Does Your Story Need a Heart Transplant? by @BonnieAdamson and #GIVEAWAY

Three case histories

Sometimes I have what I think is a great idea for a story. I plot it out, polish the text, start thumbnailing scenes and begin working on character design. And then I hit a wall. Many of the elements are there, but the story just won’t come to life. This happens most often when there’s something in the way of the characters.

Character = engagement = heart. When I haven’t fully engaged with my characters, there’s no heart and the project flatlines. In that case, the task is to give the characters some breathing room. Maybe the plot has taken over, or  there’s too much detail choking the story—or maybe I simply haven’t given the characters enough to do.

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Whose story is it?

For a long time, I didn’t know who the main character was in this story. I didn’t *care* who the main character was. A fellow who has accumulated enough points to win the big prize at the rodeo, doesn’t.  Misunderstandings ensue, plus slapstick humor and a surprise at the end. I liked it. I really, really liked it. But the story wasn’t breathing on its own.

The fix

A critique partner read the manuscript to her daughter. She reported that the daughter was sad when the fellow at the beginning didn’t win the trophy. Sad??? This was only a minor plot point! What about the funny stuff and the twisty ending? What did it mean?

It meant this young listener had found the heart I wasn’t even aware was missing.  Eventually, after much whining and thrashing about,  I realized I had to commit to the trophy-less cowboy. The immediate solution was to switch from a storyteller’s voice to close third person. The opening went from something like “Have you heard the one about . . .?” [plot-centered] to “Pete never met a trophy he didn’t like.” [character-centered]

Bam.

The lesson

Find your star player and make it *all* about him.

Read your manuscript to an actual child.

AdamsonB_post art 2

The lock-up.

I thought I had this one nailed—a classic underdog-saves-the-day story with heart built right into the concept. Yay! But was saving the day enough? What if readers didn’t care about my little bumbling bee from the start? I was also having a lot of trouble coming up with a visual identity for her main rival. Worse, this seemed to be the main character’s only story. I know you’re not supposed to think in terms of sequels, but I had a character I liked who was totally boxed in by a dead-end plot.

The fix

The Miss Marple Trick. Agatha Christie’s famous sleuth solves mysteries by observing behavior she can relate to that of inhabitants of her tiny village. One day while trying for the umpteenth time to come up with a sketch for my main character’s nemesis, I suddenly thought of two girls I had known in high school. One was better at *everything* that ensures popularity in that environment. The other was not so much an underdog as simply and thoroughly eclipsed by her friend. Eureka! Once I understood the dynamics  the story became more about the relationship than saving the day, and future story possibilities opened up.

The lesson

Draw on real people you’ve known to flesh out tropes like “the class clown,” or “the homecoming queen.”

Read vintage British murder mysteries.

AdamsonB_post art 3

A thicket of details.

For this story, I did oodles of research to make sure the setting was authentic, accumulating notes upon notes about jungle habitats. I had a hook and a decent text and even some quirky character traits for the main character. But the obsession with the setting and the research had used up the energy that should have gone to showcasing the characters. My quirky crocodile didn’t have enough to do and came off as merely  part of the scenery.

The fix

Pure serendipity. In  organizing a list of portfolio pieces by project, this one happened to be followed by a wordless story that had its own problems. How about a mashup? What if the protagonist in the wordless story showed up in the jungle? Bingo! The crocodile leapt at the chance to reveal himself as a method actor, uncovering motivations I had not been aware of. The text hasn’t changed, but now there’s a much richer subtext playing out in the illustrations, and the secondary characters have gotten into the act as well.

The lesson

Energize your characters with something totally unexpected.

Have more than one idea in your portfolio.

If  *your* stories lack heart due to characters that are hidden in plain sight, boxed in by the plot, or smothered by the scenery, check out the download for exercises that will help you find the right treatment.

Meanwhile, the stories above are all off life-support and should be up and around soon. Stay tuned!

BonnieAdamson-2016 b&wBonnie Adamson is the illustrator of Bedtime Monster and the “I Wish” series of picture books for Raven Tree Press, as well as Rutabaga Boo!, written by the lovely and talented Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen and due in Spring 2017 from Atheneum. Visit Bonnie at www.bonnieadamson.com.

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

GIVEAWAY! Bonnie is kindly giving away a Kidlit Summer School tote bag, featuring her fabulous design. For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

Don’t miss your chance to get perfect attendance! Leave a comment on this post within the first 24 hours. Moderators have to approve first-time commenters, so your comment may not show up immediately.

Unexpected Character Traits Bring In The Funny by @lauriewallmark and GIVEAWAY

Whether your novel is humorous or serious, a bit of levity can add to a child’s reading enjoyment. Let your characters help you inject humor into the story, by giving them unexpected traits, such as:

  • unusual talents
  • competing personality features
  • a unique self-image
  • peculiar behaviors
  • idiosyncratic speaking patterns.  

Kate DiCamillo’s Flora and Ulysses (Candlewick Press, 2013) is a mentor text on how to bring out the funny through the use of unexpected character traits.

Wallmark_FloraBookIn Flora and Ulysses, Ulysses has talents that are, shall we say, more than a little unusual. Though he’s only a squirrel, Ulysses can fly, type, and write poetry. As a reader, you certainly don’t expect to see a squirrel sitting at a typewriter, his bushy tale waving behind, let alone with his tiny “fingers” poised over the keyboard. The unexpectedness of such an unusual character is automatically funny.

