POP QUIZ WEEK 4

Alright, are you ready to show off all that you have learned in our FINAL Pop Quiz? We know you’re all going to nail it and will surely show off your plotting prowess! Take this quiz to see what you learned during week three of Kidlit Summer School.

On Monday, Megan Miranda taught us to thrill our readers by…

  1. Asking ourselves “What’s the worst that can happen?”
  2. Adding even more tension.
  3. Finding moments to surprise.
  4. All of the above.

On Tuesday, Lori Degman asked questions regarding plot in rhyming stories…

  1. Does the story have a strong beginning that introduces the setting, characters or problem in a way that makes the reader want to keep reading?
  2. Does every line add to the story and move it forward?  
  3. Does the pacing (the length and rhythm of each line) match the mood of the story?
  4. All of the above.

On Wednesday, Julie Sternberg suggested using conversation-based techniques such as:

  1. Eavesdrop on your main character as (s)he tells his/her best friend what’s happened.
  2. Brainstorm your plot ideas with your writer friends, and keep brainstorming as you continue to write.
  3. Whenever a particular moment, or the plot as a whole, isn’t working, open a new document and have a conversation with yourself about why that might be.
  4. All of the above.

On Thursday, Christine Fletcher gave us tips for writing effective conflict

  1. Bring your protagonist face-to-face with the need to grow and change.
  2. Conflict has to directly impact the protagonist’s goals, fears, and/or flaws.
  3. The reader needs to know why the conflict and its outcome matter so much to the protagonist—because then, and only then, will the reader care too.
  4. All of the above.

On Friday, John Cusick showed us how to escape the murky middle of our stories by…

  1. Dropping your hero and a few pals into a new setting.
  2. Exploring what your characters are doing a week, a month, or a year from now.
  3. Writing a scene in which all of your characters attend the same party.
  4. All of the above.

On Saturday, Joyce Wan helped us learn to twist our endings through…

  1. An ending that echoes something that happened in the beginning of the story
  2. Role reversal in which a character is revealed to be someone else in the end.
  3. Challenging the perception of the reader.
  4. All of the above

How did you do? A++ right? 6 out of 6? If you’re not sure or think you missed something, that’s easy, simply go back and check out the posts from Week Four. This is an open blog test. You don’t even have to turn it in. Grade yourself and then pat yourself on the back!

Julie Sternberg: Let’s Talk This Through and GIVEAWAY

I spend a lot of time trying to trick myself into believing that writing is easy—that if I would just sit down and open my laptop, words would fly across the page. It helps to say to myself, All you have to do is tell a story. That’s it. Just take a seat and tell a story.

JSternberg_Freindship_CoverWe know how to tell stories. We’ve told them since we were kids, in countless conversations with friends and more-than-friends and sisters and brothers and parents and teachers and neighbors. “You are never going to believe this,” we’ve said, and then we’re off. We’ve listened to plenty of stories, too, and we know good ones from bad.

Because conversation feels so much easier than writing, I use it in various ways as I figure out what should happen in my story. (That’s how I like to think about plot: just, what happens in my story. That’s it. Nothing to be afraid of here.) I can’t move forward without my primary characters and at lease one pivotal problem, so I come up with those first. Then I try this technique, suggested by my friend and mentor Amy Hest: I sit somewhere quiet and pretend that my main character and her best friend are nearby. My main character is chattering away, telling her friend everything that’s happened (either in a particular scene or over the course of the whole book). Sometimes I think, That can’t be possibly be true, and my main character backtracks a little and tweaks what she’s said, then continues. Eventually, I start taking notes.

JSternberg_Covers

I talk to real, live people, too, and probably not often enough. It’s surprisingly easy to get caught up in the solitude of writing and forget how useful it can be to brainstorm plot ideas with others. In my writing group we usually submit draft pages, but sometimes I’ll ask if we can discuss what should be happening in my story instead. Those sessions can feel life-saving.

Finally, each and every time I struggle with a particular moment in the story (this happens embarrassingly often), I open a new document and start a written conversation with myself. These conversations go something like this (except they’re a lot harder to read than what I’m about to type, because I’m not allowed to pause or edit, and I often skip the punctuation):

Okay, what’s the problem? Why isn’t this working?

I think maybe Sadie’s too angry given the circumstances. It doesn’t feel real. 

So she has to dial it back, right?

Or maybe something worse needs to have happened. Like, let’s say, x instead of y. If x had happened, it’d make perfect sense for her to say what she did. Or she could even say ‘Z’ instead. Yeah, Z is better.”

JSternberg_IllustrationOnce I reach the “Yeah, Z is better” point, then I can close out of my just-talking-to-myself document, make the change in the manuscript, and revise my sense of what’s going to happen next.

In essence, I often use a “there’s no such thing as talker’s block” approach to avoiding writer’s block—including when it comes to plot. I suggest these three conversation-based techniques:

  • Eavesdrop on your main character as (s)he tells his/her best friend what’s happened. If it feels too strange to imagine them sitting in the room with you, then have your main character write the story out in a letter to the best friend. (Letters are a great way for drawing out a character’s voice. I highly recommend having your character write a letter or two.)
  • Don’t forget to brainstorm your plot ideas with your writer friends, and keep brainstorming as you continue to write.
  • Whenever a particular moment, or the plot as a whole, isn’t working, open a new document and have a conversation with yourself about why that might be. It’s surprisingly helpful.

