Play Cat’s Cradle: Making Character Connections with @RebeccaPetruck

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.

cats cradle


(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.

cats cradle 2. jpg

(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…

PetruckR_headshotRebecca 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 STNKLSS 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.


Get Ready for #KidlitSummerSchool

KLSS 2015 BadgeWelcome Summer Schoolers! Are you getting yourselves mentally prepared for school to start? We hope so — we’ll be kicking things off on Monday, July 20! Here are some things to look forward to…

The Facebook  Group 
We encourage everyone who is on FB AND who has registered for Kidlit Summer School to ask to join the Kidlit Summer School FB group. You can still participate in Kidlit Summer School if you are not on FB, but this is a place to meet your classmates! We also answer questions there. If you have registfbered for Kidlit Summer School, have asked to be added to the FB group, and did not get added within a day, it may be because your FB name did not match up with your registration name. Please double check this.

#30mdare is back!

Petruck WabiSabi Color (3)This year, Rebecca Petruck will post prompts on Twitter and Facebook twice a week so students have the freedom to arrange group dares that suit their schedules and time zones, or do them on their own. The only “rule” is to set a timer and go without stopping for 30 minutes. Prompts will be posted Tuesday at 9p ET and Saturday at 10a ET, which means there will be a total of seven prompts. GIVEAWAY: Students who complete at least five will be entered to win a 20-page critique and follow-up phone call from Rebecca.

 To get prompts, check the Twitter hashtag #30mdare or visit the KidLit Summer School group on Facebook. For more information about #30mdare, click HERE.


Pre-registration is over, but regular registration is still going on! If you aren’t registered yet, click HERE to fill out the form. If you registered last year, you can still participate in some activities, but only those registered for Kidlit Summer School 2015 will be able to register for this year’s webinars and be eligible for prizes. Please register to make sure you get the appropriate notifications.

Follow the Blog!

Following this blog will bring you the great author posts and announcements as they are posted. You can follow the blog in the right sidebar.


Talking about Kidlit Summer School on Social Media? Feel free to use our hastag #KidlitSummerSchool!

Grab the Badge and Banner! This year’s badge and banner was designed by the amazing Joyce Wan. Click HERE for more about it and to grab it for your own website, Twitter account of FB page.

Get those pencils sharpened! You’ll soon be taking notes from some Kidlit greats!

Plotter vs. Pantser: Confessions of Two Novelists

Probably all writers have heard the terms plotter and pantser. But who are these people, really? 😉 And what is the real difference between them? You’ll find out as Rebecca Petruck and Kami Kinard explain their writing styles!

The Plotter: Rebecca Petruck

STNDespite the title, Steering Toward Normal was written with no direction. It started with two boys, sprawled into four boys and two girls, included the return of a long-absent mom, and stealing a pickup off a tow truck. I only found my way after eleven drafts and five on-and-off years. The novel I wrote while STN was on sub had a map and was “done” in three drafts and six months. So I’m a big fan of “the plot” now. Planning a plot in advance doesn’t have to be constraining. Instead, think of it like a bouncy house—it’s because of the walls that you can go wild and jump around like crazy. For me, a loose framework of the big picture creates room for me to let loose and see how the characters will react and what decisions they’ll make next. Sometimes, my plot points shift as I get to know the characters better and learn they wouldn’t do the thing that leads to the other thing. The beauty of discovering that early is I can rethink my plot before I write all the way to the end. A plot chart is much faster to envision, especially with friends, and it hurts a lot less to turn a page and draw new squares than it does to move 70,000 words to the trash and go back to a blank screen. For me, plotting not only saves time, it keeps my heart healthy, too!

  The Pantser: Kami Kinard

boy projectI admit it, I’m a pantser. This means that I don’t plot out my novels before I start writing. At least I haven’t yet! But I do have a general, meandering idea about where I want them to go. My novels always start with character, and I let that character lead me down the path into her story. You might say we take the novel journey hand in hand. Each novel starts with me at the keyboard typing fast and furiously as I get into my character’s voice. I think voice is the one of the most crucial aspects of writing to master, and I know that the voice of Kara McAllister, the main character in The Boy Project, contributed hugely to the sale of that first novel! When I’m typing, I find it important to try to think like my character would think and express myself the way my character would, always asking, “What else can happen?” This is how my words grow into novels. At some point, I stop to rest. I look back over my shoulder to see where I’ve been. I look ahead to see where the path might lead me. And if I think I need a map, I tip my hat to plotting by jotting down a few ideas of places I should visit before the journey’s end. Is plot important? Absolutely! But manipulating the plot, and getting it just the way I want it with enough conflict and character growth is part of the revision process for me.