Throughout the novel, Ulysses provides comedic moments through the juxtaposition of competing personality features—his human side and his base animal instincts. When Ulysses becomes frightened by the waitress at the doughnut shop, he tries to calm himself down, as a person would. But eventually, his innate squirrelness takes over, and he attempts to escape. The ensuing mayhem provides several laugh out loud moments, especially when he lands in the waitress’s huge hair. Your characters don’t have to be human-like animals to be funny. All you have to do is give your human characters contrasting personality traits that are at odds with each other.

The other main character, Flora, is humorous in a different way than Ulysses. In her case, it’s not that she has bizarre human talents, but rather she has a unique self-image for a child. She has branded herself as a cynic, so will let nothing about humans surprise her. Here again, the humor comes from the unexpected—a child with the world-weary views of a cynic. The combination of her adult-like cynicism with her childish companion, a doll in a shoebox, provides the same sort of juxtaposition humor as above.

Another secondary character, Flora’s friend William, has peculiar behaviors, in that he presents like a miniature adult, in both speech and action. The contrast between William’s actual and apparent age leads to humor. This type of character, with his unexpected behaviors, provides a perfect crucible to generate humorous situations.

A character’s idiosyncratic speaking patterns can help create a funny scene. In William’s case, his non-standard dialogue is taken to an extreme. While most children would say something like, “I scratched my knee,” not William. He has to elaborate and exaggerate every explanation with his own unexpected way of speaking. William’s over-explanations, so unchildlike, create a thread of humor that runs through the entire book.

Be brave. The more outrageous you are with your unexpected characterizations, the funnier it will be. In addition, it’s your characters’ quirks will endear them to your reader.

Takeaways:

  • You can add humor to any novel by giving your characters unexpected traits.
  • You can apply this technique to any character, not just your main one.
  • The more outrageous the character trait, the funnier.

 

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Laurie Wallmark writes picture books and middle-grades, poetry and prose, fiction and nonfiction. She has an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts. When not writing, Laurie teaches computer science at Raritan Valley Community College. Her debut picture book, Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine (Creston Books, 2015), received four starred trade reviews (Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal) and several national awards. It is a Cook Prize Honor Book. Her next book, Dare and Do : The Story of Grace Hopper, Queen of Computer Code (Sterling Children’s Books) will be out Spring 2017.

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.

Laurie is kindly giving away a signed copy of Ada Byron Lovelace and the Thinking Machine. For a chance to win, please leave a comment below.

Don’t miss your chance to get perfect attendance! Leave a comment on this post within the first 24 hours. Moderators have to approve first-time commenters, so your comment may not show up immediately.

Don’t Be Afraid to Be Embarrassed by Jo Whittemore

Whittemore_ConfodentiallyYoursWhen I was in elementary school, all the 4th-6th graders took part in a musical extravaganza called The Legend Train, where different narrators would ride around on this wooden train, pulled by the strongest 6th grader in the world (considering he was able to cart narrators of various sizes all around the auditorium).

One of the stories we told was the Battle of New Orleans (between the British and Americans). As is historically accurate, my fellow 5th graders and I were American soldiers, and we re-enacted the battle scene against some 6th graders, crouched behind an invisible barricade.

We held our invisible rifles and fired at the British, making those fake shooting sounds that children of the 80s are awesome at.

One of the other 5th graders said something funny, and we all started laughing. I don’t know if it was the fact that I was lying on my stomach that was to blame, but mid-laugh, I released a butt battle cry.

You know…a fart.

I hoped I was the only one to hear it since everyone else was laughing so loud, but no such luck.

Whittemore_FPFaceOffThe laughter turned into, “Aw dude!”, “Gross!” and my fellow soldiers retreated when no British musket could have made them. Because of the ensuing chaos, my teacher decided it was time we switch to a different act of the play.

So the Battle of New Orleans ended not with American grit and gumption, but with a fart.

Why am I telling you this story? It’s funny. And it’s real, which makes it even funnier. See, I could hide forever in shame OR I could embrace the event and share it with others so we could all get a good laugh out of it. When you can laugh at yourself, mean people can’t get to you and nice people want to be part of the fun by either sharing THEIR stories or adding to yours.

Here’s a more recent example. I’m a rather socially awkward person (which is why I’m telling strangers of my gassy childhood), so recently when trying to introduce myself to someone outside the writing world, I panicked. Let’s see how I handled it:

 

Whittemore_Twitter

 

Note that I described the situation in a humorous fashion, and what happened? Two people shared funny stories of their own.

I’ll bet embarrassing things have happened to you in the past. (To the one person saying “No,” you just wait. There’s a bird plotting to poop on you. I’d start carrying an umbrella).

When you have one of these mortifying moments, ask yourself, “How could I tell this story in a funny way?” That’s one of the first steps to being a great humor writer.

As a matter of fact, why not do that right now? Time for a writing exercise!

Think of an embarrassing moment from your past, think of how you could tell that story in an amusing way, and write it down. Share it with a loved one (or your writing group…or even me!) and see what happens. I bet you’ll get some laughs and feel better about the situation afterward.

My final advice for you:

  • Let life happen. It will, whether you want it to or not.
  • Be aware. What makes a story realistic are the details that come from living in the moment.
  • Find the humor in life and pass it on. So that future generations will know to eat less beans.

