Monday, July 30, 2012

Have You Heard of TVTropes?

I'm sure you're familiar with wikis. A wiki is a website created by a huge number of contributors, the best-known example being Wikipedia. But it's not the only one. You can find wikis for any number of different purposes -- as an example, StrategyWiki is a wiki with strategy guides for over 4000 video games. Wikis are becoming more and more popular as life gets more and more complicated.

So let me introduce you to TVTropes, one of the coolest fiction-writing wikis around. As the organizers say on their home page:
Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members' minds and expectations.
And yes, if you click on the "tropes" link in that quote, you'll zip to a page that goes into more detail about tropes. That "hotlinking" is part of what makes TVTropes so cool... and sometimes you'll need it just to understand what they're talking about. On occasion I've spent hours on this site just learning about how different types of fiction stories are created... and laughing at some of the lessons as well. Let me give you a quick idea of what you might find on this site... and how absorbing it can be.

TVTropes not only teaches you how to write fiction (I'll get to that in a moment) but they also dissect how those tropes are used in various types of fiction. For this example, I'll use the basic trope page about the Star Trek franchise. (There are individual pages on each series as well.) You'll find gobs of hotlinks on this page.

In the first paragraph, the words "five live action television series, one Animated Adaptation" are actually seven different hotlinks! (That's not common, but you'll find it occasionally.) In this case, each of the first six words links to a different Star Trek series -- discussed later in the article, and with hotlinks there as well -- and the words "Animated Adaptation" link to a trope page. These two pages give you a good idea what you'll find on a TVTropes page.

On the Star Trek page, partway down you'll find a list with the title "Tropes common across all series" followed by a list of tropes, some with the craziest names you'll ever see  -- A.I. is a Crapshoot, Almighty Janitor, Blunt Metaphors Trauma, Chekov's Gun, Cleavage Window, Destructo Nookie, etc. These represent memorable tropes that get used frequently on Star Trek (and other shows as well -- that's why they're tropes):
  • A.I. is a Crapshoot: Artificially intelligent computers and lifeforms have a tendency to be unpredictable. Will they be helpful, like Sonny in I, Robot or homicidal like Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey?
  • Almighty Janitor: Many shows feature a character who's pretty low on the totem pole of "valuable member" in a given society, but these characters often turn out to be the most valuable source of strategy in the story.
  • Blunt Metaphors Trauma: How do you make someone sound alien or out-of-place? Just have them butcher common idioms that we 21st Century humans use. The movie Demolition Man has loads of these, like "You can take this job and shovel it."
  • Chekhov's Gun: An actual name from a plot device used by author Anton Chekhov. Since he's the original creator of this trope, he's also called the Trope Namer on the site.
  • Cleavage Window: One of the sillier tropes that you'll easily recognize -- the woman's outfit with a huge hole over the chest, with no other purpose than showing off the shapelier aspects of the actress. Note that there are other tropes linking to this -- like Fan Service, which is the term manga fans use.
  • Destructo Nookie: Two characters may be trying to kill each other but end up making love (like in the movie Mr. & Mrs. Smith).
All of these individual pages, after explaining the trope (and linking to related tropes) provide a list of examples in various types of fiction. For example, click on "Film" on the Blunt Metaphors Trauma page and you'll see Demolition Man listed right there, along with some of the examples. (Some of those examples aren't quite accurate but, as John Spartan says, they're close enough.)

The point of all this is to help you:
  1. recognize aspects of style that are essential to a given type of story (for example, look up Ray Gun Gothic, which is listed on the Star Trek page; it includes some of the elements I use in my Captain Nexus stories) or
  2. overused tropes that you want to avoid. Most of the time you'd want to avoid the Aliens Never Invented the Wheel or No Such Thing as Alien Pop Culture tropes unless you're going for humor. (The latter trope page mentions the alien G'Kar from Babylon 5 who wonders if Daffy Duck is some kind of household god -- advanced aliens never heard of cartoons, you see. In a related example, G'Kar once observed that every alien race seems to have its own version of Swedish meatballs. Make of that what you will.)
That's part of what makes TVTropes so cool. But there are specific pages designed to help you write fiction that fits in specific genres. Go to the So You Want to See the Index page and just skim down the listings. The section labeled The Basics will send you to pages with general writing help, while there's a load of genre-specific help in the sections after that. Some probably won't help you much, like Write a Dating Sim or Write a Slasher Horror Story, but there's plenty of helpful stuff you can use -- even in a children's story -- to make sure you get the right elements in your story.