Good luck!
Julie_Sternberg 115_2Julie Sternberg is the author of the best-selling Like Pickle Juice on a Cookie; its sequels Like Bug Juice on a Burger and Like Carrot Juice on a CupcakeThe Top-Secret Diary of Celie Valentine series; and the picture book Bedtime at Bessie and Lil’s. She is also the creator of Play, Memory, a podcast about stories from childhood. Formerly a public interest lawyer, she is a graduate of the New School’s MFA program in Creative Writing, with a concentration in writing for children. She lives with her family in Brooklyn, New York. You can learn more about Julie at juliesternberg.com.

Julie is giving away a signed copy of LIKE PICKLE JUICE ON A COOKIE. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, 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 Julie’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

 

Megan Miranda: What’s The Worst That Can Happen?

Tips for Plotting a Thriller

MMiranda_HysteriaFor some people, the term thriller might conjure up thoughts of a fast-paced, heart-pounding, action-packed plot. For others, a thriller might be twisty, ominous, and full of quiet menace. There are so many different types of thrillers, from the action-heavy plots to the unsettling psychological thrillers. And I’m a fan of them all.

For me, a thriller needs to have that sense of danger, whether real or implied, to keep readers on the edge of their seats—or just on edge.

Here are three elements I think about when developing a thriller:

ASK
Whether developing a big plot or a smaller scene, I often ask myself: What’s the worst that can happen?
In Hysteria, I had the idea for a character who committed a crime in self-defense, and therefore couldn’t be charged. To find the bigger story, I asked myself: What’s the worst that can happen, for this character, in this situation. I came up with this list:

  • She’s framed for another crime
  • The family of the victim wants revenge
  • She doesn’t know if she’s guilty

Each of these answers helped turn the premise into the bigger pitch for the book, which was: A girl who can’t be charged for a killing she does commit is then framed for one she doesn’t commit, all the while being haunted by something that may or may not be real.

MMiranda_FractureBut this is also a tool you can use within a scene itself to find the mini-cliffhangers that keep a reader unable to put the book down at the end of each chapter.

In the opening scenes of Soulprint, a girl is on the verge of escaping from a lifetime of captivity. She’s been held on an island her entire life, and she’s planned for this day for years. She successfully reaches the cliffs at the edge of the island—all she has to do now is jump.

What’s the worst that can happen?
She doesn’t know how to swim.


ADD TENSION
Tension is the thing that keeps me turning pages as a reader, that makes me unable to put a book down. According to the dictionary, tension is a state caused when two forces act in opposition to each other.

I try to find as many of these opposing forces as I can in my story to create more tension and conflict. In Fracture, one character wants to stop death, while another wants to speed it up. Their goals are at complete odds. This is the pivot point for the book, and the place from which the story grows.

MMiranda_VengeanceBut there are many opportunities to add tension in smaller moments as well: What does a character fear, and what must they face in light of that fear? Are their internal goals at odds with their external goals?

See if you can find those elements already in your story. If you don’t have them, see if you can create some more by complicating relationships, or putting motivations at odds.

FIND THE MOMENTS OF SURPRISE
As a reader, I love to be surprised.

There are books that have a big twist—maybe a character is not who you thought they were, or maybe you suddenly realize nothing is as it seems—but there are also plenty of opportunities to use a smaller twist mid-scene, something that surprises the reader and keeps them on the edge of his or her seat. That moment when the danger jumps out at us, or, possibly, when the danger hidden in plain sight is finally revealed.

TO TRY

  • For your pitch, or a character, or a scene, ask yourself: What’s the worst that can happen?
  • Make a chart of opposing forces in your story. Can you add even more tension?
  • Find your moments of surprise to keep the reader hooked

And happy thriller writing!

 

Megan

Megan Miranda is the author of the young adult novels Fracture, HysteriaVengeance, and Soulprint (all from Bloomsbury). Her debut adult suspense novel, Disappear, will be published by Simon & Schuster in 2016. Megan has a degree in Biology from MIT and currently lives near Charlotte, North Carolina with her husband and two children. You can read more about Megan online or over at  Twitter / Facebook / Instagram

Megan is giving away signed copies of FRACTURE and HYSTERIA. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, 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 Megan’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

POP QUIZ WEEK 3

Now that Week 3 has come to a close, it’s time to review what you learned and take a Pop Quiz. We know you’re all going to nail it and will surely show off your plotting prowess! Take this quiz to see what you learned during week three of Kidlit Summer School.

On Monday, Laurie J. Edwards reminded us that…

  1. Backstory is anything that happened before the book begins.
  2. Loading the first chapters with backstory slows the plot.
  3. A good reason to use backstory is when a character is doing something totally out of character, and it’s vital for readers to understand why.
  4. All of the above.

On Tuesday, Maryrose Wood talked about making sure that …

  1. Your hero should make the big choices, risks, discoveries and sacrifices that drive the story forward.
  2. Your hero is uniquely qualified to address the central problem of your tale.
  3. You have a rich cast of unforgettable secondary characters, but that’s no substitute for making your protagonist the most interesting, compelling and indispensable character in your tale.
  4. All of the above.

On Wednesday, Lee Harper suggested for us to…

  1. Imagine the outline of your story is the blurb on the jacket sleeve (flap) of your book.
  2. Be okay that there is always a LOT of going back and forth in the process of plotting a picture book.
  3. Know that the beauty of the Post-it technique is that you can easily get rid of what doesn’t work without investing a great deal of time in your writing/drawing.
  4. All of the above.