 

WhittemoreJ_HeadshotJo Whittemore is the author of the tween humor novels Front Page Face-Off, Odd Girl In, D is for Drama, Colonial Madness, and the Confidentially Yours series. She also penned The Silverskin Legacy fantasy trilogy. Find her online at jowhittemore.com

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

Don’t miss your chance to get perfect attendance! Leave a comment on this post within the first 24 hours. Moderators have to approve first-time commenters, so your comment may not show up immediately.

Week 1 Pop Quiz!

badge final 4x4-brighter heartNow that Week 1 is over, it is time to review what you learned and take a Pop Quiz. We know you’re all going to make scores that will make your teachers proud! So go ahead, take this quiz to see if you learned the basics during the first week of Kidlit Summer School! 

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  1. In Monday’s post, Julie Falatko  advises:

a) Trust your gut. If your story feels flat, even just a little, do what you can to make it more exciting.

b) Smash disparate elements together to make your story stand out.

c) Sometimes the best way to add humor is with an exploding sandwich of surprising and unexpected story elements.

d) All of the above

 

  1. In Tuesday’s post, Kami Kinard, suggests you:

a) Use the Rule of Three to set up your humor

b) Add a twist on the third beat

c) Try re-writing Goldilocks and the Three Bears

d) All of the above

 

  1. On Wednesday, Tom Angleberger explains that:

a) We should start with a funny idea and keep piling it on.

b)Writing funny books takes a lot of writing, drawing, revising, editing.

c) You have to be willing to let some ideas sail off into the sunset.

d) All of the above

 

  1. In her post on Thursday, Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen suggested:

a) Be unexpected, logical, and reserved, and focus on the things that make you smile.

b) Laughter makes everything better.

c) Emotion can stand on its own, and it’s much better by itself than propped up by a faulty foundation. Be real.

d) All of the above

 

  1. On Friday, Megan Shepherd shared that: 

a) Readers may initially be drawn to a book because of the premise, but it’s relatable characters that will ultimately capture their hearts

b) There are several strategies for crafting characters that readers instantly care about, such as putting them in danger, making them likeable, or giving them a special talent.

c) While character building worksheets that list a character’s physical, social, and family traits can be helpful, they should be supplemented by putting characters in situations that can demonstrate these traits

d) All of the above

 

So how’d you do? 100% right? If you’re unsure, go back and check out the posts from Week One! 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!)

Now that you’ve completed your test, you can kick back and enjoy your weekend… or use the time to catch up on the KLSS posts! One of the suggestions we’ve had in the past is that folks have a hard time keeping up, so we’re trying to keep Saturday’s virtually free for you all to take a breather and do just that!

Tomorrow is the last day to register for Kidlit Summer School 2016! Click HERE to register.

Round Two of Prize Winners: The Daily Post Prizes

badge50First of all, we want to thank you all for supporting our excellent guest bloggers with your comments and encouragement. These authors donated their time and shared their knowledge and we appreciate the numerous shout outs you gave them!

We’re happy to announce the winners of the prizes awarded for commenting on individual guest blog posts! Winners will also be contacted via email within the next few days.

Kami Kinard donated a synopsis plus 20 page manuscript critique! The winner of this prize is Yetti Girard.

Rebecca Petruck is giving away a synopsis + 25p critique and follow-up phone call/Skype!  Deborah Cuneo wins this prize.

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen is giving away a picture book manuscript critique! Andi Buckless is the lucky winner.

Tara Lazar is giving away a picture book manuscript critique! Rachel Stones will be getting this critique.

Audrey Vernick is giving away a signed copy of the Audrey Vernick book of the winner’s choice! Rene` Diane Aube will soon be holding one of Audrey’s book in her hands.

Kristine Asselin is giving away a query critique to Kara Stewart AND a first five pages critique to Larissa Hardesty.

Kelly Light is giving away a fine print from : “Louise Loves Art”. JMVandenberg is the winner.

Edith Cohn is offering a Spirit’s Key swag pack as a prize–available for immediate shipping. She will also send a signed copy of the book to the winner once it’s released in September. Eloise Freeman will receive these. 

Joanne Levy is giving away a copy of her novel, Small Medium at Large, to Amy Benoit, the winner.

Amy Carol Reeves is givng away a signed copy of RESURRECTION to the winning commenterBrook Gideon.

Ame Dyckman is giving away signed copy of TEA PARTY RULES and a prize pack to lucky Debbie Vilardi.

Leeza Hernandez is giving away an awesome prize pack featuring signed copies of Dog Gone! and Cat Napped!; An 8 x 10” matted and signed, hand-painted collage inspired by my cat … er … napping, a 4×6” silkscreen print of Dog Gone! and a Mystery Prompt Bag (ten tiny goodies with instructions for writing/sketching prompts). Congrats to Angela Turner, the winner of this big prize.

Five runner-ups will each receive a signed 4 x 6” silkscreen of Dog Gone! and a Mystery Prompt Bag too! The runners up are: Janet Smart, Beverly Baird, Stephanie VanHorn, Elizabeth Martin, and Therese Nagi.

WHAT ABOUT THE OTHER PRIZES?

We’ll be announcing the pre-registration and registration prizes very soon!

