The Awesome-Sauce by @JohnClaudeBemis


Ursula Nordstrom was the legendary editor for many children’s book luminaries such as 20160628_003124E.B. White, Shel Silverstein, and Maurice Sendak. Two years before Sendak wrote Where the Wild Things Are, he sent Nordstrom a letter (oh, the days of authors and editors exchanging actual letters!) lamenting that he was no genius like Tolstoy or Melville. In Nordstrom’s typically wry style, she assured him that, indeed, he was no Tolstoy.  Then she added, “But Tolstoy wasn’t Sendak, either.”

I love this advice. We often look with admiration and envy at other writers, when we should set our sights on recognizing the unique perspective only we have to offer in our stories. Sure, I would never have invented Hogwarts or Narnia, but Rowling and Lewis would never have dreamed up the magical America of my Clockwork Dark trilogy or the fantastical Venetian Empire in my latest fantasy-adventure The Wooden Prince.

What is the story only you can write? The story no other author possibly could because they don’t have your singular way of seeing the world?

One simple way of discovering your unique vision is to make a list of 10 – 20 things that fascinate you. Maybe they’re types of characters like 10 year-old con artists or astrophysicists. Or places like Venice or lost tropical islands. They could be video games, dust bunnies, Thai food, or even revenge, unrequited love, or shapeshifting.

Obviously, your list will include things that might fascinate other writers, but how many others will have your list? It’s the combination of things on your list that reveals aspects of your unique storytelling angle.

Wooden princeWhen I began developing The Wooden Prince, I knew I wanted it to be a retelling of Pinocchio. But what could I do with this classic story that hadn’t been done before? I began making lists of what I thought would be. . .well, to put it simply, awesome. Call it your awesome-sauce: the basic ingredients that not only make the story appealing to you, but hopefully to readers as well. I had ingredients like robots and sea monsters, Leonardo Da Vinci and reckless fairy princesses. At first, it didn’t seem like sci-fi elements like robots would go together with a magical Renaissance Italy. But I found a way to make it work organically and to develop a wonderfully strange world that put a new twist on Pinocchio.

The key was making connections between awesome-sauce ingredients that might seem disparate, like Da Vinci-technology with monsters and magic. Some might say all ideas have already been used. But truthfully there are endless new story ideas waiting to be discovered if we only combine things in ways readers have never seen before.

So develop your list of awesome-sauce—your ever-growing list of character-types, places, things, and story elements that ignite your imagination. Then look for unusual and unexpected ways that they might be combined in your story. This could be a first peek into the unique story only you could write, the book readers have never seen before and are going to be ecstatic to discover.

John Claude Bemis author photo 2015John Claude Bemis is the award-winning author of five middle grade novels and one picture book. His latest fantasy-adventure is The Wooden Prince, the first book in Out of Abaton series from Disney-Hyperion. John served as North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate for Children’s Literature. He lives in Hillsborough, NC. You can find out more about him on his website HERE, or by visiting his FACEBOOK PAGE.



*Note: The pre-registration webinar will be held on Wednesday night. Pre-registered students, don’t forget to check your emails Wednesday.




Author Webinar on August 18

KLSS 2015 BadgeWe have three amazing authors lined up to join us for the Webinar this coming Tuesday on August 18 at 8pm EST! They offer expertise in writing picture books, middle grade novels, and young adult novels. So who are these fabulous featured authors? Let us introduce them to you:

John Claude Bemis author photo 2015John Claude Bemis is the author of the middle grade Clockwork Dark trilogy, The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, and Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince(coming March 2016 from Disney-Hyperion). John was chosen as North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate for Children’s Literature and is the recipient of UNC Chapel Hill’s Excellence in Teaching Award for his work as an author-educator. He lives in Hillsborough, NC.

Lori DegmanLori Degman is teacher of the deaf and an award winning picture book author. She has two books: 1 Zany Zoo,Simon & Schuster (Cheerios New Author Contest winner);Cock-a-Doodle Oops,Creston Books (2015 ILA Honor Book); and Norbert’s Big Dream, Sleeping Bear Press, coming July, 2016.

Yvonne Ventresca Author Photo Yvonne Ventresca is the author of Pandemic (Sky Pony Press, 2014), winner of the 2015 Crystal Kite Award from SCBWI (Atlantic region).  She has presented at several SCBWI conferences, including a session on “What to Expect When You’re Expecting a Novel.” Yvonne’s other writing credits include a short story in the YA dystopian anthology Prep for Doom (2015), two nonfiction books for teens,Avril Lavigne (a biography of the singer) and Publishing (about careers in the field), along with various articles for teens and adults.