On Thursday, Jennifer Latham taught us that in order to build a good MG/YA mystery, you need to …

  1. Set up the basic mystery and decide on what you think it’s resolution will be.
  2. Establish 3-4 major pieces of information your detective will need to learn.
  3. Allow some clues and plot elements to emerge as you write.
  4. All of the above.

On Friday, Marcie Collen showed us how to throw rocks at our character and …

  1. Get back to the basics.
  2. Brew up a storm and make lemonade (or in this case, stone soup!)
  3. When all else fails, step away and start a list of possibilities.
  4. All of the above.

On Saturday, Charlotte Bennardo helped us learn that …

  1. You don’t have to stick with your outline, because it’s meant to be a guide, not a prison.
  2. If you can stop writing at the end of a chapter, that when you pick up again, you can read the last few sentences, look at the notes for the next chapter, and it will all click.
  3. If you need to make a major revision, update your Post-its first so that you can see at a glance if the changes will work.

On Sunday, Heidi Schulz recapped …

  1. The work of plotting is not finished once you have created your first draft.
  2. To consider places to expand or trim your work in order to keep the plot even-paced.
  3. To be sure to give low-action scenes after high-action scenes in order to give readers a change to catch their breath.
  4. All of the above

How did you do? A++ right? 7 out of 7? If you’re not sure or think you missed something, that’s easy, simply go back and check out the posts from Week Three. This is an open blog test. You don’t even have to turn it in. Grade yourself and then pat yourself on the back!

Heidi Schulz: Improving Plot Through Revision and GIVEAWAY

Want to know a secret about me? I don’t particularly enjoy drafting. Even when I work with an outline and I know what it supposed to happen, the act of mining that raw story out of my brain is so difficult. I much prefer the refining process that comes through revision.

When I visit school groups, I often tell them that writing is like building a house.  Your premise and outline—if you use one—is your foundation.  The first draft is the framing. Once the framing has gone up, the building is basically house shaped, but no one would want to live there.

Let me break out my decidedly poor Mac Paintbrush skills and demonstrate.

 

HSchulz_House_01

 

Would you want to live in that house?
It’s easy to believe that the work of plotting all happens in the foundation and framework, but that’s not exactly true. Once you have the structure of a first draft in place, you may find that you want to expand certain sections, reduce—or remove entirely—others, and generally move things around. That’s where revision comes in!

Post-First Draft Plotting Strategies
Reread your manuscript, looking for “out of nowhere” plot elements. Can you plant information early in your manuscript that will allow them to seem more like natural developments and less like deus ex machina?

HSchulz_HookRevengeDo you have peaks and valleys in the action? It can be nice to have an introspective or character development scene after a high action scene, to give readers a chance to catch their breath. Can you reorder existing scenes to allow for breaks in the action?

Writing tip: For high-action, intense scenes, try short sentences. They can help ratchet up the tension.
Trim the fat. Are you starting in the right place? Can early chapters with backstory be lopped off and the information weaved in elsewhere? Can a complicated subplot be streamlined? Do multiple characters serve the same purpose? Can they be combined into one?

Ask yourself: Does this [chapter/scene/paragraph/line/word] move the plot forward? How does it best serve my story? Is it redundant? If you are having a hard time answering, try cutting it. Your story will likely work better without it.

Eliminate unnecessary transitions. Do we really need to see your character driving to school after that tense scene at breakfast? If not, perhaps you could indicate time passing with a scene break and voila, your character is at school, ready to exorcise the demon that resides in her math teacher.

Writing tip: Use a centered pound sign, or hashtag, as the kids call it these days, to indicate a scene break in your manuscript.
Keep prose tight. Cut extraneous words such as “just,” “that,” or what my friend Martha Brokenbrough calls sensory tags: “He watched the executioner raise his axe” vs. “The executioner raised his ax.”

Exercise: Do a document search for words such as these in your current work in progress. How many can you eliminate?
Keep working on your story house. It takes revision to finish the story, to put up the metaphorical curtains and throw out the metaphorical welcome mat. But eventually you will have a place readers will want to curl up in and spend a nice, long time.

HSchulz_House_02

 

Let’s recap things to consider:

  • The work of plotting is not finished once you have created your first draft.
  • Consider places to expand or trim to keep the plot even paced.
  • Be sure to give low-action scenes after high action scenes to give readers a change to catch their breath.

 

Author Heidi Schulz_Photo by Stefani Chabot 2015Heidi Schulz is a lover of pie, a giraffe suspicioner, and the author of Hook’s Revenge, a middle grade novel published by Disney•Hyperion. A sequel, Hook’s Revenge: The Pirate Code, be out in September followed by her picture book debut, Giraffes Ruin Everything (Bloomsbury Kids), in Spring 2016. Heidi lives in Oregon with her husband, their teen daughter, a terrible little dog, and four irascible chickens. You can find out more about Heidi on her Website, or Facebook / Twitter / Goodreads

 

Heidi is giving away a signed hardcover copy of Hook’s Revenge. (USA only) and five signed swag packs (worldwide). If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, 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 Maryrose’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

Charlotte Bennardo: Just… Don’t Do It and GIVEAWAY

“Just write it.” That’s the advice given to aspiring writers. But what happens when you write yourself into a hole and you don’t know where the story goes? Or you have to reread your novel to get back in the groove after being away a bit?