Just allow plenty of time to poke around TVTropes. It's an addictive site!

NOTE: Here's a page with a list of the most common trope names and their meanings. It might make things a bit easier to follow.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Olympic Thoughts

Watching the Olympic opening ceremonies tonight reminded me how important it is for writers to find fresh sources of inspiration each day.

To a child, almost everything is new. For adults, it's so easy to become jaded to the wonders and miracles that fill each new day. We have so much drudgery each day, things we have to do and things others expect us to do. Sometimes we just curl up into a little ball like an armadillo and see nothing as we roll through life.

There's an old saying:
Visit a city for a week, and you'll see almost everything.
Visit a city for a month, and you'll see many things.
Move to a city, and you'll see none of it.
We take too many things for granted. Writing is a privilege, an opportunity to discover and explore new parts of our inner selves. Just as the Olympic athletes let the challenges of competition inspire them to do things they never dreamed possible, maybe it's time we writers let the challenges of everyday life inspire us to create works we never dreamed possible.

Today is the day to find the flame burning inside of you... and feed it. Burn brightly and fiercely!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

How Long Should an Easy Reader Be?

That's a logical question to ask when you're starting to write easy readers. And the answer is... it depends.

It depends on your target age group and on the book's reading level. Easy readers come in several difficulty levels, as I mentioned near the end of this post. In addition to the levels mentioned there, easy readers written for kindergarteners may use even fewer words in order to make the book as easy to read as possible -- what is sometimes called a Level 0 reader.

And while you may not have considered it, there's a difference between book manuscripts and magazine manuscripts. Clearly most children's magazine articles and stories aren't going to be as long as a book for the same age group. 

So just how do you determine how long your manuscript should be? Here are a few guidelines from some best-selling books on the topic.

Debbie Dadey and Marcia Jones, author of the Bailey School Kids series, wrote a book called Story Sparkers: A Creativity Guide for Children's Writers. They said (on page 8) that most publishers look for easy reader/beginning chapter book manuscripts between 15 and 25 double-spaced pages in length. That sounds a bit long to me. If you assume 250 words to a double-spaced page -- a reasonable expectation -- that's 3750 words for a 15-page manuscript, 6250 words for a 25-page manuscript. That's way too long for an easy reader! (Those are perfectly good numbers for early chapter books, however.)

Tracey Dils, in her book You Can Write Children's Books, says (on page 33) that easy readers typically run 1000 to 1500 words.

Alijandra Mogilner's Children's Writer's Word Book echoes the same figures as Dils (on page 61) but adds that the low end is 500 words and the top end is 2000 words. She also says that magazines typically use pieces between 300 and 500 words, and as low as 100 words for the youngest kids (that last number is from page 53).

My own books run between 2000 and 2500 because I'm trying to write transitional books between easy readers and chapter books. (Note that I'm still well under the Dadey & Jones recommendations.) My chapters run between 300 and 400 words, about the same length as magazine articles for young children. That way, I figure they can read a chapter in one sitting.

And don't forget that I have a children's librarian double-checking my books. She's ok with the length, given that I'm trying to create a transitional book.

So I'd say these are safe guidelines for a typical easy reader:
  • Easy readers range from 500 to 2000 words long, with 1000 to 1500 being the normal length. It's probably safe to say that a 500-word book will be for the youngest readers or for readers who are lagging a bit in their reading skills. (And yes, those kind of books are important if we want all our kids to become better readers. If you think you're good at writing them, you should definitely give it a try.)
  • If you prefer to think in pages, the typical manuscript will be 2 to 8 full double-spaced pages long. The normal length would be 4 to 6 pages long. (1000 words = 4 pages of 250 words; 1500 words = 6 pages of 250 words.)
And remember that most word processors can count the words for you. For example, Microsoft Word usually shows a running word count at the bottom of the window; and if you highlight a group of paragraphs, it will show the total word count for them as well. So it isn't hard to tell if your books are the right length.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Have You Tried Writing Like a Child?

I mean that literally. Have you ever tried incorporating the bad grammar, strange logic, weird characters, and all the other things that go into a child's "creative writing" into your own work?

I found this article called James Joyce: How to Write Like a Child in Seven Steps. It's not written by James Joyce; rather, it's about how his book A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is so confusing to read. (And no, I haven't read the book. But I can see from the samples in the article how confusing it might be.)

