Oft-quoted writing advice includes, “Put the manuscript in a drawer until you can read it with new eyes.” If you have time to do that, great. But there is another way to create distance and gain new perspectives on your work. I’ve called it “play cat’s cradle” especially for KidLit Summer School! 🙂
To play cat’s cradle you need a string tied into a loop by a knot. Without the knot, there is no loop, it is only string. The same is true of your main character and your story. Your main character is the knot—without him or her, your story is only a string of events. Every meaningful character in your story exists to effect change in the main character during the arc of the story. So a useful exercise for me is to follow the thread for how each character is connected not to the MC but to the MC’s change.
First, I ponder the knot, which for me has three elements: the MC’s Want, the MC’s Need, and Theme. Generally, the Want and Need are in conflict with each other, and that conflict shines a light on the Theme. Key words tend to pop up, and I use them and my trusty Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus to make connections.
The process is easiest to explain by example.
In my next book, Will Nolan Eats Bugs, Will’s Want is to be a good friend, which he identifies with being loyal, having someone’s back. His Need is to be a decent person, which requires he be loyal to himself and his personal values. Synonyms for “loyalty” include: allegiance, faithfulness, adherence, devotion, steadfastness, staunchness, trueheartedness, dependability, reliability, trustworthiness, duty, commitment, and patriotism. The key antonym is treachery.
All these words have the same connection—loyalty—yet watch what happens when I begin to group them by Will and the three key players who affect the most change in Will’s character.
Will: truehearted, steadfast, trustworthy.
Darryl (friend since kindergarten; overtly challenges Will’s personal values): staunchness, allegiance, duty, adherence. Darryl’s vision of loyalty is very much like patriotism, somewhat blind, owed, and any betrayal is like treason which makes Will a traitor.
Eloy (potential new friend; an ally, but one who calls Will on his crap): reliability, truehearted, trustworthy, dependability. Though Eloy has a growing loyalty to Will, he first and always has a deep loyalty to his family and self. He is very much in the camp loyalty is earned, not owed.
Hollie (Will’s sibling; is “betrayed” by Will’s actions): trustworthy, commitment, devotion, dependability. She can call Will an idiot, but no one else can. As family, loyalty is both owed and earned.
Grouping synonyms by character highlighted connections I hadn’t noticed, not only to Will but between the other characters.
(The pretty chart I drew just for KidLit Summer School!)
Darryl is the most overt antagonist, and now I see Why. Though the root word is the same for all, his approach to loyalty is very different from the others. Like Darryl, Hollie is betrayed by Will, yet her response to the betrayal is different because her sense of loyalty is rooted differently. Additionally, I see why Eloy and Hollie keep after Will, not abandoning him even when he acts like a doof—the three share similar senses of loyalty.
This bird’s eye view of the connections between my main character’s change helps me clarify what actions might be taken not only by Will but by all the characters. Now I have a great resource.
(The actual working chart; not as pretty, but useful.)
As I consider a scene, I hold it up to my chart and think, “Where is this on the thread? How does it pull at Will’s knot?” It also helps me think more intentionally about each character’s development. It’s not only that they do something to effect change in the MC, but also that I get why they do that something and how it pushes at the MC.
I hope this pre-writing exercise helps! And now I’m off to find more yarn…
Rebecca Petruck’s debut Steering Toward Normal is an American Booksellers Association New Voice and a Kids Indie Next List title. Vanity Fair’s Hollywood and the L.A. Times also have spotlighted the MG novel. Petruck was a member of 4-H, a Girl Scout, a cheerleader, and competed in MathCounts. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing. Her next book is Will Nolan Eats Bugs (Fall 2017).
This year we welcome Rebecca back for the third year in a row to KLSS to lead us in #30mdares, online writing exercises where we motivate each other to write by setting aside 30 minutes and writing with a prompt Rebecca gives us. The only “rule” is to set a timer and go without stopping for 30 minutes. Look for more announcements about these fun events in future KLSS emails and blog posts!
For now, follow Rebecca on twitter: @RebeccaPetruck, on Facebook: /rpetruck, and visit her website by clicking HERE.
KLSS Announcement: Webinar TONIGHT for pre-registered students at 8:00 pm, EST. Yes, the time is now 8:00 pm, EST.