Plot the book.

It’s not that hard. As a reformed ‘pantster’ (writing by the seat of your pants, not knowing what comes next) I can tell you plotting is better. Here’s how:

Bennardo_BlondeopsCvr_72dpiIn one sentence, write your basic idea, i.e. 16 year-old-hacker girl gets caught, sent to Italy with family friends, uncovers plot against First Lady. (This is Blonde OPS).

Next, expand from one sentence to 2-15. (Goes to Rome, meets cute guy, has to work at internship, suspicious things happen, car chase, CIA, FBI, Italian police, hackers show up.)  Just throwing a few extra details into sentences helps kick that imagination on. Now you’re on fire as your brain adds scenes and subplots (office romance, shadowy figure could be murderer, office intrigue, no letter from Mom).

The last step is to outline—one or two sentences per chapter. Maybe you want to put the action on Post-It notes so you can move them around on a board (this is very popular, and good for major revisions). You want the First Lady to show up and there’s a threat. Wait, that has to come after there’s a case of someone being silenced to add drama and suspense. Play around with the order.

When you think you’ve gotten everything in the order you like, sit down to write. However (there’s always a but…)

  1. Don’t feel you have to stick with the outline. It’s meant to be a guide, not a prison. You are the keeper and what you say goes, so if you want to kill someone off, you can.
  2. Try to stop writing at the end of a chapter so that when you pick up again, you can read the last few sentences, look at the notes for the next chapter, and it will all click.
  3. If you need to make a major revision, update the Post-Its first so that you can see at a glance if the proposed changes will work, and how it will affect the whole story.

Bennardo_SirenzCvrs_72dpi

Try this: take a picture or other simple book. Write down the gist of the book in one sentence. Then go to two. Finally, write several sentences that give the major plot points. When you get how this works, if you still want a little more practice before you move on to a novel, try a chapter book. (This also works great for summaries, either for school or your book- slowly expanding instead of trying to write the whole thing at once.)

I learned this trick from another writer and while he applied it to writing summaries of your book, I found it worked just as great for plotting a book.

Good luck!

Bennardo_headshot_72dpi

 

Until Hollywood calls, Charlotte lives in NJ with her husband, three children, two needy cats and sometimes a deranged squirrel. She is the co-author of Blonde Ops (St. Martin’s/Dunne) and the Sirenz series (Sirenz, Sirenz Back In Fashion, Flux). She’s written for magazines and newspapers. Currently she’s working on solo sci fi, ghost, and time travel novels and loves to hear from fans on Twitter @charbennardo or through her blog.

 

Char is giving away a signed copy of one of her books of the winner’s choice (US only). If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, 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 Charlotte’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

Marcie Colleen: My Main Character is Up a Tree, Now What? and GIVEAWAY

Three Tips for Generating a Satisfying Resolution

“The writer’s job is to get the main character up a tree, and then once they are up there, throw rocks at them.”
—Vladimir Nabokov

Now, I don’t consider myself a violent person.  I’m not a mean girl. And I don’t think I have ever—even in childhood—maliciously thrown a rock at someone.

MColleen_TreesHowever, hand me a work-in-progress and my pen and I will hurl, fling, and chuck stones of every size and shape at my main character. After all, as Nabokov says in the quote above, it’s my “job” as a writer. The problem is…my characters might not be as understanding.

You see, I have no issue coming up with obstacles and tension. In fact—and don’t tell my characters this—but I actually love turning the screws in this way. I delight in keeping the reader wondering “how will they ever get out of this?” but sometimes I, myself, am left wondering the same.

My problem lies in getting the main character back down from the tree. I mean, who would come down when you have a crazed curly-haired maniac lobbing boulders at your head?

If left in my “not-so-capable” hands, Curious George would still be frantically flying over the city holding on to a bunch of balloons, Wilbur would be wrought with depression upon Charlotte’s death, and Katniss and Peeta would be left squaring off with the task of killing one another to end the Hunger Games. These are all excellent climaxes, yet not good endings.  Something tells me that cliff hanger endings such as these should not occur in children’s literature.  Can you imagine the therapy sessions spawned by such bedtime tales?

So, a “writer’s job” also includes getting the main character back down from the tree and into a satisfying ending.  This is what I find to be the hardest part of plotting.

If you are a rock-chucker like me, here are my THREE tips to create a “climb down that tree, dear character” ending.

 

1. Get back to the basics. By basics, I mean your character and their traits. Remember this simple rule of good storytelling: everything your character needs to succeed should be revealed at the beginning.  Succeeding = getting out of the tree. So what is it about your character and their desires/goals that can be twisted into a satisfying ending?

The love and bond that Harry Potter had with his mother, even though separated by death, saves him from demise at the hands of Voldemort at the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone.

Katniss’s willingness to sacrifice herself for those she loves and her cunning ability to “pull one over” on the Capitol save the lives of both Katniss and Peeta in The Hunger Games.

And if Harold, of Purple Crayon fame, is creative enough to draw the very world he gets lost in, surely he can draw his way back to his own window using the moon he admired on the first page.

 

2. Make lemonade (or in this case, stone soup!) Your character may use the stones you threw at them to their advantage.  It’s a kind of cause-and-effect.

The peddler in Caps For Sale tries to get the monkeys to give back his caps, but all they do is mimic him.  Yet when he throws his own cap on the ground, the monkeys throw their caps onto the ground, too.