Team Plotter or Team Pantser?

Decisions about whether to start with a plot, or develop character and voice first, are important parts of your novel journey! There is no “one way” to get it right. We’d love to hear your thoughts. Are you on Team Plotter, or Team Pantser?

Week 1 Pop Quiz

badge50Now that Week 1 is over, it is time to review what you learned and take a Pop Quiz!

While you’re reviewing, reward yourself with some Summer School Swag. In case you didn’t know, you can now get Kidlit Summer School swag from the PiBoIDMo Cafe Press shop! Neither we nor Tara profits from any of these sales, and in fact, $3.00 of every purchase goes to Reading is Fundamental. These funds will be used to purchase books for kids who need them. Thanks to Tara Lazar for making the PiBoIdMo shop available to us and thanks again to Zach OHora for creating the fabulous Kidlit Summer School logo!

Pop Quiz! Take this quiz to see if you learned the basics during the first week of Kidlit Summer School!


  1. In her post Walking Around in Your Character’s Shoes, Kathryn Erskine advises writers to think about:

a) the kind of shoes your character wears

b) how your character walks

c) where your character has walked before

d) how your character acts

e)All of the above


  1. In her post Do Looks Matter? Aimee Friedman asks authors to consider:

a) using physical descriptions to illuminate something deeper about character

b) not going overboard when adding physical descriptions

c) thinking about specific colors when painting a picture of your character with words

d) using the comparison technique to introduce physical traits

e) All of the above


  1. In her post Hug the Mean and Nasty, Kami Kinard indicates an author should think about these things when creating Villains (and antagonists):

a) giving them admirable qualities

b) showing their humanity through the eyes of a pet

c) helping the reader understand what motivates them

d) evoking sympathy for them

e) All of the above


  1. In her post, Let the Main Character Drive the Bus, Rebecca Petruck suggests that:

a) plot is what lays bare your MC

b) plot is the cattle prod that forces the MC to make decisions that reveal strengths and weaknesses

c) authors should look for actions their MC will resist

d) writers check out Save the Cat

e) All of the above


  1. In her post Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, You are Your Characters After All, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen suggests we:

a) look to ourselves to find qualities for our characters

b) look to our families to find inspiration for great characters

c) the best stories feature a main character who is a reflection of the reader

d) look past the surface appearance to see who your character is deep down inside

e) All of the above


  1. In her post, Dear Writer: A Letter Writing Exercise, W. H. Beck points out that:

a) It can be helpful to write letters from the point of view of our characters

b) letters give our characters voice

c) letters help us understand our characters’ motivations

d) Cecil Castellucci’s interview is helpful to characterization

e) All of the above

Rebecca Petruck: Let the Main Character Drive the Bus

Rebecca Petruck

Rebecca Petruck

You know how “Show Don’t Tell” is both true and kind of meaningless these days? I think the same about “Start with Action.” That advice drives me crazy because it’s incomplete: “Start with an Action that Reveals the MC’s Character.”

Imagine if The Hunger Games opened with Katniss volunteering. It would be dramatic, and we’d think her brave for taking her sister’s place. But would we be invested in the decision? A lot of people are surprised when I lay out the actual opening of The Hunger Games:

  • Katniss wakes up alone—Prim isn’t there (motivating fear);
  • Katniss sneaks across the perimeter to hunt (not afraid to break what she considers senseless rules; demonstrates a skill);
  • talks with Gale (establishes rules of world; her focus on survival blinds her to his feelings);
  • stops by the market and to see the mayor’s daughter to trade (confidence in navigating her world);
  • prepares for the reaping (Katniss’ soft side revealed in her care for Prim);
  • at the reaping (Katniss’ view of the world).

hunger gamesLaid out like that, the scenes don’t sound very exciting do they? And, they take up twenty pages of space. Yet, the opening of The Hunger Games is deeply compelling because of the sense of dread hanging over every moment and because we are getting to know a fascinating and contrary character. On the surface, Suzanne Collins didn’t start with action that seems particularly interesting, but she started with the right action to reveal her MC’s character.