If you registered for Kidlit Summer School 2015 an email was sent to you with details on how to register for this webinar. Have a question for one or all of these authors? There is a place for you to ask it on the registration form. REGISTRATION FOR THIS WEBINAR WILL CLOSE ON SUNDAY, AUGUST 16, 2015 at 11pm ET. Any registrations after that time cannot be accommodated. We hope you can join us on Tuesday night!

Week 2 Pop Quiz

KLSS 2015 BadgeNow that Week 2 is over, it’s time to review what you learned and take a Pop Quiz. We know you’re all going to ace it and make your teachers proud! So go ahead, take this quiz to see if you learned the basics during the second week of Kidlit Summer School.


On Monday, John Claude Bemis reminded us that…

  1. Your story should have both an internal plotline and an external plotline.
  2. Your external plotline should be resolved by actions and choices your protagonist makes.
  3. Your internal plotline should follow an emotional transformation your protagonist makes.
  4. All of the above

On Tuesday, Leeza Hernandez suggested…

  1. Keeping your plotting on track from picture books to chapter books using at-a-glance diagrams.
  2. Working with a 32-page storyboard first and listing keywords to map out where certain plot points need to happen.
  3. Using a spidergram as a visual breakdown and guide for your plotline to help you see where you’re going as you write … One. Step. At. A. Time.
  4. All of the above

On Wednesday, Yvonne Ventresca encouraged us to…

  1. Get your main character up a tree, and then throw rocks at them.
  2. Choose situations to put your character in that escalate in terms of importance, but that also relate to your theme.
  3. Create a table with columns and rows as an easy visual that enables you to focus on certain elements of the story.
  4. All of the above

On Thursday, in balancing the fear factor, Tracey Baptiste reminded us that…

  1. Plotting a horror novel for kids means tying all of the action pieces to an emotional reaction.
  2. Horror elements need to be cut with other things: humor, frustration, longing, success.
  3. Horror novels should not end on an emotional fear factor of zero. There should be something left over, that keeps the readers on their toes.
  4. All of the above.

On Friday, Robin Newman’s trail of crumbs revealed that…

  1. As a mystery writer, your goal is to guide your junior investigators onto a path that will help them crack the case.
  2. When that big moment is about to happen, you want to slow down the text. Don’t give the big moment away too quickly.
  3. Leaving something extra, like a twist at the end or touch of humor, will spice up the last scene in the book.
  4. All of the above

On Saturday, Lisa Lewis Tyre’s road trip reminded us that…

  1. If your protagonist doesn’t have something at stake, it’s not a story
  2. If you know your characters well, they can lead you to plot turns instead of you leading them.
  3. A variety of plotting methods can help you move forward and enjoy the process.
  4. All of the above

On Sunday, Courtney Pippin-Mathur encouraged us to…

  1. Think of all the ideas you can at first. (even the mundane)
  2. Separate them into components: Character, Setting, Conflict, Theme, Resolution
  3. List all of the outrageous ways you can change each of those to make the story more interesting including trying to flip an element or two of your story.
  4. All of the above

Yay, you got an A right? 100% correct? If you’re unsure, go back and check out the posts from Week Two. This is an open blog test. (And you don’t even have to turn it in. Grade yourself and then pat yourself on the back!)

John Claude Bemis: Dual Plotlines: Weaving Together Internal and External Conflict and GIVEAWAY

Have editors or agents told you that your writing is lovely, but your story is “too quiet, too gentle?” Or maybe your action-packed adventure got an agent or editor initially excited, only to have her pass because your story “needed more heart?” What’s going on here?

When I’ve led writing workshops or critiqued manuscripts, I’ve found one of the biggest barriers writers have to selling their stories is that they aren’t weaving together the inner world of the character’s emotional development with the external events creating the action. In other words, their plotline is either external or internal, but not both.

The external plotline involves action and choices made by the characters. The conflict can only be resolved by the protagonist doing something—defeat a villain, solve a mystery, get back home, win a contest, etc. The internal plotline involves an emotional transformation the protagonist must make.

In Cinderella, the external plotline shows Cinderella cleaning the house, getting help from her Fairy Godmother to go to the ball, meeting the prince, losing the glass slipper, revealing her identity by putting on the slipper when her stepsisters couldn’t, marrying the prince. The internal plotline involves her sadness at the death of her mother and the cruelty of her new stepmother and stepsisters. This emotional conflict is resolved when Cinderella gains happiness by winning the prince and falling in love. (As someone who has a daughter, I’m grateful new stories are showing girls how there are other ways to grow emotionally!)

prince-book-pageThe mistake many writers make is that they think of their books as either plot-driven or character-driven. It’s not completely their fault. Many think “genre stories” such as fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, and horror are plot-heavy action adventures with cardboard characters. Others feel “literary novels” are nuanced character studies that bore young readers.