Today’s winners, as well as future winners, will be contacted through the email addresses we have on file and on the blog. Details about how to claim your prizes will be included in the emails. 🙂 If you do not receive an email from us by Sunday, August 31 please contact us at nerdychickswrite(at)gmail (dot) com with PRIZE in the subject line.   

Congrats to all of the winners and thanks again to all who commented!

 

kami and s

Kami and Sudipta

Co-founders of Kidlit Summer School

(Otherwise known as principals, directors, and headmistresses!)

 

 

 

 

Dear Writer: A Letter Writing Exercise by W. H. Beck

dear characters

I have always been more of a premise/plot writer. (Anyone else out there?) What comes to me first is the idea for a story. Then I spend a whole lot of time mucking about, trying to figure out who the story is about—and why anyone should care.

For example, when I first conceived the idea for my middle grade novel, Malcolm at Midnight, it was this: what if classroom pets came together in a secret society after all the humans went home? Populating the story wasn’t hard. I needed a couple of students, a teacher, and of course, a menagerie of critters. Easy, right?

But how to make them real? And why would they do all the fantastic, funny things I imagined for them (getting flushed down a toilet! falling off a clock tower! stealing a diamond ring!)?

I’ll admit it: I floundered for quite a bit.

Then, I stumbled upon three things that “clicked” with me, and the combination of these three are, I believe, why Malcolm was my first published novel (and why my previous ones are still languishing in a drawer).

First, was an interview by Cecil Castellucci on how she creates characters by thinking of Superman: http://institutechildrenslit.net/index.php?topic=1940.0;wap2 .

Second, was this sentence I literally posted on my laptop screen: “It’s not what happens next, it’s what Malcolm does next.”

But both of those are probably posts all on their own.

The third is the technique I want to share today. In a fit of frustration with writing Malcolm at Midnight, I did some free-writing—crafting letters from each of my characters to Mr. Binney, the teacher character, explaining their actions in the story.

It was an epiphany moment. And while I can’t say the rest of the story wrote itself, it certainly gave me more purpose and direction than anything I had previously done. It’s a technique I still use today.

Here’s why I think it works…

Letters help you to understand characters’ motivations.

aggy

Characters can’t do things in stories for no reason—and the plot needs them to discover X so Y can happen…well, that isn’t an adequate reason.

This was a hard one for me to learn. Instead of moving characters around to hit plot points, I had to think about why my characters did the things they did. And they told me in their letters. Sometimes it was something in their past. Sometimes it was a personality quirk. And sometimes it was a secret they were hiding. But they all were acting—even the bad guys—because they believed it was the right or necessary thing to do.

Caution: this isn’t an invitation to then dump all this backstory into your story. Hints of it may surface, but just by you knowing it, your characters will ring more true.

Letters give your characters a voice.

 

the striped shadow

If you’re more of a plotter, like me, you maybe don’t “hear” your character talking like other writers do. But giving your characters quirks and mannerism and speech patterns to stand out in readers minds is important. When I wrote letters, suddenly, I heard Honey Bunny, the gruff male rabbit (who happens to be fluffy, cute, and misnamed), and he sounded like a very grumpy John Wayne. Snip, the bitter cat villain, had a hoarse whisper-voice, dripping with scorn. And the main student character—Amelia Vang—well, I ended up liking her earnest, overachieving voice so much, I kept her as my narrator. In fact, a version of her letter starts off the whole book.

M@Mphoto

Next time you’re stuck, pass the keyboard over to your characters and see how they explain themselves in a letter.

IMG_4692cropped2W.H. Beck is the author of the humorous middle grade mystery MALCOLM AT MIDNIGHT, its upcoming sequel, MALCOLM UNDER THE STARS, and several nonfiction titles. She splits her time between writing books for kids and reading and recommending them as an elementary school librarian in Wisconsin. Visit http://www.whbeck.com for more information and follow her on Twitter at @whbeck.

 

 

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen: Mirror, Mirror, on the Wall, You are Your Characters After All

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

I’ve never been a big fan of the Snow White story. Abusive parents, runaway girls finding refuge with seven single men all living together…let’s just say it hit all the wrong buttons for me, you know?

Except, there was one thing about that story that totally resonated with me – the idea of a magic mirror. Imagine, looking into a mirror and having not your image reflected as you are, but as you want to be. One look and you get declared the fairest of them all. (That’s my idea of a fairy tale!)

Using a magic mirror is essentially what I do when I create my characters.

So often, my main character is:

  • Me, but funnier
  • Me, but cooler
  • Me, but more interesting
  • Me, but less disorganized
  • Me, but more capable

You get the idea, don’t you?

My characters talk like me. They think like me. They have the same concerns that I do. They stress about the same things and get excited about the same things.

When I look in the mirror, I see my characters. But because it’s a magic mirror, they’re magnified to be funnier, cooler, more interesting – whatever filter the mirror is adding that day.

Let me share some examples from my work.

Caltech Graduation

Caltech Graduation

Through most of my life, I’ve been pretty successful (I’m not bragging, as you’ll see in a moment…). I did well in school without trying. I got into all the colleges, and later all the graduate programs, that I wanted to without too much effort. Even when I had my first child, it took about 3 minutes and 6 pushes and the next morning I was back in my pre-pregnancy clothes. I was the type of person who expected that she would be successful, and therefore I was the type of person who actually was successful.

