not some little dinky model -- oh no, not our Jonny! He decides to build a lifesize model. According to Wikipedia:
"Pterodactylus was a relatively small pterosaur, with an estimated adult wingspan of about 1.5 meters (5 ft) in P. antiquus."
A five-foot wingspan! Where is he going to get the materials to... oh, wait a minute. How about newspaper? A pterodactyl built from paper-mache and wire and whatever else he can get hold of! But imagine the problems involved -- not just building it, but transporting it to the science fair. And what if that little bugger could actually fly if the wind caught it?

Of course, the wind would have to catch it in your story, wouldn't it? I can imagine the bedlam when folks in a small town suddenly start seeing a pterodactyl gliding overhead...

The world is full of useless objects that people throw away. Some of them, like old newspapers, lend themselves to inventive stories. And if your character finds something really unusual... well, who knows what kind of story you might create?

Monday, November 5, 2012

Let Me Repeat That Again

I have a series of three books by an author named Eve Heidi Bine-Stock. They're called How to Write a Children's Picture Book (there are 3 volumes) and they use several different children's books to teach good writing techniques.

Picture books and easy readers have a lot in common, although picture books typically use vocabulary and sentence structure that's far too complex for an easy reader. (Remember, adults read picture books to children while children try to read easy readers themselves.) Still, some of the techniques that make picture books so enjoyable can be used in an easy reader.

One of these things -- and one which Bine-Stock points out in several of her examples -- is repetition. Repetition helps a young reader learn new words by letting them see the same word several times. Frequent exposure equals better retention... or at least that's the theory. (It works when I'm trying to learn something new, anyway.)

But there are good ways to repeat things and there are bad ways to repeat things. Knowing the difference can make your book more readable.

Repetition is more than just saying the same thing over and over. For example, in that last paragraph I used a form of repetition intended to emphasize a difference. I wrote "But there are good ways to repeat things and there are bad ways to repeat things." Most of the words are the same, but one phrase contrasts with the other. See what I mean?

Many people think free verse poetry has no structure... but it does. The structure is built around repetition -- the repetition of a sound, a word, a phrase, or even a verse structure. You can do the same thing in an easy reader. Repetition creates a rhythm of its own, and the trick is often in using it without overusing it.

You can use a series of words linked by "ands" instead of commas. Depending on the words you link, you can slow a sentence down or make something seem more impressive. Or, to put it another way, you can make something seem to grow or shrink.

You can repeat words at the ends of successive sentences to create a sense of closure. You don't want to overdo this, but it can certainly help tie things together.

One method that Bine-Stock mentions comes from the book Harry the Dirty Dog, where Gene Zion does it a couple of times:
In fact, he changed from a white dog with black spots, to a black dog with white spots.
And:
He flip-flopped and he flop-flipped.
Again, you wouldn't want to overdo this, but it lends a certain playfulness to the story.

Lyle, Lyle< Crocodile coverThe book Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile is built on all kinds of repetition. Many of them are simple parallel sentence constructions. In addition to the kinds of repetition listed already (and no, these aren't quotes from the book, just examples of how repetition works):
  • One character does the same thing as another character, so they're described with the same words (such as "Joe ate a cookie. Then Jane ate a cookie.")
  • Words at the beginning of one sentence are repeated at the end of another. ("The store? Why would I go to the store?")
  • One person asks a question, the other replies using the same words. ("Did you see a green elephant?" "No, I didn't see a green elephant.")
  • Repetitions can grow. (Think of The House that Jack Built.)
Now, none of these examples require repetition to make sense. You could say "Jack ate a cookie. So did Jane." In some cases that might work perfectly fine. Or you could say "The store? Why would I go there?" There's nothing wrong with that either.

But sometimes repetition adds to the story. Personally, I think repetition often adds to the humor of a book. How much you use is a personal choice, but a little repetition in the right place can make a story particularly memorable.

If you handle repetition correctly in your easy readers, your book is more likely to be read over and over -- or, if you get my meaning, repeatedly. And that's the kind of repetition you'd like to see.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Never Work with Animals...

Or children. At least, that's what I've heard actors say. The reason? Both animals and children will upstage you.

Of course, not working with children and animals is impossible for the writer of easy readers. Most easy readers involve children or animals or both. But have you ever considered how you use them in your books?

Forget all those crazy things you've heard about editors not wanting books with talking animals -- they print gobs of them every year. Forget about kids only wanting to read about kids near their age -- that's part of the reason talking animals get used! These "rules" go in the trash along with the belief that editors don't publish books in verse -- they're just looking for good verse.

Likewise, there are good ways and bad ways to use children and animals in books. I'm particularly thinking about talking animals and (presumably) talking children. Some combinations simply shouldn't be used!

I wish I could remember where I got these "rules" from. I know I got some of them from cartoonist Christopher Hart, who used to draw the comic strip Blondie and who has a load of "how to draw cartoon" books out. But wherever I got them all from, I think you'll find them useful.

Most children's books have fantasy elements... and that makes some people worry. They worry that the kids won't be able to separate fantasy from reality. They worry that they'll read these fantasy books and expect the same things to happen in the real world. If you're one of those people, you'll find these rules very helpful in avoiding that problem.

The rules concern kids (well, humans in general) and animals talking to each other. These rules can help you make a fantasy setting seem realistic without confusing your readers.

First rule: Under normal circumstances, kids (humans) can talk to other kids, and animals can talk to other animals, but animals can't talk to kids. Sounds blatantly obvious, I know, but it needs to be stated plainly. The key words here are "under normal circumstances." If you're doing a fairly realistic story -- the world is very similar to the one we live in -- and you use normal animals, you follow the normal rules of the real world. Humans do talk to animals, but animals never talk back. They bark or meow or moo or whatever the particular animal would normally do, but that's about it.

First corollary to first rule: Animals can talk to other animals. Yeah, this is a fantasy element, but it doesn't violate our understanding of the real world. Animals do communicate with each other in various ways; the idea that they use some kind of "universal animal language" is a writer's construct to move the plot along more quickly. Obviously, if you're striving for super-realism, you don't use this shortcut... but you have to use more space explaining the nonverbal communication that goes on.

Second corollary to first rule: Animals may understand what kids say and may even discuss it amongst themselves, but they never talk back in more than a bark or a growl or a hiss or whatever. Again, this is a shortcut. The cat hissing at its owner is reacting to a perceived threat of some kind, not the actual words spoken by the owner, but we don't go into detail about that. We just make sure the cat doesn't say, "Put a sock in it, bud!"

AslanSecond rule: Animals CAN talk to kids IF the story world clearly has no relationship to reality OR if the animal clearly is a "kid in a cat suit," not a real animal. Again, this is a pretty self-explanatory rule. In the first case, Aslan the lion -- among other animals -- talks to humans in The Chronicles of Narnia, but Narnia is clearly not a real place. (The kids got there through the back of a wardrobe. Know a travel agent who can manage that?) In the second case, just think about The Cat in the Hat. Is it a "real world situation"? Supposedly... but how many six-foot-tall cats wearing red and white striped stovepipe hats and carrying umbrellas have you seen in your lifetime? In each of these cases, the writer makes it clear that the rules of the story world are very different from the rules of the real world where the reader lives and that the animals themselves are very different from normal animals. As long as you make that clear, you can stretch the rules.