Each of Jonas’ revelations about his world provide the knowledge and strength needed to kidnap Gabriel and escape to Elsewhere in The Giver.

Think of each stone you have thrown as a tool that the character has gathered and then can use to defeat the conflict.

 

3. Brew up a storm. When all else fails, step away and just start a list of possibilities. A good creative brainstorm, whether alone or with others, can be exactly what you need.  Close the computer and grab a pen and paper.

Sometimes I am just a little too close to a character and just like them, I feel hopeless after all of that rock chucking.  The situation starts to look impossible to me, the writer, as well.  In those cases, I like to call in reinforcements and let others take a more distanced look at the tree.  I can’t tell you how many times I have had critique partners look at a story that abruptly ends at the climax and whine, “help me. I have no idea where to go from here!”

A quick note about brainstorming: Twyla Tharp, award-winning choreographer, often asks her students to generate a list of sixty possibilities to solve a problem and then chooses the sixty-first.  As she says in The Creative Habit, “The closer they get to the sixtieth idea, the more imaginative they become—because they have been forced to stretch their thinking. It’s the same arc every time: the first third of the ideas are obvious; the second third are more interesting; the final third show flair, insight, curiosity, even complexity.” So, keep those ideas coming. Challenge yourself. Dig deep.

You know that icebreaker game called the Human Knot? Everyone stands in a clump and grabs two hands within the group.  The goal is then to untangle the clump without losing hold of the two hands you grab. It’s a tough game, but it can be solved. Every time.

Think of your plot as this knot. It’s a knot that you created and therefore, you—along with your main character—have the tools and the creativity to solve the puzzle.  The answer shouldn’t be obvious to the reader.  And often, it won’t be obvious to you, the writer.  But it can be solved.  Every time.

Now let’s go chuck some rocks, shall we?

 

BOOKS RULE photo (1)

Marcie Colleen is a former classroom teacher turned picture book author. Her forthcoming picture books include The Adventure of the Penguinaut (Scholastic) and Love, Triangle (Balzer+Bray / HarperCollins). She is a frequent presenter at conferences for SCBWI, as well as a faculty member of Kidlit Writing School. Visit her on the web at www.thisismarciecolleen.com.

Marcie is giving away a picture book critique. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, 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 Marcie’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

Jennifer Latham: Building a Mystery–Plotting the Perfect Whodunnit for Older Readers and GIVEAWAY

So you’ve read Robin Newman’s great piece on plotting mysteries for younger readers, and you’re good to go on the basics of setting up your mystery—scattering clues and red herrings, wrapping things up with a big, satisfying bang.

But what if you’re aiming for an audience that craves the juicy stuff – you know…sex, drugs, and rock-n-roll (or maybe just first kisses, frappucinos, and Spotify). For older readers, your plot will need substantial complexity, your character development should have a long arc, and your sleuths will need to find themselves in sticky situations where the stakes are intense – maybe even life and death.

So where do you start?

First, you need a solid premise and an intriguing character or two to draw readers in. For Scarlett Undercover, I went with:

  • Wisecracking Muslim girl detective in classic hardboiled mold
  • Vulnerable little girl client presents case that’s not so simple as it seems—a suicide that was actually a murder

Latham book coverOnce I have my primary mystery in place, I decide “whodunnut” and what will need to be revealed for the mystery to come full circle. It’s kind of like doing a Google Maps search, where you have to know the beginning and end points before you can start driving. For the most part, the route in between is going to look like the mountain climber plot chart we all know and love. But here’s the trick: when you’re writing a mystery, your plot chart and your clues are interdependent, but need to be strong enough to stand on their own. In other words, clues aren’t plot, but your plot can’t advance without intriguing clues.

I make up most of my clues as I go. But before I start writing, I settle on 3-4 major pieces of information that my detective will need to discover. For example, in Scarlett, one of my major bits of info was that the boy who died had joined a cult. Scarlett learned this over the course of several scenes, through suspect interviews and texts she retrieved from the dead boy’s phone. In other words, multiple clues revealed the important fact that the dead boy had joined a cult.

Once I decide on my beginning, end, and 3-4 major clues, my pre-writing is basically done. I’m not an outliner; if I try to map out specific chapters ahead of time, I WILL sink into a grumpy puddle of rumination and stagnation. If outlines are your thing, though, bravo! Map out your story, seed in those clues, and figure out exactly how your main characters are going to grow and change over the course of the novel. But be warned: teenage characters are moody little suckers with a tendency to do things you don’t expect. So give yourself permission to stray from the outline as you go, and to make as many new versions as you need.

As for me, once my figurative Google Map is set up (Starting Point + Desitation + A Few Must See Stops Along the Way), I hit the road. That means I build the plot scene by scene, keeping in mind that every chapter and sub-chapter needs a good balance of the following elements to keep things humming along:

  • Action that advances the plot
  • Dialogue that advances the plot
  • Character development shown through my characters’ actions and decisions, not through exposition.
  • Clues or the precursors to clues (e.g., find the key that opens the safe deposit box that contains the map that will lead to the old warehouse with the hidden room where the antique locket with the picture of the murderer’s grandmother is hidden…)

This is the process that works for me. I like it when my characters force me to take detours and back roads instead of doing 75 on a major interstate all the way to my climactic scene. That said, quirky side trips and back roads cannot, cannot, cannot drag down your plot or bore your readers. So to be sure I’m keeping things moving, I like to stop every once in a while and re-read what I’ve written, rating each chapter on a 1-10 scale for “excitement.” And by “excitement” I mean that a big clue is revealed, an action sequence takes place, a character faces a major psychological challenge, etc. It’s subjective, but I know excitement it when I see it. And so long as slower chapters (ones I rate a 4 to a 5) are interspersed with more exciting ones (6s-8s), and so long as I have a 9 or 10 in the middle of the book and a 10+ at the climax, I figure things are on track. If I find 1s, 2s, or 3s, I re-work them until they’re at least a 4.