But then, I decided that I wanted to write books for children, even though I’d never written fiction in my life. I’ll be very honest, initially, I was absolutely certain that I would succeed, that this venture would go as swimmingly as everything else always had.

Of course, publishing is not that easy.

For the first time, my hard work was not met with success, but with rejection. For the first time, people ddn’t look at me and expect me to succeed – they thought I was crazy for trying to do what I wanted to do.

PIRATE PRINCESS

PIRATE PRINCESS

Princess Bea from PIRATE PRINCESS is the kind of girl that has big dreams that involve the high seas, swashbuckling, and treasure hunts. She’s going to be pirate – even though she’s a princess who has never been on a ship in her life. She’s absolutely sure she will succeed, until her dreams – and her lunch – come crashing down in front of everyone.

In your mind’s eye, can you see the reflection that faced me when I looked into my magic mirror?

There were so many moments in my early publishing career that I wanted to give up. But like Princess Bea, I learned that even when faced with a bleak future, believing in yourself can make your dreams come true. When I wrote Bea’s character, I gave her the resolve and perseverance I strove to have myself. She is me, but pluckier, gutsier, braver. But she definitely is me.

Exceptions

Obviously, not every single character is based on me. Every once in a while, I base a character on someone I know. Often, I’ll prop my children in front of that magic mirror and see what gets reflected. Sometimes, it’s my friends. These people I love become better, stronger, more when I turn them into my characters.

Here’s another example from my own work.

IMG_5526I have two tween/teen daughters, and they have a lot of tween/teen grand plans. Unfortunately, they have a younger brother who is far less tween/teen and far more chaos and destruction. I’ve watched two daughters trying to be patient with their younger brother – before ultimately growing so frustrated that they demand that we return him and get a toaster instead. When I plopped this trio in front of the magic mirror, the girls became more orderly, more responsible, more type A. My son, on the other hand, became clumsier, flakier, and more, well, Moose-like.

DUCK DUCK MOOSE

DUCK DUCK MOOSE

Taken together, my kids became the characters in DUCK DUCK MOOSE, a book about two ducks who have a hard time dealing with a moose who somehow seems to ruin everything. And yet, just like my children have done, the ducks and the moose form and untraditional yet unbreakable unit. (The magic mirror magnified those qualities as well – I’m not sure the real ducks are as forgiving as the fictional ducks, nor that the real moose is as innocent as the moose in the book!)

By the way, sometimes the person I place in front of the mirror is someone I don’t like. In one of those cases, the reflection is of that person – but she’s dumber, or weaker, or more disgusting. Because the mirror magnifies personal qualities in both directions.

More Magic

Remember how I said that what I loved about Snow White was the magic mirror that showed you as the person wanted to be? Your readers want that, too. Your readers want your book to be a magic mirror.

The best stories feature a main character who is a reflection of the reader. When the reader looks in the magic mirror that is the book, he sees himself.

That may sound like a contradiction – after all, how can your main character be you AND all of your readers? But I promise you it is not. Because when we construct our characters, even though they are reflections of real people, the magnification process gives them a universal quality.

SNORING BEAUTY

SNORING BEAUTY

Here’s what I mean by that. Not all of you have lain awake at night wanting a midnight snack while at the same time fearing that a Hampire might eat you. But we all know the feeling of being afraid of the unknown and making rash decisions before gathering all the facts. Not all of you are talking chickens in pajamas wanting to stay up past your bedtimes. But we all have wanted to break the rules at some point – and have felt true solidarity with anyone who would break the rules along with us. And not all of you have had to kiss a lot of rodents or pigs to get to what you truly wanted out of life. But…well, maybe that example can stand as is.

So when you are looking at your character in the magic mirror, make sure you look past the surface appearance and try to see who he or she is deep, down inside. Don’t focus on the little details and instead probe into his or her very soul. Turn the mirror into an X-ray machine, into an electron microscope. Look at the all the parts – and then look again at the whole picture.

Can you see your character now?

SAMSUNG CSCSudipta Bardhan-Quallen is the co-founder of Kidlit Summer School and an award-winning author whose books include DUCK DUCK MOOSE, TYRANNOSAURUS WRECKS, ORANGUTANGLED, and over thirty more books. Her books have been named to the Junior Library Guild, the California Reader’s Collection, the Alabama Children’s Choice Book Award Program, the Bank Street Best Children’s Books of the Year lists and the Amelia Bloomer list. Find out more about her by visiting her WEBSITE or her blogs Nerdy Chicks Rule and Nerdy Chicks Write.  Visit her Author page on Facebook HERE. Remember to follow her on Twitter  @SudiptaBQ.

Sudipta is giving away a picture book manuscript critique! To be eligible to win, just comment on this post before the end of #KidlitSummerSchool.

And check out the Exercise Book for Sudipta’s tips on Gazing into your Own Character Magic Mirror!

 

 

 

 

Kami Kinard: Hug the Mean and Nasty. Finding the Humanity in Villains.

Head Shots from Carpe Diem 005

You know those kinds of people who are so mean and nasty they make everyone else’s lives miserable? I’m talking about the back-stabbers, gossip mongers, cat kickers, boyfriend-stealers, and world-domination plotters. Those types? What do you DO with people like that?

You, the authors, should embrace them – bear hug style! They may make undesirable companions in reality, but these characters can be an author’s very best friends.