Third rule: Once you make it clear what the rules of your world are, you can do anything you want as long as you don't violate those rules. Calvin can talk to his stuffed tiger Hobbes -- and actually sees Hobbes as a live tiger -- but Calvin's parents hear nothing because the stuffed tiger they see is... well, stuffed. And in a related example, even though he's in a comic strip -- where, supposedly, anything can happen -- Snoopy never utters a word. He communicates with Charlie Brown and the others in very human ways, but he never speaks in human language. In the first case, Hobbes is an imaginary friend -- an accepted part of a child's life in the real world -- whom Calvin has identified with a stuffed animal but whom his parents clearly recognize as an imaginary friend. In the second case, Snoopy may be a human in dog's clothes, but Schultz's world says an animal is still an animal so it doesn't use human language. He followed this same rule with Woodstock, Spike, Frieda's boneless cat, and every other animal in the strip.

As long as you understand the rules of your fantasy world, make them clear to your readers, and stick to them, you can work with children and animals all you like... even talking animals. I would advise avoiding actors, however... they can be very difficult to work with, and they all want their own trailers.

The picture of Aslan is originally from the 2005 live-action movie The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe and was found in Wikipedia's article on Aslan.

Monday, October 29, 2012

Brad Pitt's Not Available, So...

I stumbled across this story sparker idea quite by accident over the weekend, and it was so good I knew I had to pass it on. You're going to think you know what it is before I'm done... but I'm not so sure you'll guess right.

Most of you are familiar with the Harry Potter books, I suppose. There are 7 books in the series:
  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
  2. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
  3. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
  4. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
  5. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
  6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
  7. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
There's nothing new there, of course. But over the weekend I discovered a Tumblr site that does Harry Potter humor. (Just a warning to those of you who decide to check it out: You may find some of it objectionable. But a lot of it is just hilarious!) And on that site I found a list titled The Books from Ron’s Point of View. Here's the list:
  1. Ron Weasley and the Three-Headed Dog
  2. Ron Weasley and the Possessed Sister
  3. Ron Weasley and the Rat That Isn’t A Rat
  4. Ron Weasley and the Green Monster of Jealousy
  5. Ron Weasley and the Year of Quidditch
  6. Ron Weasley and the Girl Drama
  7. Ron Weasley and the Wooing of Hermione Granger
I'd say that list is slightly different from the first, wouldn't you?

Let's say you've got a great idea for a story... but for some reason your story is "stuck." It just won't work, no matter what you do.

Perhaps you're writing about the wrong character!

Well, maybe not, but perhaps you need to look at your story from a different angle. Telling the story from another character's viewpoint may be just what you need to get things going again.

Now, let me make something clear. This sparker is not about changing your story's narrator, which is what most people would immediately try to do. Look back at the Harry vs. Ron examples. Both lists are the same books... but while the first one tells how Harry understands the story as it happens to him, the second tells how Ron understands the exact same story happening to him!

Take the second book, Chamber of Secrets. Ginnie Weasley, one of the book's main characters, is Harry's friend but she's Ron's sister. Harry approaches the problem from a sense of revenge; anything involving Voldemort (the wizard who killed his parents) makes him want to take action. Ron, however, approaches all of this from a sense of fear; for him, Voldemort is a boogeyman whose name isn't even supposed to be spoken out loud! Both boys experience the same events, but a different story, as this photo from the blog demonstrates!

Ron and Harry

So next time you get stuck, try doing your story using a different character. Or, if you have no story idea, take a story you like and put your character in it. I bet you get some very different ideas doing that!

Friday, October 26, 2012

The Five Steps in the Creative Process

I wonder... if a picture is worth a thousand words and I have writer's block, am I short a few pictures?

I have a book by Anastasia Suen called Picture Writing. It's all about using visualization to create more interesting children's books. One of the things she included in the book is a list she calls the Five Steps in the Creative Process. I don't know if she got it from someone else -- she quotes quite a few creativity researchers in that section -- or whether she complied it from several sources, but it's interesting. Here are the five steps (from page 7 of the book):
  1. Preparation: You get a new idea and gather information about it.
  2. Frustration: Your project gets stuck.
  3. Incubation: Your subconscious works on the project.
  4. Illumination: The A-Ha! moment of insight.
  5. Translation into Action: You take your insight and put it to work.
I don't know about you, but I find that second step very interesting... because I tend to spend so much time there! She quotes from a book called The Creative Spirit: "Frustration arises at the point when the rational, analytical mind, searching laboriously for a solution, reaches the limit of its abilities." She adds, "When logic doesn't work anymore, you have to rely on your intuition."

Suen says that frustration actually comes very early in the creative process. That surprised me, since I always felt that I got most frustrated near the end because that's when I got stuck most often. If frustration happens early, does that mean I didn't really have things worked out to begin with? Did I try to start the project too early, before I really knew what it was going to be?

Sometimes part of that frustration phase involves just sitting down and writing to see what we get. But we have to be careful not to mistake this "thinking on paper" for the actual creation we intend to make. To use a sculpting analogy, sometimes we think we're shaping the statue when we're just digging clay.

It's easy to get depressed when you read about established writers who sit down and turn out a certain number of pages a day. You need to keep in mind that there can be some different things going on here.
  • One, that writer may just be digging clay. Every successful writer can tell you about pages of material they wrote that never saw print.
  • Two, the writer already had some clay. This is particularly true if the writer works in an already established "universe" -- either theirs or someone else's. If you've ever tried it, writing fanfic (stories about existing TV or literary characters you like) is much easier than creating a universe of your own. Much of the dirty work has already been done for you -- not only do you already have characters and a world, but those characters have a history. What happens going forward is based in part on what has already happened.
  • Three, the writer may already be at step 5 in the list. At that point, it may (I stress the word "may") simply be a matter of typing as fast as they can to get the story on paper.
On those bad days when the words just won't come, it's good to remind yourself that creation is a process. It takes time... and some of that time is spent in the frustration phase. I think the trick is to simply relax and accept the frustration... then try to do something else. If that third step -- incubation -- is going to happen, you've got to give your mind time to play with the idea.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Superstition May Be the Way

With apologies to Stevie Wonder, of course!

As mentioned in previous posts, "where do you get your ideas?" is a frequent question. So I've decided to occasionally post what I'm calling plot sparkers (they'll be in their own little category over in the right column) to help you create new ideas for stories.

And today's sparker concerns superstition. Don't make the mistake of thinking this kind of sparker will always create a horror story... because it won't. In fact, some of your funniest stories may get started from a superstition.