Finally, I can’t stress enough how important it is to be willing to revise as you go. Mysteries are tricky. A clue that seemed subtle when you wrote it into chapter 3 might seem ham-handed and obvious when you get to your climax. Clues you thought you’d practically written in neon might not be obvious to your readers at all. So when you think you’ve got your first draft done (or when you get stuck halfway through and need to recharge), I suggest re-reading what you’ve written and building a new outline based on what’s actually there. Even if you pre-outlined, this can be a really eye-opening exercise.

So to sum up, when you’re building your own MG or YA mystery, try the following:

  1. Set up the basic mystery and decide on what you think it’s resolution will be.
  2. Establish 3-4 major pieces of information your detective will need to learn. How you reveal this information (i.e., through actual clues) can be decided ahead of time, or you can decide as your story and characters develop.
  3. Allow some clues and plot elements to emerge as you write. Your work will feel more spontaneous and organic this way.
  4. Revise as you go. Clues and plot points may need to be moved around as your manuscript progresses.
  5. Be flexible. A particular scene or clue you were POSITIVE you had to include may end up being a dud. Re-write, re-organize, re-think when you need to.

Rest assured that to build a good mystery for teens, you’ll have to tie your brain up in knots of your own devising. But if you can created a story complicated enough to keep readers guessing but not so gnarled that they get lost in the details, you’ll have pulled off something pretty great. And when you do, let me know…I love a good whodunnit.

Recommended Activity
This isn’t so much an exercise as a homework assignment. Pick three mysteries that you’ve enjoyed and/or think are particularly well done. These can be adult, MG, or YA, your choice. I suggest a traditional detective story for teens (Nancy Drew, Trixie Belden, The Hardy Boys), a traditional adult mystery (Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Agatha Christie) and a more contemporary MG or YA mystery. For this, I highly recommend The Westing Game.

Take your time reading each book, creating an outline of the story as you go. List clues as they’re revealed (you may even have to re-read to find them all). Highlight clues in one color on your outline, major plot points in another. See how the author has distributed clues and balanced them with major plot elements. You’ll likely find a fairly tight, well-constructed underlying structure, even though the reader experiences the story as a flowing, organic thing.

 

Latham

Jennifer Latham is an army brat who moved so much as a kid that books were always her best friends. She’s worked as a school psychologist, yoga teacher, Montessori guide, autopsy assistant, and plenty of other things, too. Her debut mystery, Scarlett Undercover, was published by Little, Brown Books for Young Readers in 2015. Her second, Dreamland Burning, is scheduled for Winter 2017. To learn more about her, you can visit her blog or find her on Facebook or Twitter (@jenandapen)

Jennifer is giving away a signed copy of Scarlett Undercover. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, 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 Jennifer’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

Maryrose Wood—Plot Problem: The Boring Hero and GIVEAWAY

One of the most common plot flaws I run into is one I’ve dubbed the “boring hero problem.”

But wait, you say: “boring hero” sounds like a character problem, not a plot problem, right? Not so! Consider how character and plot are two sides of the same storytelling coin.

Mwood_BooCovers

Your main character (or protagonist, or hero, choose your terminology) is the entity whose actions and experiences comprise the plot of your book. Without a dynamic central figure with a high-stakes goal, who is willing to act, choose, fight, risk, fail, rebound, suffer, sacrifice and transform in pursuit of that goal, you have no plot. This is true no matter how many unexpected incidents, bad guys, fight scenes and so on you cram onto the page.

Put simply: A passive hero swept up in a string of random events does not a plot make.
Ask yourself:

  • If your hero is more often than not morose, depressed, sleeping, dreaming, inebriated, numb, lost, frozen (with fear, grief, indecision, etc.) waiting, confused, unsure….
  • If your hero is often clueless about what’s happening around her, and is being led around the story by a more interesting “sidekick” who has all the information about where they’re going and why…
  • If your hero aimlessly wanders through the tale without a clear, high-stakes goal, and is swept along by coincidence after coincidence ….
  • If your hero is part of a group of co-adventurers, any one of whom are equally or more able to solve the central problem of the tale than your bland, just-an-ordinary-guy hero…

…you may have a case of Boring Hero problem. How to fix?
Try this instead:

  • Your hero should make the big choices, risks, discoveries and sacrifices that drive the story forward. That means ultimate credit for any big turning point in the tale should be directly or indirectly traceable back to your hero. Example: in The Hobbit, Bard shoots the fatal arrow that kills Smaug, but only because Bilbo’s prior bravery in facing the dragon led to the discovery of the one vulnerable spot in Smaug’s armor.
  • Make your hero uniquely qualified to address the central problem of your tale. Only Harry Potter can defeat Voldemort. Only Rikki (of “Rikki-Tikki-Tavi,” by Rudyard Kipling) can rid the garden of murderous cobras, because killing cobras is a mongoose’s job and Rikki is the only mongoose around.
  • A rich cast of unforgettable secondary characters is a great asset to any story (think of Gandalf, Aunt Beast, Snape, etc.), but it’s no substitute for making your protagonist the most interesting, compelling and indispensable character in your tale.