Why does it have to be either or? Pixar Studios and directors like Spielberg have figured out that delivering both exciting adventures and emotional rich storylines is their secret weapon. Great children’s literature should also weave together both an internal plot with an external one. Take a look. . .

Most would consider Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone a plot-driven novel. It’s fantasy, after all. And full of action. But notice how it has a strong internal plotline as well. Harry begins with an emotional hole in his life. His parents are dead. He has no friends. His only family, the Dursleys, are uncaring and down-right cruel. (Sounds a lot like Cinderella, right?) We readers—and Harry himself— want nothing more than for this hole to be filled. And as the story advances, Harry forms a surrogate family by forging friendships with the students and teachers at Hogwarts. The steps in Harry’s internal transformation are linked with the external action of the plot. Each major advancement of the external plot—finally getting his acceptance letter from Hagrid, shopping in Diagon Alley, Harry’s first time on a broom, fighting the troll in the bathroom, descending through the trapdoor and outmaneuvering the protective barriers to reach the Sorcerer’s Stone (and Voldemort)—also help resolve Harry’s internal conflict by developing new relationships and deepening friendships that fill the emotional hole in his life. It’s what gives an exciting “action oriented” story like Harry Potter loads of heart and appeal.

Can you imagine how a character-driven story like Wonder by R.J. Palacio could easily have been low on action with much of the story taking place internally in Auggie’s thoughts? But Palacio masterfully threads together an internal and an external plotline to make the story exciting. Like with Harry (and so many other characters), Auggie has an emotional hole in his life, this one formed by the way he’s treated because he has a facial deformity. The internal conflict revolves around Auggie’s need to learn how to literally face the world, to grow more independent, and to not rely so heavily on his parents to shelter him from potential cruelty.

Palacio uses compelling action to show the external conflict and its resolution: Auggie’s encounters on the first day of school, the Halloween mask disaster, repairing his friendship with Jack, facing off against bullies at the field trip to nature preserve, losing his hearing aids. In Wonder, we see how many of Auggie’s classmates have developed a deeper understanding of kindness and compassion, and Auggie has grown more confident and less dependent on his parents to protect him. But all of this internal growth is shown through exciting conflict and edge-of-your-seat action.

Nine Pound Hammer coverEnough about other books. What should you be doing with yours? How can you give your action-oriented book more heart. . . or give your quiet, gentle character meditation more excitement?

First of all, look at your plot. Does it focus more on external conflict (overcoming antagonistic people or situations) or does it have more internal conflict (character transformation)? If you’ve been focusing on one more than the other, now is the time to build the dual plotlines of internal and external.

I’ve included a worksheet for you to fill in that separates the action from the emotion. I want to keep it simple, to boil your story down to the bare essence of Problem—Steps—Solution. If you’re a fan of mapping your story out, this worksheet should pair nicely with any number of outlining methods, whether it’s the traditional 3 Act Structure, Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat beat sheet, etc.


When you get to the “Steps” boxes, think of this as the crucial scenes in your story that move the plot forward. It’s up to you and your story to decide how many steps move the external plotline and the internal plotline from problem to solution.

For the sake of this exercise, I’d suggest sticking to the bare minimum to gauge what is absolutely necessary for your story. It’ll help you also consider whether you have unnecessary scenes. Don’t be afraid to kill those darlings.

After you’ve filled the worksheet in, take a good look at how your answers for the External Plotline column compare with your Internal Plotline column. Are they happening in the same scenes or different scenes? Would they have more punch if you merged them into one scene? You’re the creative mind behind your story. Only you can ultimately decide.

Also, why not do this worksheet for your antagonist or important secondary characters as well? It might very well flesh them out for you.

Through this lesson, I hope you’ll have a better sense for how both external and internal conflict drive a plot forward. If your character is taking decisive action to solve a problem and transforming emotionally in the process, then hopefully editors and agents will be raving about how your story is both exciting and full of heart. And what young reader doesn’t like that kind of story?

John Claude Bemis author photo 2015

John Claude Bemis is the author of the Clockwork Dark trilogy, The Prince Who Fell from the Sky, and Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince (coming March 2016 from Disney-Hyperion). John was chosen as North Carolina’s Piedmont Laureate for Children’s Literature and is the recipient of UNC Chapel Hill’s Excellence in Teaching Award for his work as an author-educator. He lives with in Hillsborough, NC. You can visit his website at


GIVEAWAY John  is giving away a signed advanced copy of his March 2016 release from Disney-Hyperion Out of Abaton: The Wooden Prince . If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win his book, please leave a comment on this post to be entered into the drawing. Good luck!

If you are registered for Kidlit Summer School, you can download a worksheet of John’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

If you haven’t registered for #KidlitSummerSchool yet click HERE.