The author, Joe Bunting, suggests that we might improve our writing -- or at least have more fun with it -- by trying some of the childlike writing techniques Joyce used in his book. For example, he quotes the first sentence in the book:
Once upon a time and a very good time it was there was a moocow com­ing along the road and this moocow that was com­ing down along the road met a nicens lit­tle boy named baby tuckoo.…
Yes folks, this is from a published book for adults that is considered a great work of modern fiction. Have you ever tried writing something like that?

Let me ask you another question: Don't you think you can write something at least as good?

Most of us are far too critical of our own work. Nothing we write is ever good enough. Often we're ashamed of what we create because it doesn't sound like Stephen King or Nora Roberts or (in a more childlike vein) Shel Silverstein or Beverly Cleary or J.K. Rowling. And yet we don't realize that "perfect" isn't a substitute for "creative" or "exciting" or even just "fun." Do you really think that the Joyce book has been so popular because it's somehow above what other people write?

As Bunting points out, basically all Joyce did is write in childlike prose like that of many elementary children. Look, I know he might have tackled some profoundly deep subject in the course of the book. But would you have written about a profoundly deep subject in such childlike prose? That's my point.

Maybe it's time we give ourselves permission to enjoy writing for a change. We can always go back and edit our work to death if we so desire. But if we don't allow ourselves to just have some fun creating the raw material of our work, why should we expect anybody else to enjoy it?

Think about that next time you're struggling with a blank white page. Maybe you should forget about the profoundly deep subject you think you should be writing about and just write about the moocows coming down along the road.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Writing with Index Cards

Today I have an "outlining technique" that may appeal to many of you. I found the article about it at the Writer's Digest website, but it has an interesting use for writing children's books.

The article is called Create Structure in Your Fiction Using Index Cards. The writer got the idea from a book by science fiction writer David Gerrold, who wrote (among other things) the Trouble with Tribbles episode from the original Star Trek. The book sounded familiar to me, so I checked and found that I had it. It comes from a chapter called Structure, Structure, Structure! which has a lot more info than you'll get from the article. Still, for a children's writer, the article has all the info you need.

Here's the basic idea: You take all the scene ideas you have about the story and write each of them on an index card. I'd go even further and say you can be even less specific than that -- just write down each action you know you want in your story. (Hey, it's a children's book, not a 1200 page epic. You're probably only looking at two or three dozen cards, max.)

Then you arrange the cards in what appears to be the best order for them to happen... and try "reading" your story. Does it make sense? If not, rearrange the cards until it does. Is something missing? Add the necessary cards in the correct spots. Did you find something that doesn't belong? Take the card out of the stack. (And save it. Maybe it will fit in another book, and you've already got a card -- or more -- to get you started.)

It's a very simple, very organic way of outlining that doesn't feel like outlining at all. And because children's books -- especially easy readers -- aren't terribly long, you can start fleshing out the ideas on the cards themselves. Add dialogue, place info, character actions, and so forth right on the appropriate card. It's entirely possible that you'll get the entire first draft of your book written on those index cards. All you have to do then is just type your cards (in order) into your computer and voila! You've got your first draft.

I've used this method when doing long adult books. I actually used sticky notes and stuck them on the wall in my hallway, so I could see them all at once and rearrange them easily. If it works for a long book, it will certainly work for a short one!

If you're having trouble getting your story worked out, this also helps because it breaks the story down into little bite-size pieces. It simply doesn't seem as daunting this way. Give it a try.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Writing Flash Fiction

If you've never heard of flash fiction, I'll make it very simple for you.

A flash fiction story is a complete story told in less than 1000 words. Some people will stretch that out to 1500 or even 2000 words, but I think that's more of a short short story. (Think of "short stories" as starting at around 3000 words or so.) It's that simple.

Although most flash fiction stories are considered adult stories, I've been struck by the fact that the length is about the same as most children's stories. Furthermore, the best flash stories seem to have fairly simple grammar and are told very directly -- again, like a good children's story. The great thing about flash fiction is that it's so short that it's fairly easy to study and learn from.

Today I just want to give you a link to an article at the Children Come First site called 6 Steps to Writing Flash Fiction. It takes you through the process of writing a 493-word flash fiction story, from idea to completed story. It shows you how to flesh out the idea a bit at a time, much as you would approach a regular children's story.

Here's a thought I would add to what is said in that article, especially since the article is about writing flash fiction in general, not specifically for children: Although children probably wouldn't catch on to all the symbolism the writer used in this story, there's no reason that you can't put it in if it helps you write better stories!