Remember, plot is the line of cause-and-effect dominoes that connects who your protagonist is at the beginning of the tale to the irrevocably changed figure he or she is at the end. Keep your hero at the center of the action and let your plot rise organically and powerfully from the actions prompted by his or her deepest need for transformation. You might be surprised where it takes you!

Suggested reading about plot: The Writer’s Journey, by Christopher Vogler

Hero Plus Verb Writing Prompt

  • Set a two-minute timer and make a list of dynamic, active verbs. For example, chooses, runs, escapes, battles, discovers, loves, outwits—think of as many as you can!
  • Set the timer again. This time, give yourself two minutes per verb. Write your hero’s name, then add a verb from your list. That’s your prompt. For example, Hero chooses , Hero escapes, Hero outwits… etc. Keep writing until the timer stops! Repeat until you run out of verbs.
  • Brainstorm freely, and don’t be afraid to go wild! You’ll end up with a list of scene ideas that show your main character driving the story forward.

 

MaryroseWood_72dpiMaryrose Wood is the author of The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place books, the acclaimed middle-grade series from HarperCollins. The most recent installment is book five, The Unmapped Sea. She teaches fiction writing at NYU’s Gallatin School and in Stony Brook Southampton Children’s Literature Fellows program. You can read more about Maryrose Wood at  www.maryrosewood.com or find her on Twitter @maryrose_wood

(Photo credit: Stacey Natal / Total City Girl, L.L.C.)

Maryrose is giving away a signed copy of one of her Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place books. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win, 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 Maryrose’s writing exercise at our Exercise Book. This is a password-protected area — only members allowed! Please check your email for the password.

Laurie J. Edwards: Handling Backstory the Right Way and GIVEAWAY

So far, you’ve been learning about many different and awesome ways to plot your novel. Some of you may be pantsers, rather than plotters, so you go about plotting another way.

Maybe you need to write the whole way through the novel before you realize what it’s about. In that case, you’re probably hesitant to stop your creative flow by putting plot ideas down on paper. If that’s your writing method, this exercise will be helpful once you have your first draft down on paper. For those who have been busy plotting, you can use this after you’ve written your first chapters, but it can also be helpful to think about while you plot.

LEdwards_loveprofanity_cvrMost editors suggest you avoid backstory in the first three chapters of a novel. That can be hard to do. After all, you need to give your readers important information about your character’s past, and – let’s be honest here, especially if you’re a pantser – you as the writer need to get to know your character and his/her motivation. What better way to do that than to write? So go ahead and spew all that on paper, but then come back here for to clean it up.

What is backstory?
Backstory is anything that happened before the book begins. It may be the character’s childhood, family troubles, recent romantic breakups, health challenges, personal traumas, or even what your character had for breakfast. Backstory is vital because incidents in the character’s past create the motivation for present decisions and actions. It’s to figure out your characters’ pasts, what motivates them, the cruelties they endured in childhood, their secret pain and embarrassments—the list is endless. The more you know about the characters life, the more fleshed out that character will be on the page. So spend time discovering all those details. But all of this information doesn’t need to go into the book.

LEdwards_TTW_CvrPitfalls of Backstory
We’re often told to be sure our first few pages grab an editor’s or agent’s attention. So we write a compelling hook and a gripping opening scene, enticing readers into the story. But readers also want to stay involved in the action and keep moving ahead to find out what happens next. With backstory, they’re pitched backward in time as action stops for an explanation of a character’s motivation. Many writers believe they need backstory so readers understand their protagonist’s predicament, and they proceed to explain, often in great detail. Whenever that occurs, readers are diverted from the main storyline. Any time you ask readers to back up in time, you risk losing their attention. And loading the first chapters with backstory slows the plot.

LEdwards_Cyber_CvrIdentifying Backstory
Authors generally insert backstory in four ways (blue denote backstory):

1) Throwaway Lines: These quick asides are tacked on as a narrative sentence or phrase, often they’re found in a character’s thoughts.

Jenny laughed at Easton’s jokes. They reminded her of the way Dad teased her when she was small.

Ever since Amy arrived at Hadley High last year, Allison had made life miserable. And today was no different.

2) Longer Blocks of Information: Sometimes writers include several sentences or even paragraphs or pages that tell about the past. It’s often in narrative form.

Remembering Joel Anderson’s comments to Mrs. Kintz yesterday, Megan smiled. He’d asked the teacher if they really had to do this crappy homework. Only he didn’t use the word “crappy,” so he’d gotten sent to the principal’s office.

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3) Dialogue: Writers often believe that if it’s between quotation marks it won’t be boring. Not so. This can be particularly dangerous if it leads to info dumps (extra information added that the character already knows but the reader doesn’t.).

“Guess what happened at the party after you left. Katia and Iris got into a fight.”

“So, Liam, remember when your girlfriend Jenna went into the hospital for her torn ACL, and we ran into her best friend Aida, who goes to East High, in the lobby?” (This is a combination of backstory and an info dump.)

LEdwards_HCR_Cvr4) Flashbacks: Turning backstory into scenes makes it more interesting, but sometimes it’s better to show flashbacks in real time as they’re actually happening. If you have large sections of backstory that are exciting scenes, you may want to think about backtracking and starting the story sooner.