Superstitions are more than just spooky beliefs from the Dark Ages. Plenty of people are superstitious, as I have been reminded by a couple of Bud Light commercial that have aired during football games lately. One is just a series of superstitions performed by different fans (with Superstition as the soundtrack), but this one is the one that really caught my eye:



Completely silly, isn't it? But you can easily see how such a superstition could form the basis of a plot -- yes, even the plot of a children's book! Let me give you a couple of examples -- feel free to use them if you like:
  • A kid sees his dad do this with friends at a football game and decides to do a science fair project to test the theory. Does it work with sodas or milk as well as beer? Does it work for other things besides football? You can see where this might go.
  • In a related line of thought, the kid might ask his dad to explain it. Suppose his dad, unwilling to admit it's just silly desperation (that could be a story in itself), fabricates an explanation, not unlike the bizarre explanation given by the fan in the commercial. ("Our proximity to the field creates a parallel connection between the bottle and the ball..." REALLY?) Now suppose the kid decides to "fix" a ball game with his friends...
You get the idea. These could end up being serious or funny, depending on how you choose to handle them. Ideas are only building blocks.

So superstition could be the way to create a good story... regardless of what Stevie thinks. After all, it gave him the idea for a hit song, didn't it?

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Basics of Cause and Effect, Part 2

The last post dealt with the simpler, purely external versions of stimulus and response... but what about internally-motivated actions?

The fourth and fifth characteristics of properly-presented stimulus and response actions looked like this:
4. The response should follow the stimulus quickly.
5. If the response doesn’t clearly makes sense, you may need to explain it.
While these two “rules” can be broken through improper handling, they can also present a problem when the character’s motivations truly were internal. In such cases, Jack Bickham adds an intermediate step, like so:

STIMULUS -----> INTERNALIZATION -----> RESPONSE

This internalization constitutes a pause in the action and allows us to see what’s going on in the characters mind. For example, we might see a character tense up and begin to act erratically as a stranger walks up, then suddenly run off screaming when the stranger gets within arm’s-reach. Such a stimulus/response action makes no sense to us; however, adding a short internalization (just a paragraph is enough in this case) where our character associates the stranger with someone who traumatized them in the past allows us to understand their apparently irrational reaction.

As with the simpler stimulus/response sequence in our last post, this more complex reaction can be applied to anything from the simplest action to the larger movements within a story’s plot.

A classic example of this can be seen in Die Hard. (I know it's not a children's example, but it's one I know most everybody is familiar with.) At one point in the movie, Hans Gruber (the bad guy) goes upstairs, hoping to find his missing detonators... and runs into John McClane. He introduces himself as Bill Clay, a hostage who managed to get away from his captors. McClane is not fooled but, after an action sequence where McClane is injured and Gruber retrieves his detonators, we enter an internalization scene. McClane wonders why Gruber came upstairs in the first place, and begins searching the upper floors. (Remember the scene with McClane wandering around upstairs, muttering “What were you doing, Hans? What were you doing up here?”) As a result, he finds that the roof has been rigged with explosives.

Here we see a stimulus (Gruber’s trip upstairs), internalization (McClane ponders why), and response (McClane begins his search). His response, in turn, provides a new stimulus for the next action in the plot -- the discovery of the explosives.

That's important, so make sure you understand it. The reason I'm bugging you with this stuff about cause and effect is because once you get the hang of thinking this way, plotting can almost become automatic. Knowing McClane's character as the writers (and we viewers!) do, the only logical next move for McClane was finding a way to stop Hans from blowing up the roof and killing hostages.

In Scene & Structure Jack Bickham calls such an internalization scene a sequel, and suggests that most of the more involved action scenes in your story should be followed by one of these internalization scenes. It allows both the character and the reader a chance to process all the information received during the sequence, as well as enabling the writer to better control the pace of the story. The sequel can be as long or as short as necessary; there is no real rule here beyond making an appropriate choice for your story.

A working knowledge of how stimulus and response works can be a great aid in plotting your story, as it helps you to avoid the structural errors that can cause writers to lose their way when planning a longer piece of fiction... and also helps you avoid confusing your readers.

That's the end of the cause and effect posts. If you want to learn more, get Bickham's book; it's one of the two books I believe should be on every writer's bookshelf. But you've got enough now to help you build better plots for any story you write, whether it's for adults or children.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Basics of Cause and Effect, Part 1

In my last post I promised to introduce the basics of Jack Bickham’s ideas from his book Scene & Structure because I believe most writers ignore this simple concept. In an age where average people don’t seem to understand that their actions have consequences (or, at least, they seem to think that they should be able to do anything they want without suffering any consequences), I’m not sure we can assume that any of us really understands how to apply this to our writing.

Cause and effect -- or, as Bickham calls them, stimulus and response -- might be thought of in this way:

STIMULUS -----> RESPONSE

That is, something happens first (stimulus) and then something happens as a result (response). For example: I throw a ball, you catch it; you push on the door, it opens; we elect congressmen, they spend our money irresponsibly. All are examples of stimulus and response.

Simple enough, right?

But there are several aspects of this little "transaction" that Bickham says may have slipped past our notice:
  1. Stimulus and response are all EXTERNAL actions that we can see.
  2. They happen in a specific order, and that sequence shouldn’t be reversed without a reason.
  3. If you have one, you must have the other.
  4. The response should follow the stimulus quickly.
  5. If the response doesn’t clearly makes sense, you may need to explain it.
Let’s take a brief look at all of these to see how they affect our writing.

How often have you been told that your writing should “show, not tell”? Numbers 1 & 2 speak to this truism. Both the stimulus and the response are actions that you can see, that you can show in your writing. In the examples I gave earlier (throwing the ball, opening the door, etc.), you could’ve taken a movie camera and captured both stimulus and response on film. The order in which they happen makes sense; you would never, for example, see someone catch the ball before it was thrown.

So a proper understanding of stimulus and response can automatically help us write more visually!

But suppose we reverse the order? Instead of “John tossed the ball and Ben caught it,” supposed we wrote “Ben caught the ball when John tossed it”? We have now changed the emphasis of what happened. In the first case, the emphasis is on the flow of action; the story is moving along quickly and we don’t want to break the pace. But in the second case, the emphasis is on Ben’s response; the pace of action is slowed and we throw a spotlight on Ben. Obviously, you would only do this for a specific reason. (Bickham goes into great detail about using this simple technique for a wide variety of purposes, which I don’t have room to write about in this short post. However, just understanding this method of creating emphasis should help you make better choices about how you write your story.)

It’s very common for writers to mismatch stimulus and response, and number 3 speaks to this. An example Bickham uses is this: I toss you the ball, and you respond by saying, “Nice day!” WHAT HAPPENED TO THE BALL?!? Your vocal response may classify as an external action, but it doesn’t really correspond to the stimulus. If, when I toss you the ball, YOU CATCH IT and then say, “Nice day for a game of catch!”, not only have you properly responded to the stimulus, but your statement constitutes a new stimulus to which I’ll have to respond. (And yes, you actually need to write that you caught the ball-- especially for children, who may not automatically make the connection. After all, you could have dropped it or I might have thrown it right past you. How will your young reader know if you aren't clear?)