The article itself isn't very long, so take a few moments to pop over and read it. You might be surprised at how much it will help your writing.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Day in the Life Plots

Today I'm looking at the rest of the storybook plots from Shutta Crum's PDF. There are 3 left -- numbers 5 through 7 (4 plots if you count her breakdown of 7a and 7b) -- that she calls Parallel Structure, Story Within a Story Structure, and Time Line Structures (both straight line and circular).

I just call these day in the life plots. The reason is because these stories are often little more than "this happened, and then this happened, and then this happened" stories. In my last post I mentioned episodic plots and, as I see it, these plots are the direct equivalent. Things happen in sequence, but this doesn't necessarily imply any logical connection between them. As in real life, sometimes one thing happens after another without any seeming connection (beyond convenience) between them.

And I think the structural differences between Shutta's divisions are pretty simple to see:
  • In a parallel structure, two similar series of events happen side-by-side where we can compare them.
  • In the story within a story structure, a big story happens "around" a smaller story -- that is, we start telling the big story, then we stop while we tell the smaller story (the inner story), and then we finish the big story.
  • And in time line stories, we just follow one series of events from beginning to end. Sometimes we finish in a different place than we started (straight line) and sometimes we finish in the same place where we started (circular).
Now if you've been following the last couple of posts, you may be a bit confused at why I've divided them up the way I have. Here's an overview that might help:
  • Rising action plots tend to focus on a single main event. They're very tightly focused plots that generally cover a very short period of time and a very specific sequence of events held together by a very clear logical connection. Think of these plots as having a strong cause-and-effect relationship. The first event in a rising action plot causes the second event; the second event has to happen to our character. This is the closest structure to a typical writer's concept of plot as a series of intricately related events.
  • Domino plots tend to wander around a bit. There's still a logical connection between the events -- the first one sends the story into the second one, like dominoes falling -- but the logic isn't necessarily as tight. The first event in a domino plot leads to the second event, but that second event may have happened even without the first event. The first event just happened to lead our character to the second event; the second event could have happened to someone else if our character wasn't involved. In essence, our character created the link between the events because he chose to. Here the concept of plot is simply one thing after another happened.
  • Day in the life plots don't have to be logically connected at all -- at least, not beyond the fact that they happened to our character. The connection here is basically the passing of time in the character's life. The concept of plot for this kind of story is really more of a theme, in that the events are related more by their nature than by cause-and-effect. A fireman might put out a small brush fire, then rescue a kitten from a tree, then go speak to first-grade class. Did one event cause the next? No, and our fireman didn't necessarily choose them or their order. But they're all events that could happen in the daily life of a fireman -- a thematic connection -- and therefore make perfect sense in this plot structure. Compare this to a rising action plot, where the sheer randomness of the events would drive the reader crazy -- "What does rescuing the cat have to do with the brush fire?"
I've moved from the most constraining plot to the most flexible plot. By identifying which plot structure best fits your story, you make it easier to avoid mistakes that would derail your story and -- in some cases -- you make it easier to plot your story. The order of events is more critical in a rising action plot than in a day in the life plot because of the demands of logic.

Different plot structures allow us to tell different types of stories. And if you realize that you most enjoy telling, say, day in the life stories, you've just made your writing life a whole lot easier. Use the correct plot structure and your stories will be better as well, because a properly-structured story is much easier for your reader to understand and enjoy.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Domino Plots

In the last post I wrote about a PDF of storybook plots that writer Shutta Crum has on her website and started looking at some ways to apply them to easy readers. In that post I wrote about rising action plots, which are more like standard adult story plots.

This time I want to look at four of the plot structures in her PDF. She calls them the Cumulative or Toppling Structure, Decreasing Structure, Increasing Structure, and Simultaneously Increasing and Decreasing Structure.

I just call them domino plots. Shutta's first plot structure is the clearest example -- she uses the story "The House that Jack Built" as one such story. I tend to think of an old Foghorn Leghorn cartoon called "Leghorn Swoggled," which you can see in the YouTube clip below. Amid all the gags between Foghorn and the dog, little Henery Hawk tries to rope Foghorn and gets rebuffed. The domino plot begins when the dog asks Henery what the problem is:



In a domino plot like this, something happens which causes something else to happen, which causes yet another thing to happen, which causes... you get the picture. This is similar to the episodic structure used in many ancient stories like The Odyssey, except that the episodes in those stories aren't necessarily connected:
  • In episodic stories, this happens... and then that happens... and then this other thing happens, but none of it may be related except that they happened in a series.
  • In domino stories, they ARE related. This happens because that happened, and that happened because something else happened.
Giving Tree coverThe other structures Shutta mentions are related in the same way. In her decreasing structure, the item decreases because first one person used it, then another person used it, and then yet someone else used it. Each use results in the item being used up a little more. The uses aren't necessarily related, but the item used is the same. The item itself is the because in the story. The Giving Tree is a good example. The tree is being used up until there's nothing left but the trunk... and then that has a use as well.