Which is why when I work with critique partners, the thing I often get most passionate about is plot. Plot is the action the MC takes to reach her external goal, and that action ultimately must reveal not only her true, internal goal but also her soul, the “Why” of everything she does. That’s a lot to ask of an action which is why a well-conceived plot is essential. I don’t care what happens next; I care how what happens next affects the MC.

In Wired for Story, Lisa Cron discusses the action-reaction-decision triad of effective scene-making, which I interpret as plot-character-character.

Characters in a truck! Rebecca and her parents.

Characters in a truck!
Rebecca and her parents.

Plot is the speeding bus your MC can’t get off. How she reacts to her situation and the things she decides to do because of it is what your story is about. In itself, plot is fairly passive—it’s a bus. The driver is the reason we care.

Once you know your MC well, certain decisions become inevitable, which means key elements of plot become inevitable, too. That doesn’t mean your plot becomes predictable. It’s that the logic that guides your MC’s decisions means certain actions must follow. Plot unveils that logic and reveals a compelling and unpredictable character. Often, because your MC’s worldview is skewed by some conditioning event, not only can’t the reader predict how the MC will react and what she will decide, but also the MC is frequently surprised, too. This cycle reveals the MC not only to the reader but to herself, and forces her to react and make more decisions that lead to the internal change she may not be aware she needs and actively resists.

Rebecca learned a lot about cattle, and "plot cattle prods" while writing Steering Toward Normal, her highly esteemed middle grade novel.

Rebecca learned a lot about cattle, and “plot cattle prods” while writing Steering Toward Normal, her highly esteemed middle grade novel.

In that sense, don’t look at plot as “What Happens Next.” Look at plot as the cattle prod that forces the MC to make decisions that reveal her strengths, weaknesses, professed goals, and secret goals, often unacknowledged even to herself. Plot is what lays bare your MC, peeling back layer after layer of flesh until we finally glimpse the beating heart. I like the way Cron decribes this, “…the heart of the story doesn’t lie in what happens; it beats in what those events mean to the protagonist.”

What does this mean in the practical sense of putting words on the page? Try out your MC in a variety of scenarios, looking for actions that she will resist the most, that will draw the strongest reactions, and force the most difficult decisions. Dig past your first two, three, four ideas and see what happens when you get down to the fifth or sixth. Once you’ve collected a number of actions your MC will particularly detest, check out Save the Cat by Blake Snyder. It’s an effective tool for organizing those actions into a plot. You may download a Beat Sheet HERE.

In short, seeking the answer to a question your characters want answered should lead them to the question they actually need answered. Seeking requires movement. Plot creates that movement and in doing so reveals your characters’ true selves.

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, the L.A. Times, and Christian Science Monitor also have spotlighted the novel. Petruck was a member of 4-H, a Girl Scout, a cheerleader, and competed in MathCounts. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Wilmington. Find out more about her by visiting her WEBSITE.  Remember to follow her on Twitter  @RebeccaPetruck.

Rebecca is giving away a synopsis + 25p critique and follow-up phone call/Skype! All who comment on this post are eligible to win.

And check out the Exercise Book for a modified version of the Beat Sheet tailored for KidLit Summer School!

Rebecca will lead #KidlitSummerSchool at 9:00 pm EST tonight for the first #30mdare! You can read more about those at the bottom of this POST

Meet the Faculty: Kelly Light and Rebecca Petruck

kelly lightKelly Light grew up down the shore surrounded by giant roadside dinosaurs, cotton candy colors and skee ball sounds. Schooled on Saturday morning cartoons and Sunday Funny pages, she picked up a pencil and started drawing and never stopped. Now living in New York, She is the author and illustrator of the picture book Louise Loves Art coming out 9/9/14 as well as the illustrator of the two chapter books series, The Quirks and Elvis and the Underdogs, the upcoming Don’t Blink by Amy Krouse Rosenthal and Just Add Glitter by Angela DiTerlizzi. Find her on the web at


Petruck WabiSabi Color SmallRebecca Petruck’s debut Steering Toward Normal is an American Booksellers Association New Voice and a Kids Indie Next List title. Vanity Fair’s Hollywood, the L.A. Times, and Christian Science Monitor also have spotlighted the novel. Petruck was a member of 4-H, a Girl Scout, a cheerleader, and competed in MathCounts. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from UNC Wilmington. Visit her website at


Find more of our great Summer School teachers at our Faculty page. And you haven’t registered yet, there’s still time! Click here to find the registration form.