Numbers 4 and 5 may be a little less obvious, but no less important. We’re used to seeing a response happen quickly after its stimulus. If too much time passes between stimulus and response, we may not even recognize that the two are connected. Sometimes things happen where the response doesn’t happen immediately -- as when a worker, who has patiently endured an abusive boss for years, suddenly walks into work and shoots him. This sort of behavior confuses everybody... regardless of whether it’s fiction or real life.

Obviously something internal is going on here as well. How do we deal with that when stimulus and response focuses focuses on external action?

I'll talk about that in the next post.

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Cause and Effect

One of my favorite writing books is called Scene & Structure by Jack Bickham. It's not a particularly thick book, but it's all about "how to construct fiction with scene-by-scene flow, logic and readability."

In other words, it's about the nuts and bolts of writing a good story. And Bickham spends a lot of the book explaining how most books that don't "work" have a problem with cause and effect.

Cause and effect are simple, basic things. We all know about them. This happens and then that happens as a result. Nothing overly complex about that, right?

Bickham doesn't think so. In fact, he takes nearly 170 pages (in the edition I have) to explain how it works. (In fairness, about 1/3 of it is appendices with examples.) This book explains cause and effect thoroughly -- and by thoroughly, I mean thoroughly... starting with the simplest action and proceeding through individual scenes, chapters, and finally the complete plot. He not only explains the structure of well-written scenes, but he explains:
  • how to link scenes
  • how to control pace
  • how to vary the structure of scenes for variety or effect
and even how to use scenes themselves as a structure to help you create plots.

Next week I'm going to do a couple of posts about cause and effect because, although it sounds so basic, it makes plotting so much easier. I've come to believe that a huge number of plotting problems are simply a matter of not paying attention to "what happens next?" closely enough. If we lose control of the causes and effects in our writing, we end up confused and our stories make no sense.

And when you're writing for kids, you need to make sure that your story makes sense or they'll stop reading.

Class starts Monday. ;-)

Monday, October 8, 2012

Adapting Stories

Perhaps one of the most challenging tasks a writer faces is adapting a traditional story for a children's book. To make things even more complicated, the problems aren't necessarily the same for each writer.

For example, when I wrote Prince Jonathan's War I faced a number of problems. One of the biggest ones was how to handle the violence. Often traditional stories involve very adult topics that make modern adults squeamish. Finding a comfortable way to deal with what some adults deem "inappropriate content" may force you to change the story somewhat... and those changes may not allow you to tell the story as it was meant to be heard.

I should point out that children often don't have a problem with the things that bother adults. Sometimes they understand more about what's going on than we adults give them credit for. And don't ignore the fact that the fairy tales they've grown up hearing typically involve adult situations that we don't notice because we're so familiar with the stories. (If nothing else, the kids have learned more from TV than we realize.) In Prince Jonathan's War I sidestepped some of the bloodshed by simply not dwelling on it. Even children who don't understand death know that people get hurt badly in a war -- especially a war involving swords -- so I felt it was enough to let them know there was a war going on and show sword fights in the pictures.

Likewise, your religious beliefs can affect how you retell stories from your religious tradition; the same is often true for writers retelling stories from their personal or "tribal" history, or for writers who want to retell an event well-known from history. The problem is how to "fictionalize" the scenes. For me as a Christian, that makes retelling Bible stories a little tricky. Rarely is a religious story written with drama in mind -- it's written as history or as a teaching tool, or both. You have to imagine what may have happened when you turn it into a children's book, and you have to decide how much freedom you can exercise and still be true to the story. (Writers retelling stories that they don't have such a connection with often make major changes to the story without any qualms at all.)

It can be especially difficult when you're doing an easy reader because of the simplified language you need to use. Some concepts are just hard to put in simple words. I substituted the words "holy man" for "priest" in Prince Jonathan's War, as well as in the as-yet-unpublished Japanese legend I've done, simply because the pronunciation of the "ie" in priest might confuse young readers in the age group the book is meant for. (Most of those kids learn to sound out the "ie" as a long i sound, not a long e.) But I felt that was a reasonable substitution; such a convenient change isn't always available to a writer.

As a writer you have to consider these things when you choose to retell an existing story. And you should consider them before you actually commit to writing the story; your uncertainty concerning how to handle them can sidetrack your work very quickly. So how should you approach this problem?

My own guideline is to balance passion and comfort. First I anticipate possible problems. How do I plan to deal with the difficulties? If I don't feel good about the solutions I come up with, I shelve the project for the time being. If I feel passionate enough about it, my mind will continue to "try things" to make the story work even though I'm focusing on new projects. If something plausible comes to mind, I'll take a little time to make a test run and see if it works. But I need the balance -- I don't want to write things unless I really like them, and I don't want to force things when I'm passionate about them but am displeased with the actual results.

Oh, and save all the attempts you make to get the story on paper. If the story simply won't let you go, occasionally go back and re-read all of them. You never know when the key to figuring things out will come from an early draft that you didn't really like. Sometimes the solution lies in using ideas from two or three different drafts!

Friday, October 5, 2012

Using a Web

Not THE Web, as in the Internet. I'm talking about an idea web. When you've got a basic concept or thought to build a story around but you're trying to generate some ideas to "flesh it out," an idea web is often the best way to do it. It's just another way of brainstorming but, because it's more of a graphic technique, it often helps you get past "sticking places" because it uses your brain a little differently.

I think the first place I ever saw an idea web was in the book Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico. She called it "clustering" and I found it very useful. The concept now goes by many names, but the principle is the same.
  1. Take a blank sheet of paper.
  2. Write down the key word or thought you want to brainstorm in the center of the paper and draw a circle around it. Let's say you want to write a story about Hercules. You write "Hercules" in the center of the paper and circle it.
  3. Now just free-associate. Write down any and every idea that comes to you, circle them, and connect the circles with lines. Some lines will connect to the original circle, but others will connect to the new circles. For example, here are some possible ideas and how they connect:
    • Hydra: Hercules fought the Hydra, a multi-headed snake. I write and circle "Hydra," then draw a line connecting the two circles.
    • 12 Labors: Killing the Hydra was one of the 12 Labors of Hercules. I write and circle "12 Labors" but I connect this circle to the "Hydra" circle since I got this idea from the Hydra.
    • Stymphalian Birds: I may start thinking about some of the other Labors; I'd circle them and connect them to the "12 Labors" circle. This is one of them..
    • Megara: Meg was the first wife of Hercules. I circle her name and connect it to the "Hercules" circle. The names of their three children would be little circles connected to Meg's circle.
    • Chiron: He's the centaur who tutored Hercules. Another circle connected to "Hercules."
    • Arrows: Hercules was known as a great archer. I'd connect this circle to "Hercules"... but also to "Stymphalian Birds" because Hercules killed them with arrows. Those arrows were dipped in poison he got from the Hydra, so I'd also create a Poison circle and draw lines connecting the "Poison" circle to both "Arrows" and "Hydra."
That's enough to let you see how an idea web works. You can see how some ideas form an "arm" from the original circle -- that is, they stretch out and don't connect to any other arms. You can also see that some ideas loop back on themselves, connecting to other ideas on other arms. Most of the examples of idea webs I've seen only include "arms" -- that's the quickest way to do a web, and working quickly helps you get ideas that you might otherwise decide not to use. This is a form of brainstorming, so you don't want to be judgmental about what you write down. You can always pick and choose what to use from your web later on! The idea is to create as many connected ideas as possible.