Why? The reason is simple. They add CONFLICT and create TENSION. And tension drives your story. It keeps your readers turning the pages. It forces them to root for the main character. You want this!

But creating believable villains is tricky. See, even the most rotten of villains shouldn’t be all bad. Your readers don’t need to like these characters, but they need to be able to relate to or understand them on some level.

 Villains need to have something about them that reveals their humanity, no matter how despicable they are.

Here are five ways to achieve humanity in your villains.

  1. Make us feel sorry for them. You can evoke sympathy for your villain in all kinds of ways. Give them a back story. Did they have miserable childhoods? Have they been heartbroken? Do people make fun of them for the way they look?
  2. Bestow endearing qualities upon them. Do they take care of an elderly aunt? Secretly donate to charity? Are they kind to caterpillars?
  3. Help us understand what motivates them. Are they trying to overcome unhappiness? Do they have something to prove? Do they want to impress someone?
  4. Give them admirable qualities. Are they attractive? Smart? Musically gifted?
  5. Show their humanity through the eyes of other characters, or even a pet. In Cassandra Clare’s popular City of Bones, the nemesis, Valentine Morgenstern has a group of followers called the Circle. Disney frequently employs the technique of giving pets to villains. For example, The Sea Witch in The Little Mermaid has pet eels, and Jafar from Aladdin has Iago the parrot. If this formula didn’t work, Disney wouldn’t use it.

Let’s take a look at a great villain from Harry Potter that you’re all familiar with. Lord Voldemort’s humanity is revealed in several of these ways.

 

  • harry potter 2He was an orphan, which evokes sympathy.
  • He is motivated by hatred toward the muggle father who abandoned him. He is also motivated by the desire to improve his skill until he is the most powerful wizard ever.
  • He was a very handsome young wizard who was particularly smart and skillful. These qualities evoke admiration.
  • Other characters hold him in high regard. These include his followers, the Death Eaters, his former professors, and his pet snake Nagini.

 

Notice that Rowling uses four of the five techniques listed above to show Voldermort’s humanity. But does she give him any endearing qualities? I haven’t been able to find any! Which brings me to this point: You don’t have to incorporate ALL of these traits into your villainous characters! Consider your genre. If there is a villain in your picture book, you may only have room to give us a peek into his humanity. Or you may use the Grinch method of creating a character that seems villainous on the outside, but has humanity waiting to burst forth from within.

 

the boy problemBoth of my books, The Boy Problem and The Boy Project, are humorous middle grade novels so I did not delve deep into the psyche of the antagonist, Maybelline, in them. I gave her a pack of admiring friends, so we could see her value through their eyes. Kara CoverShe is also considered cute and stylish, characteristics admired by many of her classmates. Yet she is vulnerable. We are able to feel sorry for her when she is dumped by her boyfriend in The Boy Project, and we see her insecurity in The Boy Problem. Whether or not you spell out all of these character traits for your readers, you should develop a good understanding of your villains. I know that Maybelline is as insecure as the next girl, and that her actions are motivated by a desire to stay at the top of the tenuous middle school social pyramid.

 

Maybelline purposefully ruins one of Tabbi's fundraising cupcakes in THE BOY PROBLEM.

Maybelline purposefully ruins one of Tabbi’s fundraising cupcakes in THE BOY PROBLEM.

She is one of my favorite characters, not because she is nice, but because she isn’t! Maybelline continuously creates conflict for my main characters Tabbi and Kara. Their learning to navigate around her is part of what makes them grow.  She is essential to their stories.

 

Where would the Harry Potter books be without Voldemort? Where would Peter Pan be without Captain Hook? What struggles would Katniss face without President Snow? And how many cases would Encyclopedia Brown really be able to crack if Bugs Meany moved away? We need the antagonists, the villains, the nemeses! So embrace them. Appreciate their plotting, scheming, mean and nasty ways. Thank them for making your story a story.

Kami Kinard is the author of The Boy Problem (Scholastic, 2014) and The Boy Project (Scholastic, 2012). Her poetry, stories, articles, and essays have appeared in some of the world’s best periodicals for children and adults. Kami also works as a teaching artist, and teaches continuing education writing courses for adults. She lives at the edge of the universe (or at least the United States) with her family and the world’s smartest dog. Visit her at www.kamikinard.com or at www.NerdyChicksRule.com where she blogs with Sudipta. You can follow her on Twitter by clicking HERE.

Kami Kinard is giving away a 20 page manuscript critique! To be eligible to win, just comment on this post before the end of #Kidlit Summer School.

 

Webinar tonight 9:00 EST. Details HERE!

 

Aimee Friedman: Do Looks Matter? Painting a Vivid Physical Portrait of Your Character

Aimee Friedman

Aimee Friedman

I’m an editor and an author, so I live on both sides of the desk. (And, on both sides, I’ve grown very familiar with the joy and struggle, the road-blocks and the breakthroughs, that go into telling a story). But most of all, on a fundamental level, I am a reader. Being a reader is what led me to these professions, and it is what sustains me — as a writer, as an editor, and well, as a person.

As a reader, I come to a story craving a sensory experience; I believe most readers do. I want to hear the crunch of leaves, smell the pine, taste the burnt marshmallow, feel the bark of a tree. That is the work of the writer, after all: to build a world up, piece by piece, so that the reader is fully immersed. And, in this world, I especially want to see everything. The surroundings — the campfire, the mountains — but, crucially, the characters.