The same is true in the increasing structure except that the element of surprise is the because. Something has happened but that's not all... this happened too, but that's not all either... that also happened. While the decreasing structure is a logical progression, the increasing structure often has no logic at all. Shutta's example is "The Little Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly" and that's the first one that comes to my mind as well. Oh my gosh, what did she eat next? The surprise is what drives the story.

Of course, her final structure combines the two -- there are two opposing stories happening at the same time. The trick is that both stories are tied together by a common element. As that element decreases in one story, it causes the increase in the other... or vice versa. Shutta's list gives a couple of examples.

When using domino plots in easy readers, the different types of plots clearly have different uses. An inventive writer can always find a new way to use an old plot, but you'll see certain types of plots used frequently for certain types of stories.

The first plot (the cumulative structure) probably has the most uses for a typical story. The cause and effect nature of the "dominoes" gives the story a certain amount of urgency that drives it along. You can use it for all kinds of stories, but adventures make perfect sense for this structure. If you plan it right, the "dominoes" themselves can give you a sort of ticking clock to increase the urgency.

The second plot (decreasing structure) works well for fables and moralistic stories. You can see, for example, where stories about generosity (like The Giving Tree) are a frequent use for this type of plot.

The third plot (increasing structure) often has an air of silliness about it. It comes from that element of surprise -- the sillier the next step is, the more surprising it is.

And the fourth plot (the combination of two and three) can be both silly and serious. It all depends on how you want to use the common element.

Domino plots are great for easy readers because they're very straightforward. The simple logic is easier for new readers to follow. And because we're all exposed to so many of them growing up (as I mentioned,  classics like Homer's Odyssey and even some classic cartoons are domino stories), domino plots are often easier for a writer to create.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Rising Action Plots

Plotting is a mystery to many of us. In some ways, although writing an easy reader isn't easier than writing an adult story (they may be shorter, but that doesn't make them easier!), plotting one IS easier than than plotting an adult story. Adults expect things to be complicated -- they expect it. When you write easy readers for children, they're so busy learning the mechanics of how to read that the plots have to be simpler. Otherwise you're just making their job harder.

But that doesn't mean that easy reader plots necessarily come easily to writers. Even though the plots are simpler, they still have to make sense... and logical structures don't always come to mind so easily.

I don't remember when I found it, but a poet and picture book writer named Shutta Crum put some neat writing helps on her blog, one of which is this PDF about picture book story skeletons. When I read it, I thought it would be really helpful when it came to plotting easy readers. After all, easy readers are the next step up from picture books; these are plots that the kids are already familiar with!

I thought I'd take a few posts to look at some of these structures and apply them to easy readers. The one I'll mention first is actually the last one on her list. She calls it the Traditional Rising Action Structure, and I'm starting there because most people would associate it with the plotting basics I've already written about. In addition, it's probably the most common approach to adult story plotting.

In a rising action plot, things start to happen one after the other, and each new action makes the reader ask, "Oh my gosh! How is the hero going to get out of this now?" Then, when it looks like everything is just going to fall apart because the problem has gotten so big, the hero figures out an answer and solves the problem.

While it's always desirable, in an easy reader it's really important that the hero figures out the answer and actually solves the problem himself. It's no good if someone else comes in and solves it for the hero or if things just solve themselves, like an accident. The hero has to save himself, not get rescued. And, depending on the story, the hero may have to solve each problem as he finds it or the problems may just keep getting worse until he has only one big mess to clean up.

This may sound complicated, but it's not. Bear in mind that a picture book writer is going to exploit this plot in only 500 to 1000 words. If they can do it, an easy reader author can do it. In an easy reader you don't need more than three or maybe four complications at most. Three is the traditional number for a lot of things in writing, regardless of whether it's a child's story or an adult's story. (It could be the religious connotations, but I suspect it has something to do with tripods being generally stable structures regardless of how uneven the ground is. Threes just seem more solid.)

So those are the keys to applying a rising action plot to an easy reader story:
  • Don't over-complicate things -- it's a short kid's story, not a long adult's story
  • Things must happen logically
  • There are typically three events in the "rising action" sequence
  • The hero has to figure out how to solve the problem, then do it himself
If you do that, you've got a good chance to create a memorable story with a rising action plot.