The connections are what make this a valuable form of brainstorming. Because your ideas are all related, they can suggest plotlines, character relationships, and even complex aspects of your story's world.

Here are a few examples (with explanations) of idea webs:
This is one of the most useful brainstorming techniques I know. It's a skill definitely worth adding to your toolbox.

Monday, October 1, 2012

"Borrowing" Stories

Have you ever heard of the Seven Basic Plots? (No, it's not some kind of evangelistic tract.)

There is a commonly-held idea -- I don't know how old it is, but it's definitely ancient -- that there are only a limited number of plots for stories. The exact number that supposedly exist varies depending on who you ask, but the two most commonly-given numbers are 7 and 36. Just to get you acquainted with the idea, here are links for The Seven Basic Plots and The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations.

The idea I'm talking about is a related one -- namely, if there are only a certain number of plots available, the stories around me must be using them. I read and like a lot of those stories. Now -- and here's the radical idea, if you can have radical ideas using the same old plots -- if the stories I like most use the same basic plot, then it follows that I can safely "borrow" that plot for my own use. After all, if there are only 7 or 36 or even 2000 plots, the vast number of books that have been written over the years must be using borrowed plots too.

It's a simple -- and logical -- idea that immediately raises a red flag. What about plagiarism? There are laws against copying other people's work, you know!

If you look over those plots, you'll see that they're pretty generic. If you pick a story you like and simplify its plot to its most basic form, you get a generic plot... and the story itself gives you some ideas about how the twists and turns of the plots might be handled. The more stories with this basic plot you read, the more ideas you get.

You can try taking the story and replacing the main character and the world in which the story happens. This will drastically change the plot if you're creative with your choices. (You might get some ideas for that process from my Asking the Right Questions post.)

There are plenty of ways to take a story and turn it inside out. Here are some examples:
  • Take the Rags to Riches plot (from the 7 plot list) and reverse it to a Riches to Rags plot.
  • Or start at either extreme and travel From There to Boredom. (That's unusual. Feel free to borrow it, no charge.)
  • How about Good Rags to Bad Rags and Back Again?
  • Or maybe Rich Rags to Ragged Riches -- a concept that might be interpreted any number of different ways.
  • Could you try Dispassionate Riches to Passionate Rags? Sounds like the character might have joined the Peace Corps or some such organization.
  • Legendary sword & sorcery author Robert E. Howard built his entire series of Kull the Conqueror stories around Rags to Riches That Aren't All They're Cracked Up To Be, as Kull conquered a kingdom but found kingship to be more frustrating than his old days as a penniless adventurer... and, in some ways, far more dangerous. After a fashion, that's also the same plot used in Harry the Dirty Dog.
See what I mean? Even something as seemingly useless as a generic plot that's been used over and over for centuries can become the basis of a good story.

When you're struggling for a place to start, consider borrowing a story. You can always pass it on to someone else once you're done with it. ;-)

Friday, September 28, 2012

Using Children's Reference Books

This may sound like a strange topic, but it's an insiders' trick that I -- as well as many other writers -- use to make researching new topics easier. And I don't mean just for researching children's books; I use it when writing books aimed at adults as well.

The trick is doing your initial research in children's reference books. And yes, you read that correctly.

I certainly understand if you wonder why. It's not the first idea that comes to many writers. (HINT: That's why it's an "insiders' trick.")

When you first begin researching a new subject, the amount of info you have to sift through can be mind-numbing. For example, I'm working on a humorous adult fantasy story with an Oriental flair. Have you ever looked at any of the standard reference books on ancient China? They're HUGE! Each one cover different material, and it's possible that none of them will give me what I'm looking for. Some of them sound promising but end up focusing on topics more suitable for academics than fantasy readers.

The Ancient Chinese book coverSo.... I ignored the adult reference section in the library. Instead, I wandered over to the children's section to see what they have on Chinese history. I ended up with a couple of titles -- The Ancient Chinese by Virginia Schomp and The Han Dynasty by Myra Immell. Neither of these books is more than 100 pages, yet both cover their topics fairly well and are easy to digest quickly.

Now don't get me wrong. There's a good chance that neither of these books will give me all the info I need. (Then again, they might. I just need some Oriental flavor, as my story is fantasy and not intended to be historically accurate.) But even if they don't, they give me a quick overview of the topic. I can identify things that interest me, then use that info to navigate my way through those thick adult reference materials. That way, I find the useful info much more quickly so I can get back to writing.

In addition, sometimes I uncover little facts that really add to a story. For example, I quickly learned that rice was the main crop in southern China, not the entire country. (In northern China, farmers tended to grow wheat and millet because of the weather differences.) Those are the kind of details that make a story interesting -- that's why it's in the children's book -- yet I might have gone through several large adult tomes and never found it.

Furthermore, these children's books provide suggestions of other potential references, both in books and online. And because these are children's books, and children aren't interested in things like the psychological impact of imperial rule on the downtrodden peasants, they don't bore me with musings about things that won't make a good story.

You won't always find a children's book that can get you started, but you will find one often enough to make it worth your while. So don't ignore this "shortcut" when you need some quick research. Children's writers tend to be fairly intelligent and helpful people, you know. ;-)

The book cover image came from this page at Scholastic.com.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Some Basic Cartooning Books I Use

Let's say you don't think you can draw worth a darn but you want to learn enough to illustrate your own easy readers. That's not as difficult a task as you might think. All you need is a little guidance about basic drawing techniques.

But if you go to your local Barnes & Noble (or whatever bookstore happens to be surviving near you), you'll find a lot of very impressive -- and intimidating -- drawing books. And if you check one of the major online bookstores, you'll be OVERWHELMED by the number of books available. I'll be honest with you -- unless you already have considerable drawing skill, most of them probably won't help you at all. No matter what they say on the cover, most art books are for artists, not for beginners.

But today's your lucky day! I'm going to help you eliminate about 99.44% of the books that won't help you. (Isn't that how pure Ivory Soap is supposed to be?) Today I'm going to tell you a few titles that don't require any previous drawing knowledge in order to learn from them. I"m going to focus on cartooning books because they're the easiest to learn from. I know because I have a fairly large library of art books, and these are the ones that helped me most.

And because we have to worry about such things nowadays, let me say this upfront: If you buy any of these books, I make no money on them. And none of these books were given to me in hopes that I would promote them -- I bought all of these books myself with my own money. In other words, these really are MY picks. Now, let's get on with it!

There are basically two approaches to cartooning, 2D and 3D. 2D cartoons look flat, like in a newspaper comic strip. 3D cartoons look like they have some depth to them. Superhero comic books often use a very sophisticated 3D approach these days, but you don't have to be nearly that fancy. Here's an example from a book by Mark Kistler (I'll introduce him in a minute):

2d vs 3d

The drawing on the left is a very simple and very crude 2D drawing. It's flat. The drawing on the right is 3D. It still looks like a simple cartoon, but it has depth. The point here is that you don't need a lot of "talent" to draw that house on the right -- it's not that complicated. But you do need a little knowledge about how you get that look. You only need a few very simple techniques that aren't hard to learn.