Who is sitting around this campfire? Just as I need the characters’ voices and actions and desires to come alive for me, I need to have a strong visual sense of the characters, so that they exist vividly in my mind’s eye.

Aimee had to think of unique physical characteristics for her MC in Sea Change.

Aimee had to think of unique physical characteristics for her MC in Sea Change.

When asking an author of mine for a revision, one of my first requests will often be for a physical description of the protagonist. Ideally, I’d like such a description for every character, but the more minor players can be sketched with a less precise pencil. However, the main character — our inroad into the story, our compass — is most vibrant and fully realized for me if I can picture them clearly, and early on.

Is your protagonist blond? If so, what kind of blond? Pale as milk, or the color of sand? If she’s dark-haired, how might you describe the shade of brown? Is she tall, slim, full-figured? Is her nose snub? Does she wear glasses? What color are her eyes?

Needless to say, there are endless physical descriptors that can go into the introduction of a main character. The key is to not go overboard — you don’t want to lose the reader with a dense paragraph that details everything from the shape of the character’s face to her toe ring. A couple of evocative details go a long way. Also, these descriptions can be broken up and dispersed. An opening paragraph can show us the length of her hair; later in the chapter, we can learn her skin is freckled.

There are a variety of ways to introduce this physical description, rather than a plain “Mary was willowy and dark-skinned” or “I have curly red hair.” (though these work fine as well!). There is the comparison technique: showing one character in contrast to another. “Unlike her best friend, Jane, who was pale and petite, Mary was willowy and dark-skinned.” Right away, we have a visual: not just of Mary, but of Jane. The world is that much closer to being fully built. One can also drop a physical description in casually, almost sneakily. “The boys all called me ‘Carrots,’ so I came to hate my curly red hair.”

A writing teacher once advised me to never show a character looking in a mirror as a pathway to describing him or her. “Sue went into the bathroom and gazed at her hazel eyes.” But I think there are worse narrative sins — I think leaving out a visual of your character entirely leeches more life from a story than using this mirror technique.

Of course, there are arguments to be made against giving physical descriptions. We are taught, after all, that looks don’t matter: it’s what’s inside that counts. But the best physical descriptions illuminate something deeper about the character. For instance, perhaps a pudgy-cheeked character is resentful because he doesn’t bear any resemblance to his tall, chiseled other brother. Does your character wear contact lenses because she felt self-conscious about the glasses, and wanted to be perceived in a different way?

There is also the compelling argument that giving a visual description of a character can have a distancing effect on the reader — that he or she won’t be able to see themselves as easily in the story. That their imaginations can’t roam as

The Year My Sister Got Lucky

How do sisters look alike? Different?

freely. But let’s give readers more credit than that: their minds will always work to fill in the blanks, even if there is a physical description on the page. Before the movies came out and Daniel Radcliffe took up residence in our heads, I’m positive that my visual of Harry Potter was very different from that of my friend’s visual, even though we both knew he had black hair, round glasses, and a scar on his forehead. That’s the magic of reading. We enter the world conjured by the author, but no two people will picture it quite the same.

Can a story be enjoyed and reread and cherished if there aren’t physical descriptions of the characters? Certainly. In The Great Gatsby, we’re never really told what Daisy looks like — we only know she is beautiful and wealthy, and that is somehow enough. Like all “rules” about writing, this one isn’t hard-and-fast (I like to ignore my writing teacher’s advice about mirrors, after all). It’s ultimately about what works best for your specific story, for your process, for your characters. Sometimes the power lies in not knowing precisely how a character looks (take the wonderful Wonder, for instance, which is all about the character’s appearance, and yet not at all). Other times, you’ll want to spell it all out (take the enticing first paragraph of Gone with the Wind). Each writing experience will be different — as different and quirky and unique as the characters that populate your stories. And I look forward to reading about them.

Aimee Friedman is an executive editor at Scholastic, where she is fortunate enough to edit such titles as the New York Times bestselling series Whatever After by Sarah Mlynowski, and, of course, the acclaimed The Boy Project and The Boy Problem by Kami Kinard. Aimee is also a New York Times bestselling author of YA novels, including Sea Change. She writes for middle-grade readers under the pen name Ruth Ames. Aimee lives, writes, works, and searches for the perfect iced latte in New York City. Check out her website HERE and you can follow her on twitter at www.twitter.com/aimeefriedman.

 

GIVEAWAY: Aimee is giving away a signed copy of her book Sea Change! At the end of #KidlitSummerSchool one name will be drawn from all who comment on this post. 

 

And don’t forget the Webinar tomorrow night at 9:00 pm EST. You can find details HERE

 

Kathryn Erskine: Walking Around in Your Characters’ Shoes

Kathryn walks in a sheep field like her MC from The Badger Knight.

Kathryn walks in a sheep field like her MC from The Badger Knight.

To riff on a great line from a great book (To Kill a Mockingbird) you never really know a character until you stand in his shoes and walk around in them.  Characters are really people, aren’t they?  So that’s exactly what we need to do — walk around in their shoes.  Really.  It’s fun!

Step 1:  What kind of shoes does your character wear?