Seeing Caitlyn’s sly smile, Eva’s mind flashed back to yesterday.

Caitlyn had grinned at her the same way. “So, Eva, tell us about your big plans for getting Leland to go to the dance with you.” Her voice was so loud it carried across the cafeteria.

Everyone turned to stare at Eva, and she sank lower in her seat, her face burning. That was supposed to be a secret. Leave it to Caitlyn to broadcast it to the whole school.

Even worse, the guys at Leland’s table elbowed him and snickered. “You’re going with Eva Hollowell? Seriously?”

Eva knew what they were thinking. Who’d want to go out with a loser like her?

Reasons for Adding Backstory

  • Clearing your throat
    One of the main reasons authors have large backstory dumps in the first few chapters is that they’re feeling their way to the start of the story. Getting started is difficult, so they take all the information they have and start writing. They’re learning about their characters as they write. This is particularly a problem for pantsers who do little preplanning and figure out plot as they go along. If you write this way, you have to be ruthless about chopping backstory out of your first few chapters.
  • Not trusting the reader
    Many writers think they need to explain everything. They tell how characters are feeling, what they’re thinking, why they’re feeling the way they are. It’s amazing how little readers really need to know to understand what’s happening. Sometimes it’s hard to tell how much information to include, so it’s always best to have a critique group or partner who will be honest with you. And keep reminding yourself that readers are great judges of body language, and they can figure things out quite well without any over-explaining.
  • Trying to pack in all the information you have about the character
    OK, you’ve done a ton of work on your character’s backstory. You know everything from when they lost their first tooth to their latest blood pressure reading. Now you want your readers to know it too, so you load the details into the story. Or you’ve researched a fascinating profession or family history, so all that gets dumped in. Remember Hemingway’s famous advice that writing is like an iceberg. The high points are all that should show above water. Keep the rest submerged. Choose only the most essential details to reveal character. Most should be shown through action and dialogue (in present time).
  • Not understanding the purpose of backstory
    Backstory is not to take readers on a tour through your character’s past. Every piece you insert has to have several goals, which we’ll explore below, but its main purpose is to always move the story forward and contribute to the plot. Readers don’t care about memories that have nothing to do with the present action and that don’t move the story along.
  • Trying to explain a character’s action/reaction
    This goes back to trusting the reader. How much does the reader need to know to understand the present situation? Often it’s enough just to see the character in action. If you show a character overreacting to a situation, you raise questions in your readers’ minds: Hmm, what’s that all about? If you then proceed to tell the readers why, it spoils the mystery and intrigue that keep readers guessing and reading on.
  • Give your characters secrets.
    If you reveal all about their pasts, readers have no reason to keep turning pages. The mystery behind why a character acts the way s/he does is one of draws to entice people to keep reading. If you take that incentive away, you lose readers’ attention.


Using Backstory Well
Backstory can be used effectively. The trick is knowing when and how to insert it into the story. Here are some tips for when including backstory makes sense:

  1. The character is doing something totally out of character, and it’s vital for readers to understand why.
  2. It moves the story along and gives an added dimension.
  3. The story doesn’t make sense without it.
  4. It’s brief.
  5. It’s used to reveal a secret that surprises the reader at a key point. (Just remember, you need to set this secret up early in the novel and embed clues to it in the character’s personality.)

The key skills for adding backstory are to be selective and to use restraint. Always remember that you don’t want to satisfy the reader’s curiosity, you want to increase it.

Exercise for Eliminating Backstory

  • Highlight all the backstory in the first few chapters of your manuscript.
  • Read the manuscript without the highlighted parts.
  • Does it make sense? (You might need to add a few transitions to smooth things out if you’ve highlighted large chunks.)
  • If it does make sense, consider cutting those sections from your manuscript.

Don’t be shocked if you find you’ve highlighted most of the words. If this is an early draft, it’s not unusual to find you’ve cut almost all of your first few chapters. As an editor, I’ve sometimes asked writers to eliminate the first 3 (or even the first 5) chapters because that’s where the backstory ends and the story really starts. By cutting backstory, you’ll discover the plot moves along more quickly and becomes more interesting. If you have draggy sections later in a novel, check them for backstory too.
So, does your manuscript work better with your backstory cut? If you’re not sure, ask a friend or critique partner to read both versions. And we’d love to hear your results of using this exercise.

LJ EdwardsA former teacher and children’s librarian, Laurie J. Edwards completed her MA from Vermont College while raising five children and is now in her final year of the Hollins University MFA in Children’s Writing and Illustrating. In addition to having more than 2200 articles and 20 books in print or forthcoming, she also juggles freelance editing and illustration careers. Her 2015 releases include Her Cold Revenge (Book two in the YA WANTED series set in the Wild West, written as Erin Johnson; Switch Press), Imperial ChinaWest African Kingdoms, and Ancient Egypt (Cengage), a story in the anthology Love & Profanity (Capstone), and illustrations for two picture books, The Teeny Tiny Woman and The Forget-Me-Not Keeper. She also writes adult novels under several pseudonyms. Find out more online about Laurie J. Edwards or on FacebookTwitter @LaurieJEdwards

Laurie is giving away an autographed hardcover of Grace & the Guiltless, the first book in the YA Western series. If you are a registered Summer School student and would like a chance to win her 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 Laurie’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.