Mark Kistler teaches school children how to draw. I first saw him on a PBS show called The Secret City back in the 1980s, which was a drawing show built around sci-fi. He taught 3D techniques by drawing moon craters and space ships and little alien teddy bears and Twinkies. (I kid you not. Twinkie people are cool.) The drawing above came from a recent book of his called You Can Draw in 30 Days. I don't have that book and, to be honest, it looks as if it's more advanced than the books I'm going to recommend. But this picture tells me that his new book still teaches the same basics as the others.

Mark uses what he calls "drawing words" which are simply words that remind you of a simple technique for getting a 3D effect. He has a page up with what he calls "the 12 Renaissance words of Drawing in 3D" that he allows you to print out. (Just right-click on the image and choose "View Image," then print it from your browser.) It comes from a book called Drawing in 3D with Mark Kistler, which I do have. Personally, my favorite book is Mark Kistler's Draw Squad (his original book), and he also has another book called Mark Kistler's Imagination Station. The number of drawing words varies somewhat from book to book -- the original only has 10 drawing words -- but they all cover the same techniques.

Mark's approach is more like doodling than "art." Perhaps that's why I like it so much.

If you want to focus more on comic strip art -- and there's nothing wrong with that! -- one guy I recommend is Christopher Hart. (He used to draw the Blondie comic strip. Yes, that Blondie.) But be forewarned: Hart has a zillion cartooning books, on all sorts of cartooning, and some of them are probably more than you need. (Do you really want to learn how to draw crime noir comics? I didn't think so.) So I'll make it simple for you -- choose one of these 4 books:
  • How to Draw Cartoons for Comic Strips (this may be the first one he did on the subject)
  • Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Cartooning But Were Afraid to Draw (this is one of his bestsellers)
  • Drawing on the Funny Side of the Brain (this one also covers things like creating comic book jokes and doing comic strip layouts
  • Cartoon Cool (If you really like the look of 1960s characters like the Jetsons, this is the book you want)
You can't go wrong with any of those.

Finally, there's Bruce Blitz. His The Big Book of Cartooning dips into a little bit of everything (chalk talks or caricatures, anyone?) but is very thorough. His approach to cartooning is very... lively.

These are all teachers whose books have stood the test of time and whose instructions are extremely simple to follow. If you want to learn how to illustrate your own easy readers, any one of them is a good place to start!

The picture came from this Kistler book review at curledup.com.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Doing Your Own Drawings

When you write easy readers, it's hard not to think about art. Part of the reason that easy readers are easy to read is that pictures do some of the work for you. If you happen to get a book published through a big publisher, they generally take care of choosing an artist for your book.

If you self-publish, you're on your own. You may have a friend who can do the art for you, or you may have to do it yourself. I thought it was about time to talk about that "do-it-yourself" route.

I'll be the first to say that the drawings can be a problem. I have an easy reader that's been written for months but I can't get the art to look the way I want. (The lead character is a Japanese girl, and I want her to look Japanese. I can get the male characters to look right, but not her. It's extremely frustrating!) But there's a world of difference between trying to make the art look a certain way and just being able to draw. If my character just needed to be a girl, I could do that.

CathyThe fact is, most of you could too. Many of you say you can't draw, but think about comic strip characters. Are you sure you couldn't draw something that looked like Cathy Guisewite's character Cathy? You can look at some of the Cathy comic strips at gocomics.com. Most of her characters are pretty simple to draw.

Could you doodle out a girl who looked something like Lucy from Peanuts? Charles Schultz did a lot with circles and dots. Or you could check out Cute Chick and Fat Broad from Johnny Hart's classic caveman comic BC. Both men drew extremely simple men and women.

DilbertYou need a more contemporary guy? Take a look at Scott Adams's strip Dilbert. Could you doodle out something like that?

If you need animals, you could look at Pearls Before Swine by Stephan Pastis. Those animals are not just simple to draw, but they're hilarious-looking!

Comic strips are loaded with simply-drawn characters that are extremely popular with most everybody. It's hard to believe you couldn't do something similar to the cartoonists I've mentioned -- the cartoons may look childishly simple, but that's because their artists intend them to be simple. When you know you're going to be drawing a character several times in a strip, in every strip, every day for the next couple of decades, you go out of your way to make them simple to draw!

Occasionally I'll be looking at some of the simple things we can do to make drawing our own art easier. In the meantime, you might want to look at some popular children's characters like Captain Underpants. This isn't rocket science, people. Doodlers are welcome to join in!

Just one word of advice: At least for a while, avoid characters that need to look a certain way... like Japanese heroines. Unless you already know how to draw them, that is.

The cartoons came from this Hubpage and this page at Cracked.com.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Asking the Right Questions

A rather morbid story from the Middle Ages tells of a village that was particularly hard-hit by the Black Plague. After yet another round of burials, it was discovered that one of those who had been interred wasn't dead at all! (How this was discovered -- since they were underground -- is beyond me, but so goes the story.)

Needless to say, the villagers were horrified. The elders called a meeting, in hopes of finding some way to make sure it didn't happen again. The group pondered the question "How can we make sure we don't bury anybody alive?" and came up with a number of inventive but impractical solutions:
  • Bury food and water with the body.
  • Run an air tube from the casket to the surface.
  • Delay all burials by a week until the stench of death was unmistakable.
Finally one of the older members simply asked, "Why don't we just drive a stake through their hearts before we seal the casket?"

I don't know what solution the villagers decided on -- if any -- but it's clear that the last villager was asking a different question. Instead of asking "How can we make sure we don't bury anybody alive?" he asked "How can we make sure everybody we bury is dead?"

Yes, the questions you ask have a huge impact on the answers you get!

Often, when developing story ideas, characters, worlds, plots, or any other idea-oriented part of your writing, you end up stuck. Sometimes the way out of this problem is to change the questions you're asking. The villager did that by rephrasing their question so that he asked an opposite question. There are other options as well.

The idea is to play with your problem. Turn it sideways, backwards, upside-down, and inside-out. How you do that is up to you.

KumquatsIs your main character a boy? Replace him with a girl... or a dog... or a robot... or a purple kumquat from Planet Cetas-5. (The photo shows standard Earth kumquats.)

Move his home from a modern apartment to a farm... or a museum... or a school bus... or a tightrope strung across the Grand Canyon... or a large triangular rock with slick purple fungus that smells like burnt rubber.

Change history. (Doesn't have to be a big change... what if zippers were never invented?) Create new ways to travel. (Suppose the newest economy car hops like a rabbit?) Use new building materials. (How about building entire cities from giant Legos made of recycled plastic?)

How would those changes affect the way people dress? The way they talk? (New slang phrases are created everyday.) The way they socialize? The way they eat? (That purple kumquat from Planet Cetas-5 might have more problems with people who eat plants than people who eat meat.)