Do you know?  What do you picture?  Flip flops?  Uggs?  Chucks?  Chucks personalized with paint or markers?  Shoes tell us something about the person wearing them — they could speak to comfort or style or status.  Think about your characters.  It’s not necessary to say what they’re wearing, just to have a feel for it yourself, although sometimes I’ve used the actual shoes to make a figurative point:

MikeIn the Absolute Value of Mike, Mike always wears the same style of brown lace-up Clarks his now deceased mom bought for him when he was little — an indication of his connection to her and his yearning for a family since he’s so disconnected from his dad.

Matt wears big black boots in Quaking to look tough and protect her from the world that, so far, has only hurt her.

Adrian’s boots are too small at the beginning of The Badger Knight and he is, for the first time, entrusted to buy his own new boots.  He chooses poorly — stylish, expensive, and too large — because he’s relying on trappings to make himself feel big and important.  As his hero’s journey continues, Adrian is increasingly grateful for the practical boots his father ended up trading for, realizing that true power and beauty come from within.

 Step 2:  Where is your character standing?

Look around.  How does the setting affect your character?  Is your character:

Quaking (See the boots?)

Quaking (See the boots?)

Poor?

Outcast?

Foreign?

Fish out of water?

One of many, trying to break out?

What about the environment is pushing against your character and how does he or she push back?  Think of it this way:  if your character were in the Wild West, how would where your character stands differ from Downtown Abbey?  A modern urban environment?  A small boat at sea?  Narnia?  The setting your character comes up against is going to tell us a lot about who your character is.

 IMG_0212Step 3:  What does your character see as she’s standing in those shoes? 

And how, exactly, does your character see it?  Is there any vision issue?  What is your character’s physical perspective?  Is she tall, short, young, old?  If she sees a tree does she want to climb it?  If she sees a building does she want to spray paint it?  If she sees something that scares her does she run away or is she drawn to it?

 Step 4:  How does your character walk?

You can tell a lot about someone by the way they walk.  Is it a confident stride, a cocky strut, sexy sashay, slow saunter, shy shuffle?  Walk like your character.  I bet you can tell your spouse’s or kid’s or mom’s walk from far away.  It’s distinctive.  And it says something about them.  It’s partly body type and skeletal frame but it’s also personality and perhaps pain, either physical or emotional.  Walk up to a full-length mirror so you can see your character’s walk.

 Step 5:  How does your character talk?

Is there anything distinctive about her voice?  An accent?  A stutter?  Particularly nasal or a low, gravely voice?  An unusual word or phrase she uses a lot to describe something or express surprise?  There should be something that lets us “hear” her so that when she’s talking you don’t even need to write, “Sudipta said,” because we know it’s Sudipta.  That’s when you’ve created a distinct, unique voice for your character.  Also, when does your character talk?  Is this a shy or outspoken character?  Is her voice soft or loud?  Does she yell?  Ever?  If so, when?  All of these elements reflect her personality.  Talk or whisper or yell out loud so you can hear your character’s voice.

 Step 6:  How does your character feel and think?

Now that you’re getting the hang of their body, get in touch with their emotions and personalities.  You know what they see and where they are and how they see it.  How does that make them feel?  Do they sweat?  Startle?  Run and hide?  Push themselves forward no matter what the danger?  How do they react to being short or tall or poor or an outcast?  Are they defiant, depressed, determined?  And why?

Take a Myers Briggs test from your character’s perspective.  Figure out what “love language” they speak, i.e., what motivates them (from Gary Chapman’s book, The 5 Love Languages):

Kathryn's latest novel: The Badger Knight

Kathryn’s latest novel: The Badger Knight

–gifts

–quality time

–praise

–service

–touch (e.g., hugs)

Also, do some research if you need to discover specific aspects of your character — how does divorce or a new baby affect a 5 year old, 8 year old, 13 year old?

Often, our past experience helps shape who we are, which leads us to the next step….

 Step 7:  Where has your character walked before?

If you know your character’s past and who they are, then you’ll have a good feel for how they’ll react to situations and what motivates them.  The classic example is Harry Potter. What kind of background must we know in order to buy the idea that an eleven year old boy would fight the supreme wizard who threatens the world?  We had to see the horrible Dursleys with whom Harry lived — in that spidery closet under the stairs — and know that his parents were killed by Voldemoort even as they gave their lives to save their son.  On top of that, the only family Harry has now, his friends at Hogwarts, are in imminent danger of being destroyed by the dark lord.  Add to that a suspected protective power hidden in that scar on his forehead and, OK, I’m sold.

 Step 8:  How does your character act?

See above.  Once you know steps 1 – 7, then you know how your character acts.  And if you ever start doubting or wondering, put those Keds , Crocs or whatever back on and get in touch with that character again.  Talk to him.  Ask her questions.  Hang out with them.  It’ll be like visiting an old friend, or frenemy, and after you’ve had a quick chance to catch up, you can step forward.

 Happy trails!

P.S.  You might want to make sure your character likes to eat and drink things that you enjoy, since that’s a part of becoming your character, too.  A favorite part of research!  And not just for me — notice how Kami Kinard has a cupcake theme in The Boy Problem.  I predict Hot Tamale candies in a future novel….

IMG_0753_2

Kathryn Erskine is the author of five children’s novels including National Book Award winner, Mockingbird, the recent Jane Addams Peace Award honor book Seeing Red, and her upcoming release, The Badger Knight.  She draws on her life stories and world events in her writing and is currently working on several more novels and picture books. You can find out more about her on her WEBSITE! 

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

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