You may not ultimately use the answers you get -- at least, not unless that purple kumquat from Planet Cetas-5 is a more attractive main character after all. But those answers should trigger new ways of thinking about the story...

And those new ideas might be the very thing you're looking for.

The photo came from this page at WikiMedia Commons.

Friday, September 14, 2012

First Lines, Fresh Lines

Last Friday I posted an article about ways to generate a story idea when you're facing a blank page. Apparently it's a common problem as of late, because I found a similar article at the Writer's Digest site from earlier this week on the same topic! However, this article takes a different approach and.... well, you can never have enough weapons for attacking blank pages. I don't know about you, but there are too many blank pages around my house. They're everywhere!

This time the technique is called freewriting. The method is even simpler than the flash fiction techniques in last week's post. Here's how you do it:
  1. Get a timer and decide on a set number of minutes for your freewriting. There really are no guidelines on how long this should be. Five minutes is a commonly recommended time limit, but if you do it a few times you may find that more -- or less -- time gives you better results.
  2. Get something to write on and something to write with, then find a comfortable spot to write. You can use notebook paper and a pencil, a journal and a favorite fountain pen, a laptop, or even crayons and a blank wall if that's your thing! Just find some comfortable method of recording the words that come out.
  3. Start writing. And here's where it gets interesting...
See, I know what you're thinking. "I'm doing this because I don't have any idea what to write! How do you expect me to just 'start writing'?"

That's what is so cool about freewriting. You don't have to start with something original. You just need to start putting words on paper and continue doing so until your time is up. The first words on your paper might look something like this (I added the numbers after I finished, to make it easier to comment afterward about what I wrote):
(1) The TV is two feet wide and 18 inches tall. The lamp is white. (2) Fourscore and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent a nation... (3) What was the rest of that sentence? I remember it was something about our country being "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the idea that all men are created equal." (4) Equality is a good thing. In Greek mythology nobody was "created equal." You were either a mere human (even kings might be mere humans, albeit powerful mere humans), a demigod, or a god. Of course, the gods weren't any better than the mere humans. Sometimes they were worse, and with so much power they made it rough on everybody. (5) They made Hercules kill his family and then punished him for it! What kind of gods can get away with that? Didn't even one of the gods stand up and say, "Hey, this ain't right. Hercules didn't do anything except be born, and he didn't get a choice there either. You wanna punish somebody, punish Zeus for fooling around a human. (6) He's a god, for Pete's sake! Can't he figure out how to keep the girl from getting pregnant in the first place?"
And yes, I freewrote that without any preplanning. I didn't time myself either, since I just wanted to give you an idea of how it works. I had no idea how to start, so I just started writing:
  1. I looked around the room and started writing down what I saw. (The TV, the lamp.)
  2. Then, for some crazy reason, the Gettysburg Address came to mind, so I started writing down what I could remember of it. When you freewrite, you mind wanders. Let it. You're trying to find out what's bubbling around underneath the surface.
  3. I couldn't remember the exact phrasing so, when I couldn't remember enough to get it close, I just started summarizing.
  4. Then two things hit me at once -- first, the observation that equality is a good thing (duh!) and second, I saw a copy of Who's Who in Classical Mythology laying nearby. I'd been writing a piece about Hercules, and that started the meanderings about...
  5. How unfair the gods were to Hercules and what they could have done instead. And all of that led to...
  6. BINGO! Here's something I can work with! Why didn't Zeus ever prevent babies from being born? Then Hera would probably never have caught him and guys like Hercules wouldn't get hassled so much.
In case you've missed the point, it's not that I could write about pregnancy. The point I've stumbled upon is that the gods weren't so smart after all, since they couldn't even figure out this little piece of strategy. 

If I had really been searching for something, I would have continued freewriting and exploring the possibilities. What other kinds of silly trouble might the gods get into that even a child could figure out how to avoid? Now I've got something to work with!

Now you might be looking at this and saying, "I'd have never gotten that out of what you wrote." But that's the whole point -- YOUR freewriting would have followed YOUR OWN train of thought. YOU would have come up with something entirely different than I did. Freewriting is a way to discover what's bubbling around under the surface in YOUR mind... and trust me, you'll recognize YOUR OWN train of thought when it comes roaring onto the paper. (Or screen, as the case may be.)

The results of freewriting can be unpredictable. That's what makes it so useful! You may get an idea, the way I did... or you may get a few opening sentences... or a rough plot outline... or it's possible that an entire story comes flowing out. If any of those things start happening, I'd ignore the timer and just keep writing until everything comes out. Don't stop to check spellings or correct bad grammar or do any of those "editorial" things that you do in a final draft; all it will do is stop the flow. NOBODY IS GOING TO SEE THIS EXCEPT YOU, SO IT DOESN'T MATTER HOW BAD IT LOOKS OR SOUNDS. AS LONG AS IT MAKES SENSE TO YOU, IT'S GOOD. JUST GET IT ALL OUT.

If you don't get anything useful, that's ok. Go do something else for a while -- do some laundry, run some errands, take a walk, eat some ice cream (hey, writing's hard work!) -- and forget about writing for an hour or so. Then come back and try again. Eventually you'll get something you can use.

Then, when you finally get something out, do you know what you have? Clay. God can create things out of nothing, but humans need raw material to start with. And now you have something you can shape into a story.

Best of all, your paper is no longer blank. Ah, bliss!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Pesky Accents

I decided to add another post on verse -- poetry in general, not just easy reader verse -- because of a comment Roxy left on the Some Final Thoughts on Verse post. (I guess they weren't final after all!) Roxy had some good observations and I think I cleared up some things I may not have been clear on, but the comment raised an important concern when it comes to verse.

Some of you, maybe a lot of you, think you can't read or write poetry simply because accents drive you crazy. By that, I mean that you have trouble making poems sound right because you put stressed and unstressed syllables in the wrong places. You need to know that it's not entirely your fault. Most of us are never taught how the whole "feet and meter" thing works, and it doesn't always make sense.

I'm going to give you a quick lesson on how to read verse in meter. It'll help you, not only with easy reader verse, but so you can enjoy reading poetry on your own. And since I wasn't taught how to read poetry either -- what I know has been learned by hunting for a lot of help -- I think this will make pretty good sense to most of you.

In the Suess posts I talked a lot about feet, which are just patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, and about meter, which is basically just how many feet there are in a single line of poetry. (In free verse poetry, there are no standard feet or meters, which is probably why it became so popular in the first place.) Once you get the feet and meter right, the words almost skip along on their own and pull you with them. In fact, you can probably follow some pretty complex meters just from knowing old nursery rhymes. Many of them focus on the stressed syllables, the way Old English poetry (like Beowulf) does. Try Little Miss Muffet:
LITtle Miss MUFfet
SAT on a TUFfet,
EATing her CURDS and WHEY.
aLONG came a SPIder
and SAT down beSIDE her
and FRIGHTened miss MUFfet aWAY.
Basically this is groups of two lines of dimeter (two feet) followed by one line of trimeter (three feet). As in the Suess posts, I've shown the stressed syllables in ITALIC CAPS and the unstressed syllables in small letters. The feet are complicated, what with a different number of unstressed syllables in each one. But you can probably recite this with no problem because the stresses drive the the verse and just pull you along.

But modern poetry tends to use fairly strict patterns of stressed and unstressed syllables, and place them in a fairly strict meter. The feet will be varied occasionally for the very purpose of preventing the verse from becoming singsong and pulling you along. But although that sounds really difficult to deal with, it's not. After all, if you can handle Little Miss Muffet, you can handle variations!

No, the problem is understanding how modern patterns are used in the first place. And that's complicated because, unlike Little Miss Muffet, you have to deal with more than just stressed and unstressed syllables. As I mentioned in my comment to Roxy, you have to deal with secondary stresses -- stressed syllables that you might stress in some patterns (feet) but not in others. Most of us say stressed syllables louder than unstressed ones. When we try to say stressed syllables on unstressed "beats" in a poem, or unstressed syllables on stressed "beats," it just doesn't sound right.

That's what makes some of you think you can't read or write poetry. You want to use TWO levels of accent -- stressed and unstressed -- when in fact you're dealing with THREE -- a primary stress, a secondary stress, and then unaccented stresses. And to make matters more complicated, depending on the feet and meter used in the poem, those secondary stresses may sound like a middle level of stress... or they may sound just like the primary stresses... or they may be unstressed.

A lot of what people consider "serious poetry" is hard for us to read simply because the language has changed. Shakespeare's plays were written 400 years ago; trust me, things have changed! I personally fell in love with Robert Frost, considered by some to be America's greatest poet, simply because he "writes in English." Here's the first 4 lines from his poem Mending Wall, which is written in blank verse -- the same as Shakespeare's plays. Just try reading it and see how it sounds:
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
Here's my "stressed" version. See how you did:
SOMEthing there IS that DOESn't LOVE a WALL,
That SENDS the FROzen-GROUND-swell UNder IT,
And SPILLS the UPper BOULders IN the SUN;
And MAKES GAPS even TWO can PASS aBREAST.
I bet you were pretty close, and a lot of you probably read it exactly the way I've accented it in the second version.

The difference between Shakespeare and Frost is about 400 years. Frost is writing the way we speak now, and your natural instinct is to read it correctly -- even though it's got some weird "feet" in it. For example:
  • The first line begins with a variation -- SOMEthing instead of someTHING. Bet you got that right without even thinking about it!
  • Lines 2 and 3 are both "regular" -- that is, they follow the metrical pattern exactly -- but the rhythms don't sound exactly alike. That's because...
  • At the end of the second line, you probably wouldn't have thought IT would be stressed, but I bet you read it that way anyhow. This is an example of those secondary stresses I mentioned. A word like "it" is usually unstressed, but this is unrhymed iambic pentameter (blank verse is the short name for it) and if you say that last foot by itself -- der IT -- you'll realize that you really do say IT a bit louder than der in this particular usage. In the third line, SUN is a primary stress word that you would say louder almost anywhere you used it.
  • And in the same vein, that last line seems weird because of how the feet fall. Here's how it divides into feet:
    And MAKES / GAPS ev / en TWO / can PASS / aBREAST.
    You would think "even" would be pronounced EVen, but the feet (notice that the second foot is reversed, just like the first foot in the first line) cause neither syllable to be stressed. And if you say each foot by itself, you'll realize that you do say GAPS louder than ev, and you say TWO louder than en.
The reason you read them properly -- even though it doesn't seem right when you first think about it -- is because Frost is writing the way people talk, not just to fit a metrical pattern. He makes variations to fit the way the words should be said, not the other way around.

And once you start thinking about poetry that way -- not "How do I make these words fit this pattern?" but "What kind of pattern fits these words?" -- poetry becomes a lot easier to read and write. You still need time in order to get the words and meter to match, but it becomes a lot less frustrating because most speech has a basic rhythm of its own. I've been amazed at times -- I would just write what I wanted to say and then read it out loud, and suddenly I'd hear a natural meter that only needed a little shaping. (That doesn't happen all the time, but it happens often enough for me to look for it.)

The best way to start developing an ear for poetry is to read good poetry that you can understand. I usually recommend Frost because I find him very natural-sounding, but you never know who you'll find that you like. Just search the Web for poetry sites -- over at my Will Shakespeare for Hire site I've got links to several poetry sites in the blogroll, if you need help to get started -- and just start reading. You'll be surprised how quickly you can develop an ear for good verse.

Don't stress out over accented syllables. Just focus on smooth rhythmic speech. It's amazing how far you can go with it.

Friday, September 7, 2012

The First Line

They say "the longest journey begins with a single step." Unfortunately, when that first step is the opening of your story, it often appears to be a leap across a huge chasm.

As I've said before, I think children's writers can learn a lot from flash fiction techniques because flash fiction stories have to do so much in so few words. And since finding a starting place is a problem for all kinds of writers, I found this article with 5 ways to start flash fiction stories. I'm going to focus on just two of them.

Remember that the opening of your story is called a hook. It's called that because it serves the same purpose as a fish hook -- it lets you pull the reader into your story, just as you pull a fish into your boat.

Starting with a question is a great way to start a mystery story, of course. But you don't have to use an actual question to start the story -- you can hint at one. If your lead character begins the story by doing something that will make your young reader wonder "Why is he doing that?" then you've effectively started the story with a question. If your main character just drew a picture on the wall in red crayon... then picked up a blue crayon and drew an entirely different picture on top of the first one... and then picked up a black crayon and drew yet another picture right on top of both of them... your reader is going to wonder what's going on. Now you've got him hooked!

Or, to use the "drawing on the wall" example again, perhaps your character is drawing on the wall but NOT with crayons. Perhaps he will only draw with a toothbrush that's been dipped in mud that he carefully brings in from outdoors... and then only after he dumps the mud right in the middle of the floor. If it makes your reader ask why, you're starting with a question.

Twisting a cliche is also an effective way to start a story. A cliche is more than just a saying that you've heard until you know it by heart. It's also a situation that you've seen until you know it by heart. The key is to take something basic to the cliche and replace it with something that... well, something that's unexpected. This often turns into a parody of the original.

For me, one of the classic examples is the opening to the cult movie classic UHF, where the lead character George (played by Weird Al Yankovic) imagines himself in the opening sequence from Raiders of the Lost Ark -- except he's not after a gold idol, but an Oscar. This sequence is loaded with many examples of twisting a cliche. Just watch and see if it doesn't give you some ideas...



However, here's an important point to remember when creating an opening. Your opening creates certain expectations in your reader. That "hook" needs to pull the reader into a story where the opening was important! If all those crayon drawings, one on top of each other, have nothing to do with your story, it's not a good opening for that story. The UHF opening works because that George is after a career in TV; obtaining an Oscar against all odds is the perfect hook for this movie.

Openings -- hooks -- are vital to a successful story. A well-chosen one can make writing the rest of your story much easier. Like the giant boulder in UHF, it just starts rolling and rolling and rolling until you reach the inevitable ending.